A Week in Wales

We’re just back from a week’s holiday in North Wales. We’ve been going there regularly for so long now, I must have spent over a year of my life there! Years ago, I travelled abroad a few times, but to my own surprise I don’t have much urge to travel. It’s not just the prospect of flying, of boarding and disembarking, checking in and checking out, although these sources of stress are bad enough: it’s also the question of what I want to do when I reach my destination. I prefer getting to know places to just seeing them. I like to know the backstreets of the places I go to and the names of the hills on the skyline. I like the repetition of returning to them.

It used to be an easy journey from here to Porthmadog but over the years it has become more and more difficult. A mixture of heavy traffic, holdups and roadworks on the motorways around Manchester usually means it takes hours longer than it once did. We’ve taken to travelling late and stopping overnight half way, at a Travelodge just over the Welsh border.

This is where we found ourselves just over a week ago now. The following morning, we set off along the coast then headed inland along the Conwy valley. We stopped at the Ffin y Parc gallery there: good coffee, a comfortable sofa and view of the steep, forested slopes that mark the edge of the Carneddau mountains. It is an magical place and it’s easy to wile away an hour or two there without realising it.

We were saying in Borth y Gest,  a small harbour on the edge of Porthmadog.  We’d been to the house we rented for the week before but not for several years. It was odd,  stepping into an empty house I’d last stepped out of six years ago to find it virtually unchanged. Once we’d unpacked,  it was strange,  too, to do routine things around the house and find very old memories stirred of doing them before.

One evening,  after dark, we drove out to Criccieth and walked along the seafront. At the end of the path we strayed away from the road and found ourselves at the very edge of the sea, not far from the cliffs below the castle. There was almost no wind and the sea hardly moved. It was -at the risk of overusing the word- quite magical. The beach at Criccieth always reminds me of the Robert Graves poem,  Welsh Incident:

”But that was nothing to what things came out
‘From the sea-caves of Criccieth yonder.’
‘’What were they? Mermaids? dragons? ghosts?’
‘’Nothing at all of any things like that.’
‘’What were they, then?’
‘’All sorts of queer things,
‘Things never seen or heard or written about,
‘Very strange…’

*

Someone we spoke to mentioned that the mountain bike centre in Coed y Brenin Forest Park had devised several wheelchair trails through the woods there. We went to investigate. We explored the trail that led downhill through the trees to the bank of the Afon Eden. We had lunch at the nearby forest café. It had all been so good we went back the next day to do another of the trails: this one, up to the ruins of a copper mine, a high path that contoured the steep side of a tree-lined valley. A hundred feet or so below the slope ended in a stream-bed. The sound of white water rushing between the rocks there was a background presence all afternoon. All the paths we explored were great opportunities for people with mobility problems to get to wild places usually only available to the able-boddied.

*

Which brings me to Erddig,  a National Trust property not far from Wrecsam. We visited it midweek.  Two friends of ours were on holiday in the Peak District and we’d chosen Erddig as a good,  central place to meet up for the afternoon. The house is famous for its apples (they grow over 140 varieties there) and the fact that they had portraits made of the servants for many years and even, bizarrely,  wrote poetry about them. Servants at Erddig certainly enjoyed far better conditions than most servants working in “big houses” used to.

Unfortunately, there is no wheelchair access to the upper floors of the house. There is a “virtual tour” for anyone who can’t climb the stairs.  It’s quite good – it certainly lets you see all the extraordinary things you’re missing.  I couldn’t help wondering if we’d buy tickets to the Louvre only to see a photograph of the Mona Lisa at the foot of a staircase I couldn’t climb with K. Fortunately, being members of the National Trust,  we didn’t need to buy tickets but please,  National Trust,  put a lift in the house!

