Hello and welcome to part two of the most thrilling saga on the internet! Ok, that’s maybe overselling it a little – it’s just me talking about moving to Wales. But there’s action, adventure and a whole host of interesting characters – so buckle up and enjoy the ride: this is one of the good bits.
As I mentioned in the previous post (it might be worth reading that one first), my life divides quite nicely into three sections so far: pre-Wales, Wales, and then, finally, the last couple of years since I joined the BBC. Wales was where, to use a stomach-churningly cheesy cliche, I found myself. I never really understood the meaning of this phrase until after I moved away and looked back at just how much I’d changed while there…
Dw i’n byw yn Rhuthun
We’d moved to Ruthin, a small market town tucked away in the Vale of Clwyd in North East Wales, in July 2013: mum and I, and our year-and-a-half-old dog, Katie. I was 15 and should’ve been halfway through my GCSE’s, looking forward to my final year of high school starting in September. However, I’d spent the previous two years being homeschooled and hadn’t begun any formal exam process whatsoever, leaving me in somewhat of a dilemma. I was hoping to join a school, meet local people and start living a more conventional teenage life. Mum, on the other hand, wondered if it would all be a bit much adjusting for me. She also didn’t know whether I’d even be allowed to enrol anywhere without having started my exams. Eventually, though, I convinced her to set up a meeting with the head of the local comprehensive (Ruthin School – a private school and one of the oldest and most prestigious in the UK was directly over the road, but £13, 000 a year would’ve been a bit of a stretch).
The school, Ysgol Brynhyfryd, could not have been more accommodating; they were happy to have me. Despite their initial reservations about whether I could manage two year’s worth of GCSE’s in half the time, I was able to persuade them that I would put in the work and do my best. After my less-than-happy time in school before moving, the last thing I wanted was to be bumped down a year group – something that could maybe be used against me by other students. And so it was that I went back to school, apprehensive but excited all the same.
Before term started, we had a summer to explore and get to know our new home. We were still collapsing cardboard boxes when we first got a glimpse of the type of town it was. Ruthin Festival, an annual summer celebration of art, culture and music was taking place the week we arrived. The culmination of the festivities – ‘Top Dre’ (Top of Town – brought hundreds of visitors from the town and outlying villages to the brow of the hill Ruthin sits on – metres away from our front door. Roads were closed, food and beverage stands were set up and a temporary stage (a large lorry trailer with one side down) played host to music and dance acts. After living in what seemed a cultural wasteland for as long as I could remember, the atmosphere was unlike anything I’d seen before. People joining together to enjoy what was a scorcher of a summer and appreciate all things colourful and happy was so refreshing and reassured us that we’d probably done something right by moving.
It was over the next few weeks that I also began to look for my first part-time job. I was at the age where I craved the freedom of having my own money, and I also wanted to start saving towards a car. No one at home had ever been able to drive, and we’d relied, instead, on lifts or public transport. While I understand this is completely a first-world problem, it was something that I was particularly keen to change as soon as possible. I also hoped that working somewhere locally would surround me with more new people; after 15 years of having few friends, I had a lot of catching up to do.
I threw together a ‘CV’ – at this point little more than a paragraph about me and why I would (obviously) be an asset to any business – and hit the streets. With no idea what I might be able to find, I tried everywhere – a local cafe (where I was given a resounding NO “because I wasn’t sixteen”), a men’s outfitters where shoes were sold individually for £75 (I learned soon enough to question nothing in this town) and also the stationer’s where I’d printed my pleas for employment. And then… nothing. I couldn’t find anywhere that would take me, and I’d exhausted most of the businesses in the place! I resigned myself to ‘keeping an eye open’ and carried on preparing for my first day of school.
A few weeks later, when visiting the stationer’s to pick up supplies, I noticed there was an advert for a Saturday Sales Assistant on a board outside. What a cheek! Had they forgotten my application? Deflated, I went home and told mum, who almost frogmarched me straight back to remind them that I was looking for a position. “I’m obviously not what they’re looking for! I can’t go and ask again”, I protested. But it soon became apparent that the matter wasn’t up for debate, and so I went, reluctantly, mortified, to have another chat with them. I’ll never forget the phone call I received as a follow-up. I was stood, trousers down, trying on school clothes in a changing room in the aforementioned men’s outfitters (yes, the one that sold separate shoes), when I heard mum’s phone ringing. Suddenly, a hand thrust the mobile around the curtain and into the cubicle: “It’s the stationery place”. And so it was that I accepted my first job in just my underwear.
