Tuesday, 29 October 2013

A Ram in the Well: A Welsh Homecoming by June Knox-Mawer


This has to be a quick post because I must start work, but I wanted to share this book with you straight away. I finished it, in bed with my morning tea (OH is splendid about that - he's an early riser, I'm not).

Why am I so eager to write about a fairly simple memoir about buying a house in north-east Wales? Well, for a start it's very well-written. June Knox-Mawer was a presenter on Woman's Hour for many years; she started her career as a journalist on the Chester Chronicle, and wrote both non-fiction and fiction. In the 70s she and her barrister husband came back to the UK after years abroad, and they began to feel the pull of the country of their childhoods -- somewhere within reach of a train so that they could travel to London easily, June to the BBC and R, her husband, to court. But it wasn't to be a mere weekend cottage -- she would plan to spend quite long periods there, with R joining her frequently. And it must be affordable, since they would need a flat in London.

After much searching she found Hafod, "wedged tight into the steep angle of the land so that it looked like part of the mountain itself, as firmly rooted as the oaks and the rocks and the yellow gorse around it." They bought it without ever going inside and June first saw the interior on the day she and their possessions moved in -- an echo of all those childhood stories like The Railway Children which fed an early fascination with plunging into the unknown. Life in Fiji and Arabia must have been an excellent preparation for such adventures, of course, and June proves to be undaunted by the arcana of spring-fed water supplies, the long uphill walk for the bus (called the Why-Walk) to town, dead mice in the bath, and even the middle bedroom that has no staircase to reach it.

The family -- there are two grown-up children -- make friends readily with the farmers around them, no doubt helped by the fact that they aren't typical incomers but both have roots -- and families -- in nearby Wrexham. Travelling to Llangollen on the Why-Walk along with the farmers' wives must have helped, too, though we never learn whether she did join the WI as predicted on her first excursion.

In the late 70s rural Wales was still full of "characters" and many of them appear here, but there is none of that phenomenon that was a feature of books of the Year in Provence ilk, where you felt that the author was parading the locals for your amusement, rather than asking you to join in friendship with them. Perhaps the most endearing of these characters is the last Squire of Erddig, Philip Yorke. I remember the excitement in the 70s when the National Trust was negotiating the acquisition of Erddig, a 17th-century manor house on the outskirts of Wrexham which was in a unique state of preservation, being more or less untouched since its last refurbishment in 1720. Philip Yorke was living amongst the accumulated possessions of seven generations, and passed it to the Trust with the proviso that nothing was to be removed. He became a delightful friend to the Knox-Mawers, and the portrait of him, and of Erddig, in the pre-Trust days is one of the greatest pleasures of this charming book.

June Knox-Mawer brings a novelist's touch to the story of the early days at Hafod, along with the experienced interviewer's interest in other people and the detail of their lives. Her feel for local history, too, brings the area to life for the reader -- as is the way of the very best books, she makes you want to know more about subjects she touches on. Mention of the remarkable George Borrow, for instance, makes me long to go back to his book Wild Wales, written in 1862.

I'll close -- as I must, it's time to feed the various birds -- with the briefest of extracts. It amused me to be reading this exchange on board June's local library van as I read my copy gleaned from the shelves of our own "Mobile":
"You could do with an assistant," I told him, as he stamped a hasty choice of mine.
"I did have one," he told me. "Mair Prytherch from Corwen. Only lasted a week, though. Said the motion made her seasick, even four Kwells first thing didn't help. Worse than the Holyhead ferry, she said it was."
I reached for the handrail. With the rain lashing down and the wind gusting across us from side to side there was certainly a nautical feeling about the Mobile even when stationary. I felt some sympathy for Miss Prytherch.
"Mind you, it's worse in bad weather," Eifion added.

12 comments:

  1. Wonderful quote! June Knox mawer is a name I remember from my youth, like Alvar Liddell it is a surprise to see how its spelt. Hope my library can supply!

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    1. Do you remember Ken Sycora and Home This Afternoon as well? Hope your library has it!

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  2. Ooh, this does sound lovely, and I remember June Knox-Mawer on Women's Hour. I want a copy... and I keep promising myself I won't acquiire any more books...

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    1. Sorry to take so long to reply - tried to do it from my tablet but the connection was so terrible it didn't work! I keep making the same promise, Christine!

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  3. I remember June Knox-Mawer too and had no idea of the spelling. Her book sounds as though I'd like it - a lot. My mother was from Wales and I always have a soft spot for anything Welsh.

    I don't think I could work on the library van either - it lurches about just getting on it!

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    1. I think anyone who loves living in the country would like it, Margaret.

      I think I would get seasick if I stayed too long choosing books, it definitely encourages me to be quick!

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  4. This is a really good piece. I've been wanting this books for a few years, ever since I saw it in a book catalogue, and somehow haven't got a copy yet, it sounds great!
    For something on the same lines, I can recommend 'Hovel In The Hills' by Elizabeth West (and I think she wrote two or three more after) about she and her husband's experiences of moving to a very problematic and damp old house in Wales in the 60s.

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    1. Thank you, I shall request the Elizabeth West from the library - sounds as though I'd like it very much.

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  5. I think if I needed to be able to get to London on a regular basis I would have been looking for somewhere a bit closer than Wales, but then I am a notoriously bad traveller. Definitely no rides on the mobile library for me:-)

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    1. Especially in the 70s, Alex, the train used to take hours in those days! And even my regular (until recently) journey to London could feel like agony last thing at night, when the train seemed to crawl northwards.

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  6. I definitely want this book! FIngers crossed it is over here. My ancestors (some of them) are from Wales, so anything I can find and read on it is of interest. I'll be looking up the Elizabeth West book also.

    I enjoyed your review, and the feeling that the author genuinely liked the people she was writing about. That man - the last Squire of Erddig - he and the house sound like a treasure. What a lovely book to discover, and love the review, Geranium Cat.

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    1. When I saw from the cover blurb that she was going to write about Erddig, I knew I had to read it because I'd followed the story of its restoration. Hope you can find it, Susan.

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