"There’re only three things you move for - women, work, and witness protection"!

Those were the sage words of one of my patients some time back when I asked him how someone with a similar accent to mine ended up a hill farmer in this part of the world. Like me he’d made the move from his native southeast of England, although my journey here has taken in many more stops along the way.

Three W’s, only two of which led me to a fourth…..Wales!

The National Wales: © David Collyer© David Collyer

I ended up here in my late forties after twenty-two years in Bristol, diluting my largely London-centric ways. I’m an Englishman abroad if you like, but I’ve always had an awareness of Welshness.

My mother left her home in Surrey in the early sixties to train as a nurse in Cardiff. She absorbed a lot of the language that her friends used. I grew up potching, being told I was doolally tap or hearing ych a fi when I made a mess, as I frequently did.

When the economic depression and relentless grey of early seventies Berkhamsted, and my father’s job as a journalist, took us to New Zealand, I was probably the only kid in the Southern Hemisphere, barring perhaps parts of Patagonia, who could pronounce Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, as my mother had taken great delight in teaching me, syllable by syllable, as she had been taught by her friends and colleagues.

In October 1966, pregnant with me, my mother was staying with her friend in Tredegar when the horrendous Aberfan tragedy struck. Her friend’s cousin was one of the teachers killed. My father, then a twenty three year old journalist on a Surrey newspaper, had driven her down and was one of the first press on the scene. Two years ago, I took them, on a bleak day to the cemetery for the first time; an incredibly moving experience.

The National Wales: Aberfan Cemetery © David Collyer Aberfan Cemetery © David Collyer

Enough background. In 2017 I was working in a major hospital in Bristol. My partner lived in Abergavenny, and I was spending most of my free time on this side of the bridge.

I was soon to be fifty and needed a new direction in my life, my two children were old enough that they were happy with me moving to an area that they too had become used to from frequent visits.

I quit my job and took up a position at a smaller hospital, downgraded my pay banding, and decided to concentrate on another aspect of my life; that of being a photographer. I’ve not looked back.

The National Wales: The underside of the Second Severn Crossing © David CollyerThe underside of the Second Severn Crossing © David Collyer

As an Englishman I have a very uneasy relationship with nationalism. Years ago, I was talking to an English friend who lived in Amsterdam about the proliferation of the St. George cross flag during football tournaments. In Holland during such times the nation goes crazy. The world turns orange. Nobody bats an eyelid if you pull on a pair of orange Y-fronts in the morning to celebrate the team.

In England, such displays of national pride always seem tainted with something darker. The rise of xenophobia across society, but particularly on the right is an ugly infringement into English culture.

In Wales, nationalism feels more like a celebration of a culture, a way of life, pride in history, but not at the expense of someone else’s. I see a lot of people with Welsh dragon tattoos, and its not alarming. A St. George cross tattoo is a very different beast.

The National Wales: David Collyer © David CollyerDavid Collyer © David Collyer

When I started work here, I was made to feel like a member of a team, a family. Someone quickly nicknamed me English Dai. It felt like I’d been invited in, and my nationality wasn’t being weaponised.

I’m not naïve of course; there will always be an animosity from some towards the English, but that is largely built upon the history between the two countries, and not just upon difference.

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My decision to concentrate on photography paid off. I quickly integrated into the town, documenting local life and the market, and when Covid struck in early 2020, my ability to document what was happening inside the hospital, and to show the staff as normal people rather than the eulogised and politicised NHS Heroes, raised my profile as a photographer on not just a local level, but national and international.

The National Wales: Nevill Hall Hospital in Abergavenny during the Covid-19 pandemic response © David CollyerNevill Hall Hospital in Abergavenny during the Covid-19 pandemic response © David Collyer

Nevill Hall hospital had three pages of coverage in the Guardian, including the front page, and my work was showcased in magazines around the world.

I won the Royal Photographic Society’s Documentary Photographer of the Year in December 2021. I couldn’t have planned it better. My new life in Wales changed my whole life.

