There was a grand farewell with the family at the farm the following morning, Mrs. Pugh urging us to hurry back, and Pugh himself charging Mair to remember him to her father. The two stood with their daughter and sons as they watched us go, and Mair kissed her camera after taking a picture of them all. I carried on waving to them until we disappeared from view as we turned at the bottom of the gorge.
“That is one noble family,” I said. “Are there many families like them.”
“I expect there are, but they’re the ones I happen to know.”
“We’ll see them again together some day, Mair.”
Mair looked at me through the corner of here eye, half smiling, but she said nothing.
Down we went through Llanrwst, then through Betws-y-Coed, and I was concentrating on the road signs in both Welsh and English along the road: Cadwch i’r Chwith – Keep Left; Rhiw Serth – Steep Hill; Ffordd Pedair Lôn – Four-Lane Traffic. I noticed how successfully the road signs commanded attention without detracting from the beauty of the landscape. Not great big white plates standing on bare poles, but in the form of a small tree with a board attached to it, with the Welsh words in green on a red background and the English words in red on a green background underneath. You couldn’t drive past them without seeing them, since the Welsh and English words took turns to light up. As well as these, there were international signs in some places, without any words on at all; signs that any driver in Europe ought to know.
A shower fell as we were crossing the Bwlch, and Blaenau Ffestiniog stood before us in the mist.
“It’s still raining in ‘Stiniog, I see,” I said.
“It doesn’t have to,” said Mair. “The weathermen can control the weather to some degree these days. But there’s a school of thought that thinks it’s better to let things take their course, so long as there aren’t weeks of unbroken rain or a long drought. They interfere if that happens.”
I noticed the quarries and workplaces; the same sorts of things as were in Bethesda, obviously. I also noticed how clean and tidy they all were: every workshop and factory, even, surrounded by green lawns and small trees. And from all the people dashing round on the streets, it was obvious that the life had returned to ‘Stiniog.
It became fine again as Trawsfynydd came into view. I noticed that the hills were much more wooded than they had been in my day. Mair turned off the smooth, wide road and stopped in front of a low white building. The building stood in a sort of small park, and outside it was very quiet. But once we had gone in through a door and along a corridor, I heard the sound of sawing. Then I saw that the middle of the building was a large lumber yard, underneath a glass roof. There were a number of sawing machines, sawing away much more quietly than any sawing I’d ever heard before.
A young man in a white coat came towards us.
“Good morning, Moi” said Mair.
“Mair Llywarch!” said the young man. “Well, well! What are you doing up here?”
Mair explained that we were on a two-day journey, and she introduced Moi to me. I came to understand that Moi had been on a course in the Design Academy in Cardiff, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if he and Mair had been more than just friends. Moi was now Chairman of the society that owned the sawmill, and he took us around it to see it.
“This is one of three industries here in Traws” he told me. “Apart from farming, of course, which is the biggest. We saw wood into every shape and size, for all sorts of applications, from door frames to haystack stays. Our big challenge is that steel and light metals are used so much nowadays. But the Government, fair play to them, have legislated that just so much wood must be used by the country each year, and the Planning Authority take care to enforce the law. About two dozen of us work here. Then, if you go down to the bottom of the village, you’ll see the Carpenters’ House – the second industry. There’s about three dozen of them, making all sorts of furniture, especially for houses and schools. Some with machines, some working by hand, all of it the work of craftsmen.”
“Is there a connection between you and them?”
“Oh, yes. We saw the wood for the,. Then, we send lengths of fir to the paper mill in Gellilydan.”
“Are they co-operatives as well?”
“Every one of them.”
“But you’re miles from anywhere here. Isn’t it expensive to carry stuff to and fro?”
“What age are you living in, my friend? Nowhere is remote these days, with the roads being so excellent. And there are trees around us everywhere, from Maentwrog to Ganllwyd. We’re good customers of the farmers and the Forestry Board.”
“One more question. What do you run this factory on?”
“Nuclear power, of course. Have you taken Ifan to see the nuclear power station in Talsarnau, Mair?”
“Take him there. It’s a bit old by now, but it was rebuilt about fifteen years ago. It’s quite a sight.”
We bade farewell to Moi, and went cross-country to Talsarnau. The sea sparkled in the sunshine, and the plain was full of wooded meadows studded with white, green and yellow farmhouses.
“I don’t see any nuclear power station, Mair,” I said.
“You’re looking at it, Ifan.”
“How? Looking at it?”
“Sure. It’s right in front of us now.”
I stared, and carried on staring, but I couldn’t see anything that looked remotely like a nuclear power station. After a while, Mair broke out laughing.
“Are you pulling my leg?” I said. “There isn’t one.”
