Ty‘n y Wern: My ‘House in the Meadow’

(From the memoirs of Horace Drake)

“There is no hedge round time that is gone.

You can go back and have what you like of it –

if you can remember.”

Richard Llewellyn

Opening Monologue: How Green Was My Valley

I was born in Tondu in South Wales on November 25th 1919 at a time when the Principality was emerging from the shadow of The Great War; ordinary people were weary of conflict and eager to resume their lives, but they would never be quite the same again. Those who had been servants before the war were reluctant to return to the same subservient role; wives who, at home, had taken total control of the family for four years were no longer the submissive spouses left behind in 1914. The cost of living had gone up in the interim, there was no new housing stock and few jobs for the healthy. More than 40,000 men were much less lucky – they had lost at least one limb in the war. The compensation package makes grim reading “The loss of a full right arm from the shoulder downwards was worth 16 shillings a week. 14 shillings were awarded if the arm was missing from below the shoulder but above the elbow, and then the rate dropped to 11 shillings and sixpence for limbs missing from below the elbow.”

There was no compensation for the tens (perhaps even hundreds) of thousands of men whose minds had been permanently affected by shells. Sadly this invisible illness was no less predominant after WW2. My future wife’s brother Eddy was one of the unlucky ones.

And to add insult to injury, the Spanish flu epidemic killed 40–50 million people Worldwide. This was assumed to have originated in an animal, possibly in the trenches, and it was a very lethal strain - nothing like it has been seen since.

My Parents in the 1940's

Alongside this, another event that changed our World – or perhaps our understanding of it, came in the month of my birth, when it was announced that Einstein’s Theories had been validated; maybe that’s why I’ve been so time-minded all my life! The solar eclipse of 1919 gave Eddington the chance to prove that light indeed bent around the sun exactly as Einstein had predicted in his general theory of relativity.

Tondu was the gateway to three river valleys – the Ogmore, Garw and Llynfi. Llynfi Street was just off the main Bridgend Road and just like any other street, except it faced the railway junction where my father, Arthur Drake, worked as a guard and years later I would join as a fireman. The signal box opposite the junction remains today, alongside the shunting yard, which has barely changed. My family lived at No.10 Llynfi Street and although it didn’t produce a future Prime Minister or Nobel prize winner, it did house a family which was as good-hearted and fundamentally decent as any you are likely to meet.

My father’s parents came from Somerset to the Pontypridd area in search of work; his father was a blacksmith so there was never any shortage of work looking after the pit ponies. My father was born in November 1882, by which time there were already a couple of elder brothers and sisters. Eventually they moved back to Somerset and in his mid-teens he joined the railway. It was not long before he was offered a job as a Shunter back in South Wales again – in Aberbeeg. His final move was to Tondu as a Guard.

Me, John and Lydia
My future wife Gwyneth at 18 months

My mother, Alice, was born in the Rhondda but poignantly her father had a fatal accident underground on the last shift before he was due to retire. As a result my mother became fiercely independent, going out to work at an early age and was a strict disciplinarian with her children in later life. She ended up at Wernddu Farm in Aberkenfig. This is where she met my father and they were married in St John’s Church in Aberkenfig in 1909. So, just as my early adult life was shaped by the outbreak of the Second World War, theirs was overshadowed by the Great War.

With my brothers in my early teens
With my siblings and my parents at
their Golden Wedding Anniv.

By Sawdde, Senny, Dovey, Dee,
Edw, Eden, Aled, all,
Taff and Towy broad and free,
Llyfnant with its waterfall
Claerwen, Cleddau, Dulais, Daw,
Ely, Gwili, Ogwr, Nedd,
Small is our River Llynfi, Lord,
A baby on a rushy bed.


Apologies to Dylan Thomas: from Under Milk Wood

The Ogmore river was once one of the best salmon rivers in Wales; in old Welsh the word for salmon is Eog, and the river estuary was called Mor in French or Mere in English; so the ancient name ‘Eog Mor’ means salmon water. The river was only about fifty feet wide but so clear that you could see every piece of rock through the bubbling water and so full of fish that you didn’t even need a rod. The local village Aberkenfig was named after the stream which we knew as the Kenfig river; in my youth it was used to operate a wheel which in turn drove the mill from which woollens were produced.

