A-roving by the light of the moon

moon_20020517

It was a brisk February night and I was camping out in the Lake District with my mountaineering friends. I had been hoping to get a spell of stargazing in, and things looked pretty good as I dismounted from the minibus, with Orion above the mountains, and the usually faint constellation of Lepus (the hare) clear beneath his feet. Unfortunately by the time we’d put our tents up a high light cloud had swept in across the sky like a veil, hiding everything except the waning crescent of the moon, to which it gave a diffuse and lovely lustre. My hopes of stellar observations were evidently thwarted. It was time we gave up and headed for the pub.

Yet as my friends pulled their head torches over their foreheads, and brilliant white diodes illuminated the road ahead in their wavering glare, the poet in me rebelled, and I hung back. The moon gave enough light to walk by, and I was keen to enjoy the night on its own terms. If I couldn’t admire the beauty of the heavens, this was the next best thing.

It took my friends a long time to pass me, and they would keep turning back for some parting comment on my eccentricity, and inadvertently dazzling me by the glare of their head torches. Finally, the last of them turned the corner, and I was alone on the unlighted road. The moon was behind me as I walked, and my eyes fed upon the darkness, slowly weaning themselves from the light. From the first I could make out the lines of the mountains that surrounded the valley, stark against the skies – then the trees overhanging the road – then the stones in the dry stone walls, and the sheep in the fields beyond them. A puzzling fork in the road turned out to be the twin arches of a bridge beneath which the river roared unseen.

Surprisingly, I find tarmac is one of the hardest things to walk on at night simply because it’s so featureless, so black and so even. The eye can’t pick out its texture, and each step is a battle against the half-conscious suspicion that a yawning pit is about to open beneath my feet and swallow me. In the woods, by contrast, the very roughness ground makes me swifter and more sure of myself. This added a new frisson to the fine chill February night, which already had more than a touch of the Gothic about it for those of us wandering beneath the moonlight. It was such a night as Coleridge describes:

Is the night chilly and dark?
The night is chilly but not dark.
The thin grey cloud is shed on high;
It covers, but not hides, the sky.
The moon is behind and at the full
And yet she looks both small and dull.
The night is chill, the cloud is grey.

I half expected to glimpse Christabel kneeling beside an old oak tree as I passed by. There were no electric lights in sight now, and I had become an anonymous traveller in the anonymous, timeless night.

In the eighteenth century, to travel at night and by moonlight was common. Country balls would be held at the full moon, so as to give enough light for the coaches to drive home when the evening wound to its close. In the great comic novels of Henry Fielding, Tom Jones and Joseph Andrews, the heroes travel as much by night as they do by day, frequently striking out from unfriendly inns at unlikely hours. They would have relied solely on their night vision. Only in the big cities would you have linkboys with flaming torches to guide late night drinkers from door to door.

Today it seems hard to imagine. My mountaineering friends had a gorgeous story of how they had arrived in Snowdonia on a brilliantly clear night, and decided on a whim to forsake their tents and climb Snowdon by starlight – but I had little doubt they’d done it all with their head torches shining out before them. In these days of constant lamplight and pocket torches, the darkness beyond has become more sinister, peopled with God knows what. It requires a real effort of will to step into it, to let your eyes adjust to the darkness, and resign yourself to the fact that each footfall is a leap of faith.

I turned a corner, and the electric lights of the pub dazzled me. The night vision I’d acquired over the course of half an hour was gone in a flash. My thoughts turned from Coleridge and Fielding to those famous lines of Byron:

Though the night was made for loving,
And the day returns too soon,
Yet we go no more a-roving
By the light of the moon.

Waterlog 3: Rhossili Beach, Gower Peninsula, South Wales

WaterlogRecently, I’ve been reading Waterlog, by Roger Deakin, a potent and poetic defence of our right to swim anywhere we please – in ponds, in rivers, in the sea – anywhere that looks cool and inviting, and several that look downright perishing! I now know to ignore the omnipresent threatening signs warning of the risk of Leptospirosis (chances of actually catching it – 1 in 33,000) and take my dip anywhere I please. In fairness, I ignored them anyway – but it’s nice to have some expert backing.

