Chapter 23

The Tryfan was a restaurant, built opposite that awkward mountain, surrounded by a semicircle of trees a short distance from the road. It was a wide, single-storey building painted in the colours of the land around it. Mair steered the car onto the circle of hardstanding in front of it, where there were already two or three other cars parked. She pulled a camera out of the care, and insisted on taking my picture in front of the building before we went in.

We found a table for the two of us in one of the bay windows, the window opening onto the veranda in front of it. The view of the mountains was thrilling. There were a fair number of people by the tables around us. All Welsh apart from one group of English people in the window closest to us. I remembered just then that I had no money. Mair laughed.

“Would I hurt your manly pride if I were to pay for you?” she said.

“Yes you would.”

“Then you’ll just have to suffer. An actress in the National Theatre of Wales earns enough to be able to take her boyfriends out for tea now and again.”

“Her… boyfriends?”

“OK, jealous! Her boyfriend.”

We laughed then. I put my hand on hers, but pulled it back when I saw a young girl coming towards us. She was wearing ‘traditional’ Welsh costume, only without the hat. She was wonderfully pretty as well.

“Good afternoon to both of you,” she said, “and welcome to the Tryfan. It’s a fine day.”

“Beautiful,” said Mair. “Forgive me for asking, but who owns this place?”  

“Five of us,” said the girl. “We were in the catering school in Llandudno together, and we were able to borrow some money from the Industrial Credit Bank to buy this business. We’ve done well. In less than two years we’ll have paid the money back.”

I was amazed at how freely the Welsh of this age discussed their business with one another. They were like people who’d agreed to go on an interesting adventure.

“Here’s the menu,” said the girl. “Take your time, I’ll come back in five minutes.”

And in exactly five minutes she was back.

“A toasted plum jam sandwich,” said Mair, reading the menu. “Crempog, bara brith, Welsh cakes and tea.”

“Thank you,” said the girl. “You obviously know what our delicacies are.”

“I’ve been here before,” said Mair.

When the girl had gone, I noticed how clean everything was. That was true of every eating place I’d been in since Saturday. Every cup and knife and spoon winked at you, and there wasn’t a scratch or a crack in anything. Wales’s restaurants had learned to be clean. Mair and I ate, often looking into one another’s eyes, solemnly one minute and jokingly the next, and living for every one of those minutes.

When five o’clock arrived, Mair said,

“We’d better go. If we’re quick, we can catch some of the Bethesda quarrymen on their way home from work.”

“What on earth for?” I asked.

“My father told me to show as much of Wales to you as I could, since… since time is so short.”

The solemnity came back after she’s said that, but that didn’t last for long either. We went out of the café and towards the car.

I wanted to stop for a while by Llyn Ogwen. The lake was enchanting, with a girdle of green land around it where previously only big rocks had been, and fir trees planted on that. But Mair wanted to go on. I envied the anglers in their boats on the lake, and the few visitors who were lurking about on the green banks. Such a blue lake was made for loitering beside.

Mair drove on. The lowest part of Nant Ffrancon, too, had lost much of its barrenness. There was some barrenness there, of course. The highest slopes of the mountains rose up into the air with their shale and moss and crags, just as before, and Mair said that there were many wild goats up in the crags, under the special care of the Welsh Naturalists Society. But on the lower slopes and on the valley floor there were trees marking out a pattern of rich fields.

“There’s one thing I don’t understand,” I said. “How is this high farmland so much better than it was in my day?”

“If you knew how much the Welsh Government had spent on giving a fresh face to the highlands,” said Mair, “it would be no surprise to you. They spent hundreds of millions over a thirty-year period. The spending nearly left the nation broke. But it has paid back by now. Welsh agriculture today is the most successful in Europe.”

When we came within sight of Bethesda, I was aware that there had been great change, and yet I couldn’t put my finger on what had changed. Then I saw it. The quarry tips had all disappeared. True, the shape of some of them could still be made out, but they had been skilfully covered over with grass and trees. There were new little hills in the area. In front of us there were a number of men travelling in an open-topped vehicle. Mair drove past them, then stopped and indicated to them to stop. The men pulled over behind us.

