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Wonderful, intimate literary festival: R.S.Thomas at Eglwysfach

Last weekend, a small team put on a big-hearted literary festival in the historic village or Eglwysfach in the north of Ceredigion. The internationally renowned poet R.S.Thomas had been vicar there from 1954 to 1967 and many of the villagers, including members of my family, have vivid memories of his time amongst them. There were lectures by Professors Helen Wilcox, Richard Mayou and Jason Walford Davies; poetry readings by Paul Henry and Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch, a presentation by The Right Reverend Rowan Williams as well as homemade refreshments, videos and a wonderful R.S. Thomas book stall, run by the great independent bookshop based in Machynlleth, Pen'r allt. All volunteers, the organisers ran a highly successful show, including a poetry competition, entered by over 80 poets who were given the chance to read their work in the bizarre but oddly effective black and iron interior of the church decorated by Thomas and his artist wife, Elsie Eldridge. Nobly judged by Gillian Clarke and Tony Brown, the competition encouraged poets to create new work by using four of Thomas' poems as a stimulus and it was verging on triumphant to hear literally hours of poetry bouncing around the little church.

But of all the events that weekend, my favourite was Richard Suggett, from the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales, guided walk around the villages of Eglwysfach and Ffwrnais and up into the valley of the Einion. Cwm Einion is where I set much of my last book Nanteos: The Dipping Pool, using the historic blast furnace, the woollen and lead mills and the mysterious pools and caves of that secluded river valley as a backdrop to the struggles of the Werin Bobl of Eighteenth Century Cardiganshire. The village is famous for the waterfall and blast furnace; Ynyshir Hall, now a Michelin Starred restaurant and the RSPB reserve, where my mother grew up.

As we fought our way up the steep incline we were walking in the shoes of Jenkins, Rhys, Evans ancestors who had lived in almost all of the properties in that haunting valley. My great grandfather had worked in the lead mine at its head and generations of the family had dipped sheep and poached in the sinister pools ‘Llyn Ianto’ and ‘Llyn y Cigfran’. The stories coming down through the generations in a real sense drove The Dipping Pool.

When Richard crossed the river on the small wooden bridge with us, I looked up at Melin y Cwm, a tiny cottage, still exactly the same from outside as it is in the battered photo of my grandmother, her sister and their grandmother, taken there at the beginning of the 20th Century. It was fascinating to hear the impressions of people on the tour. Now covered in conifers and relatively sparsely populated, the valley had been busy into the 1930s, with lots of people working the mine and the farms. There is even a chapel, now converted to a house, almost at its head. When the road runs out you can walk across the hills to the Llyfnant valley and to Nant y Moch where a distant relation, Sir John Rhys, was from - but that, as well as the story of the local folk historian, Hugh Rees, are stories for another time.

The R.S. Thomas Festival has been going since 2008 and I urge you to go. Next year, hopefully soaked in September sun as it was this time, it’ll be on again.

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