A couple of weeks ago, at the end of January was St. Dwynwen’s Day, the Welsh version of St. Valentine’s Day. St. Dwynwen was a fair maiden (as the fairy tales are wont to say) who refused to marry, instead retreating to Ynys Llanddwyn living as a hermit until her death. Studying herbs she healed the sick who came to her, and is the patron of lovers and sick animals. On Ynys Llanddwyn she built a church and there is a holy well with a fortune telling sacred fish. Her day is celebrated in Wales on January 25th and I thought I would take this opportunity, between her “love day” and our traditional Valentine’s Day to share a love letter to my Wales.
My first steps in Wales should have been unremarkable. I had been traveling with my college roommate and I left the entire itinerary to her. Wales was merely a quick stop on our brisk, both in quickness and cold, trip around the mainland of the United Kingdom. I wasn’t able to venture to Northern Ireland at that time, and in 1987 was probably advised against it. I was under the misguided, and soon to be relieved impression that England, Scotland, and Wales were one. I learned that they are not; they differ in their geography, their culture, and their history, and of course, their language.
We arrived by train and needed to make our way to the mountain pass hostel several miles away. We walked and bummed a ride and made it by nightfall. I was exhausted. This kind of exertion was not something that I was used to, and considering my lack of stamina, I think I did quite well.
My original journal from that time does me no service; as a writer, I’m shamed at how little I wrote and how lacking my descriptions are from the entire trip, but Wales stands out, and has stood out since those first steps were taken. We had left Warwick and intended to see a friend in nearby Wolverhampton, but the train was leaving in five minutes, and so we rushed to catch it and arrived in Llandudno Junction along the River Conwy. I don’t recall if we took the train or the bus to Betws-y-Coed, but I feel that it was a train. To get to Pen-y-Pass was a bit more difficult. I don’t know if the buses didn’t run so long ago or our timing was off, but as I mentioned above walking was the only way to go until a car or two went by and took pity on us.
Aside from those one or two cars, the roads were empty and the hills of Snowdon were grey with the native slate with the occasional white spots of grazing sheep. The sky was also grey at this time in mid January, but the pink hue of the sunset was enchanting in its subtlety. It stood out amongst the grey of the land and the sky and the mist, and invited us forward. My thoughts were subconscious. I felt the change come over me although I couldn’t describe it. Every moment spent in North Wales was a gift; I knew at least that much.
There is a word I learned much later: Hiraeth. Once I saw the word, I knew the feelings of long ago that had captured my heart, my soul in Wales. Hiraeth is a word that lacks definition, but it is full of meaning, and it really is the only word that describes my longing for the land, not of my birth, but the home of my heart.
I never thought I’d return. I thought it would remain a futile fantasy. This two day excursion was all I could expect, especially after getting married and having children. Returning was never even a real fantasy. It would never happen. However, I was blessed to return twice more, and I feared that the profundity, the spiritualism, the heart-home that I discovered there in college would have been fleeting, that it would feel differently than the first time. It wasn’t. It wasn’t the same; that’s true, but neither was I. It was more profound, more captivating, more of everything and despite my misgivings of sharing it with my family, I was glad for them to see what I saw. It made it that much better. My love for Wales will never dim. And despite misgivings over travel and stamina and finances, returning is not a futile fantasy, but a distant possibility and that is a great change and a love that simply continues to grow.