Almost winter

The sound of the wind sighing through these beeches is winter on a plate!

I’m not sure I go with the relatively recent introduction of what’s called ‘meteorological winter’ which begins on December 1st for no better reason, it seems to me, than an excessive love of orderliness. Yes of course it tidies the year up into four seasons of exactly three months, but the boundaries, the markers don’t coincide with any particular events in the real world. On the other hand, the astronomical seasons are marked by genuine turning points – the two solstices and two equinoxes mark actual observable events rather than concepts. I can hardly imagine anyone getting excited at the accumulation of time required to trigger a new season; whereas I get really excited about the winter solstice because it holds out the hope of lengthening days at what always seems to be (really is, often) the darkest part of the year. The same goes for the equinox, especially at the spring one, when the promise of summer is offered. The late summer is always tinged with sadness as the hours of darkness gain the ascendency once more, but there’s a glorious processional quality about the way the astronomical year reflects our mood. These moments are marked in the natural world by migrating birds like cuckoos which arrive soon after the spring solstice, before the other summer migrants, the swallows and swifts, arrive before the equinox. It all seems to add up.

All of which is a very long way of wondering aloud whether our walk yesterday could be considered a winter walk. The idea of ‘doing’ the Mendip Way – a fifty mile wander between the Bristol Channel and Frome has grown on us and without planning it at all, we’ve been grabbing any excuse to walk bits of it whenever the weather looks reasonable. High Mendip is not a place you want to be walking in freezing winds and driving rain.

Yesterday we walked a random section between Winscombe and Crook Peak – the whole section including the return walk was around 5 miles but it felt longer because there was a climb of just under 600 feet, and the walking conditions were pretty poor with the sodden ground churned to lethally slippery mud by weekend walkers. The start of the walk was diverted because there’s a massive programme of tree felling going on in the whole area, attempting to control ash dieback disease which is rife here, and so we joined the path a mile or so late, beyond Kings Wood. The weather forecast promised better than we actually experienced, but we avoided the sharp showers that we could follow as they drove across the Somerset levels from the South West.

If you look carefully you can just see the silver band of the Bristol Channel below the sky, looking westwards.

Crook Peak is the high promontory that stands guard over the M5 and would be a familiar sight to anyone who regularly drives that way. Its smaller twin, Brent Knoll, is on the other side of the motorway and I suppose the two peaks represent the last hurrah of the Mendip Hills. But the position overlooking the levels gives the most fantastic views across to Glastonbury and beyond and in the opposite direction apparently Pen y Fan in the Black Mountains can be seen 40 miles away on a clear day; so it’s well worth the effort of going to the top. Looking back you can see the Mendip way extending back across Rowberrow Warren, Burrington Combe and towards Priddy. On Thursday we’ve cherry picked a lovely walk from Priddy down Ebbor Gorge and we’ll leave the joining of the dots for later. There’s something nice about exploring the lay of the land in a series of shorter walks and then doing the whole thing in three or four sections when the days are longer.

We are so fortunate to live just 20 miles away from this marvellous walking country. When the Mendip Way is done we’ll start the Limestone Link which runs almost past our front door down to Shipham which is almost in the shadow of the Peak. I’ve written before about the intermittent lead mining industry around Velvet Bottom, and Mendip being a carboniferous limestone area, the washings from the mines all joined the watercourses as they ran underground through the rock and emerged in springs and resurgences lower down. Although the lead mines were last worked over a century ago, the villagers of Shipham were warned, quite recently, not to eat vegetables from their own gardens because they were so heavily contaminated with cadmium. The source of the contamination is now a treasured nature reserve and I suspect that most of its visitors would never even suspect what a wretched and desolate industrial area it must have been in its heyday.

So here are some photographs from yesterday’s walk. The larger photo just shows Glastonbury Tor on top of the hill in the far distance. During the recent flooding, almost all of the low lying land surrounding it was underwater. Looking down from the top we could see that there is massive dredging work going on in the Lox Yeo river to try to improve drainage. In some areas it’s been suggested that tree planting would slow down the drainage and increase water retention, but up here on the ridge the soil is often very thin, and the drainage is straight down into the rock, or more particularly its extensive cave systems, which just shows that there’s no ‘one size fits all’ answer to the problem of flooding, perhaps with the exception of arresting climate change and lessening the extreme weather events that cause the floods.

Velvet bottom – following the way!

So this post comes in two unequal parts – part one is the walk we went on today and part two is the fruit of the walking meditation that went on at the same time.

The sun was shining when we got up today, and there was every prospect that our usual walk around Bath would take us into the company of thousands of rugby supporters, plus many more Bristolians and visitors from our surrounding tier three areas who seem to imagine that you can’t catch covid here because we’re only in tier two. This is (forgive me) a grave error of judgement, but there we are – believing six impossible things before breakfast is what we now do here in la la land.

