by Gemma Treharne-Foose
There are ghosts in the mountains where I walk. Echoes of my sepia-tone childhood, the smell of boxes of tinsel brought down from the attic at Christmas, the chatter of my paternal family from Porth (gateway town to the Rhondda) and the memory of digging my hand into a tin of Quality Street.
In the stories told by ghosts of old memories, I see myself hiding under the table as my paternal Nan prepares a sunday roast in a kitchen overlooking the red brick Corona Pop Factory (Welsh Hills Works). Different to the way my Mam made it, she mixed the finely chopped cauli and the cabbage to make a strange kind of green scramble.
Things were definitely different over the mountain in Porth. My grandparents’ house was the biggest I had ever been in and there always seemed to be relatives in every room. There was a smoking room, a sitting room, a lounge, a front room. ‘Granny Birchgrove’ used to play a game called ‘kick the tray’ at Christmas. I remember her in her tweed skirt and brown shoes trying to high-kick a metal tray someone held at shoulder height. I suppose this is what people did in the age before Netflix and Amazon.
I have other memories I am not even sure are real after consulting with family years later of my Nan entering a room dressed in top hat and tails while singing a show tune. It is this exact memory – whether real or imagined – that I’ve used to justify my occasional need to show off. It turns out her father had been a comedian and ‘show man’ as the family described him, travelling around workmen’s clubs in the valleys to perform. In one of these many rooms, there was a piano and the very real threat and terror of being called upon to perform a song – IN WELSH – in front of family I only occasionally saw and was still very shy in front of.
At my Aunt and Uncle’s house in Birchgrove (a small uphill area within Porth), there was a coal fire where we would be invited to make toast by holding it over the fire with a fireplace poker. Their kitchen had a plastic corrugated roof. I always seemed to be fed wherever I went. Sandwiches. Fruit loaf. Toast. Pop and Crisps and endless biscuits. My Uncle once jokingly hand-wrote me a menu and told me that the chip butty I’d just consumed would cost me 50p. I never understood the jokes. I was always shy.
Years later, my Nan and Grand-Dad, my Aunt and Uncle and Granny Birchgrove are all long gone. I hadn’t realised until I was in my twenties that Granny Birchgrove had spoken Welsh as a child and had been slapped on the wrist in school for speaking it.
I came to know that Granny Birchgrove had a recipe (that my Father seemed to know by heart) for green tomato chutney that was as sweet and delicious as anything I had ever tasted. My husband and I fought for the last remnants of it with a spoon after we received a large jar of it as a gift from my father.
I never got the recipe before later becoming estranged from my Father. I’ve tasted other people’s valiant attempts at green tomato chutney and I am sorry to say they are an embarrassment and an insult to Granny B’s memory. If only I’d written it down.
Years later, more by luck than judgement – I find myself living in Porth. Just streets away from the old stomping ground of my Nan and Grandfather, their big house and their clever little Jack Russel (Mitch). I am a street away from the pub where my grandfather would retreat for hours with his friends into the smoking lounge.
I am a short drive from my Auntie and Uncle’s old house, though I no longer remember where it was. The memories I had…of the green tomato chutney…of names and faces and the old family places are fading.
Where I live…does not have good PR. It is not picture perfect. It is not a traditionally attractive area to visit. During a visit from a friend who hailed from a more affluent area in the South East of England, she’d balked at the closeness of the houses. It was too claustrophobic, too bleak, she said. I have echoes of Caradoc Evans’ ‘My People’ in mind as I react in my gut to this kind of negativity.
We aren’t polished, our streets are not postcard worthy. No one dreams of retiring here. This is a place where the ‘crowning glory’ is the crown of exploitation. Black gold. The (ugly, awful) price of coal. Of forgotten dreams and neglected infrastructure. There isn’t a tonne of hope. Unless you know where to look.
True – I may not have Granny’s chutney recipe, but for a few years we kept a (very scruffy) allotment, managing to grow beans, peas, courgettes, potatoes and tomatoes. Growing these was a very real and edible way of forming a connection with the land (and memories) all around us. We discovered that on the soggy, marshy mountain behind our house, wild whinberries grew in the bushes. When our daughter was two, we spent many happy hours tramping up the mountain with bags to scoop up as many whinberries and blackberries as we could.
My daughter learned to pluck them from the bush, I’d call my mother to ask her how to prepare them and what to do with them. I made an outstanding whinberry tart that I served with ice cream, though I’m sure my relatives would have felt more at home with Ideal Milk or Tip Top.
I realised that whinberries were not commonly known by friends and that they had multiple names depending on where in the world you’re from. They may also be known as bilberries, whortle berries, wim-berries, blaeberries or huckleberries.
Even when our enthusiasm for our allotment waned (and eventually dissipated), the whinberries would always return. Even if we didn’t make it up the mountain to pick them, we knew they were there…just up the track.
Whenever I felt cynical about my commute, felt annoyed overhearing the neighbours coming home from the pub at night or lamented the views down at street level here in the valleys, I knew there was a sanctuary a mere 5 minutes from my front door – just up the hill. Thick with bracken and bramble, scorched almost dry in the summer, it’s perfectly possible to spend hours up there and not see a soul.
From certain vantage points from Porth mountain, you can see Porth Bridge, Tylorstown Tip, the old chimney stack and wheel of Rhondda Heritage Park and beyond to Trehafod and Pontypridd. You can watch the trains slugging up the track on their way to Treherbert. You can find a bit of moss and make a beautiful nest while you lie down and listen to the birds and the water running in dribbles and streams down the mountain side.
With my husband being American, it was by chance that I discovered years after we married that his family lived near Hannibal, Missouri – a place long associated with the writer Mark Twain and Huckleberry Finn. On our last visit in 2018, I’d visited Hannibal Museum where you could buy all sorts of paraphernalia relating to Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn – and a vast array of souvenirs themed around Huckleberries. You must admire the enterprising spirit and enthusiasm of Americans, even in small-time Hannibal.
I succumbed to the pretty marketing on display and purchased pre-packaged ‘huckleberry pancake batter mix’ and ‘huckleberry flavoured coffee’. I visited a themed ‘old tea room’ and bought a purple soda pop that tasted like fizzy floral cleaning fluid. At home, I discovered that the pancake mix was overwhelmingly saccharine and sadly – that the coffee was un-drinkable.
You can’t manufacture the flavour of wildly grown whinberries (or ‘huckleberries’ as they call them in the American Mid West) or re-engineer the joy of purple stained toddler hands after you’ve taught them the best places to find whinberries. And it’s definitely just as true that you can’t replicate Granny Birchgrove’s green tomato chutney.
Some things are better kept as precious memories.
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