Ty Mawr Farm is a landed mansion house nestled in tiny Llangasty village, on the edge of Llangors Lake, in the beautiful Black Mountains of East Wales. Dating from Norman times, variously in its history it has been the Manor of Llangasty Talyllyn, the centre for the feudal court where local parish disputes were heard and settled, the subject of an Elizabethan legal dispute about fishing rights on Llangors Lake, a family farm and an asset of Brecon Beacons National Park. These days it is home to Nigel and Joyce Gervis and the site of their family-run business, Ty Mawr Lime, producing and educating about traditional building materials. On this particular day,10th July 2016, it hosted the opening of the HBTS4R Llangors Away Day, a respite for people resettling in Welsh Cities of Sanctuary after flight from war, conflict, repression, life-defying poverty and lands made uninhabitable by climate change.
Fifty five refugees and asylum seekers and seven volunteers from Swansea Bay Asylum Seekers Support Group and Unity in Diversity boarded a coach this morning and headed for Ty Mawr. Volunteers from HBTS4R and the local area got ready for their arrival. The Gervis family prepared a welcoming space big enough for the numbers, a ‘Welcome’ sign directing us into a barn decked in flowers from the gorgeous Ty Mawr gardens, and laid out with mugs for the urn after urn of rich coffee that the visitors were to be greeted with. Among the volunteers ready to welcome the bus were Kirsty Williams AM and County Councillor Melanie Davies, and the Gervis children – Henry, Harvey and Cai. Our former MP, Roger Williams, joined us too, as did several local people who wanted to join this collective welcome to people who need sanctuary.
Half an hour’s leisurely walking distance away lay Llangors village and its Youth and Community Centre (villagers still call it ‘the hall’), the day’s destination, where the quiet, unstoppable energy of volunteer Melrose East was coordinating the day’s preparations and the volunteers making them.
The bus arrived at Ty Mawr and a tapestry of ages and genders, nationalities, skin shades and languages, moods and expectations, emerged, some smiling, some solemn, into the fresh air and lush green space of Ty Mawr, its barns and its gardens. Young men from Senegal, Syria and Iran were already delighted with the day, enthusing about the green rural views all the way from Swansea, and the lively conversation with new friends that had made the journey (an hour and a half, minimum, surely?) seem like 20 minutes. They weren’t saying this for effect. The first young man in this conversation with me, when I asked him: ‘how long did it take you to get here?’ told me: ‘Twenty minutes’. A chorus of voices intervened to establish the truth of the matter; that it had only seemed so, because of its happy context.
The adults wandered in groups about the grounds, talking, connecting and sharing on the lush green lawns and among the rows of immaculate raised beds, as they studied the profuse vegetable growth, compared and contrasted it to the vegetables back home and picked apples from the trees, to eat in the palm with a pile of sugar; then back to the barn, to be served round after round of coffee by Kirsty (who also did the washing up, later) and Melanie.
The children enjoyed their own special welcome from their peers, the Gervis brothers. I was talking to little L, who told me that he had brought some astro-turf, hoping for a game of football; but that he didn’t have the football. ‘Football? You want to play football?’ said Harvey, scooting into the conversation from stage right, and whisking L off to the yard, leaving me instantly forgotten. It was Harvey who later led the children to meet the smallholding’s big family of hens and, after that, to the tortoise pen, and I wandered down, wondering what the crowd was looking at, and chatted to Mum N, from Oman, who told me about the turtles who grace the shores of her country, and about night-time family trips to the beach to watch the egg-heavy females come ashore to lay.
Meanwhile, back at the village hall
Time was tight. Our event dovetailed with another, a country market being held in the community centre that morning. Melrose’s task was not just to coordinate our respite day, but to get it up and running smartly, between the market wrapping up at 1pm, and the arrival of the guests, dribbling across from Ty Mawr, by 2pm. As the guests prepared to leave Ty Mawr, all hands were on deck at the hall. Marketeers and people dropping off donations joined the eight respite day volunteers clearing away the market debris, positioning the tables, distributing arrangements of local garden flowers, erecting welcome signs made by the children of the village school, bringing in the scores of buffet dishes made and donated by local people for lunch, arranging the buffet table, and setting out bags of toiletries, gifts from local people (from Llangors village and the parishes in Beacons Benefice) for our guests to take home.
Across the lake from this frenetic activity, our guests started to depart from the friendliness, the diversions, the flowers and fruit trees, and the great coffee. The walk from Ty Mawr to Llangors village takes you through narrow paths trod by feet through summer-high crops, and across the low pasture that skirts Llangors Lake. Some of us walked, others went there with the coach. It’s not an arduous walk but the weather was, well, Welsh (raining) and the trodden path not wide. The two young Mums from China who embarked on the walk with me, pushing their pushchairs, were defeated and returned, disappointed despite the rain, to the coach.
