Category Archives: Travel

Walking the Southern Upland Way – Days 4-6

 

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The wild hills await… K. Manwaring, 2017

 

And now for the section of the walk that looked the most intimidating – in my guidebook it broke it down into too insanely long sections: Bargrennan to St John’s of Dalry (24.3 miles) and St John’s to Sanquhar (26.7), but not being a complete masochist, I opted for the ‘more manageable to walk’ itinerary, which breaks the 50 plus miles of challenging walking (ranges of hills, bogs, no facilities) into three days. They were still tough, but not always for reasons expected.

Day 4 – Bargrennan to Clatteringshaw Loch (16.3 + 5)

This should have been a pleasant stroll from our fabulous campsite (so much nicer when I was able to set off in the morning without any driving involved) along the shores of the picturesque Glen Trool, but it turned into something of a nightmare. It didn’t help that it rained all day, sapping my spirits, tiring me out, and soaking everything (my back-up phone still hasn’t recovered).  It was very tempting to walk straight from ‘Expedition Base-Camp’ (an utterly lovely campsite despite the midges and stencilled military-style signage) to the Glen Trool visitor centre – intersecting the walk at the Twin Bridges – and skip the first section of the walk which made me go back on myself, and added a few winding miles – but I was feeling diligent. What’s  the point of doing a long-distance walk if you skip bits? Sometimes however the wendings are annoying diversions (a reroute caused by a bolshy landowner, or by a civic authority keen for the tourist dollar) and common sense should prevail. The quicker route from Glentrool was listed as an alternative in ‘wetter winter months’ and the only ‘safe and viable route’ when the River Cree and Waters of Minnoch (great names) overflow, and it was raining heavily when I set off. But … I dutifully trekked back to the bridge at Bargrennan and rejoined the route from yesterday’s end-point.

There followed some lovely riverside woodland walking – it was wet, but the trees gave me some shelter. By the time I got to Twin Bridges of Trool, it was late morning and I had a coffee and a snack at an SUW shelter. Then feeling in fine fettle I carried on.

But that’s where I went wrong — and resulted in a 3 hour detour which I won’t bore you with here! Glen Trool was pretty though…

Day 5 – Clatt. Loch to Stroanpatrick (15.8)

 

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The lonely way. One of the several fallen signposts I re-erected. K. Manwaring, 5 July 2017

 

Fortunately, the next two days were far more enjoyable. It didn’t rain for a start  and despite the ‘path’ being poorly signed and little more than a slight indentation in the grass across wild moor-land I didn’t get lost. My compass-fu was fully functioning. I could see why so few people do the SUW – but it’s Catch 22: better signage and better maintained paths would surely result in more walkers; this would result in more tourist income for the region, warranting more investment.  Perhaps it is the length and difficulty that puts people off, for other LDPs seem popular.  Apparently 50,000 walkers do the West Highland Way every year – although when I did it, I only saw a half a dozen walkers a day. There were long stretches when I didn’t see anyone. The campsites weren’t that busy. On these trails you can also find solitude – it’s easy to adjust your pace to overtake some walkers if you don’t fancy chatting, although sometimes it’s nice to have a brief exchange. Today’s highlight was the lunch stop at St John’s of Dalry – a charming village with a very steep High Street and a churchyard featuring Covenanter graves. Named by the Templars (Dail Righ: ‘meadow of the king’), it was an important way-station for pilgrims en route to the Isle of Whithorn (apparently even the King would undertake this annually, as an act of atonement – which made me wonder, did walking the SUW shrive me of my ‘sins’? It certainly felt cathartic and good for the mind, body and soul). Like a pilgrim filled with enthusiasm (en theos: the god within) I sang as I went – today choosing ‘Crooked Jack’, and ‘Fathom the Bowl’ in addition to my usual walking repertoire which I dipped in and out of (‘Caledonia’; ‘Jerusalem’, etc).  The headspace of today I described in my journal as ‘a wildlife corridor for the imagination’. And I saw plenty of actual wildlife too – a barn owl in broad daylight, swooping amongst the trees and a red kite, on top of the usual curious or twitchy livestock .

Day 6 – Stroanpatrick to Sanquhar (18.9)

 

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Ben Brack (1902 ft), K. Manwaring, 6 July 2017

 