In that vein, I thought I’d write up some of my favourite bathing places throughout the British Isles.

Rhossili Beach, Gower Peninsula 

English: Worm's Head, Gower. Taken by me flyin...

The Gower peninsula is an extraordinary place. A big comma on the South Wales coastline between Swansea bay and Cardigan bay, it offers largely untouched countryside, one of the many candidates for the grave of King Arthur and the best surfing beaches in Wales. The favourite place both for swimming and surfing is Rhossili beach, at the far end of the peninsula, a long straight stretch of sand facing out directly to the west, flanked at either end by two small islands with tidal causeways: Burry Holms to the north, and Worm’s Head to the south.

One of my great regrets about leaving Cardiff was that I never, in three years, managed to get to the end of Worm’s Head, a long, snaky ribbon of bright green grass extending out into sea. Once I got as far as the inner head, a ludicrously steep dinosaur spine of a hill that confronts you as you cross the causeway. Then, however, the tide came back in, and we had to rush back across before we were cut off. The far end of the peninsula remains a mystery to me, fitfully illuminated by long hours gazing at Ordnance Survey maps, or re-reading Dylan Thomas’s classic short story ‘Who Do You Wish Was With Us’.

I’ve swum twice off Rhossili beach. The first time was on May 3rd, 2010 – I remember this particularly because it was 200 years since Lord Byron swam the Hellespont, the tumultuous Turkish strait dividing Europe from Asia. He was in good, romantic company – the legendary lover Leander is supposed to have swum across each night to visit his lover Hero, swimming back the next morning, until his amorous career was cut short by a tragic, but entirely predictable, death by drowning. Byron survived the feat, which he immortalised in a witty minor gem of a poem. I was not out to do anything so staggering, but a commemorative swim seemed in order, and the weather was most propitious. It was a warm day, and lunching on Rhossili Down I saw my first swallow of the summer. By the time we reached the beach, I was very keen for a swim – and it just so happened that the tide had come in far enough to cut Burry Holms off from the mainland. I swam out through the cool salt water in a Byronic breaststroke, and managed to land on the island without losing any skin to the rocks, which is always the trickiest part. I wandered up and down, waving at my friends back on the mainland, trying to avoid stepping on stinging nettles and wondering how it would feel to have swum the 3 mile distance from Europe to Asia, and swum back again, enjoying the small act of homage to my favourite poet.

Eighteen months later, in November of 2011, I wasn’t expecting to go swimming at all. I had no towel, no swimming trunks, nothing. It was too cold, I told myself, and I was a solemn third year undergraduate now. I was leading walks, armed with map and compass, instead of faithfully following on behind. A little Byronic posing on exposed pinnacles was all I could expect. But fate brought me two people equally as crazy as I was, keen to make the most of the fading Autumn warmth. With Rob I shared a tendency to sandpaper stubbliness, and a love of intrepid, broad-brimmed hats. On the way up, I nicknamed him Ragdoll for his habit of flopping forward bonelessly whenever I applied the brakes. Then there was Lauren, who had proposed the swim at lunch, as if sea-bathing in November was the most natural thing in the world. Before her slow, mischievous smile all the practical difficulties seemed as nothing. As we plunged together into the icy November sea, jumping and splashing and spluttering, I bethought myself of the words of J.K. Rowling:

There are some things you can’t share without liking each other, and knocking out a twelve-foot mountain troll is one of them.

This, I decided, was another.

Waterlog 2 – Caerfanell, Brecon Beacons

WaterlogSouth Wales is sadly underserved in Roger Deakin’s classic wild swimming manifesto, Waterlog. The west of England is covered pretty thoroughly, and the Rhinog Mountains in North Wales get a chapter to themselves, but the sole mention South Wales has in the whole work is a brief aside where Deakin contemplates jumping into the Monmouthshire and Brecon canal near Talybont-on-Usk, and decides against it. Knowing as I do how close he was to the Talybont reservoir, a three kilometer long pool surrounded by farmland, forest, and the high peaks of the Brecons, or to the spectacular, boulder-strewn course of the river Usk, his timidity seems all the more unusual. A little further exploration, and he might have found one of my favourite swimming holes.

