Wylfa power station from Cemlyn.
Sheepdog in the farm yard at Caerdegog Uchaf farm.
Richard herding cattle in winter on Caerdegog Uchaf farm.
Richard working in the milking shed in winter at Caerdegog Uchaf farm.
‘God help me, I can never leave this place’
Caerdegog Uchaf farm, Anglesey.
I went to Caerdegog Uchaf farm because I’d heard that the Jones family who lived there were refusing to sell their farm to the nearby nuclear power plant. A family whose relationship with the land and coastline was played out intimately in everyday farm life. Voices in the farmyard petered out seemlessly into the headgerows .
The following is taken from my notebook:
You can walk to the power station in half an hour from the farmyard and when its quiet you can hear it’s hum carrying in on the sea breeze. Along that stretch of the coastline in Anglesey nature and technology are pushing and pulling across the landscape like the trees competing for light in the nearby wood.
The landscape has been shared over time. Lots of parts all co-existing like the moving cogs inside the power plants turbines. These parts include the stone chapels, the neolithic tombs dotting the gentle hills, ancient farms and their family bloodlines, the visiting birds, the coastal geology and mineral wealth.
I’d originally gone up to Anglesey to watch the birds around Wylfa, in particular the rare member of the crow family and resident bird along this stretch of coastline, the Red Biled Chough or ‘Bran Goesgoch’ in Welsh. It’s found in a handful of places on the west of the British Isles and I’d spotted them at Wylfa Head before. They’d fly up and around the power station, their black bodies and red feet instantly recognisable. Here was a bird that was living alongside the power station, complete with it’s steam and humming, it’s floodlights and traffic, 24 hour surveillance and staff canteen. I read in an employer’s newsletter sometime later that ‘whilst conducting maintenance on the dry store reactors’ a pair of choughs were found nested.
Wylfa A was built forty years ago. It’s earmarked for closure every year pretty much. Locals hear different things in the local pubs, The Douglas and The Stagg. The nearby village of Cemaes, where I holidayed as a child, ran a piece in it’s local newsletter once a few years back wishing Wylfa a Happy a 40th Birthday. The article told how the power station produces about 40% of Wales power needs and that it’s Magnox reactors are still the biggest in the world. At Christmas the power station’s visitor’s centre functions as Santa’s Grotto for local children.
The local dairy farms like Caerdegog Uchaf are both farms and homes. They run to a clock thats formed out of the land, family, the animals, the seasons, the smell of the sea, the clouds in the sky. Everything on the farm is aware of this time. Everybody knows when it is time to milk, the cows know, the birds know. These farms are places of noises and smells, of kicking and banging, of daily life and death. The power station that sits amongst these farms has a different clock. It has night workers, car parks, strip lighting and a sports club for the staff. Clock on, clock off.
Richard Jones and his son Owain sat at the table cradling mugs of tea in their overalls steaming like cattle in the milking parlour. They’d been working all morning fixing one of the tractors before I’d arrived. Gwenda, Richard’s wife slid a plate load of cakes and warm scones on the table.
‘When they first said they where going to build Wylfa nuclear power station in the ’60s, people were proud, we all thought well its the biggest nuclear power station in the world and we’ve got it here! But I think people need to think differently these days, what with what happened in Japan.’ At the kitchen table Richard leafed through some plans sent to him by the power station, it seemed odd that these simple pieces of paper printed from the home computer outlined plans for a new nuclear power station.
‘When they first came to see us they called and then the next day they appeared at our door requesting permission to do an ecological survey on our land. They wouldn’t tell us what for, or what machinery they would use, so we said no. Some time later they came back and explained about the power station, the land they would need. We were shocked we just thought ‘this is it’, this is the end. They’ve offered us other land and money and so on, but we said under no circumstances is the land for sale. They don’t understand the hold the land has on us here, they just don’t understand’
The winter sun cut across the fields and lit up the farmyard in a wedge of light. The sheepdogs shivered after being inside by the fire and the crows sat high in the trees. Richard’s family have been on the farm for over 300 years . I joined him under the canopy of one of the cattle sheds, a rain cloud came in off the Irish Sea like a giant black balloon. Flat on his back on the cold concrete he worked on fixing a tractor before milking started again, struggling to free some bolts that had seized tight with years of use. It was getting dark and a torch cut across the farmyard, sweeping side to side it lit the faces of the feeding cattle with every other step. It was Owain, Richard’s son. He had not long returned from university where he was studying electrical engineering, but he’d been drawn back to the farm. ‘One thing is for certain, the land here has the same hold on him as it does me’ Richard would say.
I heard the first rain drop hit the tin roof of the cattle shed.
