Friday 28 November 2014

Alpine Autumn


Phil at Castello Runcolo
 It seems an age ago now but we caught up with 'our Kat' in Italy during the October half-term. She's in Trento, working as an au pair for a lovely family and their lively twin boys. We were impressed with the way she researched it all for her gap year. She'd heard of people choosing Paris, say, as a destination and ending up with the Parisian family from 'Enfer' ... (which is 'Hell' in French according to Google translate).

Kat's Italian hosts have been far from infernal. In fact, they've been the opposite. She's had a splendid time. She's been learning the language, visiting Milan, Verona and Venice, walking in the Dolomites. To think, we couldn't even get her to come on weekend hikes in Derbyshire ...

So, she chose the family before the location and it was clear from the outset that they were going to hit it off. It was something of a bonus when the location turned out to be so gorgeous. Trento's a small city in a stunning location, surrounded by mountains and a quick hop from Sud Tyrol (Alto Adige) and the Italian
Alps. She has her own flat (the family's grandparents are in Patagonia and their flat is available) and everything's within walking distance. We loved the Gothic frescoes in the castle and the overall 'feel' of the place. I climbed up Dos Trento for the whopping big mausoleum to Cesare Battisti (local patriot) and the views. We took the train to Bolzano, all crisp and Tyrolean in the autumn alpine air. We took the free minibus out to Castello Runcolo/Runkelstein with its medieval wall-paintings and one of the earliest depictions of King Arthur's Round-Table. Well, who'd have thought?

We bought some chestnuts to roast from the market and I paid a visit to Otzi the 'iceman' in his special museum with his trinkets and kit.

We flew back the next day, following some yomping around Verona. What a great corner of Italy. If you've never been to Trentino or the Alto Adige - do so. Go there at once.

'January' from the frescoes in Castello del Buonconsiglio

Saturday 25 October 2014

Life Lines

A door out of the dark ... Ty Newydd
Life runs at a faster pace than blogging. That’s my excuse. Even so, I’m shocked that I’ve yet to blog about what’s been going on. The visit to Little Gidding in the summer, Farrar House closed ‘due to illness’ and the church all to myself and a copy on the pews of The Four Quartets. I read the poem aloud, like liturgy, all abuzz with déjà vu and the cadence of it. To know the place for the first time.

Nor have I mentioned another Nantwich win – second prize this time – with my Aberfan poem (anniversary this last week) Sixty Six.

Nor have I written about the Fellowship of St Alban & St Sergius conference and the visit to the Orthodox monastery at Tolleshunt Knights.

I’d not yet published a link to the University of Chester publication from the High Sheriff’s Cheshire Prize.

Or the week’s Master Class at Ty Newydd, now just (as we used to say in South Wales) with Gillian Clarke, Imtiaz Dharker and some exceptionally talented participants. What a great place and some terrific people! Sean Borodale breezed in for a reading from Bee Journal and his latest collection.

'The mountain sheep are sweeter ...' no, it's one of mine this tiime
I remember Gillian Clarke from school, when she came in to give readings and then took up her first ‘residency’ – an unusual thing in those days, particularly for a ‘bog-standard comprehensive’ like ours. She remembers us two – identical twin curly-headed boys, rusty blond. My brother recited The War Song of Dinas Fawr for some French visitors, dressed in an old sheepskin rug. When her husband, David Morgan, arrived on the last evening he took one look at me and said, ‘The mountain sheep are sweeter ...’

People still can’t tell us apart.

Sure, I put these things on Facebook but it’s about time I blogged them here.

I’ll let the photos speak for themselves.

I’ll try to be quicker next time - our 21st wedding anniversary just gone, our visit to Italy to see Kat, working as an au pair.

Here’s Sixty Six to be going on with:


Words spill from the radio to pool
on the hearth mat. The slow, backward
grate of the chair legs speak for his father –
sitting with them before a later shift –
as he leaves mug and plate, lifts
the latch on the cwtch to fetch his cap,
boots, spade. They watch him join
the fist of men already clenching
in the street,  glance as if to fix
them in the door-frame then turn to trudge.
There are clumps and knots of neighbours
climbing. It is then he feels his mother’s fingers
press into his flesh with a painful love,
as though for those others, scrabbling
with only their nails into spoil and slurry
before his father joins them, delves

with his shovel deeper into the dark.

Sunday 20 July 2014

I See The Boys of Summer

Mark's cottage - St Athan
My twin brother’s recently moved to a rented cottage on the edge of St Athan. He’d moved to other rented accommodation in the village last year to be nearer to work. He’d been living in Llantrisant (unfairly described as ‘the hole with the Mint’) and driving down through the Vale of Glamorgan to Aberthaw Power Station.

The Vale is very different to the Valleys, of course. It’s green, leafy and with a glorious stretch of coast. St Athan’s different again, an RAF base, some housing estates and a central core of old village. 
A vast cement works looms close by and the Power Station squats amid banks of imported coal.
I visited earlier this summer, enjoying the cottage and its prospect of horses and cows. A brook trills by, like the one in Fern Hill, by Dylan Thomas.

And the Sabbath rang slowly
In the pebbles of the holy streams.

It all sounds idyllic – for all the grind and clang of industry.

