Viv and Delyth: Mainland to Island

Viv and Delyth have been key figures in the campaign for self-government during the 1979 referendum. On 1st March, St David's Day, Wales voted against devolved government, four to one. In retaliation, Viv promised to leave Wales, or at least the mainland, and she and Delyth take their two small sons to form a new family and a new Wales on the island. Their visions of the island as a utopian space occur while waiting for the boat and before they have set foot on the island, suggesting this ideological projection on to the space of the island is easier from a distance.

Mereid: Bangor to Bardsey

Mererid misses the boat and, as with Viv's efforts thirty years earlier, the island is contemplated – anticipated – from afar. This day of waiting and miscommunication can be read as representing the contours of her relationship with Mark.

Deian: Liverpool to Bardsey

Since the disappearance of his mother in his late teens, Deian has been living in Preston. He makes the trip to Bardsey to conduct an archaeological survey – officially in Cae Uchaf, unofficially he searches on the south side of the island. On his way to the island this year, he was abandoned by his long-term girlfriend, Fran, with whom he shared the unwelcome news that the couple are infertile. Fran jumps overboard as the boat begins it's trip to the island.

Iestyn: Prison in Cardiff to Bardsey

From one enclosed and regulated space to another, Iestyn brings to the island both threat and possible closure.

Nuns Visit Bardsey

Sister Mary Catherine from Caldey Island, Sister Lucy Violet from Lundy Island and Sister Anna Melangell from Ynys Llanddwyn off Ynys Mon/ Anglesey visit Viv for the 2007 annual conference of hermits. "As far as she could tell, she was the only one who say the notion of an annual conference of hermtis as uite absurd." Fflur Dafydd recalls meeting four nuns who were under a vow of silence, much as Mererid does in the novel, but the nuns also allow Dafydd a way of considering language. The nun from south Pembrokeshire – that former colonial outpost, still known as 'Little England Beyond Wales' – is arrogantly, jealously, monolingual and objects to Viv and Anna Melangell using their native Welsh, demanding: "Would you kindly refrain from using that ungodly language… A congregation of hermits only speaks two languages – English and silence – that's how God defines bilingualism." p. 102. The irony will not be lost on those familiar with the belief that Welsh is the language of God.

R S Thomas's Welsh Testament

Deian: Preston to Bangor (Going Home)

Deian initially returns to Preston after leaving Bardsey at the end of the summer. But a more significant journey for him at the end of the novel is the one he makes from Preston (where Fran has moved herself and a welter of belongings in to his flat) to Bangor (where Mererid is moving in to an unfurnished but hopeful flat). It is a journey from an England where Deian has been in exile from his language, literally his mamiaith (mother tongue), back to a Welsh speaking Wales, anchored by the Welsh-language poet Mererid:

The more the language filled his mind, the more he thought about Mererid's lips pressed to his, her hand cupping his face in earnest, pressing her whole body onto him. He had daydreams of them both strolling along the pier in Bangor, holding hands, walking their dog. p. 247

On the Island

All the locations on the island are named as they are in real life, as Fflur Dafydd remarks in interview.

Carreg Bach
Carreg Bach.

Everyone who arrives at the island must enter via Y Cafn (the Cavern in the novel), where there is a slipway and a jetty.

The slipway and jetty
The slipway and jetty.

Brian, the boatman, pilots his way from Porthmeudwy and sometimes Pwllheli, when the wind and tide race permit. Brian's character is somewhere between a gruff gatekeeper and the bringer of bounty. Fflur Dafydd recalls that the arrival or absence of the boat was a key plot device. The epigraph to Twenty Thousand Saints includes a quote from Brenda Chamberlain: "Life on this, as on every small island, is controlled by the moods of the sea; its tides, its gifts, its deprivations."

The Cafn
The Cafn.

The island landmarks – from the lighthouse and bird hide in the south, the beaches of Solfach and Henllwyn, the chapel, school house, ruined abbey and the various cottages and houses that are let to visitors – can all be found in their accurate locations.

The island landmarks
The island landmarks.

