This weekend we took the campervan to the Brecon Beacons for a couple of nights – just to test all the repairs we made over the winter. I know I write a lot about Snowdonia and Cornwall and if you follow this blog you’ll know that many of my favourite places are wild, lonely and close to the sea, but there’s another side to my landscape yearnings and it’s right here in Breconshire. I took the photograph from the campsite in Pencelli, just up the road from Buckland Hill. It was so clear I was completely foxed for a while as I tried to find my way around a sky unexpectedly full of thousands of visible and perhaps millions of invisible stars – so numerous and so beautiful they felt like a kind of blessing. I know it’s fanciful but sometimes I can almost hear them singing an ethereal Spem in alium by Thomas Tallis transposed many octaves upwards. I guess I hear them through my heart. You might think that’s all a load of spam in allium but this place has that kind of effect on me. It excites me to know that J R R Tolkien stayed for a time in the village of Talybont, immediately below Buckland Hill – while he was writing “Lord of the Rings”.
The (definitely non politically correct) smell of wood fires never smells sweeter and more homely than here between the river Usk and the hills and peaks like Pen y Fan. The Buckland of the saga jumps off the page in the narrow strip of small farms between the River and the accompanying Monmouth and Brecon Canal under the shadow of the misty mountain. The sounds of sheep, and the early spring birdsong all add to the music. I saw my first kingfisher here many years ago. The Mallard in their breeding plumage never looked more incandescent and for a few hours, instead of walking head down looking for plants I could have leaned on a gate and just gorged on the sounds. Even as we drove towards Abergavenny we spotted a Kestrel hunting the hedge alongside the road as well as a Buzzard and a red Kite. The three raptors were just a taster of the riches to come. This landscape is far closer to my personal psychogeography than all my other post industrial hotspots, roaring seas and austere mountains. Celandines in abundance announced that Spring really is here and we drank pints of magic to celebrate in the local pub.
Finding any kind of lyrical inspiration these days, demands we mine it from granite with our bare hands. Every dark hole has a poet at the bottom of it.
So 25% of British pubs – mostly the small ones like ours – have closed down since 2001 according to the Office for National Statistics. We at the Potwell Inn have bucked the trend and stood firm against rent and rate increases by the simple expedient of not existing. We are expectantly waiting for the day when an eagle eyed official with too much time on their hands and an irony deficiency sends us a rate demand or accuses us of not having a current license. We do not, of course have any such documents.
But what of the others? What of the ones whose ceiling were so encrusted with nicotine that they would loose acrid brown drops the colour of iodine on the heads of the inebriates beneath? What of the pubs where the landlord and his wife, having fallen out with one another decades previously, entertained the customers by trading ferocious insults between the public bar (hers) and the lounge (his – normally empty). What of the clandestine meetings at the Ich Dien followed by frantic couplings in a mini parked in a layby, with passers like Madame and I slowly driving past eager to catch a glimpse of the owner of that voluminous tricell skirt? What of the dockside pub where you could drink every night in a lock-in, as long as you bought the landlady a gin each time you got a round. Even the police used to drop in there. I could go on for longer than the doctor would be pleased to hear, but the fact is, something unique is slowly dying. The pub is often deadly, the beer terrible, or the locals may eye you up strangely and polish their shotguns, but there’s always the possibility of something happening.
So forget the bucket lists and the industrialisation of pleasure, the most unforgettably beautiful moments are always a surprise – across a crowded room etc – you know the trope. Here are two of mine from the same winter in the early 1970’s. Strangely, both were facilitated by industrial action so massive that the country virtually ground to a halt. Art schools in the early ’70’s were properly counter-cultural in the days before the suits learned how to merchandise the air we breath and sell it back to us, and one of the new forms of expression creeping in at the time became known as “happenings”. They were often spontaneous and unscripted and sometimes they were unbelievably tedious and then sometimes they were life changing. This one started with a postcard sent to every art school in the country with nothing more than a time, a date and a grid refrerence. That was it – no explanation or any clue what might be happening so of course, we went along. The grid reference led us to a track just east of Avebury Henge and there were about twenty people milling around with a couple of special branch officers trying to blend in inconspicuously. It was worth the journey just for that – they were spectacularly inept at blending. A rather tall and thin young man with a wooden staff led us up the Ridgeway with a commentary full of leylines and mystic connections which we mostly ignored and got along with chatting to one another. We climbed eastwards to a high vantage point near Fyfield Down just as the sun was beginning to set and as we turned and faced the dusk we realized that there were no electric lights anywhere. Aside from a few distant car headlights, the miners had arranged the most perfect view across Chippenham and Bristol towards the Severn and the Forest of Dean beyond. The electricity had been cut off and we had become a band of accidental pilgrims on an ancient pilgrimage route and with a view that I had never seen in my lifetime and never will again. It was gin clear and the stars above us shone with such intensity we were transported. Later we walked down to Avebury village and found the pub open by candlelight and so we celebrated with a few beers and cemented one friendship that has lasted to this day.
The second experience was during the same dispute and we had cycled out to a pub on the A420 near Castle Combe. At about half past eight, with the bar filled with talk about the strikes, a coach load of miners came in on their way back from London. There was a bit of a frozen silence and almost all the customers, except us, walked out attempting to look hard – in case their little protest should inflame the strikers. But the miners sang. There are tears in my eyes as I write this, because they sang their hymns so wonderfully that we had our humanity dusted off and straightened out free of charge. For an hour they ministered to us and we listened in rapt silence, knowing that this would never happen again.
And so – the Potwell Inn? Well, we haven’t smoked for years, but if the couple in the Mini want to drop in and celebrate an anniversary we would serve them without a trace of reproach. We would wecome anyone who was on Fyfield Down near Avebury that day, especially the Special Branch officers and Gandalf the half-demented leader and it goes without saying that if any group of singers, miners, saints or sinners should drop in, we would have an all-nighter. We would even welcome Henry and his wife who could do with a good night out together. We would welcome all the ne’er-do-wells and undiscovered poets and talk gardening until the sun rose over the runner beans and Madame and me could sit down to a bacon sandwich and a mug of tea and say – “Haven’t we been lucky!”