What a difference a day makes!

This view through the campervan door on consecutive days is a perfect cameo of Welsh weather. The patch of grass that’s visible on the right hand photo is just out of frame on the left. If you’re lucky you can make out the ridge of Talybont forest on the left whereas it’s clear on the right.

The campsite we stayed on is a place we’ve used several times. Right next to the canal it’s only a short distance to a place where we can easily launch the kayak, and we’re far from alone in seeing this as a perfect place for energetic walks and even more energetic bike routes over the hills on the Taff Trail. All day long the supremely fit come bowling into the campsite with their Volkswagen T5’s magnificent legs and haggard faces looking for all the world like sturdier versions of the crack smokers on the green outside the flat in Bath. I’ll get to them later.

Notwithstanding the physical challenges available, there’s also an awful lot of wildlife to be seen, although how you would get to experience any of it from the saddle of a bike is debatable. Ironically we saw more wildlife than we ever expected by just sitting still on the grass outside the van. There was a field mouse who took an hour to make his mind up and then shuttled back and forth collecting the crumbs we’d thrown down. He was sleek and almost chestnut in colour, quite beautiful. There were the two hedgehogs in the dusk and innumerable birds; sparrows, dunnocks, blackbirds, an amazing kingfisher bursting out of the hedge, buzzards, robins, wrens, blue tits, coal tits and woodpigeons – all seen without moving a step from the van. I was racking my brains to remember this line from W.H. Davies:

WHAT is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare?—

W.H. Davies “Leisure”

It’s a bit corny, but then I remembered its uncanny echo of Milton’s Sonnet 19 on his blindness “When I consider how my light is spent”, that ends –“They also serve who only stand and wait.” – there’s a real spiritual point to standing still and waiting, that challenges our cultural obsession with success, hard work, achievement.

So we’d run out of milk when we got home and I wandered down to the supermarket to get some. Sadly, since the fire at Green Park Station, the milk vending machine has been disconnected. As I walked back in the sunshine a loud argument was being conducted across me on the street. “I’m effing desperate, I am” screamed a woman at the obviously sick man who was just in front of me. She was forging on, head down in that characteristic junkie walk. He shouted back – “It’s just here at the end of the block”. I knew in a second that they were off to meet one of the several dealers who work this area and use the corner as a rendezvous point. Sure enough as I followed them to the end of the road they were there, with a mobile standing on the corner; she was still shouting needlessly into the receiver. Then two, three and four people turned up to join the queue. They have the hunted look of those who have been shriven by their lives, bent over like the trees on the ridge of Freezing Hill, parchment skinned, incoherent bog burials.

The deal was a messy affair in several acts. She borrowed some crack from someone in the queue and stormed over to the privacy of the bushes at the edge of the green where she shared a pipe with her benefactor and walked back miraculously calmed. Arguments broke out – there was shouting and swearing until the dealer cycled up and then for ten minutes noisy negotiations broke out. People stormed off and returned chastened; shouting, more shouting, a big man was throwing haymakers at an invisible enemy. There were dangerous looking dogs barking. Eventually she got her drugs and sat calmly in full view, injecting into her neck. She wandered off again into the woods and returned with a bicycle. It was sad; so appallingly sad, to see these ruined lives.

Blaming the victim is always cheaper

Where do you even begin to find a way through this mess? There’s a strong association with mental illness, homelessness and alcohol – any or all of which could be tackled if we chose to resource it, but blaming the victim is always cheaper. In a world without the prospect of employment, drug dealing looks like a rational choice where the most successful and profitable business are centred on greed and entirely disregard the consequences. The street is a dangerous place so getting a dangerous dog is a rational response once again. I was having a conversation with a financial advisor recently and he told me that if you’re simply interested in making money and don’t give a hoot for ethical investments, then oil and weapons are the star performers. The tanks, guns and landmines are just flying off the shelves. The same old saw comes back every time – “We have seen the enemy, it is us”.

And then I remember A F Woodman who was the music teacher who introduced me and so many others to music – the “brandy of the damned” – according to George Bernard Shaw; and I remember him shouting at me “I know you can hear it, Pole – but are you listening?”

I’m listening!