The imaginative geography of the novel emphasises Mynydd Enlli, the mountain which rises to the east of the island – forming a barrier between the island and the mainland. The island is a refuge away from the mainland (and its phone signals) for many of the characters.

Mynydd Enlli
Mynydd Enlli.

On the steep eastern side the mountain plunges into the sea. Here are the Seal Cave and the high cliffs from which Iestyn jumps.

The Seal Cave and high cliffs
The Seal Cave and high cliffs.

Different characters are associated with different parts of the island.



Mererid is a writer in residence, a poet who is finding her way out of one relationship with the domineering academic Mark and into another with the more sympathetic Deian. She lives at the Lighthouse with Elin, "one of the island's volunteers". p. 7

The Lighthouse
The Lighthouse.
Mererid wakes in a dark room with orange curtains. She is aware of a force that shakes the room, makes the bed shudder. The fog horn rings on and on, and by the seventh time she hears it, it's become familiar, like the ticking of a clock. She peels back one small layer of curtain and is dewarfed by the sight of the lighthouse that stands above her, its ruthless red and white stripes, its unusual rectangular shape. I'm here, she thinks, really here. p. 43
The Lighthouse
The Lighthouse.


Mererid roams across the island, but the places most associated with her are the rocks and bird-hide at the south end of the island where she has sex first with Mark on a day visit, and later, with Deian.

The rocks at the south end of the island
The rocks at the south end of the island.
The whole day she is acting, one long, superb, brilliant performance, rolling herself out on the long green pastures, her back up against the rock on the south end, throwing herself onto him, again and again. When they are finished she drags him on, from the purple stone to the mustard-coloured rocks, clambering down over them quicker than a child… All the while she is thinking how open this space is, the breadth of blue air between her and the rocks, and how someone might be watching them from any number of crevices. p. 97

Bird Hide

On the eve of departure, Deian visits Mererid to say goodbye.

He suggested they went for a walk across the south end. They hopped over the white-washed walls and began walking out towards he sea, the island's final green finger reaching out to sea, becoming thinner and thinner. p. 223
White-washed walls
White-washed walls.

They have sex in the bird hide, sitting together afterwards, holding hands:

The bird hide
The bird hide.
They sat back down, side by side. After a few minutes, Mererid reached for his hand. He hadn't realised until he felt her hand on his how much he'd longed for it, more than anything else, all these weeks. Once it was within his grasp he squeezed it hard… Things seemed much easier for him on this side of the island, much simpler, he thought, they always had. He seemed freer here, he thought, caressing Mererid's fingers one by one. p. 225
The bird hide
The bird hide.


Deian grew up on Bardsey, but left after his mother went missing. He is working on an archaeological survey commissioned by the Island's management. He is mainly associated with the north end of the island, but the south end is a place associated with freedom and pleaseure.

Cae Uchaf

A field (the name means Upper Field) at the north end of the island. The survey aims to turn up nothing, but Deian plants fake finds to keep his volunteers keen. The imagery of an excavation, of uncovering layers of memory – including Deian's lost Welsh – is associated with this character.

Deian stood at the centre of the deserted field. He remembered the satisfaction he once felt, looking out over the soft furrows, recording his finds in his sheet. Usually, he'd need that time alone, just to savour the soil's offerings. But now, he felt nothing but emptiness. p. 31
Cae Uchaf Nant
Cae Uchaf Nant.

Deian's Loft

Deian is staying in the loft above the goat yard. All the farms on Bardsey have high walled enclosures, strong stone barns and lofts, several of which are converted into living spaces. Deian's loft is described as having a wooden staircase.

Deian's loft above the goat yard
Deian's loft above the goat yard.


Bardsey is a site of pilgrimage and Christian worship. The ruins of a thirteenth-century abbey stand at the north end of the island.

The ruins of a thirteenth-century abbey
The ruins of a thirteenth-century abbey.

In the novel, Viv has put up a plaque which memorialises her friend Delyth, Deian's mother.

