Ten years ago, when I started thinking about TWICE, I didn't get out much. I had two small kids, we were tethered at home, except during half terms and holidays when we went to Llanelli in South Wales, where my in-laws live.
Before I met my husband I never went to Wales. It rained a lot there, I knew, hence the lush green countryside. There were mines and beaches and castles, which I'd learnt about from the history I studied at school and university.
The castles were often Norman, I knew: built fast by William the Conqueror and his successors after 1066, then improved and extended by Edward I and his master builders in the 13th century.
Edward I – Longshanks or as he was known – had been keen to install English Marcher lords and their castles up and down the border with England and throughout Wales, to coerce the locals. And when I went to Wales I saw castles-a-plenty, ruined on hills or cosy with tea rooms and gift shops. Baghdad's Green Zone in a thousand years time, it struck me, if things last that long. Will they sell scented candles there?
The castles in Wales weren't just the tools of invaders, I learnt. There were Welsh ones too, built for in-fighting princes with complex history I knew nothing about. And there were other fortifications: WW1 and 2 gun posts on the coast, disused radar stations. And all those Roman traces everywhere: forts and villas, roads, military camps. There was an actual Roman fort just up the road from my in-laws, at Loughor, on the other side of the bridge on the way to the Gower, just off the A4240 after the roundabout. Tucked away in the trees up a knoll: a genuine two-thousand-year-old wall looking out over the wide mud of the estuary. And no one much bothered: these things two-a-penny here.
Why is there so much of this all over Wales? And I haven't even mentioned the megaliths.
So much old stuff, so much bother and war all over the place, big marks in stone, in the hinterlands. Why?
Because this is how it used to be everywhere, before the past got overgrown, towns and cities built instead? Wales exempt because it's relatively less populated and less developed, so the old traces lingered?
I didn't think so.
Why though? Why were those Romans, Normans, English, others all so keen on massive military campaigns here, in the green rain, a remote place? Just to grab land for the sake of it? I didn't buy it.
And then there were the mines.
We visited Merthyr Tydfil, an extraordinary town in deep countryside. Workers terraces, built no-frills in long rows to house those who dug iron and coal out of the hills. The mines themselves and their infrastructure, disused, scarring the land.
We went to Dolaucothi Gold MInes, an actual Roman goldmine 40 miles north of Llanelli in the middle of nowhere, the one road leading there guarded by ruins of Talley Abbey. Very old mines tended to be accessed via abbeys, I was starting to learn. Monks aren't always what they seem.
Dolaucothi blew my mind. A whole hillside dismantled by Romans and their slaves. Dark caves we took the lift down to visit, a place hacked apart by iron hand tools after the initial quartz seams were exposed by massive controlled water gushes from purpose-built aqueducts and leats, sophisticated engineering.
The information signs explained there was evidence that the mining predated the Romans – there are much older mines than this one in Wales. These prehistoric sites tend to be lead, copper and iron mines, in Pembrokeshire, in Anglesey, three thousand years old, older perhaps. We went to Pembrokeshire, the next county west after Carmarthenshire, where Llanelli is. Castles and copper mines. Everyone speaking English, unlike Carmarthenshire, where Welsh is often spoken. Amazing stones on the beach, amazing geology all over Pembrokeshire, which the metal seams are part of. Because much of Pembrokeshire is volcanic, the internet said.
This was the fact that exploded it all for me. The hills around me in Pembrokeshire, in Carmarthenshire, in all of Wales, up and down rugged west Britain and Scotland, weren't hills at all. They were volcanos, once. Now they were dormant volcanos, disguised with grass, still packed with metal and other stuff from inside earth. Of course they were. That's what all this was: land packed with incredible richness you don't get in France or Normandy or east Britain or most of the rest of the world: stuff that was deep once and bubbled up from fiery volcanic seams at the edge of tectonic plates to cool off and become accessible, stuff that you need to make weapons and machines from, if you want to rule empires or kingdoms. Dragon seams.
No wonder they all spoke English in Pembrokeshire. I imagined the population wipeouts that must have happened there once, genocides, repopulation by English invaders in the deep past, history we no longer have records of, that reverberates, all to get their hands on the matter that Wales and the rest of west Britain is built on.
And who the hell first found all that stuff in Britain's volcanic hills, anywhere? How did they know the value of different rocks or how to smelt them, let alone how to meld them in just the right proportion? To make bronze, for example, which is 88% copper and 12% tin. (Devon and Cornwall are one of the very few places in the ancient world to contain tin and Wales is packed with copper. No Bronze Age without that.)
So many questions. A vision of Britain opened up to me then, of the ground under me and its secrets and the hidden history I could only see traces of and that was written nowhere, the knowledge that Britain was in fact a mine, to those who know. Rulers with arcane knowledge and their slaves: that's what Britain was and still is, my vision said.
I'd studied history at university but I knew nothing, I saw. Even then, with my tutors, there was always a limit to how much was known. How did they get about, for example, where were their maps from? How did they know where the gold was?
And what goes on today we know nothing about? Metals were everything once – what are the contested essential resources of our day?
Luckily I had the whole internet to surf to answer these questions.
If I could trust the internet. They don't just leave their treasure maps lying around...
Here's a video I made with Zero Books about these themes:
You can read the text here.