First Night, November 3rd, 1968

It is fifty years to the day since I first saw the Mawddach glinting in the late Autumn sun. Our trusty blue Commer minibus, complete with transversal bench seating had successfully navigated the pass at Dinas Mawddwy and the hair-pin riffs of Fiddler’s Elbow, and with the aluminium catering trays of Mrs Watkins’ fried fish and baked-bean-splattered mash still skidding around our feet, had come to a temporary stop in Bontddu to pick up the milk. Shortly afterwards, we had arrived at the majestic but dangerously uneven main drive to Farchynys.


I hadn’t been lucky enough to visit during my first year at Queen Mary’s, but aged 12 and accelerated into the Alpha stream, I was one of a party of third formers visiting the Coach House under the charge of George Brudenell, our easy going Year Master and his Physics Department chum, the ever-wry Ernie Watson. One of them pointed out the two granite and slate buildings perched half hidden and forbidding on the hill to our left of the Dolgellau to Barmouth road. Then, with assorted bumps and skids-on-gravel, the minibus had made it up the drive, passed the rhododendrons of the Hall and stopped outside the Coach House.


No sooner had the front door been unlocked then I experienced the Coach House’s unique aroma: a mélange of damp, overcooked vegetable and burned carbon. As the more experienced hands raced upstairs to secure the best bunk positions in the dorm, others were pushing refectory tables together to make one giant table tennis court, while an enterprising Prefect was opening up the weekend tuck-shop, packed for travel in a large biscuit tin. This contained the Kit Kats, Mars Bars and Wagon Wheels necessary to maintain morale over the coming hours.


The darkness came, and for boys from an industrial town, this was a darkness absolute and rare -the kind that torches and fireworks are made for. But for now, it was time for supper and the return of the fried fish, mash and baked beans which like us had made it all the way from Sutton Road in Walsall.

It was later that evening, after the group had done the washing-up that I made the first strategic error of my Marian career. I casually let it be known that in the morning we should check the post-box as there might be something for me as it was my birthday. The possibility of receiving some extra spending money had clouded my better judgement and I soon discovered that sharing this piece of information was not conducive to either a peaceful or an undisturbed night’s sleep in the dorm.  It was an unforgettable first night at Farchynys.


from the bigview_Fotor

Minibuses : Ancient and Modern


A brand new minibus  being handed over to Richard Langton, the Head  by Andrew Donaldson and Seema Sikka of the Queen Mary’s Association who raised £22000 to fund it and rather splendid it is too. A far cry from the from the first minibus of early days of Farchynys as this extract form the book illustrates:

From the very first meeting of the QMGS Welsh Centre Management Committee in April 1963, transport was on the agenda. “Possible options to be explored for transferring parties to the Mawddach included by train, by hired bus or by school transport.” Fairly immediately it became clear that a minibus was the only feasible option and looking into the capital cost of hiring, buying and insuring one became a key task of the Committee. After test drives of three alternative models, a Commer 14-seater with slatted seats became the favoured choice and was purchased for £836 3s 6d. Thus, did White-Knuckle Coachways come into existence.

  As a valuable new asset, a standing order was passed that “no boy in the school would be allowed to drive except in the event of absolute emergency”. That didn’t stop boys playing with the letters of the Minibus and rebranding it as a Rommec. QM has owned many minibuses over fifty years and the White-Knuckle Coachways rides have become a defining part of the experience.



