Penlan - In Search of Deep Country

© Myrddyn Phillips

"Living off-grid here must have been a wonderful experience - though one not suited to everyone..." Myrddyn Phillips undertakes some landscape detective work to track down a remote Welsh cottage featured in a classic of modern nature writing.

Many places amongst the hills are evocative. Some draw their power from personal memories, others through their place in shared things such as music, the written word or photographs. All can leave mindscapes full of intimate images.

Some of the most evocative sites in the Welsh hills are the old houses that scatter the landscape, now derelict but all, you can be sure, with a story to tell. Some are now left to wither in inclement weather, gradually becoming no more than piles of rocks where exterior walls once lay. Others are still robust and relatively intact. But few have been written about, and even fewer still have recently been lived in.

Finding Penlan took a bit of doing  © Myrddyn Phillips
Finding Penlan took a bit of doing
© Myrddyn Phillips

It was one such that I set out, with friends in tow, to find. The house is named Penlan, and since reading about it I had wanted to visit. However it took a while to locate.

Penlan was where writer Neil Ansell spent five years living off grid, without running water or electricity. His account of living alone there appears in his book Deep Country – Five Years in the Welsh Hills.

Living off-grid here must have been a wonderful experience - although not one suited to many

'I lived alone in this cottage for five years, summer and winter, with no transport, no phone' he writes, about the book.

'This is the story of those five years, where I lived and how I lived. It is the story of what it means to live in a place so remote that you may not see another soul for weeks on end. And it is the story of the hidden places that I came to call my own, and the wild creatures that became my society.'

When I read this book I imagined the house was situated somewhere close to the country of the Brecon Beacons. It was the imagery of the place brought on by Neil's writing that had me scanning my mind's eye trying to place Penlan in a landscape that I knew. Another friend told me that when she read the book she imagined Penlan to be placed somewhere near Machynlleth.

It is not my intention to give the place where this house is situated, as part of the fun of such things is delving into clues and finding out for oneself. For me, it was the beautiful pen and ink drawing of the map placing Penlan in its landscape that appears on the inside front and rear cover of the book and its endpapers, coupled with one or two clues interspersed in the text, that had me examining maps and pinpointing its position.

We set out for Penlan on a leaden grey skied day with adjoining hill tops still enveloped in November murk. It was an ideal day to visit as the weather was still, with hardly a breath of breeze. The grey nature seemingly matched that of a house such as Penlan - one that is no longer lived in, now showing signs of weathering with flecks of paint cracked and crumbling, rusted iron gates leading up forgotten stone steps and a tranquillity reflecting the still November day where Red Kites meandered across the skies and except for white flecks of grazing sheep, little stirred.

From the start of our walk it was only a short distance to the house, contouring around and then down a steep field on to a green track, from which we had our first view of Penlan. The western side of the house showed off a robust Victorian exterior, the front garden had recently been tended with a number of green sacks laid out full of foliage. Old trees, wind-blown and weathered, looked out from adjacent fields toward the valley below, with light grey silhouetted shapes of hills indicating the landscape that Penlan inhabits.

On our visit the house was locked, although the rear outhouse only had the rusted remains of a green flecked hook keeping its door partly closed to the elements. Large plastic barrels collected water from the truffins. Inside, the ground floor looked similar to a number of bothies I have visited, although these are usually kept neat awaiting their next visitor. In contrast Penlan looked used but now forgotten, scattered with discarded items, with the feeling of the slow ebb of autumnal damp creeping around the inner house. Internally it did not look welcoming, but the house is still intact and is placed in a wonderful position amongst an ancient natural landscape. It was the latter that Neil Ansell discovered when living here. It must have been a wonderful experience, although one not suited to many.

We departed the same way we had come, on the green track, but we soon left this to climb the field behind Penlan. Now behind us, the house disappeared except for its tiled roof, overlooking the land below, standing lonely in the place it had occupied for a hundred years and more.

I was glad I had visited. For me part of the joy of doing such things is to investigate new places. Those proverbial blanks on the map are getting fewer, but thankfully will never be fully filled in; some will always remain - and that is the joy. Seek and find, but leave others undisturbed.

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