A Day Lily in our container garden outside the flat

The taste of magic in the Bannau Brycheiniog

Pen y Fan hiding in clouds from the Monmouth and Brecon canal on an icy February morning in 2017

Just out of interest, Bannau Brycheiniog translates as Brychan’s Kingdom; Brychan being the fifth century king of this mountainous area. I’ve written frequently about this place because I love it to the core of my being. It’s a National Park but by no means a huge one; near to the Eastern border with England, more or less defined by the River Severn; a contested border which includes the Welsh Marches and Offa’s Dyke. A wayward and wandering line that’s been fought over for centuries as armies marched back and forth from Roman times onwards in search of gold and latterly for slate and coal, but whatever the quarry, the spoils were taken out of Wales and only the spoil heaps were left. The reversion to Welsh place names is one more skirmish between the Welsh and the colonisers; less spectacular than the burning of holiday cottages but no less fiercely fought for.

But we’re not here to pursue old rivalries. We’re here at the foot of the Bannau to rest and recuperate from hard work on the allotment and to adjust to a change in medication that’s left me feeling as if I’m recovering from the Flu. We have close friends who now live about 1000 feet up in the hills above Llangorse lake and we’ve been coming to this area for more than 30 years and watched as they worked a smallholding while working full time, and improving the cottage from an abandoned bothy to a family home.

So yesterday we lazed in the sun and then in the evening we went with our friends over to to the Three Horseshoes in Groesffordd for a meal and a couple of pints of a local light beer. Needless to say we had a brilliant evening because our interests overlap almost completely and predictably we talked about growing food, keeping animals, the relative merits of lamb (3/10) hogget (7/10) and mutton (10/10). We talked about beer and vegetables and favourite recipes and families and we all reassured ourselves that we hadn’t changed a bit in decades and laughed as if we would all live forever. We took one of the outdoor sheds with a spectacular view between the roofs of the village, across the valley to Pen y fan. The food was excellent and almost too unusual for pub food, we left with a couple of good recipe ideas and feeling that the expense of eating out was justified. The Three Horseshoes, predictably next door to a long closed smithy makes a good living in the most inaccessible spot, hidden deep in the middle of the village where it’s almost impossible to park. We chatted to the owner and he said it was because of their good reputation – and he was right. A delightful and affable landlord who thinks enough of his chefs to name them on the website.

We arrived home (at the campervan) as it was getting dark and sat outside watching the stars come out and listening to the evening sounds. To our great joy there was a wheezy snuffling and a couple of hedgehogs appeared, paused to take a look at us and shuffled off into the hedge again. We haven’t seen hedgehogs for something like 10 years. Way across there were tawny owls and all the usual roosting birds. It felt as if the thin thread holding us down to time and place, had broken and we were wandering in a more ancient time which came with all its literary associations.

Firstly, of course, Buckland Hill which is just down the road will be known to any lover of Tolkien who stayed here at Buckland whilst he was writing Lord of the Rings. We’ve walked miles of Offa’s Dyke, and I’ve loved Geoffrey Hill’s “Mercian Hymns “ set in the time of King Offa and which gets less difficult as I get older and feel the music rather than concentrate on the words. Madame has just finished reading A J Cronin’s “The Citadel” which is partly set just across the hills in the mining valleys. And then on an impulse I dug Bruce Chatwin’s book “On the Black Hill” out of the Kindle Library this morning. This has been one of my must-reads for decades, and I’ve actually got two paperback copies at home. Each of the three I’ve bought while we were up here and never got past about chapter three for the oddest reason. There’s a real “Vision Farm” below Offa’s Dyke facing Capel y Ffin and we once had a long and hard walk up Hatterall Hill, along the dyke and down past The Vision (you’ll need to take a map and a GPS to find the track down) and after crossing the Honddu river, back up past the ruins of the church built by Joseph Lyne, Father Ignatius, back along the opposite ridge and then dropping down the steep path turning left at a hawthorn tree, to Llanthony Abbey.

But I mentioned the fact that I’d always abandoned “On the Black Hill” after a couple of chapters, for an odd reason. It’s simply that the writing is so rich I never want to move on with the narrative, and so each page is an object of meditation. I finish the first couple of chapters and it’s if I’ve eaten a huge banquet and don’t want or need to eat for a week. Obviously this is a bit disruptive to the narrative flow. Cheap fiction does the exact opposite, using a narrative torrent to hurry you across the ludicrous improbabilities of the characterisation. Give me Bruce Chatwin any day, but I’d love to have the stamina to finish it.

One of my parishioners had a Welsh farmer as a distant relative, and she told me that this irascible man had married in a local church, started to drive his bride to the new marital home in the pony and trap . Somehow, on the way they’d had a fierce quarrel and she had got down from the trap and walked back to where she came from, leaving the bridegroom for good. A very Chatwin-esque yarn. I wonder if he’d heard that story independently?

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