Bangor and Beyond: On the trail of Brenda Chamberlain


On Saturday 20th October I woke up in Caernarfon, not something I can claim to have had the pleasure of before. It seemed wholly appropriate several coffees later, as I was strolling about under the arches of the town walls and down to the water where the castle stood guard... for it was the day we were set to launch the new Library of Wales edition of The Water-castle by Brenda Chamberlain following a walk through a mountain of memories of her life. 
Gwynedd Museum and Art Gallery
Blessed with the weather, over 40 literary tourists gathered at Gwynedd Museum and Art Gallery at 2pm to go on a sunny magical mystery tour to infinity and beyond... well to Bangor and Beyond at least, we had no idea how far this beyond would be, just that we could get there and back in three hours, and part of our journey would involve a bus.
We took a moment to look around the current exhibition celebrating the centenary of local artist and writer Brenda Chamberlain's birth. Chamberlain twice won the Gold Medal in Fine Art at the National Eisteddfod of Wales and held seven solo exhibitions and over 30 group shows during her lifetime. The show included a selection of Brenda Chamberlain’s more abstract works from Poems with Drawings but also included works relating to her books A Rope of Vines, Tide-race and The Water-castle. The exhibition runs until 17 November 2012.
After an arty mooch, the bus driver arrived, the wheels went round and round and we were soon on our way with a jovial On The Buses welcome from Literature Wales' tour organiser Geraint Rhys Edwards. Logistics explained,  he passed the baton over to our tour guides, both experts on Brenda Chamberlain's life and work -- biographer Jill Piercy and Dr Ceridwen Lloyd-Morgan, Honorary Research Fellow in the School of Welsh, University of Cardiff.
All Change: Euston Road
Dr Lloyd-Morgan lead us on a tour of Chamberlain's childhood in Bangor's 'West End'. We passed a house with a long garden that backed up onto a mountain, where telling her brother tall tales about how she had come from Africa, a six year old Chamberlain had decided she wanted to be a writer and an artist, and, encouraged by her mother, a formidable woman, so she did.
Piercy recounted how, as a child Chamberlain had owned a frizzy haired doll, of which she had written: 'This doll taught me to be indifferent to the colour bar' yet she went on to live a colourful life. Chamberlain was born in Bangor, and was to return to it many times, it became a kind of base for her, the place of the first and the last of her days. At Euston Road we stopped to look at a red-bricked terraced house where the artist had lived as a child, imagining her playing on the street, peering out through the railings at the magnificent view beyond.
Grave tidings...
'Emotionally, I was always tempted to drop the writing and concentrate on painting, because for some unknown reason, writing has always been for me an unhappy activity; while painting, almost inevitably makes me happy. But however I tried to discipline myself, sooner or later the other form would take over, dominate entirely for a time, then swing back again.'
Next stop on the mystery tour was a more sombre affair, a visit to Chamberlain's grave in Glanadda Cemetery. Jill delicately explained the sad circumstances surrounding her last years and the depression that led to Chamberlain's death in 1971 from a regretted overdose. An end formerly concealed by friends and family.
She'll be coming round the mountain... Llanllechid, near Bethesda, Caerns
The bus dropped us at lower ground and we walked footpath and lane from there to Tŷ’r Mynydd  and the gate to the mountain.
This was the place where Brenda had lived with the then husband, the artist-craftsman John Petts from 1936 until 1945, following her time studying art at the Royal Academy 
Schools in London. Chamberlain began working with her husband on the production of the Caseg Broadsheets, a series of six which included engravings alongside poems by Dylan Thomas, Alun Lewis, Lynette Roberts and herself as well as translations of early Welsh poems by H. Idris Bell. This period of Chamberlain's life is recounted in her book Alun Lewis and the Making of the Caseg Broadsheets (1969). 
Beside the Literature Wales Writers Plaque at Tŷ’r Mynydd Dr Lloyd-Morgan sang Welsh children's songs that she felt had inspired Brenda's poetry, and further up on the mountain, in between interupting sheep, Piercy told us tales of Chamberlain camping out on the mountain in April during the Second World War, because she would be better able to see the bombers and run from there than from the house. These anecdotes were knitting together a portrait of Brenda Chamberlain as a strong-willed, singleminded artist and writer full of odd quirks, and yet behind this hardy strength we sensed a much more fragile woman, one able to live in extremities of mountain-side winters or Bardsey island winters with no running water, but prone to drawing in to herself, and imposing periods of emotional isolation. 
'Chamberlain's friend Jonah Jones said that she arrived on Bardsey 'part-wounded in some way' after the breakdown of her marriage to the artist and engraver John Petts.' Damian Walford Davies, from his foreword to The Water-castle
Jill explained that wherever she lived, 'she wrote, painted and kept illustrated journals and the style of her work changed in response to her surroundings.' Chamberlain was also a prolific letter writer, and many of these letters remain, to offer further insights, as will be apparent in Jill's biography of Brenda Chamberlain, forthcoming from Parthian Books in 2013.
Return to Bangor
   (Jill Piercy (left) and Dr Ceridwen Lloyd-Morgan)
Then we returned to bus, and to Bangor, taking a gentle stroll from the old Girls’ School (now the William Mathias Centre) to Menai View Terrace where Brenda had several addresses in her last years in Bangor (1967-1971) and on past the top of Siliwen Road to view Plas Rhianfa across the Straits. Finally we were able to view examples of Brenda Chamberlain’s work in Lecture Room 2, due to be renamed the Brenda Chamberlain Lecture Room in her honour. 
Professor Damian Walford Davies joined us here, to launch the new Library of Wales edition of The Water-castle at a reception generously supported by Bangor University. First published in 1964, Brenda Chamberlain's The Water-castle is a journal of love and discord in post-war Germany as a Welsh woman travels with her French husband to meet her former lover, a German count. Editor of the new edition, Walford Davies gave an engaging, interesting introduction to Chamberlain's writing, talking of her exciting, experimental methods of mapping physical and emotional landscapes, and positioning Chamberlain as a political artist, concluding that: 
'The Water-castle is both an ambitiously unconventional work and a paradigmatic 'Anglo-Welsh' text.'
The lovely Eirian from the excellent indie bookshop Palas Print was also on hand to sell Chamberlain's books to all who wanted them, and many people did.
Of the tour, Lleucu Siencyn, CEO at Literature Wales said:
'The Brenda Chamberlain’s Bangor & Beyond tour was the final English language instalment in the 2012 Literary Tourism Events Programme. We were delighted to re-trace Chamberlain’s footsteps through the Bangor area with a bus filled with her fans, experts and friends. Standing on Llanllechid Mountain, looking over to Ynys Môn, with commentary, readings and song from Jill Piercy and Dr Ceridwen Lloyd-Morgan, was a 2012 highlight. Incisive analysis by Dr Damian Walford Davies in Bangor University’s newly re-named Brenda Chamberlain Lecture Theatre, surrounded by her artworks, was also a privilege. We look forward to welcoming audiences to next year’s Literary Tours – the new line-up will be announced in April 2013.'
To end at words spied in the exhibition at the beginning of our walk and tour: 
'There is never an end.
Nothing ever finishes, we flow like wine,
generation into generation, not dying.'
Long let the Library of Wales continue to give forgotten words and writers new lives and new readers. 
Further links:
See the full photo album from our Brenda Chamberlain walk.
Find out more about Brenda Chamberlain and see some of the locations from our walk in the Rolf on Art programme available on BBC iPlayer until Friday 9 November. 

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