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A UK community that refuses to conform

Jade Braham
04 Feb 2023 00:01:28 | Update: 04 Feb 2023 00:01:28
A UK community that refuses to conform

The Gwaun Valley is a quiet, pastoral landscape that’s markedly different than the rest of Wales. The steep-sided valley was shaped by geological convulsions in the form of strong and fast-moving water from melting glaciers during the last Ice Age, creating a fertile and abundant expanse of water meadows, flat floodplains and an ancient woodland that has long concealed Gwaun residents from sight.

Clusters of weathered stone cottages and traditional inns remain cut off from civilisation by steep, twisting roads and deep rivers interspersed with thick copses of trees. Until the invention of cars, these features dissuaded people from coming and going, leaving locals isolated and free to practice the many ancient rites that remain unique to the area.

“We’re a funny lot… We stick to tradition,” said Lilwen McAllister, owner of Erw-Lon Farm B&B which overlooks the valley. She’s lived here for 54 years and confidently claims that the area’s unique customs “will never die out”.

McAllister, like the Gwaun’s other 200-odd residents, bides her time until 13 January to ring in the New Year – known in Wales as Hen Galan (the old New Year) and referred to by locals as their “special day”. The valley’s residents are not a fortnight late; rather, they are one of the few remaining groups that continue to follow the old Julian calendar, named after Julius Caesar. The rest of the UK adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1752, which established New Year’s Day as 1 January, but the Gwaun community refused to conform because they felt they were being cheated out of 11 days when the new calendar was adopted to correct the Julian’s astronomical error.

The secluded, close-knit community has developed several other traditions to celebrate their start of the year, including parading horses’ skulls on poles around the streets to offer blessings to their neighbours and partying the night away in one of Wales’s most unusual pubs, the Dyffryn Arms.

I only live an hour away in Carmarthenshire but I’ve long been fascinated by this remote community that refuses to conform. So in late 2022, I decided to travel here to learn more about the origins of these unique customs and why the people of Gwaun are preserving them.

When I arrived, the Gwaun’s landscape also felt like a different planet. The land had a powerful wildness, with walking trails used for thousands of years, and the valley’s utter remoteness brought an air of mystery. The single-track roads that I passed on my way to Pontfaen, a small rural village that’s considered the epicentre for the Julian festivities, were hemmed in by towering hedgerows that looked more like battlements than farmland. Beyond that were walls of vibrant and fertile hills.

I drove past the fallen leaves of oak and ash, holly and hazel in Allt Pontfaen. This ancient woodland has a rich lichen population that is of national importance, establishing the area as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (an area of rare flora and fauna) and putting Allt Pontfaen within a Special Area of Conservation (an area that protects special habitats or species).

The River Gwaun ran parallel to my route, trickling beneath Pontfaen’s entrance bridge and cutting the fields like a tectonic plate. Another relic of the Ice Age, the river is home to grey wagtails and dippers, and, according to author David Barnes in The Companion Guide to Wales, one of the last haunts of the otter. I didn’t spot an otter, but a local gentleman offered warm salutations and, after a brief chat, suggested I head to the Dyffryn Arms – known locally as Bessie’s Pub – to see the place where many spend their New Year’s “for fireworks and drinks!”