Merlin's Country

28/06/2012 20:51 BST | Updated 28/08/2012 10:12 BST

Viewed from my home county of Ceredigion, the grass in neighbouring Carmarthenshire looks greener. More cattle browse the rich alluvial valleys, fewer sheep graze the hills. Caerfyrddin, my father's county, takes its name from the Roman word for a castle, caer, and the wizard Myrddin - famously in English, Merlin - who was born, they say, in the town of Carmarthen. Here history and mythology go back so far so that, somewhere on the brink of the dark ages, fact and myth merge in a single narrative. It is not so long ago that Carmarthen town council made the long postponed and locally controversial decision to improve the main route through the town by removing the fabled Carmarthen Oak, which had stood for perhaps four hundred years on the junction of Oak Lane and Priory Street. The decision to remove the tree, dead, probably, since the 19th century, was prevented for generations by Myrddin's (Merlin's) prophesy, told in the rhyme:

'When Merlin's oak shall tumble down,

Then will fall Carmarthen town.'

One can imagine the debate between Merlin loyalists and the Highways department. The Old Oak, as it was familiarly known, was not destroyed, but tenderly removed to a site close by, and the town still stands, flourishing as one of the fastest growing market towns in Wales, which makes me wonder if we can believe in anything, even Merlin.

As a wartime child, I recall an aunt taking me by train from Cardiff to stay with her in Carmarthen. The compartments and corridors were packed with soldiers. There were no seats and little standing room, but a soldier lifted me onto his triple-decker backpack, where I sat enthroned, my attention divided between the wondrous sight of soldiers and, beyond the window, distant blue headlands, waves lapping the sea-wall that carries the track, then sands and silver estuaries. It's a beautiful train journey. The track skirts the coast from Swansea westward and swings along the final curve up the Tywi estuary where big tides re-shape the sands every day, cockle pickers and fishermen work on the 'heron-priested shore' just a few miles south-east of Dylan Thomas's Laugharne, and upstream, in the right season, fishermen still wait for salmon at dusk in traditional, one-paddle coracles. Across the estuary, against the sky, Llansteffan Castle endures like a legend. Carmarthen is marked by the Romans, the Civil War, and, where history fails, stories supply all that human imagination needs.

Carmarthenshire is a county of castles, great houses, and some of the finest gardens to be found anywhere. Vertiginous Carreg Cennen Castle, close to the pleasing little town of Llandeilo, built on a sheer cliff, seems higher, mightier, more powerful than its size would suggest. It belongs to the great age of Welsh castle building, and their presence reminds us that this was once a county of kings and princes, and part of the kingdom of Deheubarth - roughly the former Dyfed, which was until recently composed of what are now, once more, Carmarthenshire, Ceredigion and Pembrokeshire. The chief seat of the principality of Deheubarth was Dinefwr Castle. The rule of the Lord Rhys in the 12th Century, and his compliant neighbour, King Henry 11 of England, ensured a reign of peace and creativity. At the death of the Lord Rhys, Deheubarth fell to brotherly rivalries. The strife between the sons of the Lord Rhys spread and put paid to the dream of a Wales united under one king, one independent country, ruled by the Laws of Hywel Dda, Hywel the Good, who had codified the Welsh Laws into a beautiful, poetic document in the mid-tenth century. The Law depended not on punishment, but recompense. It digresses to talk of many things, bees, for instance. This is Hywel's take on bees, translated from the Welsh:

'The lineage of bees is from paradise, and it was because of man's

sin that they came from there and that God gave them his grace; and

therefore the mass cannot be sung without the wax.'

On the subject of who dared kill the King's cat, whose function as chief mouser was crucial to the court, the Law is precise. The body of the cat will be held over a floor by the tip of its tail, its nose touching the ground. The guilty man must pay as recompense for his crime enough grain to pour on the floor until the mound is deep enough to cover the cat to the tip of its tail. The Law is reasonable. If corn could not be got, a ewe and lamb would do.

Despite periods of peaceful government, Wales as a nation was eventually defeated, to become England's first colony. It still hurts. For Welsh people, the castles are haunted by old troubles, old ghosts. In a beautiful inscription in Welsh and Latin the poet and artist David Jones wrote, 'Cara Wallia derelicta ab hieme an. 1282', which he translated as, 'Dear Wales, all buggered up since the winter of 1282.'

Carmarthenshire is a garden paradise. Within a few miles of each other are several great gardens. The largest is the National Botanic Garden of Wales, its old house, ice-house, walled gardens, over 500 acres including fields, woods, walkways, water, rocks and rills, and the iconic modern architectural gem, the Great Glass House, designed by Norman Foster. The glasshouse has settled, transparent, among the hills, an encapsulated Mediterranean climate of balmy light and falling water, ancient olive trees, plants, flowers and ferns. Close by is Aberglasne, whose 'nine green gardens', as the 15th Century poet Lewis Glyn Cothi describes them in an ode to his patron, Rhydderch ap Rhys, were lost under centuries of farmyard muck, nettles and debris, and found, excavated and restored in time for the new millennium. The cloister garden and parapet walk have been dated to the 16th Century, the only surviving Elizabethan garden in Britain. Aberglasne is delightful, and small enough, at 10 acres, to possess utterly for an afternoon. During a year of hard-hats, mud and JCBs, I visited regularly as poet-in-residence, sharing the excitement of each discovery. Close by is the Dinefwr estate, owned by the National Trust, with its castle, an 18th Century house, parklands and a herd of rare white cattle, the white cattle of Dinefwr, their genetic inheritance dating from the days of Hywel Dda. They are beautiful, curved-horned animals, not albino but silver-white with soot-speckled faces, black eyes, ears and noses.

The white cattle are living history. But who was the girl of Llyn-y-Fan Fach, a lake under the Black Mountain? She rose from the waters of the lake to entrance a young man who kept his animals on the shore. They married, raised sons and were happy until he broke his promise not to touch her three times with metal. How does such a story arise, and persist? What does it mean? Does it date from the arrival of Iron Age and Bronze people into an indigenous Stone Age society nervous of foreigners with their fancy art and weaponry? Is the lake itself in fact the past, a moment in Britain's history? The story is, of course, a myth, a conclusion confused by one detail: the descendants of those mythical lovers became known as the Physicians of Myddfai, famed for discovering the curative properties of plants, and their names are carved in stone on their graves in a local churchyard.

Carmarthenshire is a landscape for the eye, the soul and the mind, where poets have always given voice to the spirit of the place. Now the Dinefwr estate, close to the sophisticated little town of Llandeilo, with its art gallery, craft gallery, and lovely independent shops, is hosting a new Festival of Literature. Literature Wales/Llenyddiaeth Cymru, with the National Trust, welcome wordsmiths and word-lovers to the feast for words, music, conversation, debate and performance, a weekend of pleasure and culture. I'll be there, hoping the rain keeps off. The intercession of St Teilo might help, but, to keep open the options, put in a word with Merlin too.