When T S Eliot wrote his journey of the Magi he probably wasn’t thinking of Christmas Fairs in Welsh ex mining towns. However the words seemed particularly apt for a journey undertaken on Sunday 10th December ‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,’
What were we thinking of planning an event to take place in mid winter miles from home? Well it was the persuasive powers of Ams and Maggie,the talk about last year’s fantastic Christmas fair and the chance that the local Syrian families would be involved that swung it. We ( Margaret ,Maggie and Ailsa ) met at Ams’ shop with Ams in the positively balmy weather of October and planned with the wonderful Mother’s Union representatives, Janice and Barbara. We were delighted to be given the use of St Cynog’s church hall for a base and the festival plans sounded magical with reindeer, donkeys and Santa as well as a host of free activities,stalls and sights. Janice and Barbara apologised that they would be tied up with their Christmas tree festival but would help however they could. Maesydderwen School agreed to ask if any pupils might like to help us with hosting and Maggie was delighted when the local Syrian Families offered to help in preparing food. Melrose undertook to coordinate food offers from ‘up country'[ hence forth known as the ‘frozen north’] and Abercraf ‘messy church’ planned to do tea and mince pies in the afternoon. Virginia,Lynne, Carola, Barbara, Steve,Christina, Melrose, Margaret and Ailsa planned to prepare soups, stews, fruit and cakes. Friends from Ystrad area ,Neath and Port Talbot said they’d call in and help and maybe bring extra visitors. Presents flowed from supporters and Sue, Erica, Mac, Carola and Hilary wrapped hundred of gifts so Santa Pat could give all guests a gift We planned for the visiting children to have armbands in case of getting lost in the crowds …… what could go wrong ?
Well, the weather intervened. Saturday , Ams rang to say the outdoor events were now all going to take place in the miners welfare hall or library but that the show would go on. Ailsa contacted Wayne who said it was a bit damp in Swansea but people were keen. Barbara said they had the hall ready and would have the heating on early. Brecon area people started trying to get their carefully prepared food to someone who should be able to make the journey. The event would take place! After all it was only a little snow… Sunday morning 7 am:- 4 inches of snow in Sennybridge and more forecast. Frantic messages and calls went out. Stay safe, stay at home,-no choice can’t get the car out… Stuart was consulted. Weather was wet in Swansea and no reason not to drive. Wayne agreed ‘ the rain might put off some but go ahead. ‘ Maggie agreed ‘after all there was loads of food lovingly made by the local families’ .
And so it was that Lawrence,Ailsa and Steve set off in Lawrence’s large four wheel drive with a rapidly re-jigged load of some soups, cakes, fruit, the tea and coffee, flasks,soup kettles, a few presents that could be fitted in and a spade in case of needing to dig out of drifts kindly provided by Sam. Some food was jettisoned but will be frozen and can be used for a future event. Some people will be eating a lot of fruit over the next week.
The journey was in monochrome and very slow. White everywhere with the occasional shadowy clue as to where the road began and the verge stopped. Large branches strewn on the roadside and only the occasional vulture ( sorry !vehicle) for company. Storey Arms was closed but our road was open( just) and we ploughed on – it’s amazing how different everything looks when covered in a white coat and seen at less than 20 miles per hour. We had a long time to marvel… just before Crai we heard that the bus had set off with 25 people on and knowing they would arrive before us and that Maggie didn’t have a mobile phone, we contacted Barbara who said she’d slip out of the church service to open the doors and ensure there was a welcome. As we descended into Craig y Nos with cars slipping around us, we started to believe we would get there as the snow became slush and then just puddles..
Our arrival in Ystrad was noted by Phil who casually threw a slush ball before hugging us and helping to unload. Cyrille helped with the heavy things and enlisted additional support from Kevin and Jonathan. . Maria was busy making tea and coffees ,radiators were being hugged and children were running round. Maggie was out getting biscuits and Wayne was finding milk. Gulie and Arlind were finding cups and collecting up used ones. Saba, Naeema Armina, Gulnar and Lubna were helping to put out the food we’d brought. Lawrence nearly had a cup of coffee before he was enlisted to drive around to the Syrian families’ homes to collect the food and bring them along.
