Apparently the “heart stopping thrills” of North Wales make it the 4th best place to visit in the world in 2017 (see the feature in Lonely Planet). Llongyfarchiadau to the locally-driven ‘active’ tourist industry, located in quarry towns like Blaenau Ffestiniog and Bethesda. It’s bizarrely thrilling to have them listed alongside Choquequirao, Tarinaki and the Azores. But the attention has a downside too, feeding articles like this one in the Telegraph, assessing the area in terms of its investment potential (“too far from London…But … enough properties … to catch the eye of canny investors”).
This latter attitude is tricky, because there is a painful echo of history here, in Bröydd Cymraeg, of monied outsiders (mostly the English) coming to exploit the people and place, with little understanding, care or respect for ‘the indigenous’.
A hen gam yn ei gymell.
No mention of Cynghanedd here. (I'm trying to get my head around the wonders of Welsh language poetry, with the help of "Singing in Chains - Listening to Welsh Verse" that I got for Christmas. I highly recommend it if you aren't familiar - follow the link and look at the soundcloud files, have a listen to Chapter 8. You will fall in love! Y mae ias yn ei miwsig).
In fact, a painfully common attitude – particularly towards the language, but also towards Welsh culture(s) in general (both radical, forward looking and more conservative) - could be summed up as dismissive, arrogant and aggressive (see for example Mike Palmer's book "Neighbours from Hell? English Attitudes to the Welsh and a great article differentiating the 'colonisers' from the 'integrationists': Cymuned against Colonisation). This same attitude has led to parts of the quarry in Llanberis - that monument to Welsh history, language and culture - being named 'the Watford Gap'.
How different - how 'integrationist' was the attitude of Mary Elizabeth Thompson in the early 20th Century, moving here from Devon, learning Welsh and (despite being a 'dwarf and a hunchback') hanging about with the workers in the quarry, enjoying their humour and culture, while she did her portraits of the people and place?
These differences in attitude are very much my mind this month while working (with the support of Amgueddfa Lechi Cymru) on an Arts Council Wales-funded Research and Development project called “Merched Chwarel” (Quarry Women) with four other (female) artists. Together we are exploring 5 different quarries, highlighting and questioning the contemporary relevance of the relationship between women and the quarry legacy.
The project has only just begun - we've done just one of our 5 quarry walks. But it has been our different attitudes to the quarries, and the attitudes of others when they hear of the project, that has most struck me. Increasingly, I am thinking of the quarry-legacy of North Wales (slate, granite, copper, lead, limestone) as a flash point (I like the idea of it being a ‘strange attractor’) for the tension between the ‘unspoilt, rural idyll/adrenaline-seeking’ English-language dominated culture(s) and the language and culture(s) of the place itself. Or maybe that's too simplistic (well, not the strange attractor bit).
To find out, I'm asking people their opinion with this questionnaire: If you'd like to take part, please email me your answers (Cymraeg or English) on email@example.com by 1st February. All answers are confidential!
1. Be’ dach chi’n feddwl o’r chwareli yn yr ardal yma ? (Gogledd Orllewin Cymru)
What do you think about the quarries in this area? ( NW Wales)
2. Beth yw eich cysylltiad â nhw? What's your connection to them?
3. Sut mae eich teimladau am y chwareli wedi newid dros amser?
How has how you feel about the quarries changed over time?
4. Pa un gair, teimlad, llun neu sain fasai’n crynhoi sut dach chi’n teimlo am y chwareli rwan?
What one word, feeling, image or sound would sum up how you feel about the quarries now?
5. Be’ dach chi’n feddwl o agweddau pobl eraill tuag at y chwareli?
What do you think about other people's attitudes to the quarries?
6. Sut dach chi’n ymwneud â syniad o ‘ferched chwarel’ (os o gwbl)?
How - if at all - do you relate to the idea of 'quarry women'?
7. Sgynnoch chi lun sydd mewn unrhyw ffordd yn dangos eich cysylltiad efo’r chwareli neu eich temladau amdanyn nhw (sut bynnag dach chi yn dehongli)?
Do you have photo that in some way relates to you and your connection with quarries (however you interpret that!)?