Monday, March 30, 2009

You’ll come to love both.

The bothy at Moel Prysgau

I remember the first time I drove through Abergwesyn Pass. It was spring and I was living in Cardiff, questioning my decision to move to Wales after a cold grey winter. I wasn't happy in the city, but didn't feel at home in the hills either. Much of South Wales seemed grim; even the Brecon Beacons lacked the stillness I had come to love in my home county of Northumberland. I must have mentioned something of the sort in the office.

Rodger was having none of it. 'I tell you, Wales is the most beautiful and the most ugly country in the world – and you'll come to love both.' Rodger lived above Merthyr, a proper Valleys boy who'd been a coach driver for years and now worked for the local newspaper, though he missed his time on the road. His great delight was to visit customers in Carmarthen or Cardigan – very important area for us but – indeed, he insisted on 'going west' at least once a week.

 'You come with me to make some calls,' he insisted, 'then you'll see.'

We drove the mountain road from Rhayader to Aberystwyth, stopped for quick coffee with a newsagent in town, then – work completed for the day - headed south to Aberaeron. Rodger was on a mission; he drove me to Lampeter, to Dolaucothi, to the wonderful village of Caio (still my favourite place in Wales) and then, by yet another double back, to Tregaron and the road to Llanwrtyd. 'Now is this a mess, or what?' he asked as we drove through an area of young forestry. I murmured agreement, though in truth I took little notice, being somewhat car sick by that point. 'Just you wait,' he said. 'The best pass in Wales is over this hill.'

The Abergwesyn pass is a near perfect glacial valley, cutting deep into the hills from the hamlet of Abergwesyn towards the Llyn Brianne dam and the Mid Wales forests. I was there again this morning; driving through the ancient deciduous trees at the start of the gorge. There was ice on the road, the northern slopes still in shadow by mid morning; on the southern side the bracken was drying in the sun; two ravens were harrying a buzzard. It is twenty years since Rodger took me here, I have driven and cycled this road dozens of times since, and still it takes my breath.

Abergwesyn is owned by the National Trust, consequently it has been saved from the vandalism wrought on the hills beyond. At the head of the pass is a steep road where the forestry begins – appropriately, it is known as the Devil's Staircase. From here westward, swathes of fir trees cloak the hills, the only respite to the monotony being the fell-clearance areas and the Dolgoch hostel, nestling in an oasis of bog that was presumably too awkward to plant. A huge area of land between here and Tregaron has been spoiled – some would say ruined – for what I suspect was little more than politics and the quasi- economics of the forestry commission; but what do I know? 

What I do know, is that the fir trees are every bit as ugly and despoiling as the industrial detritus that litters the Rhondda. And this is only one small area of the Mid Wales forests. Huge areas of the Cambrian Mountains have suffered the same fate, and sadly I suspect it will be repeated – though today it is wind farms more than trees that the politicians want. What was it Rodger said about Wales being the most ugly country…?

And yet I still love this area. Today, I walked to the bothy at Moel Prysgau. It is miles from any tarmac, approached by the old drove road to Strata Florida. The path is stubbornly defiant; it hugs the river, sometimes this side, sometimes that - time and again you have to wade through to stay with it. In a sense it is the reverse of walking the hills of the South Wales Valleys – here the dereliction is above you, not below. 

A few miles in and the trees take over, the paths become forest roads, complete with junctions and rights of way; the views become sporadic. Yet there is remoteness here, a stillness that saves the landscape despite our worst efforts. My son Daniel was with me today, but we walked much of the way without talking. Towards the end of the walk we came to a small boggy pool in a clearing, two geese floated serenely on the water, untroubled by our watching. 'Do you want to chat? I asked.

'I'm good,' he replied. 'It's the silence that I like the most.'

Mid Wales - an object lesson in how to ruin a landscape?

Friday, March 27, 2009

Pause for thought

'...the torrid despoilation that is the Mid Wales wind farms.'

The philosopher Mark Vernon draws attention on his website to a speech made by the Archbishop of Canterbury. The speech, which focused on climate change, argued the need for a new kind of intelligence; an intelligence that can save us from our worst excesses.

