Archive for September, 2011


Yesterday I decided I should do what everyone else who comes to the hostel in Clun, where I have been for the past week, seems to do – I decided to go walking. First, I walked over to the church and had a look around the churchyard.  Posted in the doorway of the church was a placard explaining about the management of the churchyard as a meadow under the “Caring for God’s Acre” which is a national charity based in Hereford: http://www.caringforgodsacre.org.uk/default.aspx Yet another conservation and heritage group to investigate.

A countryside made for Walking

Heading back to the Hostel to begin my walk, I passed over the ford and its bridge.  The weather was spookily windy, with gales of wind swooping through the trees.  It made me think of a “Windsday” in Winnie the Poo.  Autumn is definitely upon us here, and I put on my waterproof jacket in case of rain.  Aided by the volume in the hostel, “Favorite walks around Clun,” written by the local Ramblers group, I decided to follow walk “9B”, listed as about 5.9 miles, ascent 1150 feet, moderate difficulty.  The walk took me first up an ascending country road, past two or three farmhouses, and then took me out into the network of public footpaths which cris-cross all areas of rural England.  These are signposted, either with small dedicated posts marked with specific or general footpath symbols and arrows directing you in the forwards, or by small signs affixed to farm gates and fences.  These footpaths are sometimes well-trod and obvious, sometimes follow country lanes and roads, sometimes are totally invisible in the tall grass or shrubbery, and sometimes lead across whole fields and over fences and hedges, over which are built “stiles,” or small wooden steps for the walker to climb over.  Some are named, like the Shropshire Way, or the Offa’s Dyke Path; some are unnamed and almost unnoticeable.  I have been told that the public rights of way were old occupational paths taken by laborers, and that today the public is legally allowed to cross them over private property, though some landowners will subtly discourage it by neglecting to keep the paths clear.  They are, however, legally obliged to maintain the rights of way, and they can be reprimanded or fined by the local council if they do not.  In fact, the local council here has apparently slated maintenance of the local public paths for budget cuts, and the local Ramblers association has responded with a campaign to collect 1000 signatures in order to protest the cuts.  I’ve seen these petitions in the YHA hostel and the Maltings cafe, both of which are frequented by walkers on holiday in the area.  Three people staying at the hostel last night remarked that the paths were much poorly marked here in comparison to the paths near their home in the home counties.  The warden encouraged them to sign the petition, remarking that the local Ramblers association was quite active in using and maintaining the paths.

As I passed one of the houses on my walk, I stopped to see the array of jams, chutneys, potted plants, and eggs offered for sale in a little cabinet by the gate.  Pumpkin Chutney and Spicy Gooseberry chutney – I might go back to buy some.  The prices were listed on a board, and a cashbox sat there.  I’ve seen this honor system of exchange, especially for eggs, quite frequently in the countryside.  But I wondered who passed by to buy these items, as the house was quite far out from any frequently-travelled roads.  Perhaps it is walkers like me, passing by and hungry, who purchase them.

I pressed on uphill, the furthest point of the circular walk being the “Bury Ditches,” an ancient hill fort.  I passed by upland fields full of round and square straw bales, as well as several tractors at work.  The air is full of the acrid odor which I believe is related to the cutting and baling of straw – though it also reminds one a bit of musty manure.  I pressed on, following the paths up to the Bury Ditches, where the path rose out of the forest and through the ancient embankments, and up onto the grassy crown of the hill, where gale-like winds swept over and through the pale tall grass.  The sky was grey, with threatening indigo clouds to the west, and in every direction, you could see for miles across the hills.  The view was truly epic.  A small wooden board stood beside the path, with a carving of an ancient boy and his dog pointing to the top of the hill, welcoming you to his village.  On the back side of the board was a placard showing an illustration of the hill fort village as it would have appeared during the iron age.  It was stunning to imagine living up on top of this hill, with views of the whole countryside around – you would have been able to any other settlements or approaching threats.  At the summit, a circular marker showed the various hills and cities in the distance.

The weather in the distance looked ominous, so I decided to head on back towards Clun.  The guidebook directed me downwards on a different path through the forest, and at one point I stopped by a bench built under a huge redwood, standing alone in the middle of a pine forest.  Most of the forests in Britain are planted forests of pine and conifer, the trees set in regimental rows for timber.  Ancient woodlands are much prized and less common, as most of the woodlands were felled during the war for fuel.  This lone redwood, huge, majestic, mysterious, must have been a rogue planting, as it certainly isn’t native.

