Thursday, June 12, 2008

My Great Britannic Adventure, Day Sixteen

Saturday, 1 April, 1989
Aberbran to Brecon to Holford, Somerset
Day Sixteen

Yesterday evening Mrs. Jones told me they’ve had 400 ewes in lamb the past week, plus another 150 owned by their son David (David Jones-- now that’s a charming name) [particularly for an old Monkees fan]. As I looked out my window onto the farm court when I got up around 8:30, I could see from the people crisscrossing it that they were hard at it.

I finished dressing and breakfast by 9:30, and then took Mrs. Jones up on her offer to see a bit of the livestock.

She took me first into the sheep shed, where they’d put the ewes that’d recently given birth. "This one here was born just an hour ago." It was a wet little black thing, still being licked dry by its mother, the remains of the umbilicus dangling from its little belly. The ewe trims that off herself. I asked, and so far they’ve had no trouble with mothers rejecting their young.

Sheep, meaning sheep dung, smell different than cattle. It’s kind of a sweetsy smell. It might be a bit much if you didn’t get used to it.

Next we went to the cattle shed, where the Charolais cattle, all blond with knobby heads, were feeding. The Joneses had taken them in for fattening. They also have a few Herefords but the Charolais is the coming breed and the former are becoming more rare. I told her about the Hereford Association and its
icon in Kansas City.

That shed also housed some ewes who were on the verge of giving birth. But none were ready immediately.

Paid my lodging and departed sometime after 10:00. Headed up the road to Brecon. I stopped first at the Post Office in its suburb of Llanfaes (yes, Brecon has an official suburb or two) to ask where I could find a card phone. The man told me where there was one in Brecon proper, but warned me it might be a little difficult to drive to it because of the parade.

And so it was. Streets closed and bobbies routing traffic round and round the narrow streets. I finally found a place where I could leave the car, and went back and asked a policeman. All in order, found the phone where he said and called down to Somerset about lodging for the next four nights. Place I wanted was full but the man suggested another not too far away, in a town called Holford, that was going for £8 a night. Called there and made my reservation.

That done, I headed back to the main square to watch the parade. It was really just a marching of the local militia, attended by the City Fathers in their regalia. But the band played and then the 43rd, I think,
Brecon Infantry marched by (with their mascot goat) and everyone cheered. I must admit that thoughts of IRA and Welsh Nationalist terrorists crossed my mind, but nothing untoward happened. The ranks marched off down the street and the crowds dispersed.

I headed for the National Westminster (solely by means of guesswork) to cash some traveller’s cheques. It wasn’t till I got there and found it closed that I remembered it’s Saturday. So I used the cash machine out front. £20 out.

Just as I finished, the town officials, the band, and the regiment marched around again, to the cheers and appreciation of the re-formed crowd.

Took my time going back to the car. Bought some postcards in a souvenir shop but didn’t see anything else I couldn’t live without.

The husband of the couple staying at the B&B had climbed the
Beacons yesterday and told me last night how to approach them by car. So I took the A470 southwards and soon found the turnoff for the Mountain Center.

They wanted 50p for the parking lot. Oh. Didn’t have it. When I went in to get change, the info officer told me that actually, to do the Beacons I needed the Mountain Rescue Post, farther down the A470. Though he wasn’t sure they would be worth climbing today, as visibility seemed rather low. I assured him it looked better outside than it did through his window, and asked if he thought I should wear my heavy coat or my nylon mac with extra sweaters beneath. He recommended the latter.

So. Found the right carpark, off the road opposite the roadhouse called the Story Arms. Put everything I figured I’d need in my backpack and headed across the highway. Beside the gate was one of the omnipresent British TeleCom phone boxes, though whether it was working is a tossup.

Over the stile and up the hill. Except for a planted coniferous forest on my right, there were no trees in view. The trail, such as it was, was rather muddy, and I was not thrilled to see how quickly I was getting tired. Even more fun when I got part way up the first bit of hill and decided, well, maybe I should go back and get my flashlight and my Swiss Army knife . . . .

So I retrieved them and began trudging up again. Got going at about 1:30. There were some other parties within sight, some of them were Army men. A few of them were stowing their gear into vans in the carpark when I went back.

There were two types of trails marked on my Ordnance Survey map-- one in black dashes, that cut more or less perpendicular to the contours, and one in red dots, that swung round an easier, more gradual way. Going by my seeming lack of stamina today, I decided to take the easier route, though it was the longer way around.

Going from by prior experience of hiking trails, there wasn’t much of one up this hillside. It was more of a system of ruts and gullies, some with water and some without, only distinguishable as a path by the innumerable bootmarks. Some pretty ill-placed bootmarks in some places, too. I’m getting practiced enough to know to go for the rocks and tussocks-- I’ve never heard yet that mud is very good for suede.