Today was the longest and toughest so far – officially anyway – crossing over 7 hills, all over a 1000 ft (including the 2nd highest on the SUW). It meant for any early start and an unnecessarily stressful car journey, which threatened to mar the whole morning, but I tried to put that behind me and focus on the ‘here and now’ of the walking, the most stunning and enjoyable so far. I found my walking legs today, striding across the miles with a spring in my step. Dividing the day into quarters helped – having a break every 5 miles or so; and rewarding myself with snacks and slurps of water or coffee now and then. Long distance walking, as with an ‘endurance’ activity, is  alot about the psychology, about mental as much as physical stamina.  You really have to draw upon inner reserves – so one’s frame of mind at the beginning of the day is critical. It is nice to start the day in quietude. Over the SUW I found myself waking early and enjoy the simple morning ritual of making the first brew, a bowl of porridge, and preparing my flask and sandwiches for the day (and increasingly, bandaging my feet). Having a decent breakfast inside you is also essential – otherwise you soon find yourself flagging.  And I needed the energy today – having to climb the following Galloway Hills: Manquhill (1381 ft); Benbrack (1902 ft); Cairn Hill & Black Hill (1863 ft); High Countam (1640 ft); Allan’s Cairn (1630 ft); Cloud Hill (1479 ft). It was good to get Benbrack out of the way in the morning – the 2nd highest summit on the SUW, it was a beast to climb, and harder than the highest (Lowther Hill, awaiting me tomorrow), as it was one continuous ‘full frontal’ slog. Once I had reached its summit, the rest became physically and psychologically easier, as I worked my way along the high country connecting them.  It was fine walking . Being high up is edifying – one enjoys the efforts of one’s toil. It’s as though you are a giant, striding over the land – wearing nine mile boots.

 

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Striding Arch, Ben Brack, Galloway Hills, K. Manwaring, 6 July 2017

At one point I came across a stone archway, unannounced, unsigned, on the summit of Ben Brack. This was quite a surreal thing to encounter unexpectedly – emerging from the mizzle that mantled the bleak hillside. It turned out to be one of Andy Goldsworthy’s ‘Striding Arches’ – another distantly visible on a sister summit. The sculptor lives nearby, in the creative community of Moniaive, so his artworks adorn several of the summits along the SUW – these striking, bold statements stand in quiet power, holding subtle conversations with the surrounding landscape, one that has been in ‘dialogue’ with man for millennia.  The solitary walker joins this conversation for a while. Walking in silence one is able to discern the whispers of time that haunt it still.

 

 

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Allan’s Cairn – Covenanter Memorial to Margaret Gracie and George Allan – eerily situated in the middle of a forestry plantation

 

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Time Takes a Cigarette 12

bowie

I finally caught up with the Beloathed, or rather it let me, on Rapa Nui, Easter Island to you, amongst the toppling moai. The shadow-eyed sentinels gazed stoically out across the empty interior. I imagined the last inhabitants of the island doing just the same, contemplating their extinction, knowing that not only did their resource-devouring and strife-inducing project failed, but it brought about their downfall. ‘Makes you think, doesn’t it?’ The zeitgeistian sat on top of one, transparent niqab blowing in the warm sea-breeze, swinging hoverboots against a tuff topknot. Beneath the translucent folds, I could glimpse the latest outfit: a tech-wear cat-suit with a plasma-screen coating, live-feed of Sydney Harbour fireworks exploding over a slim form. ‘They all end up like this. You’d think they’d come up with something original by now. But no, humanity loves to repeat itself. History is full of remakes and reboots.’ I lent heavily against the foot of the moai, catching my breath. I gazed up, shielding my eyes against the naked sun breaching the east. In the retreating gloaming the two lights of Saturn and Venus seemed to kiss and expire. The day looked like the first day of creation. Against all odds and the unrelenting lessons of history, I felt a surge of optimism for the first time in an epoch. All things felt possible. ‘That’s one way of looking at it,’ I spoke to the empty vista. The hate in me had all burnt out.

I pulled my loto-vap:i from my pocket and took a long, slow drag.

Kevan Manwaring ©2016

Part 11 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

(1 of 12 connected flash fictions written by Kevan Manwaring, dedicated to David Bowie 1947-2016, and published here to mark the first anniversary of the passing of a visionary starman & much-missed musical genius. ‘Look up here, I’m in Heaven…’).

The Puzzle of the Wood

What am I? Nosing here, turning leaves over
Following a faint stain on the air to the river’s edge
I enter water. Who am I to split
The glassy grain of water looking upward I see the bed
Of the river above me upside down very clear
What am I doing here in mid-air?

Ted Hughes, Wodwo

There is something about walking in a wood which stirs something within us. The dappled sun filtering through the canopy, the twisty roots and gnarled boughs, the dripping moss, ferns and fungi, the green silence. It gets the imagination going. We start to see things, or daydream – as though the wood draws out our dreams and give them form.

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This was the late, great novelist Robert Holdstock’s flash of genius – one that came to him in a writing workshop in Milford-on-Sea in 1979, which resulted in an award-winning short story (1981), which led to a multiple prize-winning novel, Mythago Wood (1984), and spawned a series seven connected of novels over the ensuing 25 years. If Holdstock never visited Puzzle Wood in the Forest of Dean (he tragically died of an e-coli infection aged 61, in 2009) then it feels like it visited him – as though it had sprung from his fecund mind.

