I leave Breinton and head west for Hay on Wye; it is a long 20 mile walk, but the roads are my favourite sort; easy, quiet back roads, apart from one early short encounter with a fast A road with no pavement.
The next stretch is a nice old Roman road running due west past the site of an old Roman town and parallel to the fast A road. I cross the Wye at the village of Brewardine and then join the gorgeous Wye Valley Way through Monnington orchard, part of the Bulmer’s estate. I have apple trees to my right and the mighty river Wye to my left, the hedgerows loaded with big fat juicy hips and plentiful haws, a glorious lush red feast for the eyes, as they nestle in their bushes amongst the still lingering sweet smelling briar roses of pink and white.
This experience is followed by a blissful woodland walk, the best walk so far for a long time, for the countryside has changed, it no longer feels organised and dictated to, planned and lifeless, no, here humans are working with the landscape and it is still very much alive, the roots of human past activity still evident, blended with the present, here, in the county known statistically as the poorest county in England, I find the England I thought has long since been killed off. It is delightful, magical, alive, and I can’t imagine the inhabitants here give a hoot for the government statistics, for while those in an overcrowded city full of clone shops pass judgement, folk here are still connected to nature and living a healthy happy life with plenty of space in which to grow, for it is also the county with the smallest population in the country.
My walk finishes on lovely quiet back roads all way to Cusop, which forms the English side of the Welsh town of Hay in Wye. Everything feels different here, when I make an error reading my map and am confused, a friendly farmer with a soft Welsh lilt in his voice asks if I need help and redirects me.
As I walk down to my first sight of Hay, nestling in its valley below, a cacophony of sheep’s bleating greets me, and I laugh; a fitting greeting as I arrive in the Welsh hills.
I am met by Ainsleigh Rice and Phoebe Boulanger of Transition Hay and together we walk to Cusop’s Dingle, a tiny narrow lane running along the border of the two lands, separated by a brook. It is a lovely meeting and the walk idyllic, past the old chapel and to where Ainsleigh lives in a solar panelled house.
I learn that there are castles every mile along this stretch of country, for Offa’s dyke passes by here. It might be idyllic now, but once upon a time, this would have been a dangerous place in which to live.
On arrival at the house I take a bath and Phoebe is given a wheelbarrow full of fine healthy aubergine plants from Ainsleigh’s greenhouse. After a dinner including delicious fresh garden vegetables and local bread Lawrence and Alison, formerly of Transition Taunton, but now residing here in Cusop, come to chat.
They are part of the 350 campaign (http://www.350.org/about ) and spend some time chatting with Ainsleigh and Jennifer about what to on the 13th October for the 10:10 day (http://www.1010global.org/uk.
Ainsleigh talks about the community garden party he has in his garden to encourage the people on his road to come and socialise, and about the open house week there is going to be during H week (the Herefordshire wide sustainability awareness raising week) where residents that have made some changes to their homes show people around. Ainsleigh will show his house as he has solar panels for hot water and hydro power from the brook running through the garden. He had this fitted years ago so he could be off grid and sells back electricity to them. There is a gadget in the kitchen that beeps if they over use their electricity so that they know if they are using that generated by the national grid. This awareness of how much power things around the house use makes them very conscious of how they do things. If the kettle is put to boil whilst the coffee maker is still busy the device soon beeps to show energy use has soared.
I learn about Hay on Wye, it has a population of just 1500 and it s a good strong community, friendly and welcoming. It consists mainly of two groups, those whose families have lived there for generations, and blow ins who love the place and have come to settle. There are 36 bookshops in the town, a number slightly less than its once 39, all a legacy of Richard Booth, a man quite renowned in the town , even having a street of new housing named for him, for bringing books and the book festival, and with it identity and wealth. Booth started out by buying up all the books from the Welsh working men’s clubs, realising that their libraries were not being used anymore, and bringing the books to Hay to sell. His original shop is still going strong, in the centre of the town and his name painted over the door and commemorated on a plaque in the pavement in front of it.
Hay not only has the best collection of books for sale in the land, but it also still has retained good local skills; there is still a blacksmith operating in town, and though they lost the tailor quite recently, they still have book binder who can bind in leather, his big heavy old book presses visible through the shop window.
There is a great abundance of plums from Ainsleigh’s garden, from one of the most prolific and beautiful fruit trees I have ever seen. They are everywhere, in baskets, glistening, red and juicy, giving lie to anyone who might say that there is no way we can produce plenty of food in our land. What we must learn to do, is as our ancestors have always done, and as Ainsleigh does, make jams and preserves from the fruit when it is abundant for the times when it is not.
I feel well here; there is a quality to life lived in the old traditional way that is simply lost when we attempt to live without this connection to our roots.