I read something somewhere that said not to absolutely trust even the Ordnance Survey maps. I could see now why they said that. There were a number of stone walls on that hill that weren’t even marked and it would’ve been very helpful to know how far I’d come.

Pretty soon I saw no others besides myself. It was very gray weather anyway and I got to thinking how hill climbing is so often a matter of faith. Earlier, at best, it’d looked like it did the day I drove up to Conques, as if I just might break out into sunlight if I went high enough.

After a time I came to a fence with a stile. Before I reached it two Army guys crossed it, coming back. Their hair was sopping wet and I wondered if it was raining on the top. If so, I hoped it’d stop by the time I got there.

On further, and I came to a stream (Nant in this neck of the woods). This was not how it was marked on my map-- unless-- oh, oh, yes-- I had taken the steeper trail after all. Yes, I had. Well, always one to make things difficult . . . Picked my way across as best I could, thankfully avoiding stepping into the water itself, then followed the ruts on up the hill.

My hopes of a clear day after all seemed to be waning. The wind picked up and drifts of fog blew down in visible trails off the top of the mountain. It was possible that meant all would soon be clear above, but I doubted it. The valley below became so fogged in I could not see where I’d been. All around me it was incredibly quiet, except for the songs of birds. Above me a lark, barely discernible through the mist, sang out her song of exultation as if the gloominess of the day hadn’t the least effect on her.

The fog grew thicker. But I wasn’t really worried, since the track, such as it was, was disgustingly plain. There was no missing that scar, as if some large vehicle with a variable wheelbase had ripped up the side of the hill, the gullies ornamented with boot tread marks. It was essential to keep an eye on it, though, because you never could tell when the solid place on which you trod would peter out into a water-filled hole.

Tried singing "Jesus, Lover of My Soul" (Tune: Aberystwyth) but I’ve never learned all the verses. Frustrating. "Once to Every Man and Nation" (Ton-y-Botel) comes easier:

"Toiling up new Calvaries ever,
With the cross that turns not back."

Came to a cross path, added my stone to the cairn that marked the junction and, having checked the map, took the fork to the right up to the summit of Bwlch Duwynt. Part way along there, two other silhouettes came looming out of the fog ahead of me, coming up a path that converged on mine. I immediately remembered Carcassonne and hung back till the two, both men in bright orange macs, had passed by.

I was able to relax a little, though, when I passed through the fog to that summit and practically stumbled over a family sitting there in the damp eating their lunch. And more people were coming down from the top of Pen y Fan, the highest of the Beacons.

It’s about another kilometer to that, according to the map. At this point you’re walking along a ridge with a pretty good drop on your right hand, or eastward, side. And that’s where all the storm was coming from. And by now it was getting to be a real storm, with strong winds and rains. But I was already this close to the top that it seemed silly to turn back, even if I couldn’t see five feet ahead of me. I could see the cairns marking the path on the lefthand side, and feel the path as it sloped gradually upwards. As long as that was so I knew I couldn’t get wrong and I was still on the way to the 886 [meter; 2,907 foot] summit.

Pretty soon, after passing others coming back, I caught sight of the two men I’d seen before, standing by a monstrous cairn. The trail no longer went upwards and I said, "Is this it?"

Yes, I was told. And they headed down.

I stood there a moment or two despite the sleet, allowing myself time to actually be there at the top-- and despite there being no view whatsoever. The cameras were useless.

So I put them in my pack and turned to go. The two men were standing by the side of the trail, pulling on their waterproof trousers. They hailed me, and, seeing that they were two whitehaired men in their 70s, I decided they were ok. Besides, there were tons of others around, fog or no.

They were both Welsh, local; one was Vernon and the other Roy. They’ve climbed these hills in all weathers and always put on their
foul weather gear when their regular trousers get wet. They decided I needed more protection and pulled out a spare mac and insisted I put it on.

So it fell out that we went down together, talking as we went. As we approached the path back to the summit of Bwlch Duwynt, one of them said, "All right, which way do we go now?"

I, having to be a showoff, took no time to consider or check the map-- and promptly chose the wrong way (couldn’t see the right way, actually). At which I got a short lecture about wondering around in the fog by myself. The silly thing is, if I’d been by myself, I wouldn’t’ve been so glib and thoughtless about it.

As we went, I bore with their chiding me for wearing cotton jeans-- they said I should have worn my wool flannels, at least. Learned all sorts of things, such as that Vernon’s daughter and grandson live in Connecticut, and he’s a science major and a certified genius but was turned down by Cal Tech. Did I think that was because he’s from Great Britain? I really couldn’t say. And Vernon’s been to Connecticut, but doesn’t like it-- "It’s a jungle." I thought he was speaking of the urban jungles of New Haven or Hartford but he clarified, "There’s too many trees. You can’t see anything. No point in walking there at all."

Well, you can’t accuse Brecon of that fault. But I tried to explain that there can be real excitement in breaking out above a timberline. He does approve of Martha’s Vineyard, though. Only place he’d be willing to stay.

