Postcard from . . . Wales
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There are several remarkable things about the village of Llanfrothen, on the edge of the Snowdon mountains in Gwynedd. It used to be by the sea but it isn’t now (thanks to land reclaimed in the 19th century). Ospreys live not far away, and a black swan was recently spotted among the flocks of wild geese and swans that frequent the neighbouring wetlands. The castle ruin on the hill above is a 20th-century sham, built as a wedding present for somebody. The 13th-century church, dedicated to the misty St Brothen, is not only disused but is hidden in the trees half a mile away. The pub, the Brondanw Arms, is known universally by its nickname, The Ring, I don’t know why. And near the middle of the place is a modern phenomenon, a 21st-century Welsh village supermarket.
Like most such places, Llanfrothen used to have a village store and post office, in a 19th-century cottage in a row. Siop y Pentref, or the Village Shop, is its successor. Housed in a building from the 1980s, it looks rather like an American roadside convenience store, long, low and glassy, with an attached health and beauty shop and a hairdresser’s. Round the back is a small garden with benches, and on the other side of the road is a prim recent development of bungalows.
But inside, Siop y Pentref is something different. It is genuine New Welsh. Part of it is a delicatessen, with a café serving pasta, homemade cake and cappuccino, and a news-stand. The rest is miniature supermarket. All the usual essentials are there from dog food to cornflakes, toilet rolls to naan bread, Coke to Chardonnay. But, if you explore the several segments of the place, you will find that, embedded almost everywhere, are items rather less run of the mill.
Here among the toiletries, for example, are bottles of muscle oil devised in 1800 by Richard Evans, Bonesetter of Pwllheli, and marketed by his descendants still. Here are sausages from Pedigree Welsh Pigs. Cider comes from the Pant Du vineyard up the road at Penygroes, pickled onions from Llanystumdwy, where Lloyd George lived. Half-a-dozen local cheeses are in the chilled section, lots of locally-baked breads are piled aromatically on the shelves. The newspaper Yr Wylan of Porthmadog is on the news-stand along with The Sun and the Daily Telegraph.
You have to look for these items. There is no “Made in Wales” corner. This is not National Trust or Welsh Tourist Board territory, and its Welshness is not self-conscious.
Siop y Pentref is a community project, genially indigenous, run by Ifor and Iona Jones and frequented chiefly by local people, who spend a lot of time chatting with the Joneses at the counter. However, climbers and such, and passing idlers like me, often drop in for a meal, a loaf or a bottle of muscle oil, and our welcome comes naturally, and bilingually. Toiled I Gwsmeriaid Caffe Y Unig, we are warned as we potter around the joint, coffee in hand perhaps, but they put it in English too.
There is nothing picturesque or touristy about Siop y Pentref. It is equipped with WiFi, another reason I go there, and a card invites us to ymunwch â ni ar Facebook (join us on Facebook), whatever that means.
The charm of the place is its naturalness, and in this it bucks a trend. Searching for purposes in an ever more urban world, country communities all too often rely upon parody or exaggeration – the thatched roof, antique shop, folk festival, Cotswold and old tradition syndrome.
Llanfrothen itself (population about 500, I think) is slightly in limbo. It is partly picturesque old estate village, part contemporary development, generally Welsh-speaking, sometimes not. It might well have been tempting to develop Siop y Pentref as a full-blown Olde Welshe Shoppe, or alternatively as just another chain store.
It has chosen neither. It is just itself. Mr Evans the Pwllheli bonesetter would have approved, and so do I. As one doggerel-patriot has worded it:
“O Siop y Pentref, bore da!
Long may you flourish as you
Your face is fine, and
Your heart proclaims Cymru