It was interesting that the speech should come from the Archbishop, as only this week I'd been musing on how the green movement increasingly resembles a religion. My thoughts were prompted by an email from a friend, alerting me to a group of young people who are planning to tour the country on bikes, spreading the environmental message. As I looked at their web site I felt increasingly uneasy but wasn't sure why: here were a group of committed people, talking about an issue they felt was important – what's wrong with that? Nothing - except it all seemed so horribly evangelical. They reminded me of a Church Youth movement; spreading the Word, all happy-clappy and inclusive – providing you don't question their particular green gospel.

Much of the green movement seems to me to be quasi-religious. Its mission provides a meaning and purpose in life (what greater goal than to save the world); it has its high priests (Lovelock, Kumar) and its demons (Bush, Enron); it preaches an apocalyptic vision, the need to redeem our sins and be born again… I could go on, but the point is made and analogies only take us so far.

Thinking about this I understood the reason I had felt so uneasy. Religions are notorious for quashing debate (except on their terms); for valuing faith above reason; for embracing supporting evidence but rejecting that which counters. In short, religions are bad at science, bad at tolerance and bad at analysis. They are good at lots of things too (wars, censorship, repression) which gives a certain irony to the Archbishop's notion that we need saving from our intelligent excesses.

It seems relevant that I started this post with reference to a philosopher. For in all the discussion on climate change, my feeling is that there is very little which is grounded in good clear philosophy. We know what is happening to our climate and we are bombarded with solutions and calls to action. But we hear less about why we should care – about why our current environment is so special that we should be compelled to save it, now? If I climb to the top of Carn Lladron, a mountain near my house, I am standing on rocks that were once a sea cliff – why is it that we have to save it as it is? These questions are deliberately na├»ve, and there are obvious answers to many of them – such as the moral imperative to avoid the human suffering that unfettered climate change would bring – but that doesn't mean we shouldn't ask them, for it is often in the fundamentals that we find the principles to guide us elsewhere.

It is tempting to leave these questions hanging, for committing an idea to writing leaves us vulnerable to criticism. In that respect I applaud the Archbishop despite thinking that most of what he says is bunkum. For my part, I believe we should strive for an environment that maximises human flourishing – sure, that means carbon reduction on a big scale, but it also means protecting those wild landscapes that nurture our sense of wellbeing. And if we had followed that as principle we might have thought twice about the torrid despoliation that is the Mid Wales wind farms – I hope the evangelical youths ride past them on their pilgrimage; it might give them pause for thought.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Thin March sunlight.

A snatched weekend in Pembrokeshire; the thin March sunlight offering a hint of summer.

Horses taking to the sea at Nolton remind me of Sara and her comments on piloting sports. They don't look much like wild beasts; I suspect they do this journey most days - plodding from the stables with what we refer to as Boden types on board.  ( I used that expression when talking to some friends the other day and they knew exactly what I meant - curious how we label people. I supect we are just as easily classified - second homer's; incomers - to many people who live here permanently.)

Sunday, at Newport the horses and riders were galloping and jumping the sea-washed tree trunks on the open sands.  A cattle egret on the estuary was looking lonely.  When I told my neighbour where we had been he said, 'sounds nice, we've never been there.' 

I notice the rooks have started nesting in the tall trees at Lower Vanley.  They work in groups of about a dozen, crawing all day but especially in the evening.  It seems they no longer gather for the evening roost at Llanrhian. The first wheaters of spring have arrived.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Blogging at its best

The Parrog - well known birding site, Pembrokeshire

Blogs come in many forms, and there's an ever increasing array of features and gizmos for those who care to use them. But sometimes, the simplest ideas are the best.

One of my favourite blogs is Pembroke Birds; as its title suggests, it's dedicated to bird watching in Pembrokeshire. The content is as plain as its description; there are no fancy videos, few photographs and little in the way of obvious editorial intervention. I'm not even particularly keen on birding, other than watching the crow and starling roosts near my house in Wales - and yet I look at this blog every day.

The idea is simple: birders from around the county post their sightings on a daily basis. Yesterday, there were reports of a barnacle goose, marsh harriers, common sandpipers, guillemot, redstart, chough and ssshhhh… dartford warblers. And earlier this week, amongst dozens of other sightings: a rare cattle egret, a merlin, some goshawks, short eared owls, woodpeckers and the first wheatears of spring.

I've learned too that Richard D. has been birding on the north coast, Greg and Lisa have visited Ramsey, Lydon cancelled the field trip, Richard C. has been to Angle and my favourite regular allthingsgood,cliff had a fine afternoon photographing snow buntings. I couldn't put a face to any of these names though I must have met a few – walking on the coast path, carrying my binoculars, I'm regularly greeted by the question: 'Anything on the web site today?' No need to ask which site they mean.

