Scratching away with my Internet quill one dark Winter’s eve,
I was disturbed by the trill of the telephone bell….
“Hello, can I help you?”
“Ah now, Jo, isn’t it…?” A voice enquired with a sonorously warm Welsh emphasis to my name.
“Errrm, yes….” I clutched the receiver nervously.
“Well Jo, as you’re doubtless aware, it’s the Annual Carol Service at the local Chapel on Sunday….” The voice tailed off in anticipation. This was a surprise: the Chapel is always packed so I hadn’t expecting a ‘phone call canvassing for volunteers to attend – it’s more usually akin to a game of Sardines, than a Church service. “We’ve all been watching with great interest, the development of your business…..& were wondering, whether you’d do a reading for us, at the Service….?”
“Well, yes – I was of course intending to err, attend, anyway.” I hadn’t expected this….!
“Wonderful. You’re in charge of Isaiah, Chapter Nine, Verses 2 to 7…..see you there!”
A cheery ‘Click’; & the caller’s receiver was abruptly replaced in its cradle before I could sputter a suitable response, or ask any questions. No room for negotiation, then.
Pondering my impending doom I considered the implications. Crikey. The Old Testament….real ‘fire & brimstone’ stuff, then. But at least it meant I’d utter the earliest reading in the Service; & so could relax, & enjoy the rest of it.
The humble little chapel has served this small rural community, for many years now. Situated seemingly in the middle of nowhere, a small stream tumbles past & joins other confluences down in the narrow valley, where there are still the remains of an old baptismal bath, now tumbling over a sharp cataract at times of heavy rainfall. The local name for the place, is Clawdd Coch – which in Welsh, literally means ‘Red Hedgerow.’ From whichever shrub the name originated, said greenery has long since ceased to be; unless the inference refers to the bright little fruits of the hawthorn; or to the rich red seedpods of the wild roses which twine in delicately perfumed abundance thoughout the summer branches.
Or perhaps, it refers to the abundant holly bushes of the local area? The cheery blaze of their scarlet berries emblazons the gloomiest of Winter days; & with their traditionally practical uses – of marking watercourses, field boundaries & drovers’ roads, provides an insightful history for each & every farm & smallholding, too. Holly was important in Pagan rituals in that a wreath at the door kept witches & evil spirits from hearth & home; & when brought indoors, offered a welcome reminder that the greenness of Spring was only a few short but difficult months away. And a bough of Yuletide holly hung over the byre in sight of the peacefully-cudding livestock, gave hope for a year of fertility for the farm: for crops & animals alike, over the forthcoming year.
When I pass the little Chapel it always brings to mind the plainitive little melody by W S Gwynne Williams, sung so evocatively here by the wonderful Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel….
With the lyrics:
I am dreaming of the mountains of my home:
Of the mountains, where in childhood, I would roam…
I have dwelt ‘neath southern skies,
Where the Summer never dies;
But my heart is in the mountains of my home…
I can see the little homestead on the hill;
I can hear the magic music of the rill.
There is nothing to compare
With the love that once was there,
In that lonely little homestead on the hill….
I can see the quiet churchyard down below
Where the mountain breezes wander, to & fro….
And when God my soul will keep
It is there I want to sleep:
With those dear old folk, that loved me, long ago.
Whilst I may not have been born here, it does often feel as though I am experiencing some sort of wonderful rejuventation: literally, a second childhood, I suppose – even if my more aged bones tell me what a silly old fool, I am! Yet Gwynne’s tender lyrics invariably conjour through the mists of memories, our wonderful farmstead; however far away we may at the time, regrettably be.
For a start, this sturdy little Ffarm is nestled into the folds of a formidable hill, looking northwards to the coast; & westwards, toward the untamed majesty of the magnificent Preseli Mountains. As I mentioned earlier, several soft rivers play their melodious song along the farm’s boundaries: one to the North, & one to the West. The westernmost stream joins a multitiude of other modest confluences; right back from that lonely little Chapel on the hill, from where said streams gurgle their chuckling, infant song down the slate-strewn hillside to the the deeper tones of more substantial, sonourous streams & into the cataclysm of the ancient, tumultuous Baptismal bath.
With the sliver of the moon hanging low in the inky blackness of the evening sky, I turned towards the little chapel to which the congregation was already hurrying, muffled against the chill of the frosty night. And on entering the building, I discovered it was already almost full to bursting – Sardines, anyone?!
After a rousing introduction to the Service with “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” (during which came a fascinating Freudian slip with ‘God the sinner, reconciled’ rather than the more usual ‘God & sinners reconciled’) it was my turn to take to the pulpit.
I was immediately impressed by the fine acoustics: whoever had constructed the sturdy little building certainly knew – & loved – what they were doing. Thankfully my reading was in English; & also thankfully, I’d handwritten my own copy….just as well; as Iwasn’t supplied with a Bible & didn’t fancy working from memory!
More carols were sung – both in Welsh & in English (& sometimes simultaneously, which was an entertaining challenge) & more readings – again in both languages, given; interspersed with some fascinating insights into the origins of each musical interlude. The gentle glow from the pillar candles, nestled in their little wreaths of fresh holly & ivy made for a peacably genial atmosphere; even the church mice were forgiven for nibbling the organ & causing substantial damage. After the Service, glasses of mulled wine were drunk & mince pies consumed as neighbours & friends caught up with each others’ news in the bustling pews.
Filled with bonhomie it was time to head for home & a last check on the livestock before stoking the fire & settling down against the cold outside. But there was one more challenge left to come…..
Choosing a different path home I’d headed my vehicle down a sloping lane when I unexpectedly came across some pedestrians, wearing dark clothes & carrying no torches, at the roadside; evidently also returning home from the Service. As my headlight beams picked them out they frantically signalled that I should slow down. Fortunately I had already been travelling at a cautious pace – but imagine my dismay when I hastily applied the brakes & the car just kept on going, slipping on a thick layer of black ice. With a dreadful crunching noise the car continued to swerve….but thankfully ground to an unsteady halt just before reaching the boundary at the end of the lane, where there is an extremely sharp & unforgiving bend. With grateful relief I picked my way safely homewards, the rest of the journey passing without incident.
So it certainly seems a guardian angel was watching over me, this evening…..perhaps my reading had been suitable downpayment.