Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Encounters 1 - Kites

The road going north from Tufton crosses the the Preseli Hills in three distinct pulls, each a little steeper than the last. At the head of the pass there's a scruffy layby-cum-car park from where you can walk to the iron age forts of Cerrig Lladron, or take a longer squelch up Foel Cwmcerwyn. The later is the highest peak on the Preseli ridge, not quite a mountain at 536m, though it feels that way when you're up there.

On Saturday I cycled over the pass, on my way to the delightful estuary at Newport. It is seldom busy in these hills, but the heavy showers meant there was only one car at the summit. I didn't hang around, freewheeling into the lee of the wind, then stopping to don a jacket before the steep descent to the sea.

It was then that I saw the kite, hovering above the slope to my right, it's distinctive fan tail held upright to the wind. It was prowling the hillside, flying just above the scrub, crisscrossing the moor in a meticulous search. As it neared the road, it saw me too, came nearer and hovered only meteres away.

It was big for a red kite, through the wind was ruffling its feathers and I wonder if at this time year they moult, for they looked ragged. The bird held fast to its position, arched wings on the edge of stalling in the ridge lift; its primary feathers spreading and bending with each gust. I noticed its head was much lighter than the body, almost white, and smaller than I expected - very neat, more like a hawk than a buzzard.

The kite must have stayed there a minute, perhaps more - each of us looking at the other, fascinated in our ways. They used to be rare in this part of Wales and though still not common, red kites are no longer endangered. Shortly after I met Jane we cycled on a tandem from Rhayader to Tregaron, passing the then only nesting grounds above the Elenydd dams. You'll not see an adult bird, the lady in our guesthouse had said - they're all on the nests or out hunting in the hills. But she was wrong - for a male came to hover by us on that road too; it kept backing up as we neared, always facing us, maintaining a distance of perhaps three or four metres. It stayed with us for more than a mile.

That was twenty years ago. There were military lookouts on the road that weekend, guarding the nests from egg collectors. Since then the red kite has made a remarkable comeback. It has been reintroduced elsewhere in Britain, though it is the birds in Wales that are the original natives.

And as I'm writing this on the solstice I should mention that over to the east of where I saw the kite on Saturday comes a different original. For on the slopes above Mynachlog Ddu, at Carn Bica and Mynnydd Bach are the bluestones - it is rocks from here that form the first and inner ring of monoliths at Stonehenge. A few years ago I walked the ridge and camped overnight with my son amongst these rocks; we woke to frost and saw a kite that morning too, above the lambing fields as we descended to our pick up at Crymych.

The kite eventually left me, gliding low over the moor; it flushed a skylark and carried on toward Brynberian. Moments later its silhouette fused with the heather. I zipped my jacket, tucked low to the wind and flew down the hill before more showers arrived.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Going widdershins

This spring I've been training for a ride across Britain, cycling the lanes of north Wiltshire to improve my fitness. In January I was struggling to manage an hour, now forty miles in less than three isn't a problem. So it's being going well; I ride a carefully planned route, taking  me through pleasant if not spectacular countryside. And over the weeks I've seen that landscape change: the hedgerows budding, the golden rapeseed, the finches and flocks of yellow hammer, the May blossom falling.

But after a while any route can become routine. Last Sunday was thick with clouds, the roads damp and a northerly wind threatening showers. 'Are you sure you want to go,' Jane asked, heading upstairs with her book and a cup of tea. As I togged up in waterproofs the prospect of a lie in seemed a lot more appealing than yet another circuit of the lanes.

So, as if in perverse delight, I decided to reverse my usual direction. Instead of riding clockwise I'd go north up the Fosse Way and meet the wind on that straightest of Roman Roads. It would make a change I thought, and if nothing else, would boost my fitness. As I rode from the drive I turned right instead of left, then paused at the next junction. It was one of those 'senior moment' when your memory fails you; I've travelled this route dozens of times and yet there I was reorienting myself after less than a mile.

The ride wasn't as tough as I feared. A heavy shower brought brighter skies and the wind never quite reached a gale. Indeed it felt easier this way round, the hills a little less steep, and I was soon passing the teashops of Tetbury. But I pressed on, turning left at the next village, right down a farm track, same again at the junction and straight on at the cross roads.

And maybe that's where I went wrong. I'm not sure, it could have been the previous crossing - but anyway I found myself riding past a lake and I was darn certain I'd not seen it before. Quite where the lake was I wasn't sure, or what direction I was heading - the water was bounded by trees so even the wind was unreliable. I pressed on, hoping for a road sign.

The evening before my ride I'd been to an event that was part of a literary festival. The writer Olivia Laing was talking about her book, To The River, a journey down the Ouse in Sussex; the place where Virginia Wold had drowned. My first question to her was, which way had you travelled, upsteam or down? Later we talked and I mentioned the different experience that kayaking brings - the closeness to the water, being part of the flow, at times in it - as opposed to looking from above.

After passing the lake I stopped at a gate, searching for clues to my whereabouts. There was a gradual fall to the land, the scarp of Lynham banks to the south, the last of the rapeseed turning in the breeze. I hadn't seen the fields this way before - or at least I hadn't noticed them. Gradually I pieced it together, and ironically it was a tower I've always regarded as out of place that put me back on track. If I reversed my route and turned left after the lake, with a little fiddling I'd soon be on familiar ground.

When I got home Jane remarked that I was late. I explained that I'd ridden an unintentional ten mile loop. It's odd I said, the difference a change in perspective can make. Habit too plays a part. I usually play my banjo with fingers a blur, yet if I reverse the roll pattern, suddenly I'm stuttering, taking one string at a time - pausing at each note.

And sometimes that's a good thing to do. For with banjos it's easy to lose the melody to speed, and I suppose with our routines, cycling or otherwise, there's an equivalent prospect. Whatever, I shall certainly ride anticlockwise again - and maybe I'll go visit that lake in the sunshine.