“Oh there is, indeed. I’d better explain. As I said, you’re looking at it now. But you can’t see it. All the outside of it is clad with a material which was invented less than twenty years ago. ‘Gwybrin’, we call it in Welsh. It’s stronger than steel, but its surface is like glass, and it reflects everything around it. Every building that’s put up in the countryside, that is at risk of impairing the view rather than enhancing it, is clad with gwybrin. In a word, made invisible. But you should be able to see it now.
By now, I’d noticed something odd about the view. Straight in front of me, it was as if bits of forest and bits of sea had been disconnected from the view around me and were standing up in the air. And then it became clear to me: I was looking at big round towers, which were shiny and reflected the view around me. Beneath the towers were buildings, the majority of which were also made of gwybrin.
“Are we allowed to go in?”
“Oh, yes. But unfortunately we don’t have time. We need to be back in Cardiff by six, and there’s quite a bit I need to show you before then.”
We turned back towards the hills. As we left, I asked,
“Are the nuclear power stations owned by co-operative societies as well?”
“Not entirely. They are one of the public services, like the railways and radio and National Theatre. The government runs them, but every power station has its own workers’ committee, and the committee runs that particular power station in collaboration with the Power Board.”
I couldn’t help but be amazed at the breadth of Mair’s knowledge about her Wales. She was a walking encyclopaedia. Travelling was so easy on these fine, wide roads that we were in Dolgellau in no time. Mair went past Dolgellau without stopping.
“We have time to see a bit more before lunch,” she said.
Soon, we were within sight of a fairly large village, which hadn’t existed in my time, although there’d been a cluster of houses there. Then, a sign saying “The Meirion Creamery” came into view.
“Well, well,” I said, “the old creamery’s still going.”
“I don’t think you’ll recognise it by now,” said Mair.
She steered the car into the garden in front of a large white building. We went in, and stood by a long beechwood counter. An eating place of some sort, obviously. A girl dressed in white came to us, smiling cheerfully.
“Welcome to the Creamery” she said.
“Greetings to you,” said Mair. “Is there milk?”
“Plenty,” said the girl.
“A glass of milk for each of us,” said Mair, “and a shot of blackberry in mine, please.”
The girl laughed, and brought a bottle of blackberry juice down from the shelf. She poured a bit of it into a glass of milk, then put it into the whipping machine. She gave it to Mair, and then looked mischievously towards me. I stared at the frothy purple drink in Mair’s glass.
“Very well,” I said. “I’ll try it.”
The girl laughed again, and made me a glass. Mair ordered a Welsh cake for each of us, and asked how much it came to.
“Ho, no, these don’t need to pay,” said a voice behind us.
I turned, and saw a young man with curly blond hair coming towards us.
“Mair Llywarch, what are you doing here in the wild hills of Meirionnydd?”
“I thought I’d see you, Hywel,” said Mair, extending her hand to him.
I swallowed a big mouthful of my milk. Another of Mair’s ex-boyfriends? Mair turned, and introduced us. When she saw my face she broke out laughing.
“No, Hywel wasn’t on a design course in Cardiff,” she said. “We’re old friends from the days when we used to go camping with the Urdd. Hywel is the creamery supervisor.”
Hywel shook my hand warmly, called from some milk and a Welsh cake for himself, paid for the three of us, and took us to a secluded table in the corner. When they had shared eash other’s news, Mair said to him,
“Hywel, tell Ifan something about how the creamery works.”
“Well,” he said, “this is still one of the biggest creameries. We still sell milk to England; our trucks cross the border every day…”
“No, there are no officers on the border. Those have disappeared in most of Europe now, to be honest. Governments settle the accounts between themselves, rather than bothering individuals when they cross the border – so long as they don’t suspect smuggling on a large scale, of course. And there’s not enough difference in the prices of fancy goods between one country and another to make smuggling worthwhile…”
“Go on with the story,” said Mair.
“Well, our job is to collect milk from the farms in western Meirionnydd, and then distribute it. We’re a centre, rather than a village industry. But we supply them. In the districts nearby there are small factories making butter and cheese and chocolate, and canning milk and buttermilk, and we supply them all with milk. And of course, we supply milk to the plastics factory in Dolgellau.”
“But,” I said, “isn’t it a waste of materials and resources to have all these little factories in so many places? You could make butter and cheese, and can milk and buttermilk, here, in the Meirion Creamery.”
“We could, of course. But it wouldn’t cost any less. You may as well pay to carry milk to those places, as pay to carry workers from there to here. The cost of buildings and equipment may be less if you centralised everything in one place. But the government’s tax system makes it cheaper to run a number of small factories in various places rather than one large concern in a central location. Taking the work to the workers – that’s what the Welsh government’s policy has always been. And even if that’s a bit more expensive, which I doubt very much, it pays a hundredfold by creating a healthy and hard-working society.”
