I was not a typical Welsh child – I was in fact born in London just as the war was ending, as my parents were both doctors living and working in the North Middlesex Hospital in Edmonton. My father wanted me to be called 'Mair Gwenllian', but as nobody (including my mother) could pronounce the names it was 'Mary Gillian' instead. Mamgu was pleased, as she was 'Mary' herself. I was the first of four children, and my father, an avid Cymro who had married late, wanted us brought up in his native country. My mother, a
Saes, tried her best but never mastered more than a few words of Welsh.
In 1951, with my sister Anna and the first of my two brothers, Gwyn, we moved to an interesting damp old house a mile outside St Asaph (Llanelwy), the smallest cathedral city in Britain. The house was on a lonely unlit road and had no electricity, but my father wanted us to experience an old-fashioned Welsh childhood. My parents were both working full-time in the Clwyd and Deeside group of hospitals which included the Royal Alexandra and the War Memorial Hospitals in Rhyl: Llangwyfan and Abergele Chest
Hospitals (ex-sanatoria); St Asaph (Maternity) Hospital, and smaller cottage hospitals in Colwyn Bay and Dendigh. We had some live-in help in the house, but not many people wanted to live in such primitive conditions; we had several German girls who were grateful for any place after the hatreds of the War. All washing had to be done by hand – we filled the enormous earthenware sink on Sunday nights with clothes soaking for Monday's wash – and paraffin lamps had to be cleaned and filled daily.
I was the only child old enough for school, and I went first to Cefn Meriadog about a mile and a half further up the road. This school was the nearest primary to Kinmel Camp in Bodelwyddan, where young men still did their National Service, so the army children were driven up through the lanes to school in an army lorry every day. Because my father had the romantic notion that a woman's hair was her crowning glory, my sister and I were never allowed to have our hair cut, and we had very untidy plaits throughout our childhood (of course this meant we went off and had it cut as soon as we could, me at 14, my sister at 11!) I would sometimes walk home from school with a couple of farm boys who had a somewhat agricultural interest in girls, so later I was collected on the back of a bike by Gustavo, an Italian who helped in the household for a while. I remember sitting astride the hard metal carrier in the freezing weather, and weeping because my hands and legs were so painfully cold.
My father realised I wasn't learning any Welsh at Cefn Meriadog, so I, along with my sister and young brother, were sent to Ysgol Dewi Sant in Rhyl. This school had the distinction of being the first in Wales to teach all subjects in the medium of Welsh. It was a wonderful, committed, inspiring school with four classes taught by four remarkable ladies: Miss Delyth Williams (infants), Miss Mair Richards Mrs Dilys Bateman and Mrs Brenda Davies. All four played the harp and taught us the traditional songs, history and
folk stories of Wales (my father's cousin, Gwennant Davies, was an early administrator in the Urdd Gobaith Cymru, and had been responsible for ensuring that every school in Wales had access to a Welsh harp). We travelled back to St Asaph by bus every day, and often walked home the mile from the bus stop. I went straight into the top class – I must have been eight or nine by then; 'total immersion' worked partially but not wholly successfully as I was a shy child, embarrassed to speak Welsh in case I got it
wrong. My second brother Siôn had been born by then (in 1953) and my mother returned to work, so he eventually started at Dewi Sant at the age of two and a half – things were a little more flexible then.
At home we ran fairly wild – we roamed the fields and woods and made dens and bows and arrows. I remember rescuing Gwyn when he tried to climb over a metal spiked fence and came to grief with a spike speared three inches into his buttock. I 'unhooked' him and carried him home wailing. Fortunately he was given an anti-lockjaw jab very quickly, and as the spike had just missed his lower spine he was deemed lucky! I ruled my siblings with a rod of iron; never since have I achieved such dominance!
I remember writing plays in which my sister and brothers were forced to take part, and putting on awful performances for my parents and any unlucky visitors. Although we lived only six miles inland from Rhyl, we didn't often go to the beach there, or indeed to the two funfairs; it was the time of the polio epidemic, and my parents kept us away from crowds of holidaymakers.
