Sunday, August 23, 2009

Full circle.

The Joux Plan is over the hils on the right

Yesterday I cycled the Col de Joux Plan. The road climbs from Morzine, past the chalets and farms on the lower slopes of the Pic de Nyon, before hairpining through dense pine forests to the summit at 1800 meters. The Col is a regular on the Tour de France, classified as haute category; we once stood on its slopes for six hours to watch Lance Armstrong cruise past us in seconds.

I last rode the Col with Michael, my middle son and a precociously talented cyclist. I remember advising him on his climbing technique, reminding him to save his energy, to drink and to eat regularly. He paid little regard, and as the road steepened, he gradually pulled away. All my experience counted for nothing against this slim boy, cruising each harpin with effortless grace. By the time I reached the top he'd been resting for fifteen minutes.

I took a photo of him by the summit plaque before we began the descent (I have a copy on my office wall). 'Be careful,' I warned him, 'and don't go too far ahead.' He didn't want to listen; he was sick of me telling him how to ride, he said - he wanted to do it his way.

And I remember, as I watched his blue jersey streak ahead, being suddenly overwhelmed with fear. Not of him crashing - he was too good a rider to worry about that - but of losing him. Quite to what I was losing him, I didn't know. But I was desperate to catch him; descending as fast as I dared, each turn more reckless than the next - and all the while the wind drying my eyes. 'Not yet,' I kept telling myself, 'Not quite yet...'

That was three years ago. Michael raced over forty times that summer and only once came second; by the end of the season he topped the national rankings. Cycling was a huge part of our lives then, but from that day onward he increasingly rode on his own terms. He's more relaxed now, and interested in other things besides bikes, (a good thing too) but he remains a wonderful rider.

Climbing the Col yesterday we rode our mountain bikes; big lumbering things, not suited for taking hairpins with effortless grace. I am fitter too and could stay with him longer; he grumbled about the heat, which made me smile. But by the second half of the climb he had pulled away. Groups of tanned riders passed me with ease, but I watched them stamping on their pedals to catch the young boy up the road. For despite his talent, and the three summers since we rode here, he is still a young boy in body and at heart.

I reached the summit only five minutes behind - progress of sorts. No photos this time; he dropped over the lip and within seconds was two hairpins ahead. No risk taking too; I'd go down at my own pace.

He was waiting for me at the half-way chalet. I snatched at my brakes and almost skidded off the road. 'Are you all right?' he asked, passing me a water bottle and a handful of Haribo.

'I'm fine,' I replied. 'Just doing it my way.'

'That's cool,' he said. 'For a moment, I was worried I'd lost you.'

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Off to France

Sawn tree. M Charlton circa 2004

Tomorrow, I'm off to France for ten days, so you won't hear from me for a while.

I've been neglecting the blog for the last week or so. Pressure of work I'm afraid, though fellow blogger Sara, has been a star (she helps me through her company, Watershed PR) She also remembered my birthday - so thank you for the book Sara.

I'll not tell you about the present Jane bought me because it will spoil a good blog post, and as it doesn't arrive till I return, I can't photograph it yet - but boy, was I pleased.

In the meantime, here's some old paintings I rediscovered the other week.

Detail of 'Don't touch the window' M Charlton 2002

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Run for home

Dan jumping at Lacock

'Are we going home today,' the boys asked?
'No, we're going to Chippenham.'
They gave me that look which says, 'Duh!'
'All right, we're going home.'

Regulars to this blog will know that I split my time between Pembrokeshire and Wiltshire; the former feels like home, the other is the place I work. My two older boys see it differently; Wales is where we go for weekends and holidays. And this year they want to 'see more of their friends', so instead of spending all summer at the coast we've come back to middle England.

I know this marks a bigger change; that they are growing up and wanting more independence from their parents. I know too that we are lucky; they like being with us, and we seldom have those teenage rows and sulks you hear so much about. But understandably they don't want to spend ALL their time with Mum and Dad. So unless we're going to impose our choices on them, I expect the next few years will see us more 'back here' than 'over there'.

