Flooded or Drowned? – An Introduction to ‘71,200 Megalitres’
In November 2005 I was on a writing residency at Hawthornden Castle outside Edinburgh. One afternoon I happened to catch part of the BBC Radio 4 programme Open Country, in which the speaker was visiting ‘the Tryweryn reservoir’ to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of ‘the flooding’ of the village of Capel Celyn. The presenter’s use of the term ‘flooding’ rather than ‘drowning’ made me stop and think. As a teenager, my mother had been taken to visit the village by her parents just before it was drowned. The choice of language on the BBC programme didn’t feel inclusive for me because the word ‘flooded’ didn’t represent my personal
connection to what had happened. I decided to write a poem from a different point of view and to use the exact amount of water as the title so as to convey something of the weight of the water in the place, as a way of representing the weight of this act in memory.
‘Flooding’ might be said to refer to something that is accidental, as though caused by too much rain, whereas this was a deliberate act, resulting in the displacement of an entire village and several farms. That the term ‘flooding’ rather than ‘drowning’ was used throughout the programme shouldn’t have surprised me: the focus of Open Country at that time seemed to lean more towards landscape in which there might be some people; whereas I am interested firstly in people, then in the landscapes they find themselves in. My poem tries to bring into focus selected details of the livelihoods of the residents (furniture, vegetable patches, farms), things which either had to be removed or left to be drowned. I was fascinated by what might remain under water, and how these things might contribute to what makes a village, albeit under water. I hoped that by using the verb ‘to drown’ to describe what happened to people’s possessions, the poem might go some way towards showing what it meant to lose one’s home under these circumstances.
I count this as one of the first poems where I began to be willing to take risks with form, by playing with englynion in English. Each verse is made up of thirty syllables: ten in the first line, six in the second, and seven in the third and fourth lines. My poem doesn’t have the strict rhyme scheme you might expect of this form in Welsh, where the seventh, eighth and ninth syllables of the first verse introduce the rhyme, which is usually repeated at the end of the second, third and fourth lines. I used this as the basis for my own system of rhyming (for example, five/cried/child/file/valley). I wanted to see how a twist on a traditional Welsh form might act as a container for the weight of this momentous event in memory.
The poem was published twelve years ago in my second collection, Not in These Shoes (Picador, 2008). ‘Miss Ina Jones is Baptised’ comes from my fourth collection, which I will be delivering to Picador in October.
The twelfth of August nineteen sixty-five:
the day my mother cried,
taken as a child to file
through Capel Celyn valley,
protesting, one final time. Four days on,
the flooding would begin.
The sun poured down, anglophone
onto six rows of onions
in the garden of Bryn Ifan. Upstairs
Beti Cae Fadog trimmed
to pack. The day following
was the day when the family dresser
would be emptied, upturned,
roped flat like a makeshift raft.
The Drowning then began
at dawn on the sixteenth, the two-hundredyear
old elms round the farm
cut down, piled up like bodies,
burnt. Compulsory purchase
order – the whole story was not quite known
until now: livelihoods
had just been stolen from them
in code. Try to drain away,
if you can, from your head, the opaque face
of the lake, complicit
curator of drowned traces
of hearths and rooms; think of
evictions, of watching your home engulfed.
A film on the net lasts
ten seconds of silence where
a postman stumbles up to
the neat gate of Ty’n y Rhos. A caption
says an old man opens
his front door for the last time.
Only the curtains were left,
his furniture shouldered the day before
like empty coffins and
the trellis demolished. Still
the writing on the walls calls:
Cofiwch Dryweryn. In these rare moments
of drought, our whole farmhouse
can be seen again. Hundreds
come from miles to count the steps
to the back door, harder to endure than
a lake full of itself.
On the day mum was led to
say goodbye to the submerged
dead forever, she saw the last tulips
she’d laid on her young aunt’s
grave eight days before, crimson
as mouths across the surface.
Gareth Prior [Extract]
Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch’s second collection, Not in These Shoes, was that rarest of things in poetry: an album with no filler-tracks. It was also a symphony of different voices, not just in the poems that riff brilliantly on the dramatic monologue, but in those that play with narrators closer to a more traditional lyric ‘I’ (but never entirely, and never without complications).
This struck me in re-reading ‘71,200 Megalitres’ for the first time in…
Jeni Williams [Extract]
Placeless events are inconceivable, in that everything that happens must happen somewhere.
Robert Macfarlane, Landmarks (London: Penguin, 2015), p. 21.
