The first section of the new unpublished novel 'Sail'
is based on the experiences of eleven ships
built in Porthmadog and BorthyGest.


…taking tall ships across the oceans

Dedicated to those remarkable men who designed Porthmadog/BorthyGest ships,
to those craftsmen who built them,
to those brave men who sailed them huge distances and
to those who went down, never to come back home.

            PRIDE OF WALES
            BLANCHE CURREY

Cilan, BorthyGest

We drove from the Berwyns, those closed-in mountains, and as we passed through Porthmadog and turned up the narrow road behind it, through Y Garth and past Sybil Thorndike's house (BronyGarth), we had a competition on the first to see Taid's house and cry out "Cilan".

My grandparents had built the house for their retirement in the year I was born, 1938.  I have pictures showing a tubby baby boy in my mother's arms by the leaded-glass front door, and standing with a sturdy posture on the earth patch that was to become the front lawn, the masts of yachts visible behind me.

The garden was Grandfather's joy.  He was out early, hoeing and planting, growing potatoes, erecting the cane poles, strung together like teepees, for his sweet peas, and creating liquid manure in a large tin container.  When I went down to play with my friends, he would stand at the edge of the lawn and make a distinctive whistle to bring me back for my meal - cinio - lunch.  My boat - a skiff of brown wood - would then be pulled-up on the bank next to Tai Pilots, and I would make my way to Cilan around the curving road, over the little stream and the well-worn rocks and through Cilan's small front gate.

The house faced the sea; all was light and air except for the storms in the winter when the gusts of wind were so fierce that they cracked the windows in the front bedrooms.

I was particularly fascinated by the attic.  I spent many hours there, sitting by the table inside the dormer window that looked out over the bay and over the estuary towards the open sea.  The curve of small houses were as necklaces around the bay and the sand changed colour from light to dark as it warmed between the sea's encroaches.

Access to the attic was via a wooden trapdoor in the landing's ceiling; you took a wooden pole with a brass ferrule, hooked it in place and pulled down.  The steps came down and I rose carefully, as if I was a sailor climbing up the ropes to adjust the sails.

For a year, I attended BorthyGest Junior School which was located at the head of the street ascending the hill opposite Cilan.  It had a monkey-puzzle tree at the front, and there I recall learning the poem  Abw Ben Adhem and been clouted on the ear for whistling in the washroom during a toilet break from lessons.

Each day I went home from school across the sands of the bay, if it was dry, and when the tide was in, around the road, past Borthwen, a house at the end of the row, which was a dairy, where our milk came from.

Taid was Master of the house; it was his ship.  He dominated the kitchen.  The high-point of his year was at Christmas when he made treacle toffee (cyflath, as he called it).  The gas cooker, in the corner of the back kitchen was his galley, and the toffee emerged in tin trays, covered in a light sprinkling of flour.  When cooled, I was given a small metal hammer to break it up; it was handed-around the family with a certain reverence.

On the wall of the kitchen was a painting of a sailing ship.  It had a gold frame.  The sea at the bottom had white tops to the waves and a rowing-boat at the left.  She appeared to be sailing in to a harbour.  I read later that Italian artists had a business in painting ships, which would be bought by the captain of the vessel, and hung with pride in their homes. The ship had three masts.  The sky was blue.  From the foremast hung a series of so-called square sails.  The main mast carried fore-and-aft sails, as did the mizzen.  In later years, I looked more carefully at the writing at the bottom.  It said she was the Blanche Currie.

What happened to the painting?  I do not know.  It must be somewhere, hanging on some wall in somebody's house.  I have no sentiment about the painting, but I value her picture in my mind, as part of my childhood. The house and its contents have gone out of the family.  But the tide of memory remains. It sweeps from the past in to us.  It runs through us in a creative sweep, making, creating and destroying, as does the sea.

And what I did not know then was that this ship was built (in 1875) some two hundred yards from my Grandfather's house, on the bay-edge space used by ship builder Richard Jones of Garreg Wen.  And as I walked down the path to play with my friends, or walked to school across the BorthyGest bay, I was stepping on the stones and slate ridges that originally held the Blanche Currey as she grew to life-form.

Chapter 1

Topsy was in full steam.  She chuff-chuffed along with a streak of steam flowing from her brass chimney.

All eyes were on her.  Faces were tilted downwards to watch this miracle of engineering.

As the miniature locomotive made the long loop around the edge of the garden, faces moved in unison to the left and then to the right.  She was running on a pair of rails a mere three and one-eighth inch gauge.

William Williams was standing proudly, the buttons on his waistcoat prominent as he tucked his thumbs in to the lower pockets.  He was wearing his best suit for this, a very special occasion.  

