Hills, lakes - and a cultural mountain

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Indy Lifestyle Online
With open minds and memories of happy Welsh holidays, Rob Stepney and his family moved from Oxford to Snowdonia. The scenery is still stunning, and the locals are generally welcoming, but six months later, they have reason to reconsider. And it's not just the ferocious wind...

Turner liked painting this part of the world, and I can see why. Fix in your mind the play of light across the hills and water, and a moment later it is different. The village of Fachwen looks out over age-old oak woods and across Llyn Padarn to a range of mountains that culminates in the great bulk of Snowdon itself. In late spring, the thousands of daffodils that light up the slate-walled lanes give way to bluebells, and the only sounds we hear at night are the stream and the sheep in the fields around the house.

This place is the dream of anyone who has ever visited north Wales and felt like staying forever. We had always felt sad when we headed away from the mountains back to Oxford; one day, we realised that we didn't have to leave them. We also wanted to try a different kind of life where we would have more space and where we could perhaps step back a little in time.

Even so, six months after moving, we are still deciding whether this is where we should be. It is hard to fall in love with a spectacularly beautiful part of the world but not know whether it could ever feel truly like home.

At 900ft, the wind sometimes blows fit to lift the lid off the world. But Fachwen catches every gleam of sun that's going, and adapting to the physical environment has been relatively easy. The more difficult challenge is finding a place that is comfortable in a culture that is not your own.

It was the nursery school Nativity play that first made me wonder. The teachers had done well with the children, who played their parts and sang as sweetly as any parent would wish. Despite the fact that probably a third of the audience knew little or no Welsh, there was not a word of English spoken. We didn't need an explanation ("Mair a Joseff yn mynd i Fethlehem" does not require much translation), but a word of greeting in English would have cost nothing - except perhaps a deeply held principle.

Nick, our four-year-old, didn't mind. He had been at the nursery for a month and seemed untroubled by the fact that its first language was Welsh. I had just enrolled in the local language class. As a family, we wanted to be part of things, yet I felt we had not been included.

My wife, whose first language was Polish, is used to juggling different cultures and thought I was being over-sensitive. I'm not so sure. In a way that is not unfriendly but is nevertheless clear, some Welsh people go out of their way to mark a distinction between those who truly belong here and those who do not.

This cannot be unique to north Wales; people who have recently moved to the Yorkshire Dales or the Cotswolds must experience something similar. But here the existence of a separate language sharply picks out differences in culture and gives them added edge. However helpful people are towards each other at a practical level (and they generally are very helpful), few deep friendships and institutions span the linguistic divide.

There is peaceful co-existence between the English incomers and the native Welsh, and I don't undervalue that tolerance. It would be the envy of communities in many parts of the world. But, perhaps naively, I am surprised at the absence of integration. In this part of Great Britain, and after 1,000 years of contact between the Celts and Saxons (only a small proportion of it warlike), it is still perfectly natural for people to talk of the issues surrounding "intermarriage".

The chapels are exclusively Welsh, but the toddler group, which could so fruitfully be mixed, is exclusively English. The only thing which has brought people together without regard to language is a campaign to end the spate of break-ins and car thefts, which are attributed to an English family of no-good boyos who live up the hill.

That immigrants and those born here should lead somewhat separate lives is perhaps not surprising, and it is not just a result of language and ethnic group. People who have made the choice to move to this remote area are likely to have much in common, and their philosophy of life is not necessarily the same as that of the native-born who have chosen not to move away.

It is a crude generalisation, but the English who moved to the hills around Snowdon in the 1960s were mostly climbers and hippies. Now those coming are largely middle-class of a bohemian ilk, and Fachwen has a good share of writers and artists. None of these groups could be expected to hit it off immediately with people whose lives centred traditionally on hill farming and the quarrying of slate. Even so, differences in class and lifestyle are widely felt as being due to differences in origin.

Only last week, I was passing a crocodile of children waiting at the school gates in Llanberis and noticed a movement in its tail. It was no more than two boys indulging in a little push and shove, but one was being called "Sais", or English. "No, I'm not," he protested. "I was born in Wales." I suspect that even for the next generation, and perhaps for the generation after that, which ethnic group they "belong" to will continue to be an issue.

For any family moving to this north-west corner of Wales, choosing a school involves all the usual dilemmas plus the one of language. The medium of instruction in all state schools is Welsh, which is entirely reasonable given that this is the first language of 70 per cent of the population. Even so, sending an English child to a Welsh-speaking school involves placing a profound trust in the flexibility and tolerance of those responsible for its education.

My experience of our primary school is that such trust is well-placed. I am impressed with its warmth and the way that teaching can be conducted in Welsh while the English learners are also encouraged along in their own language. Aided by the sponge-like capacity of the young to assimilate novelty, children are quickly bilingual. Any early disadvantage is probably offset by the small class size - fewer than 20 in the school I visited.

For adults, mastering the language is clearly more difficult. There are occasional words in Welsh that are easy to remember for idiosyncratic reasons: the word for cream sounds quite like "heaven", and the Welsh for a pub landlady sounds remarkably like "tavern wreck". But the origins of Welsh go far further back than the Latin or Germanic roots of English, so there is little familiar to aid the learning of vocabulary. The fact that the beginnings of Welsh words mutate according to grammar gives the language added impenetrability.

My feelings about the language are complicated. Past attempts to eradicate it were clearly as criminal as trying to wipe out any living thing. I admire the passionate commitment of those Welsh people who saved the language; and it is right that its vigour is ensured by prominence in education and the media. I think that those who come to live here should try to learn Welsh - out of respect for the culture. But I also feel that the environment could be more encouraging.

Once or twice, I have felt my own fumbling attempts were greeted not with patience but by an irritation best summed up as "Well, if you didn't live here, you wouldn't have to bother trying". On the other hand, any fluent Welsh speaker who is not local - even someone from another part of Wales - will also, likely as not, be answered in English.

In honesty, ours was not a brave move: we burned no boats. Our house in Oxford is let and we rent the cottage we live in. Even so, we came with an open mind about making the move permanent. Now, we are dithering. Oxford is an easy place to feel at home in. In most parts of the city, you can have come from anywhere in the world and it doesn't really make much difference.

For someone who is English, living in this part of Wales is in many ways a wonderful experience. But it is not easy to be in a minority, even a privileged one. That said, if the only choice was between living in a constituency with a 12,000 Tory majority and one with a 8,000 majority for Plaid Cymru, I'd rather be here n