After a successful trial shift, I became a permanent fixture at Fineline Printing & Stationery. I’d always been obsessed with pens, pencils and notebooks – genuinely obsessed – so I couldn’t think of a better place to start my career. The firm was modest and family-owned and had been a fixture of the town for over two decades. It had begun solely as a traditional print shop but had expanded to include the front-of-house retail space, selling all the back-to-school basics, as well as art materials, office supplies and more. I was in HEAVEN. My colleagues at Fineline would become extremely close friends, too, and I can safely say that this was one instance in which I am thankful for having a very pushypersuasive mother.
Wyt ti’n siarad Cymraeg?
Within days of my first shift, I finally headed to school. One thing that only properly struck me at this point, was the fact that the Welsh language was really, well, a thing. Until now, I’d possessed, perhaps, an arrogant English notion that Welsh was just a quirky tradition, not actually spoken in daily conversation and only used to make road signs look more interesting. My only mental references for ‘Welsh’ were the broad accents of, mostly, South Walian celebrities I’d heard on TV – who’d probably never spoken a word of Welsh, either. Ysgol Brynhyfryd (Us-goll Brin-Huv-rid) was a bilingual school, with each year group divided into English First Language speakers, and those who spoke mostly Welsh. Finding out there were people who lived in the UK and spoke a different, but still native, language at home was surprising and, I have to say, somewhat embarrassing. I developed a profound respect for those on the opposite side of the year as their English was, for the most part, impeccable, and my Welsh was nonexistent. While it was part of the curriculum, and I was happy to learn what I was taught, it’s always been a slight regret that I didn’t engage more in trying to learn the language outside of school, too, to show respect and participate more fully in a community I grew to love.
My previous high school experience compared in no way to what I found at Brynhyfryd. I had chosen to study History, Business Studies and Music as my GCSE subjects, and then there were all the compulsory subjects, which included Welsh and PE. Straight away, I was introduced to a group of fellow music students, who were all way more passionate about the subject than me (I’d been playing the clarinet since Year 4, but had almost completely stopped practising while I was homeschooled), but were happy to take another instrumentalist under their wings. I threw myself enthusiastically into my lessons, in some cases preparing for two year’s worth of exams simultaneously. I even enjoyed sport! Hockey, football, rugby, we did them all, and I escaped with only one scar from an overly enthusiastic hockey tackle that saw me acquainted with a sand-covered astroturf pitch, which ripped both my shirt and the skin on my hip.
Suddenly, school wasn’t the nightmare I’d known, and I genuinely would not change a second of my time there. I rediscovered my love for reading and writing from early childhood. By now, it had perhaps been 3 years since I’d picked up a book, and it may sound strange, but I’d genuinely forgotten how to read. OK, I could still understand the words on the page, but it was a while before I was able to really read again and completely enjoy the experience.
Putting myself to the test
After only two and a half months, I sat my maths GCSE and got an A, which was an encouraging start, to say the least. Outside of lessons, I took part in the first annual musical that they staged (portraying Mr Spritzer in Hairspray), played at jazz evenings and a whole host of other social activities. This was also when I first started to go to the gym as a habit. A new fitness suite was built adjacent to the school, so it made committing to going regularly easy.
Looking back on the first year of living in Ruthin, I’m not actually sure how I managed to fit so much in – the time passed in a complete blur. August came around, bringing with it the brown envelope holding my GCSE results…
4 A*s, 2 As and a C in Welsh, which was the highest I could’ve got for the level of exam I took. I was ecstatic. My hard work had paid off more than I expected, and I’d achieved what I’d committed to at the start of the year. I am extremely grateful that Brynhyfryd provided such a positive experience; without the combination of classmates and staff there, I doubt I would’ve seen the same outcome. The day I got my results is also memorable for another reason – it was the day we accidentally adopted Harry – my mum’s cat. Walking home, he caught our eye from a windowsill – just six or seven weeks old. Noticed by the residents of the house who were, unknownst to us, on the other side of the window, a conversation ensued and in no time at all, I was tasked with cradling the kitten as we took him home to meet Katie.
A different path
Another hot summer later, and it was time to head back to Brynhyfryd as a sixth-form pupil. I chose to study Economics, History and English. Almost straight away, we were told to start thinking about university applications, and Oxbridge was where I’d always set my sights. However, by this point, I’d started working more often – Mondays as well as Saturdays. By Christmas, there was a permanent position available at Fineline, and being ever more keen to earn money and get into the employment game, I chose to take it, much to the surprise of a lot of my teachers. The reasons for me choosing this route, were, of course, considered deeply, and there’s enough to say for a whole post about that alone. But for now, that marked the end of my short-lived but successful return to education. I headed out into the world as a working man, and, up to now, have never looked back.
