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Torfaen Tales

Lost In Wales

Around 11pm I confessed to Steve that I hadn't a clue where we were. For over two hours we'd been driving in random directions, peering through the windy, moonless night's dense blackness to decipher occasional signposts, and scrambling to try and find the names on our much-folded map.

There was very little traffic late at night in this remote part of mid Wales. Steve and I had left our home in Swansea about seven that Friday night. We were on our way to stay with friends in north Wales for the weekend, but had thought we'd spend Friday night in a B&B.

"We shouldn't have any problem finding something," I'd assured Steve as he loaded our suitcase into the boot of our shabby old car.

We'd actually passed up a couple of sources of accommodation. There had been a nice-looking place on the outskirts of Brecon, but Steve thought we should push on a bit further. Then the B∓B we saw in Rhayader looked a bit scruffy so we'd kept going. That was about nine o'clock and we'd seen nothing since. Shortly after that my navigation had gone seriously awry, and a series of B roads had led us into the middle of nowhere.

"I'm sure we passed that sign to Newtown a few miles back," I said anxiously.

Steve shrugged and kept going. "If we can find our way back onto a main road we might be better off going straight through to Rhys and Cathy's at this rate. It hardly seems worth trying to find a B&B, and they're all likely to have closed their doors by now."

Then he glanced at the petrol gauge.

"We're going to have to find a petrol station soon, and I don't like our chances of finding a 24 hour services in this neck of the woods."

Sure enough, shortly after that, on our way up a steep hill, the engine died.

"Well, that's it, Janey," he said, steering to the side of the road as he let the car slip back downhill a little. I noticed the shadows under his eyes. Steve works hard in the garage, and the last thing he needed was a long night of driving after a busy week.

"I'm sorry, babe, " I said humbly. I'm a crap navigator. I guess we'll have to stop here for the rest of the night."

He nodded dismally. "I need to stretch my legs first."

"I'll come with you," I said. I didn't fancy being left on my own for a minute.

As I got out of the car a peculiar vision flashed through my mind. The car metamorphosed into a hard, shiny black cocoon; outside its shell we were at the mercy of the unknown night. The branches of the overhanging trees moved restlessly as though threatened by a large, heavily breathing creature crouched just out of sight.

I shook off these ridiculous notions and hurried after Steve. It was a relief to stretch my shoulders after hours hunched over the map. I walked slowly uphill, following the sound of Steve's footsteps and feeling carefully with my feet for the gravel at the side of the road. I didn't want to miss my footing on soft ground and take a tumble down into nothingness.

Steve stopped somewhere ahead of me. I felt a bit panicked without the reassuring crunch of his footsteps. Standing as if on the edge of nowhere I gradually became aware of varying shades of darkness as my eyes became accustomed to the night. Over in the distance on the right I could see a couple of tiny beads of light. A farmhouse?

Steve's footsteps crunched towards me on the loose gravel.

"See those lights?" I said, pointing in their direction. "Fancy trying to make it over there?"

"Don't be daft. We haven't got a torch, and we've no idea which way the road goes. Better to stick with the car for the night. Do you want to kip down on the back seat? I'll be all right in the front with the seat reclined. Only a few hours now until daylight."

We catnapped restlessly for the remainder of the night. I woke every time Steve shifted in his seat. Shortly after five I abandoned all pretence of sleep. It was light enough to make out our surroundings, so I shrugged on my jacket and opened the car door.

Steve sat up with a groan. "Where are you going?”

"I'm just going to nip behind a bush. Back in a minute."

The morning was fresh and bright. Even this early I could see that the sky was clear, and the day held promise of plenty of sunshine. The landscape of the valley and the opposite hillside were taking shape in daylight, and the view was one of rural splendour. There was indeed a farm over in the direction where we'd seen the light. A tree-lined river snaked through the valley, and the fields were neatly edged with hedgerow. The fields were dotted with miniature cotton-wool puffs of sheep, and the sound of their bleating occasionally broke through the twitter of morning birdsong. This was the summer countryside of television advertisements with none of the menace that the night had hinted at.

