I leave Hay on Wye reluctantly; it has much the same pull on me as my home town of Totnes. I look behind me repeatedly, turning my head to gaze upon it till it finally disappears from sight as I climb, climb, climb, up into the hills and head south east in the direction of the distant Ross on Wye.
Phoebe and I have gone into town together, she to work, in Richard Booth’s famous book shop; she tells me the tale of working there in the beginning, bereted head and layers of jumpers against the cold, in the basement sorting books and how wonderful a memory that is of working in a bookshop, a far cry from now she says, with all the computerised tills it is not the same job, not inspiring at all and now she does just two days a week there, spending the rest of her time growing vegetables at Hayfield. A lesson for all who would bring their business into the twenty first century; first check that employees and customers wouldn’t prefer you to leave it just as it is…
We have talked as we prepare for our different days of many things; of our beloveds, her Allan who has taught her perseverance, my James who has taught me patience, and of Hay, the town that has no clone shops. This is the first time I have heard this precious statement uttered, and I cast my mind back to those settlements I have walked through, much bigger than this small 1,500 strong town, that have no post office or even general store, and those towns with their pubs and shops boarded up and wonder how it can be possible. It’s about identity, I think; Hay is book shop capital of Britain, and with that comes a certain pride, a certain fame, visitors who come and enjoy, and spread the word. It’s more than that though, the original inhabitants of Hay, not the blow ins with money and ideas, have lived here for generations, not gone to the big city seeking wealth, understanding that real wealth is sense of community, and land on which to grow.
In the Londis store, a family run business, grandmother and granddaughter serve me, freshly baked bread, a granary roll freshly made up for me with hummous and salad. The counter is full of fresh hams that can be sliced from the bone, local cheeses, and on the side, Tyrells crisps; the local brand. More a delicatessen than a grocery store, it is a delight to shop there.
I am about to leave town when I spot Ainsleigh; sitting on a bench opposite the castle, waiting for me, to see me out of town! We take a lovely stroll up along the road, through Cusop, and I leave Wales behind and re-enter England. We head off back the way we walked in together just a few short days ago, Ainsleigh greeting all the people he knows as we go.
The people of Hay are happy; newcomers, and old established families both. Phoebe says that though they have a transition town group, they barely need one, they have everything they need, and I think she might be right. There is a recipe here, strength of community, pride in the old traditional ways, pride in the ideas of the newcomers, and mutual respect for the people who embody both, and recognition of the shared goal to keep Hay beautiful, thriving, and welcoming. There is no sense here of the frantic retail therapy, and desperate hopeless wandering of the towns folk who have sold their souls for promises of material wealth.
Ainsleigh and I wave goodbye and I set out over the hills. The weather is moody, and I change my clothes several times on my ascent, grateful for empty lanes to do my swift changeovers. The distant Welsh hills are cloud topped and broody looking, and I am feeling exhilarated, though I could not say why. It is chilly up here, and every step gets steeper. My heart is light though, and my pack feels light upon my back again, as it did when I set out all those months ago. I start to sing, and as I find my voice, tears well in the corners of my eyes, I am come home to me; this time in the Welsh Marches has at last healed my sore wounds caused by the pain of walking the desolation of the North West with its lands ravaged by industry.
My song is inspired by Blodeuwedd; flower maiden of the tale Lynn Webster Wilde recounted on Lammas night from the Mabinogion…
Have you ever seen an eagle soaring in the sky above the clouds?
Have you ever seen an owl swooping towards the ground below?
Have you seen them dance together in the skies above your head?
And my friend, have you seen them land together on the ground beneath your feet?
For until you have been touched by the magic of their dance, my friend,
Life will be a mystery still…
Have you felt an eagle soaring in your spirit?
Have you felt an owl swoop down to touch your soul?
Have you ever felt them dance together in the centre of your being?
For until you have felt an eagle’s soaring within in your spirit
And an owl swooping down to touch your soul
And their dance together in your being
Your life will be a mystery still
And once there was a people, come to our land beneath the standard of an eagle
Strong in purpose they were, set to make a mark upon the land
Found they another people, wise as owls, already there
Love in their hearts, for the earth, their mother
Fought hard did they, for the land they loved
Pushed to the edges were they by the people set to make a mark
And they do say that the eagle standard descendants fight the earth loving ones still in lands across the sea
And not until they have felt the eagle; his soaring in their breast
And felt the owl; her touching of their soul
Will they learn to dance together
And their life cease to be a mystery.
My day’s walking is joyous; the best route I can remember taking; I feel hungry, I find wild raspberries growing in the hedgerow amongst the honeysuckle, brambles, nettles, and hazel, and delight in their red staining of my fingers and lips. An occasional car passes me on the six and a half hour walk along little roads though the Golden Valley of Herefordshire, a farmer and his labourer greet me, and far off in the distance a lady walks her dogs. Once, by a farm 4 sheepdogs come haring out of their barn…to chase the lorry that has just driven past; oblivious to my presence in their eagerness to catch the vehicle, and see it off their patch. I stop in the churchyard at Michael Church Escley to eat my lunch, and walk on, this my only stopping place till I reach the tiny hamlet of Abbey Dore where I find Tan House Farm, right next the abbey, as promised.
I settle in my suite of oak beamed rooms, no internet, nor phone signal, and read the books laid out for my perusal. I learn from “I Remember Abbey Dore” a lovely booklet published in the millennium to celebrate the recent history of the village of life in and around the war, of trips out on Sundays to pick wild flowers, of blackberrying, and of the local school mistress, and working on the farms, and apprenticing to the blacksmith. In the back of a book about the nearby castle of Ewyas Harold I learn that the word “farmer” was a medieval term to refer to a villain who was a tenant of some land on exchange for providing food and entertainment (feorm) for an absent lord when he came a visiting the area, and that a “villain” was the highest kind of unfree tenant (unlike barons who were free tenants) and who had 30 acres of land in exchange for working so many days on the home farm.
I find this fascinating and wonder how it was that some farmers, once tenants, have ended up owning such huge tracts of land, so much that there isn’t enough left for everyone else, and what happened to the villains’ land, and why has their name come to mean dishonest one when they have been left with nothing at all? There is a lost tale here, of that I am certain.
I walk to the nearby pub for dinner and pass the abbey, shockingly large for such a tiny hamlet, and look forward to exploring it in the morning. At the pub the landlady is newly moved from Portsmouth just three weeks ago, given up her job and her life there for a new start here in the country with her fiancé. I feel admiration for her courage, and concern for her success; the farm have advised me not to come for the food is not good, and indeed it isn’t, deep fried scampi cooked from frozen and a great pile of oven chips are served to me at a table sticky with beer, whilst radio 1 blares out of a huge screen in the corner; I am the only customer. Here in a region famed for top quality local seasonal organic produce; meats, fruits, vegetables, cordials and wines; a burgers, chips, and ketchup menu is not going to attract much business. I cannot stop thinking about the young woman newly moved up from the city, to start a new life, and write her a letter with a suggestion to go introduce herself to the locals and to ask how they, the new owners of the only village pub, might best serve their new community. I’ll post it through their door in the morning and trust they will hear my good wishes for them and take my words as kindly.