When I came home from abroad recently to the village of Llanystumdwy in Gwynedd, where I have lived for the past 30 years, I found a sort of maelstrom swirling around the place.

Llanystumdwy marks the beginning of Lleyn, the north-western protrusion of Wales, and what had aroused the whirlwind was the district council's proposal to build, beyond the cemetery, beside the road to Pwllheli, an abattoir - to be attended, it seems, by various agricultural processing plants in what Eurospeak calls an 'agro-park'.

I have never known the village in such commotion. I think it true to say that only twice this century has such a brouhaha arisen in this generally placid region: once after the Second World War, when the Pwllheli naval base was turned into a Butlins, and once in 1936, when the burning of an air force school in Lleyn was a milestone in the history of modern Welsh nationalism.

The minute I came home I found myself bombarded with protesting propaganda of one kind or another. Pamphlets appeared in my letter box. Fervent activists telephoned me, or came knocking at my door. People I had known merely as amiable acquaintances turned out to be polemicists of startling force. People I had never met before declared themselves more or less my neighbours. Ignorant as I was of the conflict (there had been no whisper of it when I went away), I realised that I had come home to a dispute with classical attributes: so tangled of motive, so rich in nuance and allusion, so historically resonant that it could be said to illustrate the condition not just of Llanystumdwy, but also of Wales itself.

Our particular part of Gwynedd is a delightful but not a spectacular landscape. The seaward views are terrific, the mountains stand majestically behind us, but the country itself is gentle. Two lovely rivers water it, combining before they enter the sea a mile from our village; for the rest, it is pleasant pastureland running down to a pebbly beach. It is famous in Welsh poesy, greatly beloved by Welsh patriots, and deserves its old classification as an area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (even though it is now an area of Outstanding Unnatural Litter, too, while Llanystumdwy is dominated by the ugliest car-park in Western Europe).

Its character is pronounced. The Welsh language thrives here still - the district council conducts its business in Welsh - and Welsh nationalism is very much alive. It is a country of substantial Welsh farming families, many living here since history began, only disturbed in our own time by the energies of mass tourism and the flood of English incomers, who now seem to have penetrated every last hamlet of the neighbourhood.

For the most part these changes have happened gradually, almost surreptitiously. They have crept up on us. Every now and then the populace has been aroused by some development likely to weaken still further the Welsh identity of the area, but generally it has all happened without much fuss: another batch of Executive-Type Houses, another corner shop or village post office where we suddenly find ourselves sold our Welsh stamps in the accents of Liverpool or Wolverhampton.

It is an irony that what has excited the place more fiercely than anything in my memory is the proposal to build an abattoir at Llanystumdwy: for what could be more proper to a region of sheep and cattle farmers, one would immediately think, than an honest slaughterhouse? This is what I thought, anyway, when I returned in my innocence to the blast of conflict. I was underestimating, however, the astonishing assiduity of the protesters.

First I discovered from their hand-outs that the ordinary-looking patch of countryside where 12 acres for the agro-park are already being cleared is not only part of a Heritage Coast but also Some of the Best Farming Land in Gwynedd] Then I learnt to my astonishment that the river into which the abattoir's effluent would flow is the Fourth Most Important Sea-Trout River in Great Britain - good news for me, since I own some of the fishing. I had never realised that abattoir effluent could be harmful to sufferers from Alzheimer's disease.

The Abattoir Action Group, whose chief spokesman in the village I had never heard of before, had not missed a trick. The Alzheimer Society, coastal fishermen, MPs, the chairman of the Welsh Abattoir Federation, the Local Government Ombudsman, Greenpeace, television companies, district councillors, of course, unsuspecting residents returning from abroad - all had been approached or enlisted in the cause. The effect on fishing and tourism, the economic viability of abattoirs, irregularities in council procedure, possible misuses of public funds, the financial condition of the proposed operating company, the existence of more suitable sites, the pollution of local beaches - I cannot enumerate all the aspects of the issue towards which these indefatigable activists, apparently in a few short weeks, had applied their minds.

There was highbrow talk of judicial reviews and injunctions, but the legal and technical arguments were as nothing compared with the swirl of remonstrance, innuendo and half-truth in which I found the village enveloped. The protesters (said some) were all newcomers to the area anyway, and very likely vegetarians, too. The council (said others) was looking for shady profits, and had gone about things in underhand secrecy. The agro-park would give jobs to local people and provide an outlet for local produce. On the contrary, the agro-park was to be operated by a company from Birkenhead, which would bring its own trained workforce - already employees of the firm were making inquiries at the local estate agents.