Finding Your Way?

At several junctures, I was a little confused as to which path to take.  Being by myself, it was a little stressful.  What if I went the wrong way? I had seen a few hikers at the beginning of my journey, and there were plenty of footprints and hoof prints from horses on the paths, but largely I hadn’t seen a soul.  In fact it is this very solitude that people I have talked to at the hostel seemed to prize – more than one person described this part of the country as “so quiet, you can walk for hours and not have to see another person.”  Though I was a bit anxious of walking by myself, it didn’t seem to be an uncommon thing to do.  Even my elderly youth hostel warden had spokenof walking places by herself.  It wasn’t as if I was in total wilderness with bears or would be totally lost -these were public footpaths afterall. Though there were local tales of wild big cats.  And I could possibly end up walking in the wrong direction and towards the wrong village.  At one point, I got off the path at the wrong point and ended up walking towards a farm to ask where I was.  I wasn’t far off, but I found myself turning the guidebook around and around, as well as my ordinance survey map, trying to figure out where the path was.  Eventually, I found my way back on the right path, which led me off the farmer’s track and onto a sheep pasture where the sheep scattered as I walked past, over a plank bridge across a stream, and into a footpath through the forest. This was Radnor Forest, a bit more natural woodland, and as I followed the footpath out of the forest into the field, it just stopped suddenly – a line of trees edging the open field.

I got that “Lord of the Rings” Feeling

The path followed the line of a hedge and then down into a sunken lane, a sort of trough between two hedges leading downhill towards the village.  There are many times when one gets the “Lord of the Rings” feeling in Britain – and I have come across a few places that claim to have inspired Tolkein – the Puzzlewood in the Forest of Dean, the view of Isle of Rhum, and of course the Cotswolds.  These are all about vistas and views – the look of the shire, or the wood, or Mordor.  But I find my mind wandering into Lord of the Rings territory most when I am walking through the countryside, through the forest and across the fields, and through the little sunken lanes like this one, where there were huge trees growing out of the side of the hedge, with roots jutting along the hedgebank that looked just like one Frodo and his companions might have hidden under to avoid those nasty hellish horsemen.  It is the feeling of tramping across the countryside, scrambling uphill, feeling like you’ve gone quite far but only having made it to the next village.  It is that feeling of a world traversed on foot, with tired legs and a pack on your back, wondering if you are going the right direction.  A feeling of walking through countryside full of histories and pasts, full of living and dead inhabitants, quite different than the wilderness hiking through “natural habitats” that is most common in America.  It is this historical, cultural, and legendary landscape that gives Tolkein’s stories their sense of epic journey, rather than a wholly natural or wild environment.  I think Tolkien must have done a lot of walking across the British countryside to have imagined the Hobbit’s epic travels.

The Significance of Walking and the YHA

And in fact, my time at the YHA has been very instructive about the history of tramping and walking through the countryside in Britain.  As a backpacker in previous years, travelling by bus or train from city to city to explore Britain, it had always mystified me as to why there were so many YHA hostels out in the middle of nowhere, quite unreachable by public transport.  Well, my stay at Clun YHA has enlightened me.  This little hostel, housed in an old mill, has no TV, and it very cozy and homey – only about 10 people stayed last night, and many of us sat in the common room chatting and eating our meals.  It is run by volunteer wardens who come for a week at a time.  The wardens this week are true veterans, having hostelled since the 1950s.  From interviews with them, and from reading a copy of “The Spirit of the YHA” available in the hostel, I’ve learned that the hostel movement in Britain began in the 1930s, modelled after the German hostel movement, and was largely championed by Ramblers associations who wanted places for walkers to stay in the countryside.  It was the original mission of the YHA, “To help all, especially young people of limited means, to a greater knowledge, love and care of the countryside.”  The original hostels were extremely spartan and intended to be spaced one days walk apart, so that you could walk from one hostel to the next, and many of the young people using them were working people from cities like Birmingham, Liverpool, and Manchester. One quotation in the book, from the Prince of Wales at his opening of Derwent Hostel in 1932, is most enlightening, “I take a very deep interest in social welfare activities, and there is none that I can recommend more than that people should be able to get tramping holidays away from the atmosphere of our big cities.  It is of immense benefit, particularly to those who are forced to live dreary lives, that they should be able to get out here to this beautiful spot.”  This history of the hostels, and their association with walking, has clarified much for me about YHA hostels and their clientele.  At Clun, most of the people who have come through in the past week are walkers and cyclists, composed of a few family groups, several middle-aged or retired people, and some young men cycling long distances.  Two today were cycling “end to end” from Lands End in Cornwall to John o Groats at the northern tip of Scotland.  Apparently the hostel gets quite a few end-to-end cylcists, as it is on the national cycling trail.