I walked across instead with A sharing enjoyment of the view, the air, the scent of nature in the breeze, the stretching of the walking muscles. He told me that he was a manager in the natural gas industry in Iran, and we talked for a while about the future of fossil fuel extraction. Stopping at a tree that bore, nailed to its bark, the caution: ‘Private Shooting’, we were joined in our ruminations on animal-hunting by others, catching up with us – people from other Persian countries, from Africa and from Australia. Our conversations as we walked on traversed animal-human relations, meat-eating and vegetarianism, farming, herding and husbandry, and the nature of sheep. Among others! The walk took us through the Morgan family’s farm, threading us across the farmyard and into the path of its resident sheepdogs who did as dogs do: submitted their bellies for rubbing. This particular dog-lover obliged them, and I was joined by two more, from Russia and from Iran, and we squatted, rubbing, and talked about how great dogs are. The dog-loving Iranian told me about his plans to pursue his vocation – fashion design – and what trying to do so in Iran had been like in; hidden, secret, in closed rooms, protected by look-out friends, because western clothing is banned, wearing it punishable, and actually designing it more so.
Meanwhile, back at the village hall
The bus from Ty Mawr had arrived, its passengers welcomed by volunteers just finishing the finishing touches. The arrivals settled themselves in, choosing their seating, continuing conversations started on the bus, and starting new ones, and taking themselves to the buffet table to begin their lunch ahead of the walkers’ arrival, to stagger the queuing for food. The children were introduced to Jane Durrant, a HBTS4R member, and the big sturdy toy-filled playpen she had brought for the day (we don’t know if her grandchildren, deprived of it, were consulted!). Parents were to enjoy long stretches of rest through the afternoon, their happy children diverted by Jane, who was in the playpen with them every time I looked.
Some guests were lured by action, indoors – table football, pool, table tennis; and out – badminton and football. Men and women, boys and girls, obeyed the call of energy seeking release; half a day sitting on a coach, no matter how convivial the company, will do this to a person! The walkers drifted in and swelled the line at the buffet table, and the ranks of the indoor and outdoor teams.
The food merits some description. The word ‘buffet’ might mislead you. If you’re picturing trays of sandwiches and sausage rolls, delete. This was a thoughtful spread of spiced, fragrant and colourful food; a gift to the palate with echoes of numerous national cuisines. The cooks were all local, but the flavours, themes and evocations were not. Variations on tabouleh and hummus; dishes rich in spicy beans, tamarind, lentils and chickpeas; piles and piles of pitta breads; and a side of salmon marinaded in middle eastern spices, yoghurt and lemon; sat amongst a host of western neighbours – thick-layered soda bread pizza, carrot and beetroot salad, watermelon and feta cheese, boiled eggs and chicken drumsticks; all complemented by the universal appeal of green and mixed salads, toasted seeds and a cornucopia of fruit. Impossible not to return to it for second helpings and, for some (well, me, anyway) thirds.
After a long, leisurely dinner of multiple helpings of food and of conversations, some of us took a walk through the village to the Gilfach and its beaver sanctuary, led by the sanctuary’s creator (and Chair of the Community Council) Colin Preece. Children squealed with delight as we encountered animals familiar to them from their former lives – horses, dogs, geese and ducks, garden birds. A talked to Ailsa from HBTS4R about the plants and wildflowers they were passing; about how, in Iran, the seeds of the hogweed are dried for use in pickle; how the roots of goose-grass are used to make dye. One young man, J, had heard the day before that he had been refused refugee status. He now faced the arduous process of appeal. He had been so upset yesterday, that he’d decided he couldn’t face coming here today. How glad he was now, he said, that the others had persuaded him to come.
The beaver sanctuary operates a breeding programme and monitors the environmental impact of these beguiling, useful, helpful creatures. Its waterside space where beavers mate, tend and teach their young, and repose, protected, has a viewing hut. Its wide window surveys the water and the woods where the beavers share habitat with a community of ducks and geese. The beavers kept their counsel while we were landed in their domain, but the ducks and geese had no such reservations, and crowded the bank, vying for the food Colin sent in handfuls to the waterside, so that we could all delight in watching them at their feast. I talked with K, a Syrian director of education, as we watched the relational hierarchy of ducks and geese at feed play out beneath us, about the catastrophic destruction of education represented by war, displacement and forced migration; of the months and years of lost education being suffered by children in their endless, bleak refugee-camp existences, and their exhausting, traumatising treks across the inhospitable globe. He, an expert, mourned it even more disconsolately than I. He lamented the millions and millions of his country-people displaced in other countries; the visible architecture of his country’s ancient, trail-blazing civilisation lying in bombed, razed ruins, impossible to return to, irretrievable. Neither of us found anything hopeful or encouraging to say to each other about this tragedy, and we quietly mourned.