"Just a little mover.  She is the perfect engine.  She has the power," he muttered to himself in Welsh as the work of his hands displayed her excellence.

He was a maker; a hands-on man.  He was not an accountant or an owner.  He was not as Charles Easton Spooner and Spooner's father. He - William - was an artisan.  He was a man who bent over a piece of hot iron and knew that out of it he could make a wheel or, by mixing it in the correct proportions, the brass, copper and tin needed to make up a locomotive or a carriage, given the wood and an able carpenter.

He raised his eyes over the neatly-trimmed shrubs and over the garden wall.  Beyond was the panorama that he was used to.  Snowdon over the left; Cnicht and the Moelwyns straight ahead and in the foreground the blue waters of the Bay of Porthmadog, where the rivers Dwyryd and Glaslyn combined.  Beyond these ever-changing waters was the shoreline of Merioneth, with Harlech castle visible, and beyond that, out to sea, was a faint long smudge marking the bar, where dangerous tumbling waters marked the end of the Bay and the beginning of the long ocean.
As he looked, the top half of a schooner came in to view.  She was three-masted, with four square sails on her foremast, a serious ship for the serious ocean. Built by hand from local labour, she was making her confident way out to sea.  "Carrying slate," he thought, "She looks in her element. Fast and stable. This is what the schooners are built for."

Sail out.  Steam in.  He saw himself as an engineer in metal; a man of making things that had a specific task in the improvement of man.  He glanced at the sailing ship again.  Certainly she was handsome.  But she relied on man's labour, on the hoisting of sails to catch the wind, on turning the wheel to direct her, and in her birth, the huge effort needed to build her.

But I look for labour without man in the future, he thought.  I make machines and they will generate enough power to carry hundreds of men to their work.  That is the past - he looked again at the ship - and I am the future.

He turned back to the gathering on the lawn.  His son Johnnie tugged at his trousers.  Johnnie pointed to where the three inch gauge track had been pushed out of line by someone's shoe.  "Rhoi o'n ol," William instructed to his son.  Johnnie, as the engineer-in-making he was (he was later to work on the East Bengal Railway, India) moved over to where the track was bent and re-set it, pushing the steel stakes in soundly.

Charles Easton Spooner was the owner of Bron-y-Garth and he was a proud man.  He had overcome the obstacles and he was about to see the Festiniog Railway come in to its own, fare-carrying, reliable, profitable. He stood on the terrace in the upper part of the front garden, somewhat solitary.  The terrace was edged with a stone construction, knee height, of uprights and cross-pieces.  The house itself has a lop-sided character, with large window  bays on the Porthmadog side, but not on the BorthyGest side.  

Charles  had lost his dear wife Mary Elizabeth to typhoid some five years ago and were it not for the presence of his sister Louisa, his life would be empty indeed. Empty but for the ambition.  It was his overwhelming desire to see the railway well established, with its own rolling stock made by its own foundry and works, running up to and from Blaenau, carrying slate.  He looked at William Williams.  He saw a man after himself, but without the social additions.

"Father, what a beautiful day," said the youngest of his three sons, Charles Edwin.  "We are having a good time.  What a marvellous engine.  And William Williams made it all himself. Do you know, he made his own tools for the job."

"Yes, I did know.  He must have very good eyesight."

The little train, about the size of a terrier dog, continued its chuff-chuffing around the garden. It zipped across the X-shaped junctions and stopped under the signals.  As it chuffed away confidently, John stepped forward holding a miniature shovel.  He thrust it in to the base of the tender and a small shovel-full of ground-up coal was thrown into the fire which momentarily puffed out a flame of fire.

"A really amazing thing," said Charles Edwin.  "I don't suppose there is anything like it in the world."

"I think not," replied his father, turning his face upwards, revealing his square bushy beard.  He had the greatest respect for William Williams, his Superintendent of Railways.

In another part of the garden another man of the upper sort was stationed next to his wife.  David Williams was a solicitor and Member of Parliament for Merioneth. He took the Welsh bardic name of Dewi Heli. He was controller of the Madocks estate.  Naturally, he owned property.

He had a curious manner.  His eyes resembled the top halves of two boiled eggs, protruding, observing, summing up. He had a mind for gain.  When he saw a weakness, it became an opportunity, and he moved in with charm and deference, emerging with advantage.

One of his attributes was fertility.  He had impregnated his wife Annie with a regularity in tune with the calendar and three of his children were here today, on this sunny headland above the Glaslyn.  It was to his advantage to be close to Charles Spooner.  Much legal business was necessary.  The Festiniog Railway was steaming ahead and there was money to be made.  Slate was at the heart of it.  Heavy, everlasting slate, the world's best substance for covering new roofs.  It had to be mined, carried to the port and sent abroad, by sail.  Germany was mad for it.  Slate was our gold.

