Posted by: Yawn the Post | July 16, 2010

Satellite State

Rural Wales: a remote and wild place.  Hills surround me, green, bulbous mounds: sometimes it feels like I’m living in a giant cabbage.  Many of the hilltops are crowned with old hill forts, and some of the earthworks remain.  Iron age people lived on these bare summits, in simple enclosures.  They probably kept cattle, and were endlessly vigilant.  The Romans were coming, and the Anglo-Saxons were on the next bus.

I go in a straight line up a hill.  I get to the top, I look around.  I find north, west, south, east.  I see more hills on the far horizon, grey hills.  I cannot see the ocean.  I look for the hill forts and imagine those people, not so long ago, living their squalid lives.

They must have been cold, damp and dirty.  They must have been hungry, deprived of a nearby Tesco.  The nearest Pizza Express was in Rome! (Although, even then, they had plans for expansion).

Guess what?  Nothing’s changed!  I can’t order a take-away, I can’t pop to the supermarket.   The hill forts disappeared two thousand years ago and no one moved in!  They are still available.  Not a good buy to let property, I grant you, but you won’t be inconvenienced by floods.

I’m up on the top of the hill, two thousand feet up, and the only house I can see is mine.  There’s nothing else here.

What is notably missing is history.  Two thousand years of invasion, empire building and exploration, Tudors, Stuarts, industrial revolution and space flight.

No evidence of it here.  Except the occasional satellite drifting over.

And without obvious history it’s so easy just to make it all up.  I imagine the Romans nosing into the valley, looking around, then screwing up their faces in disdain and going back the way they came.  The Anglo-Saxons come rushing in, stop, listen to the wind howling across the mountain-tops, and run off, spooked.  The Normans didn’t even bother.  They built their stone castles to keep the Welsh in check.  They weren’t going to live on a diet of turnips and mountain goat, they wanted the pastures of England, or whatever it was called back then.

So my history of Wales, certainly of rural Wales, is one of absences, of evasions, rather than invasions, although I’m sure many would disagree.  Approach Wales from the east and the mountains loom up like a grim black tidal wave.  Who’d want it?

Wales is the perfect vacuum for the imagination.  It’s why I came here, from London, fifteen or so years ago.  There is nothing here, plenty of it.

And look, climbing up the hill towards me, here come the Tregaron twins, with their large, hideous heads and jutting lower jaws.  They are the last carriers of the Neanderthal gene.  One of them stares up into the night sky. The other clicks on a torch to illuminate his watch.

There it is, brighter than Venus, sailing over in a silent, night-arc.

“Nine thirty,” says one of the twins. “It must be the International Space Station.”



  1. Lovely post!
    I can’t help disagreeing ever so slightly though. To me, the landscape itself reveals its history. The hills are bare because of ancient deforestation; barren because of subsequent soil erosion. The field boundaries are a jigsaw of ancient and medieval land grabs. And – in our bit of Wales anyway – most trees are modern conifers, built as a response to war shortages.
    Just because there aren’t ruined buildings doesn’t mean the landscape hasn’t been shaped by humans.

  2. I do agree with Elen, but love the shape of the blog, and the prose style. For me the formerly richly biodiverse landscape now is denuded by monoculture – sheep, coniferous forest. I was just having a conversation with someone who went to a London Zoo conference this week on the reintroduction of large carnivorous mammals to the UK. Wolves are coming back to Scotland, and possibly lynxes. Why not to Wales? Put that in a story – from the point of view of a child reincarnated as the first reintroduced lynx!

    • Wolves! How romantic that would be. (and a pain in the neck of course) There’s a legend in our village that the paws of the last wolf in Wales were nailed to the church door here.
      I think other villages tell the same story – one nearish us is called Bleddfa, which means ‘Place of the Wolves’
      History is everywhere round here, even if you don’t see it. Also in our village are three pine trees planted where there was a drover’s pub. That pub is now a Revival Chapel; there’s eighteenth and nineteenth century history for you straightaway.

  3. Of course you’re right, Elen. But the history of this landscape is about what’s no longer there…(common land, woodland, wolves) and what is new (especially the pine forests) not particularly inspiring. I wanted to put across the thrill of living somewhere quite barren, the hugeness of the sky, and the (relatively) small traces of humanity. The hills here are very bare and desolate. Compared to the cities I’ve lived in, very little has changed for a thousand years.

  4. It’s good to know there are still places like this left to escape to… Sometimes it seems everything is concrete and noise and people and cars and craziness, and my soul screams for those wild open spaces.

    Mind you, my memories of living on the Welsh border include low flying jet planes and more than a fair share of rain, and – yes – having to drive 20 miles to get a pizza (or see a film). I guess it doesn’t suit everyone!

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