There's something so fascinating - and yet poignant - about crumbling, abandoned cottages. I'm not thinking of modern homes that have been left temporarily empty, but the kind of former dwellings found dotted throughout the Welsh hills – built of local stone and slate, with fallen roofs and only half the walls remaining. They are an enigmatic feature of the landscape; the colours melting into the woods and valleys; the moss furred across steps and boulders alike. However, they are not just a part of the surroundings – much as they look like they might have sprung up from the grass. They are ‘man made’ creations, even though the men who created them have since withered away like curled leaves. These places were once homes, filled with fire, food, family. They would have been inhabited by hill sheep farmers - meaning plenty of sheep, with chickens scratching around too. The roof with missing sections like bite-marks could have saved the inhabitants from storms and April showers. The ground under my boots was once stepped on by other feet. I'll never know exactly what happened in these cottages, or who lived there, and so I can imagine anything.
The two cottage ruins pictured are family favourites to explore when visiting the Welsh coast. They sit just off a road that tapers to a waterfall with natural swimming spots and a rocky plateau for picnics. We hopped out of the car on the way back, and my brother climbed through gaps, scampered around and discovered an incredible stone wheel propped up inside one building. He soon grew impatient waiting, and complained that we were taking too many photos – but it was hard to stop when every frame and angle caught something new. I repeatedly asked my dad (chief photographer of the afternoon) whether he had caught the beam stretching from one wall to the other, or the window frame with a view of gorse beyond. The whole place might have been corroded, broken and dilapidated, but ultimately it was beautiful.
‘Beautiful’ is a strange word though. It's often associated with the fresh, the youthful, the vibrantly alive – everything which an abandoned home is not. But ruins such as these are beautiful in the same way as a skeleton leaf: both are delicate remnants of the past. Maybe that's why photography movements such as ‘Urbex’ (urban exploration) are so popular. Places where people like us once lived or worked or stayed are immensely compelling. Stately homes and castles are popular tourist spots (I’m an avid National Trust fan myself), but they are much more managed and domestic – someone has already researched the history and preserved the contents. The truly ‘abandoned’ interiors (admittedly ones where usually the only way to access them is to break in) are more tantalising. They are wilder, and present a challenge. We must discover them for ourselves. Deserted factories and closed down tube stations are the imprints of previous years that are still left somewhere, hidden beyond locked doors and collapsed tunnel-ways. I like to think of them as ‘pockets of the past’ – ones that represent a very personal history of those who went before.
In the instance of this tiny former settlement, my family and I were merely observers – playing ‘tourist’ while exploring the ruins and taking photos – and could separate ourselves from the decay that such places represent. Who knows what happened to the community there? There is no plaque detailing the history of inhabitants, or the reasons that the walls are now filled with birdsong rather than voices. The cottages half-remain. The place itself occupies some kind of limbo between what was, and what now is; a space between past and present.
I clambered among the rubbish left behind by landowners and previous visitors: the rusting farm machinery, barbed wire, the plastic bags, the cans and broken beer bottles. That’s just sediment though, the scummy surface. It's the rocks that built the house that matter. Their tumbling is a form of entropy, but they are also a symbol of the brilliance of human endeavour and resilience.
Everything I'm wearing (including the boots) came from various charity shops – ranging from much-visited local ones to far-flung Oxfams in London. The skirt is ‘See by Chloe’, which was bought recently for £7. The only exception is the belt which was my grandma's - from her girl guide's uniform.
The title is part of a line taken from one of Dylan Thomas' poems.