The final nine miles into Aberystwyth were a soothing amble through dappled green light – the disused railway track partially shaded by the overhanging branches of limes and oaks, the gravelly river close enough to be an audible murmur through the trees. At the village of Llanilar, a raised brick bank ghosted where a railway platform had once stood, passengers now long replaced by silver birches; Station Wood, the surrounding stand of greenery that had grown up since the line had been abandoned, a hat-tilt to the memory of what had once stood here. A metal plaque with EU sponsorship logo and a Welsh poem with English translation paid tribute to the Ystwyth Valley’s mining tradition:
Through valleys rich in Silver and Lead
The Ystwyth River hurled
By riches raised from nature’s core Aberystwyth’s port unfurled
Not only a river to the sea but a harbour to the world
The closer to the coast I got, the greener it became. Or so it seemed. The verdancy and all-encompassing Welshness of it all made me think of the cover of the Tom Jones LP my mother had once prized, one of just a raggedy handful to go in the record rack besides South Pacific and Matt Munro. The album Green, Green Grass of Home had a title track that was an early hit for Jones the Voice. The cover depicted the singer bundled in an overcoat gazing wistfully over a South Wales valley – tough mining country but also soothingly emerald green, not so very different, scenically or culturally, from this place, and especially the valley I had walked through further upstream where skeletal mine buildings shadowed the river to remind of its industrial past. The song itself was a mawkish Country and Western number about a condemned man dreaming of his birthplace who, on waking, remembered that he would only be going home in a wooden box. It was a prison song but one that adapted readily into a more general Welsh sense of hiraeth.
Hiraeth: that singularly Welsh word that spoke of homesickness, yearning; a spiritual sickness, a mourning for that which had vanished, perhaps even lost youth. Did the Welsh, the Celtic peoples in general, have the monopoly on the free expression of such hard to define emotions? Certainly there were many other cultures that recognised the same mournful feeling and even made art of it – the Portuguese preoccupation with the notion of saudade for one – but the Welsh had the language for it and a sympathetic poetic tradition. Hiraeth belonged to the lexicon of exile and banishment rather than that of militaristic victory and colonisation; the spiritual hurt felt by the subjugated not the sentimental homesickness of the coloniser. It was genetic nostalgia, an intangible sense of loss, a longing for ‘home’ in the deepest sense of the word: the place where you felt you belonged, where you would always return to; the place that you would think of when times were hard and the outlook was bleak.
I was not quite comfortable with the term ‘home’ myself. Certainly, I was ‘at home’ where I lived in Norwich but I could never quite identify it as ‘home’ in any sense of geographical belonging. I still felt an outsider in some ways, even after decades of living there. Nor did I really feel that the Midlands were any sort of real home for me anymore either, although that was without question where I came from and where I had grown up. It was quite possible that I had unwittingly nurtured some sort of outsider status long ago, not as artifice but as a means of seeing the world at large as I place I belonged in. Years of foreign travel had enabled me to feel ‘at home’ in all sorts of odd places. I was at home in the world; it was the smaller places that I had trouble with.
The Czech geologist and writer Václav Cílek in an essay entitled Bees of the Invisible: Awakening of a Place had developed something that he called ‘The Rule of Home’ in which he stated, ‘A person is at home in a landscape, some people can encompass two or three landscapes but no more. A small landmark of where we feel at home is more important than a more significant landmark or a different landscape. But despite that, we need to travel abroad – for comparison, for the recognition of the smallness of home, and the realisation of where we belong.’ This rang true. I had long recognised the smallness of home, although smallness was not necessarily a bad thing. Even more apposite in this respect was Cílek’s ‘The Rule of Resonance’, which stated: ‘A smaller place with which we resonate is more important than a great pilgrimage, where one is only a visitor.’ Modern pilgrimage had many facets, and we were all in search of something, but somewhere familiar that held personal resonance, surely that was what we all desired?
If hiraeth was a yearning linked with sense of place, then another Welsh word, cynefin, best described that place which was yearned for. Untranslatable with any meaningful accuracy, cynefin corresponded roughly to the notion of habitat or an individual’s homeland. The word’s origins were agricultural and connected with the territories of sheep pasture but in modern (Welsh) parlance it was a place where deep memory resided, places of resonance where to return to was always a joy and a homecoming. A personal heartland, a spiritual and poetic connection with place, it was somewhere that engendered a strong sense of hiraeth if one was forcibly exiled from it. It was home in the broadest sense, but it was more than this. For most of us, cynefin was a place of memory where youth and locality coexisted. This was a place we could never return to.
Perhaps it was not so much about home and roots but home and routes? Those routes we put down around the places where live, work, love and grow old. The desire paths we forge when we step out from our homes. These, to me, seemed to have as much – perhaps more – significance as the place itself. Routes not roots, the desire paths we tread journeying our everyday lives as we make our own tiny familiar pilgrimages. These desire paths: the country lanes around my greenbelt childhood home; the roads and alleyways around my old school and the town centre; the short drive to and from a girlfriend’s house; the lanes and woodland rides of the Norfolk countryside, the coastal paths of East Anglia; almost all the streets of central Norwich; the dirt paths that crisscrossed my allotment; familiar walks alongside water, around lakes and broads, next to rivers. There were even foreign cities that had exerted a grip on me for a while and whose streets I probably knew better than those of my own capital where I would always feel like a tourist – places where I was forever an outsider but felt sufficiently familiar with to have some sense of being at home. These paths of desire were my routes.
For Australia’s indigenous people, a familiar walk is a memory-cache; a walkabout is a re-engagement with the land to create it anew. Was this not the same for everyone in some small way, even those – perhaps especially those – who were alienated by the city? Home was the stepping-off point: the walk to work, to the pub, to the shops, to a loved one’s house; the routine drive to the station or airport. Home was the place to unpack the groceries, to stoke the fire, to feather the nest. Home was fluid; new paths could always be forged given time and the will to do so. But the deepest paths were the oldest, those of youth and its attendant promise and optimism, those that we longed for the most.
To walk to the local supermarket from my house in the east of England it was necessary to walk up the street and then circunambulate a small area of grass before crossing a larger road into the supermarket car park. I, like many others, used to take a short cut across the grass and so a desire path was soon etched into it. This remained in place for years before a woodchip path was superimposed to afford the route some degree of recognised status. Later, the path was paved and a bench and a litter bin erected halfway along it: it had been officially sanctioned; what had once been a desire path, a shortcut for lazy feet, was now part of the authorised landscape, a fixture on the map. This, I thought, was similar to what became of those cherished desire paths we created on our customary walks through life – eventually those routes scored by relentless footfall became part of the personal map of deep topography that we all carried internally. Perhaps a map was the best we could ever hope for?
Laurence Mitchell is a writer and photographer with an interest in deep topography, frontier zones and territories in transition. He is author of several travel guides for Bradt and has written widely on walking and slow travel.