A Sense of Place: Meanderings from Penbanc
Cynefin – I. The personal feeling of belonging to a place.
ii. The common tracks carried by animals on slopes.
Why do some places hold you tighter than others? And if there is a house in such a place, when does that house become a home? And where do the boundaries of such a home begin and how far do they reach?
For me, home begins as soon as I pass through Glanrhyd – a ‘village by the side of the ford’ – turning right off the road leading down towards Moylegrove and Ceibwr Bay and crossing the rattling cattle gate threshold leading down the path to Penbanc – the house on top of the bank.
A head-high hedge of hazelnut, hawthorn, blackthorn and gorse runs down the first part, anchored by ivy tendrils, brambles and the sweet thorn rose, which smells of apple leaves after the rain; Just as the derelict barns and derelict downwind gates are held together with a handful of turquoise and orange bale twine.
I know the hedge as well as the blue and white forget-me-not toile-de-joie curtains that frame the upstairs window.
The hedge gives way to open fields dotted with angled trees.
Some days you can see the distant glimmer of the sea, a handkerchief scrap of Cardigan Bay, and on a clear night the searchlight beam of Strumble Head Lighthouse sweeps across the fields.
Penbanc is at the end of the road, on the only flat part of its surroundings.
The geology and geography of the site means the building stands exactly where it is – low enough to be sheltered from the westerly winds and high enough to avoid winter flooding from the lower fields.
Its feet are embedded in the slate that makes up its walls, and its body is supported by the remains of long-dead trees.
A spring that magically emerges from the crevices of the slate supplies him with dark cold water.
There are three small quarries on the land and three apartments belonging to each. A house lies broken and empty since its roof disappeared – returning to the land that made it.
My husband Dave and I moved here ten years ago when Penbanc was a house and not a home.
It’s not big and looks like a house a child could draw, with uneven, chalk-white walls and a smoking chimney.
It’s not symmetrical – the “eye” of the right window hangs down and bulges outward as if suffering from facial paralysis.
The house needed a lot of work back then – telltale woodworm stains; Water seeping through the kitchen floor after rain, an interesting take on an indoor water feature; a crumbling chimney—now I feel like I know every intimate inch of it.
Heading down the path puts the house in the wrong direction: you end up at the back of the house, known as the merchants’ entrance, while the front door – which is never used but is perfect for introducing the Christmas tree – peeks over the trees.
But if you look closer, beneath the tangled curtain of plane and ash trees and hidden by decades of dirt and leaves and grass is an ancient green trail.
Hundreds of years ago this was the main route leading from the cottages further down the valley to the nearby town of Cardigan which is about four miles away along the metal road.
Looking north from Cromlech Field in winter you can just make out the gray spire of Monnington Church, about two miles away.
Along with the churches at nearby Moylegrove and Bayvil, it is one of the local churches where some of the previous residents are buried.
Parts of the house are very old. I have documents written on torn and crumpled bone-colored parchment from 1734—the black and red of the calligraphy is still clear and legible—but the basics of penbanc, or penbank, or pen-y-banc, were here long before.
I know the Rowlands, the Devonalds, the Biddyrs, the Williams, the Lewis’s all lived here; that David Devonald was born here in 1783, that his son John, born 6th August 1815, killed a man during a fight at the annual Eglwyswrw Meigan fair and had his hanging sentence commuted to prison in Australia.
He sailed from Liverpool on 6 October 1835 on the Susan and was released on good behavior, eventually becoming mayor of a small town before being killed on Christmas Day 1856 while rescuing a woman from being run over by a train.
Do I feel more at home knowing the names of these long-dead people and a little of their lives in the past? I guess so. It adds another layer to the sense of place, or my sense of place.
There are other gentle reminders of those who have lived here before – children speaking from afar, someone hunched over a bed at night. I’m not as aware of them as I used to be.
Maybe I got used to them or they got used to me. I don’t see them or the past as a barrier – more as a gate maybe.
Leading into my bedroom is a stained glass window that lets in the light and keeps the darkness out. It’s the color of the palest Italian pistachio ice cream surrounded by a marian blue rim, and it’s the first thing I see in the morning and the last thing I see at night.
For years it reflected the souls of a church in Swansea until it was removed due to church desecration. Alan our roofer saved it while he was working there and kept it for years before bequeathing it to me.
He also left his “special mark” on part of our roof “for protection” – something he only did for people he liked, at least he said. We had to search to find it – a thumb-sized image of a lion staring unblinking at the North Star.
Although the walls of the house are physical boundaries, my sense of home extends beyond the four rickety walls as the outside space is as familiar as the inside.
I’ve spent years digging an inhospitable field, planting, pruning, and even crowbaring a garden. The trick is finding the right plant for the right location and sticking with it. There is no room for “soft” gardening in this hard canvas.
Over the years I’ve planted over fifty roses to interweave the trees and soften the slate landscape. They are mainly historical varieties with wonderfully romantic names. I know some won’t survive because the air is too clean and the soil is too damp, but enough will.
Looking out my kitchen window, a squat, poorly pruned apple tree forms a visual border. In September it bears red-yellow, pear-shaped fruits that are just edible – I leave them to the blackbirds.
Next to it is a blossoming cherry tree that was planted by the previous owners more than twenty years ago. They’ve moved on, but the cherry remains, resplendent with marshmallow blooms in spring and flames of ochre, mustard and magenta in fall.
I hang birdhouses from the lower branches and have to tiptoe through swathes of tulip-shaped blossoms Crocus Tommasinianusthe forest crocuses that open like amethyst-colored starfish in the sun to reach them.
Every year the bulbs gradually slide down the slope and every year I try to plant a few elsewhere. However, they stubbornly refuse to thrive — they know their place.
In Gwair Field, the field in front of the trees that mark the physical boundary of our land, lies the pump house for the spring that feeds the house, and I can just see it from the kitchen window. The pump house is located in a small artificial flat in this land of slopes, hollows and hollows.
Three children of the house once played cricket here and there are tales of one of their cricket bats ‘twitching as if it had a life of its own’ as they crossed the field where the pump house now sits. It is exactly the spot where a water seeker found the spring years later.
I’d like to say that I know the western sky as well as the rest of my landscape, but I don’t.
Every day is different, and I don’t have enough words to adequately describe the burnt umber, amber, coral, cerise, and peach sunsets, the woodpigeon gray, pewter, and peachy February days, and the crystalline pinholes of the stars on a mild September evening .
Last summer I sat outside, binoculars in hand, trying to spot Elon Musk’s Starlink satellites. I saw them once – a chain of tiny silver dots moving from left to right against the inky sky. Another frontier, rightly or wrongly being explored.
Technically, we all own the airspace above our properties: “Whoever owns the land holds title to heaven and to the depths of hell”. Today that appears to be limited to about 500 feet above – another limit, but an invisible one.
There is now an invisible border inside the house. Dave died in the living room eighteen months ago and even though I’ve painted, carpeted and put new curtains in it, the room doesn’t feel like home anymore, not yet.
It’s as if there is an invisible gate that I have to go through to enter, and before I do, I breathe in mentally and physically. And mentioning him is another barrier to overcome.
He’s added another layer to this house full of land and spirits, and perhaps those who live here in the future will hear his voice with the others – cursing as he bangs his head on another low beam.
Gaynor Funnell is the winner of the Nigel Jenkins Award for 2022. We look forward to publishing a series about Penbanc in the coming months with the support of the H’mm Foundation.
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