The National Wales: © David Collyer© David Collyer

I live in a landscape photographer’s paradise. Babbling brooks, impressive rivers, ancient oak forests and deserted uplands dotted with stone ruins, are all on my doorstep. It’s bucolic splendour and it’s beautiful.

There’s another south Wales, not too far from me, but entirely different. It too is famous for its Valleys, but its beauty is of an entirely darker and more challenging nature. This is the south Wales once known for its industry, predominantly coal mining and steel production, and in times further back, large scale quarrying and iron ore extraction.

The National Wales: © David Collyer© David Collyer

Famous for its rugby and male voice choirs, its long ribbon villages clinging to vertiginous valley sides, its hard way of living, and hard but welcoming people.

If anything informs the outsider of the Welsh way of life, it’s probably the Valleys more than anything else.

I don’t feel I belong in the Valleys, but I work with many people who do. The sense of community is second to none. I often joke with friends and patients that the Welsh stay in the same street as their family, but the English like to put a cushion of a few counties between ours.

The National Wales: © David Collyer© David Collyer

I’m drawn to the landscape there; the history. It’s easy to romanticise a hard way of life, particularly as an outsider looking in, but that’s often what photographers do. It’s also easy to romanticise the decline in a hard way of life.

Industry in the Valleys was destroyed by a vengeful government; communities torn apart, and poverty is rife in many areas, as traditional work and educational support networks have vanished along with the mines and the foundries. Since 2016, EU funding so vital for regenerative schemes has also gone.

The National Wales: © David Collyer© David Collyer

My mother says that when she moved to Wales as a young woman from a very working class background, she was amazed at the educational opportunities that were being pushed on girls and young women in the area, that just weren’t an option in Surrey. Industry and unions, as well as community, sought personal advances for those who lived and worked in the area. Education and cultural awareness breeds strength, success, and social awareness in a population.

Society would benefit if that ethos was as strong today.

The National Wales:

Despite being so close to major cities, the ground in some areas is bleak. The wind and rain in winter cuts through you. It’s often an inhospitable landscape, littered with the rotting remains of industry and sadly in many places, burned out vehicles and fly-tipping, dumped for a plethora of reasons.

The climate takes no prisoners, eating away at the roads, the buildings, and the people and animals that live on the high ground.

The National Wales: © David Collyer© David Collyer

It’s a beautiful landscape. As a photographer I’m drawn to the bleak. It lends itself to grainy black and white film, my chosen medium. The rich textures and tones bring out an eerie, other worldly beauty. I’m far more interested in capturing the scars and activities of man’s interventions into a landscape than I am capturing nature at its prettiest.

Romanticising? Perhaps, yes. Maybe I’m a hopeless romantic. Maybe I’m the worst kind of tourist, revelling in a hardship I can walk away from, a lifestyle I could never lead. Cultural appropriation? I really hope not.The National Wales: © David Collyer© David Collyer

My partner’s family have lived in the area for years. They built many of the bigger houses in Abergavenny in Victorian and Edwardian times, and the oldest solicitors in the town still bears the family name on her mother’s side.

There is a direct blood line from Owain Glyndwr whose daughter married into the Scudamore family, my partner’s ancestors. Her children now in their twenties are lifelong fluent Welsh speakers.

I’ll never be Welsh, and to be honest, I’d never try to be. I don’t feel the need to appropriate a national identity based on the rock I live on. I’m privileged that I can say that, I realise. Many aren’t so lucky.

The National Wales: © David Collyer© David Collyer

Conversely, I don’t feel particularly English when I look at what is happening to the country I was born in.

I live here, I’ve made this beautiful country my home. In the five years I’ve been here it’s given me so much, and because of that, I try to give back to Wales and the people who have made me feel I belong here, in any small way that I can.

The National Wales: © David Collyer© David Collyer

Diolch, Cymru. Diolch yn fawr!

David's images can be viewed on his website www.davidcollyerphotographer.com. You can also follow him on Twitter and Instagram

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