In the end, Deian allowed Greta to come with him to see the plaque. Although he'd only known her for three weeks, it was enough on Bardsey, where a few weeks somehow amounted to a few years of friendship. … And so they'd stood there together, amidst the ruins of the Abbey tower, like man and wife almost, hands almost touching, reading a plaque that read 'Er cof am Delyth Davies, un o'r seintiau anwylaf a gollwyd' then in smaller writing beneath, In loving memory of Delyth Davies, one of Bardsey's most treasured saints.
'I don't know why they decided to make her a saint. She wasn't a saint,' he said without looking up. He found the gold glint of the plaque a little offensive." p. 54-55
Inside the ruined abbey
Inside the ruined abbey.
The cemetery next to the Abbey, with the Chapel and Ty Capel in the background
The cemetery next to the Abbey, with the Chapel and Ty Capel in the background.

Tŷ'r Ysgol / The School House

The island is a layered or haunted place for Deian, whose memories are triggered by specific locations.

Forgetting isn't the same as losing… All around him he heard the whispers and brogues of the island, the island that had spoken to him when he was a child, in Welsh, telling him wehre the best finds were. He'd run over to the south end and always find something, some little rectangular dark shape in the soil that would seem worthless until he'd leaned it all up. The island's voice, hoarse and haunting, guided him there, he was sure of it. Now, ten years on, the voices were absent, but they weren't gone. He'd pass Tŷ'r Ysgol and think of how his mother would call him a hogyn da and y 'nghariad bach i and yr hen ddiawl bach drwg and he'd know what they meant.
The old school house, a former chapel The door of the old school house
Top: The old school house, a former chapel. Bottom: The old school house door.

Above Cae Uchaf

When Iestyn Daniels - Deian's childhood friend, son of Viv and until recently the man convicted of murdering Delyth – walks in to Cae Uchaf, Deian is propelled back in time to recall their childhood on the island.

There had been no girls here when they were younger, it was an island full of women, even back then – the island being run with ruthless efficiency by baking, farming, red-cheeked active mothers, Delyth and Viv with their sleeves rolled up, their hair swept back, loaves of bread gathered under their shoulders and dead rabbits hanging from their wrists. And it was hard on pubescent boys without girls around the place, so much so that they'd resorted to doing all manner of things to each other on those hot, August afternoons, behind the bushes in Cae Uchaf. … He remembered then, how he'd sat in the bushes with his trousers around his ankles, struggling to bring himself off, and that after his weak climax (which he found out later had been witnessed by some unsuspecting holiday makers in from their barbecue at Tŷ Capel) he'd burst into tears. He could feel the emptiness even now, could remember how he'd watched the hot sun drying the semen with fascination, wondering if it was possible for him to reproduce some strange hybrid grass child with a luxurious green coat and his own brown eyes. p. 112

It is a scene that becomes mingled with his apparent infertility and the difficulty this has caused in his relationship with Fran, who chose not to go to the island.

Tŷ Capel and Cae Uchaf from above
Tŷ Capel and Cae Uchaf from above.


Leri, with her assistant Greta, is making a documentary. Ostensibly about island life, she and her Cardiff boss, Clive, are in fact planning to film what they hope will be the uproar created by the return of Iestyn Daniels. Leri, therefore, is focused on the comings and goings of the boat and on frequent trips to speak to Clive (which means walking up the mountain to get a phone signal).

Leri and Greta are staying in Carreg Bach, one of the few small cottages which has survived on the island.

She stared at the ceiling of their cottage. It was called Carreg Bach, the small rock; a red and white cottage perched just on the lower limbs of the Bardsey mountain, a pop-up house, springing out of the grass. She'd known, somehow, that it was the perfect cottage for them when she'd first seen it. Right at the heart of the island, yet somehow resolutely apart; looking across at the other houses, yet without being looked into. p. 35
Carreg Bach
Carreg Bach.

The novel opens with Leri at the Cafn, trying to capture the anticipation of people waiting for the boat and what it will bring.

