The Real Aberystwyth?


You can't get lost in Aberystwyth. Steal something and they'll see you. Have an affair and you'll be spotted. And the louche trollops of the town, despite Malcolm Pryce, do not wear stove pipe hats. The druids don't run the milk bars. I couldn't find the ice cream shops Finch, 2008:9.

The Welsh everyday explorer Peter Finch prides himself on documenting the real Cardiff, yet when investigating Aberystwyth he could not find Pryce's ice cream shops. He could be forgiven for believing they were real. But Pryce's Aberystwyth is only 'semi-real'.

As various people have pointed out, my version is a parallel universe version of Aberystwyth which is superimposed on the real one. The two versions are not exactly congruent: my Aberystwyth incorporates recognisable aspects of the real world, such as for example the Prom, Castle & Pier. Other parts are pure invention Pryce, in correspondence.

This mix of the 'real' and 'pure invention' discouraged Pryce to add a map of his Aberystwyth in his series, even though this could have helped adventurers like Finch to find a milk bar in a storm. Listen to Malcolm Pryce explain why he didn't create a map of his Aberystwyth.

Canticle Capers

Some of the key places in Aberystwyth Mon Amour are pure invention. The first is Louie's office.

In this opening section we are introduced to the style and sites of Aberystwyth Mon Amour. The first person soliloquy of Louis, talking us through the characters and atmospheres of the world he inhabits, contextualising them through specific locations of the town, in the hard boiled and chinking glass spirit of noir fiction. However, many of the locations sited in this opening are not actual locations to be found on any conventional cartography of the town. As one reader, 'Angela from Chepstow' points out:

I have just finished reading the third book by Malcolm Pryce. What brilliant reads. However one thing is bugging me. He makes several references to actual street names - Eastgate, Pier Street, Bridge Street etc - but he also mentions on several occasions a street called Canticle Street. Has there ever been or is there in Aberystwyth a street by this name? in BBC, 2012.
[With reference to my question] I have just had a reply from Malcolm Pryce himself: "Hi Angela. Yeah, Canticle Street. Sorry you couldn't find it – there are a number of errors & inaccuracies in the real Aberystwyth. I've written to the mayor but it's no use. I'd stick to the books if I were you. :) in BBC, 2012.

As the novel suggests, if one takes 'two lefts out the door' from Louie's fictional office you will find yourself on the Old Prom. Canticle Street is therefore likely to be masquerading in real life as Corporation Street or Portland Street.

Later in the series, Louis decides to move offices, this time to a street that coincides with the cartographies of more accepted map-makers, as is described in The Unbearable Lightness of Being in Aberystwyth:

'...Your office is in Canticle Street isn't it?'
'Used to be, we've moved to Stryd-y-Popty.'
Today was the first official day of business in the new office and my feet hesitated for a second outside the old one but I forced them on up Canticle Street to take the unfamiliar left at the top into 221B Stryd-y-Popty. The street where the Poptys live, whatever they were. Judging by the windows, popty was Welsh for twitching net curtain. As with the old office, I entered through a door at the side and climbed up stairs coated in a carpet thinner than gossamer. There were two flats at the top — 1a and 1b. I hadn't met the occupier of 1a but judging by the wine bottles in the bin outside it was probably a student. Or the Mayor 2005:22.

Complete with a tip of the fedora to Conan Doyle (presumably discreetly returned by a doff of the deer stalker), Pryce moves the office of his detective to 221 Popty Street (Welsh for Baker). This location can be found on conventional cartography, and if Louis takes the 'unfamilar left at the top' of Canticle Street to arrive there, this suggests the latter is actually Portland street.

Seafood, Sospan's and Singers

In Aberystwyth Mon Amour's opening paragraph we are also introduced to more fictional locations, and it is to them we now tour: the 24-hour Whelk Stall, Sospan's ice-cream kiosk, and the Druid-run Moulin Club in Patriarch Street. If we retrace our steps back to the Old Prom, as Louis himself did in Aberystwyth Mon Amour, we can locate the Whelk Stall.