Part of the problem is of my own making: I have such affinity to Wales that I make less effort in Wiltshire. I've lived here for fourteen years and yet I barely know anyone I'd call a close friend (there are a few exceptions who ironically I knew before I came here). When we first moved in we had wonderful neighbours, but they have moved on and today I couldn't tell you the the name of anyone in my street.

And it's not just the people I don't make the effort with. I've written regularly on this blog about my journeys in Wales but never about the places I know near Chippenham; Bath, Lacock, Castle Combe, Malmesbury, the Ridgeway. These places may never feel like home, but I should at least be open to their merits and prepared to share my responses to them.

Driving home today I resolved to be more positive about Wiltshire. It is true that I came to Wiltshire for work, but there is no need to treat it like a transit camp. In a few years, I can move back to Wales (five and counting) but in the meantime I can either sulk like a teenager or get on with life and start enjoying it here. For God's sake, there are thousands of people who'd love to be in my position...

There's the cycle club for a start - one of the best in the country - when was it I last went on a club run? And talking of runs, I've been meaning to join Corsham Running Club. Then there's the get together for old friends in September; perhaps I should invite some people from Chippenahm too. You see Mark, there are lots of options if only I'd apply myself...

This evening I went running near Corsham. My route took me through the lanes to the hamlet of Easton, passing the most perfect cottage, whose garden would grace the cover of Country Living. The farm next door was a delicate balance of decay and elegance, its Cotswold stone mellowed by the last light of the day. I liked the smell of the cows and the cackling of the rooks in the trees; the enormous box bushes at the house by the bend. As I rounded the corner a hot air balloon, resplendent with snowman logos, appeared above the hedgerows.

My return took me through Corsham Court - two miles of open fields with an avenue of sycamores that must have been planted way back; there's a lake which is home to a flock of geese and a huge lime tree that I'm sure must host a colony of hairstreak butterflies.

This isn't a new route. I run it regularly and always enjoy it; I just don't allow myself to say so. Tonight, as I ran the last mile to the car, each stride seemed easier and longer than the last. It was good to be here; I was flying, and I found myself humming the old Lindisfarne number:

Run for home, run as fast, as I can
Oh-oh running man, running for home.
Run for home, run as fast, as I can...

This in itself is a small irony, as my real true home is Northumberland - but that feels a very long time ago.

Saturday, August 8, 2009


The Gwaun Valley tends to be overlooked by tourists: there are no obvious attractions, the access is difficult and the villages are, frankly, dour. And yet I like it a lot. We went there often when the boys were small, to walk by the river, pick blackberries or play in the water.

I returned today for the first time in a couple of years. We walked from Cilrhedyn Bridge to Llanychaer, the same route as always. It's not the most beautiful of walks, at least not by Pembrokeshire standards, and yet it has a rustic charm. The farms are worked hard, there are tyres in the fields, we found an abandoned tractor on the path today, the woodland is largely left to its own devices.

It seems the people of the Gwaun like doing things their own way. The valley is best known in Wales for celebrating Hen Galan, an alternative new year based on the Julian calender - equivalent to our 13 January. The valley pubs reputedly pay scant regard to licencing laws on that day, or many others for that matter. As if to underline this individuality, one of its few well known farms is Penlan Uchaf, which promotes the unlikely combination of beef from long horn cattle and having a show garden for visitors. And at Llanychaer there is a garden which incorporates a flush loo, a metal sculpture of a miner (or is it a farmer?) and a kitchen range built into the wall!

But for me, the Gwaun is all about the river. The valley sides are steep, making for fast run off after rain, and streams swell the main flow at regular intervals. Today the river was dashing over gravel beds and churning through the falls. The trees on either bank grow down to the water's edge and our path crossed many rills running between their roots. Outside of the summer, it's not a walk for keeping your feet dry.

In winter, the river turns quickly to spate. I have kayaked it many times, and though never hard it is not for the faint hearted. Below Llanychaer the river has carved a deep gorge, the walls of which are covered in rhododendrons. There is no way out, other than by boat, and though it is only a few miles to the sea the water can't seem to wait; the rapids follow one after another, no eddies, no place to stop - until, more quickly than you expect, the last rush over cobbles into the harbour at Abergwaun.