When I returned to the car Steve was stretching his back. His hair tumbled appealingly over his forehead, and I felt a rush of tenderness warm my heart. I wrapped my arms around his body, feeling the familiar muscles of his back.

"Morning, babes," he said, planting a kiss on my lips. I forgave him his stale breath; mine was probably no better. The cleaning of teeth had been the last thing on my mind last night.

"I can see a farm down there. Fancy a walk?"

Steve sighed. "I guess that's the only place we might get petrol."

I grabbed my handbag from the back seat and ran a brush through my bedraggled hair before we locked the car and set off, hand in hand, down the winding gravel road.

After about twenty minutes of easy, downhill strolling we passed a rusty sign which read 'Ynys Cwm Melyn'. It didn't point in any particular direction, nor did it give any indication of the distance to this place.

"I guess that means we're still in Wales," said Steve with a wry grin.

After another mile or so we came upon a brick-walled field of some sort of large-leafed vegetation, seemingly out of context against the fields of close-cropped grass.

"I think that's a marrow patch," I said, noticing the large, stripy protuberances under the leaves. Then I became aware of the birds.

"Oh look, Steve! What are those things?" Upon closer inspection I could see that the marrow field was practically teeming with mottled brown, seemingly flightless birds.

"Um, peahen? Pheasant? I don't really know. Weird."

In the next bend of the road we saw a huddle of dusty buildings.

"I wonder if there's anyone about?" mused Steve. "It would be great not to have to walk all the way to that farm."

There were a couple of large gaps in the rusty corrugated iron roof of the nearest building. The prospect of habitation seemed remote. The three stone buildings on the other side looked as though they had been abandoned some time ago; paint peeled from the window shutters, and leaves had gathered in a drift at the front steps of the middle one which was a house.

Hardly visible at first glance was a smaller construction, set back a little between two of the stone buildings. It looked like a shop, but from several yards away the dim, grimy front window gave little clue to the nature of whatever business had been conducted there. I stepped closer and peered through one of the small, dusty panes, shielding my eyes against the morning sun.

Steve gasped suddenly. "Look, Jane!" he said, pointing at a first floor window from which a wooden shutter hung loose. "There's someone in there!"

By the time I had stepped back and looked up there was nothing to be seen.

"Was it a man or a woman?" I asked.

"Couldn't tell," replied Steve as he strode towards the door and banged with his fist.

After several minutes of knocking and calling we gave up. It seemed whoever was in there had no intention of coming out. Maybe Steve's eyes had been playing tricks on him after an exhausting night.

I peered into the shop window once more. Surprisingly it didn't look as empty as it had at first glance. I wiped one of the dusty panes and looked in at an array of glass bottles and vases of varying shapes and sizes. Their rich colours would not doubt have been quite beautiful viewed from within, back-lit by daylight from the window. Behind the window display I could see several round tables, each bearing a treasure-trove of glass ornaments.

"None of it seems dusty," I marvelled.

We were startled by the sound of footsteps behind us, and whirled as one to face a squat, elderly man with a down-turned mouth, his lower lip distended by a large wart and his cheeks creased by the passing of at least six decades of life on the land.

His gruff enquiry fell on uncomprehending ears. Was he speaking Welsh? Steve and I were uneducated in this regard; Welsh lessons hadn't been readily available when we were at school.

"Good morning," ventured Steve. "Er, we're lost, and we've run out of petrol. Our car's up on the hill, about three or four miles. I don't suppose you've got any petrol we could buy?"

His crumpled, brown face stretched into a smile which revealed yellowed teeth.

"'Appens I've got a pump out the back. Come this way."

So he did speak English, albeit with a broad, countrified accent.