A still pool of unhappiness lay beneath the smiles in this diverse gathering of human souls, watching ducks and geese eat grain under the shelter of trees at the waterside of a lake in idyllic Wales. People are torn from their loved ones, held in the grip of biting, never-ending, inconsolable worry about fathers, mothers, siblings, partners, children and friends still living in the unimaginable conditions that generate such desperate flight, threatened by the perils of war, conflict, repression, drought and starvation; adjusting to new cultures; to an unsettling, changing, unpredictable political, societal and cultural narrative, frightening media discourses, turbulent societal undercurrents, mixed social messages; weighed down by the turgid, sluggish, inch-forward longevity of the obstacle-strewn asylum process; and adjusting to a new climate, the damp and cold of Wales. Today, it rained and rained, against the predictions of the weather forecast. These hot-country people agreed that it is always difficult to be warm here. But they also said: ‘It is paradise’. It is paradise, one, because it is lush and green and beautiful. Our guests celebrated the beauty of these villages, how good it was to breathe fresh air. Some, farmers from Ethiopia and Eritrea, marveled at how the barley we walked past had survived this rainy Welsh climate without mouldering. They rejoiced in watching the rain come in over the Beacons, saying: ‘At home, we used to do this; we could see the rain coming and we knew how long it would be until the rain hit.’ Among the many, many things they miss, they miss this too.
And Wales is paradise, they said, because its people are free. The young Iranian fashion designer nodded towards the walking bodies filing ahead of us, and behind us, on our walk back to the hall. ‘Here’ he said, ‘they have a chance’.
Meanwhile, back at the hall
On the badminton court, Pakistan played Russia, played China, played Wales, played Oman. On the football pitch, twenty four players aged from single figures to fifty-plus were refereed by two, alternating, so that neither had to miss out on playing. They played five minute stretches, in three teams of eight, and the winner stayed on. The teams represented Wales, Eritrea, Sierra Leone, Libya, Syria, Ethiopia, Iran, Afghanistan, Sudan, Senegal. The Welsh rain came, but they all kept playing. Lawrence, HBTS4R Treasurer, player and ref, told me afterwards that their numbers contained talented players one of whom was, in Lawrence’s view, approaching professional standard. ‘It was very competitive’ he said, in a tone that suggested that was one way of putting it. He told me that when the five minute whistle stopped play at a draw, the matter was decided by a sudden-death penalty shoot-out. ‘There were four of those’ he said, mildly, smiling like the Mona Lisa: ‘They seemed to be a favourite.’
Inside the hall, the remaining non-walkers spread out over table tennis, table football, pool, jewelry-making and greeting card-making. Mums and their children joined local vicar Liz Bramley, to make cards, and Ann, from Riverside Jewelry Girls, a self-made local community group. Activity, participation and engagement were high, and voices called, laughed and shouted, in the languages of Kurdistan, Iran, China, Oman, Pakistan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, England, Ireland and Wales, indoors and out. Children enjoyed themselves as children the world over – those whose circumstances permit them to behave as children, at any rate – do. This was no dull lull.
HBTS4R members and supporters called in to add their voices to the welcome throughout the day. Eugene, an author from Hay-on-Wye, took out his pencils and paper and sat to draw the scene. Atto, a gifted singer songwriter musician who performed for us at Music for Syria in June, joined him, and they drew life portraits of each other; an island of quiet contemplative endeavour amid the maelstrom.
Volunteers cleared away the lunch. Takeaway cartons of leftovers stacked up for home-time collection by our guests. Dishes, plates, cutlery, glasses and platters were washed. Tea was prepared. I say ‘tea.’ What I mean is ‘sumptuous feast of home-made cake, cake and more cake, every kind of cake, rich chocolate cake, rich fruit cake, Madeira cake, coffee and walnut cake, Victoria sponges dripping with jam and cream, scones piled with butter and more jam and more cream, brownies and muffins, a bonanza of cake’. Liz Bramley, organising tea provision, had put the word out amongst her parishioners in Llangors, and they hadn’t disappointed.
Two other Llangors villagers had opened their beautiful gardens to the guests. As we all feasted at our ‘tea’ it looked to Ailsa that perhaps there would be insufficient time, after all, for the gardens visit. But the enthusiasm of A, amateur horticulturist, visitor to Swansea Botanical Gardens and photographer of many things he had delighted in there, negated all possibility of skipping this bit. A ‘quick’ garden visit, squeezed in, lengthened inexorably as A, knowledgeable and engrossed, conversed with gardener Kath Johnson about her flowers and herbs and their various uses and applications in cooking and in medicine. T, from Laos, missing the gardens of her homeland and hoping one day to create something lovely out of her patch of Swansea grass, tarried happily. Time passed unheeded, until all plans to move on to the second garden were upended by a rescue party from the community centre, sent to retrieve them for the journey home to Swansea.
