Bilingual poetry book about A470 sets Welsh hearts racing

·3 min read
<span>Photograph: Phil Wills/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Phil Wills/Alamy

It is variously described as a snake, a zip, a ribbon, a scar, a Welsh version of Route 66. Memories, myths and moments of love and grief are woven into a collection of poems celebrating an unusual subject – the A470 road that links north and south Wales.

Though the subject matter may seem unpromising, the collection A470: Poems for the Road / Cerddi’r Ffordd, has proved popular with critics and readers and has already been reprinted twice since it was launched on St David’s Day in March.

Sian Northey, who co-edited the volume, came up with the idea of asking people to write – in Welsh or English – a poem about the road, which stretches 186 miles from Cardiff in the south to Llandudno in the north, cutting through towns, villages, mountains and valleys.

The poems chosen were translated and printed side by side in both languages. Hundreds of people sent in contributions – about a third in Welsh – to the publisher, Arachne Press, and 51 were chosen.

Northey said the A470 was a good topic because most Welsh people had some sort of opinion – good or bad – of the road. “People who travel it regularly tend to curse it, while those who use it less often have fonder feelings,” she said.

Her own poem, Rhyw Bedair Awr (About Four Hours), suggests the road – with “all the bends / the occasional red kite” – transforms the traveller into another person.

Northey said it was important that the book was bilingual. “There’s a tendency for the literary scene in Wales to be split between the Welsh language or the English. It’s nice when they can be brought together.”

The editors and publishers were delighted by the variety of the poems. There are a lot of descriptions of mountains and rivers, references to the seashore, slate quarries, birds of prey and fighter plane flypasts. One poem recalls how children used to have Welsh beaten out of them by the headteacher’s cane.

Homage is paid to a boarded-up Little Chef at Builth Wells, the Llandudno goats that took over during the first lockdown, and – in one called Llawlyfr Mam i Pit Stops Cymru (Mam’s Guidebook to Welsh Pit Stops) – the best spots for a toilet break.

Stephen Payne, a poet and academic, submitted a poem about the museum at Pontypridd, a few metres from the road. For him the road means trips to the Brecon Beacons and the Hay festival, a feeling of escape. He said it travelled through a “remarkable unspoiled” country, linking north and south in a way that the tortuous railway journey could not. “It’s a good image for the unity of Wales,” he said.

Appropriately, the volume has been on the road, with poets reading their work up and down the country, including at the prestigious National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth.

Storyville Books in Pontypridd held a reading of some of the poems, where Jeff Baxter, a co-owner of the shop, said they had clearly caught the imagination. “The event was a lot of fun, with some emotional heft evident and a real flow between the poets and audience, especially moving naturally between English and Welsh, the two languages of Wales.

“Everyone who has lived along the route has such vivid memories and emotions attached to the road. If you live near the south Wales valleys section, for example, you can hear the road in the background almost constantly, ever present. For me personally it means I’m nearly home when turning off the M4 on to the A470.”

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