A poem I wrote after completing the West Highland Way.
Kevan on the shores of Loch Maree – photography by Jenni Horsfall, 2015
From ‘Lost Border’, Chrysalis, 2015
A poem I wrote after completing the West Highland Way.
Kevan on the shores of Loch Maree – photography by Jenni Horsfall, 2015
From ‘Lost Border’, Chrysalis, 2015
This year certainly has been one of peaks and troughs. Which year isn’t, I hear you say! But 2021 has been ‘peakier’ and ‘troughier’ than most for me, with some amazing highs and some real lows. Of course, we live in especially challenging times – the debacle of Brexit overwhelmed by the omnishambles of the UK government’s response to Covid-19 and its variants, and in the background the vaster wave (like the iconic Japanese woodblock print, The Great Wave) of the Climate Crisis: the real tsunami threatening human ‘civilisation’, such as it is. I argue that this creates an underlying mental health crisis across the country, even before the vicissitudes of life exacerbate things — a Zabriskie Point everything must struggle upwards from. But, I am here to celebrate a rich year! So, if you would allow me to put that triple-headed apocalypse aside for a moment, I shall sum up the highs (and lows) of my last twelve months.
The most exciting development of 2021 (for me) has been securing tenure as a permanent Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at Arts University Bournemouth (AUB). I started there in April, and have enjoyed getting to know the staff, students, campus, and surrounding area – including morning runs along the promenade, and swimming in the summer. A hub of the creative industries, it is a colourful place to work. Originally coming from a Fine Arts background it feels like a good fit. For Earth Day (April 22nd) I organised a 2-day symposium on creative writing and the environment, with guest speakers, workshops, a book launch (my British Library anthology, Heavy Weather: tempestuous tales of stranger climes), and an ‘Earth Bards’ showcase for the students.
At the end of the academic year I headed to Cumbria to work on an eco-SF audio drama with my new lovely friend Chloé Germaine, a writer and academic based at Manchester Metropolitan University. We had an inspiring, and industrious week – writing 6×30 minute episodes, which Alternative Stories and Fake Realities are due to produce in the new year. I also enjoyed getting back into roleplaying games with her, husband Jon and friends – something I hadn’t done for decades. Things have moved on a lot since I used to play Dungeons and Dragons, Call of Cthulu, and Traveller with my schoolmates. There is an explosion in indie game design, with some brilliant reimaginings of classic genres and tropes. It is a fascinating form of collaborative storytelling, which is often ‘ecological’ in its design as well as content (I also organised some more traditional storytelling concerts with friends at The Henge shop, Avebury, to celebrate the turning seasons).
I have long been concerned about the environment (organising my first fundraiser concert – for Greenpeace –in 1991), and I have been running creative writing and the environment events since 2003, but in the last few years my writing and research has increasingly focused on this area, and in 2021 I pitched a proposal to Palgrave, and authored a chapter for a forthcoming book on bioethics from Routledge (Coastal Environments in Popular Culture), and an article on Coleridge’s ecological vision for the English Review. Since starting at AUB my research activity and profile has increased dramatically. Being supported in my research with a designated ‘research day’ in my timetable, and being now eligible for funding as a member of staff means I’ve been able to apply for various grants. I’ve won a RKE Fellowship to undertake field research next summer on environmental aspects of Fantasy (and to deliver a paper at the ‘Once and Future Worlds’ conference in Glasgow in July), and I have been made a finalist in the BBC/AHRC New Generation Thinkers 2022 scheme! This is particularly exciting, as if I make the final selection I will be able to make my very own programme for BBC Radio 3, as well as appear on various panel discussions.
In terms of my own creative writing I haven’t stinted either, penning a new novel about the city of Bath in the 1990s (when I used to live there) and the 1750s (slightly before my time!). This was longlisted for the Bath Novel Award 2021, and garnered keen agent interest.
