Let me introduce you to my new home: Noddfa Dawel. I’m sure that as time passes and my understanding of the land, the house and the countryside surrounding me grows, I will be able to offer deeper and richer insights. But let me introduce you to it as it introduced itself to me this morning: starkly, honestly and full of simple beauty.
The room in which I live is part of a horse-shoe shaped bungalow complex that rests to the east of the main farmhouse. Sarah, the owner of the farmhouse, built it here with friends in the 1970s when she first moved to Wales wishing to embrace the land movement. She told me she arrived from London with two partners, a caravan and a tent. They settled on the land, embraced old materials and objects and reclaimed them. They used the knowledge and constructions skills they possessed and began the long-term project of renovating the farmhouse. The locals up in Capel Seion must have been bemused by these eccentric newcomers but they welcomed them warmly. They told her later that they were pleased to see new folk coming to Wales and repopulating the small villages and plots of land after the steady migrations of town and village children away to the big cities. They were a sign of new life and a hope for the future both at the same time.
The way that Sarah described it was just like the Bible: in the beginning there was nothing. Nothing, but also everything. They had no electricity or running water, no phone or radio signal, none of the luxuries of town life. They were living truly off-grid. What did they have here? Nature, peace and quiet, a valley that was deep, lush and heavenly green; good pastureland and stretches of very old native forest and woodland.
It must have taken a long time to build up Noddfa Dawel into what it is today: a homely community building, full of character though a little cold and damp. One of the things that struck me about the bungalow complex, probably resulting from my travels in south-east and central Asia, is how un-British is felt. In fact there was something about the communal layout, tattered carpets and patchy single-glazed windows that reminded me of the bunker type accommodation travellers find in Laos or Vietnam. In the end, it turned out that my gut instinct was well founded and the centre was, historically, an old army barracks. They had it airlifted in.
If Noddfa Dawel was a boat it would not be water-tight. In fact there is a kind of inter-penetration with the outside world, that some people might find a little off-putting: it is humid, there are spiders everywhere and outside the bungalow is surrounded by a variety of vegetation, flowers and plant life that has a habit of meandering indoors. But I welcome these floral intrusions and remember the tropical burst of blossom, brandishing petals like calypso dancers. In particular the hydrangeas with their chalk-blue petals loom in my mind, and the fiery star-like blossom of the Star of the East. Outside my window a line of bamboo has been planted, like a natural screen, and it is incongruously thriving here in the damp and wet conditions of North Wales.
Noddfa Dawel’s semi-permeable boundaries reminded me of Roger Deakin’s Suffolk house Walnut Tree Farm in which he deliberately exercised a liberal ‘open-doors’ policy to the natural world. It all came floating in: things on six legs, things in the wind, things from meadow and marsh and moorland. Robert Macfarlane writes very powerfully about it in his obituary of Deakin.
The bungalow-cum-communal-building has a large kitchen with multiple work surfaces and two very comfortable pine tables. There is also a large living space and conservatory as well as a pleasingly old-fashioned bathroom, complete with cracked sink, ceramic jug and ivy-shaded window.
I find my room very aesthetically pleasing. It is yet another addition to the collection of rooms that I have been shuffling between this past year like a lendemain. In Ghent I lived in a pink room, then in the beautiful orange-streaked room above the canals of Prinsenhof. In Iceland the rooms were numerous but mainly warm and white. This room is canary yellow and the walls are offset by a lavender-blue door, side table and window frames. The colours drew me at once and I know why: they are reminiscent of the colour palette of Provence with its lavender fields and butter-yellow sun. Thus it is this combination of colours that you find frequently recurring in the paintings and landscapes of the painters of those regions, especially Van Gogh who lived in Arles and Paul Gauguin. I have floral curtains and my cheery boat rug, a cast-off from the historical Mr. C who left it in the boat in a former time, rests upon the floor. All I need is my adorable grey tabby-cat and the enchanted, childish atmosphere of the room would be complete.
Between the bungalow building of Noddfa Dawel and the farmhouse next door is an extensive garden and field. Yet where the garden ends and the field begins is not really clear. This is because nature has been allowed to run blissfully wild here. Weeds and flowers grow with the same robust vigour as grass, trees and shrub. I can’t imagine anything less ‘Sarah’ than a regulated lawn. Here it is all wild-flower meadow, natural paths distinguished from the rest of the field only by use and the pressure of successive feet. Abundance is everywhere. In my eagerness to know and understand I began studying my Osborne’s Spotter’s Guide to Trees: they were all here. Along the edges of the lane outside I found countless examples of English oak, ash and elm and within the vicinity of the renegade garden itself, horse chestnuts, alders, cherry and maple.
As you bisect the path which snakes past the chicken coop, you pass through a magical portal signalled by an overgrown arbour of branches and vines. Sarah’s industrious son has been hard at work on the land behind his mother’s house, constructing polytunnels, greenhouses, barns and sheds. Here, everything is overrun with life: wet, green and waxy. Clusters of berries drip from heavy boughs like grapes on the vine, the cockerels are fat and plucky. My curiosity led me along another garden path running beside vegetable plots and hay barns; there at the end of the road I saw Sarah’s sons’ latest project: a treehouse built at an elevation of two or three metres on large stilts. It was tucked into a corner and backed into the forest, its open, glass façade looked out over the wonderful garden, so bursting with life, built to optimise exposure to the late evening sun.
Eventually I returned from my first survey of the garden and land where I now live, but just before I started cooking supper I decided to greet the chickens one more time. My socks got wet as I crunched through the waxy grass spotted with Good King Henry. As it was sunny in the raised paddock area behind the conservatory I decided to lie down in the protective shade of a large alder tree. The inquisitive chickens immediately ran away from me, dashing for cover in their coop. They circled the horse-chestnut tree in their pen and started cluck cluck clucking. I found myself studying their hysterical mannerisms, asking myself questions like: Can they speak to each other? Can I imagine killing one of them? I fell asleep on my sheepskin after my mind had had enough of these poultry-themed fascinations.
When I awoke the sky was blanketed with grey cloud. An hour could have passed for all I knew, however I was pleased to see that the chickens were no longer afraid of me and stared out at the young woman curled up asleep by the alder, with a polite interest.