Driving into Trevelin the day before, the sign had said ‘Bienvenidos a Trevelin. Croeso I Drefelin’. It is a small town of bilinguality: Spanish and Welsh.
The story of Welsh settlers in Patagonia will be known by some. 153 sailed on the Mimosa in 1865 from Liverpool to the Chubut valley: a place now called Puerto Madryn. In 1891, one of their sons, John Daniel Evans established a flour mill at Trevelin. Here I spent Easter Day.
Much of the day was spent taking in the stunning scenery of the Parque Nacional Los Alerces, its crystal clear lakes and Andean backdrop. Back in town at the end of the afternoon, it seemed time to take tea in one of the ‘Galles’ tearooms. Scones, cakes and fine tea – very reminiscent of Sunday afternoon tea of my childhood. The tearoom had various display cabinets of the town’s Welsh forbears: school photographs, birth registers, teacups. It occurred to me to ask the waitress where one could find the nearest Welsh Chapel. ‘Ten blocks down the main street, turn right, three blocks and behind the school’ she said.
And so it was. There, in the middle of an open piece of undulating ground, incompletely fenced off, was a brick building with pitched red roof. It is not the original chapel of the Trevelin people, but it has stood there for over 100 years and must have witnessed so much of the Welsh community’s comings and goings. Behind was the old welsh school – a cottage dwarfed by the mountains behind.
Of course the chapel was locked and it was not possible to look through it windows, three on each side of the building, as they were set too high in the walls. It felt a little anticlimactic: missing some spark of connection to bring story of the pioneers to life.
It was then that a figure appeared from a house to the side of the chapel land. I wondered whether he was about to say visitors were not allowed there. I could not have been more wrong.
The man was Ellis Williams, a true Patagonian Welshman, senior in years, bringing the chapel key with him. Sadly, I had no Welsh to share with him, but he was only too delighted to unlock the door. Almost the first thing I spied inside was the harmonium, and Ellis was quick to find another key to open it up.
And so it was on Easter Sunday evening I sat down to play Ar hyd y nos in a Welsh chapel in Patagonia. My limited Spanish, even my native English, cannot explain how the music filled the small chapel, the way Ellis produced books of music from yesteryear for me to play, or how it felt to be one of an unknown number that have sat and played hymns in that humble chapel, and – alas – I have no Welsh at all. But this I know: music has a unique power to change the ambience of a room and connect past and present. In those chords on that harmonium Ellis and I became friends.