Over the summer I walked the 136 mile Wessex Ridgeway from my current home on the Marlborough Down to Lyme Regis (having a peak experience on Pilsdon Pen) and I have been returning to the Jurassic Coast a lot since. In the autumn I was the module leader for a unit on place-writing, and took the students on various lovely field trips in the area. And in the new year I am moving to within a couple of miles of that stunning heritage coastline. So, big changes!
As lockdown eased over the summer and the nation got jabbed up it was so lovely to celebrate my birthday in August with a small group of friends at Manton. Over my birthday weekend I hosted the annual Bardfest online, with a great line-up of contributors performing to raise money for Water Aid.
Back on campus in September I organised two new monthly events – Outside the Box transdisciplinary research seminar series, (where I invite two guest speakers to discuss their research) and L’arte Laureates: an open mic I set up for our creative writing students, which has taken on a life of its own, being now co-hosted by the Writing Society. It’s been lovely seeing the students strut their stuff while socialising off-campus. The more real world stuff like this we can off the better in my books.
Despite this busyness I jealously guard my downtime to ensure quality of life – making sure I have time to savour the simple pleasures: ‘fodder, flax, fire, and frigg’, as the Norse put it! I have made the most of living up on the Marlborough Downs – going for frequent runs, rides, and rambles and getting to know the local wildlife well (it was lovely to see the brown hare in the Spring, and the red kites are a constant in the big, open skies). The green space has been a lifesaver during lockdown, and after a busy week, and I have enjoyed getting into a bit of en plein air daubing on the downs.
But most of all, I’ve especially enjoyed quality time with friends – going on walks, or spending an evening with them for a good, old heart-to-heart: these are my true family – kindred spirits who ‘see’ me, and value my company. They are very dear to me, so it has been upsetting to discover two of my dearest friends have cancer – both are fighting it valiantly, but it is a sharp reminder to appreciate people while they are around.
I decided to enjoy a late summer trip to Cornwall, where I stayed at a vicarage with German friends, and got to experience the amazing St Just Ordinalia – a religious cycle that is only performed every 20 years. Afterwards, I camped on the Lizard peninsula, and developed lighthouse awareness.
I have loved being able to see films at the cinema again. The blockbusters I saw left me cold, unfortunately, but Nomadland (rereleased after its Oscar triumph), and The Green Knight were amazing – the latter was definitely my film of the year. Read my review of it here. Other cultural highlights including visiting exhibitions such a Downland Man (Eric Ravilious) at the Wiltshire Museum, The Museum of Mystery and Imagination at Bridport Arts Centre, and Unseen Landscapes at St Barbe’s, Lymington. It’s also been good to hear live music again, although I’ve only managed to catch a couple of bands. I didn’t fancy going to any festivals, but it was nice seeing folks enjoying themselves out and about again.
Yet the year was not without its challenges. Viruses are very much in the air, but with my good immune system, constitution, and level of fitness (e.g. I ran the Bournemouth Half Marathon) I normally shrug them off, but in March I went down with a really nasty infection, which absolutely floored me for a week. This however resulted in a most profound experience, which I related in The Star Cathedral. I’ve enjoyed getting back into cycling, but in May I had a nasty tumble on my mountain bike while riding on the tracks near my home on the Marlborough Downs. After heavy rains the tracks were flooded in parts and very muddle and I ended up face down in the gravel when the bike suddenly went from under me. Fortunately I was wearing goggles and helmet, but I still had to be rushed to A&E by my partner covered in mud and blood. The abrasions and gouges on my face, hands, and knees took quite a while to heal and really shook my confidence. I liked the return to face-to-face teaching, but not in this instance! As Mike Scott and The Waterboys sing, ‘Everybody Takes A Tumble’, but the trick is to get back up, and, in this case, get back on two wheels. I joined the Cyclescheme at work, and purchased a really good gravel bike (hybrid road/mountain bike), which I have been using mainly for commuting to campus from my temporary accommodation in Bournemouth during the week, but over the summer I ‘broke it in’ undertaking a 4 day 225 mile off-road trail, the King Alfred’s Way. I loved cycling the Ridgeway and the South Downs, and the highlight was wild-camping on Butser Hill. You can read an account of my trip here. I am certainly looking forward to more cycle-camping trips, although have my reservations about ‘bike-packing’ (the trendy name for it, with attendant overpriced gear)! Panniers, and a good map are all you need.