Steven Parkes (QM 1961-7) remembers one of the first weekends at The Coach House

Farchynys had been officially opened in 1963, when I was in my Third Year – but not being a particularly outdoorsy-adventurish type, I had resisted all invitations to take part in any of the weekend activities that were on offer there.I had steadfastly avoided it, mainly on the grounds that going on an early-morning, arduous, cross-country assault course on a Welsh mountainside held very little appeal to my more artistic and stay-at-home nature!
         I had now reached my Fifth Year, however, and it was beginning to be noticed on high that there were still some boys who had never been to Farchynys yet!
As it was an extra-curricular activity (just like Saturday-morning rugby matches that I had steadfastly refused to attend), it couldn’t be made compulsory – but it was still becoming awkward and embarrassing when we were all asked “Who hasn’t been to Farchynys yet?”   
         Some of the masters were actively trying to encourage new visitors by expounding on the different themes to some of the forthcoming weekends.  Apparently, they weren’t all of an arduous, cross-country nature – there were some CCF weekends (I was in the RAF Section) and then, I noticed, there was a History one coming up, where we would be taken to visit a couple of ruined castles in the area.   That sounded almost pleasant!
I bit the bullet and put my name down for the History weekend that was coming up, along with three of my good mates.
        Two weeks later we were heading off, in the school minibus, along with a group of my pals and accompanied by Mr. Leach, a History Master, and the American ‘Doc’ Nunes (pronounced ‘New-niss’) – who I seem to remember taught English rather than History, though I could be wrong – and their wives.    Having their wives there was nice – it gave us the rare opportunity to see these Masters in a more human light with their other halves, plus, it was good to have that extra feminine touch to an otherwise male-dominated weekend!
        We arrived there at 7.00pm.   I imagine that we would’ve had something to eat at that time of day – everybody mucked-in helping in the large, newly-built kitchen.   Part of the discipline there, it appeared, was that we were required to assist the main cooks (usually, the Masters’ wives) in preparing the food.
       This was something quite alien and new to me – I’d only ever learned how to cook an omelette at home – but it was also very interesting too.   My main memory of working in that kitchen was being shown by Mrs. Nunes how to gradually feed a big bunch of dried spaghetti sticks into a large saucepan of boiling water, watching them soften and curve round the sides of the pot as they went further and further in.
       My diary says we went for a ramble in the evening and then I managed to grab a single bed!   I don’t know if that means some lads had to share double beds, or if it meant bunks?   I can’t remember after all this time, but I feel pretty sure it would’ve been bunks.   We were all in a dormitory, of course, though I can’t remember if it was big enough to take all of us lads together, or if there were two dorms.  The two members of staff and their respective wives must’ve had a double room each.
       I do remember, when we were washing and doing our morning ablutions, how amazingly soft the water was there! The tap water in Walsall was notoriously hard and full of dissolved lime scale, but there, it was a pure as could be – so much so, that it brought me out in a kind of allergic rash!  The skin of my fingers came up in lots of little lumps.   No discolouration, nor any redness, but just all these little lumps that were quite itchy, too!
 Steve QM Profile Pic 1961[1]On Saturday, we were taken to visit Harlech Castle and then Caernarvon Castle, which I thought was great!   I’d always enjoyed visiting old castles when I’d been younger.   The nearest one at home was, of course, Dudley Castle, in the grounds of the Zoo, though there wasn’t much left of that!
         Walking round these castles was far, far better than straggling along on a tough cross-country hike, or climbing to the top of nearby Cadair Idris, as a lot of the other weekend parties had to do!   If I had to come to Farchynys, this was the way to do it – oh yes!   It was more like being on a family holiday!
           Mr. Leach was an alright sort of bloke, though I have to say he was one of those masters who didn’t particularly stand out in my memory.   ‘Doc’ Nunes, on the other hand, was an extremely memorable character – the sort you never forget, actually!
For a start, he was an American – and that was unusual enough at a traditional, English Grammar School like ours.   I would say that he and Mr. Leach were probably of a similar age… I can only take a rough guess and say… probably… late twenties to early thirties, perhaps?   He had neat, black hair and – unusually for those times – wore a short, neat beard, so that was two things that made him stand out straightaway:  beard and American accent. He also had a highly developed sense of humour, I recall.
On that Saturday evening, a few of us went into Barmouth for a bit of free time.  We were, no doubt, given a lift into there by one or other of the Masters.   A couple of the lads went off chasing some local girls – to no avail, I might add – and then we all met up again later on and bought ourselves a few bottles of beer, to secretly take back with us, and we also got ourselves some chips. ‘Doc’ came to pick us up in the minibus about 10.30 and he went mad to see we’d all got ourselves packets of chips!
       “Where’s my chips I want some chips!” he declared in his inimitable accent, before going off to the chip shop himself to get himself a portion, once we were installed safely in the minibus. He then sat with us and scoffed them all himself before he began the journey back to Farchynys.
       “Don’t tell my wife!” he cautioned everybody.   He was a real card, that one!
That night, we secretly drank our contraband beer in our dormitory, while sitting in bed.   I suppose – if we had to do it – that was probably the safest possible time and place to do it in – just before we lay down in bed!   I’ve never been a beer-drinker, apart from those early, teenaged experiments.   I simply found I didn’t like it – nor the feeling of intoxication it always produced.   I know I’m an oddity in that – but there it is. 
I still don’t regard myself as teetotal, I will have the very rare odd tipple now and then, but I still don’t like it very much and it doesn’t particularly like me, either.
I don’t remember coming home the next day (Sunday).   My diary just says:  “Came back this afternoon.  Left at 2.00, got back to school 7.00.”
And that was all I wrote about my one and only trip to Farchynys.
It had been a very good and (in some ways) memorable experience, but I was far too lazy by nature to ever want to do it again.