It was good to meet up with A and J. We live over 200 miles apart. If we lived closer,  we’d see a lot more of each other. It’s a fact of modern life that many of one’s relations and closest friends can end up living a long distance away.  There is the consolation that one appreciates them more,  perhaps, when one can’t take their company for granted. However, it’s a state of affairs that can leave people vulnerable and isolated. I’ve heard it said that though Mexico spends slightly less on health and social care (slightly,  note) than the UK,  one may possibly  fare better in Mexico as the bonds of the extended family are still strong there and family members tend to live in closer proximity to each other. Mutual support can outweigh the slight difference in funding.

*

One day,  we travelled down the Llyn Peninsula to another art gallery,  Plas Gwyn y Weddw  at Llanbedrog. There were several exhibitions on,  including one of photographs of Welsh pop stars who sang in Welsh from the 1960s and 1970s – as they are now, fifty years later. K liked James Naughton’s landscapes – they have a dark,  brooding, almost Gothic feel to them. I felt more drawn to Deborah Butler’s semi-abstract landscapes, particularly the least “semi-“: the ones where all figurative elements  of the work  have been lost. When I see art that pushes forms in landscapes towards abstraction,  I’m usually  left feeling that the artist can push it all the way for me.  I warm to abstract painting.

*

We like going out to walk at night. One evening we set off on a walk along the front at Borth y Gest itself. We’ve been visiting the place for many,  many years. One place is particularly special for me: at the western end of the village,  the road turns to a path over a grassy prominence. We have often hung around here in the dark,  over the years, at the top of the low,  sea cliffs that run most of the way from here to Black Rock Sands. Across the estuary you can see the lights of Harlech. Here and there, in the sea,  red and green lighted buoys slowly flash on and off. Once,  stood here,  I saw a massive fireball streak across the sky,  disintegrating as it plummeted towards the hills beyond Ffestiniog. Climbing the low cliffs here by day, or walking  here with K at night – I can’t think of a time I’ve stood here and not felt intensely happy.

*

We made our way back on Saturday morning,  stopping again for a timeless coffee-break at Ffin y Parc. Unusually,  we encountered virtually no congestion.  For a change,  we decided to head up the M6 to Lancashire before heading off across the Yorkshire Dales to get home. Warnings of hold-ups ahead had us heading of the motorway earlier than we intended and we ended up taking a road along the lower edge of the Forest of Bowland: a pleasant journey,  I  thought, as it is an area I hardly know. We arrived home not long before A and J, who had arranged to stay with us for the night before heading home themselves the next day. A and I had both grown up in small villages in Lincolnshire and we sat up a little too late together, revisiting them with the aid of GoogleMaps and comparing notes.

 

 

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Awakening

Awakening 

I scratch my head
watching it all
gradually coalesce
around me, a roomful
of silence.

Further away,
beyond the edge,
birds are singing
the same songs
as yesterday.

Like them,
I have no plan,
other than
to let Summer
take its course.

 

Copyright (c) Sackerson, 2018

Friarfold Hush

Gunnerside Gill is an uncanny place. It’s a deep, steep-side cleft that cuts  through the Swaledale moorland for some three miles. The place is strewn with the ruins of past mining activity which has left massive scars on the landscape. The result is a place that is more intriguing than a lot of other, relatively unspoilt areas of the Yorkshire Dales.

The East side of the Gill is dominated by three massive “hushes”: Gorton, Friarfold and Bunton.  Lead miners were in the habit of damming streams that ran down hill-side gullies, waiting until a sizeable body of water had gathered and then bursting the dam. The force of the released water stripped the surface layers off the gully sides, exposing the rock. In Gunnerside Gill this technique was practised on a massive scale. Seen together from the flanks of Rogan’s Seat opposite, the three great hushes form an imposing moonscape. “Moonscape” is an overused term for such places but in this case it is hard to think of a better way to describe this mass of almost vertical grey rock.

I’ve ridden my mountain bike around the area quite lot but I’ve never taken it into the hushes. A Land Rover track runs along the top, along the edge of Melbecks Moor. I had ridden this previously and passed a post and a cairn that marked the turning  to Friarfold Hush,  itself invisible below the rim of the fell. Although I had never taken it I had always felt drawn to it and knew that I would return one day to explore it.