And so we went for a brief drive and a long walk on Mendip where, we were sure, asymptomatic walkers would all be at a safe distance in a fiercely cold wind. Velvet Bottom (how could you not love a place with a name like that?) is a place I’ve written about before (have a search and see) so I won’t repeat myself except to say that the moment you leave the warmth of the car and step out into the fresh air, you also enter a place of unique silence – a reflection perhaps of its location in Charterhouse – the site of a long gone Carthusian monastery where generations of monks wrestled through song and prayer in the silence; always bearing the fear that no-one was listening . And it’s a place where millennia of history underlies the present day almost visibly in the lead mining slag unexpectedly gleaming against the grass and trees. But there’s another secret hidden beneath the earth here, the only evidence of which are small depressions in the ground, gated with steel sheets and padlocks and forming the entrances to cave networks that can be extensive in both depth and distance. I explored many of the easier caves many years ago when I was much younger, but the exploration has continued and now there are many caves whose names I’ve never known. Rhino Rift, Upper Flood Swallet and many others dug out by cavers who would have been the first humans ever to set eyes upon their secrets. Anonymous entrances into underground labyrinths formed by torrents of slightly acidic water percolating through the softer carboniferous limestone over the same millennia that saw Roman miners excavating for lead. The silence of the valley is one thing; the silence of being 100 feet underground is something else entirely. The history of Velvet Bottom is even expressed in the flora which includes a wealth of heavy metal tolerant plants. In fact during our walk we passed half a dozen places where real botanical treasures grow. It’s a place that repays the slow and purposeful walk as well as the challenge of running from bottom to top which seems to be a favourite as well.

We walked down Velvet Bottom and there at the junction with Black Rock the path was closed due to work to remove trees affected by ash dieback disease. So we turned right and instead of walking, as we often do, up the course of Longwood Valley, we took the path that forks to the left and forms part of the West Mendip Way – one of our target long distance walks. It was cold and windy but it was a good to be alive day and after an energetic series of steepish climbs we arrived back at the car after about two hours. My new walking boots had thrived on grass, mud and rock and I was feeling pretty good about it -so to the next part which you might think is a slightly odd conclusion to a very contented walk – but you need peace to think properly.

An entirely un-morbid reflection on death the climate emergency and ecological crisis.


We find it difficult to imagine a world without ourselves in it, and much of the concept of ‘ourselves’ is built on our whole culture – the way we do things round here. So paradigm changes like the ones we now face -climate destruction, ecological crisis, health and food crises, zoonotic diseases – are very difficult to address because we have to learn to imagine a world which would be so utterly different from the one we know that it amounts to the emotional equivalent of embracing our own death.


The Greek word ‘epiousios’ is the mysterious term that gets translated as ‘daily bread’ in the Christian Lord’s Prayer, but since that’s the only place in which it’s used in the whole of ancient Greek writing, the translation – as all translations must be – is a creative, culture bound guess at what it might have meant. Literally it means something like ‘the around and about us things’ the ‘at hand’ things, so not just food perhaps, but all the other stuff that defines us as who we are.

Losing our epiousios things is what happens when catastrophe comes upon us. Nothing means what it did any more; none of the structures that frame our lives and our self understanding are available to us and we are obliged to contemplate having to start over from nothing; nowhere. It’s a profound bereavement not a day without treats.

If you’ll stay with me here for just a few sentences more; this is the greatest challenge of any faith. In Christianity it’s the cross, (and here I move into the new place of no-meaning), – so if a faith uses belief in some kind of posthumous resurrection to elide the dreadful reality of death it’s like playing a “get out of jail free” card, and avoiding the life-changing struggle of genuine rebirth.

So – and I know this is a very first attempt at expanding the present group of economic, political and ecological crises to include a spiritual dimension which, if we fail to embrace it, will lead us into the endless repetition of the same mistakes until we, and eventually perhaps all living species become extinct. Failure to embrace the arduous path of letting go of ourselves as we presently define ourselves – which is a kind of death – will make the probability of our extinction as a species inevitable.

But it’s vital to understand that this isn’t an argument for the individual solitary path. The most important challenge we face is collective, and the mess we’re in can’t be undone one individual at a time, however attractive an idea that might be. Any programme or strategy for saving the earth has to embrace a communal sense of contrition for the state we’re in and, because throughout history we have so wilfully participated in the destruction of other human belief systems and their unique ‘epiousios’ (which we may now need to build over again if we want to save ourselves), we have to own our responsibility. Any exercise in planning a journey – especially a spiritual/material journey like this one – depends absolutely on knowing where you’re setting out from.

So – if you’ve managed to reach this point – I’m sorry for the absence of recipes, allotment tips and anecdotes from this post but doing a bit of hard thinking is as much a part of being human as cooking and eating the borlotti beans that are in the oven right now. For the extreme masochists I’m tagging the very last sermon I ever preached which, if you’re into these things, you may agree takes me over some kind of line. I finished writing it in tears because I knew it was taking me away from a very important part of my own epiousios – I was feeling the fear of setting sail from what had always seemed a safe harbour. It was at a celebration for the 50th anniversary of the ordination of my friend Nev who, over ten years of Friday lunches (it wan’t for the food, they were mostly terrible) taught me how to be – and not to be – human, and how to read the Lord’s Prayer properly..

Birthday Boots

This is just a photo taken on Black Rock nature reserve – one of our favourite Mendip walks – it’s only a quarry and the rock doesn’t look exactly black – but there …. we still love it.

