Bruce Chatwin in Wales

Penkerrig, Thomas Jones (1742-1803)

Penkerrig, Thomas Jones (1742-1803)

On the Black Hill (1982), 249 pp.

Twin brothers Benjamin and Lewis Jones, born in 1900, are the main characters in this novel, but Wales also has a starring role.

In other words, this book isn’t just about Benjamin and Lewis, it’s about their world, including the land and all the oddball characters who enter, leave, and often re-enter many years later.

Let’s start with the land. The twin’s parents settle on a farm on the border between Radnorshire and Herefordshire. From the crest of the nearby Black Hill, you can look westward over Wales, or eastward over England, and despite centuries of living on this border (or perhaps precisely because of it), there is heavy distrust of “the English” in the local community. Victoria is still Queen of England when Benjamin and Lewis are born; when they turn 80, two world wars have barely touched the land around them, yet Radnorshire itself has been subsumed into the British county of Powys (“the English” at it again). The political dance doesn’t register in the lives of the Jones twins. As farmers, they see only the yearly cycles — “foddering” the livestock; mucking out sties, coops and barns; planting and harvesting, shearing and lambing — the daily toil that keeps them tied to the land, yet they never want to sever those ties.

Rhos Dirion, Black Mountains, Wales

Rhos Dirion, Black Mountains, Wales

Winters are cold and dark, driving some to a form of madness. Then spring changes everything:

a breeze was ruffling the net curtains; a thrush sang in the pear-tree; pigeons were burbling on the roof, and patches of white light wandered over the bed-cover.

Summer and autumn show their colors, sounds and scents as well, and anyone considering the life of a farmer might want to read this. No one’s surprised to learn how hard that life is, but the rewards come in unexpected ways. For Benjamin, it’s the joy of helping a ewe during lambing. For Lewis its working the land — at first with horse and plow and then later with tractor and combine.

If you’ve ever tried to follow sheep trails when hiking in any part of England, you’ve seen how they branch, veer off, rejoin, run parallel, stop suddenly, clamber down steep hills, and meander so much that you wonder why more sheep aren’t lost. Chatwin’s stories of all the people around the twins are like those sheep trails. Meg the Rock’s mother is murdered, and Meg’s placed on a neighboring farm. We see her at moments over the years — seriously ill, tending wild animals, befriending a lapsed Buddhist, attending a harvest festival. Members of a wealthy family appear at just the right moments to help Mary Jones or her sons. The twins’ sister Rebecca marries an Irishman and moves to North America; several decades later her daughter appears with hopes of inheriting the family farm. The twin’s father feuds with a neighbor, and the neighbor’s son, when grown, gets revenge at an auction.


Grwyne Fechan, Brecon Beacons, Wales

The book always comes back, however, to Benjamin and Lewis. As children, if one is hurt, the other suffers the pain. As adults, they fall ill if separated. The two grow to be different without growing apart. As adults, Lewis wants to modernize, but Benjamin hates spending the money on equipment. He’d rather buy land, even though they haven’t the manpower to take care of it. Lewis is outgoing, Benjamin shy and reluctant to leave the farm. The brothers’ only true rifts are over women (Lewis wants a wife, but Benjamin can’t tolerate the idea).

Chatwin’s writing is lovely, full of pinpoint descriptive notes: “The farmhouse at Lower Brechfa lay in a very windy position and the pine-trees around it slanted sideways.” “… a hollow hidden among rowans and birches, where water whispered over a rock and there was a bank of grass cropped close by sheep.” “The beast-house had not been cleared for years; the layers of dung had risen four feet above the floor, and the heifers scraped their backs on the roofbeams.”

There’s no real plot here — no quest to complete or mystery to solve. But because of this, it’s more like real life. This means there’s also no “happy ending”, but there are endings, some of which make you think, “Ok, there is balance in the universe.”

About Lizzie Ross

in no particular order: author, teacher, cyclist, world traveler, single parent. oh, and i read. a lot.
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6 Responses to Bruce Chatwin in Wales

  1. calmgrove says:

    I’d not heard of this novel before, but the life Chatwin describes of life in the Marches is not too dissimilar to where we live at the moment in the shadow of the Preseli Hills, with its mix of sheep, dairy and beef farming. Welsh hill sheep are small and hardy and frequently escape the confines of the fields to feed on roadside verges — ‘long acre’ sheep. And while the dairy herds of one farm are the now familiar Holstein breed, milked three times a day, the beef cattle of another neighbour are Welsh blacks, looking very much like Spanish fighting bulls. Another farmer has branched out into a small herd of Scottish Highland cattle.

    The community is a mix of incomers from England, Holland, Canada and Japan along with Welsh-speakers whose families have been here for generations. There is a proud tradition of chapel-going, eisteddfods and community get-togethers, and plenty of stories which get published by a keen local historian who collects oral lore. Yes, Chatwin’s account clearly has much that I’ve come to recognise elsewhere in Wales.


    • Lizzie Ross says:

      Plenty of chapel-going and a few community get-togethers in this novel, but no eisteddfods. I suppose Chatwin just couldn’t find a place for everything, but it’s good to know his stories ring true (I had expected no less). Your description of the Preseli Hills is making me envious. Many years ago I came back from a trip to New Zealand determined to become a sheep farmer. It took years before I realized it wasn’t the sheep I wanted — it was the landscape in which the sheep dwell.


      • calmgrove says:

        To be a sheep-farmer in Wales is to be wedded to your occupation — I admire our neighbour Denzil for his dedication but could not imagine taking on the responsibilities he has, especially in these economically parlous times. I’ve gone for your second option!


  2. Gary Cornog says:

    I just finished ON THE BLACK HILL. Really a lovely read that had me recalling a visit to the Wye valley 30 years ago.
    Would love to see the book adapted for a BBC drama. Some juicy parts there for character actors!


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