JOURNAL - 2004 - MAY

DIARY 78: May - August 2004

Tuesday 4 May

It’s been a bank holiday weekend, and I was only saved from having absolutely nothing to do by Andrew and Susie coming down, on the spur of the moment, on Sunday. I say I didn’t have anything to do, but I was finishing up my essay for the Middle Ages course, and, intermittently, watching the snooker world (ha ha, it’s always Brits) championship (which promised well because a complete outsider called Graeme Dott made it into the final).

The essay I chose to do looked at the development of castles in the medieval period. As with the gardens essay (for Plants and People), I chose a subject which fitted my reasons for doing the course in the first place - i.e. to improve my general knowledge so that when I go walking and touring I can get more out of the places I visit. I didn’t put quite as much into the castles essay as I did into the gardens one, because I have no time for Caroline Jones who taught the Dark Ages course, but I did a reasonable job. And, having to research and write the essay, meant that the information is more likely to stay in my head. Already, I can tell the information will be of use, because I’m planning a walk in a couple of weeks, and there are several castles I might visit. Until now, seeing the words motte-and-bailey on a map or in a guide book would have meant nothing to me. But they will in future; and when I look around a castle, or a garden, I’m going to know what I’m looking at. Both courses have finished (well, I have a final class tomorrow night), but I feel they were well worth the money and the effort. This coming Friday, I will probably start a new course on landscape studies. It will take most of the day on Fridays, and last for eight weeks.

1 May was a historic day. Ten new countries joined the European Union: Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Malta and Cyprus (but only half of Cyprus, because the selfish Greek half voted to keep out the Turkish half). It was noted in news programmes, with reports of the official celebration in Dublin (the Irish are the EU presidents at present), but there was very little fanfare considering the importance of the event. I do believe the news media may be giving as much attention to the 25th anniversary of Thatcher’s becoming prime minister.

Of course, I followed the accession process from its very earliest days, and so this, the greatest of all EU enlargements, does mean more to me, perhaps, than the average British citizen. But, it only takes a moments reflection to consider how big a thing it was for Britain when she joined, the years of negotiations, the procedures, the celebrations to recognise how the majority of citizens of 10 countries have been feeling the last few days. While Britain has always been a little ambivalent about its partnership with Europe, there’s very little ambivalence in most of the 10 countries who see, and for a long time have seen, EU membership as a passport to prosperity. So, although I can neither see nor hear any of the fanfare (because, our media isn’t interested) I’m sure it’s happening.

I should confess I am quite surprised that this enlargement has gone ahead as quickly as it has. I know it’s been clear for some years now that it would, but before then, I was convinced it would take longer. I’ve never felt the East European countries could implement the necessary legislative and administrative changes quickly enough, or that the existing member states would be ready to keep the process going quite so quickly. I know Greece has always been a less-developed nation, and the EU has coped, and that Spain and Portugal entered as undeveloped nations and developed very quickly, but 10 new countries, that’s a lot of deadweight on the EU. It’s a lot of new languages, a lot of new negotiating partners, a lot of new subsidy flows to cope with. I felt the magnitude of the task would lead to a more cautious approach, and delaying tactics. Now, I fear that the EU will need a decade to recover from this trauma. I only hope it can do so without being torn asunder.

Yes, Susie and Andrew and Darcy and two big dogs came on Sunday. It was a lovely warm, sunny day, so we spent most of it in the garden (and at the Mill where we had lunch). Darcy is now toddling everywhere, opening everything, pulling everything on the ground. He’s at the age, where he needs watching every second. But he was delightful too; we played football a lot (he falls as often as he manages to kick the ball!). He seems to laugh a lot when he’s here. But I don’t laugh at those two giant dogs that tumble around the garden, almost knocking Darcy out of the way as they go. The one dog is enough, too much for my mind, but the second dog belongs to Susie’s sister who has emigrated to Australia. She’s looking after it until it can be transported out there. It’s going to cost £2,000 to ship the dog. Why, I asked, doesn’t her sister have this one put down and buy another one out there? Susie was horrified. It’s only a bloody dog, I think.

I didn’t realise but Andy has stayed in touch with Mary Balfour, the woman who launched the dating agency called Drawing down the Moon, as well as my internet dating site Loveandfriends. I knew he knew her in the past, when he was with Rosy, but he and Susie still socialise with her. This is how they’ve been invited to the launch of Mary Balfour’s new book called ‘Smart Dating’ on Wednesday. I would have gone too, but for the fact that the time clashes with my last Plants and People class, and it was me that suggested to the class we all go for a drink this Wednesday.

What a day of rain today. The vegetable plots are flooded, and, unless they drain quickly, my potatoes (which were doing so well) and the early beans/lettuce/spinach I’ve planted will all rot.

9 May 2004

I’ve completed my first two modules in the Combined Studies degree at the University of Surrey (Plants and People, and Dark Ages Archaeology). The exams were last week. I did go to the last Plants and People class, at which Lalage gave us some feedback on the exams. She told me I’d got 69-70ish (later I learnt this is on the border between a 2:1 and a 1 grade), which was surprising given that I’d failed so miserably to finish the second question. And now I’ve begun my third module. It’s Photography, Planning and Mapping, and takes place over six Saturdays. We’ll spend two days learning how to survey an archeological site, one day on botanical surveying, and one day on geological stuff. I hope these five days are more instructive than the first day, which was part introduction and part photography. During the morning, the programme head, Steve Dyer, gave us some very basic info about maps, and scales and survey techniques. In the afternoon we all went to a site called Woking Palace, a moated Norman manor, which the university uses a lot for such training purposes. There’s a stone building and some 16th century brick walls, and lots of weed-covered humps showing the layout of where buildings used to be. Our job was to have a go with the four cameras that Steve had brought to try and make a photographic record of the site. But he gave us no real instruction on how to do this, just told us to get on with it. But there were so many hurdles in the way of this being any kind of useful exercise that, to my mind, the afternoon was a complete waste of time. The first obstacle was the fact that we weren’t given any proper objective; the second was the rain; the third was the very overcast conditions and the poor light; the fourth was that it’s extremely difficulty to use a camera efficiently and with purpose, without having had some practice with it; and, fifthly, some of the group selfishly hogged the cameras, so that others couldn’t get their hands on them.

