Monday, December 7, 2020

Dusk and dust

Blaentillery Drift Mine

Above the town of Blaenavon at the head of the Afon Llwyd valley is a disused drift mine on the flank of Coity Mountain. The road which once serviced it remains a conspicuous contour on the hillside - though not in the way of a scar, for it has blended well into the moorland, offering the prospect of a gentle if longish climb to the now dilapidated works.

I went there the other week, my third visit in as many months. It's a melancholy place - occupying those seductive edges of past and present, industry and nature, that tempt us to attribute it with meaning, when in fact, there is only what is there. 

It's beautiful nonetheless. The skeleton of the old shed silhouettes against the sky, rusted beams tone with the autumn bracken and violet horizon of the Black Mountains to the north. Even the graffiti seems apposite - adding a kingfisher flash to an otherwise limited palette. 

When I showed some photos to a friend, he asked me, 'Have you ever seen Hinterland?' referring to the noir detective series that's filmed in Mid Wales. It's set in a landscape that evokes something of a cross between the old testament and frontier homesteads. The original Welsh language version was titled Y Gwyll, which means 'the dusk' - that time between twilight and darkness; the opposite of dawn.  

I had to look the translation up, and at first misread it, thinking - until checking a few days later - that 'gwyll' meant 'dust'.  How pertinent for writerly purposes that link would have been: nature reclaiming its own, steel leaching rust to the earth, the walls of the pithead crumbling... and the coal in the lungs of the miners...

You see, how easy it is to impute meaning.

I guess I could do the same with dusk - weave a narrative about the twilight of mining, reference the Big Pit Museum, the shadows of the men who worked these seams...  It turns out that the drift on Coity Mountain - known as Blaentillery - was actually the last in the area to close, opening in the Sixties and struggling on till early this century. 

I often wonder about the prospects for the South Wales Valleys. Ultimately, these are communities whose purpose has gone. Years ago they would have decayed like the mine; today we won't -  can't bring ourselves - to allow that to happen. And so they struggle on too, occupying an indeterminate ground, lacking the skills and infrastructure to remodel their future, yet too rent by the past for a transition to tourism. 

And hence the melancholy - which it's all too easy for outsiders like me to romanticise when that gift (if that's the right word) is hardly mine to bestow. If there's any meaning in place it lies not in the landscape in and of itself,  but in our relationships to it. Those who lived and worked here would no doubt have a different - and truer - perspective than three visits in as many months can hope to conjure. 

But that's as it should be. For whenever I walk the tops of these hills I sense that despite knowing them for half my life, their valleys will always be something apart. I look down to the ribbon rows of houses not so much with sadness, as curiosity - even a little envy. And ironically, I remember that the reason I first came here, was they reminded me of home.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Broken Ghost - Niall Griffiths, Wales Book of the Year

Broken Ghost - Wales Book of the Year
Wales Book of The Year

It's twenty years since the publication of Niall Griffiths' first book, Grits. I remember reading it in a weekend, being blown away by the rawness of the words, the truth to power in the voices, the refusal to soften language or sweeten its pill... Six novels later Griffiths returns to similar themes and narrative structure with Broken Ghost - surely, the deserved winner of Wales Book of the Year.

In truth, Grits isn't a novel in the traditional sense - more a collection of interrelated stories, centred on the drug and rave culture of Nineties Aberystwyth.  Inevitably, it was compared to Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting and it's he who again provides the front cover puff, describing Griffiths as `a magnificently gifted writer'.

Of that, there's no doubt. There are passages in Broken Ghost that left me metaphorically breathless, reading and rereading them to catch the rhythm of the words, often in long extended sentences reminiscent of Cormac Mcarthy. And like McCarthy, Griffiths writes compellingly of landscape and place, connecting them to the forces at play with an intangible, gravitational pull.

Not that the landscape or even the plot is really the point of the book. Ostensibly, the story is of three people who witness a vision at a lake in the hills above Aberystwyth - and of the tumult of events which lead them to return for the tale's apocalyptic conclusion. But if that were all it was, Broken Ghost wouldn't be the tour de force it is. 