There are regular locations for reports – The Gann, Marloes Mere, Tefeiddan Common, Sandy Haven Pill. I find myself wondering (and worrying) about what's happening at each, what birds have been spotted and who's been out looking. Checking in each day, I'm reassured and feel included even though I'm often hundreds of miles away – a sort of 'twitter' for twitchers perhaps.

Gradually, a picture emerges of a group of people who are passionate about where they live, about its landscape and the wildlife it cradles. There's a community spirit to the blog – even the odd frisson (as happened recently when there appeared to be a wilful delay in the reporting of an extremely rare falcon) –though more often it's good natured banter.

I like people who have passions, who take a deep interest in an aspect of life, no matter how irrelevant it may seem to others. And I like the way the Pembrokeshire birders use their blog, building a collective knowledge and sharing it, generously, with others. That seems to me to be blogging at its best.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Never too old

My friend (and blog follower) Sara writes in her erudite blog that we are never too old to regain lost skills. She says there is a mindset that believes we peak early, especially at physical skills, and that this mindset is rubbish! I feel like I want to disagree, but that's probably because I'm a bit of a pedant, or maybe more truthfully, because I'm nursing a torn hamstring after taking up running again. However, her central point – that there is no reason why age should deny sporting excellence – is well made, and in my case, a timely reminder as I ponder what next.

It's significant, I think, that Sara's return was to horse riding – a perfect example of what I call a piloting sport. Piloting sports can involve considerable skill and physical fitness but providing the 'motor power' is not the job of the participant – so motor racing is a piloting sport, so is sailing, show jumping, etc. These seem to me to offer greater possibility as 'sports for life' with the opportunity to continue performing at a high standard as we get older – certainly, more so than say, rugby, gymnastics or basketball. 

My grandfather took up sailing in his fifties and gliding soon after. He used to say, somewhat disingenuously, that anyone could take up these sports, no matter how decrepit they were; perhaps so, but in his case he won many trophies against younger crews and stayed active in both sports until he died aged eighty four.

Sports of skill and accuracy regularly provide champions with no respect for age. Snooker has long list of older greats – think, Ray Reardon and Joe Davies – as has bowls, darts and even golf (though less so). When I was marginally involved in sports funding for Wales it used to make me smile that the Welsh Quoits Association was given a grant each year, but hey, why not?

Outdoor pursuits have similar possibilities, particularly where experience is as important for your chances of success as physical prowess. Many mountaineers reach their peak (ha) as they get a little older; Doug Scott, Kurt Diemberger, Reinhold Messner, Don Whillans and legions of others. Closer to home, my friend and one time coach, Stuart Woodward, was kayaking some of the world's largest rivers in his forties and continues to do so fifteen years later.

Indeed, where endurance is concerned there is evidence that being older is an advantage. Marathon runners tend to peak in their early thirties and ultra distance runners even later. Mike Cudahy, the first man to run the Pennine Way in under three days – an astonishing feat when you think about it – did so, aged forty five. His physical and mental preparation is described in his excellent book, Wild Trails to Far Horizons and it's an inspiration for anyone returning to run. Similarly, Joss Naylor the infamous fell runner was setting records well into his fifties that would stand for decades.

And what of cycling? The fact is, the very best cyclists are relatively young, and at the elite level I don't think that Sara's hypothesis is true – Anno Domini takes its toll on power and heart rate, no matter how many hours we put in. But one of the wonderful characteristics of cycling is the way it attracts and retains its enthusiasts for life. They say you never forget how to ride a bike, and that's amply demonstrated in my club where we have active members ranging from eight to eighty. One old boy, who looks at times like he's about to keel over, regularly tells me about the latest 200 kilometre ride he's just completed.

As for me, yes I'm still nursing the hamstring after it pinged in my sixth week of running following a seven year layoff. But that aside, Sara is right, it's surprising how the old skills come back and how rewarding it feels too. I no longer think of personal bests, at least not in terms of minutes per mile – but there's still much I'd like to do: such as running those few sections of the Pembroke Coast that I've yet to complete. And perhaps the long ridge above Llantony, the one that bounds the Golden Valley and ends at Gospel Pass – I picture myself running there at dawn, the path dropping towards Hay Bluff, mist thinning as the sun rises... An excellence of sorts.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Wiltshire Sundays

Today, spring arrived in Wiltshire; a milky blue sky, crocuses in bloom and a woodpecker scuttling up the tree outside our house.