Yesterday was my birthday (please don’t ask) and since we’ve reached the age where surprises are usually unwelcome ones, we normally choose something for ourselves – an extravagance perhaps. Outside the flat there’s a line of walking boots of varying vintage which are only thrown away when they actually fall apart. The line is vaguely sorted in order from decent for a good walk – down to gardening only, however my most recent pair (5 years old) suddenly died on me a couple of weeks ago. The fabric part started leaking and the soles were worn to the point where, as my knees were thrown out of kilter I looked as if I’ve got rickets. They fitted like slippers, but not in a good way. The next in line were a pair of old Scarpas which are amazingly comfortable still, but again very with very worn soles. The soles in any case have always been lethal. I discovered this on Tryfan with my son when our scramble to the top of what always feels like a rather bad tempered mountain was made more exciting still when my boots refused to connect safely with the rock, and so since then I’ve only ever used them on less rocky routes. It turns out that the soles in question developed quite a reputation for turning wet rock into a skating rink. Don’t misunderstand, they’re lovely boots and I trekked 25 miles a day for several weeks, carrying a big pack on the Camino, crossing the Aubrac hills in south east France. Actually that day on Tryfan we were about to go up the final scramble when we met a man hovering there as if unable to make up his mind whether to carry on. “We’ll go up with you” we said cheerfully, and we’d barely climbed ten feet when he said lugubriously “Three of my friend died on here”.

It’s fun buying boots – the research, the reviews and finding a supplier; but in many ways it’s more like buying a car because it’s impossible not to be thinking about where you’d like to go in them …. let the daydreaming begin! What I really needed was a pair as comfortable as the Scarpas but with vibram soles that could grip wet rock a bit better. Then the thought occurred to me that I might lash out on a pair of full leather boots; a proper extravagance – well, twenty quid more anyway. Boots are like bikes. In fact they’re like any conceivable bit of kit (especially men’s kit); they elicit strong loyalties and a multitude of unevidenced opinions. So I sought advice from anyone who would talk to me about it and then ignored it because I didn’t really care what anyone else thought, I wanted a pair of posh leather trekking boots so there!

I phoned the shop ahead to reserve a pair of the exact size, make and model and made an appointment assuming I would have the exclusive attention of someone who had a PhD in boot fitting. It wasn’t quite like that because the poor man was on his own and no-one had told any of the customers coming through the door that there was an appointment system in place. So it didn’t take long to find out, between his long absences, that they didn’t have my size in store. He tried desperately to reassure me that the measurements were coming out at size nine (which they had in stock) and it seemed there was nothing I could say that would communicate to him the very simple fact that I’d been wearing Meindl boots for years – ever since the Scarpas – and I’d always been ten and a half. In the end we agreed that he would get some boots in for me to try as long as I paid a (large) deposit. We went to the till and then a kind of beatific light dawned across his face – “You didn’t make an appointment did you?” “Yes I did” I replied. “Oh ………….” he said, as the ground refused to swallow him up. “These must be yours then …”. he said as he peeled the label with my name and the time of the appointment away from the box sitting next to the till.

It turned out that I’d got the size right after all and after that the fitting went well and we left the shop with my birthday present under my arm. That night I fabricated a ludicrous excuse to wear them into town to buy milk from a marvellous new vending machine, put there by a local farm. Then we did a couple of our usual 5 mile walks with me, rather self consciously, wearing the absurdly new looking footwear. They were lovely – they’re definitely seven league boots and so I’m free to dream of ever longer walks.

Tryfan – the old monster

Madame doesn’t know this yet but in matters of mountains and walks I’ve found it’s best to keep the details a bit vague until we’ve already set off. We have had a few barneys as a result, and on one occasion I thought I was going to have to call mountain rescue because I’d forgotten that the walk I’d planned past Tryfan took us past a precipitous waterfall which was way beyond her pain threshold. In the end it was me who slipped and fell, so it was a relief when my son told me that his partner had slipped and fallen in exactly the same place. No harm was done in either case and we walked off the mountain without having to call for help. On another occasion I forgot to mention that there was a much easier approach to Pen y Fan via Cribyn than the path up from Bryn Teg ridge. My word she was angry – so much that she went up it at a sprint. I could hardly keep up.

A wintry Cribyn and Pen y Fan photographed from our kayak on the Monmouth and Brecon Canal

These last few days I’ve sorted out my rucksacks, dug the super lightweight cooker out of a cupboard along with the titanium dixie and wondered – not for the first time – whether we might use the Hilleberg tent a few more times. All these are honourable graduates of the school of desire, and I’m firmly resisting the thought that I ought to know better at my age. Dreaming is the wellspring of a fulfilled life, and as long as you don’t waste a moment lusting after impossible dreams (like being tall and athletic in my case) there’s no reason to shut your life down voluntarily. Being old, short and tough as old boots is a lot better than giving up, sitting in an armchair and looking at the wall. Anyway, enough of this introspection because I can already smell the mountain air after three seasons in lockdown. During these dog days, when the daylight seems so fugitive, the allotment is sulking, rain soaked and surrounded by dead wet leaves under a leaden sky, and so daydreaming about new adventures is a tempting relief. Neither of us is the least heroic and the world is full of more adventurous adventurers than us, but we’re less than 100 miles from some of the most spectacular places for walking, birdwatching and botanising. We’ve got the Mendip Hills, Exmoor, Dartmoor and the Brecon Beacons all within easy reach.

Later, after all three of our children rang and and asked how my birthday was going, Madame pointed out that I’d described it entirely in food – breakfast, lunch and supper. I think that must be a family trait because we’re all either cooks or professional chefs. My birthday leaves just eleven days until the solstice – oh joy!