For the real story lies in the minds of the three central characters, each of whom exists on the edge of society: disconnected, disadvantaged, despairing almost at the prospect of the 'normality' of lives lived more like mine - and probably yours.  Emma, Adam and Cowley respectively find their release - if not redemption - through sex, drugs and violence. This is not a book for the faint-hearted. 

And its language is unforgiving too. Part written in dialect, always unremitting in its force, these are thoughts and words unfiltered by polite sobriety. Consider what follows as a trigger warning, for Griffiths would no more type an asterisk to soften the word c**t as he'd use manhood in place of prick or foursome in the stead of his vivid description of a husband wanking as his wife is willingly shagged every which way by two of his best mates. You no doubt get the gist.

And that's just the sex. Griffiths spares us no less detail of drink, drugs, violence... and their aftermath. At times I wondered if all this was deliberate - and of course, it is - in a sense gratuitously so, because holding back wouldn't be so real, wouldn't have the power,.. wouldn't be true to anyone who's been on the end of a fist, a bottle or needle.

But then, what do I know?  For this is a world away from the life I lead - a tee-total, non-smoking, monogamous abhorrer of laddish banter, let alone thuggery. Is my admiration of Griffiths' writing some sort of voyeurism, or a repressed disclaiming of a comfortable, quasi-intellectual life?  Leave aside the mountains, and a reasonable question of myself, is why do these words speak so directly to me?

And I think the answer is that they speak for all of us. Our lives - and our natures - are nearer the edge than we like to think. We navigate the network of chance and possibility by means of a tension that's as intricately constructed - and as easily broken - as a spider's web. Griffiths' characters - in their uncompromised exaggeration - are a mirror to what might have been - and perhaps in our darker moments, to what might still be.

But I sense there's more to their resonance than a fear of falling or the worry that we're one short step from brutality. Emma, Adam and Cowley may be damaged and disconnected, but in so being, they see others through a lens that magnifies the vanities, injustices and ultimately, the absurdity of our human condition. It's not so much that their perspectives amount to any greater truth, as that the clarity of their attentions is uncomfortably familiar. We don't need to be like these people to relate to their abandon, or indeed envy their elation - however temporary that may be - in living true to their natures. 

My favourite author - and the only one whose books I've read multiple times - is Jean Rhys. Her thinly fictionalised novels portray the faltering life of an 'inconvenient' mistress exiled to Paris, the slow loss of youth, the taking of comfort in drink and men... Like Griffiths, Rhys lays bare our hypocrisies and willful deceptions - in her case, writing with precise understatement rather than raging profanity.  But the parallels are there: the crossing of lines, the erosion of hope... the inevitable gravity of it all... 

To compare Broken Ghost to novels written in the Thirties may be unconventional, but I'd argue that its themes, though rooted in today's Wales, are of a seed that's more universal in time and place. Indeed, my only substantive criticism is that some of Griffiths' contemporary tropes - the references to Brexit; the abusing catholic priest - felt somewhat obvious; as if shoehorned in for the purposes of polemic. A few of the plot lines too were rather neatly convenient.

But these are minor gripes. For the true mark of a story - like the legacy of all great fiction - lies not in its unravelling, but in how it leaves the reader. In my case, as blown away as ever... Griffiths is the finest writer of fiction in Wales - and his words deserve more attention.

Monday, October 26, 2020

Dodd Wood - and the paths we follow

Derwentwater from Dodd Wood

Dodd Wood is an unassuming tump on the western flank of Skiddaw in the English Lake District. Alfred Wainright in his guide to the Lakeland Fells deemed it a whelp of its loftier neighbour but was otherwise kind in his assessment of the forestation that's turned a forgettable also-ran into something more distinct. These days it's managed by Forestry England, the bright and breezy rebrand of what for years we'd known as the Forestry Commission.

Not that there was any sparkle in the sky this morning - the rain so persistent that the higher summits were out of the question and even a trip round town would have required a level of cajoling that only another whippet owner would appreciate. But as the clouds lifted and the downpour eased, somewhere in the recesses of my mind sprang a memory of this little hill and its sheltered paths.

