Sunday, October 30, 2011

End of radio silence

I've been relatively silent of late, a bit down in the dumps about the blog. The course I was due to run had to be postponed because of some last minute cancellations - apologies to those who'd signed up, but it will definitely run next year. And then the weather turned just as I was thinking I'd have time to gather some writing material in the mountains - so annoying.

I've also been working on my book manuscript (due end November and closing fast) and suffering what I hope is an entirely normal last minute crisis of confidence. Last week I spent four days editing and re-editing, and I wasn't sure the result made that much difference - so disappointing.

'Why don't you take a break,' said Jane. 'Yes,' agreed Dylan, who suggested I take him to see Real Steel instead of writing all the time. Turns out Real Steel is a movie about robots bashing each other - mmm. I'd already spent Friday night having a 'sleepover' with Dylan in my shed (it's now become 'our' shed) and suffered a bad back, chilled feet and two hours of cartoons before he eventually dropped off. So - well actually it was great fun.

And yesterday I thought, what have I been whinging about? My mother is about to have her knee replaced (yuk), I heard of a fellow blogger who is very ill and another who was trying for the umpteenth time to get an agent to look at their excellent work. November is even a relatively slack time at the office, and for me it forms a watershed as I start in a new, less stressful and more interesting, role at work.

So what the heck, be positive I thought and sign up for NaBloPoMo. After all, it's only a blog a day for thirty days - on top of a new job,  finishing my manuscript, attending a nature writing weekend, nursing my mother (Jane, ten times more than me to be fair), giving a talk about blogging to Pembrokeshire libraries (you'll hear more about this soon) and the Christmas preparation that seems to get earlier every year.

I'm planning vaguely on a theme of 'nature' and will try and limit it to between 300 and 400 words a day - but don't hold me to that precisely. What I won't do is write in advance unless absolutely necessary, because to me, that defeats the object. I want to fit it in around my life instead of carving out chunks of time. And I need to learn to write more quickly.

There are others doing the November challenge too - Zoe, at Mind and Language is writing about art that inspires her - and you should definitely take a look. So far there are nearly 400 bloggers who've signed up; there'll be many more by the closing date and even more who do it unofficially.  If you're going to take part then let me know because it's good to share encouragement - last year there were about half a dozen of us swapping comments and suggestions throughout, including one of my blogging heroes and neighbours, Michelle at Veg Plotting.  She even brought me some jam to keep me going!.

So enough of this rambling on, you'll have more to cope with in November.  And in any case, I'm off now with Dylan to the cinema... Real Steel, here we come.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

How green is my valley?

Image from

The South Wales Valleys are a curious and scarred countryside. From one viewpoint they can be seen as a manifestation of community, of a strength through industry that (in most versions of the story) was killed by Thatcher who cared nothing for the consequences. From another, they can resemble a post-apocalyptic landscape, a pertinent reminder of how it's possible to trash an area bigger than London for lack of care of a different sort. A drive up the Rhondda will give you as good as any sense of these, not necessarily conflicting, perspectives.

The Heads of the Valley tends more to the post-apocalyptic; it's new dual carriageway cuts a swathe through the spoil heaps on which even tussock grass is never quite fully established. The road links  Abergavenny to the Neath valley, skirting a list of the towns synonymous with our industrial heritage: Blaenavon, Ebbw Vale, Merthyr Tydfil. It's a bleak drive, the sense of failed regeneration felt as keenly in the empty industrial units as in the bald and blackening moorland. The quintessential highlight is an ASDA superstore that overlooks Merthyr's Gurnos estate, a place once described as the UK's capital of economic inactivity.

I've been travelling this road for twenty-five years, and not a lot has changed. Except that is for the Glynneath; an area that, from a landscape perspective at least, has been gradually rejuvenating. There is more tree planting here - sure, a lot of it's commercial, but it's sensitively done - the canal has been renovated too; there are boat trips from Resolven and the river is clean enough for trout and sewin. It may be that this particular valley was spared the worst of industrial despoliation - I don't pretend to know its history - but whatever it's past, I've always regarded it as a model for what the other Valleys might eventually become.

So why, oh why have they covered it turbines!

Covered is an exaggeration, but as always seems to be the case, they pick the best, the wildest, the most open landscape to site these monstrosities. Drive now into the one valley that seemed to have come through and the first thing you see is a hillside of tri-blade propellers. And if you're like me, every other time you pass, not one of them will be turning.

Not that I'd be more inclined to love them if they were. I've long hated wind farms, and I'm unashamed in my view that they despoil our landscape, that this matters deeply and that the putative benefits don't outweigh the aesthetic impact. The turbines that have been installed across Wales can be seen over thousands of square miles; their impact is far greater than the land they stand on.

