xmlns:og='http://ogp.me/ns#' The Font of Noelage: An Unforgettable night in Aberystwyth.

Thursday, 3 March 2016

An Unforgettable night in Aberystwyth.

I am watching a rather good detective series on BBC TV called Hinterland. The show is set in Aberystwyth. As I watched it the other night my mind went back to a day in August, 1962, when my good mate, David Ashcroft, and I drove into that rather picturesque Welsh town.

It was the summer holidays and we were touring the United Kingdom in David’s little Ford Prefect. We had both arrived in England in February that year with four other mates. David quickly picked up a teaching job in Crowthorne. On the other hand, I spent a few weeks dipping into my savings before landing a job as a Cost Clerk for the Regent Oil Company in Oxford Street. My salary was about five pounds per week but for the first four weeks Regent Oil deducted two pounds automatically and gave to the employment agency that got me the job.

In early May I picked up a teaching job at the primary school in Cookham. By this time my bank account was very low and I was really hanging out for my first teaching pay cheque from the Berkshire County Council. In those days teachers were paid by the month. When my pay eventually arrived it was in the form of a computer print out on a long strip of paper. It was an Advice Note really, because my money had been paid into my Bank of New South Wales account in Berkley Square in London. 

On the left hand side of this long ribbon of paper was the amount of my gross monthly income. Next was indicated the amounts of money taken out for income tax, superannuation, teachers union fees and the national health scheme. On the far right hand side of the pay advice was the small amount of money that actually made it in to my bank account. I was staggered to find that it was not much more than what I was receiving per fortnight back in Perth. I was devastated.

I calculated that it would take me about forty years to save enough money for my return fare back to Western Australia. I desperately sought ways to change my dire financial circumstances. Fortunately, two of the fellows who travelled with Dave and I to England were also not impressed with the money they were earning. As a result, the three of us booked our passage for Toronto, Canada, departing on the good ship SS Homeric at the end of August. One of my better decisions, because Canada was like going to Teacher Heaven

In the meantime, the school term finished in mid July and Dave and I set off to see as much of the United Kingdom as we could in four weeks. We did a pretty good job of it, going as far north as Inverness before turning to the south west, via Loch Ness, towards the Kintyre Peninsula, Glasgow, the Lakes District and then into Wales.

Before we arrive in Wales I must tell you that we drove the entire length of Loch Ness. At the southern end of Loch Ness I took a picture of some ancient ruins. So, though we never, ever did see the Loch Ness monster, I do have some very good pictures of the Loch Ness Monastery!

We had a rather dreary drive into Aberystwyth, through deep valleys shrouded in drizzle and mist, passing through occasional mining villages that looked lifeless and soul destroying. However, when we arrived in Aberystwyth the sun was shining and we spent about an hour parked at the seaside and just staring out at the beach and rolling waters. For two Australians abroad, the sight of the ocean made us quite homesick for our western shore. Hundreds of seagulls and kestrels were just hovering, quite stationary into the fairly stiff see breeze. Even the constant “eeark, eeark, eeark” of the birds brought back happy memories of days at North Cottesloe beach and Scarborough. Mind you this beach at Aberystwyth consisted mainly of good sized pebbles.

We drove around taking in some historic sites. Then we parked at the beachfront and took a leisurely stroll through what were interesting streets featuring quite a lot of solid stone buildings. At about four o’clock we decided it was time for a drink and went into the front bar of the first pub we came to.

It looked a bit like an Australian pub. A long bar on one side and tables and chairs, a dance floor and bandstand on the other. The only people in the bar were a group of five or six young men down the far end of the bar and a barmaid. They were talking in Welsh.

Dave and I fronted up to the bar and the group of men gave us a cursory look and then went back to their conversation. The barmaid made her way towards us. We said hello and with a cheery smile she asked what we would like. She spoke in English. After she served us she went back to talk in Welsh with the men at the end of the bar. They gave us another cursory look.

Dave and I finished our beers and the barmaid came back and served and us two more beers. We chatted briefly before she returned to the group of men who all turned once again and looked briefly in our direction.

When she came back to serve us a third time the barmaid said, “You’re not English, are you?” We confessed that we weren’t and told her we came from Western Australia. She welcomed us to Wales and returned to the group of men. They all leaned in to listen to what she had to say.

No sooner had she spoken when all of the men picked up their drinks and came to where Dave and I were sitting at the bar. As soon as they arrived they began peppering us with questions. “So, you come from Western Australia, do you? Do you live in Fremantle?” “Do you know, Sydney, at all?” “Do you play rugby?” “Can you sing the Wallaby’s team song?” “Are you in the merchant navy?”

Then one of the men said that the Welsh rugby team song mentioned the Wallabies. He sang a few lines in Welsh and heavily emphasised the word wallaby when it was mentioned. The other men joined in and sung the Welsh rugby song with a great deal of passion and, it must be said, with very pleasing musicality. They all had good Welsh voices.

Well, Dave and I had had three small beers and it was my shout. I asked the barmaid to set them up again but one of our new found friends would have none of it. He insisted that we should enjoy their hospitality. They were all merchant seaman and were based in Aberystwyth. “You, know some of those Australian merchant seamen are quite mad,” said a man I found out later was named Rhys. “We were in Sydney one time, you know, and this fellow, Robert Irwin, he climbed up the rigging, gave a great yell and then dived into the harbour. He just cleared the deck by inches. He could have been killed. I don’t suppose you know him? He lives in Sydney.”

We spent the next hour in happy conversation explaining that we did not know any merchant seamen and that in Western Australia we did not play much rugby. “I know,” said another fellow, named Tommy. “You play that game called Australian Rules. I saw a game in Melbourne once. I don’t know why they call it Australian Rules because as far as I could see there weren't any rules.”