Well, I am sore today, and have decided to sit inside and write rather than walk again.  But it certainly is a whole different feeling of space and time and immersion into the landscape, the one you get on two feet.

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Notes from Kington, Herefordshire, a quiet and very friendly little town.  Coming from Devon to the Marches is sort of analogous to travelling from New England to the Midwest – two different kinds of rural.  And Herefordshire feels a bit like home – everyone smiles and says hello on the street.  The fields are a bit more open and flatter.  This morning, on the recommendation of a fellow wwoofer, I stopped into the Regency Cafe for breakfast, a tiny little place at the center of town.  I walked in, and as all five tables were full, I sat down to share a table with an elderly lady.  An old man in his suit jacket and sweater read the paper in the front table; a young hippie couple ate breakfast across the aisle; a sulky looking fellow with what looked like safety pin earrings was across the way, and two older chaps chatted and read the paper at the table behind.  I walked up to the little window in the back and ordered a full vegetarian breakfast from the lady in the kitchen – baked beans, fried eggs, tomatoe and mushrooms.  The BBC radio played the news in the background.  Somehow, I felt a little transported – surrounded by the older folks and the radio world news, I had the impression of the 1940s, perhaps of the war era.  There must have been something in the air, because when I walked over to the little town museum, I found an excellent exhibit on WWII and its effect on the town, researched by one of the classes at the local school.  Kington, it seems, was home of a US military hospital base during the war, as well as the comings and going of various british troops and a Polish resettlement camp.  In addition, a moving little tribute to a local district nurse who had served the community for over 25 years, with stories of her wartime heroism and adventures, graced the wall above her many medals of commendation.

The war seems to occupy a place in the consciousness here more significant than that in America.  In fact, I was surprised during one conversation with a middle aged woman back in Devon to her reference to the war, something she herself would not have been old enough to remember.  We were discussing politics, specifically, American politics.  So often, among “progressive” people of my own generation, I have to go into defensive mode, to convince them that America is not full of horrible ignorant imperialists… But this woman, while posing some critical comments, still came back and said, “well, we must still give them some credit.  If it wasn’t for the Americans in the war, we’d be part of the German Empire now.”  I was so surprised that this sentiment still lingered, and I have heard other people of her generation and older utter the same sort of thing from time to time.  The memory of privation during the war, and in the post-war period still remains.  Speaking to the volunteer warden of my hostel, who lived through the war, she commented that it still occupies a large part of the consciousness for her and people of her generation.  Something to consider.

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Road Trip

It feels like I have come a long way, though I am sure it is less than 100 miles.  After leaving the wwoof farm in Devon, I checked into a B&B recommended by my wwoof host, and proceeded to wander around the Blackdown Hills, beginning my slow but fascinating Road Trip taking me through Apple country and the Marches, an opportunity for me to get to know the countryside of the two regions I am most interested in.

