A friend came up to visit me in the stormy weeks of November and early December 2015. I warned him about the gale force winds that were afflicting Ceredigion at that time but he claimed he had an expedition truck that was up to the task of couriering us across Wales. When he parked it outside I could see why: its body work was as thick as an armoured tank, it had a steel roll cage and two additional headlamps which leered down at me from the roof like two buggy eyes. The tyres were heavy-duty and it had a specially raised chasse like one of the Icelandic monster vehicles, specially customised and adapted from extreme weather conditions. There was enough space to sleep two in the back and my friendly proudly informed me that he had modified the truck so that it had a petrol burning stove and heater, and thus the perfect facilities for making hot food and teas on longer journeys. Looking at the enormous edifice of steel and aluminium bodywork before me, I knew that if any car was capable of taking on 60 mph winds and the perilously winding Welsh roads prone to flooding, this was it. The journey towards my heart’s desire was still on: we were going to Snowdonia.
My cycle touring trip around Snowdonia in 2014 has furnished me with some of the brightest and best memories of all of my cross-country cycling adventures in the UK. I was travelling with my boyfriend at the time and my sister, and together, as a curious yet connected threesome we pedalled down from Caernarfon, around and about Snowdon, down towards Beddgelert and Porthmadog and then took the coastal road to Barmouth before heading inland across the lesser Snowdonian massif, finishing our trip in Shrewsbury. It was this trip and treasured memories of camping high above the Mawddach Estuary at sundown, striking fires and snuggling in tents, which cemented my feeling of love for this area, that I would, one a half years on, have the privilege to call home. Our destination for that day was quite unique: it was in Blaenau Ffestiniog, a small slate-mining town in Southern Snowdonia. What instigated the journey? A bloody good bit of art history.
Shortly before Britain’s involvement in the Second World War was formalised in the summer of 1939, plans were put into action for the immediate withdrawal of the National Gallery’s collection from London to Wales. It was imagined at that time that the enemy bombers were not able to penetrate as far as Wales. Owing to the idiosyncrasies of that time, and Gallery director Kenneth Clarke’s very personal way of dealing with problems, it was decided that the collection should be dispersed: some holidaying with Lord Lee at Avening in Gloucestershire and the rest stored in institutional strongholds in Aberystwyth, Bangor and Caernarfon.
After the Nazis invaded Paris in 1941 Churchill agreed that the paintings were no longer safe above ground and ordered that provision in an underground cellar be made for them. Luckily the Keeper of the Collections had already discovered an eligible spot in a disused slate quarry in Blaenau Ffestiniog. So with much difficulty the paintings were moved up the misty, pitted road from their respective hidey-holes and deposited in a series of bunkers in the quarry which had been specially designed for them. The years which changed the course of European political history left the soporific icons undisturbed; apart from regular checks by museum conservators and specialists they remained in Wales virtually unheeded, for the remaining duration of the war.
I became fascinated by this story of art’s endurance – and even wrote an essay about it. What interested me was not only the improbable survival story of the nomadic artworks themselves, but the fascinating narrative of what occurred in the National Gallery in their absence; for Kenneth Clarke was not the sort of man to stand and watch from the sidelines. Working in collaboration with the celebrated classical pianist Myra Hess, Clarke transformed the National Gallery into a dynamic wartime venue and performance space for the arts. Hess arranged lunchtime recitals, Clarke commissioned exhibitions by the British War Artists then employed by the War Artists’ Advisory Committee. It is possible to watch fascinating footage of Myra Hess’ live performances at the National Gallery now – to see her playing Beethoven apassionata, to watch the blanched, magnetized faces of her audience looking on. Thousands of would-be spectators amassed outside the Gallery, even during the Blitz. What a testament to both national resilience and the wartime spirit in the face of disaster.
That’s why I wanted to visit the mine. I wanted to retrace the journey that a number of trucks had taken seventy years ago, bearing a priceless cargo of Rembrandts, Titians and van Eyks. Our truck was a lot less encumbered: just me and J, my ukulele, a spare pair of wellies and a number of J’s favourite cigars.
That whole November had been pervaded by the strange humidity and torpidity that accompanies tropical storms. The temperature had been strikingly mild for so late in the year, but as soon as we careered round a corner and found ourselves in the small quarry town of Blaenau Ffestiniog, temperatures plummeted. The town itself was picturesque but unconventionally so – ringed all about by a corolla of what locals calls slate ‘tips’: heaps of slate refuse and jagged, purple fountains of rock. The landscape was toned grey violet; coloured by the heather of the rugged moorland, boggy pools, wet flushes, springs, wind-ravaged rocks, and lean, coppery bracken. Of course, though I had read about the mythical mine in the National Library of Wales (one of the locations that the paintings were stored before they were transferred to Snowdonia), and knew its name and proximate location – I had no idea how to really get there.