Back at the village hall
Energy levels were starting to wind down. Our guests drifted from table to table, talking, nibbling last crumbs of cake, visiting the clothes store created out of the hall’s cloakrooms – men’s, women’s and children’s clothes and shoes from the HBTS4R store – trying things on and, many, starting to fidget about approaching kick-off. The big one, Portugal v. France. Football, universal language, dictated that no matter how much fun this was, everyone had to get back to Swansea in time for the start of the match. Bags were collected – of clothes and shoes, of takeaway tubs, of toiletries, of food (donated by Brecon Food Bank and the town’s supermarkets Aldi, Morrison’s and The Co-op). Chaos reigned briefly as men, women and children, keen to leave but reluctant to leave, remembering goodbyes not yet said, conversations not yet had, zigzagged between hall and coach, postponing ‘goodbye’. A HBTS4R member recalled later ‘the joy on their faces that they were getting this welcome’ and the evidence for this: ‘how many of them didn’t want to get on the bus; they didn’t want to leave’.
Finally, they were off, dazed with fresh air, exercise, sugar and welcome. A young local man, who had come to say welcome and had stayed to play football, reflected on something he had learned today; perhaps the most crucial building block in the foundation of true understanding: ‘They’re just like us.’
Messages after the day:
- ‘ Thank you so much. What an extraordinary day. I am so grateful to have been able to meet such wonderful people.
What conversations, what experience, what a sharing of life.
I learnt so much, about growing , about acceptance , about being positive, about sharing.
I want them back!!!
So many thanks.’
- ‘Thanks so much to every single of you.
I personally lost the words and I do not know how to say THANKS. 🙁
I appreciated everything and really enjoyed of this journey.
PLEASE give everybody BIG , MASSIVE , HUGE , …
THANKS & HUG
GOD BLESS ALL OF YOU’.
A, from Iran.
- ‘I am writing on behalf of all of us (asylum seekers, refugees and volunteers) who benefitted from your hospitality at Ty Mawr and Llangorse yesterday. We all had a wonderful time. I think it is the people who see our friends on a weekly basis that really notice a difference in their demeanour on a day like this. I don’t think I had ever seen one particular man smile before, his wife and children, one of whom he has never seen, are in Eritrea. He smiled and laughed yesterday and said to me that he was “feeling ok today”. What a testament to what you are doing. Another man who had only been in Swansea for two weeks and can speak virtually no English, found a fellow ‘countryman’ who was keen to help him, having been in his position before. There was a lot of ‘signposting’ going on, which is invaluable. Your kindness is so appreciated, but it is difficult for our friends to express this. We hear snippets of conversation on the way home about the delicious food, the kind people, the beautiful countryside and the peace. They ALL want to come again, most want to live near Brecon now! There was obviously an enormous amount of work and effort put in to organising and catering for such an event, but all I can say is that it was worth it. Exhausted from fresh air and exercise, full of wholesome food and clutching bags of gifts – 50+ people went home very happy yesterday. Thank you one and all.’
Maria, Swansea Bay Asylum Seeker Support Group
For an account of the day by Unity in Diversity, Swansea, visit:
Thanks are owed to:
- Ty Mawr Lime for hosting our guests on arrival and sharing their beautiful gardens and grounds with us all
- Brecon Food Bank, and Brecon supermarkets The Cooperative, Aldi and Morrison’s, for their generous donations of food
- Llangors Youth and Community Centre for the venue, facilities and activities
- Talgarth Junior Football Club for loaning us the football equipment
- Llangors Church in Wales School for the messages of welcome
- Llangors Multi-Activity Centre, the Gilfach and Colin Preece for the visit to the beaver sanctuary
- Llyn Safaddan and Beacons Benefice parishioners for the teas, the feast of cakes and the toiletries
- Numerous talented, largely anonymous, cooks for the feast of dishes for lunch ably coordinated by Alison and Linda.
- Numerous generous, largely anonymous, donors of toiletries
- The able and willing team of volunteers who took on tasks, rounded up help and support, sent out requests for donations, laid out the feasts, washed up after them, cleared and cleaned, smiled and welcomed
- Melrose East, for coordinating the whole day
- Swansea Bay Asylum Seekers Support Group and Unity in Diversity, Swansea
- Kirsty Williams, AM; County Councillor Melanie Davies; and former Brecon and Radnorshire MP Roger Williams
Unity in Diversity in Swansea with some of the donations brought back from the away day:
“Many thanks from the folks at UiD for the kind donations brought back from our trip”.