We followed the shuffling man. All sorts of questions ran through my mind. Was he enticing us round the back to mug and rob us? He didn't look very agile, but maybe he had a brace of strapping sons who could easily overpower us. Maybe I'd seen too many late-night movies. And the petrol in the pump, if it existed, would surely be contaminated. Steve sensed my anxiety and squeezed my hand reassuringly.

"If we can get some petrol it should at least get us to the next town, and we can probably get directions from this fellow."

To our surprise there was indeed a battered, rustic petrol pump behind the building. And standing in the shadows not a menacing bunch of hoodlums but an elderly woman in a dusty-looking black dress. The presence of a woman somehow made me feel better.

The man was tinkering with the petrol pump, and the woman moved towards us evenly as though on wheels beneath the long skirt of her black dress. I suppressed an involuntary burst of laughter at the thought of such a grandmotherly figure roller-skating.

The man mumbled something to the woman, the only part of which I understood was the phrase 'run out of petrol'.

The woman's face broke into a smile. "Have you been stranded all night?" she enquired in a clear, bell-like voice.

I nodded.

"You must be hungry. Lucky I've got a bit breakfast cooking for our farm workers. There's plenty to spare and you'd be most welcome. Bryn can sort you out a can of petrol after and run you back to your car in his truck."

It would have been churlish to refuse. We followed her as she glided through the door and into the dark hallway of the house. A tantalising smell of bacon drifted from the kitchen beyond.

Within minutes we were seated in an old-fashioned kitchen dominated by a large, black wood-burning stove upon which our benefactor was juggling an array of pans.

She served us mugs of steaming, sweet coffee. We introduced ourselves as we thanked her.

"Pleased to meet you. My name is Miranda. As you've probably guessed, I'm originally from England, but I've lived here since my marriage to Bryn nearly fifty years ago. I had trouble understanding his broad country accent at first, and he's a man of few words. But you two are Welsh, aren't you? From the south, I expect."

We confessed to our origins in Swansea.

"This is a lovely area," I enthused. "We saw a sign up the road, Ynys-something-or-other. We thought your place was uninhabited at first, but we're really glad to have found you. We saw a farm from the top of the hill, but it looked a lot further away."

"Ah, that would be Afon Meadows I expect. Yes, a few more miles as the road winds. Now eat up your breakfast, and I'll make some toast."

It was a real farm breakfast, tasting much better than supermarket-bought fare. Although replete we gorged ourselves on thick, buttery toast and a refill of coffee.

Later as we headed back into the sunshine I remembered the shop.

"Would you mind if we had a look in your shop, Mrs Miranda?"

"Not at all, my dear. My son Llewellyn is the glass-blower. He makes some lovely things, as you will see."

She unlocked a stout wooden door and we found ourselves in the sunlit shop. As I had expected, the glassware looked spectacular back-lit by the windows which looked surprisingly grime-free from the inside. The shop somehow had the reverent, calm atmosphere of a church, and with my full stomach I felt at peace with the world as I browsed among Miranda's son's handiwork.

I picked up a little vase through which swirls of all colours spread in a pleasing pattern.

"I'd really like to buy this, Miranda. How much?"

"I can let you have that one for two pounds, dear. Settle up with Bryn when you pay for the petrol. Shall I wrap it for you?"

"Oh, no need. It'll be fine in my handbag. Now, what do we owe you for breakfast?"

"Not a penny, my dears. Pleased to be able to help out."

I was puzzled by the absence of farm workers at the table. If I'd cooked such a feast I'd be most put out if it hadn't been eaten while at the peak of perfection and not dried out waiting in the oven.

Bryn had put a battered can of petrol in the back of his dusty truck, and motioned us to join him in the cab.

"Don't forget to ask directions," I urged Steve.

We bumped uphill past the field of marrows and brown birds. Strangely I didn't see the sign for Ynys-whatever on the return journey. Thankfully the car was still where we'd left it, and Bryn filled the tank with petrol that looked surprisingly clear. He and Steve pored over the map and he pointed out where we'd gone wrong.