More on recent L&F contacts. Barbara wrote back. A couple of weeks after our meeting, and after she told me there was something missing, and we’d both signed off on writing any more, she wrote me to give me some advice about the way I advertise my age on L&F. I mean, really, who is she to give me advice - I’ve been there years, and she’s been there two weeks. But it was a good natured email, and I felt perhaps she regretted being too hasty in rejecting me. So I sent back a slightly challenging email, and she wrote again, and now I’ve written another - but I don’t think she’s noticed my little jokes. She may have certain qualities, this Barbara, but creative imaginative playfulness is not one of them. In fact, I’m not sure I found anybody on L&F with that quality - especially considering the number of creative, imaginative and playful intro messages I’ve sent out to a world of silence.

Photos of American and British troops torturing Iraqi prisoners are rocking the political world on both sides of the pond. Of course it is horrifying to know that our civilised liberating armies are capable of such inhumane behaviour, of course it is. But who, in their right mind, would really believe such stuff doesn’t go on, and hasn’t gone on since the beginning of time. The only reason it’s shocking is because we haven’t seen such photos recently. I mean photos of starving and diseased impoverished peoples around the world are just as horrifying, and there’s millions of those to be had, but we’ve seen those. The trouble with these torture pics is that they’re used, along with so many other bits and pieces of news, to distort much bigger political issues, and to undermine trust in our leaders and in democracy. Again, I say it again, the media does not recognise its power and the terrible harm it is doing to latterday democracy. The underlying directive of every big news story is that our politicians should be perfect, they should have the answer to every question, every issue, and if they don’t they should be sacked. Well, that’s just ridiculous.

I haven’t written much about Adam recently. He’s definitely growing up. We argue less, but I’m not sure if that’s because I put up with his laziness and failure to follow the basic house rules more, or because he’s better at doing what he should. His As exams begin in less than two weeks. As usual, I don’t think he’s worked anywhere near hard enough, not during term, nor now in the run-up to the exams. He thinks he’s going to get A grades (and A grades would certainly make his university applications easier) but I don’t think he realises how difficult that will be. Not one of his teachers is predicting he will get an A grade, and their predictions are based on the work he’s done during term.

One hobby has got him excited in the last few weeks: growing marijuana. He’s been given some seeds and is growing them in pots upstairs. One of the twins is trying to grow some in the woods (because he doesn’t want to tell his parents), and other friends are growing the stuff as well. I was pleased that Adam talked to me about it, and I didn’t want to ban him, but I made him promise that I wouldn’t regret the decision to turn a blind eye. One day, after coming from school and racing upstairs to have a look at his pots, he came storming down and demanded that I come with him to see ‘true beauty’ - his seeds had just germinated. The dear of him.

12 May 2004

I did type up my 1980 journal many years ago, but I skipped large parts, and lightly edited what I was typing in. It might have seemed sensible at the time, but it’s a real pain now. It takes almost as long to convert the half-typed up diary to a full and original text version as it would take to type it from scratch. Diary 14 is particularly interesting because it documents my breakdown, and it does so rather graphically. I seem to be crying almost every day. I’m constantly putting pressure on Rosina to have sex with me, even though she has a boyfriend (we were actually living together, although I can’t recall whether we had our own beds or not), and relying on her for emotional comfort. What comes across is that I’m very aware of my situation, of my breaking down, of my inner turmoil, and my failure to do anything about it; and of my behaviour with others, sparkling on odd occasions with strangers but weak and demanding at home. I’ve just reached 20 May (almost exactly 24 years ago), the day I turned the room into a spider’s web with metallic ribbon, and danced to a record which was playing the same few seconds over and over and over again, because the needle had got caught in a groove.

I’ve finished Le Carré’s ‘Absolute Friends’. I don’t think it’s a successful novel. The use of the present tense (which is sometimes confusingly employed) leaves the reader constantly expecting the story proper to start on the next page. There is hardly any plot or tension to speak of, it is just the colourful story of Mundy’s life. But Mundy is not a new character, we have seen him before in Le Carré’s books. I don’t remember novels very well, but I have a strong image of the main character in ‘The Tailor of Panama’ (because I recently saw the film again) and all the time I was reading ‘Absolute Friends’ I could not get the Tailor (I forget the character’s name) out of my mind, there were so many similarities, not in the superficial detail, but in all the underlying character stuff. When ‘Absolute Friends’ came out, I remember there was fluff-talk about it being anti-Blair or anti-the war on terrorism. I found it very inconsequential in that regard, barely political at all. OK, the last scene, in which Mundy dies, tells of an absurd American anti-terrorist operation, and the inevitable cover-up, but it doesn’t carry any real weight or meaning.

On television, I watch a recent, and very violent, Japanese film called ‘Battle Royale’. The basic premise is that teenagers have got out of control and the government has passed a law requiring, every year, one school class, chosen at random, to be taken to a control island to play Battle Royale. Each child (I suppose there were about 15 or 16) is given supplies and a weapon and they are fitted with an electronic tag around their necks. They are told they must now proceed to kill each other, so that, at the end of three days, only one of them is living. There is a commander and command unit which monitors every part of the island and every child, and reports are broadcast every six hours. As time progresses, the parts of the island the children can use is reduced (anyone in a danger area after the allotted time is killed by having his/her tag explode). Some of the children become very violent quickly, others kill themselves, and others simply try to hide. It’s not as shocking as it should be, but the characters and individual stories are done well. I’m not sure the overall effect - very much derivative of computer games I suppose - was worth all that violence.