"Men were scarce that summer. The women of Bardsey Island had begun giving each other languorous looks… it was only a matter of time before their glances and gestures sprouted hands and lips, before their wandering, unreal thoughts became the subject of island murmurs.
Or at least this is how, Leri thought, she would start her documentary, executed by a subtle, velvety voice-over, zooming in on the faces of the women lined up on the jetty, staring out to see. She adjusted the lens, slowly pulling away from the white dot emerging on the horizon." p. 8
Y Cafn The jetty Arrival of a morning boat
Y Cafn (top), the jetty (middle) and the arrival of a morning boat (bottom).

Mynydd Enlli/Bardsey Mountain

When her plans are going astray, Leri climbs the mountain to speak to Clive:

By the time she'd reached a small precipice on the side of the mountain, she had a sudden rush of blood to the head, sudden clarity. She could do this... She flipped open the mobile phone and waited for a signal. Nothing. The phone was dead to the world – she would have to climb higher to have any chance of connecting with Clive. Up she went,higher again, enjoying the feeling of being able to tower high above the island and its inhabitants. … She looked at her phone once more and was thrilled to see three whole bars of signal flashing up to greet her. She dialled Clive's number. … In ten minutes Clive had plotted a plan that seemed near-perfect. p. 123-24
From the top of Bardsey Mountain, a view of the boat heading to the mainland
From the top of Bardsey Mountain, a view of the boat heading to the mainland.
The side of Mynydd Enlli/Bardsey Mountain
The side of Mynydd Enlli/Bardsey Mountain.

Mererid, in contrast, uses the lack of a phone signal to escape from pressures on the mainland:

When they [Mererid and Deian] reached the mountain top, they looked across to the mainland, a mass of rising slopes above the blue… 'It's just that you almost forget it's there, don't you,' she said with a hint of deep sadness in her voice. "It's as if the island protects you from it, and makes it your choice to climb up here and face it.' She took out a small, silver, mobile from her rucksack. He heard one, two, four, six messages come hurtling out of the air and into her inbox. p. 83
Looking across the clouds to the mainland (Y Tir Mawr) from he top of Bardsey island Looking across the clouds to the mainland (Y Tir Mawr) from he top of Bardsey island
Looking across the clouds to the mainland (Y Tir Mawr) from the top of Bardsey island.

Elgar's Cave

After Leri's camera is smashed and her plans finally unravel, she seeks sanctuary in Elgar's Cave, or what is known as the Hermit's Cave, on the slopes behind the Bird Observatory.

Elgar's cave was cool and empty, like Leri soon hoped her mind would be this side of the mountain, facing inwards towards the island, felt much safer to her. She'd crawled in as far as she could on her hands and knees, and when she could get no further, she lay down, her breath hot on the damp rock, inches from her face. p. 198

Other Key Locations

Viv's home: Lloft Plas

She had the best view of the whole island. At least that's what Viv would tell Sister Mary Catherine in her letters. She omitted to mention that it was the best view if you were primarily interested in people.
Plas (left) and Cristin, now the Bird Observatory (right)
Plas and outbuildings. Lloft plas is in a converted barn on the left.

Nun's Accommodation: Oratory and Carreg

The nuns stay next door to the 'hermitage' or oratory, at Carreg (sometimes known as Carreg Fawr). Carreg was the home of Brenda Chamberlain, artist and writer, during her 14 years residence on the island from 1947. In this scene, the Nuns learn that the long-absent boat will depart the next morning, taking them away from the island.

The three nuns at Carreg were clinging on to one another as they entered the hermitage, as though Mwynwen was some kind of apparition … They squealed inside the dark kitchen as the news came, and Leri filmed their faces writhing with indecision. They asked if they could stay on. Mwynwen told them absolutely not; they had a group of Cistercian monks coming. p. 170
Carreg and the Oratory The Carreg's kitchen
Top: Carreg and the Oratory. Bottom: The Carreg's kitchen

Beaches: Henllwyn and Solfach

Henllwyn is dominated by seals, with the Cafn and jetty at the eastern end. Solfach is more secluded and sandy, and is the location of the island barbecue, and Viv's bathing.

Seals on Porth Henllwyn
Seals on Porth Henllwyn.
Porth Solfach
Porth Solfach.
Dusk on Porth Solfach
Dusk on Porth Solfach.

