words Anna Souter
photo Lara Watson
When I discovered the Welsh word hiraeth, I realised it filled an important hole in my vocabulary. There's no direct English translation, but it's used to describe a kind of nostalgic homesickness that is peculiarly Welsh. The word is also loosely associated with a sense of satisfaction caused by travelling west, towards the sea.
My father, a boy from county Durham, was first brought to west Wales by my mother when they were 15, to the small farmhouse bought by my great-grandfather in the 1950s. The cliffs of Ceredigion somehow spoke to him, and he fell unconditionally in love with the area. It's a place that gets under your skin and becomes part of your soul. The scenery is rural rather than wild, and the coastline undulating rather than dramatic, but it's perhaps the very ordinariness of its beauty that touches anyone who spends time there. When my sister and I came along years later, it became the scene of every family holiday. My memories are filled with impossibly long summers, a TV with only three channels, and beds made up with scratchy Welsh blankets.
As we got older, however, it became more apparent that my father was ill. A “bad leg” became a neurological problem, and the steep Welsh stairs and quirky cupboard-sized door to the bathroom in the small house became a permanently looming challenge.
On what would turn out to be my father's last trip to Wales, we decided to celebrate New Year’s Eve in the house. It had been a day of tears and shouting, my father on his hands and knees, swearing because he couldn't get up. We saw in the new year in our pyjamas, watching the countdown on the flickering television.
Just after midnight, we opened the curtains to find the garden and fields blanketed with snow. “It only snows down here once in a blue moon,” my sister and I told each other as we rushed out, wellies and coats pulled on over our pyjamas. The full moon was shining brightly, bathing everything in a magical blue light. It made the scenery shimmer with a haze of unreality, and feel far removed from the mundane sadnesses we'd watched during the day.
Most of the snow had melted the next morning, and we drove home in silence until the radio announcer began to report on the real blue moon that had been shining over the country's new year celebrations. It seemed our surreal moment really had been magical.
Soon after our return, my father was consigned to a wheelchair, which he would have to use for the rest of his life. His illness robbed him of his strength with a slow surety that was impossibly hard to watch. Finally, one Christmas five years later, my mother, my sister and I were returning to the house in Wales with my father's ashes in a jar.
He'd been very clear before he died: he wanted his ashes scattered on the cliff tops that had enchanted him as a young man. Far from pristine snow and moonlight, this time we battled against the wind and rain beating our faces and freezing our hands. The raging of the Welsh weather left us with the ironic certainty that it was only in the ending of his illness that he had found peace. We left him on the cliff top, in the knowledge that the next time we came back there it would feel like coming home.
Anna Souter is a writer and editor based in London. She loves art, travel and all things Welsh. Follow her on Instagram or read more on her website. For more stories of Return, seek out a copy of Oh Comely issue 34.