I’m not sure I’ve ever mentioned ‘Friends’ in these pages before. Everyone’s talking about it, because the famous series - probably one of the most famous in the world, and one Adam has always loved - is coming to an end. I never used to watch it but in the last year or so I have found myself switching on. It is very funny and endearing, and one does become very fond of the six characters. No doubt, in the future, I’ll watch some of the earlier episodes (like I did with ‘Cheers’ last year).

23 May 2004

It’s eleven days since my last diary entry. Since then, I’ve launched my PiKLe PuBLiSHiNG website. Finally. I’ve been mulling this for a long time; but I was galvanised into action when I realised it was time for my EC Inform account to close (having long since planned to close it down at the end of the current annual subscription). As it transpired, I missed the annual deadline, and had to keep EC Inform for another month, which was just as well, because I hadn’t yet informed anyone of the change in my email address. But, thinking about sending off an email to all my scattered friends, I thought that I’d quite like to have my website at least up and running so I could mention it discretely on my emails.

So, www.pikle.co.uk is born (it’s a domain name which routes through to www.pikle.demon.co.uk). I’ve called it PiKLe PuBLiSHiNG, the personal website of Paul K. Lyons, and I’ve set it up with four main sections Projects, Fiction, Miscellany and Journal. Under projects, I’ve basically put all my books, Kip Fenn, London Cross, Love Uncovered, TomSpin, Begetting - Loss - Recovery and Screen Spun. Each one will have it’s own introduction/home page, from where a few extracts will be available. Extracts from Kip Fenn and London Cross are already available (plus they have their own domain names which route through to their introduction page). But, having reviewed some pages from BLR for instance, I realise that the older books could do with some revision before re-promoting them through pikle. If I decide to publish Kip Fenn myself, then I can simply make the Kip Fenn introductory page the home page and entry to a more extensive set of pages about the book and how to buy it.

In the fiction section, I’m making freely available short stories (and I’ll add old ones whenever I’m inspired to review and re-edit them). I decided I needed a separate section for non-fiction, so I’ve called it Miscellany. To begin with I’ve put a link to the Eurelectric book, one of the essays I’ve done for my BSc course, and a letter I wrote to Michael Checkland. Why not. And then there’s the Journal section, which will end up being the biggest section. I decided to make month-long files the standard, and to try and upload one new month-long file regularly every week or so. All the 1974 files (from diary one) are uploaded, and I’m working on the diary two files for 1975.

There are four other sections to the website: a link to the EC Inform archive, a site map, a site history (which provides a record of what files were uploaded when, which is more for me, I suppose than anyone else - well the whole site is only about making me feel good, I doubt it’ll ever get much traffic), a site map, and a contact page.

I took on a cold this week. It started as sandpaper in my throat for a couple of days, then transformed me into a sneezing/nose-dribbling machine for a couple more days, and is currently trying to turn me into a coughing fit. But I’m fighting back. After two or three bad nights, I had a good sleep last night, and today have felt more able to get on with things. As far as I can recall, these are the first days of illness I’ve had (apart from alcohol induced) since I started running last summer. I’m not sure yet whether I’ll be well enough to go away walking this week. I’ve got all the books and maps to do 3-4 days along Offa’s Dyke (planned to keep me away from home during my birthday). I’ve promised to be back for next Sunday, when Adam and I will go to Mum’s for roulards.

Last Saturday I did the second of the six day field trips in my Photography/Planning/Mapping module. This is a second year course (which I’ve been allowed to do because the only first year course on offer during the summer was cancelled). The day was spent with Lalage Grundy on Box Hill. In groups of four (thank goodness I found myself with three other reasonable bods), we learned how to map woodland vegetation, and how to classify it. The day was enjoyable, and, I did learn stuff. Subsequently, I took a day and a half to write up the associated essay (but, as with my two level one essays, it was twice as long as stipulated!).

The garden is simply wonderful at the moment. I can’t help wandering around it a dozen times a day. There are the seedlings in the vegetable plots to examine (lettuce, spinach, cucumber, courgette, pumpkin, aubergine, sweet corn, runner beans, radish) and the potato plants; the azaleas blooming their usual brilliant yellow, and one of several other azaleas which still has its red buds, despite the deer foraging; the pink weigelia coming into flower next to the orange flowers of the broom; the ubiquitous purple of the rhododendron; the ceanothus by the side wall is fluorescent skyblue, and the cornflowers are slightly less dazzling. Although the apple trees have suffered a devastating flower die off, perhaps from the recent waterlogging, the hawthorn (Paul’s scarlet) is showing off gorgeously this year. I’ve been repotting a lot of the container plants in the last few days, and giving my few bonsai a little care. I lost several bonsai over the last year, especially my favourite, the little yew and all the oaks, so I’ve dug up a yew and an oak, both several years old, and I’m going to try and bonsai them over the next couple of years (assuming I haven’t killed them in the process of digging them up).

29 May 2004

I left around 8:30pm on Tuesday night. I’d been planning to go away for 3-4 days over my birthday for weeks, and I’d been studying library maps and Offa’s Dyke books for ages, and I still hadn’t decided how to plan my walk. Then, last week, I got a bad cold, which knocked me sideways for three days. Since it usually takes my body two weeks to recover from colds, over the weekend I was thinking I wouldn’t be able to go at all. Also, the hard skin on the heel of one of my feet had cracked, and was worrying me; and, I learned from the weather forecast, heavy rain would hit Wales on Saturday; and, I discovered on the internet that the Hay book festival would begin on Friday making accommodation a major problem that weekend. I had begun to see if there was another 3-4 day period that would do instead, but there wasn’t (for one fairly minor reason or another). Come Monday/Tuesday, I felt surprisingly better, and physically able (even though I hadn’t run or done any yoga for a week), if not 100%. On Tuesday evening, I got increasingly cross with Adam, who seemed to be do everything he could to wind me up, despite me pleading with him to stop. In the end I just lost my cool, ate supper alone and decide to go there and then.