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The 14 acre stretch of ancient woodland deep in the heart of the Forest of Dean is riddled with pathways which snake their ways amid the rocky outcrops, tangle of trees, creepers, ferns and roots. The result of a collapsed cave system which was mined by the Romans for iron – the mineral yew trees love, as is evidenced by the many mature specimens there, rising from the rock they both cling to and shatter with their tensile roots and long bow limbs. For centuries this curious sylvan labyrinth has drawn visitors to wander and wonder at its origins and denizens. It is easy to imagine it being frequented by all manner of elves, gnomes, goblins, dryads and dwarves. Some believe Tolkien visited it and found inspiration (in fact he visited the nearby Lydney Park, which boasts similar workings – known as ‘Scowles’ – cheek-by-jowl to the ancient temple to Nodens – being surveyed at the time by the archaeologist Mortimer Wheeler. There, hearing of the ‘Lord of the Mines’, as Nodens was called, and seeing the legend-soaked ruins gave him some serious material to conjure with). Yet the magical associations with Puzzle Wood have lingered, enhanced in an interesting way by the many recent TV and film productions shot there: Merlin; Atlantis; Wizards vs Aliens, Dr Who, Jack the Giant Slayer and the latest instalment in the Star Wars franchise: The Force Awakens. Walking amongst the weird tree-scape of Puzzlewood the ‘mythagos’ (to use Holdstock’s term for archetypal forms generated by a human imagination interacting with the wood’s ‘consciousness’) conjured are drawn from the very same pool of myth as his cast (Merlin; King Arthur; Morgana le Fay; time-travelling wizards; Jack the folk hero; dark lords with fiery blades and Force-full maidens) but it is one fed to us from movies and TV series, rather than the oral tradition or literary folk tale. A similar process is occurring as perhaps might have transpired in the Middle Ages, when villagers ventured into the wood, all too aware of the perils to be found there to their souls: demons and witches, wodwoses and wyverns, the Good Folk and Old Scrat himself, evoked by thunderous sermons and stained glass windows – the cinema of its day. The green men and gargoyles that linger in the corners of church architecture were always there to pounce upon the wayward soul.

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Today, a walk in the woods is a lot safer – certainly at the family-friendly Puzzlewood (which offers cute animals, treasure trails, café, picnic areas, and other attractions). But even in such a ‘managed experience’ there is magic to be found. All you have to do is pause and spend a while soaking in the ambience and let your imagination soar. Such a place brings out our natural storyteller, and we start to populate it with our own fanciful musings (for example, a troll beneath a billygoat bridge, as I heard one adult whimsy). A milder form of Holdstock’s mythago-generation occurs. The wood mirrors what we bring into it, but also transforms it – it takes the carbon of our mundane lives and turns it into the oxygen of ideas.

One of the wood’s charming characteristics is the way it has different levels – one moment you are looking down on a Pan’s labyrinth, next thing you know, you’re squeezing through a mossy cleft into a hidden dell. The collapse of the cavern system and the Roman quarry have, in effect, brought the ‘unconscious’ of the landscape into the light. What was hidden in the dark has now been revealed. I think this why it feels so numinous – it feels like a slippage of the waking world into the realm of dream. Suddenly, we’re in the stuff that tales are made of. To explore it is to create your own narrative thread – albeit one that inevitably gets tangled as we get lost, cross the paths of others, double-back, and basically get into a bit of a muddle. Getting lost in a wood, even in a semi-conscious way, makes us all, for a moment, Hansel and Gretel. Yet, the visitor centre is not far away, and the madding world is noisily nearby. It is impossible to forget yourself or your century entirely, but for a little while we almost can. The puzzle is not that it is there, but that we bother to come back at all. For a spell, we can pretend to be babes in the wood, until the cold drives us to the cafe!

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http://www.puzzlewood.net/index.php/puzzlewood-facilties/about-the-wood

Puzzle Wood reminded me of another woodland nearby (Rocks East Woodland, on the borders of Gloucestershire, Wiltshire, and Somerset). Rocks East has it’s own ‘valley of the rocks’ (also probably a Roman quarry), grotto, sculpture trail, turf maze, and peculiar magic. It is a place I have a special connection with – a decade’s worth of stories: http://www.rockseast.org.uk/

Riding the Wall to Wester Ross

Pit-stop on Rest and Be Thankful Pass - a windy spot!

Pit-stop on Rest and Be Thankful Pass – a windy spot!

I’ve just come back from an epic three-week trip around the north of Britain – some of it was R&R and some of it was field research for my new novel…

Hadrians Wall copyright Kevan Manwaring 2014

In week 1 I walked Hadrian’s Wall (112AD) with my partner Chantelle, an archaeologist (and folk-singer) who works for English Heritage. It was on her ‘bucket list’ to do before her birthday – and so, all kitted up, off we set. I rode up to Newcastle on my Triumph Legend motorbike and met her off the train. We stored the bike at a storyteller’s garage and began our walk – 84 miles over 6 days from coast to coast, going east to west from Wallsend (east of Newcastle) to Bowness-on-Solway (west of Carlisle). We stopped at hostels and used a courier service to get our larger luggage from place to place – carrying just a daysac with essentials in (ie waterproofs!). It was the butt end of Hurricane Bertha and we had to walk into driving wind and rain for the first two or three days, but the weather mercifully improved towards the end of the week. The middle section from Chesters to Birdoswald was stunning. Although the wall wasn’t always visible (turned into roads, railways or cannibalised for building) the way was clearly-marked with white acorns (this being a National Trail). Every roman mile (just short of a mile) there was a mile-castle, inbetween, two turrets, and now and then a substantial fort (eg Housesteads being the most impressive) or garrison town (eg Vindolanda, famous for its amazingly preserved ‘tablets’ recording the minutiae of the daily lives of the inhabitants). The trail passes through the Northumberland National Park – bleak and beautiful. It was very poignant walking this remarkable piece of Roman ingenuity – the Roman Empire on my left, the untamed wilds of the Picts on my right – aware of how it was the first division of this country into north and south. This ‘divide and rule’ policy is worth being in mind in the light of the looming Referendum.

