We lived in North Wales for 6 years when we first got married. We moved from there early in 2001, and since then we’ve lived in quite a few houses. Last week, after 9 years away, we went back for a week’s holiday. It was a kind of a pilgrimage: we visited places that we loved and places that had become part of our family story for our 4 older kids. For Susie, aged 7, on the other hand, it was an opportunity to be ‘initiated’ into the delights of a place which, despite being the scene of some of our most difficult years, was also a special place where we first learned the strange balance of the joy and the pain which has been such a part of our lives ever since.
The hotel we stayed in, on the waterfront at Caernarfon, hadn’t even been built when we were last in Wales. We rode the Welsh Highland Railway from Caernarfon to Pont Croesor (only a short distance to go before the railway is restored all the way to Porthmadog). When we were last in Wales we were mourning the loss of a favourite walk, along the tracks and through the disused tunnel near Beddgelert, as it had been closed for some time pending the restoration of the railway. Now we rode the train through the beautiful countryside and had a grandstand view of the Aber Glaslyn gorge before being plunged into the tunnel in the train.
We talked with people who confirmed our observation that this part of Wales has done better and prospered a bit over the last few years; we were glad.
We stayed for a couple of nights at the old Pontin’s Holiday Camp in Prestatyn, which seems just the same as it was when we were both there (although we didn’t even know each other at that time) for Spring Harvest back in 1995 (I think it was then…it was the last year there before it grew into new sites at Pwllheli and Skegness). I had made my home in Prestatyn in the year following my divorce, and it was the place that Wendy and I later married. We visited the sands and drove to the top of the Great Orme, in Llandudno, re-living many memories.
The week was also made special by two sad events that we had not for-seen.
On the first Sunday that we were away I had a call to tell me that a dear close friend, Lynne Helyar, had had a massive heart attack and a stroke and was seriously ill in hospital. She has been caring for her husband, David, another dear friend, as he becomes increasingly unable to live independently. On Wednesday I received the almost inevitable news of her death.
I have known them for getting on for 40 years: at one time we jointly led a church youth group, and in the years when I had an itinerant music ministry they would often fill a mini-bus with teenagers and bring them to my concerts. They have both been very special people. More recently, when life has taken me far from Kent, we would often meet up in Wales, once or twice a year. Wales was a special place for David and Lynne too, and being in Wales at the time of Lynne’s death made our visit very poignant, as we passed pubs we’d eaten in together, bird reserves where David and Lynne had watched the birds and rode on the railway; steam was one of their passions.
On our way to Wales we visited Wendy’s dad, Ron, in Halton Haven Hospice. He was clearly pretty ill and tired (he was in for some respite care) and we were saddened to see just how ‘diminished’ and ‘distant’ he was.
Late Saturday night we had a call to tell us that Ron had suffered what the Hospice euphemistically called ‘an event’ while laughing and joking with the nurses, and within 15 minutes he was dead. Wendy has been across to the house for the last couple of days on another sort of pilgrimage, sorting through the memories of a lifetime and attempting to find some sense of closure.
What a week…once again we experienced both the joy and the pain of life, in the place where we’d first been aware of that tension.
Next week is the week-of-the-two-funerals…another pilgrimage, with drives from the Scottish Borders to Kent, then on to Runcorn and eventually, on Saturday, back home. It will be a pilgrimage for us in every sense, a geographical journey mirroring our inward journey, a journey through our memories and a journey which will remind us again of our own destiny. It will be a journey pregnant with the joy and the pain.