Caerfanell, Brecon Beacons

A favourite walk with the Cardiff University Hiking and Rambling society was to drive up into the Brecons, climb the recklessly steep Craig y Fan Ddu, and circle the ridgeline, taking in the wreckage of a World War II Wellington bomber and the memorial to its Canadian flight crew, before descending into the valley beside the course of the river Caerfanell. So popular was it that I walked it three times in three years, and went swimming every time.

slidingThe first time I took a dip in Caerfanell was in October, in the second wettest day I’ve ever been out in the Brecons. As we came along the ridge, all the dozens of little streamlets were being blown back upon themselves in arcs of spray. Not having any waterproof trousers with me, I was absolutely soaked by the time we got down to the bathing pool – a deep cauldron of a place beside the road, with a tree stretched out over it from whence the brave can take daredevil leaps into the deep water. I figured going swimming in this weather was daredevil enough. It had been advertised as a swimming walk, but it seemed that only I’d been foolish enough to bring a towel and swimming costume, and since I’d already lugged them over hill and dale – well, why not?

Skidding down a steep slope that left a long trail of mud across my legs and back, I immediately cleaned myself off by jumping in. The water was icy, but after the first half minute of breathless gasping and frenzied doggy-paddle, I found myself rather enjoying it, and even took time to cool my head off beneath the waterfall before climbing out, dressing, and making the welcome escape to the minibus and the warm showers of home.

Blaenyglyn2A year and a half later, I walked the same route with a largely different group of people, on a spectacularly sunny day. Word of my wild swimming propensities had circulated the club by now, so we were on the look out for a swimming hole – but this time everyone in the society seemed keen to join me. It had been a long hot sweltering walk that day, and everyone was keen to wash off the sweat and dust. We found a likely place, a deep, cool, brown pool, much further up the path and hidden from the road. And for the first and only time in my three years with them, everyone in the hiking club joined me. There was a great deal of splashing and teasing and frolicking, and the little pool became so full I clambered out again and began exploring upstream, threading my way barefoot along rapids and waterfalls. I found several pleasant little pools, though none so nice as ours, and succeeded in giving myself a limp for a week by trying to slide down a waterfall. I found to my cost that, limpid and slow as the stream may be, once you’ve built up a bit of momentum the slide is terrifying. “Oh God, I’m going to bang my head and drown!” I remember thinking as I bumped and tumbled over half a dozen small drops before clawing to a panicky halt just before plunging into the final pool. Yet, clambering down, I found myself celebrated for my daring, and would rather like to repeat my slide to this day – with perhaps the small additions of a helmet and a wetsuit.

under waterfallThe third year I did the walk was a slightly melancholy affair, as my time at Cardiff wound to a close, and many of the people I’d been walking with on the last two occasions had already moved on, to employment or unemployment. Now I was leading the walk, introducing the wonders of the Brecons to the freshers, and it was hard to chase my thoughts away from the young, hardy, ridiculously enthusiastic fresher I used to be. Still, there’s nothing like a nice cold dip to chase the blues away, and while the pool I found this time was rather too shallow for the purpose, it had a fantastic waterfall. Sitting underneath it was something like being in a cold shower and a massage chair at once, and tilting my head back, I enjoyed a beautiful and unusual view of a waterfall from the bottom upwards. It was a fine way to wind up three exceptional years, and three exceptional swims in a gorgeous river.

Waterlog 1: The River Itchen, Winchester, Hampshire

WaterlogMy bedtime reading this week has been Waterlog, by Roger Deakin, a potent and poetic defence of our right to swim anywhere we please – in ponds, in rivers, in the sea – anywhere that looks cool and inviting, and several that look downright perishing! I now know to ignore the omnipresent threatening signs warning of the risk of Leptospirosis (chances of actually catching it – 1 in 33,000) and take my dip anywhere I please. In fairness, I ignored them anyway – but it’s nice to have some expert backing.

In that vein, I thought I’d write up some of my favourite bathing places throughout the British Isles, in an ongoing series.