The end the year with a complete change of scene (much needed after 2 years of lockdown and limited travel) I am finally travelling to Iceland to spend time with my Icelandic friend, wife, and family, and my German friend who is joining us. I am looking forward to (hopefully) seeing the northern lights and that epic landscape of ice and fire.
I am glad to say I am carbon negative after planting over 200 trees with Tree App – and I heartily recommend it to all (see below). It has been satisfying planting a tree in various conservation projects around the world every day, and I am looking forward to putting down roots on the Jurassic Coast.
Wherever and however you celebrate (or not) – noisily, peacefully, alone, or with family and friends – have a great new year and I hope to see you along the road!
Nick Hayes asks who owns the land and who has the right to access it?
Nick Hayes is an illustrator, best known for his graphic novels and distinctive black-and-white prints, but in this substantial hardback he shows he has the chops to carry off a very well-researched and engagingly-written non-fiction book. With the same precision that he renders the natural world through his art, Hayes, identifies the various layers of rights, rules, expectations, and entitlements around land-usage in Britain – the ‘spells’, as he puts it, of law that prevent us from crossing the sometimes invisible walls, fences, or thresholds of property. Each chapter is named after an animal – instilling an atavistic presence into Hayes’ conceptual and physical forays and incursions – ones often heedless of the artificial barriers humans impose on nature. The author weaves in his own experiences of trespass into his erudite interrogations into notions of property, space, boundaries, the rights of the commoner and the landowner, corporation, community, and individual. His firsthand accounts of stealthy flits into the vast estates of the mega-rich have a visceral frisson of transgression to them. And yet these aren’t macho versions of ‘urb-ex’ or rural flâneury, but often reflective ramblings with plenty of time to stand and stare, or, in Hayes’ case, sit and sketch. The ruminations on the rights of the (rambling) citizen amid the forests of legalese and doxas (ultra-orthodoxies considered a sacrosanct part of the status quo) and shibboleths of society, are counter-balanced with beers and sausages around campfires, and even the odd illegal high. Forbidden fruit is here to be tasted, Gardens of Edens scrumped, and grass definitely not kept off of. Two chapters stand out – one about the colonial spectre that haunts the ‘picturesque’ countryside: the slavery in stone of many a stately home; and the other about the Greenham Peace Camp and the rights (or lack) of women and property. These are impressive in their own right, but add to the heartfelt deconstruction of the glamourye of the property barons and (Conservative) consensus reality. To his credit, Hayes consider both sides of the fence, and wishes for a more porous communication between polarised positions: it is the legal fiction of the fence that makes criminals of the commoner, and sows enmity between those who live on and love the land. Hayes considers other models of land usage and rights – and shows how the Scottish model is perfectly workable, with education and shared obligations of care and consideration. Other countries in Europe offer better access than the United Kingdom where 92% of the land and 97% of the waterways are off limits, often owned by offshore companies registered in tax utopias like the British Virgin Islands, and subsidised massively by government grants. Like Don Quixote, Hayes tilts at these windmills. His chutzpah and sheer cheekiness has to be admired, for it is done with wit, skill, and an artistic flourish. He is a most civilised interloper, even as he yearns for our wild roots to be see the light of day. Full of fascinating, eye-opening facts about the ‘countryside’ and the ‘rights’ we are deprived or begrudgingly granted by the descendants of those who stole the commons from us, The Book of Trespass is a must read for anyone who cares about access to the land – wherever one lives. Hayes reminds us that the stories we tell change our perception of place, of ecos and community, and it is time for those stories to change.