An unexpected excitement

A spur of the moment walk into the city centre tonight took us past Pulteney Bridge where the arches and surrounding street lights were reflected beautifully in the water. The river level has fallen over the past few days and the icebergs of detergent foam have now gone as the flood ease and the terraces of the weir reappear. The streets were all but empty on this last night of meteorological autumn. We traversed the centre passing quietly through all the usual tourist hotspots, knowing that this was probably our last chance to do so before the bars and restaurants reopen and the shops, about to be licenced to stay open as long as they wish, flood the air and the winter nights with their desperate appeals for last minute customers.

It feels almost unpatriotic to admit it, but we’ve enjoyed the quiet city; and during the first and more closely observed lockdown in the warm spring weather we often walked at dusk through empty car parks, and crossed streets that would normally be like the river in spate; an impassable flood of visitors tumbling down Milsom Street towards Southgate.

This afternoon, in a moment of pure serendipity just one unsolicited remark in a news feed dropped a moment of excitement into my mind. The article in question mentioned the Mendip Way – a long distance footpath that I don’t think I’d ever seriously thought about walking. But I love Mendip – I have done since I was a teenager and went caving there. After a quick peep I could see that the path takes a winding route West from Uphill on the Bristol Channel to Frome at the Eastern edge of the Mendip Hills – about fifty miles in all.

When I was working in South Gloucestershire I devised a forty mile pilgrimage from Malmesbury to Littleton on Severn, across the fields wherever possible. We walked it every year, a small group of seven or eight of us and took a couple of days to complete it. It was a kind of re-enactment of the journey that the monks at Malmesbury Abbey would have made to my little parish church overlooking the River Severn which was a part of their huge land holding. One of these days I’ll tell the story of the murdered monk, killed for the chalice he was carrying, and the story of St Arilda and her fateful meeting with Muncius, a Roman soldier – just two of the events we commemorated as we walked. Coincidentally, both murders were marked by springs, running red once a year, as if with blood. Actually it’s algae but …. we visited both sites just in case.

The longest walk I’ve ever done was a 200 miler across France with my son, between Le Puy en Velay and Cahors on the route of the Camino. It was springtime and as we walked across the Aubrac Hills we were caught up in the transhumance of cattle up to the high mountain pastures – it was an extraordinary sight accompanied by village parties that seemed to go on for days.

I love long distance walks, but haven’t had much of a chance to indulge them recently so I was overjoyed when I hesitantly mentioned the idea of splitting the Mendip Way into small sections to Madame and she jumped at the idea. Within about a minute I’d ordered up the maps and my head is full of thoughts of connecting up some of our favourite places in one long walk. I camped at Uphill as a teenager, and Madame spent most of her holidays with an aunt in Frome. In between we know and have visited most of the places on the route but never in the way that a long distance walk can illuminate them. Your sense of terrain changes profoundly when you get it under your feet, and it will be wonderful to unite the Somerset Levels with High Mendip, crossing Crookes Peak and possibly even stopping for lunch at the Hunters Lodge Inn in Priddy; walking down Ebbor Gorge again.

And of course the natural history across such a walk will be astounding – I’m already packing my kit in my head. Oh glory! it feels like this enervating, never ending confinement is lifting at last.

Four hundred and fifty three thousand, seven hundred and forty four

No it’s not a telephone number, that’s how many words I’ve written on this blog – I mean, it’s a lot, even spread across 585 posts, and I’m aware that it’s a bit intimidating too. I suppose you could read it every day, in which case it would be like a sequential diary, but most people don’t, and only pick up on a particular search term that they’re especially interested in. I’m not sure what you’d call it because the bigger it gets the harder it is to search. So in the midst of a somewhat sleepless night it occurred to me to make a kind of pot luck offer in a tag cloud. You can click on any of the tags and see what’s behind it; pick a favourite topic or just have a random meander around the inside of my head – there’s plenty of social distancing space there; and search for your particular silver threepenny bit in the plum pudding.

asparagus autumn biodiversity chillies climate change climate emergency compost compost bins composting coronavirus covid 19 deep ecology earth environment environmental catastrophe environmental crisis Extinction rebellion field botany food security foraging garlic global climate crisis global heating growing chillies herbal medicine homelessness Hotbeds intensive farming lockdown meditation no-dig polytunnels potatoes preserving raised beds rats recycling rewilding Sourdough species extinctions sustainability technology water storage weeds wildflower meadows

Walking with a purpose

I have some dim idea why I love these little characters so much because they were the first gulls I learned to distinguish out of the group which I had always just seen as “seagulls”. I was puzzled enough by their red legs and beaks with black tips to get a bird book and find out what they were called. That was years ago and so now I know they’re black headed gulls – which caused a many a problem because it turned out they were only truly black headed in the summer. But they turn up here most winters; sometimes they stay and sometimes they go on somewhere else, and since I first noticed them I’ve learned a good deal more about them, but I love their delicate flight; the way they make the herring gulls and lesser black backed gulls who also live here look a bit lumpy – and, they’re here at the moment. These two were on the river bank immediately below the church where we often see peregrines – there was one there today. This isn’t unusual, we also saw wagtails, robins, blackbirds, pigeons, moorhen, mute swans and a lone Canada goose. The heron has been missing for a couple of days but he’ll show up again in one of his favourite haunts.