The River Itchen, Winchester

This is the river I grew up closest to, and know the best. Itchen rises near Cheriton, and winds its way picturesquely through the village green. At this point, it’s only ankle deep, but by the time it reaches the famous water meadows of Winchester, it’s clear and swift and deep enough to swim in. Deakin devotes a chapter to bathing in the Itchen, but with typical bolshiness, he takes a swim in the exclusive stretch by Winchester College, and gets into an argument with the porters afterwards. I think he enjoyed it a lot more than I would – I subscribe to a quieter life, and bathe a good way downstream, just outside of Shawford, where the water flows over a weir and blossoms out into a deep and pebbly pool. There some good angel has shored up the edge of the pool with wooden stakes, and built a series of steps down into the water. Come the summer, the place is filled with boys and girls taking wild somersaults off the weir, sunbathing and showing off. What I love about the pool is its irregularity – I’ve spent hours diving down to discover its contours and hidden hollows, its currents and eddies. There’s a lot of submerged concrete down there – possibly from an earlier weir – so until you’ve explored it properly, it’s best not to risk diving. When you do know which patch of water to aim for, you can join the teenagers in their death defying dives, or ride the river over the weir as a natural water-slide, or simply get in a bit of swimming practice, striking out against the current and getting precisely nowhere.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA little downstream the river shallows out into a pretty stretch much beloved by paddlers and kids with water-pistols – though painfully pebbly underfoot. Sandals are recommended. On the far side of the banks, every back garden seems to have its own jetty, though I can’t imagine anything larger than a coracle or a lilo being much use. The path emerges by The Bridge pub in Shawford, a good place for a pint or a bite to eat after your dip, and the best place to leave your bicycle, if you don’t want to lug it over half a dozen stiles or risk swerving into the water.

For a picnic and a summer’s dip, I don’t really think you could do better than this quiet, cool, pleasant stretch of river. If a colder and more bracing swim is more to your taste – there’s plenty of dips in my notebook that could accomodate you. Tune in next time!

Super Tramp Chicken

Anyone who has ever been camping will know and recognise how much better everything tastes when cooked outdoors over a campfire, though not every outdoor cook would go to the lengths taken by W.H. Davies, a tramp and minor poet of the early 20th century, now probably best known for his poem ‘Leisure’ (‘What is this life if, full of care’), best known to those my age from a successful Centre Parks advert.

Originally from Newport, Davies spent much of his early life as a homeless vagabond travelling around the United States and Canada. He made his way by begging, for the most part, but also tried his hand at fruit-picking and canal building, and made several Trans-Atlantic trips as a cattle-man. All that came to an end one day in Canada, when he had the misfortune to stumble whilst trying to jump onto a moving freight train, and the wheel severed his right foot at the ankle.

Five weeks later, he returned to Britain, equipped with a new wooden leg, and began his attempts to establish himself in a literary career. This recipe is taken from The Autobiography of a Super Tramp, his most popular prose work.

  1. Take one chicken, unplucked.
    N.B. It is probably not a good idea to inquire too closely into where this unplucked chicken came from. The choice of the verb ‘Take’ is not as innocuous as it might be in other cookbooks.
  2. Cover it in a thick layer of mud.
    You heard me.
  3. Bake under a pile of hot ashes, until the mud has dried into a solid crust.
  4. Break off the mud crust. The chicken beneath should be ‘as clean as a new born babe, with all its feathers and down stuck hard in the mud.’

The result, according to Davies, is a chicken ‘far more tasty than the one at home, that was plucked and gutted with care and roasted or baked to a supposed nicety’ – though perhaps it is best suited to those who bemoan, like him, that  ‘this food of civilisation certainly seemed to suffer from a lack of good wholesome dirt, and I should have liked to have had my own wood fire at the end of the backyard, were it not for shame.’

Climbing Mount Parnassus

Oh thou! in Hellas deemed of Heavenly birth,
Muse! form’d or fabled at the minstrel’s will!
Since shamed full oft by later lyres on earth,
Mine dares not call thee from thy sacred hill:
Yet there I’ve wandered by thy vaunted rill;
Yes! sigh’d o’er Delphi’s long deserted shrine,
Where, save that feeble fountain, all is still;
Nor mote my shell awake the weary Nine
To grace so plain a tale – this lowly lay of mine.

Lord Byron – Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.

One of my favourite moments in further education has to be when my tutor was checking the level of classical knowledge among our deeply dispirited early morning seminar group by asking if we’d ever heard of Mount Parnassus, legendary home to the Nine Muses of Ancient Greece.