Later in the novel, Pryce locates the Whelk Stall specifically "at the foot of Constitution Hill" 2001:240. In the Unbearable Lightness of Being in Aberystwyth it is here that Louis, with Llunos the local police detective, look for clues to solve a 100 year old murder case, deducing that the low lives enjoying the whelks would share some evolutionary species resemblance:

We pulled up outside Alexandra Hall.
'We'll start with the bivalves,' said Llunos as if the bottom of the evolutionary chain was the obvious place to start. We walked up to the twenty-four-hour Whelk Stall. The kid in charge was setting out the evening's selection: pools of vinegar in crinkle- sided cardboard trays in which floated the shrivelled viscera of the sea; wooden spoons; jars in which more bits of sea flesh floated like preserved organs in a ghoul's laboratory; the stench of seaweed on rocks uncovered at high tide 2005:86.

Pryce outlines how the Whelk Stall was later replaced by a Moules Mariniere booth, as gentrification slowly regenerates even the seafront of Aberystwyth.

Just along the Old Prom from Alexandra Hall, Sospan's Ice Cream Stall can be found, as described in The Day Aberystwyth Stood Still.

Dispensing philosophy and the word on the street, along with the more conventional cones and wafers, Sospan's "blue-and-white wooden box" is "situated on the Prom midway between the bandstand and Constitution Hill".

The Moulin Club


In the old days, of course, if we wanted to gulp our pleasure giddily we just went to the Moulin — Wales's most notorious nightclub. A place that had stood for so much that was good and bad about the town Pryce, 2003:41.

Lastly, in the opening section to Aberystwyth Mon Amour, Louis refers to the Moulin Club on Patriarch Street. Patriarch Street itself does not exist in Aberystwyth, but its name perhaps refers to hierarchical and unbalanced power relations between genders that the Moulin Club embodies, with male Druids running the show, and women selling the promise and practice of nightly relations at a fixed price. Where the Moulin Club is in Aberystwyth remains an open question, yet the interested beachcomber can identify some clues.

The Salvation Army shop and 'bow windows' exist on many houses in the 'little backstreets that warren' the town centre (see Griffiths, 2008:80). As we wander back through these streets, back to the Old Prom, we suggest that the Moulin Club, temporarily relocated to the end of the Pier (see 2003:41) could be located here.

Aberystwyth Central: Where Dreams and Reality Blur


Strange how, in Wales, mythology often has a real-world counterpart. … Dream and reality blur Griffiths, 2008:69.

As we have seen, Pryce's Aberystwyth could be argued to 'float' over the real Aberystwyth. However, as we explore this literary geography further we realise that although some locations are purely invented, many sites have their real world counterparts. For these sites, the 'dream' and reality blur as the fictional and the real are blended together.

A good place to showcase this is the Bandstand on the Old Prom, a short walk from Louis' office.

The Old Bandstand, Aberystwyth, Wales
The Old Bandstand, Aberystwyth, Wales. Photo by Dogfael under Creative Commons
The New Bandstand, Aberystwyth, Wales
The New Bandstand, Aberystwyth, Wales.

According to Ceredigion Council, Aberystwyth's Edwardian bandstand was first built in 1935 and has since been used by many bands including Led Zeppelin. It was originally built roofless but then was adapted and improved to protect the musicians and audience from the weather. A completely new building replaced the old one in 2016 and an outside walkway was added around the base.

Hotels host the seafront here. In Aberystwyth with Love, the Belle Vue is the site of regular meetings between Barnaby and Merlin, sharing secrets about candy-rock production, whilst in Last Tango in Aberystwyth, one of these hotels is fictionalised as The Excelsior.

Belle Vue Hotel, Aberystwyth, Wales
The Belle Vue Hotel, Aberystwyth, Wales.

