A sympathetic portrait

Francesca Rhydderch reviews ‘Esmé: Guardian of Snowdonia’ by Teleri Bevan

Esmé: Guardian of Snowdonia

Teleri Bevan

Y Lolfa, £9.95

In 1934, at the age of just twenty-three, Thomas Firbank bought Dyffryn Mymbyr, a 2,400-acre farm perched high up in the Glyderau mountains in north Wales. Six years later he published a memoir, I Bought A Mountain, which rapidly became an international bestseller. But by the time the book was published, the Second World War had broken out and Thomas had joined up with the Coldstream Guards. He would never return to Dyffryn, or to the woman who had featured so memorably in his autobiography, his wife Esmé. In Esmé: Guardian of Snowdonia, Teleri Bevan, former Head of Programmes for BBC Wales radio and television, takes up Esmé’s story.

The Surrey-born daughter of one Tancred Disraeli Cummins, a Manchester businessman, and Dora Hague, who hailed from a family of prominent artists, young Esmé was keen on amateur dramatics. She was soon spotted by influential actor and manager Sir Frank Benson, and joined his renowned acting school. He found her a few small parts in London productions, and she was starting to make her way as a professional actress when she was struck down by mumps. She returned home to her parents’ house in Deganwy where, once she was recovered, she took up riding at the local riding school. It was here that she met Thomas Firbank, marrying him just a few months later.

The couple’s short marriage, separation and divorce are dealt with swiftly by Bevan: the breakdown of their relationship was rarely even mentioned by Esmé herself, and friends and family also kept quiet on the subject. Teleri Bevan similarly chooses in her sympathetic portrait – perhaps a little conservatively – to respect her subject’s privacy, focusing instead on Esme’s less celebrated achievements as a farmer and conservationist.

This indomitable woman is reminiscent of the stoic fictional heroines of Welsh-language writer Kate Roberts, who was born not far from Capel Curig, in the tiny village of Rhosgadfan. A snapshot of Esmé’s life during these years appears in a letter from S. C. Wells, a fan of I Bought a Mountain who came to holiday in the area during the Second World War: ‘She works with two men from dawn to dusk and, in spite of her slight physique, she can beat most men in a hard day’s work, such is her strength and endurance. She has let the farmhouse and lives alone in the caravan on the bank of a river in which she bathes daily, in the icy cold waters of Snowdon.’ According to Wells, Esmé would often head off at the crack of dawn to drive a flock of sheep distances of up to twenty miles, and then hitchhike home.

However, the bulk of this memoir is given over to the establishment and day-to-day running of the Snowdonia National Park Society. Not many biographers could turn a bundle of minutes and agendas into such a lively account, fleshed out by interviews with Esmé’s family, friends, colleagues, and neighbours. Esmé was clearly not an easy person to pigeonhole – she was after all an actress turned sheep-farmer with a nose for rural politics, who loved nothing better than to dress up in her best clothes. The most striking photograph in the book is one that sums up this unusual, compelling combination: Esmé, wearing a ruffle-hemmed dress in preparation for a trip to town, strides along a muddy lane in a pair of white Mary Jane shoes. By now she was married to the man next to her in the photograph: Major Peter Kirby, who had been in charge of Sandhurst’s battle camp at Capel Curig during the war. This time the union was destined to last – Kirby was a man with a practical streak who shared Esmé’s love of rural life and interest in conservation.

From 1967, when she founded the Snowdonia National Park Society, and then the Esmé Kirby Snowdonia Trust in 1991, Esmé gave a huge amount of her time and resources to the legal protection of the beautiful, unspoiled landscape of Snowdonia. Some claimed her as a ‘heroine’. Others fell out with her and refused to be interviewed for this faithful biography. Overall, though, Esmé was accorded a ‘quiet respect’, Bevan tells us, which since her death in 1999 has outlived her in the form of continuing conservation work. The best summing up of Esme’s dedication to the spirit her adopted place is provided by Esmé herself: ‘…Maybe I am biased,’ she wrote. ‘To me they are not just another mountain – the Glyders are, and always will be, my home.’

Francesca Rhydderch is the author of The Rice Paper Diaries, winner of last year’s Wales Book of the Year for fiction, and a former editor of New Welsh Review

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