Yesterday was the day. I cycled over the moor from Surrender Bridge and took the turning. It turned out to be every bit as challenging as I expected. The track quickly became so steep and narrow that I knew it would be impossible for the likes of me to descend it and stay on the bike. At first I could find gentler detours but, as the gully steepened further, staying on the bike proved impossible and I was reduced to pushing it and manhandling it down the twisting track. Rock rose up on both sides and the rocky slope was littered with scree. Riders more skilled than myself can descend the hush in less than two minutes. It took me quite a lot longer than that.

I finally reached the bottom, a flat, grassy spot where a fingerpost marks the junction of the track with a bridleway running along the Gill. The map told me that if I followed this it would take me up the side of the Gill, back to the Land Rover track. I spent a couple of minutes weighing up the possibilities. The bridleway was steep and narrow, no more than a sheep track cut into a steep hillside and rising to some 200 feet above the stream in the valley bottom. I’d have to push the bike up it somehow. The alternative was to cycle the other way down to Gunnerside village and follow the road back to Surrender Bridge. I decided to take the bridleway.

Half way up I met a couple of walkers coming down.
‘My god!’ said one of them, ‘A man with a bike!’
I smiled and nodded.
‘We might be able to help you,’ he said.
‘How’s that?’ I said.
‘We’re both trained psychiatric nurses,’ he said.
After a brief, friendly chat, we went our separate ways.

The slope eased off and at last, after having to drag the bike up a final steep slope, I made it to the Land Rover track. I stopped there for a rest, eating, drinking and admiring the view, safe in the knowledge that the ride back to Surrender Bridge would be relatively easy and mostly downhill.

Someone who didn’t end up pushing his bike down it has made a film of the descent of Friarfold Hush. It’s all worth watching but the descent itself starts at about 3:06.

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Exactitude

For a while now I’ve been recording free improvised music and posting it online. I’ve been going through the recordings recently and putting them into some sort of order. I’ve reposted the result on Bandcamp, in the form of an album. It is, I realise, a minority taste but that doesn’t really matter: I feel as if it comes from somewhere and has to get out.

My interest in improvising goes right back to my teens. I and two friends, all three of us following quite traditional paths through musical education, used to get together to indulge in spontaneous, avant-garde music-making sessions. We discovered the thrill for ourselves: we didn’t read any Modernist manifestos or theoretical writings on the subject (that came later). And the thrill was more than the thrill of transgression: we knew from experience that what we did worked as music.

Unfortunately, these days I’m a one-man band. It occurred to me that there was nothing stopping me multi-tracking improvised music. I could record myself improvising on the double bass, say, then record myself improvising on the guitar while listening to the first recording and so on. Digital technology makes this much less expensive and cumbersome than it used to be. In addition to the bass and the guitars (classical and acoustic, sometimes “prepared”) I worked with synthesizer software and a Korg Monotron synthesizer, sometimes making purely electronic music, other times modifying the sounds made by the other instruments. Occasionally I threw in a rebec and various toy instruments.

After much thought, I decided to call the album On Exactitude, after the Jorge Louis Borges short story, On Exactitude in Science. It’s the story of how map makers made bigger and  bigger maps of an Empire, finally coming up with a 1:1 map the size of the Empire itself: once unfolded, it covered the land it represented. It occurred to the people in the story that the map was useless and so they left it to the elements to rot away – although, as the story says, in the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map…

It seemed apt. Firstly, I had been trying to think of a title but kept coming back to the fact that the music described itself and so was itself its own title. Then, the paper map of the story put me in mind of the tradition of written down, composed music that, in this case at least, had become unnecessary to the job in hand.