I drove round the M25 to the A40, and stayed on the A40 through to Ross-on-Wye then took the A49 to very near Hereford. It must have been around midnight that I started looking for a place down a quiet country road where I could sleep. It proved surprisingly difficult, and I ended up parking in the gateway to a field, and trying to sleep in my sleeping bag on sloping rough ground with long grass between the car and the gate. But the ground proved too sloping and too rough, and I couldn’t get to sleep. I moved to inside the car and tried to curl up on the back seat, but, eventually, my inability to stretch my legs meant I couldn’t sleep properly there either (as I knew it would), so I moved to the front seat. I wound the seat down as low as it would go, and tried again. I did sleep, but very fitfully (as I knew I would), since you can’t lie on your stomach on the seats at that angle, and even lying on your side is hard. Waking very early, I drove on into Hereford (passing a little open flat lawn, not overlooked by houses which would have been a perfect sleeping place) and sorted out a parking place. I then set about hitching, aiming for Monmouth first, and then Chepstow. I’d already established that the first bus from Hereford to Monmouth didn’t leave before 8:45, and then I’d have to change to another bus for Chepstow - the whole journey would take several hours, and I wouldn’t be started on my walk till late morning. So I hitched, and hitched, and hitched. There was a good and regular flow of cars and lorries, but none stopped for me, or even looked like they were contemplating stopping. It was very dispiriting, but I kept telling myself, it wouldn’t matter if I had to wait for the bus, and I didn’t start till later - it simply wasn’t important. But then, luck, for once, was on my side. A chap pulled over and was not only going to Monmouth (itself requiring a turn off the main road I was hitching on, the assumption of most drivers would have been that I was going to Ross), but on to Chepstow too! He proved to be an interesting companion. He’d been trekking in Nepal, and done some hitching, and he understood the walker’s problem of getting to or from the start or beginning of walks. He was married with two young children, and felt a bit tied down, and in a rut (he complained about not having any career’s advice at school/uni) in his housing job, and unable to get away on his own for even a day or two. I told him to invent a conference! It was a great nippy lift, and he dropped me on the outskirts of Chepstow by 8:30 or so. I walked through the town looking for breakfast and found it at Tesco’s.

And I was off. I used Christopher John Wright’s ‘A guide to Offa’s Dyke Path’ with its very detailed notes and hand-drawn maps. I also had the relevant Ordnance Survey Landranger series maps.

I’ve just looked back in my diaries, and find that I last walked on this part of the Offa’s Dyke Path nearly 15 years ago, in the autumn of 1989. I wrote then about the dyke itself, and it’s origins, so I don’t need to repeat that here. During this walk, I couldn’t remember exactly which parts I’d visited last time, although I knew I’d done the walk in reverse and north of Hay. In fact, I did Knighton to Kington one day, Kington to Hay another day, and, from Hay over Black Mountain to Pandy (from where I went straight to Abergavenny to catch the train) on the third day. This time round, I did Chepstow to Monmouth, Monmouth to Pandy (and by car, on to Llanthony), and Llanthony to Hay (but round Black Mountain, not over it), and so I didn’t repeat myself at all.

It’s also worth noting at this point that I’ve had it in my head that I’ve done a part of Offa’s Dyke Path in the north, but I’ve just checked this out, and I haven’t. I must have been confused with the time I went walking in Snowdonia. Had I realised that I hadn’t done any of the path north of Knighton, I might have chosen, this time round, to do so.

The walk started well enough, crossing the old bridge across the Wye out of Chepstow with a stunning view of Chepstow castle, and climbing up the hill to Tutshill, past lovely meadows, copses, older houses and traces of the Dyke. To Wintour’s Leap, a rocky cliff high above the Wye, some road walking, and lots of walking in woods without views across the river valley, sometimes on top of parts of the Dyke which are still huge (much bigger than I remember seeing on my previous walk), and to the Devil’s Pulpit, a little limestone outcrop that really does look like a pulpit and is one of the few places along the route from which you can see down into the valley, and to Tintern Abbey.

I was already quite tired by this point and I did not even consider the idea of descending so far down to the river, and crossing the bridge to visit the abbey, and then walking back (adding at least two miles to a journey that was already 16-18 miles long). North of the Devil’s Pulpit comes a magnificent section of Offa’s Dyke. Walking along beneath it, one can see so many old trees (oaks, yews and beeches mostly I think) with their sinewy and gnarled roots showing. I imagine this is because the trees have had trouble growing their roots in the first place down through the Dyke’s boulders in search of soil, and because, over the years, the topsoil has run off exposing more of the root systems. I did wonder as to whether there would have been so much woodland cover at the time the dyke was built, and also how the builders managed to dig up the rocks from heavily root-filled earth and stack it up to form the dyke between big trees. Perhaps the hillsides were completely cleared first. Since Offa meant for the dyke to be a territorial symbol as well as or even more than a defensive barrier, I imagine it must have been visible from the valley and the hills on the Welsh side of the Wye - but with woodland all around it today, it’s not visible from afar at all.

