In spite of a private education and a good degree, my wife is lamentably ignorant about anything to do with geography. It's not that she lacks the aptitude; she simply has no interest in where places are in relation to each other and finds my love of maps and atlases completely baffling.
Two weeks ago my wife announced that she'd agreed to buy a kitten from someone and asked when I would be free to drive her and our sons to collect it. I gave her a date and asked for the address, imagining somewhere within a 30-mile radius of Lewes. My wife checked her emails: "She says she lives near Oswestry. Is that far?"
I took a deep breath. "Well, it's not terribly near."
On a list of things I thought I'd never do, owning a cat is in the top ten, along with line dancing, bungee jumping and joining the Territorial Army. However, I have just driven 525 miles in 24 hours to transport a kitten from a beautiful rural farmhouse in Wales to our glorified broom cupboard in Lewes.
Was it worth it? I'm not a cat person, but this little chap has completely won me over:
He doesn't have a name yet. I wanted to give him an inappropriate human name, like David, but I have been overruled.
The journey was mind-numbingly tedious: a sequence of Ms and As with various numbers attached, interspersed with service stations that appeared to be patronised solely by people who had recently been released from prison. Where were the middle classes? There's a gap in the market - I'm sure a service station that incorporated a contemporary art gallery and a sushi restaurant would be a huge success. I'd go there.
At every stop I couldn't wait to get back in the car and although the M40 wasn't the most exciting stretch of road I've driven along, the boredom was relieved by a wonderfully funny edition of Desert Island Discs with Miriam Margolyes (which you can find here
). It was almost as funny as her unlikely encounter with will.i.am
The outskirts of Birmingham were particularly depressing - the highlight was the largest electricity substation I've ever seen. But things began to improve once we reached Shropshire and the distant hills made me think of A. E. Housman's 1896 cycle of poems and their disarmingly prophetic sentiments:
East and west on fields forgotten
Bleach the bones of comrades slain,
Lovely lads and dead and rotten;
None that go return again.
On a map, the English countryside appears to seamlessly segue into the Welsh landscape and the border seems quite arbitary, but in reality the change is far more dramatic. Gently rolling hills become steep valleys, while pastel hues change to darks greens, slate greys and burnt umber. This is where the Saxon invaders abruptly stopped, unwilling to farm on the increasingly sharp gradients beyond the Welsh Marches.
We had decided to break up the journey by staying overnight in Llangollen - a place I knew absolutely nothing about, except for its association with a famous Victorian lesbian couple. I was delighted to discover a small market town with an 13th century bridge that spanned the roaring torrents of the River Dee.
It was good to be back in Wales after so many years and I enjoyed seeing the once familiar words that I had struggled to master when I was at university there: llfrygell
(office) and cigydd
I had chosen to study Welsh in my first year, as it seemed liked the right thing to do. Sadly, I was spectacularly bad at it and became a figure of notoriety amongst the lecturers in the Welsh department (apparently they used to talk about me long after I had left). However, I can at least pronounce the words and still remember that a w
is an oo
, an f
is a v
, a u
is an ee
and a ll
is a hl
, not a cl
My sons seemed quite bemused to learn that they were no longer in England and started asking when we were going home. Later, after a long silence, my seven-year-old suddenly said: "
They're so proud of their country. Welsh butter, Welsh cheese, Welsh lamb. They'll be saying it's Welsh air next!"
Where did this world-weary cynicism come from? "Don't you find it exciting being somewhere new?" I asked. Both boys shook their heads.
I was a little depressed by my sons' lamentable lack of interest in Llangollen and decided to go for a proper walk in the evening, unhindered by whining voices and dragging feet.
I began by exploring the back streets of the town. I had forgotten how many pubs and churches there were in Welsh towns, with a wide choice of venues for both sin and redemption. The capels
were as granite grey and bleak as an RS Thomas poem.
Over the bridge, a heritage steam railway offered a 30-minute ride through the Dee Valley. If I'd been here longer, I would have happily made the journey: "Single to somewhere unpronounceable please."