Dood Wood's network of trails is approached by the road that hugs the shores of Bassenthwaite Lake. Forty years ago, fresh from sitting my A-levels, I'd stayed near here for what turned out to be one of those coming of age holidays where the girls fall out and the boys are pulled twixt and tween in a way that lays bare the naivetes of youth. On our first night the group split into those who'd expected single-sex sleeping  and others keen to take advantage of the opposite. 

And so it was that the next day my girlfriend and I set off up this little hill, her crying like this morning's downpour because her friend had called her a slut and now hated her - and me as well because she'd said as much...  It was a lesson for her in the fragility of friendship, and for me in the rectitude and reproach that's a scratch from the surface of those whose greatest fear is themselves. 

And I remember thinking, as we climbed under the clouds of the day, that you can never truly know anyone else...

More than forty years later my view on that hasn't changed, and I still look for solace in remote and wild places.  Except that description isn't quite complete, for the indifference of the landscape is as much an affirmation as consolation.  Mountains - even small ones like Little Dodd - are a means of connecting to the secular truth that no matter our closeness to others - however in step they may seem - we walk our paths alone.

The route to the top is a three-mile circuit, following the green arrows of Forestry England's new designated trails.  Along the way, they've strategically felled sections to reveal views of Derwentwater and the Newlands Valley.  As we stopped for a breather, I reeled off the peaks in my mind: Causey Pike, Barrow, Cat Bells...  friends from years long past...

Whatever happened, I wondered, to Julie and Ian, Claire and Karen, the two Johns ... and poor Dave, who'd only come with us to climb yet found himself tangled in the knots and nooses of a teenage squabble?  

The summit slopes have been cleared to reveal a prospect that was hidden back then... 

What roads did they take; where are they now;  and do they ever, like me, feel the pull of coming full circle?

None of this is maudlin on my part.  I'm joyful to be back. The life paths that led me here could not have been planned but were less steep and rugged than they might have been. My youngest son strolls with me up the final climb, Jane follows close behind - we're joined by a couple with a cocker spaniel called Jarvis which make us all laugh... the sun shines a ladder through the clouds.

My girlfriend came with me on more and bigger hills that Little Dodd - we married in our early twenties and though parting five years later I don't regret the routes we took. I hope she feels the same. For we can't undo our past and to imagine as much is to deny that it leads to where we are now. The choices and judgements we make - for ourselves and of others - are one-way junctions; there's no going back - we can only come through. 

The green arrows guide us to a narrower path. Our whippet is unsure of the bracken but follows me regardless. I've no recollection of the way which momentarily troubles me, until I realise how ridiculous that notion is - it's autumn not summer, the trees are new growth - it's been forty years for goodness sake!  

As we near the car park the trail turns towards Bassenthwaite's shore. Across the lake is the mountain known as Barf; there's a white painted stone on its screes that locals call the Bishop - I've known that for forty years too and yet never ventured that way. 

Perhaps, I should see where it leads...

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

The last light of summer

Evening light.

Beneath me as I write is the sweep of the sea on the western tip of Wales. I’m sitting in the van, my whippet curled beside me, the sky paling to the thinner evening light. It’s been a bright day; the beach was busy with trippers, the campsites fuller than usual. But soon, the sun will arc to the horizon, and the last light of summer will be gone.   

My grandfather used to insist that autumn proper began with the equinox – I have his sundial still in my garden. At junior school, we marked the turning of the season with a harvest festival later in September. And I suppose horologically at least, British Summer Time will be with us till October.

But for me, the rituals that mark the transition are more secular and less scientific. The other week I put away the garden furniture and somehow knew it wouldn’t come out again. Then there’s the buying of school uniform, the ordering of an academic wall chart, the sense that September – not January - is when the year should begin. 

This summer has passed too quickly. 

My grandfather would point out that such a notion is nonsense; that the world turns at a constant speed regardless of our desires. Yet, when I saw small copper butterflies on the Coast Path today, it seemed only weeks since the first brood in spring.  And according to a birder I met, the linnets are departing, and an osprey has arrived on the Daugleddau. 