‘Trespass shines a light on the unequal share of wealth and power in England, it threatens to unlock a new mindset of our community’s rights to the land, and, most radical of all, it jinxes the spell of an old, paternalistic order that tell us everything is just as it should be.’
Nick Hayes, The Book of Trespass
Kevan Manwaring, 8th February
The Book of Trespass is published by Bloomsbury
It is a dream I have… (Merlin, Excalibur, Boorman, 1981)
I have been obsessed with all things Arthurian since a young age – and that compelled me to go on pilgrimage to Glastonbury and other sites associated with his legend as I reached an age when I could hit the road. Coming from a run-down Midlands town it was thrilling to walk in a landscape soaked with myths and legends – but back then I did not realise such things are under your feet, wherever you live. What we consider to be sacred is as an act of perception – but sometimes we have to go on a journey to realise the wonders of the everyday.
Having walked many of the national trails in 2017 I decided to create a more meaningful route – one with a narrative, a significance, I could relate to. One that might even be transformative. And thus I researched the modern pilgrimage route I called the ‘King Arthur Way’ – a 153 mile long-distance trail from Tintagel (the place of Arthur’s conception, according to legend) to Glastonbury (site of his ‘grave’, or passing).
I loved working out the route on the series of OS maps I purchased – one that takes the pilgrim from the rugged north Cornish coast, across the wild fastness of Dartmoor and the Blackdown Hills, and over the Somerset Levels towards the iconic terminus of Glastonbury Tor. Along the way one passes castles and mysterious stones, winding rivers, woods and heathland, charming villages and tempting pubs. There were, as on any long-distance walks, days of real challenge and days of reward. Some of the highlights include:
Most of all there was this sense of ‘walking the legend’, which made it real in a very embodied way. If a 6th Century battle-chief existed called ‘Arthur’ (Arturo, Artus …) then he would have been a very different leader than the one rendered in the courtly romances, as would have been his ‘knights’. The Arthur of the early Celtic tales gives us a glimmer, perhaps – he’s far less sympathetic (Trystan and Isseult), more pro-active (The Spoils of Annwn), and often deep in gore (The Celtic Triads). Yet whether he existed or not, there is an Arthur for all of us – he is a malleable construct that changes through the decades. He epitomized one thing for the Victorians (the noble cuckold; the tragic martyr torn between lofty ideals and earthly desires, skeletons in the cupboard and Christian imperialism); another for the Post-War generation (a dream of unity, however flawed); another for the Counter-Culture (Merlin as the original Gandalf; Mordred as the rebellious anti-hero); another for the New Age (feminist revisionist treatments reappraising the role of women in the Arthuriad and problematizing the patriarchal hierarchy of it all). Arthur ‘exists’ as a cultural meme, as a literary figure, as an ideal – and it is the latter that most engages me at present.
For despite his questionable reputation and historical status, Arthur represents the archetype of Kingship. And we are living in an age suffering from the Shadow of that – we suffer under the yoke of so many bad leaders. I am not a Royalist, but I am no anarchist either. We need good leadership now more than ever – both from within and without. It would be naive to assume that if we just ‘sorted ourselves out’ the world would be okay – but it’s a place to start from. Self-actualisation can happen in many ways. Healthy communities are naturally ennobling and mutually empowering, so the process can begin on your doorstep.
But sometimes we need a more intense experience to ‘shift’ things.
My hope in creating a modern pilgrimage route is that it could be used for rites-of-passage (for all genders and ages), for leadership training, for the continuation of a living oral tradition (storytelling, poetry and singing along the route), the cultivation of art trails, the promoting of local businesses, rural regeneration, and so forth. Such an endeavour will only come about through collaboration, community involvement, fundraising and sponsorship. To accomplish such a dream requires inspired leadership. By setting out to create the King Arthur Way perhaps I had awakened my own ‘king’ – and I hope that all who walk it connect with their own inner sovereignty too.