It was here on this walk that I learned to separate the ragworts; to find pellitory of the wall and half a dozen other medicinal herbs growing wild; here I noticed winter heliotrope and not – as I first thought – coltsfoot. Here too the wild lettuce that doesn’t look the least bit like the stuff on your plate. We do the same walk pretty well every day; come rain or shine. It’s about 8 Km which gets us over the 10,000 step line and passes a couple of local shops that we use. That means that we walk around 10 kilometers most days and it’s not in the least boring because it’s never the same two days running.

If I was trying to make it sound a bit posh I’d call it a transect – an ecological technique that helps us to understand an environment by walking the same path as regularly as possible and recording what you find there. It takes a while but eventually you kind of make friends with it, to recognise the old stagers and the newcomers and to rehearse their names so often that they stick in your mind. Depending on the season we could focus on birds or plants; insects (not too sharp on those) or butterflies and if anything the walk becomes more interesting each time we do it. Naturally there are other walks in much sexier places where we can marvel (gawp?) at five star rarities but there’s nothing in the world to beat finding one of them in a dark corner of a familiar place. We know the proper names of some of the fishes that congregate near the surface of the water in the summer, we watch the river in spate and at its lowest time in a dry summer. There are things we’d love to see – like otters – and I’m sure one day we will. The local natural history society – there’s a link on this page – runs a great facebook group where we can see things we’ve never seen ourselves and check out an identification with some hardcore experts if need be.

Walking is the most tremendous activity when you want to think. Our days are pretty standard; two hours of walking, three quarters of an hour of weights, two or three hours of writing and the rest on the allotment, cooking, eating and reading. When I write it down it looks almost monastic and yet it doesn’t feel that way. Walking grounds us, gives us a couple of hours when we can talk or be quiet and where we can find a perspective on the troubles and worries of life, and it provides me with an endless source of reflection – much of which finds its way on to the blog.

Nietzsche, Rousseau, Thoreau, Santayana and a host of deep ecologists, poets, writers and pilgrims have all found comfort and inspiration in walking, so I reckon the evidence is in. I’ve always kept notebooks and sometimes the notebooks became journals and they’ve been the most important source of inspiration for me. So often, reading back on an everyday, common experience can suddenly flood it with light – “oh so that’s what was going on”. A walk can be an almost symphonic experience that might one moment be prayer, or contemplation, or remembering, or just filled with wonder and delight or perhaps a simmering grouse, or an anger that’s needing to be dealt with. Let them come, and let them go. And that’s not to mention the fresh air, occasional sunshine and the natural history waiting to be recorded.

It’s November, almost official winter and yet today we saw herb Robert in flower, winter heliotrope with its odd perfume, so difficult to describe; nipplewort; a couple of vagrant marigolds on the canal bank and the initial rosettes of a dozen pathside herbs that look lovely even as they are. It’s so easy to be sniffy about ragwort but really, its leaves are lovely in their prime condition.

Sitting on my desk at the moment is a piece of lichen that I picked up last year. If I sprayed it with water it would come back to life, and under the microscope it becomes a miniature world; a kelp forest an inch across. There are bits of dried grass and a pencil sharpener; with all the books and apparatus I need to continue the walk in my head later. It’s so much bigger and richer than just boring old exercise; making up the 10,000 steps. Oh yes, walking is good – good for the legs, good for the mind, good for the spirit too. It takes some ordinary – you might say thin – time of course, but renders it thick, rich and deep like good soil. Sure you might add the biochemical changes and dismiss it all as so much dopamine and you’re free to do just that; but I prefer to think of each walk as another voyage of the Potwell Inn Beagle.

*If you want to explore the philosophy and history of walking rather than read books about routes you might like to look at Rebecca Solnit’s “Wanderlust”. I thought it was a superb book when I first read it and I’d recommend it without hesitation.

Silence comes in many shapes

So instead of spending Wednesday hanging around in a secure campervan compound, we were able to charge the batteries properly while driving the round trip of about 100 miles to Hay on Wye and back again. I have no idea why we’re so passionately attached to Hay – we don’t attend the festival or even camp there very often, but it’s very close to some of our favourite places like Hay Bluff, Capel y Ffin and Kilvert’s parishes, not to mention Offa’s dyke and some of the best (and longest) hill walks in Wales; and it does have a very good ironmonger – so good we once drove there to buy a crowbar. They didn’t have one.

I don’t do endorsements, but our journey was only made possible by an extraordinary piece of technology. LIke most of us, the campervan had developed a flat battery this summer during the lockdown when we weren’t able to go anywhere; and our usual way of dealing with this problem would be to drive 20 miles with our genny to where it’s stored, and spend hours charging it up – sometimes meaning we had to make two journeys and waste most of a day. I’ve always avoided the idea of getting a battery booster set because in my memory they were extremely cumbersome, and lugging one of them up and down three flights of stairs at the flat is a bit of a pain. However, after a lucky online search, I found the most wonderful lithium ion booster which weighs just over 500 grammes (one and a quarter pounds), fits in your pocket and will deliver 1000A; enough to crank up a 3 litre diesel or 6 litre petrol engine. No – I didn’t believe it either – but I charged it overnight via a USB socket and this morning we went down to the van and after a couple of minutes getting it attached,started the engine without so much as a hint of battery problems.