At about 6-30pm Dave and I said that we had better be going because we had left our car parked at the seaside and we needed to find a place to have a bite to eat. “Come and have dinner at the club,” they all said. “We can sign you in so there is no problem at all.” I cannot recall the name of the club but it was something like the Seafarers’ Association or the Merchant Seamen’s Union. At any rate it was down by the waterfront and the interior looked like the lounge bar of a reasonable pub.

We were quickly signed in and then our Welsh friends proceeded to take us around the bar/lounge introducing us to one and all as their Australian friends. It was fairly crowded with a mixture of young merchant seamen and groups of older couples, possibly retired seamen and their wives. We enjoyed the atmosphere and again our Welsh friends would not let us pay for any drinks. Even the meal, I think I had sausages three vege, came to us free of charge.

The club was due to close at 9-00pm so Dave and I said that we would need to be getting back to our car. “No, don’t go just yet,” said Rhys. He went on to say that a rugby team from Huddersfield was in town to play what was apparently a traditional contest against Aberystwyth. He said that the team was staying at a hotel whose name I have forgotten.

So we left the Seafarers Club, saying a fond farewell to the many people we had been introduced to over the previous two hours. Outside it was dark and the city streets were deserted. Our new friends, now in quite jovial mood, led the way. For about a fifteen minutes we walked through dark and silent streets. Our Welsh friends told us what a nice bunch of Boyos the Huddersfield players were.
“There it is,” one of them shouted. On a corner block stood a quite impressive two story building. It was the hotel. It was in total darkness.

“Doesn’t look as if anything is happening here,” I remarked. 

“Oh, yes,” said Tommy, Those Huddersfield boys will only be getting started.” With that they all began pounding on the large wooden doors of the large, dark and very quiet building.

“But there is no noise coming from inside,” I felt the need to point out.

One of the men said, “That’s because it’s after closing. They will be down stairs.” After some more pounding on the door it opened and a smiling man greeted our Welsh friends with great delight and said, “We have been waiting for you. They are all down in the cellar.”

We entered the building and the man who greeted us led us to an area behind one of the bars to an opened large doorway in the floor. We went down about twenty stairs into a huge cavern of a place. There were about fifty or sixty men and women in this huge cellar area and they were all having the time of their lives. There were small tables and chairs around the room. There was a large trestle table set up at the far end that was laden with sandwiches, cakes, sausage rolls and other savoury foods. There was lively music from a violinist and ukulele player. Everyone was singing or dancing or laughing or drinking or eating. Some were doing all of these things simultaneously.

Rhys announced to all and sundry that Dave and I were from Australia. Well, you would have thought the entire Wallabies rugby team had arrived. We received a tremendous cheer, we were handed glasses of beer and all of the Welshmen, and maybe some of those from Huddersfield, started singing the Welsh rugby song. Again, with special emphasis when the word “Wallabies” was mentioned.

It was quite noisy. A great party noise of music, laughter and happy conversations. I marvelled at how none of this noise in the cellar had been heard in the street above. 

During the night there was a lot of singing. Apparently it is what rugby players are very good at. They even sang Waltzing Matilda. Well, Dave and I sang the verses and everyone one else came in with the well-known chorus.

Then, the Singing Syrup really kicked in and I did a solo item. I sang The Wild Colonial Boy. I used to teach it to the children in my classes and I still knew all of the seven verses. At the end of the first verse I sang the chorus:

“So come away me hearties
We’ll roam the mountains high
Together we will plunder
And together we will die.
We’ll wander over valleys
For we scorn to live in slavery
Bound down by iron chains.

At the end of the second verse the party people all joined in the chorus. I suppose the Welsh will always enthusiastically sing a song that mentions valleys. By the time they sang the chorus for the fifth time they sounded like the very best choir singing at the Welsh National Eisteddfod. They were even harmonising. 

Of course Verse Seven is quite sad. The Wild Colonial boy fights it out with troopers, Kelly, Davis and Fitzroy until he is mortally wounded: The sombre last line is drawn out.

And that’s the way they captured him, The Wild Colonial Boy.

That last chorus is sung slow and low, gradually rising to a grand crescendo:

For we scorn to live in slavery
Bound down by iron chains.

Well those Welsh people certainly knew how to put passion and emotion into those words and the song finished with a rapturous cheer. The party continued long into the night. Unfortunately, I have no recollection of what happened about fifteen minutes after the Wild Colonial Boy sank to the ground Still firing at Fitzroy.

Eeark, eeark. eeark.” 

The seagulls and the kestrels woke me up. I was lying on the stony beach at Aberystwyth. Dave’s car was still parked where we had left it the previous afternoon. It was standing all alone in the deserted street.  The sun was shining and Dave was still asleep about three metres away. It was 7-15 in the morning. I was feeling seedier than a cockies cage. As I sat trying to figure out where I was and how I got there, Dave woke up. We both tried to recollect our movements after leaving the hotel. The problem was we could not remember leaving the hotel!

How did we get back to the waterfront? None of our Welsh friends seemed to have a car. After walking along darkened streets from the first pub to the seafarers’ club to the party pub, Dave and I had no idea how to get to the beach from the hotel. There is no way that, very late at night, wandering strange streets and very much the worse for wear, we could have found our way back to the beach. We never did work it out.

Later that morning we set off for Cardiff, via Cardigan and Fishguard. It had been an unforgettable night in Aberystwyth. What we could remember of it.


  1. Them were the days boyo!

  2. Was Tom Jones there?

  3. How can you be sure?

  4. They sure were the days, Murray. Tom Jones was not there, as far as I can remember, but he certainly would have fitted right in with those fine Welsh baritones and tenors.

  5. Thanks for the Hinterland tip.Watched it last night. Great show!


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