Okay; confession time. This blog post is just a teeny bit late. A month or two, in fact. Thanks to one of the nasty little lurgies doing the rounds, followed by Christmas, followed by the usual catching up of the New Year. Oh, and the small matter of a book to finish! So a very belated Happy New Year to you all. It’s great to be back.
It was a strange experience, being in the Dinorwig slate quarry hospital museum , beneath the shadow of Snowdon. I walk past its front doors every few weeks, but usually with a dog in attendance, a box of vegetables to pick up from a nearby farm and a book to get back to. Last autumn I was there with my day job, celebrating the launch of a local heritage project, and so without dog or walking shoes or any pressing sense of guilt.
Standing in the museum I was struck by the atmosphere of calm. Of peace. It was the last thing I had expected in a hospital built in the 1860s to treat the illnesses and injuries – some truly horrific injuries – of the slate workers from the quarry. In a corridor there hung a stretcher woven into the shape of a man and designed to bring injured workers down from the heights of the nearby mountains. It was hard to look at it and not think of the pain and anguish experienced in such a beautiful object.
This was especially so with the surgeon’s instruments for amputations and the like hanging all around. Lives were changed in these rooms. I wondered about the families in nearby Llanberis who lost their breadwinner here – either to injuries too severe to survive, or of the life-changing kind that meant he would never be able to work in the same way again, if at all.
Yet there were also men and women fighting to save the lives and limbs of the men brought in, with equipment that looks horribly primitive and barbaric to modern eyes. I hoped that the men in the beds on the wards, set out as they would have been, supported and cheered and drew comfort from each other in the way that human beings do when drawn together by the most dreadful of circumstances. And from the window there is the serene view of the foothills of Snowdon, where the train makes its slow journey upwards to the summit.
For all its horror, I came away from the museum feeling unexpectedly positive. Like the modern Mountain Rescue service – whose helicopters come over my cottage almost on a daily basis – the men holding that stretcher were risking their own lives to save another’s.
And the selfish part of me was very thankful that my recent dental work was undertaken with modern anesthetic and instruments, and that when the lurgy struck, I was able to take to my bed for a few days without losing my precious income.
Visiting the Quarry Hospital Museum made me feel closer to the characters I have been living with for the past months, both the Welsh gold miners in the mid 19th Century for a magazine serial and the heroine of my next novel, which begins in 1914. Standing amongst those surgical instruments and the lists of lives damaged forever, I could feel the fear underlying the everyday life of working men and women when even a minor injury could leave a family without money for food and a roof over their heads, let alone the expense of visiting a doctor and buying medicines to ease the suffering, for those who did not have the services of such a hospital. It added an extra edge to the families watching their menfolk march off into the horrors of the Great War, and deepened my admiration for the women and men – the nurses, the doctors, the ambulance drivers and the many other volunteers – who followed to give what help they could both to the men fighting in the trenches and the civilians caught up amongst the shifting lines of battles.
I went to the meeting at the Quarry Hospital Museum vaguely muttering away inside (as you do) that I could be writing the next chapter instead of standing there like a lemon listening to speeches. But then an author is always on the alert …