Route details etc here:
Read a fuller account of the creation of the King Arthur Way in the latest issue of The Pilgrim:
For general mapping and other pilgrim trails:
WALKING TO MAIA*
‘…pronouncing in silence this long sentence of stone’ Noel Connor
Walking to stillness,
walking to wind through the dry grass,
walking to the gentle lap of the outward tide.
I’m walking to Maia.
Walking away from the bullshit,
walking away from the banks,
walking away from Westminster,
from the politicans’ self-interested dance.
Walking away from the rolling news bombardment,
vomiting violence 24/7,
making us fear the other,
fear our neighbour,
nurture a culture of fear,
and feed the cycle
that sells the news,
sells the guns, sells the bombs,
sells the panic rooms, the state-of-the-art tombs.
I’m walking to Maia,
walking away from the High Street,
Walking away from Legoland and Lego people.
Walking away from servile stations,
from motorway gridlock,
from the littering doggybagshitters in the parks.
From animal sadism
and people masochism,
from zero hours contracts,
and fat cat bonuses.
I’m walking to Maia.
Walking away from Putin and Netinyahu.
Walking away from Isis militia and Ebola.
Walking away from everyday sexism and FGM.
Walking away from childhood hero child abuse
and internet porn – the virtual voyeurism which is the norm.
Walking away from the NSA, from GCHQ and hacking hacks.
I’m walking to Maia,
I’m walking to Maia.
Along my long straight road
following a wall of will,
to the vanishing point,
where I hope the land runs out
before my legs.
Six days of feet jazz,
of sheep bleat and stile hop.
Six days of tracking white acorns
and map origami on windy crags.
Six days of hostel hopping,
of top bunk grabbing,
of soggy sock drying,
of full English (veggie),
Six days of waterproof-dancing,
of goretex and sunhats,
of tshirts and wax jacks,
of blister-feet and sweaty backs.
I’m walking to Maia,
in conversation, in silence,
in solitude, in company,
in high spirits, in doldrums,
in heel-to-toe iambs,
in hiking trance,
walking into your body
and into the land.
I’m walking to Maia.
Arriving to estuary emptiness,
the Solway at low-tide,
a dog licking its wounds –
lazy lap on mud-flats,
skirl of a lonely gull,
tang of salt and seaweed.
A terminal shack interpretation,
no victory pint from the closed pub.
The world returns to
tea-room and bus-stop.
Over the water, Scotland awaits.
The wind whispers
it’s the journey.
Walking to Maia.
Mantra of footstep
And breath. Balancing
Inside the Roman
And the Pict.
* Maia is the name of the last Roman fort on Hadrian’s Wall, Bowness-on-Solway, West of Carlisle, 84 miles from Wallsend, the start, East of Newcastle.
I have a series of literary rambles coming up – Walking with Words – as part of the Cotswold Word Centre programme which I’ve devised in conjunction with Hawkwood College. WWW combines two of my favourite things – literature and walking. Last week I walked each of the routes, and had an enjoyable time reading out poems in situ on Crickley Hill with my friend Anthony.
Here’s a poem I penned on Swift’s Hill in Slad Valley – made famous by Gloucestershire’s most famous writer, Laurie Lee.
ON SWIFT’S HILL
On Swift’s Hill I learn to be still.
A walk in silence
fills my head with murmorous voices.
I venture down the meandering backlines
and bywords of Laurie’s valley,
where a walk is a sentence as long as the day.
This strange familiar land
steeped in his words
like a rat in cider.
Long lost ghosts come alive
at the touch of his pen,
at the turn of a page.
The shadows lengthen,
the bramble bushes ripen,
black handgrenades of juice
waiting to ambush your tongue.
The trees are heavy with summer,
like cows slowly coming home,
In this wild heaven
the day takes as long
as it wants.
