6th June 2015
Paul drops me in Whitchurch ready for my adventure in the Doward. Today I am not so worried about if I can walk from A to B but if I can make enough time to walk around thus most ancient tree clad mound that stands out in the landscape like an emerald in the clasp of a watery sinuous necklet adorning the Herefordshire landscape. As ever in these borderlands the boundaries keep shifting, first Wales, then England, now Wales again, now England. It illustrates well one of the challenges of being on the edge.
The Doward has been inhabited since ancient times. Hardly surprising, it commands an enviable view over river and mountains and valleys for miles around. In times long last this would have accorded a measure of safety not to be dismissed. It takes some time to reach the first layer of its height. I amble, I have found that this slowest of speeds is the most efficient for long distance walking, the steepest of climbs made infinitely possible by the step by mindful step process. Besides it is a warm and sunny day, cloudless, and bees are busy in the hedgerows.
As I climb cars pass me on the circular lane that follows the hill round linking the homes of the wealthy who have made their homes here. They are off to work, maybe dropping off children at school as they go. I sense their impatience, you can’t really make much speedy progress in a lane like this especially when there is a walker on it. There are few passing places and you cannot see far ahead. Walking is by far the best method of transport here.
I am struck by the incongruity of the situation. Here are those with the money to buy a home on this exclusive hill, yet they are leaving it to do many of the things necessary to their livestyle. I on the other hand am as free as a bird, for the duration of this pilgrimage at least, to wander at my leisure, composing my latest works as I go, free to take advantage of this ancient mounds treasures on a hot blue sky mid week day.
It takes no little effort to follow my large scale OS map here where so much is packed into the contour lines of two and a half inches of ancient woodland and ancient settlement remains. I wish that I could ask Ordinance Survey to whip up a map of just this area for me to make use of right now. Inching along with my finger quarter centimetre stretches I manage after a couple of false leads to get myself through Little Doward and into the ancient woodlands that are common land.
Here I have already tasted my old friend anxiety. What if , in their fear of intruders, they keep fierce dogs, possessive of their territory? There are private keep out signs everywhere. I wonder what the fear is here. I have encountered this so often, this fear of strangers. It makes me feel like a villain, as if I am doing something wrong by passing their gates. It takes away my ability to remain the present. I am taken hostage by my fear.
I follow the woodland tracks, iniitially trying to stick to them but in the end I have to let go of my perrenial desire to control everything to keep me safe and keep the dreaded anxiety from arising. It turns out to be fairly easy to find my way to the flat top of Dowards hill. I gain the plain and my breath catches, there on my right, are three of the most magnificent trees I have ever seen, and there have been plenty on this journey through glorious wild Wales . two are beech and a third is oak. Their age I cannot guess at but their majesty and beauty are worth the long ascent to their heights.
It is sunny up here after the shady woods and I start off looking about, still cautious about losing my way. I haven’t seen a soul and know how these places can be easy to confuse. I want to sit in the sun and enjoy a second breakfast but a shady trail beckons me and though my anxiety clamours I follow it. My intuition is right, this is the way to the fort. Here is the viewpoint marked on my map. I climb up to it and there a little removed from me are some white cattle. Heart in mouth I clamber quickly down. I have been afraid of cows since my last storywalk. Not that they are fuercesome monsters, but simply big and curious, and I am slight and not so firm on my feet.
I continue along the trail till it opens out into what must have been the first, a wide flat circular plain with stupendous views over to the mountains across the valley. There are cows over to my left and I don’t linger. I have seen the place, but my fear won’t let me be present. I head off back to the three trees.
I sit in the oak’s several trunks understanding from whence humankind got the idea for chairs. I recline in my wooden throne and eat a hurried second breakfast.
I have spied several white cow hairs on a broken off branch at the front of the oak. Clearly a favourite scratching post.
I curse my anxiety that stands between me and my presence, too in its grip to let go and feel it through to its release.
I get up to go and follow the track back through the woods, noticing the cow pats all through the woods and understand that the herd are brought up here to graze each day. They certainly keep the grass maneagable on the fort’s ancient ground.
I laugh at myself. For sure Merlin would have had greater things than a herd of white cattle to concern himself with. I find a small twig that reminds me if my staff that I so sadly left behind. It has a pleasing vee that I can grip like I did my staff. I keep it as talismen to hold when I am scared. Gift from this place, a little broken but with some of the energy that my powerful staff had.
Once down on the lanes again it is easy going to my next point of call. I am looking now for King Arthur’s cave. I am sure a more intrepid explorer could have found it from the fort but I have learnt to accept now that one of my weaknesses is fear of being in a situation where I cannot call for help.
As I approach the Biblins campsite I spot a path branching off right with an information board. It is the path to king Arthur’s cave come to me without trying. I walk down the track. I do not know what to expect. There has been no picture and a cave can be many things to different people.
Several times my heart beats fast and I gape at the caves I find in the rocks to my left. They are quartz rock with softer limestone the information board has informed me and the combination over time is certainlya recipe for great caves.
Each cave is larger than the last, possible to enter, though here we go again, fear rises. I am afraid to go into these dark holes in the rock.
At the bottom of the track where the woods start up again is the best cave. There are two side by side . the larger goes in some way and has naturally formed pillars beyond which I do not venture but it is plain to see one could make dwelling out of such a place.