An important man needs a son.  His son, Arthur Osmond was 20 and a handsome young man.  He must be in need of a wife.  His father's eyes moved around the garden, from finery to finery.

Arthur Osmond was looking too. But no finery caught his eye.  He saw the three young men under the yew tree.

His sisters Florence (the elder, aged fifteen) and Blanche (age fourteen) stood together, and very attractive they looked.  They were dressed by a dressmaker in Caernarfon and a shoe-maker in Criccieth.  Florence wore black shoes; Blanche wore brown calf laced half-boots.  Blanche generally liked the plainer look: her dress was sharply cut above the bosom.  Florence  wore a silken brown dress with  lace over the shoulders.

"This is a beautiful house," said Florence, looking over the garden and its many inhabitants.  "It must be nice to live over the sea, to have the view of the estuary in the morning and to see the sun going down over the horizon in the evening."

Blanche was not so impressed.  "I like the woods and fields that we have. I like to see things that grow."

They both glanced across the garden at the three young men.

The three boys of Charles Easton Spooner stood in a cluster under the yew tree:  Charles Edwin, John Eryri and George Percival.  At first glance, each seemed handsome, but on closer inspection, John did not stand up because there was a curious stiffness about his face and body, almost as if he had not quite mastered the craft of standing up.  Charles Edwin was undeniably handsome, with a lean body, close-cut hair, a craggy face with moustache and a long sharp nose. He wore a suit of plain mid-grey. Percy was chubbier, of lower height, but possessed of the charm of the natural bon viveur.  He was wearing a suit of mid-blue marked by a check of smoky white.

"My dear Charles, old chap," said Percy, " it's time we had a decent drink."  It was generally thought that drink came naturally to Percy; his father had frequently sniffed, and warned him of the dangers.

"We must contact the kitchen," replied Charles in his low, controlled, tone.

A few minutes later, a young woman came towards them with a tray holding three cut-glass wine-glasses and a honey-coloured bottle of white wine, with the cork lying beside it.  Quite right for the occasion, thought Charles.  The young lady came closer.  She was dressed in a pinafore and collar but the hem of her dress, and her shoulders, were embraced with a cloth displaying a sparkle of silver against a background of light blue.  It was the colour of the sea, decorated with exotic fish.  It was a combination that drew Percy's eyes.  Her eyes, too, were blue, under a wave of golden hair which swept across her forehead.

"Very good," said Charles, moving the glass to his mouth.

"Yes," murmered Percy.  "Yes, most kind."  His manner was unusually subdued, but his eyes were set on the young lady before him.

By this time, the miniature train had come to a halt.  Applause came from the gathering.  Willliam Williams, smaller in stature than the men present, stepped forward and took a modest bow.

"Excellent.  Excellent." announced Charles Easton.  "We have seen the future.  Wonderful."  He smiled at William Williams, who was stepping forward with a brown tarpaulin.  He folded it in half and laid it on the ground.

He stepped back.  The engine was heavy and hot.  He looked towards Percy who raised a hand at him.

The two men kept the engine upright by sliding a metal rule through it, lifting it up and placing it down in the centre of the tarpaulin.  They raised the sides of the tarpaulin so that the hot parts of the engine were not close to their hands.  They raised the tarpaulin with its contents together and walked with her out of the garden, William's young son walking proudly with them.  Only Percy, of all the men in the garden that fine day, would have been asked to help William with his unique engine, for Percy was a railway man.

He was talented, they knew that here and they knew it down in the railway workshops.  He drew on his father's skill in planning and drawing.  But, unlike many young men of his class, he did not mind getting his hands dirty.  When needed, he was a hands-on man.

He was shortly to become a hands-on man in another way too.

As he walked out of the garden with William Williams, carrying the miraculous engine, he looked backwards towards the kitchen.  His mind was full of the creature he had just seen, her hands holding the glass and the gold of her hair glinting in the sun.

And as a consequence, his involvement with railway engines and companies was to take him to a far-away place, where he was to deal with people more foreign than his colleagues and work-mates in a corner of Porthmadog.

Chapter 2

Shon Edwards in the early Spring of 1870 was hard at work making his ideal woman.  He and his father occupied Tan-y-Graig, Criccieth, and they were both wood-men.  His father, with his strong brown hands and tufts of hair over his ears, one of which almost permanently covered a flat pencil typical of his trade, had all his life made doors, windows, floors, joists and so on, being the essential pieces for building houses.  He was an artisan, and a very good one.  He was almost never out of work, and his services were required all across Meirionnydd. But he was also an artist. Even a pig-sty behind a house received his careful attention: something about the door and frame spoke of the work of Tomos Edwards, joiner.  He never made an ugly thing in his life.  And as is often the case, what was in the father was also in the son, but more so.  In the son, the artistic became developed, refined.