A few days before I arrived at Caerdegog Richard gave an interview to Radio Cymru
‘I explained to them that to take this land would mean the dairy herd would have to go, the land we had left wouldn’t be enough to make a living on. Radio Cymru asked me to do a live interview and the support we had after that was tremendous, we had people in tears listening in, I’d quoted a verse at the end by TH Parry Williams, a famous poem called Hon. I quoted the last verse. People said they stopped their cars and cried. If you read the poem it starts off talking about Wales and saying ah what do I care but then he ends up saying ..but I can never walk away from this. I just changed one word in the poem from Wales to Caerdegog. These things never translate well though, its like this, I can feel Caerdegog tugging at my heart strings, God help me, I can never escape from this’.
‘There is a word in Welsh ‘hiraeth’. It has no literal translation in English, I guess it would be something like ‘longing’ and it is this longing that I feel and what the listeners felt. When I was at primary school in Cemaes everybody spoke Welsh. I remember one or two English children came to our school but in no time they were speaking Welsh because that was the language of the playground. But when Wylfa came it was like flicking a switch. So many nationalities came and everything changed. I think people should be more streetwise now. They should think about what it involves and if they are so safe why do they build them in such remote places? We don’t need the power here, they need the power in Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham, that’s where they want the power’.
Leaving the farm house I opened the door to a tree full of starlings, they broke off and out over the farmyard. Owain was out helping his dad fix machinery. The alternate strikes of their two hammers travelled across the farmyard, through the fields and down to the sea. In the Kitchen I talked to Gwenda
‘ In the summer I was out in the field and I was with the animals. I’ve raised them since birth and they know me. I looked around the field with the sun on me and I thought, am I in heaven? The next day we got the letter about our farm. Boom! ..We aren’t a very public family, we don’t like living our life out in the public but we have had to do this.’
‘We went to one of those public consultation meetings 2 or 3 weeks ago. It was just a bare room in the village hall. No maps, no plans. They see everyone one by one, not an open meeting. When my daughters went there an expert admitted to them that it was unlikely that most of the work was for local people as they were unlikely to have the expertise. So they could get a foot in the door here at our home they were so friendly and they always come in twos. One of the contractors had been to the same agricultural college as Richard and on the second visit he came here he was wearing a college tie to create a good impression’
Richard quoted from a poem he had written in Welsh about Wylfa, he translated it;
Noisy Wylfa came to live here
But the ugliness of it can’t ruin the effect of God’s work
Both I and the birds are loyal to you, Cemlyn
There’ll be an end to the noise and a return to the tranquility.
In the attic of the family home at Caerdegog there is a jar of stones from the shingle beach at Cemlyn Bay. They were collected in the late 19h Century by Richard’s great grandfather Owen Williams as a reminder of the struggle he’d faced with a wealthy landowner who’d tried to prevent him and other farmers from taking stones and gravel from the shore to build their homes. The case went to the courts in Menai and Mr.Williams who, had he have lost would have lost everything, won. When news reached the northwest coast of Anglesey they lit a beacon on a hill near Caerdegog. From this hill you can see the power station and on a clear day the Isle of Man. Sat in the tractor looking out to sea Richard said ‘A clear day means bad weather, the further you can see, well that will mean bad weather tomorrow. I hope to relight the beacon here one day to let people know I’ve won my battle’
After milking on Sundays the Jones’ family attend Siloam Chapel in Cemlyn where Richard leads the hymns. That day sun shone it’s last rays, it was an afternoon service and the Reverend Emlyn Richards arrived, red faced and earnest. The chapel interior was aquamarine and chocolate. There were heavy globe-like lights strung from a ceiling fifteen feet high. It was a damp and kind building. The Reverend stood high at the front and delivered his sermon in a Welsh melody. The silhouette of a tractor eased past the arched windows. The hymns were sad and touching, everyone sung. Richard’s three children sat together Anna, Owain and Elen. Elen took the chapel collection. Behind the pew’s there were kneeling cushions, hand embroidered with tiny pink crucifixes on a vermillion cloth.
The chapel pews creaked and breathed as we stood, a tiny organ gave a sombre sigh and a steady sermon blew gently above our bowed heads like the low branches of a sheltering tree. The sermon asked of the congregation what they might owe God for the wonders of life and of living so close to nature? What was the price, the debt of this life? ‘Nothing’ announced Rev. Richards ‘Some things cannot be bought with money, some things are beyond money’. This was a nod of support to the Jones family.
When the service ended the congregation broke into small groups, smiling faces and whispered tones. The power station visible from the chapel entrance. Reverend Richards turned to me saying ‘You see, the smell of the land is in the chapel.’
Later in the milking parlour, the cattle were tired, this was Sunday evening milking. Richard shifted between the cows feet. ‘I left a note for the Rev. Richards in the collection and in it I said that I think it must be nice to make a difference, and you know I think it must…you know I think about the disciples who were asked to give up everything and follow Jesus,… to give everything up, your home, your land, your livelihood …could you do that? I don’t think I could. I can’t’.