Such 'rickety dowager's serve Pryce's inhabitants with questionable food and service from a bygone era. Such references to Brown Windsor soup (a mid-twentieth century British shorthand for poor quality cuisine) historically positions Pryce's Aberystwyth in an ambiguous period. Although this is a town within living memory, locating it precisely in time is not Pryce's aim. Louie Knight drives a Wolseley Hornet (a saloon car made in the 1930s by a long defunct British manufacturer), and Calamity is paid 50p per day for her initial detective duties (at the time of writing 50p may just about buy you a packet of sweets). For the author his Aberystwyth:

is set in that neverland that fiction about superheroes occupies. When, for example, is Superman set? Or Batman? I know the Batman comics were probably written in the 30s but the world exists in a time of its own. My Aberystwyth is notionally set in the 80s but in many respects belongs in the 50s, a world of Enid Blyton type criminality, and no mobile phones Pryce, in correspondence.

This Aberystwyth is therefore approximate to Pryce's own childhood in the town, transfigured into a British childhood of ginger ale, bad soup, keeping calm, and carrying on. It's a version of the country that as Pryce admits, probably never existed.

The Pier

If one turns to the south we see The Royal Pier. The Pier hosts amusement arcades, bars, and music; these modern day pleasures mask the original reasons for their construction.

Originally piers were functional constructions, built to tie boats up to, boats that once plied the main with big smokestacks and restaurants and children in sailor suits or miniature frock coats; but the boats have gone and the projections into the sea remain like those towers they built to enable passengers to alight from Zeppelins in the early years of the twentieth century 2009:150.

The Royal Pier in Aberystwyth was built in 1865 and was originally 242 metres long; it became the centrepiece of the town that marketed itself as 'the Biarritz of Wales'. Storms regularly damaged the pier, but the pier was regularly refurbished throughout the twentieth century, albeit foreshortened in length.

Pryce's pier perhaps symbolises the hopes, dreams, and thwarted ambitions of those who inhabit his version of the town.

Aberystwyth Pier
Aberystwyth Pier, Aberystwyth, Wales. Photo by Ed Chadwick under Creative Commons

Despite the pangs of melancholia that the pier suggests to Pryce, it is also the roost of starlings and the site of fantastic murmurations on a late Summer's evening:

The Pier began to blink with light; to ping and ding and tinkle; to emit the hot smell of scorched ozone, which mingled on the night breeze with the heavier reek of fried onion and grease-encrusted hot-dog van. Under the Pier, hidden in the gloomy forest of ironmongery, roosting starlings emitted a collective mutter 2001:92.


It was at the pier that Louis first met his sidekick, Calamity. Listen to Malcolm Pryce talk about creating Calamity.

Louis first meeting with Calamity in the amusement arcade on the Pier, happens like this.

Over the course of the series, Louis develops a paternal set of relations with Calamity, each respecting the other and their quasi-familial partnership providing the emotional bedrock of the stories. Listen to Malcolm Pryce talk about the relationship between Louis and Calamity.

The nature of these relations are well described in The Day Aberystwyth Stood Still.

From the Pier to the Hinge

If one walks from the pier and continue south along the Prom, the vastness of Cardigan Bay becomes apparent. This is a particularly picturesque view at night as the lights from the settlements along the coastline come into view.

Aberystwyth at Night, Wales
Aberystwyth at Night, Wales. Photo by Werner Wilmes under Creative Commons
Aberystwyth at Night, Wales
Aberystwyth at Night, Wales. Photo by Velvet Android under Creative Commons
Aberystwyth at Night, Wales
Aberystwyth at Night, Wales. Photo by Carl Jones under Creative Commons

Further along the Prom the Old College imposes itself on the skyline. This building sited Barnaby and Merlin's pink-smoke belching Rock Factory in Aberystwyth Mon Amour, and following the denouement to that story, remains throughout the series as a key landmark in the town.

The Old College Aberystwyth, Wales
The Old College, Aberystwyth, Wales. Photo by tracey_dw under Creative Commons

Pryce acknowledges that in reality, the mosaic of Archimedes is in fact Old Father Time. The building itself was constructed in 1795 and became home to a college of higher education, which later transformed into Aberystwyth University.