I marched on to Brocksweir where I hoped and prayed I’d find a teahouse. There was a tea-shack in a horse and pony rescue centre, but it was a boil-your-own-water, and put-the-money-in-the-tin place. I thought I’d find somewhere better in the village, but all I found was a closed pub. I lay by the river for a while, washing my feet, reading my guidebook, dozing, and, at 12, returned to the pub for a cheese sandwich and pint of orange juice (£2.40). The landlord, who had only bought the pub a few months earlier, was very chatty. He chatted about the locals, and his initiatives, and his growing custom (he even told me how many baked potatoes he sells in a week).

From Brocksweir I chose to take the alternative route, not through the hills, but along the Wye River. It was a flat walk, very pretty, through meadows of buttercups mostly. Astonishingly, there was no activity along the river at all (apart from a couple of swans), no boats or fishermen; nor were there any buildings by the waterside. I think the river must flood regularly, because the flat meadows, through which I walked, were also devoid of any houses or buildings. Indeed, the whole area was surprisingly unpopulated. I thought there might be a teahouse at Bigsweir, but there was nothing but a road and a bridge. This is the highest tidal point of the Wye I found out later. From Bigsweir I pressed on past lesser evidence of the dyke, through more woods, and across more fields. By the time I reached Redbrook I was exhausted, my feet were aching. I was, though, sure of a cup of tea, since my guide book map showed ‘cafe’. But there was no cafe, only a shop, where I bought a pint of milk and a Mars bar. I snacked in the park, and then decided to hitch the last two or three miles into Monmouth (thereby missing out on two celebrated buildings back on the hills - the Naval Tower and the Round House). I got a lift easily enough and, once in Monmouth, staggered into the nearest B&B, regardless of price (£25). It was clean and comfortable, and the landlady brought me a jug of fresh milk to go with the tea-making facilities. I showered quickly and changed, and despite my weariness went to walk around Monmouth very slowly, largely because the shops were still open and there was some life in the town. After tea and a slice of caramel shortcake, I went to visit the castle and Great Castle House, both of which are poorly served by being stuck on the sides of a large car park, as though the car park were the main attraction. There’s not that much left of the castle, just parts of the 12th and 13th century walls and tower (although the castle originated in 1068, two years after the Norman invasion). Great Castle house is over 300 years old, a fine Renaissance building, in the Italianate style influence by Inigo Jones. Glass-covered panels on external walls tell the story of both buildings.

By 5:30 I was flopped in my bed at the B&B. I slept through part of the evening, before waking to do a bit of sorting out, drink a cup of tea, watch a bit of telly, and flop back to sleep.

Thankfully, chance had led me to a B&B with an early breakfast - 7:15. It was a good breakfast but for the company. There was one other lodger, and he immediately made a cutting remark about not having a walking stick or boots in the corridor. And, before I’d managed to ask any questions, he had launched into telling me all about why fishing was so much more superior to walking as a leisure pursuit, and why game fishing was superior to coarse fishing, and how he’d caught fish which he’d sold to a famous chef, and how he had three boats up and down the country, and how he wasn’t a wader (no need to wade when the fish will eventually come to you). Yawn, yawn, yawn, yawn, yawn.

I was on the road before 8:00, marching through Monmouth, over the famous gatehouse bridge (unique in Britain) built originally in 1270, passing through a housing estate and along Watery Lane, and through King’s Wood (where the signposting was much better than my guide book had led me to expect - perhaps because it had been improved since the book was published). I also passed by the site of the Grace Dieu Abbey, without knowing it, and even if I had of known it, I wouldn’t have known it, because there’s not a stone or trace of it left. Much of the morning’s walk was in the valley of the cutely named Trothy River. I crossed many pretty fields, and walked through many lovely woods. Everywhere hawthorn and buttercups were in bloom. Although I had used my map and guide book a lot on the first day, this was because I wanted to identify where I was in relation to the dyke, but there was no dyke to see on this walk, and the waymarking was almost perfect. There was one moment though, where I nearly went badly wrong. I was following the yellow arrows with scarcely a thought, and walked past a farmhouse and through a gate. When the gate clicked shout the farmer came out of his house and shouted across to me:
‘Do you want Offa’s Dyke Path?’
‘Then you’re going the wrong way, you need to go down the road 300 yards and turn left.’
‘But I was just following the waymarks.’
‘They’re a bit confusing.’

Although I said thanks, I was a bit disgruntled at first, thinking he didn’t want me walking on his land. But, when retracing my steps, I realised I’d been following the wrong way markers. I stopped for a while at Llantilio-Crosseny. I left my pack on the wall and walked up the hill to St Teilo parish church. It is said that the Saxons won a battle here thanks to the prayers of St Teilo, a 6th century bishop of Landaff. The church was built in the 13th century, and had a tall spire visible from miles around. Unusually, inside there are four massive wooden posts supporting the bells in the tower. A cute flat stone in the chancel floor depicts a man who died in 1621 with his wife and three children. There was, once, a pub in this village, called the Hostry. An inn is known about since 1459, but the present inn was closed in 1859 after a murder and not reopened until 1900. It seemed to be a private house when I passed it.

From here, I decided to skip the official route and go by road, in the hope of a lift. I stopped to admire Hen Cwrt (the Old Court), the site of a moated manor in the 13th and 14th century, possibly belonging to the bishops of Landaff. The squarish moat is in good condition, and the central area just a lawn, a nice place for picnics. You can see St Teilo’s spire not far away on the hill. I waited half an hour to get a lift, but only three cars passed me, and none of them stopped. So, I ended up walking to the White Castle. It wasn’t that far.