The busy world
The Severn is a silver slither
on the horizon.
Dark Wales, a frowning brow.
The golden Cotswold massif,
a broken off slab of toffee.
The barrowed hills of peace
where the dead keep mum.
my worries await,
but for now they can cool their heels.
I’m walking with Laurie
and there’s always time for a slow half
in the Woolpack’s hallowed snug.
2nd September 2013
Check out this lovely programme about Laurie Lee’s Slad Valley – Laurie Lee Land on Radio 4’s Open Country –
featuring Stroud’s very own poetical son, Adam Horovitz, of the famous dynasty of verse (Michael & Frances Horovitz).
WALKING WITH WORDS
Throughout Autumn/Winter 2013-14 Kevan will be leading a series of literary rambles around Gloucestershire – in the footsteps of some of the great writers who have lived here: Laurie Lee, Edward Thomas, Ivor Gurney, WH Davies and John Drinkwater. Each walk will be 2-3 hours long, moderate, approx. 5 miles, and will include plenty of time to ‘stand and stare’, (or sit and write). A lovely Sunday roast lunch will be provided by Hawkwood College. Transport can arranged.
Sunday 22nd September
IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF LAURIE LEE (part of ‘Walking With Words’)
On the eve of Laurie Lee’s centenary year, walk in the footsteps of the great Gloucestershire writer through his beloved Slad Valley – finding inspiration en route for your own writing. There will be plenty of opportunities to ‘stand and stare’ on this gentle bardic amble. We’ll visit the orchard Laurie Lee saved, donated by his family to the Wildlife Trust. After paying our respects at his grave, a drink in his local, The Woolpack, (be it Rosie cider or a cup of coffee) will slake your thirst before returning to Hawkwood College for lunch. Led by local writer and keen walker Kevan Manwaring.
or telephone: 01453 759034
Sunday 29th September
IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF WH DAVIES (part of ‘Walking With Words’@ Hawkwood College)
WH Davies (Author of ‘Autobiography of a Supertramp’) died in Nailsworth on 26th September, 1940. He is best remembered for his much-loved poem, ‘Leisure’. In this walk we visit the cottage Davies resided in, and explore his old stomping ground, finding inspiration along the way. Lifts to be arranged from Hawkwood College, where we’ll return for a delicious lunch.
or telephone: 01453 759034
Sunday 6th October
IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF EDWARD THOMAS & ROBERT FROST (part of ‘Walking With Words’)
On the 100th Anniversary of the first meeting between poets Edward Thomas and Robert Frost we follow in the footsteps of one of their famous ‘walks-talking’ bardic rambles, up May Hill where Thomas wrote ‘Words’. Lifts to be arranged from Hawkwood College, where we’ll return for a delicious lunch.
or telephone: 01453 759034
Sunday 3rd November
IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF IVOR GURNEY (part of ‘Walking With Words’)
On Remembrance Sunday we remember the First World War Poet, Ivor Gurney, who loved Gloucestershire. We’ll visit the Beak at Birdlip and read his work as we go, finding inspiration for our own writing along the way. Lifts to be arranged from Hawkwood College, where we’ll return for a delicious lunch. (‘Strange the large difference of up-Cotswold ways;/Birdlip climbs bold and treeless to a bend,
Portway to dim wood-lengths without end,/And Crickley goes to cliffs that are the crown of days.’ Cotswold Ways, Ivor Gurney)
or telephone: 01453 759034
Sunday 6th April
IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF JOHN DRINKWATER (part of ‘Walking With Words’)
On this walk we follow in the footsteps of Dymock Poet, John Drinkwater, who memorably wrote of ‘Cotswold Love’ in April (‘When April comes to Amberley/With skies of April blue/And Cotswold girls are briding/With slyly tilted shoe.). We’ll travel up to Rodborough Common and walk to the Black Horse in Amberley – writing and reciting as we go. Lifts to be arranged from Hawkwood College, where we’ll return for a delicious lunch.
or telephone: 01453 759034
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).