 

 

Poldy’s Dog

I am looking for that. Yes, that. Try all pockets. Handker. Freeman. Where did I? Ah, yes. Trousers. Potato. Purse. Where?
Hurry. Walk quietly. Moment more. My heart.
His hand looking for the where did I put found in his hip pocket soap lotion have to call tepid paper stuck. Ah soap there I yes.

Leopold Bloom, in Ulysses by James Joyce

 

Imagine if Leopold
and Molly Bloom
as well as a cat
had a dog
that had once bit Blazes Boylan
on the arse
(in other words,
a dog with taste)
so that on June the sixteenth
Poldy had had to take it with him
on his travels.

Okay, it’s an anachronism
but you can just see him
stooping with a certain
methodical poise
to scoop its faeces
up off the pavement
discreetly enclosing them
in one of those bags
(just like the man
on the deli counter
wrapping up a lump
of faux exotic cheese)
feeling the warmth
and softness of it
while his inner encyclopedia
riffs on the body temperature
of dogs and on the toxicity
of dog shit
as he slips it
into his pocket
to rub against
the bar of soap
or perhaps the potato
as he walks.

 

Copyright (c) Sackerson, 2018

 

 

 

The House by the Sea

A short story

Peter tells me it’s a foolish thing to do but there’s nothing I like more than to walk as far as I can across the sands at low tide. I tell him I don’t have a death wish so I don’t do it lightly. On the contrary, I do it because it makes me feel intensely alive and l pay obsessive attention to the tide tables. What I don’t tell him (he gets impatient when I talk in what he thinks is a fanciful way) is that it satisfies my inner astronaut: the part of me that dreams of stepping out of a spacecraft onto the surface of another planet. Out on the sands it can feel like that: all the Earth’s surface coverings that are familiar to me -tarmac, concrete, grass, vegetation and so on- are stripped away, exposing an older, alien place. The world as I know it is reduced to a thin, dark strip on the horizon. It might as well not exist. As I said, I don’t tell him any of this. Peter mistrusts that kind of thinking. He thinks with his hands.

He always was like that. As a child he made few friends, if any. He preferred, at first, to play with his bricks. If anyone ever asked him if he wanted anything, the answer was always more bricks. Later, he made things: he pored over construction sets and built model aeroplanes. He grew into a young man of few words and rigid routines. Then he began making things out of wood. Since then, everything he makes is made out of wood.

Part of me is pleased to have him around still. A large part of me: when you are as old as I am it feels good to have young people around. At least it does to me. Another feels he should have moved on, gone off to find his own way in the world. The trouble is, the world’s ways are not his ways. He makes anything he thinks we need: chairs, spoons, chessmen, even, once, a staircase. We’ve talked about starting a business – finding ways to sell the things he makes. He’s talking of building a rowing boat. After all, we do live by the sea, he said. We have an arrangement, for now: he makes what we need, I buy the raw materials. We are in the process of growing our own but this takes time.

And time is what I haven’t got. I’ve lived a long time. True, I’m fit and able. I can still run a mile and have no more aches and pains than a man half my age but one day I’ll wake up an old man. Peter will have to hold my spoon and change my trousers. Either that, or he’ll have to bury me. And what will he do once he’s filled in the hole? Sit back and wait for the trees to grow? (I wouldn’t be at all surprised if these thoughts never crossed his mind. His concern with regard to my escapades on the sands not withstanding, he seems to live in the present and take life very much as it comes. I put it down to his youth).

When you’re out there, there’s nothing else to see except sand, water and sky. As it ebbs and flows the sea creates an undulating landscape in which nothing stays the same for long. What little water is left behind as the tide goes out trickles between the low, rounded peaks and settles in the troughs, forming clear, still pools.

The sun rises quite early at this time of year and the tables told me that, this morning, the tide would be out by 8am. Peter was already up, making coffee. I drank a cup with him and said goodbye. Outside, the tinted glass wall of the house reflected trails of pink cloud and the young, leafless trees of the spinney. I took my usual path through the trees to the dunes. From the top of the dunes I could see the sands already stretching away for a kilometre or more to the distant edge of the sea. The tide was already well out. A man I see often but don’t know by name was out walking his spaniel, which ran around him in wide circles as he strode along the edge of the dunes. He looked up, smiled and waved as he passed me. I smiled and waved back, then jogged down the slope through the clumps of marram-grass to the edge of the beach.