The Old College Aberystwyth, Wales
The Old College, Aberystwyth, Wales. Photo by Bruce Ruston under Creative Commons

It is in the Old College / Rock Factory that Dai Brainbox perfected the art of inserting words into sticks of candy, commonly signaturing the holiday destination for tourists and visitors, and changing them as the candy is sucked away.

You know, so it starts off saying Blackpool and then after a few mouthfuls it says Zanzibar or something. It's one of the last great challenges of the rock-maker's art. And he cracked it. Just like that. Sat down with a pen and paper and a set of log tables and worked it out. So then the management make him head of R&D and within a week - and the kid is still in school, don't forget, hasn't even done his O levels - within a week he'd found a way of computer type-setting the letters. Saved a fortune: twenty old- timers were thrown out of work the same afternoon 2001:39.
Aberystwyth Seaside Rock
Aberystwyth seaside rock.

Crazy Golf

Beneath the shadows of Old College is the town's crazy golf course. For Pryce this pastime serves up the opportunity to wistfully reflect on the windmills of fate intrinsic to human existence.

The Crazy Golf Course, Aberystwyth, Wales
The Crazy Golf Course, Aberystwyth, Wales.

Castle Point


If you walk south past the Pier and the Bandstand you come to Castle Point where the Promenade turns sharply as if on a hinge 2001:39.
The Castle, Aberystwyth, Wales
The Castle, Aberystwyth, Wales. Photo by Bob Kingsley under Creative Commons
At the castle, I wandered through the piles of shattered stone and climbed up on to the hill by the war memorial. The sky was filled with bulbous shiny clouds hinting of a storm to come and churning the sea into soapy dishwater 2003:27.
The Castle, Aberystwyth, Wales
The Castle, Aberystwyth, Wales. Photo by Alex Liivet under Public Domain

And beneath the Castle, a specially adapted dungeon, where some of those found guilty of the crimes perpetrated in Aberystwyth Mon Amour were held.

The Harbour

Further along the seafront we come to Aberystwyth harbour.

Aberystwyth Harbour, Wales
Aberystwyth Harbour, Wales. Photo by Bob Kingsley under Public Domain
I like the harbour. Swans. A grebe, once, great-crested, swimming peeping and lost between the pleasure boats, some of which are bigger than my house. The posh flats - mostly holiday homes - look out over it all, part of the ongoing plan to do an Eliza Doolittle on the area... Griffiths, 2008:111.

As Niall Grifiths recounts, the harbour is a place of gentrification in the 'real' Aberystwyth. For Pryce, it remains the place where human wrecks are washed up, at the end of the Prom, at the end of the line.

I walked up Great Darkgate Street and through the castle grounds towards the bed-and-breakfast ghetto down by the harbour. This was where the ventriloquists tended to stay, along with the out-of-work clowns, the washed-up impresarios and the men who ran away from the bank to join the circus 2003:27.
Aberystwyth Harbour, Wales
Aberystwyth Harbour, Wales. Photo by John Clift under Public Domain

From here we can walk back to the town centre, and as we do so, it is possible to pass by the following plotpoints.

Laura Place


Calamity and I sat stiff-backed on a bottle-green chesterfield next to a Georgian window overlooking Laura Place. It wasn't much of a 'Place' really, any smaller and it would have been called Laura Mews. But it possessed an air of modest affluence. It was the sort of square where you might expect to come across a film crew and a horse and carriage clip-clopping across the cobbles; just the sort of address, in fact, to which country doctors retired. We stared at a mantelpiece crowded with knick-knacks - framed photos, china figurines, a Toby jug holding letters from abroad, a brass shell case acting the part of a vase for dried flowers, a brass bowl containing hairpins, matches and a bottle of eye ointment. 2001:57
Laura Place, Aberystwyth, Wales
Laura Place, Aberystwyth, Wales.

We now return to the north of the town centre and begin a further plotline at Constitution Hill.