Croft life -  with Chantelle. Copyright Kevan Manwaring 2014

Croft life –
with Chantelle.
Copyright Kevan Manwaring 2014

In week 2 we rode up (Chantelle pillion) to a friend’s croft on the coast of Wester Ross, right up near Ullapool, overlooking the Minch towards Skye and the Outer Hebrides. It was an epic 375 mile ride through the most spectacular scenery – Rannoch Moor, Glen Coe, Glen Shiels…but the storm made it hard going, even dangerous as I battled against high winds and poor visibility. We stopped a night at Glen Coe – soggy as drowned rats but still smiling – before making the final push to the croft where we holed up for a week with provisions, reading and writing material and a bottle of good malt. After a week of motion it was blissful to have a week of stillness, giving our blisters a chance to heal. It was here I celebrated my 45th birthday. My partner treated me to a lovely meal in a local inn – a kind of ‘Valhalla of vinyl’ where we played pool and listened to old classics.

Not the Castle of the Muses, but Eilean Donan, the 'Highlander' castle. Copyright Kevan Manwaring 2014

Not the Castle of the Muses, but Eilean Donan, the ‘Highlander’ castle. Copyright Kevan Manwaring 2014

At the end of this week we rode south 225 miles to the Castle of the Muses in Argyl and Bute – an extraordinary edifice inhabited by Peace Druid Dr Thomas Daffern, 9 muses, and his library of 20,000 volumes. It was here we celebrated our first anniversary with a performance of our show ‘The Snake and the Rose’ in the main hall. Although the audience was small it was still a special way to mark the day. My friend Paul Francis was also present – he’s known by many names including Dr Space Toad, the Troubadour from the 4th Dimension, Jean Paul Dionysus… He’s a great singer-songwriter. After our show we gathered around the hearth and shared poems and songs. The next day Chantelle had to catch a train back home (work etc) but I stayed on for a meeting about forming a ‘circle of Bardic Chairs’. Although it was a small affair we took minutes and a seed was sown. The plan is to have a larger meeting (open to all bards, bardic chair holders, gorseddau, etc) in Stratford-upon-Avon, home of The Bard (William Shakespeare) on his birth/death-day, 23rd April, next year. Watch this space!

In the 3rd week I explored the Lowlands and Borders on my bike – riding solo. On Monday I went to Aberfoyle, home of the Reverend Robert Kirk (author of The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies). It was thrilling to visit the grove on Doon Hill where he was said to have disappeared. A Scots Pine grows on the spot, surrounded by oak trees – all are festooned with clouties, rags, and sparkly offerings of every kind. A magical place. That night I stayed with a musician, Tom, whose croft we’d been staying in. He kindly put me up and we shared a poem or song over a dram.

climbing Schiehallion - the fairy mountain

climbing Schiehallion – the fairy mountain

On Tuesday I decided to climb Schiehallion – the mountain of the Sidhe, right up in the Highlands, so I blatted north past Gleneagles and made an ascent, ‘bagging’ myself a Munro (over 3000ft) though that wasn’t my reason for doing it. Afterwards I visited the Fortingall Yew – the oldest living tree in Britain, possibly 5000 years old. It’s decrepit but still impressive.

Bardmobile in the Rhymer's Glen - Eildon Hills in the background

Bardmobile in the Rhymer’s Glen – Eildon Hills in the background

On Wednesday I visited the Eildon Hills and the Rhymer’s Stone, before going onto Abbotsford, the impressive home of Sir Walter Scott (author of Minstelsy of the Scottish Borders among many others). I ended up at New Lanark, a World Heritage Site – a well-preserved mill-town created by social reformer, Robert Owen, to house, feed, educate and uplift his workers, near the Falls of the Clyde, made famous by Turner, Coleridge, Wordsworth and co. On Thursday I headed Southwest to Ayrshire and the home of Rabbie Burns, Scotlands’ ‘national poet’. The visitor’s centre had an excellent exhibition bringing alive his poems, but I was most thrilled to visit the Brig o’ Doon and the Auld Kirk – immortalised in his classic poem, ‘Tam o’ Shanter’. Then I headed down the west coast to the Machars and the Isle of Whithorn, where St Ninian made landfall and founded the first church north of the Wall. This seemed like a fitting terminus of my Scottish meanderings – from here you are said to see five kingdoms (England, Isle of Man, Ireland, Scotland and the kingdom of Heaven) yet there was one day left.