But this post isn’t a touristy piece on the Brecon Beacons; it’s about something rather different – more psychogeographical than topographical, and more literary than I’d expected: think Kilvert’s Diary, Bruce Chatwin’s ‘On The Black Hill’ and …… forgive me …. JRR Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’. But first, Adlestrop.

So …. sunny autumn day; the leaves turning golden on the trees and as we crested the top of the hill leading down to Raglan we could see Hay Bluff in the far distance, the atmosphere was so clear. We always go by the the back roads, eschewing the motorway and sticking to the quieter and shorter route which, notwithstanding the continual nagging of the satnav, takes exactly the same length of time – give or take the occasional tractor. The car park at Hay was only a third full and visitors were pretty thin on the ground by the looks of it, so we drove down to the bottom and parked up in the sunshine to brew tea.

Silences are difficult to describe because they can often be defined by sounds. As I sat on the van step, soaking up the warmth and listening to a robin singing in its birdish minor key, I suddenly thought of Adlestrop in Edward Thomas’ poem. There the silence is defined by the sound of escaping steam. In my parents’ garden the silence was always defined by house sparrows. We were once walking in Clun where there was the most lovely silence I think I’ve ever experienced, it was so warm and embracing. Tawny owls do good night silences here in Bath and once in Corsica we were kept awake by the silences, bookended by the sound of the Scops owls. Urban silences are always brief and punctuated at each end by the sound of traffic and aeroplanes, or perhaps ambulances. You have to snatch them out of the still air as if you were attempting to catch a butterfly in your hands. The silence you can find in the Brecon Beacons is different again, accompanied by wind and grass but yesterday in Hay on Wye, the silence was modulated by the sound and smell of a petrol mower somewhere close by, and by the quarreling jackdaws in the trees. It was a silence pregnant with all the other lost silences of my life. Robin, my last therapist, was good at silences. He could create a silence like a rich medium in which my hidden thoughts could germinate and grow and, once established, would follow me up the lanes and steps as I walked back to Clifton with my ghosts.

This silence, once evoked, stayed with me even above the noise of the van as we drove back. Pen y Fan never looked lovelier or more challenging as we drove towards Bwlch and then, on the right, there was Buckland Hill and Tolkien joined my thoughts. Despite his protestations that the Lord of the Rings had nothing to do with the war, he had started the writing Hobbit in 1939, and it’s infused with melancholy for a lost and comfortable world that’s always made me feel that when push comes to shove, I’m a hobbit too. Utterly attached to my own place and all too fond of a good meal and a gossip. The Tolkien obsessives have often associated the Buckland of the book with the Buckland hill overlooking the River Usk near Bwlch. There have always been rumours that Tolkien stayed at Buckland Hall as a child, although no-one has absolutely nailed it, but the c0-location of fictional Buckland with the fictional ‘Crickhollow’ is hard to ignore when you’re about to drive through the entirely real Crickhowell with the ‘old forest’ of the beacons looming above.

And in this thoughtful mood we drove on in the noisy, roaring and rattling silence of the van, and I thought about Louis MacNeice’s marvellous ‘Autumn Journal’ and the ominous sense that its lines, written in 1939, are like the leaves of a tree suddenly illuminated by the intense light that sometimes precedes a storm.

Something has broken. Was it Mircea Eliade that said we ‘live in a story shaped universe’? Yesterday it seemed as if ‘losing the plot’ might be a trivial way of expressing the fact that we’ve lost the story. Goodness knows I’m not a fan of all those dwarves and elves in Tolkien but the fact that Lord of the Rings became almost canonical for several generations of us, does suggest that some kind of story can be a better guide to being human than the predigested idiocy of the politicians who suggest that the way forward is, in fact, the way back. I remember being very struck by something George Steiner wrote more than 50 years ago in relation to literature. He suggested that we should ask the question “what measure of man [sic] does this propose?”.

Buckland Hill, for all its powerful imagery, both exists in the mind as a fictional landmark and also in its geographical embodiment overlooking the River Usk. Of course the two are not separable, and who in their right mind would wish to do so? Perhaps that’s what Philip Pullman was pointing at in ‘His Dark Materials’. The destruction of stories is an act of barbarity and violence.

The silence followed me home and back in the flat, I took down the Lord of the Rings and my maps from the bookshelves; just in case I could find a way out of this plague somewhere within them.

Dead Prime Minister fails to get it up!

Palmerston – later on and run out of steam!

I just couldn’t leave Wales without a piece on our day trip on the Ffestiniog Railway on Tuesday. Last year we travelled the Welsh Highland Railway line from Porthmadog to Caernarfon which climbs through the mountains past Snowdon (or Yr Wyddfa, if you will) and down again to the sea – a magical five and a half hours there and back, with mugs of tea and Welsh rarebit to keep body and soul together. This year with Covid restrictions there are only half journeys available so we opted for the Ffestiniog Railway up to Tan y Bwlch.

anyone who’s ever lived in a commune will recognise the fact that there’s almost always one person whose revelatory vision everyone else is expected to serve

We’ve got history with the railway -well more of a one night stand actually – because when we lived in a self described commune in Bristol we spent a weekend working there as ‘volunteers’. The word volunteers is italicised because anyone who’s ever lived in a commune will recognise the fact that there’s almost always one person whose revelatory vision everyone else is expected to serve. That was John then, and probably still is. The pith helmet and khaki shorts of his childhood were invisible to most people but always rankled with me and so, with the certainty that winter follows spring we clashed. He was born to be a district agent in the great days of the Empire when Palmerston was Prime Minister and I could only aspire (in his mind) to be that insolent little chap – what was his name again? -who served the tea. Funnily enough he brought two of his admirers into a cafe I was in a few years ago and I recognised his booming voice immediately – I was so troubled by it I had to get up and leave.

