REVIEW by John Osmond

NWR Issue r35

Real Preseli

by Chris Moss

For many people, Preseli is a dragon’s spine of 1000-foot mountains (‘hills’, anywhere outside of the UK) topped by rocky outcrops that vaguely separates Narberth, the Milford Haven estuary and the beaches of Tenby from the less touristy sweep of north Pembrokeshire and Cardigan Bay. ‘The bluestones were used to build Stonehenge’ is about as far as many people’s knowledge extends, and that would include most of the locals – incomers as well as natives. But the region, like those summits, hides secrets a-plenty and combines Arthurian legend with industrial heritage, ancient dolmens with modern art spaces.

Peter Finch’s Real series, which kicked off in 2004 with titles devoted to Cardiff and Newport, is able to adapt to thinly populated, rural milieux by inviting its author to widen his wanderings. As Finch clarifies in the introduction, Preseli is ‘everything west of a wavy line running from Neyland on the north side of the Cleddau to Poppit sands at the mouth of the Teifi estuary. It’s North Pembrokeshire writ large.’ For author John Osmond, it is a UK parliamentary constituency he has stood for time and again as Plaid Cymru candidate. But for all he maintains that the Landsker Line remains a sociocultural faultline dividing North Pembrokeshire from the Little England of the south coast, the constituents don’t fully concur and Preseli is Tory in Westminster and in the Senedd.

Osmond has tramped all over Preseli trying to win voters over to his cause, and the book benefits hugely from his intimate knowledge of its geography and daily contact with local people. Along the way, we are also given the geological, historical and etymological necessaries as well as plenty of highly personal reflections. The author remarks the contrails that criss-cross over west Wales, and shares epiphanies he has intuited in its wilder solitudes. Observing that Preseli is a microcosm of Wales – hills, slate and the Welsh language to the north; docks, a coalfield and the English language to the south – he invites us to join him on a doorstepping tour.

Preseli has been witness to a handful of major historical events and is home to several famous buildings. Osmond takes us to the foot of several of the ancient cromlechs – megalithic tombs – that dot the region and give visitors a powerful sense of its earliest residents. St Davids, shrine and township, get ample coverage. St Patrick’s historically contested parting for Ireland is revisited; we also learn about the less renowned St Elvis, said to have baptised St David.

The Rebecca Riots of 1839–43 (Welsh farmers and agricultural workers donning dresses and adopting the name of a local supporter to protest against unfair tolls on local turnpikes), were a watershed event for the wider region and of supra-national significance. Many west Walians will also be familiar with the 1946 War Office plan to sequester 58,000 acres of Preseli to create a huge gunnery range, fiercely resisted by locals, not for principally economic reasons – as elsewhere in Wales – but to protect important cultural and religious landmarks, including thirty-eight sites of archaeological interest.

Osmond is especially keen to celebrate the unsung mavericks of Preseli’s history, champion local talent, and call for the preservation of sites of cultural interest. Thus we have sizeable entries on the Welsh Spitfire Museum, Pembrokeshire County Show, the grass-roofed Malator ‘Earth house’ at Druidston built by former Labour MP Robert Graham Marshall-Andrews and community-run Tafarn Sinc, the highest licensed pub in Pembrokeshire. Homage is duly paid to the Quaker Whalers of Milford and the railway visionaries who connected the far west with London and America. The author doesn’t shy away from the less romantic grit of history – on Haverfordwest: ‘Like a rotting fish, the place is declining from the head down’ – though he might have included rather more detail on Preseli’s industrial and fishing history.

His sympathies perhaps lie closer to artists and writers, escapists and dreamers. Among his heroes are poet Waldo Williams, Plaid Cymru-founder DJ Abergwaun (aka Williams) and landscape artist David Tress, of Fishguard. The town’s West Wales Arts Centre, is also highly praised, while the concert space at Rhosygilwen is ‘an arresting prospect’ and a ‘miniature version of Glyndebourne, but without the dress code.’ Osmond is very much an ambassador for west Wales’ municipal arts scene, where council politics segues into cultural expression and institutions. Brian John’s Angel Mountain saga, initially self-published after fifty agents and a similar number of publishers had declined the first of the eight novels, is touted as ‘an allegory for the story of Wales itself’, in which protagonist Martha Morgan fights for identity and self-esteem in the face of outside challenges and incursions.

Like other parts of west Wales, Preseli has a reputation for independent, forward-looking entrepreneurs, not least among its farmers. Osmond pays tribute to John Seymour, who bought Fachongle Isaf in 1963 for £4,500 and established a small community of likeminded environmentalists. He went on to write a bestseller, The Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency, a pioneering handbook for the would-be eco-minded small-holder; reader Vicky Moller joined Seymour’s community, married him, and still lives at the farm. In recent years, organic sheepfarming, cheesemaking and artisanal brewing businesses have sprung up across the region.

As with other books in this excellent series, which has also dipped its toe into England, Real Preseli is all the things ordinary guidebooks aren’t. Instead of where to stay, you are given ideas of where to hide and where to escape; the faceless sweep of history is made personal and anecdotal; in place of retail come recommended reading. It’s a worthy project, and this book will be of value to residents as well as ramblers.

On a clear day, you can see Lundy Island and Devon, and even Ireland, from Preseli Top aka Foel Cwncerewyn, the highest summit of the Mynydd Preselau (Preseli Hills). But the strength of this book is in instructing us to look down and close at hand, and to visit the backstreets as well as the open spaces, the dull villages as well as the twee hamlets, and to do so slowly, with curiosity – and to talk to the people who call it home.

Chris Moss is a travel writer.


previous review: No Far Shore: Charting Unknown Waters
next review: Resist: Stories of Uprising


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