Further south - Isle of Whithorn

Further south – Isle of Whithorn

On Friday I explored the Yarrow and Ettrick valleys and found Carterhaugh near their confluence – the site of Tam Lin. The meeting of their respective rivers was more impressive – a swirling pool called ‘The Meetings’ near a gigantic salmon weir. It was a very wet day though and my energy was starting to wane. I gratefully made it to a fellow storyteller’s place who had just moved over the Border, not far from Coldstream. Despite having literally just moved in (that day!) her and her husband kindly put me up in the spare room amid the boxes. We didn’t spend long catching up– a quick cuppa – before whizzing north to Edinburgh for the Guid Crack Club. This meets in the upstairs of the Waverley Inn, just off the Royal Mile. I was very tired but happy to watch the high calibre of performance. I wasn’t planning to do anything but in the need I did offer my Northamptonshire Folk Tale, Dionysia the Female Knight, which seemed to go down well. We ate out at a new Greek place and got back late, sharing a glass of wine by the fire. Dog-tired I slept in til 10.30 the next day – then had to ride 250 miles south to Rockingham, near Corby in the Midlands.

Holy Island copyright Kevan Manwaring 2014

Holy Island
copyright Kevan Manwaring 2014

I stopped at Holy Island (Lindisfarne) as I crossed the Border – worth visiting for the ride across the tidal causeway if nothing else, although it felt a ‘thin place’ and calming, despite the tourist hordes. Then it was time to hit the road – and I roared down the A1 (and A19) back south to my old home county. Here I was warmly welcomed by Jim and Janet. I had performed at their solstice bash earlier in the summer and now they were treating me like an old friend. We had a good catchup over dinner and around the fire.

In the morning I made my final pit-stop, at the Bardic Picnic in Delapre Abbey, Northampton – my old neck of the woods. Here I would walk my dog every day. Here 7 years ago a small group of us (6!) held hands and did an awen to announce the beginning of this event which has blossomed, thanks to my friends hard work into a small festival. The sun put his hat on and the crowds came out. Although I was road-weary and unable to take in much of the bardism, I did stick around for the Chairing of the Bard before hitting the road – and the final push across the Cotswolds to home in Stroud.

After 2500 miles and 23 days I finally made it home and I was glad to be back. If only I could have stayed…(the next morning I had to get to Bath for 9am to run an 11-hour tour to Glastonbury, Salisbury and Avebury with 4 Americans – it’s a Bard’s life!).

Watch out for poetry inspired by my trip on the poetry page…

Midsummer Glory

 

Kevan at Avebury stone circle, Solstice Eve, by Chantelle Smith

Kevan at Avebury stone circle, Solstice Eve, by Chantelle Smith

It was an epic solstice weekend which began with me riding on my Triumph Legend motorbike down to Avebury, picking up my partner on the way for a solstice eve picnic on the banks of the mighty henge. Avebury is the largest stone circle in Britain and for my money the most magnificent. Many folk gathered here for the solstice sunrise (but nowhere near the insane numbers of Stonehenge) but it was peaceful enough to enjoy a pleasant picnic in the early evening sunlight. In the distance the obligatory drumming circle had started; and behind us a cricket match was just finishing. You could almost hear the land hold its breath in anticipation of the longest day of the year. For once, it truly felt like summer, and what a glorious place England is to be at such times – the golden green of the rolling hills and trees, the white of the chalk downs and the cricketers, the trilithons of Stonehenge and the cricket stumps, the strawberries and cream, cheese and cider, summer frocks and druid robes.

After I bid farewell to my companion I jumped on a train to London where I was scheduled to pick up a coach-load of sun-worshippers – to take to Stonehenge for the summer solstice sunrise. This meant a 12.30am departure, arriving in the carpark at 3am. It was surreal experience – with me having to articulate about neolithic archaeology in the middle of the night. Still, we got ’em there and we all witnessed the most spectacular sunrise I’ve seen at a stone circle for many years – the full orb rising over the Heel Stone. Truly awesome. A moment that is bigger than all of us (even the 37,000 at Stonehenge) putting everything in perspective. Whatever our faith, or lack of it, we can all worship the sun.

The sun rises over the Heel Stone, Stonehenge, 21 June 2014

The sun rises over the Heel Stone, Stonehenge, 21 June 2014

Bumping into friends at Stonehenge, by the Heel Stone just before sunrise, 21 June 2014

Bumping into friends at Stonehenge, by the Heel Stone just before sunrise, 21 June 2014

The crowds at Stonehenge Summer Solstice sunrise 21 June 2014

The crowds at Stonehenge Summer Solstice sunrise 21 June 2014

After I had dropped off my neolithic pilgrims back in London I jumped on a train to Swindon, where I met my partner for a solstice coffee (the actual solstice was at 10.51am), before heading north to Northampton (my birth town), some 70 miles up the road. There, in the grounds of my beloved Delapre Abbey (where I used to walk my dog as a kid) I snoozed on the lawn until my sister and wee bairn turned up. We enjoyed a cuppa and a cake, while we caught up. I ran through my stories in the glade, fighting off the fatigue. I felt a 1000 years old and could have turned into a tree myself at that point! I reminded myself that the solstice means the ‘sun’s stillness’ and savoured this all too brief hiatus from the heat and dust of the road.