Anyway this mountain adventure was an entirely ‘voluntary’ weekend event with the usual unspoken three line whip. Most of the commune members were doing office or teaching jobs, so a weekend breaking stones in Wales was probably more attractive to them, but we dutifully went along and even took two friends – Mike and Di – along with us. It was the weekend I first saw – rather heard – a Hydram (hydraulic ram pump) in action. I followed the camp water supply down the steep hillside towards the sound of the pump, each rifle shot crack sending a pulse of water up the pipe. Eventually I found the source in a walled off dam at the end of an old drift mine shaft, and I fell instantly in love with a machine that could raise water at least a hundred feet, free of charge and all day, every day. Sustainability in an elegant lump of cast iron with no more complex engineering than a pressure chamber and a couple of flap valves.

So that was it really. It snowed heavily and the bunkhouse felt like a scene from a Russian gulag. The occupants regarded us with suspicion; several of them were explosives experts who seemed to prefer to make a cutting through the mountain by reducing it to vapour. Others were living in the dream of the completed railway line so completely they were socially unavailable to the present moment and so like all bored twenty somethings we found our own fun and climbed the neighbouring mountain Moelwyn Bach in our wellies – cue major ticking off for irresponsibility, but the view was worth it! Then we rode a truck down the mountain from the end of the line and lost control of it completely, jumping off and watching it roll down the hill. After that no-one spoke to us, can’t blame them really, and mercifully we were never invited again. On our way back down the line on Tuesday we caught sight of the same kind of (refurbished by now) truck.

But that was then! On Tuesday we joined the socially distanced mini throng of travellers, and an elderly guard locked into our sealed compartments: third class with bench seats, to play with the leather window straps while we waited. Our engine – called Palmerston after the previously mentioned Prime Minister of the British Umpah era was steaming copiously at the front – possibly a tad too copiously as it turned out. The Ffestiniog railway was originally built to bring slate down from the quarries at Blaenau Ffestiniog. It’s a narrow gauge railway run almost entirely by volunteers and they run it well. The line climbs steeply uphill on its way to the mid point at Tan y Bwlch and the little engine was straining at every valve on the steeper bits. Then half a mile before the station the engine gave up the ghost altogether and we stopped in silence. For a while it was like Adlestrop, just the engine wrapped in a cocoon of steam, a few sheep and the sound of the drizzle. Welsh Mountain drizzle could fill a small lake in five minutes; it’s the only kind that you can actually hear drumming on the windows. Rebellious noises from passengers began to mount and the ancient guard trudged up and down the line trying to explain through the windows without having much of clue himself what was going on.

Eventually they sent a replacement engine to tow us up the last section of the line and Palmerston, humbled, was brought into Tan y Bwlch station three quarters of an hour late. At this point communications seemed to break down entirely with railway volunteers on their mobiles and engineers of all genders poking and pointing. A diesel (if I was making this up it would have been number 666 and called Harold Wilson – but that wouldn’t be true) so a diesel engine came along and shuffled two lots of abandoned carriages around the station until they were in the right order and yet another steam engine came and pulled the first train down the hill while we drank tea from paper cups and took lots of photographs under a temporary canvas canopy. Then they brought yet another engine and we set off back to Porthmadog.

I’m not a steam engine enthusiast in the usual sense. My dad was a railwayman and I was born next to the railway and so the sounds of trains been a part of my whole life – they still are, we can hear the engines passing through Bath Spa station quite clearly. Then there’s the coal to think about. How do you balance the desire to see the back of coal as a fuel with these hundred year old engines, restored and in regular use. I can’t see it attracting many visitors if they put electric motors in the engines and stuck red light bulbs in the fireboxes!

Steam trains have all the features needed to become a true addiction; a uniform, a private language (who knows what a top link man is these days?) and a proper set of exams to pass. Then there’s the sound. I once heard a recording of the foetal sounds that are the soundscape we all inhabited before we were born. You can’t tell me the similarity doesn’t trigger an aching sense of familiarity in the mind. But I remember my dad having to memorise miles of railway line when he went for his guard’s promotion. He would put a woollen blanket on the table and cover it with file cards filled with the esoteric language of the track. But he hated the railway, hated the shifts and the hours and the constant threat of redundancy during the Beeching era. So no, I’m not the least romantic about the railways. But I love Snowdonia and I love those trains – a beautiful paradox.

At last, some sea.

Back on Lleyn after almost a year of pining. We were up at 5.00am but despite all our preparations we didn’t actually get away until 9.30 laden with food, cameras, trail cam, books and drawing equipment. It’s only 150 miles but it always takes about six hours, driving across country from South East to North West Wales, taking in the Brecon Beacons, the Cambrian mountains and the Snowdon range on the way; and here we are facing the sunset across the Irish Sea.

