Friday 13 January 2012: Hen Galan, Cwm Gwaun
It was a beautiful New Year's Day in the Gwaun Valley today.
No, this is not a back blip.
In this secluded corner of north Pembrokeshire, local people still celebrate the start of the year according to the Julian calendar which in 1750 was replaced by the Gregorian calendar, moving the year forward by skipping 11 days.
The old Julian calendar was computed according to the solar year making a year which was slightly too long so that the dates gradually fell out of synch with the seasons.
The alternative system introduced by Pope Gregory in the 16th century used an astronomical calendar which involved adding a day every four years to keep it running smoothly. (I don't understand this either but here you can find a full explanation.)
The story that people rioted and demanded "Give us back our 11 days" is apparently a myth based on the misunderstanding of a satirical painting by Hogarth.
Anyway, tucked away in their winding wooded valley the Welsh-speaking farming folk of Cwm Gwaun paid no heed and even today, in the age of tractors and computers, Hen Galan (old new year's day) is celebrated on January 13th. Children get up early to make the rounds of the scattered farms and to sing traditional songs for which they are rewarded with callenig, small gifts of sweets and such like. The day is a holiday for families to go visiting or to gather together and celebrate. In the evening there are parties and sing-songs, a time for reminiscence and review, old tales and fresh gossip, the counting of the year's births, marriages and deaths. This has gone on for generations and shows no sign of dying out. Indeed, nowadays journalists and camera operators are often on hand to record the proceedings.
The Gwaun valley was formed by glacial meltwater. Its steep tree-covered sides are darkly shadowed in winter, cool and green in summer. The river winds through small damp fields and under stone bridges. There is one hamlet, several further clusters of dwellings and many scattered farms, two chapels, four churches (only two in use), two pubs and one small school but no shops or post offices now. Although the community has no formal centre it remains a strong one, united by the language (with its own dialect), the old customs and continuing bonds of kinship that see many families related each other. The casual visitor often fails to detect, under the valley's leafy shawl, the powerful sense of history that has proved so cohesive here.
I didn't witness any of the merrymaking today as the upper part of the valley is beyond my walking range. This is the lower end, looking northwest to where the river flows into the sea at Abergwaun (Fishguard) but here there are a couple of archive clips of local people singing in a style that rare today.