Glade to be alive. Kevan in Delapre Abbey, 21 June 2014

Chillin before the gig. Kevan in Delapre Abbey, 21 June 2014

Then it was off to Rockingham Village Hall, near Corby, for a one-hour storytelling gig. This was a fundraiser for the lovely village hall, and was organised by big-hearted Jim. I was made most welcome by him and his wife in their very picturesque thatched cottage. Jim is an old-school biker himself and showed me the awesome chopper he had built in his garden shed. It was a serious mean machine. I freshened up – somewhat flagging considering I hadn’t had any sleep for 36 hours! This seemed to do the trick as I performed my set without any gaffs. It seemed to go down well, going by the feedback (‘once again many thx for the great stories ,  you have made an impression up  here !!’).

Sadly I wasn’t able to stick around afterwards to enjoy the beer and ceilidh band – I had to get back, even though it meant a 3 hr slog late at night – for my final booking the next morning… And so I said a fond farewell to Jim and his Scottish crew – until next time!

Bard on a Bike and meinhost, Jim of Rockingham, 21 June 2014

Bard on a Bike and meinhost, Jim of Rockingham, 21 June 2014

Although I was exhausted and chilled by the time I made it back at 1am I was glad to be able to flop out in my own bed (41 hrs without proper sleep!). I had 7 blissful hours before I had to get up and get ready to lead a 3 hr literary ramble with 17 people from Hawkwood College – no rest for the bardic!  The weather was glorious as we set off for Slad – and the rest is related in my previous post (‘Walking with Laurie’). By the time I was able to slump down in the garden at Rosebank Cottage with a Pimms, to listen to the poetry and fiddle, I felt as old as the hills, but at one with the land.

The summer solstice is the most expansive, joyous time of year – the time of maximum daylight (and sunlight if we’re lucky) and energy in the northern hemisphere. It feels possible to have such (relatively) epic adventures – because the engine of the year is behind us, the vast CCs of the sun, the ultimate hot-rod, cruising through the cosmos – the Lord of Light in his leathers and shades, long -hair flowing and Hendrix on the headphones, blasting across our skies.

Stone Temple Biker - Kevan at Avebury, by Saravian

Stone Temple Biker – Kevan at Avebury, by Saravian

Tales from the Marches, Tunes for the Road

On Friday we had another fine Stroud Story Supper – this time Kirsty Hartsiotis was on hosting duties, and the Newent Club were the guests (Newent meet in each others’ houses – so this was a rare chance to see them all perform in public). Glenn started with his version of ‘Canonbie Dick’, a classic tale about a sleeping King Arthur being disturbed by a greedy fool – this one from the Scottish Borders (I mention it in a recent paper I gave at Falmouth). Next up Val did a spine-tingling rendition of her Beltane Hare story. David shared his tale from the Welsh Marches of the Crusader who has to prove his wife loves him to his captor Sultan. And finally, Austin rounded the first half off with his epic bardic retelling of the arrival of the Milesians. It was great to hear their fine stories, and there were many other good contributions as well: after the break we had the latest instalment from Jim of his Icelandic saga, complete with doll; I did my version of ‘the Ogre of Etin Hall’, also from the Scottish Borders; Chanty kept to the High Road with ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’; Anthony offered his great version of Simonides of Ceos and the Palace of Memory (an apt meta-narrative about the storyteller’s art); and Fiona finished off with an abbreviated version of her Theseus and the Gorgon. A great night!

On Saturday my partner and I wended our way our way down to the Mendips – stopping for a windy walk at Priddy Nine Barrows (and a hearty repaste in the Queen Victoria, a Jamaica Inn of a pub, out in the sticks, with its low beams, inglenooks, cauldrons and cast of local ‘characters’) enroute to the Pedal Folk house concert. Pedal Folk are a trio following in the cycle-tracks of the late great poet Edward Thomas*, who cycled from London to the Quantocks in Spring 1913 – a journey he recorded in exquisite detail in his book, In Pursuit of Spring (a favourite of mine). The dedicated folk-cyclists have been recreating his journey – cycling to each venue with all their kit, averaging 30 odd miles a day, negotiating some serious hills, in all weather. Tonight they were appearing as guests of a pair of most generous hosts who opened up their splendid house to around 30 or 40 people – providing a magnificent spread of food and drink. Pedal Folk (the talented troubadours Tim Graham and Robin Grey alternating on guitar and guitarlele, and the exquisitely skilled Canadian Chance Kellner on violin) performed two sets blending new songs inspired by Thomas’ ride, with songs associated with the places he passed through or stopped, reels and airs, and the odd contemporary song from Robin. It was all very engaging and the trio had a relaxed bonhomie on ‘stage’ – showing the kind of rapport that comes from sharing a journey together (both physical and creative). What was played of the Thomas material sounded fantastic and I can’t wait to hear the full album (a demo was available on the night). The show felt like a work-in-progress that will no doubt be fine-tuned and added to over the coming months. What gave the whole endeavour authenticity was the fact these lovely folk were cycling all the way. Such an environmentally-friendly initiative deserves to be applauded. I wish them well on their journey – and hope they enjoy a well-earned rest afterwards!