This was the highlight of the day. On arriving I was extremely tired, so I sat down and I ate my sandwiches before buying a ticket for £1.50. I had hoped there might be a teahouse here, but there wasn’t. There was an elderly lady, sitting in a small hut selling tickets, and a few souvenirs. But it must be a pretty lonely job: I was there an hour, and there was only one other family group visiting the whole time. I loved this place. It looks like a real castle should look, and it has a real moat, deep with steep sides, and which would be very difficult to cross. There’s an outer curtain wall, around the side ward or bailey, and a very strongly fortified inner curtain wall, in a pear shape with six strong towers. You can even see the stone ridges which housed the portcullis. The earliest masonry, I read, dates from 1155, and the earliest records of a castle also date from Henry II’s reign when it was called Llantilio Castle. The main inner walls, though, are 30 years younger. A hundred years later, when the Welsh were on the offensive during the English civil war between Henry III and Earl Simon de Montfort, the White Castle was considerably fortified (with the towers, and the outer walled ward; the inner keep was also demolished at this time). My guide book says, the White Castle was then a grimly efficient structure, completely lacking in ornamental detail or grace or design. Unlike other castles nearby, this one was never used as a domestic residence, and was essentially military, the garrison being accommodated in simple halls ranged along the inner faces of the curtain wall.

From the White Castle it was about three miles to St Cadoc’s Church in Llangattock Lingoed. This is mentioned in the guide book, but without any detail. It’s not a very grand church, and, at the time the guide book was written it’s possible there wasn’t much information available. But, it must have won a lottery heritage grant, because there was lots of information available when I visited, and even some free booklets to take away. The booklet tells me, in fact, that the church was reopened in 2002-03 following an extensive renovation project. St Cadoc (I read) was one of the most important early Welsh saints; and Llangattock Lingoed is a ‘superb example’ of a pre-Norman settlement - llan indicating a sacred site. By 1100, the Normans had conquered the area. A church was in place by 1254, built from locally-quarried stone, and rendered with limewash. For 300 years it was decorated in strong colours depicting biblical scenes (and there is a fragment still visible). The most interesting thing about the church, I think, is an intricately carved ‘great bessumer beam’, dating from the late 1400s, which crosses the church just in front of the chancel. It once supported a rood loft and held the rood screen.

After the restful St Cadoc, I still had a way to go, back again on the main Offa’s Dyke Path, before reaching Pandy (where I knew a cup of tea would be waiting me). I struggled on, and was full of joy as I descended down towards the village. The path crosses the main road at the Lancaster Arms, which was closed, and about a mile away from the Old Pandy Inn (which is where I’d planned to put up for the night) one way, and a mile from another village with shops the other way. I was mortified to find no sustenance at this recognised end to a day’s walk on the Offa’s Dyke Path. I asked a man working in his garden where to get refreshment, and he brought me out two glasses of water, one of sparkling water, one of still water!.

I debated long and hard with myself what to do. The debate was complicated by the knowledge that I did not want to do the next stretch of the Offa’s Dyke Path - i.e. over Black Mountain - partly because I’d done it before, and partly because I expected the weather to be poor on the next day. So I hit on a great plan, I would try and hitchhike to a place called Llanthony (which was kind of half way to Hay, around the side of Black Mountain and a place I wanted to visit anyway), where there were ruins of an impressive abbey and stay in a B&B there for the night and worry about tomorrow tomorrow. I hitched on the main road, and cadged a lift from a South African, thus saving me the mile walk before I had to turn off on to the country roads. I must have waited an hour at Llanvihangel Crucorney before an old dear gave me a lift half a mile. But then I got a lift within 15 minutes all the way to Llanthony with a toughish looking guy who worked at the Abbey Hotel which owns the Llanthony Abbey ruins. He told me he’d taken part the previous weekend in a 46 kilometre race over the Black Mountains - the winner finished in a little over six hours. I told him it had taken me six hours to do about half that! He also told me there was no B&B in Llanthony, although I could stay at the Abbey Hotel for £80 night or at the Half Moon for much less. However, the owner of the Half Moon, I was told, would be away until 7:00 (visiting his sick wife in hospital).

I walked the few metres from where I’d been dropped off to the Llanthony Abbey ruins and the Abbey Hotel, which has refurbed one of the abbey towers for house guests. The combination of new and old has been tastefully achieved, and the owners of the hotel are to be congratulated for allowing free and unfettered access to the ruins, despite them being right next to (and indeed part of) the hotel itself. The ruins are glorious, with high arched walls along the nave (apparently one of the earliest examples without capitals and a continuous moulding), a central tower, and two west towers (which when you walk round the back of the hotel you can see must have provided an austere entrance to the abbey). The abbey was founded by William de Lacy, Lord of Hereford, during Henry I’s reign. He had a deep religious conversion, we are told, and became an anchorite. Most of the church was completed by 1115, but it was often targeted by raiders, and within 20-30 years most of the monks had already left. My guide book says it had no more than ‘a shadowy existence’ until the dissolution. I took off my shoes and socks and wondered through the grassy lawns beneath the ancient walls all alone and in spiritual joy.

Since there was at least an hour and a half to go before the Half Moon guy would be back, I decided to try and hitch on even further to Capel-y-ffin where I knew there was a youth hostel (it would also mean I was that much closer to Hay, and able, if I wanted to, to press on well beyond Hay in search of accommodation on the next day). I sat on a very pretty bridge over a small river by a narrow road waiting for cars. None came. In the distance, I could hear the roar of machinery, and a 100 metres further along the road, on a bend, a girl seemed to be hanging around. When a car finally did come (I was peeing at the time, and so missed being able to hitch it), she stopped it. The car waited until a forklift-type truck drove past it into a field carrying a huge quantity of branches. It had been clipping the roadside hedges. After a while I talked to the girl. She said there had been plenty of traffic all afternoon, she knew, she said, because she had had to stop it all. She offered to talk to the next cars and try and get me a lift, but I declined. Two more cars passed in the next half hour. I strolled round to the Half Moon to see if anyone was home, there wasn’t. I carried on hitching on an empty road. After what seemed a long time, the hedge-trimming farmer and the girl (his daughter I supposed) shut up shop and went home, and 20 minutes later a car stopped to pick me up. A fat older guy, with long grey hair, and a very slim young woman explained that they lived next door to the youth hostel, and that they ran a pony trekking business. So, I rolled into the Youth Hostel at about 6:45, just in time for dinner. I signed up for membership, a night’s stay, a dinner and a breakfast.