Terrace Road


Terrace Road was glossy with rain and the pavements thick with holidaymakers forced from their caravans in search of stimulus. In their clear plastic macs they jostled each other and stared with disconsolate, rain-washed faces into shop windows. I shook my head sadly. What sort of life must they have come from, I wondered, if this represented a holiday? 2001:76
Terrace Road, Aberystwyth, Wales
Terrace Road, Aberystwyth, Wales. Photo by danielfigfoz under Public Domain

Taking a Constitution

At the north end of the Old Prom is Constitution Hill. It is possible to ascend to the summit on foot, but alternatively the funicular Cliff Railway can also take you to the top. According to Pryce, the Cliff Railway 'creeps up the hill at the speed of lichen' growing 2005: 111; ironically he suggests that is the train you take 'when your life has gone wrong' ibid.

Constitution Hill
The Aberystwyth Cliff Railway on Constitution Hill, Wales. Photo by Dave Goodman under Creative Commons
The view from the Aberystwyth Cliff Railway
The view from the Aberystwyth Cliff Railway, Wales. Photo by Rain Rabbit under Creative Commons

This video shows the view from the cliff railway as it climbs to the top:

Camera Obscura

At the top of Constitution Hill it is possible to view the curvature of the Earth with the naked eye, but also through the camera obscura.

The Aberystwyth Camera Obscura
The Aberystwyth Camera Obscura, Wales. Photo by sleepymyf under Creative Commons

A Camera obscura, also referred to as pinhole image, occurs when an image of a scene at the other side of a screen such as a wall is projected through a small hole in that screen as a reversed and inverted image (left to right and upside down) on a surface opposite to the opening. The surroundings of the projected image have to be relatively dark for the image to be clear, so many historical camera obscura experiments were performed in dark rooms. The Aberystwyth Camera Obscura is the largest in the world.

A view inside the Aberystwyth Camera Obscura
A view inside the Aberystwyth Camera Obscura, Wales. Photo by Phil Shirley under Creative Commons

Once one is fortified with "a styro-foam cup with tea the colour and strength of a horse" from the Consti Hill café, one can continue over the brow of the Hill to Clarach.

Clarach

Taking a route inland, one can walk on the north facing slope of Constitution Hill skirting a forestry plantation. It was here that in Aberystwyth Mon Amour, the evil protagonist Dai Brainboc's Mam lived.

I found Dai Brainbocs's Mam in her cottage overlooking Clarach. It was the side which faced north and, permanently shielded from the sun, lived in sodden perma-gloom like the homeland of the Snow Queen. I parked my Wolsely Hornet in a lay-by set aside for undiscriminating picnickers and walked along the path cut into the side of the hill. The leaves underfoot squelched and the air had the cloying dampness of a tropical rainforest. The stones of the mouldering cottage had a cheesy consistency and water dripped from the eaves; where the drops fell there were malevolent looking white flowers that probably didn't grow anywhere else in Britain outside Kew Botanical Gardens. I knocked and called out, but getting no answer I pushed the door and went in 2001: 88.
Clarach, near Aberystwyth
Clarach, near Aberystwyth, Wales.

If one retraces ones step to Cliff Path, one arrives at Clarach. Clarach is a small shingle bay with a caravan park and a small holiday village.

Clarach, near Aberystwyth
Clarach, near Aberystwyth, Wales.

Our plotlines now return to Aberystwyth, in order to take the inland route to the north and Ynyslas.

Penglais Hill

If one buckles up in your Wolseley Hornet at the bottom of Penglais Hill, a magical journey awaits. Crunching into low gear, we rise up past three great public institutions of Aberystwyth: the hospital, the University, and the National Library of Wales. The latter’s grounds offers spectacular views across the town, and on a clear day the mirage of Cantref y Gaelod can be made out on the horizon.

The National Library
The National Library, Aberystwyth, Wales, Wales. Photo by Hoops Hooley under Creative Commons
View from the National Library
View from the National Library, Aberystwyth, Wales. Photo by Miguel Sevilla-Callejo under Creative Commons

The library stores a reference copy of every book published, but is rarely frequented by the characters in the Aberystwyth series.

The Slow Road to Borth

Louis and Myfanwy continued their journey past the National Library.