Beyond the station, in the far distance, a solitary house overlooked the town:
The lone house reminded me of the sense of isolation I often felt as an English student in Welsh-speaking Wales, where there often wasn't much of a welcome in the hillsides. Some of the local people were friendly, but most regarded us with an attitude that ranged from begrudging tolerance to outright hostility. I can't say I blamed them.
I crossed the road and began to climb a hill, leaving the town behind me. On the way, I crossed the Llangollen Canal, which is at least 50 feet above the unnavigable river below:
Further up, the towns ends with some fairly hideous 1980s council offices, which look as if they have been constructed out of Lego. These incongruous buildings make it is easy to be distracted and miss the small sign that points the way to the ruined Castell Dinas Bran
The castle is thought to have been built by Gruffydd II ap Madog
in the 1260s and has been a ruin for almost as long as it has existed. Sadly it was too late for me to walk to the remain of Dinas Bran (it was much further than this zoomed-in photo suggests), but the picture below makes me want to come back:
I managed to get about a third of the way there and was rewarded with these views:
In the distance I could hear the sound of a church bell, the whistle of a steam engine, the distant roar of the river and the bleating of lambs. It seemed almost impossible idyllic, but then I saw this:
It made a stark contrast to the window display in the taxidermy shop at the bottom of the hill, where two women ahead of me were struggling to walk in tight leather mini skirts and high heels. One had a long mane of peroxided blonde hair, the other's was jet black. They appeared to be in their early 30s, but as I caught up with them, the women aged a year with each yard until they reached their mid-50s.
I'd forgotten the buzz of a Saturday night in a small town.
Further along the road, their granddaughters were huddled around the till-point of the local Spar, squeezed into revealing dresses that looked at least two sizes too small. All of the girls were made-up very heavily, with the longest false eyelashes I had ever seen. Perhaps they were trying to get picked-up via Google Earth. The local boys certainly seemed nonplussed.
After a less than perfect night's sleep in a local hostel, we made a terrifying 10-mile journey to the kitten's owners, driving along tiny lanes with sheer drops to the side that plunged hundreds of feet. By the time we reached here, it felt as if we were on a motorway:
Our kitten was one of 20 cats that inhabited a remote farmhouse. The owners, who had moved there from Kent eight years ago, were lovely people who had seen the area they grew up in ruined by over-development and wanted to find a home where they could enjoy dark skies and be free from the distant roar of traffic. I asked them how they had integrated into the community. They replied that it was remarkbly easy, as 80% of their neighbours were also incomers.
The issue of migration is problematic. Once, we used to grow up in an area and call it home. Aunties, uncles, cousins and grandparents usually lived within walking distance, but after the 1950s, we all became more mobile, both geographically and socially. Fewer people rented and property prices became more polarised.
My hometown of Teddington used to be an unremarkable, lower middle/upper working class suburb, but in the 1980s it suddenly became very desirable and houses like my parents' Victorian semi shot from £3,800 in 1963 to £550,000 in 2003.
My wife and I couldn't afford to buy a house in the local area, so we sold our Twickenham flat and traded it in for a small (but perfectly formed) 1890s terraced property in Lewes. I'm very glad that we did, but I'm now also conscious that by doing this, we helped to increase the house prices in Lewes, making it harder for local people to get on the property ladder.
I don't feel comfortable about that, but I'm not sure what the answer is. All I can say is that I've made a long-term committment to the area and don't regard my home as an investment.
But I digress. To return to the main theme of this long, rambling post, we collected the kitten and began the long drive back to Lewes. It 'yowled' in protest all the way, but some times more than others. It became calmer when I played Beethoven, but when a guest on Desert Island Discs chose a Bob Dylan song, the yowling suddenly increased.
I can only conclude that this cat obviously has an impeccable taste in music.
We arrived home in the evening. Our nameless kitten shot out of his basket and hid in the shoe rack for two hours, but by nine o'clock he was shamelessly climbing over me, rubbing his face against mine and proffering his bottom.
We had bonded.
I'd always thought of myself as someone who loved dogs and hated cats, but it looks as if I've been wrong all these years.
Better late than never.