I am both exhilarated by this discovery of such magnificent caves that I never knew existed in my country and slightly fashioned of my fear. I am beginning to notice how fear is not an emotion I welcome and that this maybe because I am gripped by irrational fears that surge where there is no actual danger. I feel like the fearful soldier always at the back of Dads Army .
I am soon on my way again following the lanes looking for the track that will take me down to the ferry to cross to Symonds Yat east and my way onwards. I know that footpaths seldom stay where they are marked on maps, particularly at this time of the year so I plan on sticking to the lanes till i reach the track that willcut out a couple of milesof road but the tracks that lead off it are very enticing, old sunken green lanes.out of one emerges a man. I am standing dithering as I am wont to do when trying to make a decision on the next stretch.
Are you lost?
He asks and when I say no he says he often is around here never findingthe the same way twice. We exchange pleasantries and both go on our way. At the next green lane I cannot resist,it is only short,will cut off a corner and is just beautiful. I walk down it. Of course the inevitable happens, it doesn’t look like it does on the map an now here are several paths and I don’t know which is mine. I hazard a guess and walk on soon completely lost but not altogether worried, wherever I am its only a mile or so to the main lane. After a few minutes on what I think is a lane I find a nature reserve and see I have been going in a circle on a track. The track leading away from it has the same name as the track the man came out of. I follow it…and emerge out of the same green lane he had several minutes before. I laugh at the joke life has played on me.
Now I am almost at the place where the track I need should be. More private signs almost out me off the scent till I realise that they are directed at car drivers and that the small print says except walkers and there is the footpath sign. Relieved I follow it but it still doesn’t feel like a track and skirts by someone’s house. Dogs bark. Not again. It is at this point that I begin to feel tired of the barriers I am finding and ignore the fear and keep walking. At the bottom is a small parking area. Out rush two terriers yapping closely followed by their garrassed lady owner.
Sorry, she says, they keep getting out
But they are obviously friendly and simply curious.
I check with my rescuer about the way and find that I am now at the start if the track I need. She apologises again for the dogs but I say thank you, they have presented me with a guide just when I needed one.
I am finally almost there. It is well past lunchtime and I have been walking, in a roundabout direction, for 5 hours now. It is surely time for lunch. There is one more pleasure to add to my morning of treasures and fears; the hand pulled ancient role ferry that is still working. As I get to rivers edge and see the Wye for the first time in the day the flat elongated boat makes its way to me carrying two passengers. Its driver pulls it along by means of a thick rope stretched across the water.
It is quickly with me, the previous passengers disembark and I board.
We cross to the ancient Saracens inn. Its full of people having lunch in the sun. We are with them in a minute. I find a table overlooking the water and keep writing. I spend a leisurely two hours writing and realise how well I write, how easy it is, to write under these sorts of circumstances.
It us mud afternoon when I sally forth following the road to Goodrich that skirts copper hill. It us a lively pastoral stroll till we hit the main road at the top. After more than half a day in the wilds it is tricky to decide to walk thus. Then I spot a footpath. I am sure it won’t be going the way the map says. It is planted with a crop if seeding rape but it is better than cars for now.
It does indeed take me to GoodRich although not quite the route it should and I visit the church and check my map. There seems little choice but the road took I can hit the back lanes into Ross on Wye after a couple of miles. I try it. I get to the bridge by means of a little bit of pedestrian walkway help. The local council clearly know the road is a hazard but the tiny path ends at the end of the bridge and there the traffic flies by.
I know its impossible. I return to the village. There is one more bus tonight. In the village shop I begin to tell my tale. The shop assistant is delighted.
Sorry for the rant, she says after spending quite some minutes telling of the perils of said road. She lives at the other end of the village. I am glad I have not tried it. The local council have been asked over and over to please put in a pavement. There is one from the next village all the way into Ross.
I am now content to sit in the sun and read of Merlin and wait for the last bus. Alarm rattles my composure when it is late but along it trundles with a very helpful driver who reiterates the hazards if the Goodrich stretch of main road, and sets me down safely by the church in Ross with directions to the bridge over which I must cross to find my home for the night.
He and I are concerned about the dual carriageway that stands between the bridge and the farm where I will spend the night. I try every footpath along the way wondering if there must surely be a way under the road. I don’t find one.
When I gain the mighty roaring monster it is not the terror I have imagined. There are places to cross first the nearside carriageway then the far, and gaps in the traffic sufficient to allow safe crossing.
Benhall farm. I have arrived. It is 7 o’clock and I undress and slip on the cosy toweling robe provided and start to sort out my things, catch up on emails, and eat the most delicious shortbread I have ever tasted, home baked for guests. By 10 I am asleep.
It has been a good day. The fear that accompanied me min e alone, carried with me wherever I go. It is a good lesson. It is not the situation that we find ourselves in that us wrong, it is our inner demons that will make it hell if we let them.
Demons that are wraiths from another time, appearing to protect us, then clinging on, reluctant to relinquish their role to keep us safe they remain to haunt us ever after, unless we confront them and question their purpose. How like humans they behave; clutching roles as if their very identity depended on it whilst a wealth of potential shapes wait to be explored. What do my anxiety ridden wraiths hide beneath their guise of grey gauzelike veils? Inherited from parents whose childhoods were not filled with confident guardians …how many generations old these inherited ghouls?
Animals in the wild freeze when in danger, they shake and tremble themselves free when the danger is past. How much do we humankind carry that is old, undigested fear? How much of the boundaries to healthy happy society are simply old ghosts of undigested terror with no foundation in the present?
Today is a new day. Always.