Jane says she likes the autumn and in theory, I do too: the prospect of crisp leaves under steel skies, of sloes and hips and haws, of turnip lanterns and penny for the guy…  In Northumberland, where I grew up, the season is typically dry and cold – crisp, we’d call it. Here, it brings September swells, a greyer light if warmer sea, and for me, an intangible sense of days that can never come again.

Of course, the seasons are not as rigid as our calendars or meteorologists would have them. Nor would nature regard autumn as either beginning or end. The last light of summer is no more than a poetic metaphor, resonant to a darkening sky and the lamentations of a writer no longer in the flush of his youth.

My friend, the author Jim Perrin, described the west as the landscape of loss; as where the light dies. He was drawn to the Atlantic coast in unspeakable grief at the deaths of his son and wife. As a child, my school overlooked an eastern sea; a pink sky in the morning was a fisherman’s warning, we were told. Here, all is reversed.

So as I sit and watch the clouds redden over Ramsey, I’m mindful that fair weather will follow. That the troubles of this year, its fears and fall outs, its sunshine and showers… as they say, this too will pass. I hope so, and not before long.

For in truth, I have loathed the lockdown, and all that came with it: the shrinking of our lives, the sub-surface tensions, the fibs we tell each other and ourselves to hold it all in check. If ever a summer was craved, it was this one, and yet at times, I would gladly have slept through it all. That’s somewhat dark, but it’s also truth to power of how I’ve felt and in so being, a little lighter to bear.

Tomorrow my youngest son returns to school. The world will no doubt spin as always, and the geese and fieldfares will follow it in their turn. I have builders at my house, a new study to construct. Somewhere, if I can find them, a book or two to write.

In Welsh, the word cynheaf means both autumn and harvest. That we reap what we sow has been an aphoristic earworm to my year. I worry that our pickings will be thin, that in focusing our minds, we’ve narrowed our perspectives; in our terror of the dark, we've ironically dimmed the light. 

It’s cold now. The sea is nearing and the glow from the laptop is all that remains. I should move on. My little whippet is restless, unnerved by our evening sojourn in the van. He too misses the warmth of the sun.

The last light of summer?

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Objects of life #5 - Butterfly Bush

Buddleja Davidii
Buddleja Davidii, today in my garden

The butterfly bush in my garden is the latest in a lineage of sorts. Specifically, it's a Buddleja Davidii which originates in Central China but is named after the French naturalist and missionary, Armand David.  Like many of our garden shrubs that are technically non-native, it's found a genial and generally welcome home in the UK, often thriving in a feral fashion, like it does on the disused railway line not far from here.

As the common name suggests it was my interest in entomology that first made me aware of the Buddleja. Certainly, it's the only shrub I could have named as a youngster - and taken you to every garden which had one in the crescents and avenues that were the heft of my childhood wanderings. The largest, on Burnside Road, had white flowers which caught the afternoon sun and where, one July after school, I first saw a Painted Lady. Its sighting is marked in a copy of the Observers Book of Butterflies that I still keep by my desk. Only last week I saw a Marbled White and made a similar pencilled note in the margin. 

Almost every house I've lived in since has had a Buddleja. The one in my current garden came from a cutting given to me by my mother - it was meant for our place in France but try as I might they won't take there. So I planted it here in the worst of soils and in three years it's grown above head height. My last home had one so big it was effectively a tree - in many ways, it was why I bought the place -  and yet as events turned out, our time there coincided with some of the wettest summers on record so the list of species it attracted is more paltry than I'd hoped.

In the Alps, the unkempt bushes on the verges and riversides are festooned with species that would have made my teenage eyes alight: fritillaries, gliders, graylings, even swallowtails and the occasional Purple Emperor are all regular sightings. Back in Wales, the list may be less extensive but I'm equally delighted with a Peacock or a Tortoiseshell - each as beautiful as any species I've seen in fifty years of looking.