They told me that fifteen-twenty years ago when they first started hiking the Beacons, this monstrous rutted track under our feet was just a little sheep trace. "Now they call it the M4," said one.

"The mountain’s popularity is killing it," said the other.

Vernon complained about how the US National Parks all charge admission. I felt it would be useless to point out that yes, but that money goes to pay for trail upkeep. You’d never have an eroded disgrace like this in Rocky Mountain National.

We talked about me and what I’m doing in England a little bit. It was obvious they thought I was some kind of undergraduate, until I told them otherwise. Even so, one of them asked, "What does your mother think about her daughter being out doing this sort of thing on her own?"

I tried gently to convince them that Mom’s had a lot of years to get used to it.

So comes the question, "How old are you?"

At which point I sweetly request to keep my own counsel and the other man reminds his friend that it’s not polite to ask ladies their ages. Damn right.

The fog lifted successively the lower we went. I got the cameras out again but they still weren’t much good-- misted up inside.

We took a shorter way down than the way I'd come up, and came out at the opposite side of the pine forest.They shared their coffee and tea biscuits with me back down at the carpark. I have long since decided that it’s rude to refuse such hospitality by insisting on touching nothing but tea, so I drank the coffee and thank you for it.

They yelled at me a little for being up there with no compass or matches and I suppose they were right. Somehow I can’t get all that worked up about a great bald-headed hill, but I could see from my map that if I’d gotten off on that other path it would’ve been a damn long way before I’d’ve found a road. (Still doesn’t scare me much, though-- I’d’ve noticed pretty quickly that the contours didn’t match those of my intended path on the map.)

Vernon gave me a lift back to my car and showed me the route to the M4 at Cardiff and then back to England. I bade him thanks and farewell, then sat there awhile resting and eating a meat pie I’d bought in Brecon and had intended to have at the summit. It was 4:30.

That done, I put my muddy shoe to the gas pedal and took off south down the A470, the interval wipers going most of the time. Though sometimes it really rained in earnest. Could’ve missed the entrance for the M4 because some jerk Welsh Nationalist had spraypainted over the sign, but I kept my eyes open and made it onto the eastbound anyway.

It felt very fine to go 70 mph (80!) again. (The Welsh gentlemen had said I looked like someone who’d do that on the motorway-- "She’s got that glint in her eye." Oh really?) This despite the rain . . .

Came across the Severn Bridge above Bristol at around 6:30. I knew I was back in England proper when the toll booth man greeted me with, "‘Ello, ducks!" Righty-oh, mate!

Joined the M5 at Almondsbury. Skirted Bristol which was a little too bad, as I really want to see the
Clifton Suspension Bridge again.

The lady at the B&B had given me directions and they were decent ones-- hop off the M5 above Bridgwater and look for the A39 to Minehead. It was starting to get dark pretty quickly, with the rain and all, but I was now in Somerset and that was a happiness in itself.

Back to twisting, rolling, well-wooded English lanes here. Amused by a deer-crossing sign shot full of holes somewhere near Nether Stowey. Bad hunting, gentlemen? Cannington is a pretty town, as I noticed when I went through. And where have I heard of
Nether Stowey before?

Holford’s about three miles west of there. The B&B, the
Forge Cottage, is right smack at the edge of town, next to the 16th Century Plough Inn and across from the very 20th Century Texaco (raised petrol prices and all).

Mrs. Ayshford wasn’t in, being on duty as a cook at the pub. Mr. Ayshford let me in and showed me to my room. I’m not sure why, but that bothered me. Maybe it was his London accent. At any rate, I told myself not to be so sexist.

I requested an iron and ironing board and did up the shirts and skirts that’ve been crammed in clean but wrinkled since Iona. That over, I put on my radio headphones and vegetated, listening to BBC comedy shows.

I do believe I’m becoming acculturated. I can understand M25 jokes: "The M25 is the only motorway in Britain where the hedgehogs go faster than the cars. They thumb their noses at the drivers as they cross during rush hour." Then there was a program about "Britain’s only Communist football team," called Lenin and the Rovers. I just sat there listening, too tired to do anything but fall over in suppressed laughter.

Was treated to a cheap thrill during a trip to the loo around midnight. Mine host apparently had the same idea and came out of his room wearing nothing but a pair of black briefs. Very cheap, and not too thrilling under the beer belly. He saw me and popped back into his room like the proverbial rabbit. All very well, but I hope the Mrs. doesn’t work late every evening.

The room is adequate in size and has a sink. What it doesn’t have is a heater, of any kind. Nothing for it but to appropriate the duvet from the other bed as well . . .


Anonymous said...

Eight pounds a night, and a look at the owner in his undies? Seems to me they were under charging you there...


St. Blogwen said...

Hey, they're still there doing B&B, you can go check things out for yourself!


Sandy said...

Ah, Davy Jones... I loved The Monkees!