Bae'r Nant and the Eastern Coast

From the north end of the island, the tide race is clearly visible, with Uwchmynydd on the mainland beyond.

It is a precarious area of the island. Howard, the island manager, refers to an injured sheep, and Deian imagines Delyth jumping from the rocks into the sea.

Time and time again the vision returned to him of his mother walking out into the sea. Sometimes from the Cavern, sometimes leaping from Bae'r Nant, other times pulped by the rocks of the south. p. 140
The tide race Uwchmynydd on the mainland beyond
Top: The tide race. Bottom: Uwchmynydd on the mainland beyond

Eventually, on a trip round to the eastern side of the island, Iestyn recklessly leaps from the rocks to test his theory about Delyth's death.

Ogof Morlo/Seal Cave

The Eastern side of Bardsey is marked by a precipitous drop into the sea from the high mountain. It is the location of a dramatic scene of Iestyn's leap and Leri's undoing, but also growing intimacy of Mererid and Deian in the Seal Cave.

The Seal Cave (Ogof Morlo) features in the work of several writers besides Fflur Dafydd. Brenda Chamberlain describes 'The Cave of Seals' in Tide Race:

The cave, a narrow fissure always dark except at early morning when the sun shines in, was glutted through its narrow-necked entrance by the incoming tide. Below us a seal cow lay on her back in the bottle-green gloom of the cavern. With head out of water and flippers waving us to come down, down, to the depths of the sea, her brown eyes besought: Come to me, come ot me. Her arms extended, folded again to her creamy underside. So great was the human mermaid attraction, that I could have leapt to my death by drowning. p. 31
Cover of Brenda Chamberlain's The Tide Race
The Tide Race by Brenda Chamberlain

The cave's association with attraction and the intimacy it affords is used by John Sam Jones in his short story 'The Seal Cave', published in 2000 in Welsh Boys Too. In it two teenage boys have a liberating sexual encounter. The steep eastern side of the mountain and hence the cave is out of bounds to visitors because of the evident danger of falls, and thus while the kiss is joyous and exhilarating, the geographic location – secluded and out of bounds – suggests the possibility that queer sexualities are still somewhat beyond the pale in Jones's Wales.

Viv to Cardiff

Viv and Delyth left Wales for Bardsey in 1979 as a protest against the ‘No’ vote in the referendum. This journey from Bardsey to the Senedd in Cardiff in 2007 enacts Viv’s re-engagement with a devolved Wales. She finds the seat of Welsh government to be on something of an island itself, and imagines Wales itself as detaching itself from the UK: “All the time she had been away, Wales had been prising itself away from the mainland at its border.” p. 243

Deian: Bardsey to Preston

Deian’s journey from Bardsey to Preston at the end of the novel mirrors his journey as a teenager. after Delyth has gone missing and Deian’s friend, Viv’s son, is convicted of her murder. Deian leaves the island and goes to live with his father in Preston, forgetting the Welsh language.

Mererid: Bardsey to Bangor

Mererid was supposed to be getting married to Mark when she returned from Bardsey, but the island has allowed her the space to recognise the falseness of her relationship with Mark. Instead, after registering the jarring abundance and sensory overload of the mainland, she drives to the empty flat Mark has rented for her, overlooking the waterfront at ……

Visitors to Bardsey Island remark on the power of the place. The island rhythms, its weather, its wildlife, the treacherous tide race which makes the crossing uncertain, have been recorded by poets and writers in both Welsh and English. This 'plotline' briefly represents some of the 'other Bardseys' created in literature by Anglophone writers such as Brenda Chamberlain, R S Thomas, Christine Evans and John Sam Jones.

Bardsey Island / Ynys Enlli from Uwchmynydd
Bardsey Island / Ynys Enlli from Uwchmynydd.

Myths and communities

Perhaps the most famous accounts of the island is Tide-race, a modernist memoir published by Brenda Chamberlain in 1962.

Chamberlain, who lived on Bardsey between 1947-1961, describes life on the island after the majority of the original inhabitants had left for the mainland in the 'Exodus' of 1925.

