Visiting the Prices in Wales
by Barbara Davis of Acworth, NH
When my husband, Steve, showed the request for a pen pal to my daughter, Addie, five years ago, I could never have envisioned the experience that has just taken place. There in the SFJ “letters” section was a request from Owain Price of Wales for a pen pal. He was an 8-year-old, home schooled, farm boy, looking for someone to write to. Addie was experiencing a similar lifestyle across the Atlantic. Both sets of parents looked at it from an academic viewpoint, thinking what a great opportunity to practice writing.
The letters began with a few sentences mentioning things such as dog names and the weather, (typical farmers) and over the years have grown to full pages and sometimes more, mentioning subjects such as tractor parts and 4-H club events. We would smile at some of Owains’ expressions and wonder what he meant at other times. I was sure they were doing the same across the ocean. Some of the more recent letters even possessed a slight political overtone complaining about all the government regulation of farm animals.
I had wanted to write to Dai and Angela myself many times but I had also wanted this experience to be truly Addies. I was so curious myself about their farm and the children’s letters just didn’t give me enough details. It was finally in December of 2002 that I broke down and sent a holiday letter asking questions about their farm and the life they led. After I sent the letter I was worried that I might have appeared more nosey than curious, after all I didn’t know anything about their culture, maybe direct questions were perceived as being rude.
After a few months of waiting for a response, I forgot that I had even written a letter, but in August a response finally came. The envelope was thick and I became excited as I opened it. To my delight, Angela didn’t seem bothered by my inquiries at all and in fact answered all my questions and more. At the end of the letter she invited us to visit them. It was her turn to give me food for thought!
I had received the letter on a Monday morning and I thought about it for the rest of the day. How could I ever find enough money to take Addie to Wales? Let’s face it, we are farmers too, there isn’t a lot of extra money floating around. I tried brainstorming about possible ways to make money. It would be necessary to take the trip in January or February since that is the slow time here on the farm. That gave me about six months to get the cash together if I wanted to go soon. While working between my pottery and the farm I came up with lots of good ideas. On Tuesday, I thought about applying for the town dump attendant position, but since that involved a long-term commitment, it was out of the question. On Wednesday, I thought I might get a part time job in a restaurant. Generally, however, they don’t tend to pay much and we live at least a half hour from any restaurant so I would almost use up any profits I made in gas. On Thursday, I thought of writing a fundraising letter to friends and family. I would make them all kinds of pots in the pottery if they would all just pay in advance. All I needed (according to my math calculations) was about $1000.00. On Friday, as I was working in the pottery, scheming my next opportunity in profit making, I received a phone call from a local timber frame company. They wanted me to make mugs for all their customers from the past year. My bill would come to $954.00. It wasn’t quite a thousand but it would do. Now I had to take Addie to Wales.
We flew out on January 23. The temperature was –5 on our farm in NH. Approximately 6 hours later at approximately the same latitude it was 47 in London. The airport experience went smoothly and quickly. At 10:10 (their time) we were on a bus to Swansea Wales. We saw a lot of open land as we traveled across southern England. It looked very different than our native New England, it being so manicured and treeless. The English hedge system was amazing and I never once saw a stray sheep in the whole two weeks. Owain and his older brother, Adam, greeted us at the bus station. Adam was not only friendly and outgoing but a great tour guide. If I wanted to visit any of the local pubs, I knew where they all were by the time we left Swansea village. Owain was quite shy, mostly just smiled sweetly, and nodded his head.
The ride to Cwmcathan Isaf Farm took about a half-hour. Ammanford was the village below the farm and as we left it we began to climb uphill. Upon arrival at the top, our hosts Dai and Angela Price in their green “wellies” (we call them rubber boots) and brown wide rimmed leather hats greeted us. I learned that Cwmcathan, (pronounced Coom-kathan) cwm means valley and the name of the river is Cathan and that Isaf (ee-sof) means lower. As we walked down to the house I could see why their farm was given its name, below it flowed the magical Cathan River.
Here in the US what we believe to be very old can hardly compare to the ancientness we felt in Wales. For example, we have an old house on our farm that is from 1810. We are in the process of restoring it and we have discovered that the frame is of chestnut and is hand hewn. Many of our neighbors have come over to look at the frame and admire the handiwork of the past. However, its age is nothing compared to the ancient buildings of Wales. The Prices’ house and barn were built in the mid 1600’s. Not much has changed with these buildings over the years. At one point, the owners had installed electricity, water and phone, but the Prices have decided to do without and removed them. The Rayburn stove acts as cook and heat stove. It took some getting use to the system, but by mid week Addie and I were stoking the fire, perhaps a little too much. Although it was colder where we live, the kind of cold was different in Wales and we found it hard sometimes to wander far from the fire. However, the view out our bedroom window was enough to motivate us to wander.