It's somehow satisfying to finish a river journey at the sea. I have kayaked all over the world, including descents of major rivers in Asia and the Alps, but I can think of none with a more delightful ending than the Gwaun. The old harbour at Fishguard is one of the most picturesque in Wales; in the Sixties it was used as the film set for Under Milk Wood. And yet there is no attempt to cash in; no shops, no pubs, no commemorative plaques. So typical of the Gwaun, and one of the reasons I like it so much.

Friday, August 7, 2009

A taste of welsh honey

As I drove past Newgale this morning I noticed the campsite was almost full; across the road, many of the campers had already staked a claim to their patch of sand. Two miles further, at Nolton, the car park was overflowing, a queue of people on the slipway. Over the hill the boogie boarders were braving the early morning waves at Broad Haven. At the prospect of sunshine, the crowds were gathering at the honey pots of Pembrokeshire.

On their day I like all of these places, though I'm not a great one for crowds - not a great one for sitting on the beach if I'm honest - so I was off to complete another section of the coast path. This time I was walking from St Martins Haven to Dale, a fiddly place to get to, which explains why it was one of the last sections I needed to complete. My plan was to drive to Dale, leave bike there, drive to St Martins, park at National Trust, walk twelve miles, cycle back to car... you get the idea.

But sometimes the effort is worth it. A mile into my walk and I was above Marloes Sands, a kestrel hovering above me and butterflies rising from the grass with every stride. But it was the beach that held my gaze. I kept thinking, how it could be, that in all the time I've been coming to Pembrokeshire I've never been here before? The truth is, it's a faff to get here and there are easier options; much the same reason as why the crowds gather at Newgale I suppose.

Near where I took the photo below I met a lady who was admiring the view. She told me she lived in Marloes (the nearest village), then added 'Is there a better beach anywhere than this?' I had to agree. 'Not many trippers come here, because you have to walk four hundred yards from the car park - it's fantastic for the rest of us though.' Again, I agreed. But when I asked if she'd been to Ynys Barry near Porthagin she said ' Where's that?' And when I explained it was only a few miles to the north, she replied, 'You know, we never go to the north coast, it's terrible really.' I left her sitting on the headland and reflected on how we each have our own hefts.

But talking to anyone was an exception today. I must have passed no more than a dozen people in as many miles. Every so often I'd come across a cove with sunbathers and perhaps a yacht off shore. There were some farmers turning the fields, flocks of gulls crowding behind the tractors. The lighthouse at St Anne's was deserted - probably automatic these days. There were butterflies to watch too - one of my geekier hobbies - today was outstanding: Red Admiral, Painted Lady, Peacock, Comma, Blues (various), Fritillaries (at least two species) Meadow Brown, Wall Butterfly, Small and Large Heath, Speckled Wood, Small White, Green Veined White, Grayling ( I think) and best of all what must have been a hundred Large Whites feeding on a bramble patch. Sadly , not one Small Tortoiseshell, which used to be so common only a few years ago.

The coast path turns east after the lighthouse, following the Duagleddau towards Milford Haven and Pembroke Dock. It is reputedly the second deepest natural harbour in the world - on a day like to day it is hard to imagine that such a wide passage could be dangerous - yet fifteen years ago the Sea Empress foundered off this headland, resulting in Britain's worst oil spillage. I remember the dead gulls washed up on Whitesands and the diggers cleaning the oil off the sand.

Today, it would be a mean person not to say the estuary was beautiful. Even the refineries and the various industrial detritus seemed almost in keeping. It made me wonder if I'd ever come to accept wind farms quite so readily; I doubt it. My thoughts were confirmed as I passed under the signal towers - there is something about getting close to these structures that brings home how out of place they are in the landscape. Not that I have any alternatives to offer if they save lives and stop ships running aground.