River Cottage Exposed

First, I ventured down to Axminster, where curiousity drew me into the River Cottage Canteen and Deli, spin-off of she BBC show which inspired some of my interests for this project.  I walked in, assuming I could get a table on a Wednesday night in a little town rather far from anywhere, and was told that they were full till 8:30.  However, as I was alone, they managed to find me a table, provided I could be done by 8pm when the reservation arrived.  So, after so much anticipation, what was it like?  Well, it was very good food, I must admit.  More interesting to me was the atmosphere of the place, which played up a theme of countryside summer vacation.  Pale worn colors, baskets, bread boards, oversize pictures of farm animals and produce….sort of Martha Stewart / Shabby Chic / agro-phile look set in a converted store-front.  Not that different in concept from Farm Bloomington, for those of you familiar with that restaurant, though a little more tasteful (though that could be the effect of not being from England).  Take away:  I would definitely reccommend it for the food and would go again, though I neglected to tell my wwoof host I went there.  When I mentioned it earlier, she implied that people around those parts didn’t have much time for Hugh Fearnly-Whittingstall, and that he had taken credit for things other people were already doing in the area.  Though she admitted that generally what he was doing, in getting people interested in the countryside and farming issues, was generally a good thing.  I look forward to coming back in October with a friend visiting from the States, when we will attend a day course at the River Cottage Headquarters.  Stay tuned for more on this media enterprise!

Hippie, Festivals…

During the rest of my stay in the Blackdowns, I wandered around the tiny country lanes, got lost a lot, and puttered around the towns of Taunton and Wellington.  I found a gem of a bookstore in Taunton, where I bought lots of books, and I splurged and got a massage at a natural healing storefront in Wellington, as my back was tied in some painful knots after almost two months of farm work.  My massage therapist, a very lovely middle-aged lady with long wavy gray hair and flowy hippie garments, talked about just coming back from a festival and told me a bit about the festival circuit here in Britain.  It seems there are festivals all over the place almost all the time through the summer.  I’d been hearing about festivals from various people, and it seems like a rather significant part of the alternative lifestyle.  Don’t worry, I’m not about to turn into a festival follower.

A Conversation with an Agronomist

At the B&B I was very lucky to being staying there with another couple who turned out to be most friendly and interesting.  The man is an agronomist, so we had some really good chats about agriculture and the countryside.  And he and his wife were both just great company.  They gave me their information and said to visit sometime.  And he has some client farmers whom I could talk to about their switch from conventional to organic farming.  A great contact to have.  On Saturday I left my B&B and headed towards bath, stopping in Chard, a slow country town, and happening upon a local community shop at a little hamlet (name escapes me).  I’ve been hearing about the plight of local communities loosing their shops and managing to keep them going as volunteer-operated shops.  It looked fairly lively when I stopped in.  My devon wwoof host had mentioned that there are schemes to consolidate the post office and community shop into the pub where possible, in order to be able to keep all three institutions going in the small towns.

Into the Somerset Levels

From Chard, I meandered through the area known as the Somerset Levels, a low-lying area that was originally bog and marsh before massive drainage schemes conducted by, among others, the medieval abbeys.  I stopped by an eel smokery for lunch, but alas, found them too busy.  So I continued on to Burrow Hill Cider Farm and Cider Brandy Distillery, as homey a place as you can get in the middle of know-where.  The shop, however, was buzzing with people filling up their plastic jugs of cider.  I took a walk through their cider orchards, following signs that led through plantations of various different kinds of trees, explaining the significance of different apple varieties.  Orchards – more than any other type of garden or crop – have always seemed to me a bit magical.  They straddle the boundary of domestic order and wilderness –  a forest of apple trees, most certainly tamed to human requirements.  But can a tree ever really be considered domestic?  My wwoof host in devon, referring to an old oak she wanted to get rid of, had said that people worship trees in this part of the country.  She wanted to cut it down, because the acorns were toxic to her flock of alpacas, but the neighbor she brought in to look at it wouldn’t touch it – it was too historic, too old.  She mentioned off-handedly about having to ask the witch in the tree, and when I asked what she meant, she said, well, didn’t you have to shoot the witches out of the tree at wassailing (I had told her about my interest in wassailing).  So trees in this part of the country are something apart, and orchards a different sort of garden.  Indeed, with all the pruning and care that goes into managing the trees for maximum fertility, it almost does seem to cross over into animal husbandry or gardening.  A little different than other field crops.