I immediately perked up, and said that yes, I’d climbed it (well, a little bit of it).

This surprised her no end, and she went on to talk of the Welsh equivalent being Cadair Idris. Should you fall asleep on Cadair Idris, you will wake up either a poet or a madman. This I had also climbed, but had excused myself from trying the experiment on the grounds that I was already rather too much of both.

It was in the summer of 2009, in the last few months of my gap year, when I first came to Delphi, the ancient oracle and sanctuary which nestles in beneath the two cleft peaks of above it, supposedly broken in sunder by Apollo himself when he smote the areas resident monster, the Python, and became the tutelary deity of the shrine. There’s a Homeric hymn on the subject for the classical of inclination. In the modern day, Greece was obviously feeling the economic crash, but the harsh austerity measures had yet to kick in, as had the riots, the anarchists and the neo-nazis. Athens was peaceful, the buses and trains were running, and the biggest complaint on everyone’s lips was that Greece had just followed Britain in instituting an indoor smoking ban.

The town of Delphi is mostly hotels. It’s a small and sleepy place best enjoyed in the early morning, before the tourist coaches start to barge their way through. It’s vital to get a hotel room that looks out onto the valley rather than the street – this we accomplished. Delphi, like most towns in the area, is perched precariously on the the mountainside, and from our room we could look down for hundreds of feet to the bottom of Pleistos gorge – then up the same distance to Mount Kerikos on the other side of the glacial valley. To our right the Gulf of Corinth gleamed in the evening sun as my friend Sam and I drank our retsina and soaked in the atmosphere.

At that stage of my life, Romantic poetry was to me what Gothic novels were to Catharine in Northanger Abbey – less a literary interest and more a way of seeing the world. Our next stop on the trip would be Missolonghi, where Byron died of Malaria fighting for Greek, fighting for Greek independence. When he visited Delphi much earlier in his life, he had bathed in the Castilian spring, supposed to infuse poetic inspiration in the bather – but this was closed off due to the risk of falling rocks. He had also visited the Corycian cave, an ancient grotto sacred to Pan, high up above the ancient sanctuary. According to my guidebook and map of the area, this seemed eminently practical. One sunny morning, before the aforementioned coaches had begun to growl and elbow their way through the town, I set off up the mountainside. My friend, whose solitary pair of sandals had already proved inadequate to padding around the many sights of Athens, remained behind.

Zig-zagging my way up the two thousand year-old stone path, with Pleistos gorge gaping below me even more glorious than I’d seen it from my balcony, I had proof of my being the first one to take the path that day in the spiderwebs stretched across it, which came tangling perpetually around my ears. It was a hot and thirsty day, and by the time I’d reached the top, the litre of water I’d brought with me was bloodwarm and near empty. Finding a spring on the level ground beyong, I took huge gulps, and flung great handfuls of water on myself in bliss.

As I passed into the forest, I saw a dozen sheep huddled together under the shade of a single tree, which should have warned me what was coming – but the day was so bright I could hardly credit it. Thunderstorms sweep in fast from the Gulf of Corinth, however, and while they seem to avoid breaking over Delphi, they regularly drench the heights of Parnassus.

I took shelter under the wide bough of a stunted pine tree (it’s perfectly OK to shelter under a tree in a thunderstorm, so long as said tree isn’t the tallest in the forest), ate my small lunch of bread and dates and wrote a few letters home. By the time I was done the thunder, if not the rain, had stopped, and I decided to make the best of it.

I was nonetheless completely drenched by the time I bumped into a tourist information centre – one of the least likely I’ve ever encounted. It was more a hut, really, without electric light or telephone, tended by a remarkably pretty Greek lady called Aspasia, who was kind enough to offer me a piping hot cup of tea and set me on the right way to the Corycian cave.