“Is there a factory in every part of Wales, then?”
“Very nearly. Usually a number of districts depend on one another. Around here we depend on each other to produce milk, butter, cheese, tinned milk, chocolate, milk drinks, plastics, and all sorts of other things, all within a certain area. If you go down towards Bro Dyfi today, you’ll see something similar there. All the cattle from Bro Dyfi comes to one place to be slaughtered. There’s a good export market for Welsh meat. You’ll have an abattoir in one village, where they also freeze and pack the meat. Somewhere nearby, you’ll find a meat canning factory. The hides go somewhere else to make leather, and the leather goes somewhere else again to make shoes and other leather goods of all sorts.”
“I still think it would be cheaper to have one big shoe factory in Wales,” I said.
“And thousands of men working all on top of one another, not knowing each other, and with no interest in one another or their work? Pulled from every part of Wales and melting into one boring, rootless humanity?” Hywel shook his head. “And such a factory wouldn’t be any cheaper anyway, under the present system. An economy of small factories, so far as possible – keeping communities as small as they can be kept – that’s the economy we have in Wales today. And that’s the way to build a healthy nation.”
“But what about coal and steel?”
“Those are the exceptions. You can only get coal out of where God has put it. And you have to take the men there. But there were already there before Wales became free. There was no need to move them. And steel must be made where there’s coal, and a port. But even in the heavy industries, the government… But I’m sure Mair will take you there to see them.”
“Are you convinced, Ifan?” said Mair.
“Yes,” I said. “I don’t have much choice, do I?”
Mair and I got up to leave.
“Don’t go,” said Hywel. “Stay for lunch. You can lunch in the refectory with all of us, and you’ll have a chance to see village life in today’s Wales.”
After going through the big white factory and seeing the men and women at their work, Hywel took us out through another door, and I saw that we were on a wide lawn surrounded by a number of buildings which were obviously part of the same scheme.
“You obviously haven’t seen a village like this before,” he said as he saw me gaping at the scene. “They’re called ‘compound villages’ – a concept that came from Scandinavia and was adopted in Wales years ago. A lot of sociologists felt that society was falling apart, and that as a result individuals were falling apart. Everyone was keeping their work and their home and their pleasure and their religion (if indeed they had a religion) to themselves. The idea was to bring everything back together again. Here, instead of the factory being a mile or more from the village, it’s in the centre of the village, and in the same group of buildings there’s the church and the school and the community centre. These four buildings form the four sides of the square, and there’s a cloister – or an open corridor – going from one to the other.”
“Where do the people live?” I asked.
“The houses are arranged in a bigger square outside this inner square. And everything they need is in the village. Come and see.”
He took us to the community centre on one side of the big lawn. There was a small theatre and a library and rooms for holding meetings or playing.
“There’s plenty happening here, for sure,” said Mair.
“Plenty. The factory work is arranged in shifts. And arranged so that, in the middle of each shift, there’s a free hour. But they don’t go home. They have a cuppa, and then they either go to the centre for a game of billiards or table tennis, or they go to church for a discussion group – something sociable with their co-workers. The factory has a football team, and a hockey team for the ladies – and cricket and tennis in summer – and a drama company, and a party for noson lawens. The district’s mobile cinema comes here every Thursday night, and the drama companies from the surrounding areas take turns to come here and present their work.”
“Is the centre restricted to the factory workers?”
“No, not at all. It belongs to the whole district. The smallholders and cooperative farmers from the area come as well, and the roadworkers and transport workers – everyone.”
“It strikes me,” I said, “that you’re trying to bring back the old parochialism. You’re trying to keep everyone with their nose in this little square…”
“Not at all,” said Hywel, smiling. “All the young people go for a course of six months or a year to some college, or technical college, or on one of the government’s courses, and most of them go to camps with one of the youth movements. Then there are two annual village tips overseas. The minister and the schoolmaster took a number of people over to Russia for a fortnight last year. We try to combine being a close-knit community with having a broad knowledge of the world around us. You’ll find here, like in most parts of Wales today, a remarkable combination of folk culture and international culture. We’re rather proud of our achievement.”
Mair and I stayed to have lunch in the factory refectory. After a short religious service by the minister (who was also the factory chaplain), the workers did a bit of congregational singing for our benefit, and it was good singing. Everyone wanted to shake hands with us before we left, and Mair was presented with a model of the factory carved out of butter and packed in ice, with a warning that we mustn’t loiter along the road in case it melted. In high spirits, the men and women of the factory bade us farewell.
 A portmanteau word made up of ‘Gwydr’, glass, and ‘Wybren’, sky: hence, more or less, ‘Sky-glass’.