We are a small community, only about twelve now, interdependent but at the same time independent. Our neighbours are fisher-farmers with feet on the earth and hands in the sea. … Life on this, as on every small island, is controlled by the moods of the sea: its tides, its gifts, is deprivations. p. 14

Through a series of anecdotes, imaginary scenes and dreams, and evocative stylised line drawings, Chamberlain creates a sometimes exaggerated and not always flattering picture of the island and its inhabitants, fusing past and present, nature and myth:

This is a land that hoards its past and merges all of time in the present. The cargo boat that was salvaged last year off Maen Bugail, whose coal cargo will keep he island in fuel for the next twenty years; the illicit sweet wine of France; the shipwreck of Arthur; are of equal importance and freshness. It might be said that what happened here yesterday has taken on the colour of a long-past event, so timeless do happenings appear to be; as if the drama had been written long ago, and we who come by chance to the island play our parts that were designed for us, walking on to the stage at the twitch of a string held in the firm hand of he master. Brenda Chamberlain, Tide-race, Seren Classics, p. 28


The abbey ruins
The abbey ruins.

Bardsey has been the site of Christian pilgrimage and settlement since the early days of Celtic Christianity. It is reputedly the burial place of 20,000 saints.

In R S Thomas's 'Pilgrimages' (read by RS Thomas), the poet turns the journey to the island into a pilgrimage of its own: "There is an island there is no going / to but in a small boat / the way the saints went…" Collected Poems 1945-1990, Dent, 1993, p. 364.

The surviving abbey is Augustinan and dates from the thirteenth century. Some of the original building was incorporated into the barn opposite.

The barn gates
The barn gates.

Christine Evans's poem, 'From the Stone' describes the borrowed stone:

This old Abbey stone, in the sun
is the colour of honey, highlighting
what seems a face -–
Christine Evans, Selected Poems, Seren 2003, p. 105


Bardsey belonged to the Newborough estate. In the 1870s, Lord Newborough asked the islanders whether they would prefer stone Jetty or a new chapel.

1870: fourteen families
told to choose: stone harbour
or chapel, larger, more devoutly distant
from the main track of farmwork, gossip,
washing spread across the gorse to dry.
Christine Evans, from 'Pulpit Enlli', Selected Poems (Seren Books, 2003), p. 103
The chapel
The chapel.

In 'Pulpit Enlli' Christine Evans recalls the story that the chapel was built around a grand carved pulpit, apparently a present from Egypt. The poem juxtaposes the ostentation of the pulpit with simpler forms of spirituality:

And the pulpit cannot let the silence
speak, leave the space clear
for healing. …
Selected Poems, Seren Books, 2003, p. 103
The chapel pulpit
The chapel pulpit.

Model Village

During the 1870s, Lord Newborough built most of the houses and barns, the yards with their stone pigsties roofed in Penrhyn slate, enclosed by high, protective walls. Brenda Chamberlain, who came to live on Bardsey in 1947, had expected smaller croft-like cottages and was not immediately attracted to the architecture when she first arrived on the island, but came to welcome the sturdy walls as well as the generous windows which brightened her home at Carreg.

At first sight the architecture of the eighty-year old farmhouse was a disappointment and a surprise. I had expected something more romantic, a crofter's cottage on the strand; fishing nes before the door, in keeping with the extreme simplicity of the landscape. Now that I live here, in a four-square granite house that no winds can shake, I feel differently. It is good to have a little distance between the house and the sea; even so, on wineter nights the roaring of the surf is monstrous. It booms as if under the foundations. There is no escape from the raving of wind and water. Brenda Chamberlain, Tide-race (1962; Seren Classics, 2007), p. 13.
Carreg, where Brenda Chamberlain – artist and writer – lived from 1947 to 1961
Carreg, where Brenda Chamberlain – artist and writer – lived from 1947 to 1961.

In her account of island life, Tide-race, Brenda Chamberlain changed the names of the houses, although most names bear a trace of the original. Carreg becomes Pen Craig, Carreg Bach becomes Ty Bychan, Nant is Pant and so on.