My latest bush came into bloom this week and yesterday our new puppy was sniffing and sneezing at its flowers. Which reminded me that the fragrance is not for our pleasure, but has a different and more practical purpose. Look closely at a Buddleja on a sultry evening - or even better with a torch after dark - and you'll be inducted into the fabulous and fascinating world of moths. Unlike butterflies, which have only 57 UK species, there are more than 2.500 of their nocturnal cousins. If common naming were more democratic - and lyrical - the Buddleja should really be l'arbuste de papillons de nuit, as they'd say across the channel.

Years ago, when our elder boys were small we hired a chalet near Annecy for the summer.  The patio terrace had a Buddleja to its side and every evening around seven the hummingbird hawk moths would hover over the flower heads, dipping their long probosci into the nectar.  We'd eat our dinner to the hum of their wing beats, Daniel marvelling at the speed and dexterity of their flight.  Later, as the sun dipped, the other moths would arrive to feed in numbers too great to count or label.

I learned recently that the species name 'Buddleja' was bestowed in honour of the Reverend Adam Buddle, another cleric and naturalist - like Armand David -  who compiled a complete English Flora early in the eighteenth century. It's ironic that the Buddleja Davidii would not have been on his list. And yet, in its binomial naming, there's a connection between the UK and France which I like to think in some small imaginative way my attention to these commonplace shrubs pays homage to still. 

The bush in my garden will flower for perhaps a month, longer if I dead-head the stems. A friend who knows about these things tells me the blossom would be bigger if I pruned it next spring, but I doubt I shall. For I'd prefer to let its branches spread, and like me, in the years since I stood in the shade of those white blooms on Burnside Road, find their own ways to the sun.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Guidebooks - a source of inspiration and memory

Just one of my shelves of guides
I suppose I’d always been a walker. But aged eighteen and barely a year into the assorted pleasures of university life, tramping the hills wasn’t exactly at the top of my ‘to do’ list.  At least that was the case until I bought a small paperback, which – no exaggeration here – changed the course of my life.

The book was The Backpacker’s Handbook by Derrick Booth, part of the Letts series that were popular in the Seventies and Eighties. More of a ‘how-to’ manual than a route guide, it had chapters covering the kit to buy, the craft of camping; even instructions on how to fashion a homemade tent!  Booth’s mantra was to keep weight to the minimum and time on the trail to the max.

But the Backpacker’s Handbook was more than mere instructions. Apart from anything else, it was beautifully written - Booth's prose resonant with the notion that the simple act of walking might contain within it, possibilities that are more profound.  Here are its opening lines:

Time was when the world was limitless. Time was when the human race moved around - if at all - on its two feet. Time was when man didn't crave freedom to wander but took it for granted...

Forty years since I first read those words, they evoke a yearning that feels as urgent today as it was for a young man uncertain of his place in the world.

Shortly after buying the book, I quit my holiday job and walked the Pennine Way. Later that summer I completed Wainwright’s Coast to Coast, tramped from Tynemouth to Berwick along the beaches of Northumberland and ticked off the major peaks of Lakeland and the Dales. In part, I did this because for family reasons I had nowhere else to go, but also, as I walked, I discovered that those deeper possibilities were real and nourishing - and that I wanted more.

If I look back on the walks and journey’s I’ve since completed, it’s interesting how many were motivated by guidebooks of one kind or another.  My shelves are crammed with volumes that range from the Munros of Scotland to Trekking in Nepal. Last year, I must have bought half a dozen more, including guides to the Haute Savoie, The Cambrian Way and a walk that’s been far too long on my tick list, The Reivers Way in Northumberland. 

Magazines and journals are formative too. It was an article by the late Richard Gilbert in the first-ever edition of High (no longer published) which encouraged me go hut hopping in Austria. In a sense, I owe to him my passion for mountain refuges and all the joy that a lifetime of alpine walking has brought me. Still today, titles such as The Great Outdoors and Trail are packed with articles that provide us with facts and information, but most importantly, inspiration!  For it is this imaginative desire that unlocks the multitude of possibilities from which we are so privileged to choose.