From the Mawddach to 5th Avenue – A Marian Christmas Story


The Elevator Pitch

We had finished the workshop early. A combination of physical and intellectual exhaustion and the mind focussing anxiety of a long haul flight back to various cities in Europe had at last achieved a calm consensus amongst our dysfunctional clients, tinged with just a little smugness.

As flip charts were being numbered, folded and placed in art bags and the flotsam and jetsam of the product stimulus stored in captains’ bags, the mood of my colleagues was lifted by the prospect of a weekend in Manhattan, shopping halls bedecked and dressed as only Manhattan at Christmas knows how

Thanking my colleagues for their efforts and great enthusiasm in the face of some highly uninspiring clients and some chippy agency folk, I let them know that it was now officially the weekend, and the real fun could commence. I suggested cocktails at the Pen Top Bar at seven o’clock, providing my colleagues with almost three of hours of free time, which given the exchange rate, was not necessarily going to be cheap time.

I left the Agency where our long workshop had been held, and headed up Madison. I was immediately hit by the full multi-sensory package of a Friday afternoon in Midtown on a holiday afternoon in December.

The last splodge of blue sky was fading now; the air was cold and smelled of the usual mix of pretzel salt, roasted chestnuts and automobile exhaust fumes. The soundscape was dominated by the noise of gridlocked cars, the whistles of NYPD traffic wardens, charity bell ringers and the claptrap of pedestrians walking in that focussed way to wherever it was that they were going. I was making for 5th Avenue and St Thomas’s, where I was hoping to catch one of the services.

I knew the calming quiet of the stone and the beauty of the canticles would transform my spirits and restore my energies for what lay ahead, when I would be meeting the team intent upon some serious R&R. I was walking westwards along 45th, when temptation suddenly presented itself in the shape of Saks Fifth Avenue. Since we creative types in marketing don’t wear ties anymore, finding interesting ways to differentiate ourselves and reveal character is an important priority and not just a matter of personal vanity. I knew that Saks had an excellent range of stripy socks.

The side entrance took me to a small treasure house display of leather and jewels, and from there, I found myself in the fragrant bling of the ground floor, a shrine to the industry of beauty. I took the elevator to the men’s designer gallery on 7th, and as its doors opened, I started scanning the scene with a strategic shopper’s eye.

No more than 10 minutes later, I had handed over my credit card and paid and was now sporting a seasonal Saks shopping bag containing numerous pairs of socks, a silk handkerchief and a woollen hat and scarf. The sugar rush from shopping had revitalised me.  But I also needed to visit the bathroom. Moments later, I was back at the elevator just to the right of what Saks called the Men’s Lounge. The door opened and I walked in

The car was empty apart from a random Father Christmas figure who looked straight out of central casting

‘Hello there, Santa’ I said, emboldened by my impulse purchasing success.

He turned and smiled and said:

‘And you, I think, are an advertising man, are you not?’

Well, I was carrying a small art bag, so I suppose this was an easy guess to make; and I was indeed an ex –adman. I had long since given up trying to explain the difference between an adman and the tricky concept of a brand consultant. Before I could answer he went on:

‘Do you handle charity accounts, what I believe the industry calls not for profit services which have an important social value?’

I nodded slowly as if he were a Santa of limited intelligence

‘Well please take a look at this and see if your Agency would like to work with me….’

He handed me a small carefully wrapped Christmas gift with a rather formal envelope…

‘People don’t seem to believe in Father Christmas anymore and maybe, your Group could help change that…’

The elevator door opened at the second floor, and looking at me fervently he said:

‘Take a look at this, and if you are interested, come and talk some more tomorrow- you’ll find me in my workshop on the eleventh floor’ and with that, he was gone.

The doors closed, and seconds later I was walking up 5th Avenue towards St Thomas’s and Choral Evensong.