All sorts of things get thrown up here. You never know what you’re going to find after a storm. Pieces of broken beer bottles worn down by the sea to smooth, brown jewels. Plastic containers of all shapes and sizes, their labels so bleached as to be illegible. Once, I even found an artificial leg. On the way back to the house I usually collect up anything I think might come in useful and put it on the pile of collected flotsam and jetsam I’ve accumulated under the trees.

All that happens on the way back. On the way out I just keep going.

I’d been walking for fifteen minutes or more, keeping the sun on my left, before I saw it: something dark and crescent-shaped lying on the sand. It was perhaps three feet long, although it’s hard to judge size and distance out there. As I got closer, things became clearer. My first thought was that it was a dead dolphin but no, dolphins were bigger than that and this wasn’t quite the right shape. It was a porpoise. It’s body was perfectly intact except for a short, red gash in its side. Either some predator had attacked it or, more likely, I thought, it had been caught in a boat’s propeller. I could not help but try to imagine the shock, the pain, the profuse bleeding, the final sight of the sea turning red as everything it needed to know how to be a porpoise faded away in seconds. All that was left was this, a physical memory if you like, of what a porpoise is. It too would be dismantled but more slowly. I was struck by how tenuous are the connections that hold each of us together. It was time to go back.

 

Copyright (c) Sackerson, 2018

Saltburn

I had to take the car into the garage today to have the brakes fixed so, since the garage  is half way there, we took the opportunity to go to Saltburn pier and spend a few hours by the sea. There is the statutory amusement arcade but otherwise the pier is simply a long, unadorned bridge to nowhere.  There’s a car park, a kiosk that sells chips and a coffee shop all within spitting distance. Everything you need if you want to do nothing and enjoy yourself doing it, which is precisely what we did.

Here you can sit for hours, drinking tea, watching people, watching the sea and the ships as they pass in the middle distance on their way to  the freight terminal a little further up the coast. An elderly couple in overcoats who could have been drawn by Raymond Briggs were walking away from us across the beach towards the water’s edge. The sea was relatively calm: a handful of surfers, their wet-suits pulled down to their waists, were strolling along the seafront talking animatedly about merits of various boards and the great waves they’d ridden. With minor alterations, their enthusiastic conversation could have been that of a group of cyclists, motorcyclists, rock climbers or, indeed, any group of enthusiasts. A tall, thin man  with a grey beard and a multicoloured, knitted hat was walking a Jack Russell. Two Japanese  teenage boys were stood, queuing to buy fish and chips. I found myself intrigued by the sound of their (to me) incomprehensible conversation. A heavily tattooed man in bare feet was walking two dogs, a rottweiler and a Yorkshire terrier. His jeans were rolled up to his knees and a pair of black Doc Marten boots dangled from his waist. Someone started up a blue and white scooter and wove their way slowly on it in and out of the other passers by.

Visitors  do tend to congregate  around the pier,  taking in the pier itself,  the beach below it and the seafront. If you sit and stare,  as we did today, the same people tend to recur as they move from place to place. Two dogs,  the woolen hat, the couple in their overcoats.  The effect is not unlike  a complex piece of music in which certain phrases recur in slightly  different  contexts.

We walked out onto the pier and sat on a bench, watching the seagulls circle over the beach below us. Then we headed back towards the car park. On the way, we joined the queue at the fish and chip kiosk and bought ourselves a bag of chips. We sat in the car looking out to sea to eat them. In the next parking space the surfers were busy packing their kit into the back of a car. I spotted the elderly couple again: having walked down to the water’s edge, they were now walking to the end of the pier.