Unfortunately, the three lower bunks in the room were already taken so I had to have a top bunk. I tried to sort out my stuff, but there wasn’t much room. Supper was a dish of coq au vin, peas and potatoes, and tasty it was too. The other four eating supper (three together and one single who had already bonded) made no attempt to include me in their conversation, so I made no attempt to include them in mine. I spent most of the evening reading a Grisham paperback I found in the hostel. I tried to stay up as late as possible knowing I’d want to sleep through the night undisturbed.

I was very comfy in bed, and thought I would drift off nicely; and, indeed, I think I did. I was probably on the cusp of moving from REM sleep into a deep satisfying sleep, when my dreamworld took me too far and my conscious self interceded: I was in danger, a crowd of enemies had captured me and lifted me above their heads. I woke up screaming ‘no’! And, thereafter, I couldn’t get back to sleep. The room was too hot, too dark, there was no air, the guy underneath was wriggling all the time.

My 52nd birthday starts here. In the middle of the night I plotted how I could get out of the room. I decided to climb down out of the bunk about half way and then bunch up my sheet sleeping bag and duvet and creep out of the room. I managed the first part OK, but then I hit my head on the low lampshades, creating one ruckus, and then I couldn’t find the door handle, or how to open the door. I’ve no idea what time it was, but I was so relieved once I got downstairs, and laid myself out in the middle of the lounge floor, where it was cooler, where there was no one else to disturb, and where there was no one else wriggling around. I thought I would drift off to sleep easily; but I didn’t, and I don’t know why. Except that my heart has been giving me a lot of trouble recently, in that I’m much more aware of it pumping/working than I ever used to be, especially when my heart rate is up for one reason or another. And being aware of it, somehow makes me less able to relax and allow myself not to be aware of it. I lay there for ages, half dozing, and then decided I was uncomfortable because the floor was hard, so I tried to move to one of the benches, which were padded, only to discover that they were too narrow, and that I would never be able to sleep on them. So, having wriggled my way to the bench inside the sheet sleeping bag and duvet, I then had to wriggle my way back. And then, just as I was dozing off again, I realised that I was sleeping in such a position that if any of the women in the women’s dorm were to come out in the night to go to the loo, they’d bump into, or climb over, me. So again, I shifted position.

I woke up for the last time, around 6:30 before anyone else was up, which was fine. This gave me a chance to pack up my sleeping stuff, take it upstairs quietly into the dorm, retrieve my clothes, and get dressed. I then went for a glorious early morning walk, back along the country lane from the youth hostel to the Capel-y-ffin hamlet. The road runs parallel to the river Eywas with the Black Mountain high above. At Capel, there’s a lovely little old cottage church with a skew wooden mini-tower, and a ring of very old yew trees in the churchyard. Also in Capel are the ruins of the Victorian Llanthony Monastery, once owned by the artist Eric Gill. Although I forgot my map, I knew there was a path round the back of the village and along the contour of the hill back to the hostel, which made for a perfect journey through the fields, and higher up the valley. I returned with just enough time before breakfast to pack my bags, and check my maps and decide on a route for the morning. I felt obliged to talk to the guy who had slept under me during the early part of the night, a cyclist who had insisted on spending much of the previous evening puffing himself up as a devotee of the Hay Literary Festival. I also talked to two Belgian walkers (with huge packs) who were in trouble over where to stay the next night (because of the Hay festival).

I thought I would be spending most of the journey to Hay on roads, but in fact there was a good path, a sheep track, higher up the hillside, much of the way around the Black Mountain. After spending much of the last two days walking through woods and fields, it was good to be trekking across some open country. Not for a minute did I regret not having walked across the top of Black Mountain. I remember it as a tedious, long walk, often across peaty bogs.

After a couple of hours, my route rejoined the Offa’s Dyke Path at the bottom of Hay Bluff, but then, somewhere along the way, I lost the official route, and ended up improvising through some back country lanes. What I remember most about them (and indeed about most of the other country lanes I walked on) are the hedgerows. Some were as tall as trees, and all were dense and thriving with so many species - flowers white, pink, red, yellow, purple - I couldn’t count them all. I wondered why no species was ever able to dominate the hedgerows in the way that trees sometimes dominate woods, or certain grasses dominate fields. And the only conclusion I came to was that the hedgerow environment is so conducive to trapping seedlings and providing a moist fertile environment for them to grow in, that no one or several species has a way of keeping the others out. Hedgerows are a true wonder of this country.

Despite only walking for three hours or so, I was very tired when I reached Hay. I sat on a street bench for half an hour, just to give my feet a chance to recover. Then I strolled through the town and chose a place for coffee and cake, and rested more. Even though it was my birthday, I couldn’t bring myself to buy an expensive cake, and opted for an over-sweet flapjack. It was about midday by this time. I can’t say Hay was buzzing, but it was busy, and there were already many visitors/tourists who were there for the festival. At the tourist office, I got the times of the buses to Hereford, and then I made my way to the festival site, built up with tents and marquees around a school (half term having just started). Looking over the programme, I found two events that evening (the first of the festival) I thought about attending, and then I took a few minutes to decide on a plan. I bought the tickets, and then raced to the bus stop, being just in time for the bus to Hereford (the next one would have been two hours later). It was a small bus, that jogged along a number of country lanes, taking an hour or so to get to the county city.