In the shop, I struck up a conversation with a hefty joker of a fellow who told me his name was Pigeon, and I when I started talking, he of course asked where I was from and what I was doing out here.  When I told him I was researching folklore, he said, “Well, there’s no folklore out here; they industrialized really early and all the peasants were gone.”  He told me I needed to go to Wales and Scotland and Ireland.  I mentioned wassailing, and he laughed and waved it off, saying it was mostly the invention of 19th century victorians.  But he was really quite knowledgable, and we chatted about George Ewart Evans and his oral history researches in East Anglia, where Pigeon grew up.  East Anglia, he said was another good place for folklore, because it was a place that wasn’t on the way to anywhere else – you only went there if you had a reason to go there.  Pigeon and I had a good time talking while I sampled the cider brandy, and I’d love to learn more about him sometime if I get back down to Somerset.

More Hippies, of the Goddess Persuasion

Well, after purchasing a store of cider, brandy, and vinegar to accommodate all my culinary, medicinal, and merry-making needs, I headed onwards towards Glastonbury.  Glastonbury is a bit of a favorite haunt for me.  It has everything – folklore, history, archeology, legend….  The Tor is a remarkable landscape feature, a conical hill rising from the levels below, topped with a ruins of a medieval church tower.  The medieval monks “discovered” the tomb of Arthur and Guinevere, which in turn generated a lot of pilgrims.  Today, while there may still be a few Christian or historical pilgrims to the place, the town has largely been taken over by the New Age scene, which shops lining the streets purveying wares for your every Wiccan ritual need.  It is a fascinating scene.  I parked the car and walked into town, looking for a whole foods cafe I had been to the last time, and there it was, full of patrons.  The food was exceptionally good.  Sitting at the table across from me, a young couple bounced their tiny baby, passing her between them while each of them wandered in and out.  At another table, a middle aged man with flowing long hair and a beard texted on his cell phone for awhile before gathering up his rucksack, throwing his woolen cape over his back, grasping his elaborately carved walking stick, and walking off into hazy afternoon.  Maybe I am just keyed into it now, but the town seemed even more New-Agey than the last time I was here two years ago.  I walked through town and browsed in the many bookshops, full of sections such as, “astral travel” “Faerie Lore” and “plant psychology”, among an array of other categories.  I did not purchase any books here, though an ethnography on gypsies titled “Bury Me Standing” did catch my eye.  Glastonbury is, if anything, an oasis for the imagination, a place where legend has been conjured into reality for centuries.  I think this is why it is so evocative and fascinating for me, especially in its modern idiom.

And onto the setting of Austen’s Persuasion, Bath, where I am persuaded to do mostly nothing

But no lingering for me!  I decided to forego a trek up the Tor this time, and got back in the car on the way to Bath, where my hostel awaited.  But oh, to find the hostel.  Such  a run-around.  Bath is a beautiful city, its perfectly proportioned Georgian buildings glowing a sandy golden color in the sun.  However, I was a bit exhausted from my travels, and not really in the mood for a bustling town.  I sought out the bookshops, found some more interesting volumes, and then paid a pound to sit in a lounge chair in the gardens facing the river.  I left the next day and made my way over to Chedder Gorge, a strange little geological formation, upon which has been built a family tourism den, not unlike Nashville, Indiana, for those of you familiar.  The gorge itself was worth the drive, but I decided not to stop and be sucked into the whirl of taffy candy and fudge.  Some things, it seems, are universal across the atlantic.

And into the Border Country, Wye Valley, Land of Romantics and Medievals

I made it through Bristol, over the Severn Bridge, through the town of Chepstow, and started up the shady road through the Wye Valley towards Tintern Abbey.  The Wye Valley is remarkably beautiful, with forested cliffs on either side of the narrow valley hemming in tiny towns which cling to the river side.  Tintern Abbey occupies an advantageous flat land by the river side.  When I got there, it was heaving with people, as it was a bank holiday weekend.  Families with children and their dogs (the British seem to bring their dogs everywhere) were picnicking in the grassy car park or in the gardens by the pub.  You could admire the sight from the pub alone, or pay three pounds to go in the grounds.  I think a lot of people were appreciating the view from the pub.

From Tintern, I made the short drive up to the top of a hill above the Wye valley to the village of St. Briavels, where the YHA hostel is situated in the old Hunting Lodge of King John, which served as an administrative centre for the nearby Forest of Dean, its mines, and their artillery production.  The castle was impressive from the outside, but not amazing from the inside.  Your typical run-down hostel feel, just stuffed into the strange interior spaces of a former castle.  Still, a castle is undeniably cool.

