What is Simplicity? Part 1
Sarah the Furze lived in a two-room cottage, engendered of rock, as bare as a cave, that stood on the edge of a heathery hill on the West Coast of Wales. The slope led, very gradually, up to the jumble of megaliths known as Plumstone, and from this vantage one could view the whole of the county, and perhaps also catch a glimpse into the lives of the dwellers in close proximity. They might, on a clear day, have noticed Sarah, gathering the springy stalks of heather to bring home for processing.
Sarah’s cottage had a packed-earth floor, and was without an electricity supply. Water was drawn from a well, which was probably like the well my mother drew from, inhabited by slippery slimy eels. The account of Sarah’s life that I heard from my mum said that in one of her two rooms, Sarah kept chickens. Just how many of the doomed fowls cohabited, I don’t know; I don’t have a tally, but neither, I suppose, did the chickens, as they are not troubled by an ability to add and subtract.
Sarah made brooms and brushes from her hillside pickings, and once a week she walked the six winding miles into town to ply her craft. Life was not all work for this indomitable lady, though, as she treated herself to a cup of tea in one of the town cafés, until, that is, the proprietor raised the price, and that indulgence ceased.
It was a simple life, circa 1920, in rural Wales. Assuming that I was physically up to such a spare existence, would I have the mental toughness for a lifetime of it? Needs must, of course, but I would not be, for very long, congratulating myself on the virtue of my plainness.
The modernist version of simplicity in which I have actually lived for good parts of my life, was a lot more convenient. A drive to the supermarket, a ready meal, and a microwave ensured that I could sit in front of my instant gratification box at any time. Simple, especially if I did not bother my head with boring issues like health and environment; after all, what was the planet to do with me? Expedient action cuts down on humdrum tasks, and we might congratulate ourselves on our brisk efficiency, but it is a technologically dependent and unaware way to live.
Like many others who live alone, even contentedly alone, Sarah enjoyed human contact now and again. There were two chapel services on a Sunday, and if she took the footpath across the fields, it was a mere one-mile walk each way. On dark evenings, mother said, Sarah’s lantern told of her progress towards the gathering congregation.
I have a black and white photograph of those chapel members, taken in around the 1940s. There were 55 soberly attired souls, evenly distributed by gender and age. It was an impressive turn out for the small area served by the chapel. From census figures, the population of the parish was around 650, and the numbers attending the other parish chapel was probably similar, and a larger congregation might well have gratified the vicar at the main place of worship, the parish church. I would guess that most of the households in the area were represented at one of these establishments on a Sabbath day.
My grandparents’ house was not much grander than the cottage Sarah lived in, and mum shared the two slate-ceilinged attic spaces with her three siblings. The cottage was on the only B road in a parish of single-track ways that visited hamlets and passed by farm entrances. The Haverfordwest bus stopped there by request, and the alighters, having concluded their businesses in town, always called at the cottage, and hospitality demanded the supply of tea, and perhaps a slice of home-baked cake. People did not need much of a reason to socialise; many of them spent much of their lives working the farm, and the need for company was probably one reason for a good turnout at church and chapel. Along with this basic requirement of sociability went, of course, conformity, and all of the men and boys wore neckties with their once-a-week black or grey suits from Davies the tailor in town, and which, to my keen young nose, sometimes sustained an aura of mothballs. Behaviour was guided by moral authority, and society was more steady and much more predictable than it is today. Maybe it is because I spent my formative years in that safe ambience that I look back to that social organisation with fondness and admiration. I am just old enough to have caught the tail end of this bucolic simplicity that had remained fairly intact since medieval times, but I sat with visitors and listened to their stories of horse worked days with interest.
To be continued
Alan Martin is a Pembrokeshire native who has worked in several UK locations as an engineering inspector. He now lives on a smallholding in mid-county with his wife and son.