Borth
Borth, near Aberystwyth, Wales.

In The Day Aberystwyth Stood Still, Pryce describes the same journey in the following way:

I drove back to the junction and turned left onto the slow road to Borth, with an exultation in my heart like a dog who hears his master fetch the lead. The track rises and dips, rises and dips, and the bonnet of the car points skyward for a while, like the prow of a fishing boat, before plunging into the enveloping abyss of green. The succession of hills and dales across which cows wander like currants in a cake acquires a rhythm, and like a musical passage it builds with a sense of expectancy until reaching a crescendo. Everyone who knows this road knows the crescendo: that moment when you clear the brow of the final hill and the coast for the next 50 miles flashes into view. It doesn't matter how often you have seen it, you are always taken aback by the piercing, glittering beauty. 2011:88

Borth

Borth is the small seaside town one arrives at when you descend the hill that completes the slow road from Aberystwyth. Borth, according to Pryce, is a like a ‘fake Dodge City constructed by a movie studio in which all the buildings were frontages”. It is a long thin, ribbon settlement, squeezed in between the seashore on one side, and the bog on the other. In Aberystwyth Mon Amour, Louis describes Borth from his Wolseley:

As you move along the coastline, the beach becomes dunes, and the dunes become a links golf course.

Borth Sand Dunes
Borth Sand Dunes, near Aberystwyth, Wales.

The reference to Patagonia acknowledges the Welsh settlements along the coast of the Chubut Province, established in the 1860s and encouraged by the Argentine government. These Welsh outposts were broadly welcomed and the emigrees became assimilated into local society and cultural relations remain between the region. The vets of Patagonia only exist to treat animals.

Louis Knight had a caravan in Ynyslas, a point at the northern edge of 'Pryce Country'. Anyone visiting this spot would be in no doubt as to its rugged beauty, as Pryce describes in The Day Aberystwyth Stood Still:

I lay asleep in my caravan in Ynyslas. The far-off susurration of the waves was barely audible, but the wind coming in off the sea cuffed the caravan like the hand of a giant schoolteacher and made the metal fabric sing. There is something deeply comforting about that sensation, of feeling protected and cocooned in warmth and yet aware, too, of the proximity of the ocean. Ynyslas is 6 miles north of Aberystwyth and lies hidden from the world in a corner of sand adjacent to the estuary. During the day in summer nothing moves here except tide and cloud and, occasionally, across the estuary on the distant hill, two carriages of a toy train going north. 2011:55
Ynyslas Ynyslas -->
Ynyslas, near Aberystwyth, Wales. Photo by Welsh photographs under Creative Commons
My caravan was on the landward side of the dunes and enjoyed a view over the top of the other caravans through the netting of TV aerials to the Dovey Estuary. When you die, if you have enough clout to get in the VIP seats, this estuary is what you look at 2011:88.
Ynyslas
Ynyslas, near Aberystwyth, Wales.
Ynyslas
Ynyslas, near Aberystwyth, Wales. Photo by meyrick ames under Creative Commons

Cantre'r Gwaelod

In Aberystwyth Mon Amour, Brainbocs writes about another location in Cardigan Bay called Cantre'r Gwaelod:

Brainbocs, the finest schoolboy scholar of the century, had written an essay about the lost kingdom of Cantref-y-Gwaelod. Now his teacher Lovespoon was masterminding a scheme to reclaim the land and sail there in an Ark. What did it all mean? And, more to the point, how on earth were they going to get the boat to the sea? It was five miles away. 2001:87-8
Petrified Forest, Cardigan Bay, Wales
Petrified Forest, Cardigan Bay, Wales.