There’re anecdotes aplenty from my time at Fineline, but to keep this post from becoming War and Peace, I’ll summarise my time there. I worked full time for almost two years and enjoyed it immensely. I helped broaden the art materials product range – helped, in part, by the fact my aunt was studying a fine arts degree and often needed supplies. Not only did I work in the retail outlet, but I also learned the ropes in the print and production room: printing, cutting, folding and binding all manner of jobs. For a few months, I even stepped in as the main print operator between staff changes. I learned so much while I was there, and also started to craft my understanding of and appreciation for graphic and design work, which has helped me in more recent endeavours.
My hope that working would introduce me to the local community was also fulfilled. By the time I came to leave, I couldn’t walk from home to the shop without passing a number of familiar faces, and many customers became friends or, at least, acquaintances, a lot of whom I’m still in contact with today. Of course, this was made easier by the fact the town was tiny – the extent of it, including outlying villages, having a population of about 5000 people. There was a local theory that Ruthin had more pubs per capita than anywhere else in the country! I’m not sure if this tidbit of trivia is true, but the town was very tight-knit, and there were plenty of drinking establishments, so I wouldn’t be surprised.
As well as work, I stayed in touch with my musical friends, and we played a number of events as a quintet. I also bought my first DSLR camera, which properly ignited my interest in photography. For a few months, I joined the local camera club, and by the end of the season, I’d even placed in the top 3 of one of their contests. Without learning so many skills by osmosis – from so many encouraging and inspiring people -during my time in Ruthin, I wouldn’t have been able to take the next steps that have got me to where I am now.
The next couple of years continued to pass at what felt like an alarming rate. More Ruthin Festivals came and went, I turned 18 – officially a man – and passed my driving test (at last!). For a short time, I took up a second job at a pub, which allowed me to become part of another crowd, and also showed me just how seriously the Welsh are about sport. The summer of 2016, with Wales’ performing brilliantly in the Euro championship, brought with it an unforgettable atmosphere.
It was only after turning 18, and the realisation that a lot of the people I’d known at school would be leaving for University, that I started to question if I’d done the right thing. While content with my circumstances, that ever-evasive “more” beckoned, and I started to think beyond the Vale in the hopes of chasing it. A mild panic set in, and I frantically started to put my finger on what I wanted to do with my life over the long-term. University seemed, at this point, somewhat of a step back – back into institutional education, back into not earning – and I wasn’t sure if it was for me. But all of a sudden, the hills that had encircled me, kept me safe for 3 years, began to feel imposing and restrictive. Was there a world beyond them?
Feeling rather uncomfortable, I sat down and had a chat with my boss at Fineline. Having been taken under the wing of the team and made to feel almost one of the family, I worried whether they’d be disappointed at me feeling it was time to move on. I needn’t have worried: although sad to see me go, I received their blessing, and even encouragement, to spread my wings a little further.
The End / The New Beginning
I quickly put in a few token university applications to try and get in through clearing – but of course, I had no A-Levels, so I also started searching the web for other opportunities. It was completely accidental that I stumbled across the BBC Academy website and read about their apprenticeship schemes that, importantly, required no qualifications. At first hesitant, I felt I wouldn’t be what such a massive organisation was looking for. I had no broadcast experience, and I lived nowhere near one of their offices. Even friends and colleagues told me not to hold out too much hope, as there’d be thousands of applicants. It was, of course, my mother that once again encouraged me (very heavily) to apply.
I received a rejection from one of the schemes quite quickly. Sadly, they “couldn’t take my application any further.” At this point, I almost forgot about the other I’d submitted. It wasn’t until quite a few weeks later that, to my amazement, an email appeared with instructions on what to prepare after I’d been shortlisted for the next stage of the process. I had just days to carry out the set task. I was over the moon, but a job wasn’t set in stone yet…
The rest – as they say – is history. If you’ve found your way here, you’ll already know that I was successful in securing a job at the BBC. It was time for a new chapter in my life, but it was extremely bittersweet to close the one I was in. So often described as one of Wales’ hidden gems, Ruthin had been exactly that – and it had saved me. I had gone from being resentful and unhappy as a child, to optimistic and ambitious as an adult. It provided the foundation for the life I have now, and, in less-enjoyable moments since, has supplied me with a wealth of amazing memories to get me through, some of which are quite simply, unforgettable.