In search of Ancestors

After a quiet evening reading in the pub, I went to sleep early in order to get up and make a pilgrimage to visit family sites.  My mother’s mother’s mother came from a town called Llanarth, and there are family connections to Monmouth and Newport nearby.  So I drove into Monmouth, walked around the quiet town a bit, and then off towards Llanarth, which was little more than a bend in the road, without even a post-office or shop.  But in the churchyard, I did find what I think are some gravestones for my great great grandfather and grandmother, George and Alice Jones.  There was no-one around to ask any questions of, though when I stopped at the Village hall, I did meet two gentlemen who chatted with me a bit about the village, though they didn’t know anything about my family.  It seems that much of the land around that area is owned by a large estate and rented out to tenants. I drove around a nearby area known as Clytha Hill, remembering the name Clytha written on the back of some old family photos, but with no other information.  Apparently Clytha is a large estate –  drove up to the gatehouse, but seeing inside was by appointment only.

A Brush with Fame! In a Spooky Setting! Plus more Apples!

Next day, I packed up my things from St. Briavels and headed north towards the town of Hereford, where I had been before on a trip to the Poultry Auction with my hosts from Old Chapel Farm.  This time, however, I wanted to see the Cider Museum, housed in the old Bulmers Cider buildings.  On the way, driving through the Forest of Dean, I decided to stop and see the Clearwell Caves, a natural cave mined for iron ore and ochre since pre-historic times.  As I drove up, I was surprised to see lots of trailers in the car park, and, a medieval knight milling around…. I realized, having browsed over it in a local magazine, that this was the film crew for the British TV series “Merlin.”  And there he was, Merlin himself, hanging outside one of the trailers smoking a cigarette.  Who knew?  Sadly, I was not plucked out of obscurity to portray a medieval heroine on british family TV… However, I did get to see the caves, which were dark and surprisingly spooky, full of signs describing the horrendous working conditions of child labor, as well as the strong legal rights afforded to any man “from the hundred of St. Briavels, who had worked a year and a day in the mines.”  Pros and cons to the mining profession, then as now – bad working conditions, good labor organization.

My brush with Merlin, caves, and industrial history finished, I did move on to Hereford, where the Cider Museum was about what you would expect from a small museum about agricultural and industrial history – lots of old cider presses, and the cellars full of old bottling equipment.  There was an excellent film, though, and a really interesting exhibit on Thomas Andrew Knight, a local vicar and botanist who experimented extensively with plant breeding and propagation.  I found some good books in the little gift shop, and several flyers about events in the fall.  I wandered into center of Hereford, which is really a lovely town, bustling with the business of its own people, and not overwhelmed by tourists.  I was lucky that it happened to be a market day, and I stopped to chat with an organic farm stall – the guy I spoke to was an employee, from Spain, and a former Wwoofer.  When I mentioned I was doing research, he asked for my card, as he was just finished his own MA.  I got information about the farm.  Another good contact.

After a brief walk through the city, I headed out on the road again, this time to Hay on Wye, “Town of Books.”  My drive took me through an area known as the Golden Valley, a beautiful rolling landscape of hayfields and apple orchards.  Many fields are being cut for hay, so the tractors are out, and the fields full of bales.  Passing through an orchard, a tractor with a trailer full of red apples passed by.  It is a pity that one cannot drive and take photos at the same time (though my father manages to do this, I find it rather death-defying, and prefer not to run into the tractors).

My route from the time I had crossed the Severn has taken my back and forth across the border between England and Wales, and Hay on Wye is right there on the border itself.  Luckily I arrived late in the afternoon, so I only had an hour to spend more money on books.  Only a couple – two by George Ewart Evans – “The pattern under the Plough,” and “The Importance of the Oral Tradition.”  But I was happy to find these, as I had been looking around for them unsuccessfully thus far.

And thus, after a rather full day, I drove into the YHA hostel at Kington, where I settled into the cleanest and most comfortable hostel yet, and even switched on the TV, to find the show “Village SOS,” which I had heard about and wanted to see – it follows villages that are awarded lottery funds to complete a community project, such a rebuilding the village hall.  Exactly my cup of tea.  Sometimes I feel overwhelmed by the presence of so much material everywhere relevant to my interests.  I almost don’t know what to do with it all!

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