My walk finished at Dale. It's not a place I've liked before; a pub, a cafe, a car park. The last time I was here was in winter - to look for birds on the River Gann - and I wondered then, why it is so popular with summer visitors. As I walked down the hill, a hundred or so boats came into view - all on moorings, with easy access in the sheltered bay. There were dozens of boaty types in the pub, sunbathing on the sea walls - they seemed to be having a good time, no rush to go out on the water. And why not, I thought - we each of us have our honey pots, and it would be a shame if they were all the same.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Collections 6 Morris Minor

Can you have a collection of one?

I'm going to include my Morris in the collections series as it's the third one I've had and because my blog follower Pinkfairygran (what a great name) asked me to post a photo.

It's a nostalgia thing really. I had my first Morris was when I was a student; we shared it between a group of us and drove it to parties and cimbing trips that were a comprehensive education in every sense. My second I bought in my early thirties; I sold it when Daniel was born and always regretted letting it go. The current one I bought three years ago: it will be cheap to run I said; no road tax; minimal insurance... I didn't mention the upkeep.

The car has bit of a sad history. An old gent renovated it from scratch. It took him ten years, but just as he was completing the final paintwork he died. I bought the car off his widow. It is a 1956 split screen, originally with an 800cc engine but since upgraded to a newer model. And that's about as far as I go with the technical stuff.

The car still has its original seats and probably the roof panels - oh, and the trafficators. Otherwise, almost everything in the car has been renewed. Except the smell - why do all Morris Minor's smell the same no matter how much people do them up? This puts me in mind of the Ship of Theseus which throughout its many voyages had every part replaced - was it the same ship which returned? - a classic philosophical puzzle of personal identity (you knew I'd weave some ideas in somehow).

On the subject of personal identity, Dylan thinks it is very cool. The big boys call it 'that silly thing' and won't be seen near it unless there is absolute certainty that no friends will spot them. I tell them it's retro chic but they won't listen. Just wait till they learn to drive and I tell them it's the only car I can afford to insure in their name.

Generally, people's attitudes to the Morris are kind. You get more waves and hoots than frustrated honks because you are going slow. Some years ago we took our old battered old Morris (number 2, now sold) to a society wedding - the car park was full of Mercs and BMWs; but it was our car which everyone wanted to look at. More recently I stayed at the Castle Combe Manor House and had great delight in handing the car jockey my keys; he returned a few minutes later, 'How exactly does Sir start his vehicle?'

So that's my Morris. The truth is, I bought it because I could and because sometime we need to treat ourselves. Today I'm going to drive it to the Nevern Show, where I'm planning to meet up with Preseli Mags - my first encounter with someone from the blog world. Agricultural shows have always been designed as meeting places, so I think the show's founders would have approved - and I bet they would have liked the Morris too.

Monday, August 3, 2009

The perfect family car?

Our car - by Dylan

There is an ongoing joke at work about me and cars. According to my colleagues, the only thing I'm interested in, is whether or not it has a roof rack. This isn't entirely true, although roof racks are important if you variously need to transport kayaks, bikes and roof boxes. In fact, I have quite a number of considerations; it's just that few of them would matter much to my executive colleagues for whom image seems a lot more important than practicality.

So what exactly, would be my perfect car?

Well for a start it needs to be roomy; I have two teenagers with an immense capacity to spread themselves, and a four year old who requires all the usual toddler paraphernalia. Add the camping gear, the bikes and I suppose we are talking about a people carrier. Sliding rear doors are a must and, yes, a roof rack - and not one that requires you to buy the manufacturer's fittings. Thule roof racks are way the best and I want to be able the transfer the ones I've already paid a small fortune for.

As it's a people carriers, I expect it to have individual and removable rear seats (I'm not very bothered about seats number six and seven which tend to sit in my garage anyway) But here's the very important bit - listen up manufacturers - I want the seats to be on runners so I can position then far, far back in the car - far enough to give a six foot teenager enough legroom to lounge to his heart's content! You might think this wouldn't be too much to ask, but there isn't a car on the market that allows for this. There are any number of people carriers with two seats in the far rear, but not three - it's something to do with the wheel arches evidently. Just sort it please.