"A house on an island is not quite like other homes;" writes Brenda Chamberlain, "one feels impossibly far when away from it; and when here, it is sometimes a prison and sometimes a scanctuary." Tide-race, p. 13

It has its own clam atmosphere, something to do with the silent and remote island air; but perhaps it has more to do with the fact that the house is built from the ruins of the sixth-century abbey. The roof is cleverly broken up and there are no eaves. The south-wester simply streams over it; there is no plucking at the slates as there was in the cottage in the mountains where I lived during the war.
There are no dark corners. At breakfast-time, the living-room is bright with the sun shining over the mountain; and supper-time on a summer evening in the little study facing west across the Irish Sea to the horns of the Wicklows, is a time of molten gold and flame-coloured water, and of beneficent peace. Tide-race, p. 13

Coming of the Lighthouse

The lighthouse was established in 1821 following a number or wrecks. Until 1987 when it was automated, the lighthouse was manned and lighthouse keepers often brought their wives and families to live with them. Indeed, one of the lighthouse keeper's wives gave birth on the island in 1903.

Brenda Chamberlain describes a night in an unfurnished house in which 'the flashes of the lighthouse beam … scythed across the floor from the uncurtained windows' and 'Across the mountain the beam of the distant lamp was brighter than the moonlight. Illumination, calm and impartial.' (Tide-race pp. 52-53)
Today the sweeping beam of the lighthouse has been exchanged for an unobtrusive and less dramatic red beacon
Today the sweeping beam of the lighthouse has been exchanged for an unobtrusive and less dramatic red beacon.

The Seal Cave

Of all the locations on the island, it is the Seal Cave (Ogof Morlo) which appears most frequently and vividly in English-language writing about the island. Out of reach of ordinary visitors on the perilous eastern slopes of the island, it is the dramatic location of Iestyn's dive in Twenty Thousand Saints.

The eastern flanks of the island
The eastern flanks of the island.

The Seal Cave is often figured an intimate and erotic space. Mererid and Deian are just about to embrace when they are interrupted by the fight outside. Brenda Chamberlain is fascinated by the figure of the seals which she associates with silkies and virgin women:

She twists to dive into the under-water tunnel leading to the pool, and where her back of mottled fur touches the surface, is iridescent as mother of pearl, sheen of the sleek and mottled skin.
And the seal wanted me to leap down into her arms – Brenda Chamberlain, Tide-race, p. 36.

In a short story entitled 'The Wonder at Seal Cave', John Sam Jones makes the Seal Cave the location of a gay teenager's sexual awakening as a Welsh boy shows the cave to a visiting German tourist. The Welsh boy's knowledge of the island is met with the greater sexual experience of the newcomer:

Bernd looked disbelievingly at Gethin… "But this hole … it's too small … you're sure this is the place?" Gethin remembered that he had thought the same thing that firs time with Sefion. "It's just the entrance that's small, then it opens out…"
… Bernd stood up as he took off his clothes, Gethin saw that his body was already that of a man. "Come… let's swim…" he whispered, beckoning Gethin to undress. Gethin followed him into the water. The two basking seals snorted, writggled from their rocks and dived deeply, circling thme both before making for the under-water exit to the open sea. The boys were enthralled and hugged one another, each discovering the other's excitement. John Sam Jones, Welsh Boys Too, Parthian 2000, p. 45

Y Cafn

Bardsey is reached by boat. Some visitors arrive in their own small vessels, but most visitors and goods arrive via 'The Boat', captained by Colin Evans. In many senses it feels as if Bardsey is his island. His father was one of the last few children to attend school on the island and his mother is the poet, Christine Evans whose compelling poetry records life on the island.

Fflur Dafydd's fictional boatman does not resemble Colin Thomas in the least, but the arrival or non-arrival of the boat was a key plot device in the novel. The rhythms of the boat – brining mail and goods, the arrival and departure of visitors – structures island routines and makes Y Cafn and the jetty a focal point.

The boat arriving at the Cafn
The boat arriving at the Cafn.

In her poem, 'Meeting the Boat', Christine Evans describes the arrival of visitors after the 'ordeal' of the boat journey, with the appraising eye of the resident islander.

