Sunday, January 11, 2009

Friends, Romans, Citizens

My friend Ian once said you know a true friend when you ring them at three in the morning and say your car's broken down in the snow. Thankfully that's not happened yet, but I did email him to ask if he fancied driving five hundred miles to ride as my co-pilot in the World Mountain Bike Chariot Racing Championships. As you can see, he doesn't do things in half measures.

Our charioteer, Paul, was similarly cajoled into making the journey. Actually, Paul needs little persuasion for this sort of thing, and as I hadn't seen him in a few years it seemed a good excuse to have a laugh.

Most of the competitors had the same idea - we raced against two polar bears pulling an ice queen and narrowly lost out on a place in the final to Anthony and Cleopatra. We met Sally and James from
Wacky Nation who spend their lives doing these sorts of events, and cheered a trio of Roman Goddesses who took twice as long as anyone else to complete the course. It was a shame that the eventual winners were the only competitors with serious bikes, full cycling kit and a silth like charioteer who must have weighed less than my left leg. Talk about missing the point.

The venue was Llanwrtyd
Wells - home of the famous Man versus Horse race and World Bog Snorkelling Championships. They make a big deal of these events, not just because they attract visitors, but because they bring the community together. It seems to be working. Later, we met the three Roman Goddesses having lunch with their kids the Drovers Cafe; in the evening a toga party was planned at the pub. As I left, a drunken senator was stumbling across the square to a backdrop of the snow covered Elenydd mountains.

Friday, January 9, 2009


After watching the crows all summer we started to notice the starlings flying past as the sun goes down. It turns out that only three miles from our house is the biggest starling roost in Wales . Estimates vary but I'm told it's a safe bet that more than a million birds gather there. They roost in a small copse of fir trees near to Plumstone Mountain.

Go there half an hour before sunset and face south with your back to the trees. About fifteen miles away is a small tump known as Arnolds Hill. If you look carefully, what appears to be a plume of smoke will rise from it and drift towards you. Soon after the birds will arrive.

The first flocks swirl above the trees, making patterns as they rise and fall in ever tighter circles. You will hear them too, a hundred thousand wings swooshing overhead as they change direction. Then more will arrive; from St Davids, Llanrhian, Fishgaurd and Preseli. If it's a clear night the sky will be indigo, perhaps turning pink. Still they will come; from Llandeloy, Pembroke Dock and Clarbeston Road. Buzzards and sparrow hawks will hover by the cow sheds, an owl might flit from tree to tree. And above the copse the sky will be black with birds.

Last time I was there, John Cod, who owns the cow sheds, told me it was nothing to see five different raptors in the air at one time. 'Sometimes there are more than 3 million starlings,' he says. 'Can you believe they are a protected species?' His house sits in the shadow of the fir trees. 'The only problem with living here is the bird shit; good for the soil though.' Would I like some fuscia cuttings?

Jon farms here, trains motorcyclists as a sideline and knows more about birds than most of the twitchers who chase round the county with their telescopes. There's a hushed mention of a rare warbler - I'm to keep my eyes peeled on a certain moor. He tells me to come at dawn when the starlings leave, evidently more quickly than they arrive and in bigger flocks. I'm to look for the stragglers in the road; every night there are some that don't make it back – easy pickings for the buzzards.

Before leaving, I headed into the trees, picking my way through the forest break by moonshine. It seemed a small area for so many birds. You can't help but wonder why they come here. I could hear them calling, a soft ripple that ebbed and flowed like running water; as if there were a stream nearby, a waterfall perhaps.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Whatever happened to Derrick Booth?

Ironically, one of the great things about the Internet is the way it can help you find those special books that have somehow vanished from your shelves.

Aged eighteen or so I read a short guide to backpacking which - and there's no overstatement here - changed my life. I bought it when I was working in a crisp factory, endlessly packing boxes of Ready Salted and waiting for Fridays to come. The book inspired me to take my first proper trips to the mountains, and in so doing, gave me a lifelong love of the outdoors. A few weeks after buying it, I packed in my job and walked the Pennine Way.

For years I recommended The Backpacker's Handbook to friends; as much a celebration as a technical guide, a book to keep by your bed and dip into again and again. I must have lent it once too often, as someone didn't return it and for twenty years I'd been looking for a replacement. So imagine my delight when after few clicks on a copy was on its way.

It was just as I recalled: the same cover and red banner strip, the same format and photos that had stuck in my memory. What I'd forgotten though, was the quality of the writing.

How many backpacking guides open like this?

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....

Or finish with a note like this:

Today, Boxing Day, was for me the moment the tide turned. Across the grey-blue marshes the sun subsided into the marram grass horizon and a brown froth edged nuzzle of a new tide dribbled up the gulleys between the saltings. .. the world turned to pewter.

As I re-read the first chapters I understood why it had so affected me. It's written not just with knowledge and experience, but with a care for the outdoors and a perception for the landscape that gives it a dimension so many guidebooks lack. Information is easy to collate; inspiration and resonance are harder to achieve.

I wonder what happened to Derrick Booth? I never see his name in print; as far as I can tell he doesn't write for any of the outdoor magazines; for all I know he might have passed on. But his little book on backpacking is a classic - a world apart from the pseudo 'new nature' tosh that seems to centre round East Anglian writers (notable exception being Mark Crocker's, Crow Country). So thanks Derrick Booth -whoever and wherever you are - you changed one person at least.

Sorry, this time my copy is not for borrowing.