– Off you go then! said J, urging me out of the truck with an amused look on his face.
I disembarked onto the quiet high street, not entirely confident that I would be able to find someone who could provide me with the information we wanted. Was the manod mine still a place that locals knew about and discussed? I decided that the best bet was the local post office cum village shop, which is always a reliable source of local knowledge. A silvery bell tinkled behind me and I made my enquiries. Finally, it was not the shop attendant manning the place, but another customer who shuffled in slowly after me, who knew the way to manod mawr. She was ninety years old – old enough to remember the original cargo – and had lived in the town all her life. I was incredibly lucky, I knew there could not be many people still alive who remembered that. Of course I began to eagerly question her, but I drew a blank, the lady was the first person I had met in Wales who didn’t have English; she was a Welsh-speaking Welsh only. I got the directions but I needed the post office attendant to act as a translator. I left the shop feeling victorious, though my head was about to drop off my shoulders with all the directions for climbing up mountain roads and dipping beneath bridges that had been installed there.
But the bug truck was empty.
Never to be outdone I discovered J nosing about in the bookstore, his tall form bent over assiduously in the amber light of the room. He had also discovered the whereabouts of the mine, the shop owner behind me had supplied me with the details. It was a beautiful bookshop: homely, pleasing and real. I wheeled about with high expectations, they were not disappointed. The lady was also local, she asked me if I spoke Welsh, I told her I did not (at that point I had only been living in Wales for three months), we continued in English. She told me she had a daughter at Cambridge studying literature. We discussed my interest in the mine and other local Welsh nature writers such as Condry, Perrin and R.S. Thomas. She repeated the directions. Before I left she reminded me that we were in Wales and that I should learn Welsh at the university, it was advice that I pushed to the back of my mind at the time though I have not forgotten it, especially now having read R.S. Thomas’ Autobiographies. We jumped back into monster truck, we were on the road again.
The improbable goal was drawing closer every minute but we were not there yet and it was not an easy journey up to Manod Mawr. From the darkening town we retraced our steps back towards a neighbouring village, took a small single-track road veering off suddenly to the left and began driving along a very narrow lane, which led underneath the low bridge that famously posed a number of difficulties for the original consignment. (The soil underneath the bridge had to be dug out to allow a tall-framed Van Eyk to squeeze beneath it.) Further and further we climbed, it felt like we were scaling a ladder into the air; and outside the windows of the car we could see the atmosphere was becoming more fogged and inundated with phantom-like patches of drizzling rain. Once sufficiently high enough, the landscape opened up, we were no longer in the valleys but up on the summits of the great slate-bellied mountains. This hilltop world was desolate, uninhabited, rammed with glistening purple rock. There was only one place to stop, where the road ended: Manod Mawr.
It’s still in use as an active quarry site. We could see this from the vehicles in the car park which suddenly made the monster truck seem small. Flashing orange lights, men in helmets and high-vis jackets, we stumbled over the atomised shrapnel-sharp ground in the direction of a large white container that had been airlifted in and served as a quarry site HQ. We met a friendly site supervisor there would gave us directions to the mine. He told us we would not be able to go inside it and it was still prohibited for members of the public to enter but we could get a sense from the outside. We nodded obediently and then proceeded to walk up the short track snaking behind the white container up towards the mine entrance. There was absolutely no-one there; nothing all around us but pile upon pile of slate refuse – or simply slate, slate plates, stacked up haphazardly against each other, polished by the illusive rain. As the supervisor had suggested, the mine entrance looked more like the entrance to a primitive prison than a cave, with rusted metal bars somehow thrust between its stone jaws. We could not go in, but looking about me, at the top of some kind of Snowdonian world, standing in the place I knew that a hopeful and probably fearful Kenneth Clarke once stood half a century before, I was really quite moved. We had followed an impulse, chased it, like a hare through the forest; quested, and reached our goal. But, I also could not help wonder, taking in all the colonial implications of the presence of that quintessentially English collection plundered and bartered from countries from all around the world, brought to this stronghold of Welsh culture – whether the paintings might have been happier in Manod than London. Here, they had been stored like treasure in an underground cavern, the local people were curious but they were not experts. In London they were venerated as demi-gods and declared ‘priceless’ – the ultimate compliment from a capitalist society. As the ninety-year-old woman seemed to suggest by her casual manner in the post office, life went on in Blenau Ffestiniog regardless of the paintings and the suited experts from London arriving in green army vehicles.