There was no need for an abattoir - a new one was about to start at Caernarfon. There was an urgent need for an abattoir - the one at Caernarfon would never get built. A greenfield site was just the wrong place for an industrial project. A greenfield site was essential for a modern agricultural development. The effluent would be hideously toxic and murderous to otters and lobsters; the effluent would be made utterly harmless before it reached the river. The enterprise would be another white elephant of the recession and would lie empty and ugly for years. The enterprise represented a justifiable risk, gambling on better times to come. All change was bad. All stagnancy was demoralising. Young people had to have jobs. Young people could get on their bikes (honestly - somebody really said that to me). Our region had to modernise to survive. The point of our region was its Outstanding Natural Beauty.

I came to grade the protesters by merit. At the top of the list, who could fail to sympathise with the 'Nimbys', the people whose neighbouring properties were bound to be affected by the emergence of the agro-park next door? Their objections were purely personal and understood by all. Next there were the anglers: they were among the first of the objectors, seemingly because they were afraid the effluent would kill the fish before they could - a human, if not overwhelmingly ethical, attitude. Then there were the hazier environmentalists, who believed more or less as a matter of principle that an abattoir would spoil a pleasant countryside and harm its wildlife. And, finally, there were those who simply wished the place to remain just as it was for ever.

Within these categories, familiar enough anywhere in Britain, there were sub-divisions specific to Wales. Most of the English people who migrate here have come for the peace and quiet, which makes them inherently antagonistic to change and suspicious of Welsh nationalism - it was an Englishman, I need hardly say, who made the 'on your bike' remark to me. The very fact that so many of the leading protesters had un-Welsh names ('white settlers', they say here) was enough to make patriots a priori sympathetic to the other side.

But in fact among the indigenes there were doubts and disagreements just as intense. The very evening I came home there was a protest meeting in the village hall, along the road from the house where Lloyd George grew up. It was packed, and lasted for several hours. The proceedings were in Welsh, with simultaneous translation, and tempers ran high. One of the English protesters boldly spoke up in his admirably learnt Welsh; another crassly suggested the debate should be in English anyway, and was shouted down. Fierce accusations were exchanged and wild figures bandied about - hundreds of trucks a day to thunder along our roads, thousands of carcasses, tons of effluent. The council representatives, lined up on the dais, responded rather wanly to the onslaught, and the meeting broke up with nothing much the clearer.

Would the abattoir be good for Welshness or bad for Welshness? Would it give jobs only to those English technicians from Merseyside, or would it, whether immediately or in the future, offer some employment at last to the young people of Llanystumdwy? Whom could one believe, anyway, even among one's own people? Person A was interested only in the fishing, B probably had money at stake, C was related to the Ds, E had invested in the abattoir at Caernarfon. Most trenchantly of all, nobody really knew what the farmers wanted: for on the fringes of all this stood the true inheritors of the land, the people who really mattered, mostly keeping quiet.

These may seem no more than petty local tensions, but the case of the Llanystumdwy abattoir is really only part of a far greater process, unmentioned in the pamphlets or the doorstep arguments. It is Euro-money that will finance the agro-park. Our corner of Wales is peripheral indeed but, like it or not, we are bound to be transformed by the emergence of the new Europe. Huge economic progressions mean that, willy-nilly, the local farmers are becoming part of a new world, technologically advanced, economically cut-throat.

Tourism has been the conventional panacea for rural regions such as ours with high unemployment, but it is an industry as vulnerable as any other, and is increasingly seen as an economic deception and a cultural degradation. The abattoir furore is only a minute symptom of a tremendous challenge: how best to keep one small district of one small nation modern, lively and true to itself. It is a skirmish in a battle raging in all the vulnerable small countries of Europe. Whether the agro-park proposal is a step in the right direction or a foolishly misguided one, whether it is animated by honest or dubious motives, whether it happens or doesn't happen (it comes up for detailed planning permission in the summer), it has a historical meaning far beyond the passions of the village hall.

You may perhaps wonder how I stand upon the slaughterhouse issue myself. Well, I am an Anglo-Welsh patriot, an anarchist manquee, a romantic, a modernist, an animal rightist, an owner of fishing rights, a European, a member of the Gorsedd of Bards and a memorialist of the British Empire. Take a guess.

(Photographs omitted)