During the seventies and eighties, my parents carefully pooled pennies and flew their young family to Manchester every summer, usually aboard some cheap charter. (I still remember carrying brown lunch bags onto Wardair and Freddie Laker planes.) After weeks of tedious relative-visiting and cheek-pinching, we would at last ditch the city, jump on the motorway and head for Wales.
Our destination was a small stone cottage, in the undulating hills above the Dysynni Estuary. Sheltered from the damp and moody weather, it once offered respite to shepherds summering their flocks in the moorlands. My grandparents bought Trafeas Uchaf - as the humble building has been known since the dawn of time - following the Second World War as a weekend escape. With four children packed into a Morris Minor, their three-hour journey was broken in Dolgellau (pronounced Doll-geth-lee), where newspaper-wrapped fish 'n' chips came aboard. It was purchased at the same shop that my father took us to, decades later. Taid, my grandfather, often acquired a case of Newcastle Brown Ale at the same time.
Reaching the remote cottage required navigating sheep-filled fields and narrow stone lanes, and Dad heaving on the rear bumper of the rental car as Mom spun the tires in ruts of mud and manure.
Equal parts bleak, forsaken and tranquil, mid-Wales has always been a rugged land. In this home to slate miners and hard-as-nails farmers, communal working-class pride has kept modern nonsense at bay.
As the summers passed, we visited the cottage so often that its foreignness became routine: the cold slate floors, the tangy smell of coal fires, the sweet orange cordial. The view from the front windows - over a gentle green valley - is immutable in my memory.
Together, we gathered hatfuls of mushrooms on hillsides where the distant black sea beckoned on the horizon. Most days, we would walk to the rocky coast, splashing in tide pools, catching bucketfuls of shrimp that we ate with nettle soup. Every Sunday, my brother, sister and I brushed unruly hair, pulled on the cleanest clothes in our suitcase, and marched across dewy fields to the tiny local church. With just four pews, St. Mary's had room for 20 but was never full. Those in attendance were all relatives of some form, for mid-Wales is the land of my ancestry, where the name Kirkby springs, it seems, from every headstone and monument. Afterward, while parents drank tea by the litre, we chased unknown cousins through shoulder-high bracken.
My last journey with the family came at the age of 15. After that, I began begging out of the annual trips, preferring summer camp or work instead, casting free the ropes tethering me to the familiar. After university came a flurry of foreign travel, but never an urge to visit Wales again. It seemed too easy, not nearly exotic enough. I yearned instead for northern Pakistan or the east coast of Greenland.
Years later, when my Dad died in an accident, we took his ashes to Wales, to be buried beside his parents in the tiny St. Mary's churchyard. What I remember most from that journey was the unexpected beauty of everything. Why had I avoided, discounted, Wales? How had I forgotten the beauty of a countryside that rises and falls like waves, draped in a green so raw and pure that it defies comparison? As sunsets over the Irish Sea sprayed orange across craggy peaks, I remembered again the sweetness of heather and the comfort of bleating lambs. Every guttural, saliva-soaked name rang with familiarity; Llanfendigaid, Abergynolwyn, Machynlleth.
I returned to the cottage again last summer, celebrating my mother's 70th birthday with my three-year-old son. As Bodi clambered over crumbling stonewalls and shrieked at the sting of nettles, I saw myself in him, and my father in me. Together, we collected buckets of blackberries from roadside bushes. Using a wooden-handled scythe, my brother and I cleared a jungle of weeds. Clambering down the well, we primed the water pump that my father installed. And around the candlelit table we drank Newcastle Brown, enjoying the soreness of our labours. Bodi was too young to carve his initials in the beech tree out front that holds the initials of many uncles, brothers and sisters, but he may still some day.
We'll be back again this summer, with a new infant in tow. It is not that I have lost interest in the exotic - this summer, our little family of four will also buy a horse and trek for two months through the Caucasus mountains - but there is comfort in familiar places, and the cottage in Wales reminds me of the ebb and flow, of the gentle changing of seasons and interests, that touch every travelling life.