I was still weary, and my feet still hurt, but at least I’d had a decent rest on the bus. In the tourist office, I picked up a map; in Marks & Spencers I bought espadrilles and swimming trunks; and in a chic wholefood shop/restaurant I bought a large sandwich which I ate in the rain while standing on the old bridge over the Wye. From there, I went to the Hereford Leisure Pool, where I swam for 20 minutes, and where I drank a bitter cup of tea (semi-skimmed milk only). From the pool, I walked to the outskirts of the city where I’d parked my car. It was about 3:30 by this time, and my first event in Hereford began at 6:00. I decided to return to Hay slowly, taking back roads and looking for anything unusual on the way. This is what I found: a fantastically old yew tree at Peterchurch, completely hollow in the centre, with the trunk being but a ring; and a fantastically old neolithic burial site called Arthur’s Stone (a huge chunk of flat limestone supported by smaller uprights - how on earth was it lifted?). I did not, however, find the ruins of Snodhill Castle, despite looking for them. They were in a private wood, and there was no obvious path through to them.

I arrived at Hay around 5:00, parked the car near the festival site, and went for long stroll around the town and through the woodland that fills the high bank between the town and the river. Despite Hay being full of tourists, and the festival not having started, I saw not one person along the pretty promenade - it’s slightly divorced from the town, and not clearly marked on the maps. I would have wished for the woodland to be slightly less dense, so that one could look down and along the river a little better.

At 6:00 I went to my first event: Richard Fortey talking about his book ‘Earth - an intimate history’. It was quite well attended, and interesting enough; but he’s a slight presenter, a modest lecturer I would say. He didn’t set an audience alight; and he didn’t give me any real insights about anything. If we’d been standing at a bar together, I might have mentioned that I had mentioned his book in my book (London Cross, along with several other science books), but we weren’t.

I had two hours to kill to my next event, so I went on another wonder through the village, this time stopping to buy fish and chips. There was no queue, and, as I sat near the clock tower working my way through the rubbery, old fish, I thought about how there is always a queue at the Aldeburgh chip shop, and how fresh and tasty its fish and chips are. Back at the festival site, I sat in the Orange Relax room (Orange was one of the festival’s promoters) reading the festival booklets and a ‘Time’ magazine I’d picked up for free. I also eavesdropped on a conversation between Orange employees discussing how the Orange Relax tent would work, and how they would prepare a report at the end highlighting all the benefits of the venture. I would have liked to have fallen into conversation with somebody somewhere, but it didn’t happen. At 9:00, I went to my second event a cabaret review called ‘Medium Rare’.

‘Medium Rare’ was quite a surprise. I’d never heard of any of the performers, or any of the directors of the short films that were also part of the cabaret. First on was the compere, whose name I can’t recall. He was quite full of himself, not as a comedian but as an entrepreneur pulling together the funniest and finest alternative acts across the country. He came on between each act and between each film, sometimes almost embarrassed to present the next thing (although clearly it had been his decision to include it on the programme). First on was Tina C, a country singer from Nashville - supposedly. Dressed in bright pink, and a mini-mini skirt, Tina C proved to be a very witty, very funny drag act. ‘Bushes’ was a short film compilation of women having their bushes waxed (although we only saw the top half of the women lying down). ‘Le Reveille’ was a silly short about a man who had the most extraordinary and elaborate mechanical systems for waking himself up, so he could be in time to close the gates at the level crossing outside his house for the first express train of the day. ‘Pool Cleaner’ was a kind of video diary of a pool cleaner who becomes famous by association with famous people. And the ‘Leaning Team’, which barely lasts a minute, is about a group of Hassidic Jews who stand together, and lean together, and practice. Chris Luby came on as a sergeant major figure, and used his voice against the microphone to emulate the sound of gunfire and aeroplanes. In one extended sequence he produced the sound of an aeroplane trying to start its engines, eventually taking off, flying and then landing. It was a gross use of his larynx, and a gross misuse of the microphone. I’m fairly sure it was Chris Luby who came on again, later, as Gunter the German porn star, dressed in leopard skin pants. His act was one long wank: the music was little more than rhythmic panting. Without actually touching his genitals, he moved his body on stage in a writhing way to emulate the idea that he was getting sexual satisfaction, he then moved through the audience, cocking his leg over men and women alike, and continuing his rhythmic undulations, as if using each person as a blow up doll (although it looked more like a dog cocking his leg up the side of a lamppost). This was gross to the power gross. The audience was laughing its head off (should that be: the audience were laughing their heads off; or the people in the audience were laughing their heads off!). And then there was Madame Galina, the Russian ballet star, another drag act. This time it wasn’t Chris Luby (or whatever his real name is) but a podgy gay fellow, dressed as a female ballerina, and acting as a petulant star. He/she proceeded to demand that we, in the audience, clap at her attempts at ballet, and that we recite certain words whenever she kicked her feet towards us. Again, I found this performer was doing little more than mocking the audience and it, the audience, was perfectly happy to laugh and be made fools of. I found it all quite disturbing.

While Tina C was genuinely funny and witty, in a self-deprecating way, the other acts were exploitative. It made me realise how far comedy has come since my day, and how my ideas about the decadence of our society are truly reflected in the degree to which audiences are prepared to sink for a laugh. On television, ‘Big Brother’ and other similar programmes seek to degrade individuals and this has become the norm, and completely accepted (a programme like ‘Distraction’, for example, goes to great lengths to embarrass the contestants). Whereas once we, in this country, were happy to laugh at the degrading antics of people in Japan (on TV clip programmes) we are now going the same way. It’s disturbing, very disturbing, and I’m sure it’s all part of the pattern of decadence that is sweeping our society towards decline.

June 2004

Paul K Lyons


Copyright © PiKLe PuBLiSHiNG

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