I’m often asked by those who are interested in walking more seriously for advice on this or that route to take. In France, where I spend much of the year, I’m invariably quizzed on the mountain huts; in Pembrokeshire, it’s usually how to make a loop from a trip on the coast path!  I’ve still not figured that last one out very well, though actually, there are guides which address precisely this challenge. Perhaps that’s another reason why I have so many – because they tap into knowledge and experience that’s invariably deeper than my own could ever be. Not every guide is as beautifully written as Derrick Booth’s, but almost all are infused with a love and care for the landscape they are recording.

And it seems to me that it’s this intangible experience of being ‘in and among’ the landscape that’s the real delight of walking. The views from Snowdon’s summit might be spectacular and I suppose there’s a satisfaction of sorts in counting steps or calories burned.  But I’d suggest it’s seldom the highlights alone – and certainly not the data - that we remember most and which compels us to keep on shouldering our sacks.

I have a friend who told me she cried when her boots wore out recently. They’d been with her, she said, at all the best moments of her life aside from the birth of her children. I don’t have that sentimentality for footwear, but somewhere in my garage I still have the rucksack that I bought the same afternoon as the Backpacker’s Handbook. To throw it away, although it is now well past practical use, would feel like discarding part of my past.

My guidebook collection is not dissimilar. The most treasured copies are embellished with notes, their pages stained with water and earth; covers that creak on opening. I have one –Cicerone’s Trekking in the Stubai Alps – that’s been cut into halves to reduce weight on the trail. In researching this piece, I opened my original copy of the Coast to Coast and a little fine sand fell from its spine to my hands.

To walk is to gather memories that make us immeasurably richer. The guides in my study are keys to that store of recall and possibility. I’m grateful to them, just as I am to family and friendships and all the joys which make for the palimpsest of our lives.  Perhaps I should order them chronologically – a sort of personal history told through the landscapes I’ve trod.  From Pennine Way to who knows where… there’s room on my shelves for more.

This post was first published as a feature article in Cicerone Extra 

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Coronavirus - Wales and the five mile rule

Social distancing this week above Pontypool

Today I was quoted in a piece by Jude Rogers in the Guardian looking at the different approaches of Wales and England to the Coronavirus crisis.  The impact of devolution has been greater than most of us expected and is perhaps the subject of another post, but for now, I want to expand on my concerns over continued 'stay local' message in Wales, its impact on health, wellbeing and our civil liberties.

The rule and its impact.

Unlike in England, the Welsh Assembly Government has allowed only limited relaxation of the restriction on travel for non-essential purposes.  As a consequence, after thirteen weeks of lockdown and some of the lowest rates of infection in the UK, the people of Wales are still required to limit any travel to a radius of five miles from home. The so-called five-mile rule has been widely criticised by many in rural communities and indeed some informal concession has been made along the lines of  'use common sense', but despite increasingly urgent pleas from the tourist industry the Welsh Assembly Government remains stubbornly resistant to changing its 'stay local' message.

The impact of the rule is far reaching - not only does it discriminate against those who have relatives outside their immediate community, it continues to minimise access to the countryside despite all the evidence that the outdoors is the safest environment for us all.  Aside from the detriments to our health and wellbeing, it is also an immense restriction on our civil liberties. That policymakers seem increasingly oblivious or unconcerned about this speaks loudly - and worryingly so - of the extent to which we and our freedoms are being psychologically manipulated by this crisis.

Why the rule is absurd

It is quite clear that travel does not transmit the virus, nor does it magically increase in strength the further we get from home.  Staying local, in and of itself, does not reduce transmission - if anything quite the opposite.  That is why we have food delivered safely to our stores and yet suffered an epidemic in care homes. What matters is not the distance we travel but our behaviour when we arrive - it is staying APART which keeps us safe, and any rule should ultimately be a means to this end.

Currently, however, we have the situation where the 330,000 residents of Cardiff are free - and supposedly safe - to socially distance in their virtual cage, but a family there cannot travel to the empty hills above Pontypridd for a walk in the fresh air.  Yesterday a friend of mine wrote to moan that over the last 13 weeks he had walked every combination of the five-mile radius from his house in Newport - the canal he complained was rammed even in the early morning and the few parks nearby were the same. And yet by driving ten miles up the valley he - and his neighbours - could walk that same canal in much greater safety - or perhaps visit Wentwood forest which opened its car parks yesterday but under the rules is only accessible to a tiny number of people.