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…
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,
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
The Hill of Wells
21st March 2009
‘My eyes made fountains’, John Masefield
I am filled with awen having just seen Robin and Bina Williamson perform their Songs for the Rising Year at Malvern Wells village hall – around the corner from where I’m staying (a lovely B&B, the Dell House, sleepily ensconced within its leafy bower as the name suggests). It was a joy to see and hear them both again – a fitting ‘end’ to my bardic journey (in the context of my book, The Way of Awen: journey of a bard – due in imminently) for Robin is a living embodiment of the Penbeirdd – a worthy inheritor of Taliesin’s title for my money. I am a bard, but Robin is on another level entirely, and shows in his consummate skill and stage professionalism how far I have yet to go – not that I imagine matching Robin’s huge talent and achievement (he is a living legend, after all). It is rightly humbling to note there is always someone more advanced than you. In truth, we all have our own mountains to climb – and whatever size that, the achievement of reaching its particular summit should not be diminished by the mountains of others.
The fact that I made it here, however humble an immram, is a kind of ‘mountain’. This morning I was sluggishly recovering from the previous night – a big night when we launched Jay’s book (Places of Truth: journeys into sacred wilderness – working on it whetted my appetite for such places) at Waterstones, Bath; an event fellow poet and tutor Mary Palmer asked me to organise. So I had to co-ordinate the performers, promote it, MC it, and publish Jay’s book (being a writer requires more skills than ‘just’ writing these days – gone are the days of waxing lyrical in ivory towers and perhaps just as well). It was a good night – the awen flowed. All the performers were very professional so helped to carry the weight – it was a collective effort and and credit to all those who took part… And, what a relief, we did it! Despite last minute ‘labour pains’ we got Jay’s book out on schedule (collected from the printers the day before – phew!). It’s been an intense couple of weeks – stacks of marking, Jay’s book, my book, Waterstones, Bournemouth talk last Monday, Bath Writers’ Workshop, my evening classes… I felt I deserved a break. It’s essential to replenish the cauldron – and where better than on the hills of wells, where Long Will, as William Langland was known locally, lay down ‘tired out from (his) wanderings’ and had his visionary dream ‘among the Malvern hills’ of his divine allegory, Piers the Plowman.
Having decided to bunk off ‘school’ (my marking not quite finished, but the sun was shining and shouting Carpe Deum!) I packed my saddlebags and hit the road. It was a lovely sunny road/ride-up along the edge of the Cotswolds and across the Severn plain. When it’s like this the bike is a joy to ride. I felt like ‘king of the road’ again, shaking off the final cobwebs of winter. After I had checked in, I went for an early evening walk – determined to catch the last rays of the day. The golden light had lost its keenness, but in the back of my mind I had my favourite line of English poet (written by Malvern poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning): ‘the sun on the hill forgot to die’. It was thrilling to think these very hills I ascended might have inspired that line. And true, the light seemed to linger, as I hiked up through the woods like Wandering Angus (a fire in my head fed by the oxygen and kindling around me). The woods worked their magic – it was good to arrive, to connect with the genius loci. To orientate myself. The path zigzagged up through the steep woods. A collapsed retaining wall at Holy Well meant I had to take a more circuitous route to the top, but finally, I cleared the tree-line and made the ridge at sunset – though the sun was obscured behind a low bank of cloud. And yet there was still the dusk to savour. Two guys passed by, but otherwise I was alone. I called for awen on the heights. Satisfied, (planning to return for a proper walk the following day) I descended through the darkening woods.
