Writ­ers’ wilder­ness haven split over phone mast plan

Edna O’Brien, Ian McEwan and Bruce Chatwin have trea­sured its wild beauty. But now plans for a 17.5-me­tre tower have di­vided a re­mote, tran­quil ham­let in the Bre­con Bea­cons

The Observer - - News - Jamie Doward

Its monks left more than a cen­tury ago but the white­washed stone walls of the monastery in Capel-y-ffin stand proud. Out­side, a large, well­p­re­served statue of the Vir­gin Mary wel­comes visi­tors to the ven­er­a­ble Vic­to­rian build­ing, which has now been con­verted into self-cater­ing apart­ments in great de­mand when the crowds flock to nearby Hay-onWye for its cel­e­brated lit­er­ary fes­ti­val.

Since the monks’ de­par­ture, lit­tle has changed in this pic­turesque Welsh ham­let of a few houses, a chapel and a scat­ter­ing of farms. Nestling in the foothills of the Black Moun­tains, it is a place of moss and bracken, stone walls and brooks, and has the lin­ger­ing solem­nity of an un­tended church­yard.

Part of the Bre­con Bea­cons na­tional park, Capel-y-ffin has long re­pelled de­vel­op­ment. Its one ob­vi­ous nod to moder­nity is the lo­cal phone box.

But this sepul­chral place, with­out a mo­bile phone con­nec­tion and fast in­ter­net ac­cess, looks set to be dragged into the 21st cen­tury, to the dis­may of many lo­cal peo­ple and a host of lit­er­ary fig­ures who have sought refuge in Capel-y-ffin.

The Home Of­fice and tele­coms network EE want to build a 17.5-me­tre mo­bile phone mast with three an­ten­nas, two mi­crowave dishes and a pole­mounted satel­lite dish just above the ham­let, next to a track that pro­vides a gate­way to the Black Moun­tains.

Ac­cord­ing to the plan­ning ap­pli­ca­tion, the mast will have a “medium” im­pact on its en­vi­ron­ment, but the Bre­con Bea­cons Park So­ci­ety dis­agrees. In its let­ter to Lisa Wil­liams, the au­thor­ity’s plan­ning of­fi­cer, the so­ci­ety says: “Many peo­ple would find the con­trast of the lines of the bru­tal­ist tower, with its at­tach­ments, cab­i­net, con­crete base and mesh fenced com­pound, an ex­tremely stark con­trast with the nat­u­ral flow of the land­scape.”

The nov­el­ist Ian McEwan is among the 60 peo­ple who have ob­jected to the pro­posal, which goes be­fore the Bre­con Bea­cons na­tional park plan­ning au­thor­ity next month. “I have hiked in this re­gion for al­most half a cen­tury,” he wrote. “Its un­changed na­ture is just one of its many at­trac­tions.”

“There’s some­thing spe­cial about this place,” says Erica Mary Griffiths, who was born in the monastery in the 1930s and runs a pony trekking cen­tre in the area. “Peo­ple who are a bit lost, not quite sure where to go, they tend to find their way up this val­ley, to this place of tran­quil­lity.”

Griffiths re­mem­bers how the tele­phone wires had to go un­der­ground rather than on poles when the ham­let got land­lines, such were the strin­gent pro­tec­tions laid down by the park au­thor­ity. She re­mem­bers, too, how the monastery took in refugees dur­ing the sec­ond world war. Af­ter the hor­rors of what they had fled, its soli­tude must have seemed a balm.

It wasn’t just refugees who found so­lace in its iso­la­tion. Pain­ters, po­ets and sculp­tors were in­spired by time spent in the val­ley. And a ver­i­ta­ble Who’s Who of 20th-cen­tury fic­tion has been touched by the place af­ter spend­ing time at Car­ney, a small stone cot­tage in dan­ger of be­ing over-

‘I have hiked in this re­gion for al­most half a cen­tury. Its un­changed na­ture is one of its at­trac­tions’

Ian McEwan, nov­el­ist

run by rose­hips and bram­bles, owned by the pub­lisher Tom Maschler.

Doris Less­ing, Kurt Von­negut, John Fowles, McEwan, Arnold Wesker and Edna O’Brien all stayed at the cot­tage, which is only 150 me­tres from the site of the pro­posed mast. It was in Car­ney that Bruce Chatwin wrote his novel On the Black Hill. The beat poet Allen Gins­berg was in­spired to write Wales Vis­i­ta­tion af­ter stay­ing there. Pho­to­graphs of Gins­berg, taken by Maschler, show him rolling around on the hills “smelling the brown vagi­namoist ground”, as he en­thused in his poem.

Alice Maschler, Tom’s daugh­ter, has been in­stru­men­tal in mo­bil­is­ing op­po­si­tion. “When I heard about this pro­posal, I cried, and felt like I had lost some­one I re­lied on, no mat­ter what,” she said. “Car­ney and its sur­rounds is a sanc­tu­ary, where peo­ple come and touch a mag­i­cal pres­ence.”

While many be­lieve the mast will be an ugly in­tru­sion, oth­ers fear the im­pact of its tech­nol­ogy. In her let­ter of ob­jec­tion, Griffiths writes: “There are so many unan­swered ques­tions about these new mo­bile wire­less phones, iPads and com­put­ers be­ing in­tro­duced ev­ery­where to­day.”

Her views ac­cord with those of a grow­ing army of “elec­tro­mag­netic refugees” who join on­line fo­rums to dis­cuss the best places in the world to live away from mi­crowave ra­di­a­tion, which they be­lieve is mak­ing peo­ple ill. The move­ment is par­tic­u­larly vo­cal in Aus­tralia and pock­ets of the US.

Oth­ers, how­ever, see the mast – which ini­tially will de­liver a new emer­gency ser­vices network – very dif­fer­ently. One farmer who de­clined to give his name said: “I had a heart at­tack two years ago and luck­ily was near the land­line. But if I’d been a cou­ple of miles away, I’d have needed a mo­bile phone then. The peo­ple com­plain­ing only come here twice a year.”

Amid the stand­off, some lo­cals seek a com­pro­mise – mov­ing the mast to a less prom­i­nent po­si­tion or sub­sti­tut­ing it for a dif­fer­ent type that would be lower and less ob­tru­sive. The plan­ning au­thor­ity’s own guide­lines state: “Where de­vel­op­ments would be visu­ally prom­i­nent, ev­i­dence must be pro­vided to show that al­ter­na­tive lo­ca­tions have been in­ves­ti­gated and are im­prac­ti­cal.”

As they made their way up the val­ley last Thurs­day, walk­ers Rod and Angie Ed­wards stopped to drink in the view. Rod used to de­sign wind farms for a liv­ing. “I’d go bal­lis­tic if some­one wanted to put a wind­farm here but a 17.5-me­tre mast isn’t so high,” he said. “We live on the edge of Snow­do­nia and our chil­dren couldn’t get a mo­bile sig­nal when they were teenagers. We’ve got su­per­fast broad­band now and it makes all the dif­fer­ence.”

But Griffiths, born and bred in the val­ley, be­lieves the mast is too high a price to pay. “Peo­ple find a lot of peace and quiet here,” she said. “There are not things go­ing on like there are in other places.”

Coun­try­side near the ham­let of Capel-yf­fin, in the Bre­con Bea­cons na­tional park. Pho­to­graphs by Adrian Sher­ratt for the Ob­server

Doris Less­ing and Ian McEwan are among those who have found peace in the area.

The cot­tage owned by Tom Maschler was vis­ited by writ­ers in­clud­ing Kurt Von­negut, John Fowles, Edna O’Brien and Bruce Chatwin.

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