The place, when I got there, was extremely creepy. It was a great round amphitheatre, and I suppose with a blazing fire in the middle one could just about it as the site of the wild Dionysian revels the guidebook hinted at. As it was, it was dark, damp and deeply Gothic. I had left my torch ebhind, so the dim rear of the cavern was difficult to explore, but I was determind to investigate the flickering orange light I saw in the distance. It turned out to be a candle, set into a recess in the rock: beyond it the ‘range of caverns difficult of ascent, and apparently leading to the interior of the mountain’ mentioned by Byron. The thought of exploring further by the light of this single candle flickered through my mind – but I’d had enough drama and Gothic sublimity for one day, and set the candle, with a twinge of regret, back in its resting place.

Farther down the mountain, Aspasia was waiting for me, and offered to walk me down into Delphi, as there was a public lecture she wanted to catch. We walked down together, talking of geology, of sketching, of the outdoors – with time the subjects of our conversation have faded from my mind, but the music of her voice remains. She pointed out to me a wild tortoise I would otherwise have stepped headlessly over, and handed to me a lump of orang quartz that sits on my desk at this very moment. Need I say that by the time I reached Delphi, I was hopelessly infatuated? But alas – it was not to be. Perhaps if I were Byron – but I was but a pale imitation. She went back up the mountain, and I went off to the next stop along the tourist trail. My only mementoes of her are the aforementioned lump of quartz and the fifteen Spenserian stanzas I wrote in her honour over the next two days, which sensations of acute embarrassment prevent me from affixing here. Yet even if the Muses were unimpressed with my ascent of their ancestral home, and refused to smile upon my verse – it was certainly the most poetic excursion I ever made.

On my sleeping bag

Each morning, when I drag
Out of my sleeping bag
Into the cold dawn air, my languid limbs
I bless the bag that keeps me warm
In frost and sleet and thunderstorm
And all the English weather’s whims.

Each evening, when I crawl
Into its folds, and fall
Asleep the moment that my eyelids shut,
I bless the bag that lets me sleep
So long, refreshingly and deep,
Within the draughty mountain hut.

In January or June,
Within this warm cocoon
I know a long and restful night will pass,
Though I am far from home and bed,
Without a pillow for my head
And with no mattress but the dewy grass.

And this, you see, is the problem with writing in metre. You scribble, and strike through, and scribble, counting stresses on your fingers and muttering rhyme words to yourself, and suddenly you realise you haven’t produced a poem but a jingle – something full of symettry, and alliteration, and vowel patterning, but completely destitute of any of the thought or feeling that made you want to write a poem in the first place. As I cannot find it in me to burden this glittering, silly little fragment with any more serious reflection, the only thing to do is continue in prose.

My sleeping bag is a Lamina O, which I bought for £99 three years ago from Cotswolds. It may have been the best purchase I’ve ever made. Quite apart from all the camping and sofa-surfing I’ve done over the years, my sleeping bag is, first and foremost, where all the work gets done. In the dark, skint days of my undergraduate, where it once dipped down to eight degrees celcius INSIDE my room, it was a haven of warmth, a cocoon of quiet reflection. I would do my reading in it, and write my essays in it; eat my dinner in it, and watch TV in it. If it had actually had legs, like one I saw in a hiking shop in the Lake District, I would never have taken it off. The basic format of my evening in, for a number of months, would be to get into my sleeping bag and read for my course until I nodded off mid-sentence (they may be great things to work in, but they don’t keep you awake!). I would then wake up around three AM in an extremely muzzy state, throw off all my clothes and tumble into my bed, which conveniently was only three feet away from the sofa where all the reading happened. Yes, I could have done all this under the duvet and saved myself the trip, but my bedsheets were never so versatile, and even more soporific than my sleeping bag.

Besides, there’s a feeling of smugness unique to the sleeping bag (and this is what I wanted to work into the poem, but couldn’t find the heart). Unlike the duvet, where there is always the risk of sticking my foot out of the covers into a frigid zone, or at least a colder part of the bed, a sleeping bag gives me complete enclosure. And with it, the delightful consciousness that it’s my own body heat, reflected back on me, that’s keeping me so nice and toasty. Never mind the radiators, or the gas fire, or the snow outside – while I’m in my sleeping bag, I’m entirely self-sufficient.

I suggested to a friend that this made the sleeping bag a fitting emblem of the happy bachelor state – of complete self-containedness and contentment with one’s wants. She just laughed. You can too – but I’ll be snug and warm inside my sleeping bag, so don’t expect me to care.