Later, much later that evening in the banter of post-workshop cocktails, I told my colleagues about my meeting with Santa, and we started to come up with all sorts of ideas about how we might reposition Santa, and as Martini followed Martini, the ideas naturally became sillier.

The following morning, after a couple of false starts, I got up and found the small parcel. I opened it to find it was a small book entitled The Gift. I flicked through about a hundred pages of fairly dense text and then opened the envelope. Inside was an elegant Carte de visite, bearing the name Nicholas Myra with a 5th Avenue address. There was also a small piece of text on it, which I recognised as a Latin quotation:

‘Quas dederis solas semper habebis opes’

A rapid search on my iPhone showed this to be one of the epigrams written by Martial famous for his one liners, and a very liberal translation of this line would be something like:

You only truly own what you give away’

So, not a bad motto for this Santa with a penchant for Latin tags, I thought, but let’s find out exactly what he was offering me.

After coffee, and a re-invigorating walk in the park, I walked down 5th back to Saks. The Christmas multitude was already gathering and I had to push my way through the crowd at St Patrick’s back into the ground floor hall. I made for the bank of elevators and was able to slide into the last place in a car. I turned and looked at the floor plan and noticed there was no 11th floor. ‘Take the 10th’ I thought to myself ‘and find the staircase.’

The door opened and I found myself in the Administrative Area where I was met by the gaze of a friendly but rather formal senior Associate.

‘Can I help you, Sir?’

‘I’ve been invited to a meeting with one of your colleagues on the 11th floor’

‘We have no 11th floor, sir…’

‘But I met your Santa yesterday and he invited me a meeting at his workshop on the 11th floor- here’s his card…’

She looked at the card, there was pause and then she said slowly and earnestly

‘We have no 11th floor; we have no Santa Associate. This is Saks Fifth Avenue, sir, perhaps you have us confused with Macy’s?’

‘But I met him yesterday- please look at the card…’

‘Sir, can I get you a glass of water?’

I demurred and retreated back to the elevator….I looked down at the card, there was no name, no address, and there was no longer any Latin words to be seen…but there was a short sentence in English:

What you give of yourself shall alone remain as your permanent riches. Good will to all men. Happy Christmas!

I stood there for a few moments and then I began to smile. I was still smiling as I walked out of Saks and into the fast flowing sea of festive people on 5th, and in the distance, I could hear a carillon playing Santa Claus is coming into town.

Paul Christopher Walton founded The Value Engineers. After thirty five years, he continues to love the world of brands but hasn’t met Santa yet, but he still believes.

December 6th is the feast day of St Nicholas, Bishop of Myra

Penmaen Pool

To celebrate National Poetry Day


Who long for rest, who look for pleasure

Away from counter, court, or school

O where live well your lease of leisure

But here at, here at Penmaen Pool?


You’ll dare the Alp? You’ll dart the skiff?

Each sport has here its tackle and tool:

Come, plant the staff by Cadair cliff;

Come; swing the sculls on Penmaen Pool.


What’s yonder? Grizzled Dyphwys dim:

The triple-hummocked Giant’s stool,

Hoar messmate, hobs and nobs with him

To halve the bowl of Penmaen Pool.


And all the landscape under survey,

At tranquil turns, by nature’s rule,

Rides repeated topsy-turvy

In frank, in fairy Penmaen Pool.


And Charles’s Wain, the wondrous seven,

And sheep-flock clouds like worlds of wool.

For all they shine so, high in heaven,

Shew brighter shaken in Penmaen Pool.


The Mawddach, how she trips! Though throttled

If floodtide teeming thrills her full,

And mazy sands all water-wattled

Waylay her at ebb, past Penmaen Pool.


But what ‘s to see in stormy weather,

When grey showers gather and gusts are cool?

Why, raindrop-roundels looped together

That lace the face of Penmaen Pool.


Then even in weariest wintry hour

Of New Year’s month or surly Yule

Furred snows, charged tuft above tuft, tower

From darksome darksome Penmaen Pool.


And ever, if bound here hardest home,

You’ve parlour-pastime left and (who’ll

Not honour it?) ale like goldy foam

That frocks an oar in Penmaen Pool.


Then come who pine for peace or pleasure

Away from counter, court, or school,

Spend here your measure of time and treasure

And taste the treats of Penmaen Pool.


Gerard Manley-Hopkins

From the Visitors’ Book at the Inn