My father was a very dedicated surgeon and worked all hours, so we saw him only on Sunday afternoons; my mother spent our childhood feeling guilty about being out at work and not with her children. I always think she was at least fifty years ahead of her time when I hear young women today complaining about trying to balance career and children. My father thought it would be a terrible waste of a medical training if she stopped work. She was a very remarkable woman, I realise now, who had more energy than anyone I've ever come across. She not only worked full-time, she also sewed a lot of our clothes, was an interesting and adventurous cook, and was the regular painter and decorator of the house. My father didn't like her to be seen painting the outside, so she would be up a ladder at dawn doing the windows and doors before any traffic passed the house.
In the summer holidays we would go south to Shir Gâr (Carmarthenshire) to stay in Mamgu's house in Llangadog. She had died the day before Gwyn was born in 1950, but my father, who had bought the house for her when he first qualified, kept the house, and we would visit relatives in Llanymddyfri and Llanddeusant, Llanelli and Aberystwyth. We spent idyllic times swimming in the river, playing on the common, learning to play the piano in the back room of Mrs Gravell's village shop, going to the seaside at New Quay and Tenby sometimes, and in the attic reading piles of comics which had been kept for us. My parents didn't allow comics, and even after electricity came to our St Asaph house, we didn't have television or radio, so we missed out a bit on the usual pleasures of childhood. Dadi would take us blackberrying in autumn sometimes, which was always a military operation; we had to find a good patch which we would 'bag' by saying 'Bar cwtch', and every berry had to be stripped before we could go home. My mother had been taught the art of making Welsh tarts – flat plate tarts with a thin layer of fruit
between two layers of short pastry – and she would bake dozens of them with whatever fruit was in season. We would eat these with 'top of the milk' (siphoned off with a new-fangled plastic disposable syringe) poured over, but on Sundays with ice-cream.
I was just eight years old when my father took me to climb Yr Wyddfa – Snowdon. We set out in the Morris Minor and reached the base around mid-morning. I wore a heavy coat and a knitted hat plus my lace-up school shoes, and carried a hazel switch my father had cut for me. I think it was probably Rhyd Ddu path we climbed; I certainly remember my little legs were too tired to walk down after we had reached the scruffy café at the top, and Dadi managed to get a place on the descending train for us. When we reached the bottom, we were on the wrong side of the mountain. We set off to walk round the base, but I was so exhausted he had to leave me sitting on a wall at the side of the road while he went on to pick up the car and return for me. I don't think he attempted the climb with any of my siblings!
We had two dogs during my childhood, both Welsh corgis. The first was a Pembrokeshire bitch called Fan, then later we kept one of her long-tailed Cardiganshire pups called Cardi. They used to be shut in the boot of the Morris Minor when we went on holiday, and were very badly behaved. They would chase the animals and roll in the cow pats out on walks, and Dadi would dip them in the river to clean them. Cardi would chase passing traffic too, and eventually met his end this way. No doubt this was how dogs were
treated on the small farm in Gwynfe where my father grew up.
Unlike most children we knew, we didn't go to chapel except during those holidays in Llangadog. It was only when my father retired (when I was fifteen) that we started at Sunday School and chapel. He decided it was time I was confirmed, so I went to classes at Cefn Meriadog with the Rev. James Humphries, where I met up again with some of the children who had attended that first school with me.
Other holiday treats were camping with the Urdd in Llangrannog, with girls in wooden cabins at the top of the field, and boys in the row of army tents at the bottom. This was my first experience away from home on my own, and I loved the walk down to the beach to swim, and the meals and sing-songs in the main tent – 'Ging-gang-gwli' will always be with me. I also went to the Urdd national eisteddfod in Ammanford in the 'dawns werin' team, wearing my Welsh costume. I stayed with a family who introduced me to Enid Blyton books – I was allowed to take 'Five go to Smugglers' Top' home.
Back in school, I was approaching the eleven plus, or scholarship as we called it. In our cass all thirteen eleven-year-olds took the exam that year – seven girls and six boys. Six girls passed, but only one boy, who happened to be Mrs Bateman's son. We moved on to 'ysgol uwchradd' and our paths diverged. The sunny innocence was over, and self-consciousness and adolescence overtook me.
Mary Ash (Lewis)