Ty’n y Wern (in the 1920’s)

In many ways our little habitat was a microcosm of the rural communities of South and West Wales, whose hills and river boundaries contained hundreds of tiny hamlets, some just groups of cottages at the end of a mountain track or down a wooded valley – provided there was a fresh water supply. Further west they remained staunchly Welsh-speaking, but I grew up in the first generation around Bridgend that spoke English predominantly.

The site had been occupied for hundreds of years, and when we moved there it was known as “Ty‘n y Wern” the “House in the Meadow”. I was the fifth child of eight with a few years gap between the fourth and myself. Three more children were born at Ty‘n y Wern after me, making a family of five boys and three girls. In descending order of age we were: Gwen, Cyril, William, Clifford, Horace, Lydia, John and Alice (known as Bettie). As the eldest of the younger group, I was required to set an example to them, and undoubtedly that bestowed on me a life-long sense of responsibility.

Falling out of the bedroom window at Ty’n y Wern

Ty‘n y Wern is said to date from around 1713. It was one of three very old private dwellings in the locality. I can close my eyes on my cottage as it is today and still see it as it was when I was a boy – no running water, no electric lighting and an outside oven in the pine end facing the footpath, which had not been used for years. With no running water all the water had to be carried from a nearby spring, which was the early morning task of my elder brothers before they went to school. Another job for the boys was to go to the village of Aberkenfig to purchase paraffin for lighting the lamps; at bedtime, traditional tallow candles were more suitable.

My first recollection of life (and nearly death!) was falling out of the front bedroom window at Ty‘n y Wern. I was about three years old when I crawled up the stairs and saw my father walking down the garden path. In my joy I gave him a friendly wave, and in doing so fell out of the small casement window and landed firmly on my back on the ground below! Luckily there was an earth flower border along the front of the cottage, so I landed amongst the flowers. Had the border been brick or concrete the result would have been much more serious; as it was the only damage was bruising and shock. After this near-fatal incident my father installed a door at the bottom of the stairs to prevent any more ‘near misses’. It sounds all too much like the old proverb “Closing the door after the horse had bolted!”

Around 1924 my father located water on the rising part of the field. He excavated the site and covered it over with railway sleepers. At last we had a source of water near to home. When I was five I remember my brothers taking me to look at the well. In the water we could see tiny fish, so we lay on our tummies watching the antics of these little creatures when – for reasons still unknown to me now – I fell into the well! My brothers must have been frightened because they ran away leaving me to my fate, but fortunately my sister heard me shouting. She ran up to the well, pulled me out, changed my clothing and put me to bed to recover from the shock.

Falling into the well

Two years later the miners were on a prolonged and bitter strike. To occupy the time, several of them came down from Sarn to help us build a solid stone well. They dug down about 10 feet with a diameter of 2 feet; our job was to get the stones to line the well all the way to the bottom, so we formed a chain system from the river to the well. The miners made a wonderful job of it. The water was always cold and the well always half-full. A cover was made and a bucket and chain installed. The old well was filled in and never used again.

“Twenty-two weeks the men were out as the strike moved into winter.
It was strange to go out into the street and find the men there in the
daytime”


Richard Llewellyn from ‘How Green Was My Valley’

Me with rotary pump
With my family at Ty’n y Wern

Ten years after the work of the miners and my father before them, I eventually played my part in bringing water to the house. I went to Weston-Super-Mare on a railwaymen’s outing and met my father’s brother, who gave me a rotary pump. I proudly carried it home with a view to getting the water to the house without having to carry it from the well. I ordered the galvanised pipes from the builders merchant, dug a trench from the well to the house and at last we had running water!

The next step forward for our house occurred when the gas board wanted to lay a gas main under a part of our property. My father agreed, provided they connected the ground floor of our cottage as well (they did not connect the upper floors for safety reasons), so it was goodbye to the oil lamps of my childhood. Now that my mother could have a gas cooker, there was no need for the small oven above the fireplace. So the old fireplace was removed and substituted for a modern one which used far less coal. A modern grate was fitted in the front room; new floors were also installed and the old flagstones removed. It might have taken the best part of 20 years but we finally had a lot of the creature comforts that today we take for granted.