In Brainboc's essay, a plan was hatched, a plan worth killing over:

I know Brainbocs was working on Cantref-y-Gwaelod; I know he disappeared shortly after handing his essay in; I know the kids say he stumbled on to something big, something the Welsh teacher didn't like. I know Lovespoon is planning to reclaim the land of Cantref-y-Gwaelod and take a group of pilgrims there in an Ark. I know three other kids working on the same essay are dead and one is missing . I presume they were killed because they copied Brainbocs's homework and found out whatever it was he found out. I know you lost your job about the same time as well. And it's my guess you were punished for helping Brainbocs.' The old Museum curator wiped his greasy fingers down the thighs of his trousers and shook his head gently in admiration as he recalled Brainbocs's scholarship. His voice took on a sad and distant quality. 'The Cantref-y-Gwaelod stuff was genius. No other word for it. He did it all, you know. This whole Exodus project to build the Ark and settle the land - it was all Brainbocs's idea. He was down the Museum a lot, usually in the archives. He wanted to do things with the school essay that people didn't even dream could' But surely he couldn't really locate this lost iron-age kingdom?' 'This boy could do anything. You know how he pinpointed where it was? Triangulation. He set up recording devices at points along the coast where people claimed they could hear the ghostly bells; then he analysed the Doppler shift in the frequencies and then did a load of sums I wouldn't have a clue about and triangulated the source of the bells. Unbelievable. And that was just the start. Then he took echo soundings to map the terrain and draw up the drainage scheme. And to cap it all he designed the Ark.' 2001:125-6

Niall Griffiths explains this reference to Cantre'r Gwaelod:

Anterior to the ebbing waves I can see the shapes of the petrified forest that may have given rise to the story of Cantre'r Gwaelod, the drowned land. Once, the story goes, part of Cardigan Bay was a very fertile low-lying land surrounded by dykes and floodgates. On the night of a thanksgiving festival, which happened to be stormy, the guardian of the gates, Seithenyn, got drunk and fell asleep and forgot to close the gates and the wind drove the sea through to drown the land and all that lived on it. …On still nights you can hear the church bells tolling beneath the waves, et cetera. Over a thousand people were drowned. Real Aberystwyth, 2008:69

This video shows the remains of the petrified forest.

Our next plotline begins back in Aberystwyth and chuffs from the Railway Station to Devil's Bridge.

The Railway Station


The old Great Western Region terminus on Alexandra Road got smaller every time you went; like a family of impoverished aristocrats who had closed down all the rooms and were living in the scullery. 2007:105.
Aberystwyth Station
Aberystwyth Station, Wales. Photo by Ed Webster under Creative Commons

Aberystwyth is at the end of the (train)line. God's Wonderful Railway (GWR) terminates here. In actuality, the railway station on Alexandra Road is not actually shrinking, as Pryce suggests above, but it is being taken over. Chain pubs and local curry houses colonise its interior, with the arrival of the 15.18 from Birmingham New Street becoming incidental background noise to the ordering of mango chutney and the slurping of craft beer. But the railway station is not simply a stage for the chorus line of sag aloo and naan nourishment, or the main point of locomotive exit to the heartlands of Wales and the industrial Midlands, it is also the portal to the Rheidol Valley on the Devil's Bridge railway.

Every railway station has a zone way out beyond the normal hubbub. Most people are too lazy to walk that far, but once you pass a certain point, beyond the front of the longest train, beyond the final pillar where the last awning peters out, the atmosphere changes; noise drops off, a wind that has been absent from the cauldron of the town centre cools your brow. The only sound comes from the soles of your shoes. This is where the narrow-gauge steam train to Devil's Bridge stands awaiting orders. 2011:19
Devil's Bridge Station
Devil's Bridge Station, Wales. Photo by Ed Webster under Creative Commons

The Devil's Bridge Railway opened in 1902. Louis took the Devil's Bridge train in The Day Aberystwyth Stood Still, travelling inland as the railway follows the passage of the river Rheidol.

We were quiet for a while, each enjoying the simple loveliness of the Rheidol valley gliding past. It seemed to gain in splendour through the action of the train's chuffing. A smile spread unbidden across my face, and the boy on seeing this assumed it was addressed to him and smiled in return. I felt touched. 2011:22

In the Aberystwyth series, the beauty of this valley masks the horrors of the fictional construction of the railway.