If his father made wood that joined, that was necessary for domestic life, so his son made wood that spoke for itself, that possessed symbolism and metaphor.  This time, he was in his element.  Symbolism was in the drawings.  He had twenty pages of them. Shon's black pencil and carbon stick had traced out the swirling shapes of the Indies, the Far East, in shapes of jungle animals, flying birds, of the insects of the Burma forest and the elephants of the Punjab.

But now he had a different challenge, to finish off the Pride of Wales with a design for her prow.  A process of making which took a real human being and replicated her in wood and paint.  A process of sculpting a woman yet not a woman. Of making a female in wood which represented a shape which stayed long in the mind after the ship she fronted had gone away on the high seas.  On land, as he was, she was not company; at sea, on the moving ocean, she was company to the sailors who toiled behind her. She was sister, friend and lover; in the minds of sailors far from land the figurehead was a reminder of the human world they had left behind.

She was to be the figurehead of the new ship, a barque, Pride of Wales, being built at BorthyGest.  Shon's drawings - swirling, exotic, mysterious - were to be painted on the ship as a tribute to her calling on the Indian Ocean, her destination.

Mother had died of TB some six years previously and both men missed her dearly.  She had been the star of the household, hard-working, diligent, God-fearing and devoted to her two men, especially her son with his large eyes, narrow shoulders and polite manner.  At school, Shon created drawings which were the envy of his peers and the wonder of his teachers.  Out of nothing, apparently, he could create buildings, landscapes, animals, with his pen with no first efforts; they just flowed from him.  And when it came to ships, it was as if he was born for this task.  He could draw a schooner or brig with a precision and accuracy down to the last inch.  His speciality was sails.  He loved the size and the energy of sails.  He loved their movement and the way they negotiated with the wind to create an energy that was useful out of a set of movements which were beautiful.  That was how it was in the wind, but the trick Shon Edwards had at his finger-tips was the translation of that energy and beauty in to a drawing that was two-dimensional.  The three-dimensional real ship was being built in BorthyGest,  Shon's drawings were anticipated with pleasure; and the work of his hands in making a figurehead for the fine new ship was talked about by many who worked and lived here

He was in his father's house and he was working.  Before him, now upright, was the woman emerging.

His father knew that his talented son was creating something special.  Shon did not like visitors to his room when he was working.  So at night, his son asleep, Tomos crept downstairs and opened the door of the workroom.  He did not light a candle or a lamp because usually the moonlight coming in through the window was enough to show how the work was progressing.  He stood there for five minutes in silent contemplation of the work in progress.  He had admired the shape of the body, one leg forward, the shaped bust and the turn of the shoulder.  Then, at a later visit, he saw the legs take shape and he saw the arms with their muscle and femininity.

Pride of Wales was a barque, perhaps the most beautiful of ships.  Her three masts were majestic:  from the foremast and the main mast hung five square sails.  The bottom sails were huge and caught the wind with a pronounced  ballooning.  Above them on each mast hung sails which angled up to the smaller topsail.  The rear mast, the mizzen, in modest mode, carried a fore and aft sail with a gaff and sail above.  But when in ambitious mode,  this mizzen carried five square sails.  In between the three sets of sails hung four stay sails, like handkerchiefs.  She was very adaptable, very fast and looked stunning. At 300 tons and 125 feet long she was bigger than any boat previously built on this shoreline of Caernarfonshire.  She was indeed the pride of Wales.

The following day there was a knock at the door.  Shon opened it and found before him a tall man wearing a brown suit.  It was Simon Jones, designer and builder of ships.

"My boy," said Simon, stretching out his hand.  "You look a little tired.  Is it going well?"

"Yes," said Shon, if a little hesitantly.  "I have finished the drawings.  Now I am on the woman."

"On the woman!" repeated Simon.  "That's a good one.  Be careful you do not get carried away, or there'll be a price to pay."

Shon laughed.  "I think she's coming on well."

Simon had an envelope in his hand.  He passed it to Shon.  "Something to keep you going.  Five guineas."

He handed Shon a ledger page with the amount entered.  In the space next to the figure Shon wrote his signature.

Simon looked up in to Shon's eyes.  "Can I see her?"

Shon took a step back and there was a pause.

"I'd like to get on more before I show her."

Simon was disappointed, but he understood the artistic temperament, the secret relationship between carver and subject.

"Perhaps next week," said Shon.

"I'll be back," said Simon as he turned to go.  He glanced back at the house and he felt the isolation of the two men, one of whom had lost a woman, the other was busy creating one.  When there is something lost, there is usually something gained, thought Simon.