From The Western Mail, Sat 11 May.
Below is the unedited raw text that I sent to The Western Mail. When Glyn’s brother died he had been very unsettled. He wanted there to be something in the paper to mark his passing, but his eyesight had faded so much from glaucoma that he couldn’t see any longer to read or to write, so I said I would help. I had only met James once. He lived in St Davids. So I sat on the settle beside Glyn and Nadolig and he helped while Glyn remembered and I wrote and then read back to him what we had put. Then he was happy. So in a way this is as much for Glyn as for anyone. For those who knew of Mr Griffiths through the cat’s blog, can I say thank you for all the cards that you sent him when he was ill. He loved that these arrived from far flung places, loved the pictures of cats and the stories of people, and the fact that you cared enough to send him warm wishes. Meant a lot to me too. So thank you.
A life measured out in cats.
On the side of a hill, close by the sea, a small cottage sits and waits and glows like a pearl against the green. When you stand in the yard in front you can hear the bells of St Davids Cathedral. Now the cottage is derelict, sad, its only occupants the jackdaws who build their nests, and the mice who scurry in the dark inside. It wasn’t always like this.
For years artists have been drawn to this cottage. It has been painted so many times, photographed over and over. Film crews have come to the door, making programmes about Welsh life, Welsh architecture, and all were welcomed by the inhabitants of the house, Glyn Griffiths and his cats. The house could be said to be an icon of Pembrokeshire with its chimney fawr and limewashed walls and grouted roof. And in truth Glyn was also an icon.
I first met this small, unassuming man when I moved to Treleddyd Fawr over 20 years ago. At the time, in the ignorance of my youth I thought him old. A sweet old man who lived next door. Over the years I got to know him better. On sunny days we would stand in the yard in front of the beautiful powder blue door and pass the time of day, and I began to learn.
Glyn spoke Welsh as his mother tongue, the last in the hamlet to do so. He had lived in this cottage since 1936 when his parents moved there and had grown up wild on the hillside, running all day with friends over the hill with a slab of bread and cheese in his pocket until his mother blew the whistle to call him and his brothers home.
After about ten years of conversations on the sunny doorstep Glyn asked me in for a cup of tea.
We would sit for a while and leaf through old photos and he would tell me about his mother and father, working on the farm, stone wall building on Ramsey with friends when he was young. He would show me black and white pictures of his mother, father, his old cars, peering at them closely in the dim light of the cottage. His eyes were not as good as they had been. And he had photos from other places too……concentration camps in Germany. At the time I found this strange but he skirted over them on to others. At his funeral the other day I found out that he had been a soldier at the end of World War 2. How much we do not know about our friends, until they are gone. He had travelled through France and Germany and Holland before returning to work in Trecwn for the MOD, and while there had applied to work in Africa, in the Transvaal. On the wall was a photo of him and some of the tribes people he worked with. I still remember him talking with horror about the way the whites treated the people out there. If he was asked what he did there he would answer that he worked with ‘ all kinds of explosives.’
Glyn had an interest in local history, particularly the ruins of Maes y Mynydd, the old settlement that still lies in ruins a mile or so from his house. He showed many groups of people around there, from the Women’s Institute to school children, history groups and Quakers from the USA who came in search of answers and ancestors. He wouldn’t romanticize the past and always talked of the poverty and hardship they endured.
He took me walking around Maes y Mynydd, too, when I told him I was working on The Seal Children, a book set in the ruins and told me so much about the place. And I included a painting of his house in one of my other books, rather to Glyn’s alarm. When working on How the Whale Became, written by Ted Hughes, the character of God, in the book, lives in a small house, with a garden in which he grew carrots and a whale ( but that is another story). When I told Glyn that I had painted his house as God’s house he laughed and said’ “ I hope there will still be room for me in there.” It did seem to me that if God did have a house on earth it would be one like Glyn’s…..small, well loved, with vegetables and flowers growing in the back garden.
When I first knew Glyn he had such pride in his house. He knew it to be special. It is rare in these days when houses are treated as investments to discover someone who understands that the true nature of a house is as a home. Glyn loved the cottage. And I think the house loved him. Every year the walls would get a new layer of limewash, and the unique nature of this method of painting meant that the house would glow like a pearl in the green, a beacon. It could be seen, still can, from 2 miles away, if you stand on the Pebbles in St Davids. He would lovingly limewash the grouted roof too, much to my alarm as one day I walked past to find him on the roof, with a rope tied around his ankle and the other around the chimney ‘for safety’, mop and bucket of limewash also balanced precariously.
The house and Glyn appeared with Trevor Fishlock on television, on Restoration with Grif Rhys Jones, on S4C. But there was more to the man than just his care for his beautiful home. Of his parents who lived there and worked the farm he said “ They were happy here.” And from what I saw of Glyn he was happy there too. He lived alone, with cats and he measured out his days in the lives of cats, always with one beside him. When I first met him it was Daffyd, a small black cat of great fierceness. He loved animals. I could always tell where he was when he was out and about as a small flock of squabbling sparrows were always close and rooks flew over his head.In his pockets he carried bread and cheese for the animals.
He would go to Maes y Mynydd when he could still walk there and talk to the ghosts of the people who lived there, always in Welsh. He looked after a sick badger named Owain, a fox found shelter in his barn. He loved birdsong and made many recordings of birds, the sea, seals. He knew the names of the fields, of people who had lived in the hamlet, was always pleased when a new child was born in Treleddyd. Even when his sight was failing he had an eye for a pretty woman and now and again would mention an old flame, long gone, wistful in memory. He loved to read, to tell stories.And he loved a little company now and again and especially the company of cats.
Of his house he said “ I want to keep it for the nation.” What he intended was that if someone who had lived in the house one hundred years ago, two hundred had walked in they would have found little changed.
Glyn died on 21st March 2013. He had been in an old people’s home for some time, his house standing empty. We had talked when he first became ill of life and death and what he wanted to be done with his ashes. A few days ago, according to his wishes, I carried the remains of him up the hill on a last walk together. The ashes were heavier than I thought they would be. I am told their weight is similar to that of your weight at birth. It was a sunny day. As I sat in the remains of the village of Maes y Mynydd and scattered Glyn’s ashes to mix forever with the stones and the land swallows flew low and close. Back home his house stood waiting, jackdaws nesting in the rooof and walls. It looked both sad and beautiful in the sunshine. I wondered who would live there next and hoped that they would love and be loved by the house as much as Glyn Griffiths had been.
In many ways he was the soul of the house, but he was more than that. He was perhaps the soul of the village. One of the old ones. A true Welshman.
The photograph above was taken by me, one one of my many walks past the house. Glyn had returned from a spell in hospital and Nadolig, who had been absent during much of the time Glyn was away had turned up that day. The photo was to let his well wishers know that both were alive and well.
In the uncanny way that cats have I think that Nadolig knew the last time that Glyn went that he wouldn’t be back and he attached himself to my neighbours Phylis and Alan who looked after him, fed him and gave him a warm and loving home until he disappeared on the same day that my cat Pixie died.
The photo in the Western Mail is by David Wilson who has a fine eye for a great shot and also really liked Glyn and his home. David featured Glyn in an BBC program My Secret Wales. If you watch this, towards the end there is a chance to see inside the house and to listen to Glyn.
Below are two photos taken by Roy Essery. Glyn and his house attracted so many artists, photographers, even film crews.