The A55 belts through the north of Wales towards Snowdonia, Anglesey and the coast. Some of the coastal towns are rundown and flaking. Some are glossy with money, yachts and restaurants. In summer the road can be nose to tail with caravans. Very few people turn south and come inland. Here it is a different world, neither seaside towns nor spectacular mountains, we are in a gentler country.
If you come to us along the Denbigh road you are very likely to be stuck behind a tractor for a bit. Pheasants fly up and blunder across the road. The fields on either side are studded with sheep. As you come around a curve between trees the Clwydian hills rise up, gentle valleys, wooded sides, the long ridge marching southward. This is border country and the long distance path which runs along the ridge is named after Offa's Dyke. It takes you up and over Moel Arthur, Penycloddiau and Moel Famau and on down towards Powys and mid Wales. While this is not deepest West Wales, not Gwynedd where Welsh is most people's first language, it is still Wales. The names of the villages - Rhes y Cae, row of fields, Melin y Wern, alder mill - are all Welsh and the people have a deep love of their place. The Clwydians are a secret place, beautiful but little known. At the top of our valley live farmers who have no electricity. Sometimes it is like the rest of the country thirty years ago.
Leave the road and come up our hill. It is breathtakingly steep and narrow, wooded on either side. It took me a year to become carefree about the idea of meeting someone coming down and reversing hairily into a passing place. Turn left down the track and come through the yard, past the big barns where workers will be moving horsefeed, and down our drive. At the bottom of the drive we are tucked into the side of the hill, the house built in about 1600, held in an embrace of rock, sheltered from the prevailing wind. The yew trees at either end also protect it, sheltering and serene, huge yet graceful. I love them.
At right angles to the house is the cottage, built as a barn and a forge but converted a few years ago. It faces across to the bakehouse and the pigsties. It is all small scale, domestic, but a little world of its own, a self sufficiency. In the bakehouse is the old oven. The pigsties are stone with a slate roof. These buildings have been lived and worked in for generations. Sometimes out of the corner of my eye I see people moving backward and forward to the bakehouse across the grass. I am not a believer in ghosts so this does not worry me. Somehow it is just a blurring of time, the boundaries are not quite so sure as in other places.
Inside, the house is simple, built as a long house, three rooms one after each other and extended thirty years ago to add a kitchen and bathroom. The beams are large and there are plenty of opportunities for banging your head. The spiders are as big as your hand as they hang lazily above the computer. Dust breeds around here too. No point in living here if you mind either of these things. There are lamps and stoves and books. In the winter inside is the best place to be, snug by the stove away from the whirling rain and wind.
In the summer the only place to be is outside. Outside cannot be gardened garden. We are too high on the hill; the soil is too thin and stony. Even the cultivated places have a wildness. The most intensively cultivated is the kitchen garden with raised beds, a greenhouse, fruit trees and bushes. The bottom boundary is a hawthorn hedge, with yew on the side boundary and the top a mixture of a tumbledown wall and an escallonia hedge. Everything is on a slope, even here. The water for the hens has to be propped against a stone to stop it all slopping away down the hill. But it is a gentle slope. Beyond the hawthorn hedge the hill drops down steeply to the woods and stream in the valley bottom. Buzzards hunt the valley at eye level or soar above your head in long lazy spirals as you are working. Swallows wheel and dive in the summer, zooming into the pigsties through the open doors, miracle aerobatics.
There are birds everywhere: black caps, coal tits, blue tits, great tits, chaffinches at the feeders. Robins hop on the fence while you dig. Blackbirds sing from the high beech trees behind the house. Nuthatches and woodpeckers are frequent visitors and pied wagtails walk across the bakehouse roof. In the spring you must walk higher up the lane to hear the cuckoo.
Another cultivated bit is the area around the old quince tree in front of the cottage and the sunny bank below, planted with pinks and penstemons, sedums and thymes. Beside the house is another area of bulbs and oriental poppies which will one day be a real flower garden. Just now the grass is churned up by badgers looking for grubs. I thought they were supposed to be shy creatures? This is about twenty feet from the house.
Through the gate and into the field is wilder again although the fruit trees are beginning to make the little orchard and there are daffodils pushing up by the wild cherry near the swing. Beyond the apple tree is an area which this year will be planted as a cutting garden. It was all supposed to be flowers but in a moment of incompetence, not sure whether mine or theirs, I have received two lots of seed potatoes from the seed merchants so some of them will have to be given a home in the bed this year. There will still be room for sweet peas, cerinthe, dahlias and cosmos. I sit by the fire and dream of spring.