* I’ve been a massive Edward Thomas fan for a while now – having co-authored a feature-length screenplay about his friendship with Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken (with Terence James). I was drawn to Gloucestershire partly because of the inspiring tale of the Dymock Poets – a group of writer-friends who gathered in the Glos. village before the First World War – and this year I have co-organised a centenary symposium, The Golden Room (Sat 26 July, Stroud Subscripton Rooms) with my partner-in-rhyme, fellow poet Jay Ramsay. Read my article on Creative Fellowship here.

Laying the Dust

The Cove Avebury

The Cove Avebury

9-15 July

Last Tuesday my German friend O visited (a month before she gets hitched to a fellow storyteller) and we went to Avebury to rendezvous with Z, resident of The Lacket – her family home nearby in a ridiculously picturesque National Trust village. If you can imagine a filmset for a movie about fairies intruding on a quaint English hamlet, this would be how it would look … but it’s for real. A line of thatched cottages surrounded by recumbent sarsen stones, Lockeridge Dene feels as though it straddles the worlds between mortals and the Good Folk. In exchange for giving our hostess some feedback on the incredible story she is writing about her and her famous grandmother, who was married to Scott of the Antarctic, we got to stay the night. We shared stories by the fire in the ‘Little Room’ as the living room is known, the shelves and walls steeped in history (rare volumes; memento mori; old photographs of famous friends and relatives).

The Little Room, at the Lacket

The Little Room, at the Lacket

Sipping sherry left over from her father’s funeral and eating some creamy camembert on home-made rye bread, we talked into the wee small hours. Then I staggered out into the night – and nearly ‘drowned’ in the sea of stars above my head – a spectacular star-field, due to the lack of light pollution (or anything from the 20th or 21st century) around. I stumbled my way to the Roundabout – the cute thatched ‘gnome’ house which was to be my bedroom for the night. I felt very privileged to be staying in such a place. Thank you Zzzzz…

Gnome, sweet, gnome - The Roundabout, my bedroom at the Lacket

Gnome, sweet, gnome – The Roundabout, my bedroom at the Lacket

The Lacket

Stars like sarsens

scattered across the sky’s meadow.

A house heavy with bristly thatch,

eaves, a furrowed brow.

Timbered frame riddled with history,

the ghosts of literati,

dubious diplomats,

the Polar extremes of Scott and Peter Pan

(the explorer’s son named

after their friend Barrie’s creation).

A lost father immortalised in the Neverland of ice,

leaving Wendy to run the house.

The garden, a habitat of Tinkerbells,

hedges good enough for a Woolf to jump in.

A cow-licked meadow

of glacial erratics,

a stone circle workshop,

Avebury in utero.

Here, great dreams and fragile visions are born,

eminent Victorians nurtured,

erudite Edwardians pandered,

visiting diplomats indulged.

Ineluctably, at the Lacket,

magic is forged,

protected in a vale of deep peace,

where time takes a hiatus

(wristwatches stop in the middle of the night,

stuck on the Roundabout of dreams).

A funeral sherry is sipped

in the snug of the Little Room,

beneath the sepia gazes of

the famous and familial.

The timbers, spines of rare books,

stained with the centuries of

mercurial repartee, firefly passion, hearts

breaking like an Antarctic ice-shelf,

minds locked into themselves,

imprisoned in the past,

imaginations roaming free.

 

Kevan Manwaring

July 2013

 

The next day, we went for a walk up Cherhill with Kevin, gurned to the camera in front of the Lansdowne monument and white horse, before ending up at the Black Horse for some quaffing.

Cherhill sunset

Cherhill sunset

The next day I accompanied O to Bath, and met up with my Icelandic friend, Svanur (aka, ‘The Viking’ as we affectionately call him), who was passing through town on his way back to his homeland, where he works as a tour guide. The last time I’d seen him was Easter 2012 in Cornwall, so we had alot of catching up to do – which we did over a few beers. His wife, Suzanne, and friends joined us for a pleasant afternoon sat in the beer garden of the Pig and Fiddle. Skol!

The Viking in Bath!

The Viking in Bath!

