If you walk the same routes over and over, then on each occasion you not only walk the walk in the present tense, but you carry with you the memory of every time you did the walk before, your hippocampus a repository for the sense impressions and visions and emotional turbulence of whatever preoccupied you on those earlier occasions, all those things you have forgotten, or seem to have forgotten, until flagged into consciousness by the rustle of a fern, or the cluster of red berries on the hawthorn tree and the contingent secrets of all these byways, childhood picnics downstream from the bridge, and the view up the famous Macnamara road. And there’s the thing.
For as long as I can recall this track up from Taly-y-maes bridge has been the source of stories about the eponymous John Macnamara, Lord of Llangoed Hall, a member of the original Hellfire Club, and a famous gambler, drinker and brawler, the very stuff of Byronic legend. Allegedly Macnamara won Llangoed Hall in a card game, settled there with his wife Mary (the full tale is rendered in faux-Regency prose by Horatio Clare on the Brecon Beacons website here).
The story goes that Macnamara had the legendary road built so as to visit his mistress, whom he had installed at the Hermitage, further down the valley (in Clare’s sanitised version, she is a wronged woman, Charlotte H, whom Macnamara generously offers to house, away from danger, in the middle of nowhere). One night, during a drunken race (with the devil, perhaps) Macnamara was thrown from his coach on the col at Pen Trumau and broke his neck. And that was that. His widow, Mary, inherited the estate, and erected border stones at Pen Twyn Glas and a dozen other locations to establish the limits of her property.
The last part is true, but almost nothing else.
In an illuminating article, ‘Macnamara Myths’, Miriam Griffiths pretty much lays this fable to rest with one acerbic sentence: ‘John Macnamara was not much interested in his Welsh estate; several of his letters refer to the fact that he is in England while his wife and family are in Wales and it is perhaps improbable that a man would install a mistress on the inaccessible outer fringes of his less-favourite estate.’ Moreover, as we discover, the so-called ‘Macnamara’s road’ is pure invention too. It has never been more than a bridleway or horse track, and certainly would not have sustained a wheeled carriage of the kind used two hundred years ago, let alone one driven at speed by a shit-faced rake. Oh, and there was never such a thing as the ‘Hellfire Club’, and the closest thing to it, Sir Francis Dashwood’s, ceased operations in 1766, when John Macnamara was eleven years old.
There was indeed a road built by a Macnamara, but it ran south from the Hermitage, as does the present road to Llanbedr, and was most likely built, or improved by John’s son Arthur, while carrying out work on the Hermitage during the 1830s and 1840s.
And yet it doesn’t matter. History trumps fiction, but so what? Still we carry these stories with us, like the landscape and the memory of falling and the red berries of the Hawthorn tree.
I’ve enjoyed your Black Mountains blogs, thanks, and am pleased you found my Macnamara pieces.
Wandering above the Grwyne Fawr and Grwyne Fechan years ago I saw how the incised words and numerals on the eroding sandstone of the Mrs Macnamara estate boundary markers were being weather-beaten into obscurity, often the word ‘Mrs’ being the first to fade into silence. I’d often heard the retelling of the John Macnamara stories by walkers and writers; the existence of his ‘Mrs’ – his wife Mary – was always a lacuna, unmentioned and immaterial to the story of the man, the gambling, philandering anti-hero/rogue.
Who was this ‘Mrs’, this woman who stayed in the corner of my mind’s eye as I walked the airy ridges (Raymond Williams’ fingers laid along the layered sandstone) above the secretive, narrow Black Mountains valleys? Where was her voice? I decided to follow her trail and of course I found out more about her husband John along the way.
I’m with Rebecca Solnit (eg ‘The Faraway Nearby’). Stories and myths can enrich our common humanity and shared experiences of landscape; neither are meant to match up neatly as history and indeed, so what if they don’t? We can ask different questions of stories – where do they come from and whose voice are we hearing? What has been left untold in the stories we share and who is disappearing, smoothed out, beneath the lichen?
Mary’s Stones: http://www.ewyaslacy.org.uk/doc.php?d=nw_lty_1002
Macnamara Myths: http://www.ewyaslacy.org.uk/doc.php?d=nw_lty_1001
Thanks so much for writing, Miriam. For me, too, the Black Mountains are filled with ghosts. I learned a lot from your articles and look forward to further exchanges. I too am a fan of Rebecca Solnit’s work (well, most of it) and have just finished reading a review of her new book, Orwell’s Roses.
Hello, Ricardo. Your entry appeals to me. Last Thursday my son and I (aged 84) followed the road or bridleway and then went up Waun Fach the summit. The semi official notice board near the old Hermitage gives a very wrong impression; fortunately there was no such info in the 1970s when I started taking Scouts to the Welsh mountains. We went to most ranges in Wales but the Black Mts can be reached in 2 hours for a day trip. I’ve taken parties of about 5 or 6 to camp for a night or two. This was at the confluence on the right of the ‘road’ about a mile before the col before Pen Trumau. Two camps were in December. Taking Scouts ceased just before the millennium. I’m glad that those treks were made before the myths were spread – young ones would lap up such tales.
Waun Fach is now too much for me. I’ll go more often to Portland where I supply booklets of historical and topographical interest.
Thank for the enlightenment. Roy Mackenzie