The journalist Will Self, wrote this week in praise of windfarms - or rather of the development of the countryside as a constantly evolving and functional space. He argues that virtually all our landscape is man-made; that when he took a three-day trek from London to Newhaven he hardly saw anyone - though quite why that's relevant I don't know - that there's a deal of hypocrisy in our views of the countryside. And in that regard he's right. But overwhelmingly I regard Self's view is an oh so clever analysis, typical of metropolitan intellectuals who like to sneer at the commuting middle classes of Sussex.

Frankly, I could sneer at people who think a three-day walk across the Home Counties makes them an expert on the value of landscape. What's more - and this is particularly telling of Self's article - I have little regard for the views of people who have only viewed turbines from afar. Before anyone sets about justifying them, I'd suggest they go stand underneath a 165ft tower, and that to reach it they walk one of the service roads that have been gouged through the forests and hillsides; that they take time to look away from the blades and compare the view without them, before excusing their presence.

To be fair to Will Self he's not presenting himself as a lover of the great outdoors, but to my mind, his argument gives insufficient value to wilderness - indeed, he questions its very concept. In terms of pastoral England, he might be right, but I'd bet a lot of cash that he's never been to Plynlimon, or Hyddgen (see photo left) - both of which have an intrinsic value in their very remoteness, and both of which are seriously under threat. What Self's argument fails to address is that it is ancient and naturally important landscapes like these that are the most likely sites for wind farms in Wales.

My drive through Glynneath made me sad. According to Self, that's sentimentality; he'd say the turbines merely continue a tradition of utilising the land effectively. I think that's intellectual bollocks, fuelled by a certain philistinism toward nature. To me, they're a lost opportunity; yet another scar on a landscape that's suffered enough. Strange analogy that it is, they felt like an addict relapsing.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Collections 15 - Bartholomew maps

'There's a weird parcel arrived,' said Jane. 'I had to collect it from the depot and needed help to get it in the car. What have you been ordering?' Nothing I told her, a bit confused as I went to fetch it - and then I recognised the handwriting.

A few weeks earlier my friend Ian had emailed to say he was rationalising his maps. Ian is the only person I know with a full collection of the Ordnance Survey for the UK - but it was his Bartholomew Maps that were going spare. Would I like them, he'd asked?

The parcel landed with a thud on our settee - reminding me why backpackers doing the Lands End to John O' Groats post their maps to overnight stopovers. Not that today's walkers would use the Bartholomew series - they went out of print in the Nineties and had been declining for years before then. But what do walkers know about a good thing? I ripped off the paper to reveal an almost perfect collection.

I've always liked 'Barts' maps, as they used to be called. I took one on my first holiday to the Lake District, despite them being next to useless in the hills. Another time I walked a long stretch of the Northumberland coast using Map 42; this was marginally better until I reached Blyth and about half the town hadn't been drawn, causing me hours of confusion. But it was as a cyclist in my twenties that I came to use them most.

The maps were especially popular with cycle tourists. This was because the half-inch scale was detailed enough to show minor roads and spot heights, but not so large that it had to be taken out of the handlebar case every few miles. For many years the maps had a Cyclists' Touring Club logo on the front, in acknowledgement of the revisions that were regularly supplied by club members. Knowing a few CTC types, I can well imagine the letters Bartholomew received at their Edinburgh headquarters.  On rechecking the spot height at North Hill I found it to be only 824ft, not the 870ft recorded... please note the hostel at Bryn Poeth Uchaf is no longer in operation...  the Kielder Forest has now been flooded to create a reservoir!

To some extent, their inaccuracy was part of the joy. A short detour on a bike is seldom a problem, and the lack of detail might persuade you to tackle roads you'd otherwise avoid. There was something seductive about the colour scheme too; earthy tones, graduating from lime through ochre to umber, each colour indicating a gradual rise in altitude, but no mention of gradient.

The maps Ian sent me are almost a complete set. Only two are missing but I've already found them on eBay. So an instant collection - not quite in the spirit of amassing slowly, but then Ian bought them like that too. I especially like it that every map has a white label marked: John Menzies, £2.50. It's possible some have never been opened.

As I looked through a few the other night I began to trace the routes I'd cycled years ago. And I kept finding youth hostels that have closed - Bryn Poeth Uchaf is on map 17, Aberystwyth and Cardigan. Jane and I stayed there once with Ian and his wife Ros - a mile up a track above Rhandirmwyn it was a cottage with no electricity or running water. Nobody wants places like that anymore - too old fashioned, not enough facilities, they say. Jane would agree, and she's probably right - a bit like Barts maps they've fallen behind the times. But the nostalgic in me wishes it were different. And thanks to my new collection, those places, and the days that went with them, are all still there - in lime and ochre shading, with spot heights and enough detail for me to fill in the rest.