The quarryman’s daughter
Walk in among grassy hills and open slate quarries of Snowdonia, which inspired Kate Roberts’ influential short stories, novels and literary journals, says Julie Brominicks
Kate Roberts’ Rhosgadfan, Snowdonia
Acold from cloaks cloudthe the hills swirls chapel,and downthe slagheaps, the brightly coloured playground and the grey stone and pebbledash houses. The roads are empty, and the school quiet, its roof ripped off by Storm Barbara.
This is Rhosgadfan, where Kate Roberts spent her childhood on the slopes of Moel Tryfan and Moel Smytho, and which is the setting for her early novels including Feet in Chains and Tea in the Heather
Suddenly the cool cloud dissolves. The sea glitters, skylarks rise over the moors, children laugh on the swings and the mountains are revealed.
Kate Roberts was living in Cardiff when she began writing, and these novels are suffused with ‘hiraeth’ – longing; for childhood, homeland and her brother who was killed in the Second World War.
From a perspective granted by distance and time, she describes a life lived on the land, when pans were scoured with grit and fires kindled with heather. She reveals the brutal poverty and often wry tensions of a slate-quarrying hill community in her novel One Bright Morning. “Fears for her brothers hovered in the air between them like gnat-clouds on a warm summer’s day.”
But through her characters’ honesty and strife, their family
bonds and the care they take in small tasks – the cutting of bread, the feeding of hens – she shows the dignity of the quarrymen and women who worked in the smallholdings.
Discover the landscape – both its bleakness and its light – that inspired Kate Roberts with this nine-mile walk.
1 HUMBLE HOME
Begin at Cae’r Gors, Kate Roberts’ childhood home and now a heritage centre. Tours can be arranged prior to your visit. Head north along the narrow road.
2 ANOTHER WORLD
At the viewpoint, see Holyhead Mountain drifting on the mist above Anglesey, and the Eifl range glowering over the Llyn Peninsula – to Roberts, a distant land, another community. Leave the road to climb the hill.
3 HEATHER HILLS
It was in the heather-clad
Moel Smytho that Begw, the young protagonist of Tea in
the Heather, picnicked with her fearsome friend Winnie. Continue on to join the pilgrim trail, keeping the large mixed woodland on your left.
4 INTO THE CLOUD
At a dip and stunted hawthorn grove, take the unmarked track straight up Mynydd Mawr, careful of the precipitous drop into Craig Cwm Du. Cloud descends swiftly.
5 EYES TO THE SKY
The summit offers views of Snowdon and the Nantlle Ridge. Look out for peregrines as you rejoin the path, heading south-west to skirt a reservoir.
6 WORKING LANDS
Slagheaps indicate the quarries where Kate’s father and her characters toiled and talked politics and union. Moel Tryfan is still worked, though less than it once was, bearing 36,000 tons of slate a year.
7 DON’T WAIT FOR GRIEF
“Cattle, pigs and hens cannot wait for grief. They have to be fed” (One Bright Morning). Find your way through the slate-works. In Roberts’ time, these would have supported livestock and vegetables, but now shelter gorse and molinia.
8 WHAT REMAINS
Back in Rhosgadfan, sheep graze the football field and the chapel is closed. Flowers grow where cows were milked, and schoolchildren are whisked home in cars. But the sound of bygone laughter fills the air, and washing still flaps on the lines.
Teacher, novelist and Plaid Cymru activist, Kate Roberts (1891-1985) wrote about poverty, identity, community and family life in rural Wales.
“An elephantine of a mountain with its trunk in Rhyd Ddu and beyond it is Snowdonia,” wrote Kate Roberts in Y Lon Wen (The White Lane) – the waterbody of Llyn Cwellyn (pictured) sits beneath the peak of Mynydd Mawr in north-west Snowdonia
BELOW Kate Roberts’ childhood home – now a heritage centre – was used as a classroom while the roof of the local school was being repaired
Julie Brominicks is a Snowdonia-based landscape writer.