Devil's Bridge

The Vale of Rheidol railway helped Devil's Bridge become a tourist attraction. The Devil's bridge itself spans Afon Mynach, a tributary of the Rheidol, when the river drops 90m in five stages down a narrow ravine. This drop can be accessed via steps known as Jacob's Ladder. According to local history see Hutton, 1891, the original bridge was built after an old woman lost her cow and saw it grazing on the other side of the river. The Devil appeared and agreed to build a bridge in return for the soul of the first living thing to cross it. When the bridge was finished, the old woman threw a crust of bread over the river, which her dog crossed the bridge to retrieve, thus becoming the first living thing to cross it.

Our final plotline swaps the Devil for inland dams, and the location of Nant y Moch reservoir.

To Nant y Moch

The denouement of Aberystwyth Mon Amour involves a World War II Lancaster Bomber, an office cleaner, and a dammed lake in the Penpegws massif. This dammed lake, Nant-y-Moch reservoir, was created in 1964 and forms part of the Cwm Rheidol hydroelectric power scheme. Echoing in some senses environmental activism in the United States, both fictional Abbey, 1991 and actual, a plan is hatched to destroy this dam and flood Aberystwyth.

Nant y Moch Dam
Nant y Moch Dam, Wales. Photo by Statkraft under Creative Commons

Louis drives to Nant-y-Moch reservoir in the following plotline:

I dropped Myfanwy off at her flat overlooking Tan-y-Bwlch and drove uphill to Southgate and then turned left into the mountainous hinterland beyond. The sun was shining in Aberystwyth but as I climbed it clouded over until soon I was driving through a chilly fog, in a world of drystone walls and cattle grids. Frightened sheep clung to the banks on either side of the road, wondering desperately how they were going to get back into the fields from which they had somehow escaped. As the mist thickened, I drove through sad unenchanted forests of conifers planted in uniform rows by the Forestry Commission, occasionally passing sticks set in the fence, with rubber shovels to beat out fires. From time to time glimpses of Nant-y-moch reservoir glinted in staccato bursts through the trees. And then the trees stopped and I found myself at a crumbling, weed-filled church yard on the slopes overlooking the reservoir. The church where Marty lies buried. I parked and made my way through the crooked slate teeth of the graves 2001:101

We walked in single file down a narrow track of loose shale through gorse bushes and found ourselves on the lake's shore. The waters were dark and sombre, and clouds brooded on the surface. Far out, in the centre of the lake, the spire of a church broke the surface. Birds wheeled about the sky, the waters lapped the shore gently. The world was quiet; even the bees had stopped humming. The only other human life came from a group of three artists painting in watercolours. 'Spooky,' said Calamity. 'Really spooky.' The reservoir lay on the east of the Penpegws massif, north of Devil's Bridge. She was right. Towns that have vanished from the face of the earth, beneath the waves or buried beneath desert sands, are not supposed to reappear. It is disconcerting; a rupture in the fabric of time that undermines the comfortable certainty which helps us get through the succession of days we call a life. Sometimes in periods of drought the outlines of ancient Saxon farms appear in the desiccated ground, visible from the air, like the bone structure of the earth revealed by X-ray photography. It is as if Father Time leaves ajar a door to a room that is normally locked. Such rare glimpses, like the appearance of comets in the heavens, make the skin prickle with primeval feelings for which we struggle to find names but which, no doubt, would be familiar to the Iron Age watcher of the skies. 2009:57

Nant y Moch Dam
Nant y Moch Dam, Wales. Photo by CovLtwt under Creative Commons

The hamlet of Nant-y-moch was flooded to create the reservoir. This history is still poignant to many, but it is not beyond the pale for naughty schoolboys to apply their blackly comic humour to the situation.

Marty once told me that there was a village lying at the bottom of the lake; he said that it had been flooded when they built the dam and the man who printed the leaflets telling the people to quit their homes had got the dates mixed up and they all drowned. Marty said he never got any wedding invitations to do after that. It still makes me laugh. 2001:101

This video presents the Welsh-language documentary, Cyn Cefn Gwlad Nant y Moch, which features the construction of the dam before the village was flooded.

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