And we missed the spring and the summer, so the thrift – briefly reignited by the setting sun – has withered and died back. The silverweed has been shriven by the fierce weather the sloes are small but ripening slowly and to the North an approaching cold front was heavy with broiling clouds, the colour of Payne’s Gray – a colour I love so much I’d be happy to spend an hour painting great swaths of it on watercolour paper. One or two brave field mushrooms were showing their button heads, but with the temperature dropping overnight I don’t think we’ll be having any of them for breakfast for the next few days. When they do come in numbers the flavour is so good you want to eat them on your knees.

Tonight we’ve set up the trail cam looking down the valley towards the sea. It’s thick with impenetrable thorns and a haven for wild birds. As we left the cottage a sparrowhawk flew low overhead, hunting down the length of the valley and as we walked back up from the sea a robin flitted invisibly from tree to tree, singing as if we were playing a game of tag. I’m hoping we’ll at least film a fox during the night, but we won’t get any good results until we’ve prospected the wood for animal tracks.

The devil is in the detail – small is beautiful.

A red letter day

-and so either of those two headings would have done. Firstly, though – oh joy – they opened the Welsh borders for day trips (not for overnights) again and so we fetched the van and did a socially distanced triumphal entry into God’s own country without fear of being cast into outer darkness. I can’t begin to express how good it was to cross the Severn Bridge again and although we crossed back into England no more than five miles up the road, it felt as if we’d crossed a line in our heads as well. This was our first trip out in the van since our disastrous adventure in February when the charger controller and the batteries all failed and we sat it out for a week with no heating or lighting; and so – although I’d repaired and replaced them all – we were unable to take the van on to the road to test it until the lockdown was eased.

When we stand at the high point of Dyrham Park we can look across to the Forest of Dean as it forms the opposite line of hills beyond the River Severn. It’s a favourite view and so the Forest was our destination for the first trial run. The border between England and Wales threads through the two countries in a more or less random way as it moves northwards towards the Marches, and there’s a kind of transitional culture as you move up the Severn Valley; the accent a curious mixture of Gloucestershire and Welsh intonation. Welsh language is hardly spoken in this part of the world, though the language is compulsory for Welsh schoolchildren. Here, rugby rather than football is the game of choice. Ancient river fishing by nets is still clinging on, although the elvers that used to be caught and added alive to breakfast eggs have become such a delicacy in Japan that the waters are almost fished out. Thirty years ago the salmon putchers caught few fish, but now as the Severn is becoming cleaner, the salmon are returning . We’ve spent so many happy hours over in the Forest it was wonderful to drive over there again after a very long wait. Our last two camping trips were abandoned due to the torrential rain we had during the winter.

But the day also felt special because we were able to step outside our confines for the first time – in our case since early March. I’m certain we’re not alone in finding the first steps outside in the wider world just a little scary, knowing that Coronavirus is still with us and likely to remain so.

Anyway, the drive was uneventful, the weather remained dry and the sun even shone from time to time. This was never going to be a walk – that’s for next time – just a check on the campervan with a cup of tea and a sandwich in the car park at Speech House.

And so to the small and beautiful. I’m discovering that one of the best things about learning to identify as many grasses as possible is that they’re absolutely ubiquitous and so the merest layby is an excuse for a botanizing expedition. Grass, I’ve discovered – although it’s everywhere in the UK – is infinitely more various than you’d ever notice from a car window, and it’s terrifyingly easy to become a kind of wild eyed grass twitcher. This is my first in depth look at a specific family of plants – the Poaceae – and because wherever you are there’s going to be grass (no not that sort!), it’s as addictive as crack cocaine.

I only started this malarky because _

  • I was challenged by a proper field botanist who said they were easy, and –
  • Knowing the most familiar grasses would instantly add a dozen species to every expedition

So the Speech House car park was fair game and after a decent interval for tea and biscuits I searched a small patch of rough grass and found two new grasses I’d never keyed out before, and this is where the devil and the beauty are absolutely in the detail. This is the activity to die for! an arcane language, specialized equipment (well, a decent hand lens), loads of incomprehensible books to buy and a field that not many people get into, and also – for all of the above reasons – it has the great advantage of letting you show off just a bit (carefully) on field trips.

All grasses look the same until you look properly and then they’re different. However many almost identical looking grasses are also different when you look at them very closely indeed and then they sprout a multitude of identifying features like shiny knees and bearded ones or even modestly hairy ones – almost always less than a millimeter in size. Being a promiscuous lot, some of them can only be identified by DNA analysis- but that’s a whole series of Jeremy Kyle beyond my modest capabilities. Who’d have thought that serious examination of a grass’s naughty bits needs a low powered microscope. However a good phone camera with a macro capability can capture a huge amount of information I can take home for later. I’m astounded by the quality of these pictures taken with a Google Pixel 3.

So that was today – a dusty old patch of grass and weeds on a car park, but tremendous fun. Here are some more pictures of the ragwort that unsurprisingly was growing in the same spot. Was it jacobaea or squalidus? To be honest I’m never quite sure but I think these were Senecio jacobaea because although the tips of the leaves look pointed with the naked eye, the photo shows them to be distinctly rounded. As I said, the devil’s in the detail.