Our first day was spent at the Museum of Welsh Life. It was a good way to start our visit because it gave us a lot of background information on Wales. The buildings erected there had all been moved stone by stone from another location in Wales and put back together in their original manner. I couldn’t help but think how beautiful it must have been when everyone was farming. I like to think of all nations beginning with the same culture and this is AGRI-culture. Wales, of course, is no different but like most countries, its culture has changed over the years with less emphasis on the agri part. However, Dai and Angela are doing their best to keep that alive.
The next day Addie and I were given the full tour of the farm. After a breakfast of pancakes (each day with a different dried fruit) we went off to move the chickens and collect the eggs. The moveable A-frame chicken houses are fortified with all kinds of wire to keep out the pesky fox. He visited the barnyard one morning as we were having our morning cup of tea, but thanks to Holdfast the farm dog, he was chased away. The next chore was to bring the pair of Welsh Blacks down to the barnyard for breakfast. Oak and Ash are about six months and in training to be the farms’ working oxen. They kicked up their heels and shook their horns for me but I could see the gentleness in their eyes and I knew it was all for show. We visited the goats, and cats and fowl all snug in their barn. We visited the horses down deeper in the valley on this day. Bonnie was my favorite, probably because she was the only one that let me pet her. She looked as if she was a horse from Welsh mythology with pieces of fern stuck in her mane. She is a beautiful white beast and deserves to have a princess riding on her back. We didn’t meet any but heard of a beautiful ghost woman that was seen by a neighbor’s waterfall. I wouldn’t have been surprised to catch a glimpse of her on Bonnies’ back riding through the valley.
Meals were simple and filling cooked on the Rayburn. Angela’s bread was the best, just the kind we like. I doubt I will be able to imitate it even though I have the same ingredients here at home. Angela spent a lot of her time preparing meals. They were cooked with care and were filled with love. It was a welcome break for me since my days are often occupied in the same way.
The evenings were filled with more tea, exchange of information, and singing. Addie and I had brought our favorite music book Rise Up Singing and we gave a lamplight performance most evenings. At 8 pm we were given our water bottles and we said our “nos stah” and climbed into our sleeping bags and blankets. We had a hard time falling asleep because of the time difference and we usually lay in the low lamplight going over our day. We could hardly believe we were really in Wales!
We began to fall into the rhythm of the farm and its inhabitants. We learned the animal’s names and understood where folks were going when they described a certain area. We explored some on our own – Addie finding a great climbing tree and myself a lovely hillside on which to contemplate life. Mid week Owain took Addie and I on an incredible journey. First down the hillside on one side of the valley, then along the Cathan, then up, up, up the mountain on the other side of the valley. The shifting of colors was beautiful. The luminous green of the moss on the rocks in the stream came first. As we began to climb, the frosted bracken fern with its deep earthy brown color came next. Finally at the top we sat down and ate our oranges in the pale, tan colored grass. We left our orange peels for the sheep to find. It looked like a still life painting. We came along the back of a pine forest owned by a neighbor named Bar, suddenly were in a deep dark sea of green.
This day happened to be the nicest weather wise. The sun shone brightly between a few lazily moving clouds and it seemed as if we might just reach up and touch them. I learned from Owain that the open grass at the top, and the bracken were all common grazing land. The sheep roamed freely and apparently sometimes the cattle did too. We came to the source of the Cathan and crossed over. There was a small but perfect waterfall in which Addie really wanted to take a drink. However, I convinced her that dipping her face in might prove the wiser choice. We continued across a heather covered hill and Owain suddenly sat down and put his hat over his head. It was time for another break.
Below us stood the remnants of an old farm. We could see three walls of the stone farmhouse but the roof had long since fallen in. I wondered who these ancient farmers had been. How big was their family? What animals did they keep? What kind of food did they grow? Owain knew the name of the farm but he had never seen anyone living there, nor had his parents. The farm and its residents had long since passed. It made me happy to know that Owains’ family was still running their farm and using so many of the traditional methods. It also made me feel connected to the people that had lived so long ago and to these present-day farmers. We had come from far away but the path to a friend’s house is never too long.