The power of Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch’s commemorative poem on Tryweryn is evident in the very audacity of its title: ‘71,200 Megalitres’. The name of the place, later defined by snapshots of its bewildered inhabitants and their beloved homes, is displaced by a calculation of volume. This is the story of Tryweryn in microcosm, the obliteration…
Jon Gower [Extract]
‘Cofiwch Dryweryn.’ Two words in Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch’s poem which can unfurl like fronds of water crowfoot, reminding us of eight hundred acres of land, a dozen complete farms, a school, a chapel, a community.
Water and politics, like oil and water, never mix, or at least seldom emulsify
successfully. There are sometimes gross, ginormous acts such as Stalin’s draining of the Aral Sea or Saddam Hussein’s systematic attacks on the Marsh Arabs in the south of Iraq by draining the wetlands where they lived. But much smaller acts can also have lasting consequences…
Characteristic of Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch’s poetry is her extraordinary gift for voicing a personalised connection to historically important events through drawing us into an imaginative identification. In this poem we have the relayed witness account of the mother through the voice of a child, bringing the testament, her grief, close to the reader with the detail of home, hearths, curtains, furniture, garden trellis, geraniums, onions.
This is reinforced by the facticity of the title ‘71, 200 Megalitres’ which concentrates our mind on the scale of the event, the way war memorials enumerate those killed in war. The detail that is personal also serves as a roll call: the date, sixteenth of August nineteen sixty-five; the location Capel Celyn valley, its village, school, farms, houses, chapel and graveyard.
The personal, the intimacy of belonging, is forced into further consciousness by the naming of the atrocity as the ‘Drowning’: here the capitalisation takes the reader into the dimension of historical events and the Bible. This possible reference to Genesis also reinforces the reader’s awareness of the agency of the act; this was not the passivity of natural causes but a deliberate act of UK Parliament against local protest; an action that can be called to account with an analysis of cause and effect. Its legacy writ large: ‘Still the writing on the walls calls://Cofiwch Dryweryn.’
Visible from the A487, Llanrhystud, is Wales’s memorial to the people by the people, the way that Lutyens’s plywood memorial to those lost in WWI, was rebuilt as the stone Cenotaph in Whitehall by popular demand. This icon, Cofiwch Dryweryn, repainted after an act of vandalism in 2019, now appears on rock faces from Amroth to Chicago, printed and re-printed on souvenir t-shirts, tea towels, mugs, keyrings. More than an image these are words that act as symbols and insist on signifying in their original language, rather than saying Remember Tryweryn.
Through its call to remember, ‘71,200 Megalitres’ reminds me of what may be the most iconic Welsh poem of the twentieth century, Waldo’s ‘Cofio’, written in 1931. A poem that is reproduced on posters, tea-towels, and is ubiquitous in every Welsh tourist centre, and yet does not empty of meaning through reiteration but rather offers us the opportunity to reinforce and enact its meaning, to recall the forgotten things – ‘y pethau anghofiedig’ – lost in the ashes of time.
If this act of remembrance affords us a mitigation of the repetitions of history, ‘Cofio’ also reminds us of the importance of the dreams of past generations giving us the opportunity to imagine a better future: ‘O, genedlaethau dirifedi daear,/A’u breuddwyd dwyfol a’u dwyfoldeb brau…’
In the grip of our current climate emergency the question of the rain, wind, tides, sun, is not one of simple acceptance but one of sanctity of the land. The Celtic Sea wind farm, proposed tidal barrages, solar companies; who owns the land, and who invests; what relation is there to local community and who takes the profits? As Samantha writes, ‘The sun poured down, anglophone/onto six rows of onions…’
‘71,2000 Megalitres’ consciously pays homage to the Welsh-language poetic tradition of the englyn through the syllabic structure, rhyme and half-rhyme of each quatrain. The form of this elegy for Capel Celyn functions also as a reminder, an act of remembrance, of the importance of language and the politics of the Drowning. As Waldo writes in ‘Cofio’ of the ancient languages and their disappearance: ‘A geiriau bach hen ieithoedd diflanedig… A thlws i’r clust ym mharabl plant bychain…’. The chatter of children that once resonated in our ears.
Mererid Hopwood reminds us of: ‘forces that over the centuries have tried unsuccessfully to drown the Welsh voice… All over the world noble languages and cultures of minorities are today singing in chains, as they struggle against a tide that seems determined to wash away all that is different and unique. Voices are being silenced by violent winds, sometimes by seemingly gentle breezes.’ In this act of remembrance, ‘71,200 Megalitres’, is a call for reflection, critical thinking, resistance and action.
 Mererid Hopwood, Singing in Chains (Llandysul: Gomer, 2005), p. 92.
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