I thought he'd probably refuse payment for his services so I did a quick calculation and fished a twenty pound note out of my purse.

"Please take this," I said, pressing it into his gnarled hand. "It should cover the petrol, the breakfast and the glass ornament I had from the shop."

"Ah, Miranda's been showing off our Llewellyn's work, then," he said, stuffing the note into his pocket. "He's a clever lad. I keep tellin' 'im he should move to the town with his shop, but he don't listen."

After we had thanked him profusely Bryn climbed back into the cab of his truck and rumbled back down the hill.

"Are you sure you've got the directions straight?" I asked as Steve started the car and turned in the opposite direction.

Sure enough, at the bottom of the hill was a left turn by the ruins of a barn. Then after a few miles we came to the church we'd hoped to find, and turned right when we reached the main road. Within half an hour we were in Newtown, topping up our fuel tank and checking the map before heading confidently towards our friends' home in Denbighshire.

That night over dinner in the village pub we told the tale of our adventure the night before.

"Lucky you weren't carried off by dragons," said Rhys's friend Tommy, rolling his eyes and snarling. "All sorts of strange things happen in them there mountains."

"Oh, it was all right really," I said. "Apart from not sleeping very well in the car we were fine. And we found a farm this morning where the natives were friendly. The woman made us a great breakfast, and they had a petrol pump. The man even dropped us back to the car."

We didn't do much for the rest of the weekend except eat, drink, catch up on the gossip and take the occasional walk. We headed back south on Monday morning, having extracted a promise from Cathy and Rhys that they'd come for a weekend in Swansea before too long.

The one problem with going from one end of Wales to the other is that the roads don't run straight. It's very easy to get side-tracked, and before long we were back in Newtown.

"Tell you what, Steve," I said, swallowing the last of my hamburger with a mouthful of cola. "I'd like to pop back to that glass shop and buy something else. Mum's birthday is coming up soon."

He grimaced. "What if we get lost again? I want to get home in time to watch the football."

"What's the rush? You've videoed it. Pleeease ?"

I know how to twist Steve round my little finger. He was surprised how easily we managed to retrace our route, turning at the church and the ruined barn.

But as we drove down the hill things looked very different. First of all, the field of marrows was nothing but dead, brown vegetation. There were no birds to be seen at all. I felt a chill travel up my spine and the hairs on the back of my neck prickled.

Then at the turn of the bend there was nothing but the crumbling remains of the stone buildings which had looked neglected this morning but had nevertheless been standing upright.

"This can't be the right place," said Steve with a frown as he drove on.

We drove a couple more miles, but had to admit defeat and turn back.

We pulled in beside the ruined buildings and got out of the car. A cloud passed briefly across the sun, adding to the spooky atmosphere. Upon closer inspection it was apparent that there had been a fire at the farm. But not today; it must have happened some years before. Ivy had staked its claim on the charred joists and tumbled stones.

I picked my way through the tumbled stonework to the place where the glass workshop had stood.

"Careful!" called Steve.

Sure enough, in the charred remains of the shop were some fragments of coloured glass, melted into puddles by the heat of the fire. I picked a couple of lumps out of the ruins, puzzled but sad that I'd missed the opportunity to buy something suitable for Mum's birthday.

We gave up and got back in the car. All the way back to Swansea we puzzled over what we'd seen. How could a place that had been occupied on Saturday morning become a derelict shell by Monday lunchtime, covered with years of ivy growth? What had become of charming Miranda and her husband Bryn, not to mention Llewellyn, the talented glass-blower. It was too much to comprehend.

I've put the little glass vase on the window ledge at the top of the stairs. The melted slabs of glass cleaned up nicely and I've propped them up in the window beside the vase. I suppose I'll never find an answer to the puzzle, but at least I have something pretty to look at and remind me of one of the strangest times of my life.

By Karenne Griffin

Last Modified on: 05-11-2015

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