Let's be honest here - I have been trying to learn Welsh for a very long time! We have lived here for just a few weeks short of seven years so I think it must be around six years ago that I walked through the door of the first class. To begin with we had a class twice a week which ran in our local pub. Numbers have fluctuated, people have come and gone, the class moved up the hill into Caerwys, first to a room which is now part of the butcher's and then into the Institute, handy but not quite as cosy as the pub and with no glass of wine as a reward after either. The twice a week classes shrank to once a week so we moved from two lovely tutors to one. But week in, week out, I have trundled down with my files and my dictionary. I have sat exams: Mynediad, Sylfaen, Canolradd, roughly equivalent to Entry, Foundation and Intermediate. While I might not be fluent you would have to grant me my commitment!
Now numbers have settled to a small hardcore of good friends and for quite a while I have felt stuck on a plateau. I can understand quite a bit although I have huge gaps in my vocabulary. But the most frustrating thing of all is that I can't really speak Welsh and I can't really read it. This is no one's fault except mine. The tutor is great, the course is good, the class are supportive, but never before have I tried to learn a language where everyone I speak to also speaks English. There is never a time when you have to hold your nose and plunge in because using your new language, however slowly and awkwardly, is the only possible way to communicate. So I rarely speak it except in class. Our part of Wales is not the heartland of Welsh speaking Wales but there are plenty of people in the village who are first language Welsh speakers, including a good friend of mine. Sometimes we exchange a few sentences before falling back with relief into English. We want to catch up, we have lots to say and not enough time together. Why would I make her cope with my stumbling and inadequate Welsh when it takes me so much time to work out how to say the next thing that the conversation has totally ground to a halt? How could we talk about difficult, complicated, subtle things when my Welsh is for buying milk and asking the time?
So months ago I decided that I needed to give the whole thing a big kick up the backside and I booked, together with a good friend from Welsh class, to go to Nant Gwrtheyrn.
Nant Gwrtheyrn (pronounced nant gur thern with long slightly rolled r's) is a Welsh language centre on the Lleyn Peninsula, about an hour and three quarters west of here. The Lleyn sticks out into the sea like an extended finger, beyond the island of Anglesey, pointing west towards Ireland. The village was built in the 19th Century to house quarrymen and their families back in a time when the granite setts which came out of these steep hills were made into roads throughout busy, bustling Victorian England. It became a close knit community of around two hundred with its own chapel and school, its own shop and a port which shipped the granite to Liverpool and beyond.
But the coming of asphalt roads saw the death of the use of cobbles and by the middle of the twentieth century the quarry was long closed, the village was deserted and the houses falling into disrepair. For a while it was lived in by a hippy group who left it in an even worse state, burning floorboards from the manager's house to fuel their fires. Then in the 1970s it became the focus of a huge fundraising effort to buy the village and turn it into a centre for the teaching of the Welsh language. Read the full story here.
A full week's course would surely kick me on into speaking instead of just listening.
We arrived as it was getting dark on Sunday evening. The drive into the village ends with a startling, twisting road plunging down a steep wooded hillside towards the sea. At the bottom of the hill is a triangle of flatter land falling gently down to a rocky curve of beach and here there are two rows of granite cottages, built at right angles to each other, one row facing the mountain and one row facing the sea.
It was deserted and a little bit eerie. That night the wind blew hard, hurling rain against the windows. An overflowing gutter spattered water all night long outside my door. I didn't sleep well. In the morning it was still raining so hard that a rush down to the cafe for breakfast left us soaked and shivering.
Breakfast was good and the warmth of the reception from the tutor more than made up for the blowing rain outside. And it was a really great week. After a couple of days of dramatic wet weather the sun came out. We spoke Welsh all the time in class and most of the time outside it. To begin with a lot of it washed over me but as I got my ear in I found I was understanding more and more.
The group was a good mix of people. One man had come all the way from Seattle and this was not his first visit to Nant Gwrtheyrn. There were people from South Wales, people like us from the North and a couple of people who lived in England but had family ties to Wales. They were a clever and interesting bunch of people and we all soon felt comfortable enough to use our Welsh with each other.
The week sped by in a whirl of games and more formal teaching, reading, chatting, learning about the village and its stories (told with vivid enjoyment by Pegi the tutor). There was a visit to the house which the Welsh writer Kate Roberts lived in as a child and evening sessions about the area, including one about Bardsey Island (Ynys Enlli) which is just off the tip of the Lleyn Peninsula. It was for many years a place of pilgrimage, indeed it used to be thought that three pilgrimages to Bardsey had the same benefit to the soul as one to Rome.
I loved it. The food was good, the accommodation was great and the place was spectacular. I met a fabulous group of people and I learnt a lot. Perhaps most importantly I learnt that my Welsh is after all good enough for communicating, especially with people who will give you a bit of help, and that first language Welsh speakers are quite comfortable with slipping into English for a particular word or phrase. I still feel that real fluency is a world away but it may, like the summit of the hill when you are climbing which presents you with a series of false tops, be in the nature of learning another language that it sometimes seems to move away as you approach.
I have come away with all sorts of suggestions as to ways to keep the buzz of excitement generated by the week. I even found myself putting what I was doing into Welsh as I worked in the garden yesterday.
Mae'r haul yn gynnes ar fy nghefn.
Maen brain yn hel boncath dros the glas.
Mae'r aeronen yn disgleinio yn goch yn y setin.
Dw i'n codi winwns.
The sun is warm on my back.
Crows chase a buzzard across the sky.
Berries shine red in the hedge.
I am lifting onions.
So thank you Pegi, thank you Nant Gwrtheyrn, thank you Margaret for your company and Ian for holding the fort at home. That was a good week.