Where should we go, I asked; it's forecast for eighteen degrees?

'Let's not go far,' said Jane, and my heart sank.

For the problem with North Wiltshire is, dare I say it, there just isn't that much to do. There aren't any beaches, there are no mountains to speak of and open countryside is hard to find – what little there is tends to be over used and managed to the point that it loses any sense of nature (follow the blue dots or, for a more challenging walk, the red ones). I suppose it's pleasant enough dawdling through the lanes and stopping at ye-olde-tea-shoppes, but on a day like today you know the roads will be full of Sunday-drivers, hooting at each other in the tight lane by the garden centre. In any case, we need to walk the dog.

We went through the usual options: so and so woods (too busy); so and so gardens (too far); so and so country park (too tame); we could always go to the Cotswolds (oh God, please no). It's ironic that for someone who'd put landscape at the very top of his priorities, I live in an area which I dislike. 

That's a bit harsh, I don't actively dislike it here; I just think it's all second rate, and days like today rub it in. If we'd been in Wales, I could have reeled off a dozen options, and whichever we'd chosen I'd be scurrying about to get everyone ready, not wanting to miss the best of the morning. As it was we were still undecided after a leisurely breakfast.

We filled our day in the end. I took the boys to the climbing wall; we visited a National Trust garden billed as Wiltshire's best kept secret (proves my point) and I went for a run through Corsham Court Estate as the sun started to dip. All pleasant enough, and no doubt a delight to many – but I can't help feeling unfulfilled. 

The truth is, I've lived here thirteen years and yet I can only think of two or three places that truly lift my spirit. Perhaps I should look harder – or differently – perhaps I should stop searching for what is never going to be and appreciate Wiltshire for what it is? Maybe then I'll have more enthusiasm; maybe then I'd be scurrying around as soon as the dawn chorus woke me.

On the other hand, if we went to Wales next weekend... we could climb Carn Lleiddi, or walk the cliffs at Ceibwr, or kayak to Ramsey, or look for dolphins at Strumble, or build a beach fire at Abermawr, or watch the sun set over Presseli…

Home, as they say, is where the heart is.

Thursday, March 12, 2009


Thirty years ago I walked the Pennine Way. In truth I only walked some of it; I cheated on the harder bits and skipped most of the dull parts completely. It didn't matter at the time but it rankles now, so I've decided to walk it again, this time in sections. I don't care about the order I do it in; I just want to complete the route - to fill in the gaps.

Perhaps also, I want to show my boys that I'm still capable– that there's more to Dad than the figure of fun you gradually become as they get taller and you get fatter. Look – Dad's trying to climb the cliff! I know that I want them to remember me as a strong man. That's a male thing perhaps, a middle aged one too I suspect – but a powerful feeling just the same.

It's curious how one day you swell with pride as they unexpectedly keep pace while you're running or walking or cycling – whatever – then before you know it, they've overtaken without so much as a backward glance and you're relegated to holding their bags and cheering from the sidelines. Go for it boys - don't look back! 

The other week I was saying to Jane that I've been lucky enough – and I guess strong enough – to do some marvellous things: climbed mountains that most would never set foot on; kayaked rivers that even fewer would have the courage or skill to master. In fact when I think about it, I've ran and cycled and swam and walked and painted and written and camped and travelled… So isn't it my boys' turn now? Shouldn't I be content to wallow in the vicarious pleasure of parenthood?

I was pondering this as we started over Kinder; as Daniel skipped up Jacobs Ladder, my entreaties lost in the wind as I watched him bouldering on the rocks that litter the summit. When I caught up I was sweating from the effort. He was about to lope off across the newly laid slabs that cut a path across the moor.  I tried to tell him how it wasn't this simple when I was last here. 'You used to sink to your knees in the peat.' Yeah, yeah… Watch out, you keep tripping up on the gaps.

At the Downfall on Kinder Edge, Daniel wants a drink. I take the water bottle from our rucksack and he drops it in the stream. Jumping to retrieve it, he soaks his boots and loses his glove in the collection pool. He looks forlorn and asks me to fish it out. Later, as we walk over the miles of slabs on Featherbed Moss, I notice that he keeps falling behind – more through boredom than fatigue. And yet I press ahead. I want to reach the road, to cover the ground; as if to set something right.