This is not only absurd and damaging to our mental health and wellbeing, it is also an opportunity missed in promoting the countryside of Wales as a resource for safe recreation. As we open up non-essential retail where do we think is the safest for a family to spend their leisure - St David's Centre or St David's Head; Roath Park or the Rhinogs - at Cardiff Ikea or Cadair Idris?  The answer is plain as a pikestaff.

So why does the government persist?

The Welsh government's refusal to explain its reasoning in scientific terms is telling -  the reality must, therefore, be that the rule is a proxy for managing other concerns. Here we get into the shady world of politics and its inevitable withholds, but my own conclusion is that the real reasons for maintaining the stay local message are threefold.

The first is a fear of what we might call geo-spread - the notion that visitors to the countryside will somehow bring the virus to rural areas and that local facilities would be overrun.  These fears have been exacerbated by a widely publicised letter earlier in the crisis from doctors, the whole public hysteria over the NHS and some sensationalist press reporting of gatherings at hot spots in England - frankly, the good weather hasn't helped. The logic for this fear diminishes daily and yet the concern persists with ever more desperate attempts by some communities to justify why it's not safe to come here quite yet.

This plays to the second concern - a political fear of those few loud voices in rural communities who take a fortress view to the crisis, regarding city folk as an invading plague who cannot be trusted to socially distance - as if this virus and the higher infection rates in urban areas were somehow their fault!  The recently introduced concept of 'community consent' is effectively a stealth addition to the tests set for the easing of lockdown and is clearly not relevant to the science - nor is it a justifiable reason for restricting our civil liberties, but that's for another time too.

And lastly - the really big unspoken - there is a fear of people coming in from England. Ultimately, I believe the 5-mile rule is now primarily a proxy for closing the border! I say this because we can't seriously be so concerned about the level of infection in Wales alone or indeed the adequacy of our preparations for a second wave - if so, we really do have a warped view of the importance of our freedoms and the needs of our economy.

How should we go forward?

Ideally, the government should remove the five-mile rule immediately. More realistically they should prepare for its removal at the end of the next three week review period.  In parallel, we should take two further actions.

First - despite my view that the attitudes of some in the 'stay away' lobby are somewhat shabby and ungenerous, there is clearly work to be done in reassuring local communities that a return to free movement is not to be feared.  The government should help in the provision of Covid -Secure facilities and work to promote best practice guidelines for those who would visit the countryside.  There has been much good work in areas such as the Lake District and we should take the lessons from this and apply them to Wales.

Second - there is a massive opportunity to launch a 'Get Outdoors' campaign that would have long term benefits for health, wellbeing and the tourist economy of Wales.  Rather than restricting people to their urban environments, we should promote our vast natural resources as among the safest environments to spend leisure time.  Our national parks should open as soon as possible and we should encourage people to visit less known areas rather than the traditional hot spots. This isn't about satisfying mountaineers and kayakers like me, it's about encouraging families and people of limited outdoor experience to see the opportunities and benefits of their own countryside - it's about pride and thanksgiving for the resources we have on our doorsteps and actively sharing those as widely as possible.


We all of us have concerns and fears in relation to this crisis - and each of us will stack and collate those in different order.  I actually have much sympathy for the difficulties politicians and advisors face - this is not easy and it's important that we try to be objective rather than simply pursuing our own interests.

But when it is clear to any intelligent person that the rules are not logical; when we have a tourist industry that is screaming to be heard - and when we have such a divide between England and Wales that it undermines our sense of nationhood - then we must think again.  And although throughout this piece I have been relatively light on the impact to our freedoms and human rights, I  suggest we should not regard their curtailment so lightly or be so trusting that they will return anytime soon  - at the very least they deserve more explanation than slogans which do not stand scrutiny.

I would like to acknowledge the influence of Nick Kemp and his excellent website Parkswatch Scotland in my forming these views - in particular, the Stay Apart slogan came from his suggestions and I would encourage those interested in these issues to follow his blog - in most part it is easy to substitute the word Scotland for Wales as the issues are much the same.