On Saturday my friend Robin visited and we walked the Wansdyke – even though we set off at 4pm, the heat was still formidable, and it was hard work to get up onto the ridge. Stretching from Bristol to Marlborough, this ancient earthwork is attributed to the Danes, hence its name, Wansdyke, or ‘Woden’s Ditch’, but it might well pre-date this. The fact it links several significant ancient sites – hill-forts, long barrows, and camps – makes it feel more like a processional route than a defensive structure. This is certainly how it feels, walking along it. I remember once on the way to Tan Hill (its highest point, and site of a famous fair) I found a verse and melody popped into my head, something along the lines of ‘I’m on my way to Tan Hill Fair, I hope to find my true love there.’ It seemed to arise out of the rhythm of my progress along the ancient way – the May trees, in full blossom, enhancing the sense this was the sacred route to the Hill of Bel-Tane. Higher up, there was a trace of pleasant coolness, and the going was far easier – it felt like one was a giant striding over the land; that one could go on for miles. Just as well, as we had several to go to our destination – the Barge Inn, Honeystreet, where there was a summer knees-up – and the shadows were lengthening (‘our shadows taller than our souls’). By the time we dropped down into the Vale of Pewsey and made our way along the tow-path to the pub, the sound of revelry guiding us, it was getting dark. We arrived five and half hours after setting out, having walked around 12-3 miles, with detours (navigational haziness; a Roman road that was now a blocked right of way; a vast field with no way out like the one in Ben Wheatley’s new film ‘A Field in England’). We were in need of sustenance – alas, the kitchen had shut. The slender bar-maid failed to inform me there was a BBQ, so I got us some Ford Prefect peanuts and myself, a pint of ‘Croppie’ (de rigeur in Wiltshire’s legendary crop-circle pub, a favourite watering hole for cerealogists, stranded aliens and yokels). These were consumed with ravenous haste. Then I managed to grab the last veggie-burger (minus a bun) and some cake – thus was our West Country repast for the night. Fortunately, the beer was good and the atmosphere pleasant. We sat and watched the bands for a bit – even vaguely dancing at one point, although the swaying might have been more from exhaustion, and being on the state of collapsed. Replete with the fullness of the day, we staggered off to find a place to wild-camp, which we did, nearby in Alton Barnes, by the squat Saxon church – found at the end of a Corpse-path in the middle of a field. Dog-tired, we didn’t notice any ghosts – only something rustling in the undergrowth and the police helicopter overhead, searching for rogue males, no doubt! Nevertheless, it was a peaceful and pleasant night’s sleep – it was so warm, a mat and sleeping bag was all that was needed. I awoke, hearing the first bird break the dawn – before being joined by the feathered choir for the morning’s chorus.

Robin on Adam's Grave

Robin on Adam’s Grave

We arose and walked up to the ridge, stopping at Adam’s Grave, a long barrow, to enjoy the sublime view – the mist burning off in the Vale below. It was only 7am and we had the whole morning before us, a good feeling – and practical, as we avoided the heat of the day. Following a seldom frequented stretch of the Ridgeway, we reached Avebury from the south in a couple of hours, arriving via the Avenue of menhirs (this was about my fourth time walking up it in a month and it was starting to feel like Groundhog Day). We’d run out of water, so replenished our bottles, and I brewed up by the roadside like a tinker. There were no buses back to Calne, alas – so we grabbed some sarnies from the NT cafe, and hoiked ourselves along the road, thumbing up. Drivers looked at us as though we were escaped criminals. Fortunately, at the Beckhampton roundabout an old hitcher on his way back from a car-boot took mercy and gave us a lift up the road – it wasn’t far (7 miles) but boy, were we grateful: my feet were blistered enough by the time we got back. Limbs scratched and dripping sweat, this bardic bod was in a sorry state – but I felt exhilarated too. Our footloose foray had been a success. We freshened up and had some lunch – again, the simplest food can be so satisfying when you have a proper appetite (and not just eating out of habit). I got changed and ready for a tour I was due to lead in Bath – no rest for the bardic! I gave Robin a lift to Chippenham station, then blatted it over to Aquae Sulis, where I met up with a couple of Americans from Maryland, on a whistle-stop tour of English culture spots (Winchester, Stonehenge, Avebury…). Despite being wiped out by my Wansdyke walk and the heat, I think I acquitted myself well. An hour and a half later, I was given a very nice tip and bought a pint of Bell-ringer in the Coer-de-Lion, Bath’s smallest pub – this most certainly needed to lay the dust of the road down, like the pump used to do by the Marden river in Calne. By the time I got back to the Wiltshire town I was not much more than a bardic zombie, shuffling around sore-footed and staring, looking for a take-away.

The following night I went back to Bath for the Storytelling Circle at the Raven, which I used to run. It is now hosted by David Metcalfe, a fellow Fire Spring member. At first, there was only a handful of ‘usual suspects’ there, but it rapidly filled up and there was a good crowd and an entertaining cross-section of offerings. I told the story of The Far-travelled Fiddler from my forth-coming collection of ‘Northamptonshire Folk Tales’ – being published by The History Press – in the week I had received a proof of the gorgeous cover from Katherine Soutar. To see seeds sown in early Spring (when I submitted the manuscript) come to fruition is immensely satisfying, and offers some consolation for my ‘exile’ in one-horse Calne, which the visit of friends and various sortees makes more bearable.

Friends by Cherhill

Friends by Cherhill