Steve set to arranging where the food would go and ensuring the soup kettles were working and set up pomander making on a separate table. Ailsa wandered semi aimlessly doing half jobs and chatting. Maggie returned to introduce Lou who had arrived before anyone else and was calmly helping to set up things , playing with children and chatting to everyone. Lou had been told about the day by her School and came to help. As we put up our banner outside, she agreed she would help to show people around the fair and the church and tell them a bit about the town.
As food started to arrive from the local families, the Swansea group with some of the families and Lawrence and Steve set off led by Lou to experience the Christmas Fayre. Some of us stayed behind to ensure a meal would be ready when everyone returned and to try to explain where everyone was when people called in. Not so easy if your Arabic is limited to a greeting and their English is likewise restricted. We pointed and laughed and the children took charge as they speak many languages. Young Schoolboy ‘I’ told me he spoke Syrian Arabic, Turkish and now English and his friend in Turkey had told him that it was over 30* there today.I didn’t ask where he’d rather be… Our local Syrian friends called in despite R’s due date being that day. We didn’t need a midwife in the end although we kept a close eye on her. Their friend ,Jenny from Swansea, called in and it was so good to meet her. M tried to explain about food containers and Raz helped to clarify that he was offering us some to use in future events. They discovered family links via Basra and shared some laughs.
When people returned talking excitedly about the fair , the wonderful Christmas tree festival [64 amazing artistic triumphs], the nativity displays and the parade and having left all the children to see Santa, the food rapidly vanished. The hot soup was welcome and the Syrian delicacies were much appreciated . All the adults were in awe of Lou who had told them about the history of shops, of local things and generally acted as an empathetic tour guide of the highest order. It was agreed that she was a great ambassador for her school and town.
The food being eaten, Naeema , Saba and Lubna started to do some henna tattoos and massages. The children played and ran around and more people,helped to wash up. The two Lynnes and Rhian from the Abercraf ‘messy church’ arrived with delicious cakes and mince pies and after an initial concern on their part that they weren’t needed, kindly took over the tea , coffee and kitchen duties. We were happy to relinquish them as the highway beckoned and the rumours that the road to Sennybridge was closed started to sound worrying.
So arriving late, leaving early and taking with us some of the ‘hardware ‘ we remembered bringing down and leaving Wayne to act as Santa 2 for the children with gifts we had been given from Talgarth library, our departure was marked by Phil and Cyrille forming a guard of honour and pelting snowballs made from the snow still on our vehicle. The journey back was quicker. We noted the abandoned cars and bits of trees cut up or pushed off the roads. The snow ploughs had done a tremendous job and despite many further inches of snow having fallen the roads were almost clear. Steve wondered if his friends would have cleared the drive. They hadn’t- but had made an 8 foot snowman… Ringing around later it was good to hear everyone who had been there had really enjoyed the occasion and were safely home. One lady had told Maria about her 55 minute walk to the bus that morning and how she had been soaked but that she had thoroughly enjoyed the day and would not have changed any of it. The snow visible on the hills around Ystrad had excited everyone and they had enjoyed this much more interactive event. Santa didn’t quite make it from Brecon but presents can be taken down to Swansea later.
Many thanks are due to Ystradgynlais Society for Arts , Trade and Tourism for a great spectacle and day out, to St Cynog Church Father Dewi, David and the Mother’s Union for a warm welcome , a venue and for so much help. Thanks to the Abercraf ‘messy church’ for cakes and taking over when the Brecon/Hay bound party left. Thanks to Maggie for making everything possible and coordinating the Syrian Families catering thanks to all the Syrian Families for such lovely food. Thanks to the people who wanted to be with us but couldn’t and thanks to Lawrence for driving and Steve for co piloting.
Comments from during and after the day