Mair and I got out of the car and went towards the men. They touched their caps politely.

“Good afternoon to you, my friends” said Mair. “Going home from work?”

“Yes, said then men, and the eldest of them said straight away, “You’re not from around these parts.”

“No we’re not,” she said. “From the Capital.”

“From the Capital! Well, welcome to Bethesda.”

“Thank you. My friend and I are taking an interest in the quarrying. What exactly are you doing?”

“Oh, well, I can easily explain that to you,” said the eldest of them. “It’s a pity you didn’t come earlier; I’d have showed you the quarry. We’re making bricks from the slate dust; the works is behind that gallery over there. They use our bricks to build every building in the area – it’s the local slate, you see.”

“Yes, of course. Who owns the business?”

“The bricks business? Oh, we ourselves, obviously.  The Bethesda Slate Brick Company.  There are similar companies in Dinorwig, Llanberis, Ffestiniog, Glyn Ceiriog – in all the slate areas. The government started up the work, and then the government partnered with us, and about fifteen years ago we workers took the company over altogether. Here’s the Chairman for this year,” he said, pointing at a younger man sitting near him.

I asked him, “How many workers do you have over there?”

“Oh, about a hundred and fifty,” he said. “Remember, we’re just one company of many. There’s a big company producing roof slates, another one enamelling and polishing the slates to make all sorts of things from fireplaces to flooring, another company making decorative products… and so on.”

“They still use slate to roof houses?”

“Historic buildings mainly by now – buildings which were slate-roofed in the first place, and are re-roofed every forty years or so.”

“And there’s still plenty of call for slate?”

“Oh yes, there is. Some building or other needs re-roofing all the time. Of course, new buildings are roofed with a composite made of slate dust – and there’s a company here making that too.”

“Tell me,” I said. “Forgive me for asking so many questions…”

“That’s all right…”

“You said that you had about a hundred and fifty workers. How do they run the works?”

“Well, we elect a committee every year, and that not only runs the works but also connects us with the Slate Production Board. Of course, for stability, every member of the committee stays in office for three years, and a third of the committee comes up for election every year.”

“Who pays the workers’ salaries?”

“We don’t get a salary. We share the profits, since every worker has a share in the works.”

“What if you have a bad year?”

“We won’t. The government guarantees a market for us. But in case some sort of emergency crops up, we pay a percentage of the profits each month into a Hardship Fund, and we could take from that for quite a long time if we needed to.”

“And everyone gets the same share of the profits, whether they pull their weight or not?”

“Oh, not at all. The hours worked by every one and the work they produce are logged daily, and their proportion of the profit is calculated every month according to how long they worked and how much they produced.”

“Of course,” said one of the others, “not everyone has the same ability to produce. The works doesn’t expect the same from a boy starting off as from an experienced older man. All that gets taken into account.”

“Is there ever a strike?” I asked.

“Never,” said the Chairman. “Who would we be striking against? Only ourselves. There are disagreements sometimes, and occasionally someone feels they’ve been hard done by. And there are some idlers and frauds just like everywhere. But the committee treats the former fairly. And the co-operative spirit takes care of the latter. Doesn’t it, boys?”

The boys cheered loudly.

“You wouldn’t like to go back to having one master, or working for the government?”

The men shook their heads.

“No we wouldn’t,” said the Chairman. “We thought this arrangement was very strange at first. The men weren’t used to responsibility, and many of them didn’t want responsibility. But by now we’ve got used to it, and we’re perfectly sure that this is the best way to work that there is.”

“And you make a decent living?”

“Plenty to eat, and plenty of pocket money. Life’s not bad at all.”

“Well, thank you very much, all of you,” said Mair. “I’m sorry that we’ve kept you from your tea.”

“Not at all. A good day to both of you. And next time you come, come early enough to have a look at the works.”

We left the cheerful quarrymen, and started down again towards Bangor. The land was green, and the sun cast long shadows upon the plain towards the sea. Mair seemed very pleased with her leadership, and I was quite ready to give her a pat on the back.

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