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Chance Encounters: Part One

The path along the south Gower coast is very popular. We often find ourselves greeting many walkers, sometimes even in Welsh, on our regular routes. These encounters with strangers are usually no more than fleetingly polite, as we pass one another on the often-narrow path.

On three occasions last summer, an encounter on a walk was anything but brief. The first of these is the subject of this blog post.

*

On an overcast morning last summer, we decided to explore a path we had not used. It led inland from the car park at Caswell Bay, along a steep-sided, wooded valley in a northerly direction into Bishop’s Wood Nature Reserve towards something we had seen on a map: a roundhouse. We were keen to find out what this was.

After only a few minutes walking along a wide, flat track, we came to a T-junction of tracks in the wood, near which stood the roundhouse. This circular wooden structure was about four or five metres in diameter, with a grass-covered, slightly domed roof made out of the same kind of timber as the open-sided ‘walls’. Wide arched openings on opposite sides gave access to the light-starved interior. The construction of the roundhouse clearly involved the deployment of considerable skill to give it its noble and solid appearance. Subsequent investigation revealed that the roundhouse was designed as a medieval structure, presumably representative of a typical dwelling, and is used as an outdoor classroom and meeting place for community groups.

While we stood looking at it from the outside, pointing at the curved timbers and the way that the whole thing held together, an elderly man in a white outdoor jacket approached: “Going for a stroll?” he asked.

We told him we were on our way to Murton. (Murton is a nearby village, a mile or two inland.)

“My brother designed that. The Council built it in 2002 to his design. He owns the land.”

Bishop’s Wood is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and a Special Area of Conservation (SAC). I wondered how this man’s brother happened to own (some of?) the land where we stood.

“They marched to the House of Lords [to support their claim],” said Alwyn (not his real name), deepening the mystery about the ownership of the land.

We did not react to what Alwyn told us about the march; on the face of it, it seemed a highly ambitious undertaking. By now, we were intrigued.

“Would you like to see something else that he designed?”

We agreed and followed Alwyn along the left-hand track of the T-junction. After a short distance, the track narrowed and inclined slightly. A rickety gate on the left, clearly marked with a PRIVATE notice, led to a clearing in the wood. He must own this then, I thought, as he invited us to follow him through the gate.

On one side of the clearing lay gear to erect a yurt. “We come here for family barbecues and gatherings,” he told us. “My great niece was married over there;” he pointed to a patch of grass to one side of the clearing.

This remark was the first hint of an alternative lifestyle enjoyed by members of Alwyn’s family.

Near where the gear for the yurt lay stacked ready for erection, Alwyn’s brother had built a Hopi-style Indian dwelling that was partly beneath the level of the ground. It too had a turf roof, similar to that of the roundhouse. We had to descend a short flight of steps cut into the earth in order to enter the dwelling. It was built such that there was a gap between the wall timbers and the side of the shallow circular hole it lay in. The semi-submerged position of the dwelling meant that the window spaces around the circumference of the structure were just above ground level. The inside of the building was elaborately and decoratively carved, whereas the roundhouse was plain. Alwyn’s brother’s skill in building with wood and carving figures and animals in the columns and other parts of the dwelling was testament to the high order of woodcraft employed in the construction and detail of this fascinating structure. The workmanship on display was extraordinary.

After admiring the dwelling, and telling Alwyn as much, he showed us the ruins of an XII century chapel on the way back to where he had met us by the roundhouse. We had also noted the presence of St. Peter’s chapel near the roundhouse on a map, but had never thought about seeking it out.

The ruins lay just off the path to the left and a little way into the undergrowth. You wouldn’t know it was there unless you were with someone with Alwyn’s knowledge of the woods: it would have been very difficult to find, hidden in the trees and bushes. I couldn’t see anything at first, then the ghostly presence of what was left of the eastern end of the ancient chapel began to take shape. It was as if the surrounding trees were holding up the black stones, protecting them from falling, preventing them from disappearing for all time.

Around the corner of what was left of the east wall, a portion of the side of the chapel also stood, defiant and dark. A tea light flickered in a recess in the stone. “I come down here every day and light a candle for my wife,” said Alwyn.

The ancient wood seemed to close in on us, silencing the rustle of leaves, forming a quiet space for us to think about what Alwyn had told us. “She died about two years ago,” he added after a moment. “The recess is known as a lepers’ squint, so that they could observe the service.”

That implied that there were lepers hereabouts one thousand years ago. I wondered where they lived; were they kept away from the local population? At least they were permitted to worship from their vantage point outside the chapel.

“I can show you a shortcut to Murton, if you like,” said Alwyn.

The wood released us from its grip, allowing us to take the emotion of Alwyn’s daily ritual with us as we followed him back to the T-junction. He took the right-hand path this time before he suddenly branched off to the left along a track that I’m certain we would also have difficulty finding on our own. This path led to a large, slightly sloped clearing towards the north end of Bishop’s Wood. We estimated that we might be near the lane to Murton by now.

The wooden dwellings that surrounded the open space, many of them positioned behind high hedges, suggested an alternative way of living. Cars parked around the edge of green, lent an obvious sign of modernity amongst what were probably self-built homes.

“I’ll see if my brother’s in,” said Alwyn.

By now we had dismissed the notion that his brother lived in a mansion, based on what we had been told about his land ownership. His brother’s dwelling was somewhat larger than the others, with a shiny aluminium chimney bolted to its side. Alwyn went in directly: the door was unlocked. We waited on the green for his return.

“He might have gone to Scotland,” Alwyn announced.

This secluded community, set back from the lane to Murton, would have offered its residents anonymity and privacy. Alwyn told us that it had been on this site for very many years, although he did not live there: he lived in a conventional house in Swansea.

Perhaps because he mentioned Scotland, Alwyn told us that he did his National Service in Glasgow and Skye. This must make him at least in his late seventies or early eighties, we thought later.

Alwyn showed us the way to the lane and we parted company. We both felt that we had brightened up his lonely day. We felt privileged that Alwyn had chosen to show us the North American Indian dwelling and let us see where he lit a candle in honour of his sadly departed wife. It had been a fascinating and revealing morning; we felt humbled and moved by our experience.

*

Several weeks after our chance encounter with Alwyn, I decided to look up the march to the House of Lords as part of preparation for writing this post. The story of Holtsfield – the name of the community where Alwyn’s brother lives – and the campaign to save it came to life. The long march to London twenty years ago resulted in victory: their community was saved from the circling developers.

*

The day after our engrossing encounter with Alwyn, we saw Alwyn walking down the hill towards Caswell Bay. It was unlikely that he would have seen us driving in the opposite direction. I imagined that he had a new tea light deep in one of the pockets of his outdoor jacket on his way to light it, leaving it to flicker under the protection and watchful eye of St. Peter’s chapel.

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