And some other things. I want the air con to work in the back of the car too. I want a twelve volt socket for every seat so there's no squabbling over the ipod, DVD, Gameboy chargers. I want the floor to be rubberised for easy cleaning, and a set of removable carpets that can be disposed of about once a year at reasonable cost. I want the seats in a washable fabric; I want a decent sized waste bin (between the front seats perhaps) and I want a the storage lockers to be large and simple. I don't want miniature cup holders, boy racer gadgets, cigarette lighters, fancy dials and those fabric storage pockets that are just perfect for food litter.

A few minor tweaks: an extra rear view mirror (sometimes called a conversation mirror) to keep an eye on the little darlings; a speed limiter to stop me falling foul of Gatso cameras; a system for adjusting seatbelts for little ones - all nice, but not essential. If the front seats swivelled round 180 degrees for picnics on wet days, even better.

And as for the boot. Can I please have a washable liner that fixes with Velcro to keep the mud / sand at bay. I'd like a clip in electric coolbox that is big enough to hold two bags of shopping. And I'd like one of those hoses that come in Range Rovers for washing wellies.

Typical, I've not mentioned the engine yet. I don't really care, so long as it's economical and adequate; I'd rather it had low emissions that a high posing value. And certainly nothing that could ever make me say soemthing like, I've got a 7 series but I'm changing it for CX300. What does all that mean; who cares?

That's about it. Apart from the seat configuration, you can get any one of these items in lots of different cars, but not all of them in any one. I find this surprising because it's not exactly a demanding list. Sadly, it reflects how little attention manufacturers pay to practical family needs.

Car design and marketing is so dominated by image that for many people their car is fundamental to their sense of self worth. You can have any amount of meaningless sporty variations - but ask for an integrated coolbox and that's way too difficult. It seems that our technology has come a long way from the Deux Cheveux and the Volkswagen Beetle (the original people's cars), but in family terms, we've not gone quite so far.

In the meantime, it's windy again, so I'm going to polish my roof rack.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Pets again

Legless at about 12 months old

Last month, when I posted coming up for air, the accompanying picture was a list of chores. The more observant of you may have noticed the last item on the list: 'feed snake.'

So meet Legless our much loved cornsnake and almost the conclusion of my shortish series on our pets.

Its slightly odd writing 'much loved' in connection with a snake; after all, it's not as if they give you much back. But I'd argue that cornsnakes makes excellent and fascinating pets. They are beautiful, don't smell, require no walking, are educational, and a talking point at dinner parties (not that we host many). Even friends and neighbours ask after the snake, which, let's face it, is something you seldom get with a hamster.

We bought our snake when Dan was ten; he was about eight inches long - the snake that is! Dan named him Legless after the character in Lord of the Rings, which I thought was a witty take on contemporary culture for someone so young. The man in the snake shop didn't get the joke - but then the man in the snake shop is very odd indeed; more scary than the snake according to Jane.

At first Legless lived in a Tupperware box and ate 'pinkies', which is snake owner's jargon for baby mice. Today, he's five feet long resides in a palatial vivarium and dines on an extra large mouse each Sunday evening. 'There's something primeval about the way he strikes and curls round the victim - the speed of it is breathtaking. Then there's the devouring part... little boys love watching that no matter how old they are.

Which brings me to the only problem with Legless as a pet; it's what I call the 'snake thing'. After all, he is... well, a snake. And not everyone seems able to get over that. For a start they eat dead mice, (which reside in our freezer next to the ice cream tubs), every few months their eyes turn blue ands they shed their skin (which is either fascinating or gross depending on how you view it) and to be brutally frank, they are not very cuddly - though Dan likes to pose with Legless curled round his neck - very Gothic.

Aside from being popular with Goths, snakes have a long history of symbolic association. In the Christian tradition the are forever associated with the fall of Adam; in ancient mythology they were symbols of wisdom, their unblinking eyes taken as a sign of intelligence. In some cultures they are symbols of fertility or immortality. The logos of some pharmaceutical associations depict a snake wrapped round a cup (the Bowl of Hygieia) symbolising their supposed powers of healing.

In our house Legless is a symbol of success. We don't do very well with pets: the fish are no more, the dog had to be moved on... And as for Jumbo, our beloved tortoise, well there lies a very sad tale, the telling of which really will be the end of this series.