Saturdays, we sit outside the boathouse
to wave goodbye… and watch the next lot land.

Some arrive well-wrapped
in a bubble of expectations
we might see punctured by a sharpening edge
of sense, if they stay long enough:

Evans describes the tourists festooned with binoculars and cameras, come for the birds, or others 'On Retreat'. Seasoned visitors return with joy, "Most new ones step ashore subdued / with egos well restrained, on leash" until they can shrink the island to "context".

While practical arrangements have changed, and the dinghy which used to ferry passengers from the larger boat has been replaced with a tractor and trailor that deposits the boat on a slipway, the sense of routine turned ritual persists:

Now the voyage of discovery, or just getting here
turns into a performance or a ritual
no-one told them to expect.
Christine Evans, 'Meeting the Boat', Selected Poems, Seren, 2003, p.87
The boat arriving at the Cafn
Day visitors arriving on the island.

Brenda Chamberlain's account of her arrival in her modernist memoir assumes mythic qualities:

We passed close under black and lichen-encrusted cliffs; nearer, nearer, close, close, until the fangs of wet rock were snapping at us … At last, the high land fell away and we were in the anchorage.
Seated four-square in the middle of the beach was an ancient man with a neptune beard and flowing hair. He had a light metal crown chased with a design of sea horses and shell, sworn slightly sideways on his head, and in his crablike fingers he hald a plug of twist from which he was cutting thin wafers of tobacco. By his side lay an empty rum bottle. He was gross with majesty, and must have been a good trencherman and an heroic drinker. He reeked of fish and salt and tarry ropes.

The last, self-proclaimed, King of Bardsey was Love Pritchard (1842-1927) who led the 'Exodus' from the island to the mainland in 1925 when he was 83.

The boat arriving at the Cafn
Love Pritchard, the last King of Bardsey. Courtesy People's Collection.

Love Pritchard was reported as saying he could now look for a wife and visit the 'kinema'. Chamberlain is therefore drawing on earlier island history in this passage (she includes a sketch which depicts the tin island crown.

In Twenty Thousand Saints, Fflur Dafydd captures the tension between the routine, yet significant, place of the boat to those on the island and the experiences of the visitors who are arriving or – more importantly – leaving. As the boat motors away from the Cafn, Mererid muses:

Most of them can't imagine the island carrying on without them. But Mererid knows she saw something like relief in Mwynwen's eyes that morning. The islanders turned their backs on the visitors a fraction of a second sooner than they had all expected, their waving arms falling back at their sides. p. 233

Insiders and Outsiders

The island, its inaccessibility and the pronounced difference between the relative asceticism of island life and digital consumer society on the mainland, make the contrast between insiders and outsiders very pronounced. All places, and particularly those to which people feel strong attachment, are subject to competing narratives and claims. This sense of a contested place is one of the features a deep map can hope to represent without trying to close down conflict.

The boat arriving at the Cafn

When Fflur Dafydd published Atyniad and later Twenty Thousand Saints, her fiction – particularly in its first Welsh-language version - was not welcomed by all the islanders. Christine Evans in her Bardsey essay, 'Horizons' asks the question who possesses, or is possessed by, a place? She is critical of artists and writers who make the islander their study, rather than the land itself.

"the young writer Fflur Dafydd … produced what she called a 'novel' based on anecdotes and actions she observed within the island community during her short stay. In this respect she was following Brenda Chamberlain, who was unable to resist the temptation to turn some of her island neighbours into grim caricatures; but at least Chamberlain had the respect to dedicate Tide-race to them, and to change their names more subtly. ….[M]ust islanders be just props in the landscape like those picturesque 'hermits' engaged by eighteenth-century landowners to furnish grottoes on their estates?"
Christine Evans and Wolf Marloh, Bardsey, Gomer Press, 2008, p. 145

From a distance of several years, Fflur Dafydd reflects on the responses to the two novels, Atyniad and Twenty Thousand Saints and the question of insiders and outsiders in Wales and Welsh writing.

The boat arriving at the Cafn