Now I had to attend to physical needs – sustenance before the concert. The only eating place was a Thai restaurant, not quite what I had in mind. Instead I grabbed a sandwich and a packet of crisps from the garage (served by a cheerful Oriental girl). I’d had a good lunch before setting off, and plenty of snacks so wasn’t ravenous. I freshened up for the evening’s entertainment. It was great to go the nearby gig and enjoy a couple of real ales (which I would not have been able to do if I’d been staying further away – the Dell was a real find). In the break I said hello and Robin remembered me straight away, reminding me to his wife, though I hadn’t seen him for a couple of years since booking him for an event in Bath. His lovely wife Bina thanked me for what I said about them in The Bardic Handbook. I gave Robin a dedicated copy of An Ecobardic Manifesto – for he is cited in it as an exemplar. Afterwards we talked further about poets – I mentioned Vernon Watkins, as I’d been on the Gower recently; and Robin talked of Ifor Davies; which brought to mind Phil Tanner, bard of Llangennith. I was flattered when Robin called me ‘a pretty good poet’ (which, compared to Bob Dylan’s comment about Robin – ‘not bad’ – is positively glowing!) We joked about hanging out on lonely knolls, hoping to bump into the Queen of Elfland. I said I had done this on the Eildon hills, but had no such luck. Robin had been there too – and perhaps faired better!
It was great to sit in the front row – having got the last-but-one ticket earlier that day – and be fed by a master of awen. I am so glad I came – I didn’t decide for definite until that afternoon, when I reserved the ticket, found and booked the B&B, packed and blatted up here – it just required faith … in the Way of Awen.
The next morning, after a peaceful night’s sleep and a hearty breakfast, I headed for the hills, making a beeline for British Camp, where Langland was said to have been inspired to write his famous medieval poem. I yomped up the hill in my bike leathers – not ideal for walking in! Breathless, I collapsed on the summit and stared at the blue bowl of sky. Sunlight glittered on the reservoir below and although not quite the original source reminded me of Langland’s lines: ‘…I lay down to rest under a broad ban by the side of stream, and leaned over gazing into the water, it sounded so pleasant that I fell asleep’. The hill fort was impressive – its steep flanks would have made a formidable defensive structure – and I wondered whether Tolkien had been inspired by it for his ‘the ancient watch-tower of Amon Hen’, whilst walking here with Lewis – and by the impressive ‘beacons’ the beacon fires which Gondor called for aid to Rohan. The local bishops were less friendly, the Earl of Gloucester raising the 13th Century Red Earl’s Dyke between their respective bishoprics. Caractacus was said to have made his last stand here, (a small cave, Clutter’s Cave, is said to be the resting place of the British hero who rise to his countrymen’s aid) inspiring Elgar, who said in 1934 when suffering from his final illness: “If ever after I’m dead you hear someone whistling this tune on the Malvern Hills, don’t be alarmed. It’s only me.” I can see why the composer found such inspiration here. Given long enough it may untap the awen in anyone. Today I only had a brief taste, but it was enough to turn on the taps. Moving onto Black Camp, I parked up, stashed my togs, and followed the undulating ridge north, enjoying its spectacular natural roller-coaster. Turning back along its leeward side, I found a quiet sunny spot overlooking the western vale and penned these lines:
On Malvern Hills
On these lettered hills I find peace.
Thick as cream the Spring sunshine pours
over the wooded wolds, cloistered
from the world. Here song waits, poised,
a bird in the air – waiting
to strike at any fecund second.
The sky is full of poetry, the green Earth
budding with awen.
From these pure springs Masefield, Browning, Auden
drank. Elgar whistled symphonies in the silent folds.
Inklings rambled, forging a landscape of myth and
language, and Langland dreamt his rustic allegory.
From the defiant fastness of British Camp
to Worcestershire Beacon
something positively English
can be gleaned about this charmed island
of six hundred million year old granite,
enduring, quietly conquering
all who reach its sanctuary. From
its many wells it suckles all.
Great Mother Malvern.
Her children take
shelter amongst her skirts,
nourished by selfless springs.
Thank the wild saints, the spirits of place,
for this hallowed spot, this bedrock of Albion.