West Aberthaw Farm
West Aberthaw Farm overlooks the Power Station and a field humped and bumped with the traces of a medieval village. My brother’s friends live there, a colleague from the Power Station and his wife and daughter. They’re doing it up, slowly and laboriously, seeking to retain as many of the original features as they can. Imagine that ‘Restoration Man’ programme from the telly only with more bits and pieces lying around. They showed me round – the rafters and knotty beams, the sunken floor in what had become a reception hall, the wattle and daub, the bakery and the walk-in well. There are still hooks for the hams and shelves for the cheeses. You can trace all the phases, the punching through of staircases and the levellings off of bulbous walls. You can follow the whole thing through from the medieval core through the 17th and 18th centuries to the ‘Fab Four’ wall-paper lining a cupboard in the smallest bedroom.

My brother’s friends see themselves as custodians, preserving and utilising the craftsmanship of the past. The cottage lives. To borrow a phrase from Thomas, ‘O see the pulse of summer in the ice.’ 

Tuesday 1 April 2014

Get Stuck In

'Shovel that ....'
Among the nice things that people say about me in my freelance work is that I'm prepared to roll my sleeves up and get stuck in. They tell me that I can do so whilst maintaining a strategic overview.

That's good to hear, and if you're looking for my professional website you can find it here.


Sometimes it happens outside of work too. I recently spent some of my poetry prize money on the 'Keeper for a Day' scheme at Chester Zoo. Add it to your bucket-list. I insist.

As Bill Bryson said about Durham, if you've not been, go there now. Take my car keys.

As soon as I arrived at the Indian rhino house and the keeper thrust a shovel into my hand I knew I was in for a good time.

Distracting a mother Black Rhino with a carrot 
Of course, people shake their heads in disbelief when I tell them I paid good money to spend a day shovelling rhino poo. But I wouldn't have missed it for the world. Yes, I did shovel a lot of poo, and sweep up annoying pellets of antelope droppings, but to get up close and personal (as they say) with these magnificent creatures was something else. Benny, the 2.4 ton Indian rhino is a big softee, and probably the biggest creature I've ever been up close to. He is immense. I mean huge ... I always thought of the Indian rhinos being a lot smaller than their African cousins, the black rhino, but they aren't. They are colossal. They are built like tanks, both Benny and his wife and daughter. Imagine my astonishment, then, when a wee slip of a female keeper had Benny lie down and roll over so that they could inspect his feet. I hadn't realised that they could train rhinos but yes, they can. Rhinos are brighter than you might think. I was smitten and can understand why the keepers on that section are so attached to them. They grow on you. They thrive on interaction with humans. Which makes their plight all the more poignant when you think of poaching and the sick trade in rhino horn for quack cures.

Not only did Benny lie down and roll over in exchange for a banana, he also backed up a few paces on request so that when he lay down his head wasn't wedged awkwardly against the wall of his shed. There's clever.

If the Indian rhinos were friendly, the Black Rhinos were flighty and jumpy. One of the female babies butted and charged me. They can pack a punch. By the afternoon, though, most of them had accepted me as they accepted the regular keepers and allowed me to feed them carrots as the keepers weighed and monitored their baby's growth. Rhinos can't see very well, of course, so they snuffle around you to get the measure of you with your snouts.

Feeding the tapirs and capybaras
The tapirs can't see very well either. But they have boxing-gloves for noses and pick up the mixed veg' from the feeding bowl before you have chance to scatter it.

Mongoose (mongeese?), capybaras, various deer and whopping big antelopes - much bigger close up than you'd imagine them to be, warthogs ... it was fascinating to muck them out and feed them.

I came away smitten with the rhinos and full of admiration for the keepers. These people know their stuff. Some of these guys have worked with these creatures for years and know everything there is to know about them. They've seen and experienced things the rest of us wouldn't have the first idea about - hand-rearing rhinos, watching them giving birth, watching them die. The next time you see a zoo keeper shovelling shit, don't think, 'Heck, what a job they've got ...' think 'There's someone living out a vocation, someone skilled, professional and thoroughly committed to the animals in their charge.'

With a hand-reared deer
The conservation work these people do is extraordinary. They deserve our respect.

Sunday 19 January 2014

Wheels & Withies

The Redstone Centre : Living willow structures
This ought to be good cycling country. It’s undulating enough to give you a few slopes to ride down and neither so flat that you can’t make headway against the wind nor so hilly that you have to stand on your pedals. Someone once told me that cycling across the Lincolnshire Fens was more difficult than it sounds. There were no slopes to give impetus.

So, with miles of winding lanes, old railway lines and canal towpaths it ought to be ideal here for my new hybrid bike. It should perform well on tarmac and go off-road when required. 

That assumes, though, that you're a good cyclist (I’m not) and good at mending punctures. I’m not good at that either. On my fourth trip out on my new hybrid bike I did it again. I must have ridden over a thorn somewhere along my 13 mile round-trip. The next time I fetched it out the front tyre was as flat as a pancake. I was all fingers and thumbs and broke the valve when I tried to pump it up. I swallowed my pride, took it to my friendly, local repair shop and he fixed it and put me straight.

While I was there, I had a rummage through his clearance bike-clothing. I came away empty handed. It was all very well and good, padded cycling pants and stretchy lycra tops ... but I’m under pain of death not to wear anything of the kind. My eldest has promised to ‘divorce’ her parents if I as much as look at lycra. She’s right of course. It might be sleek and streamlined but I’d look a complete prat. Or even more of one.

The thing is, I’m not as supple as once I was. I can no longer lithely swing my leg back off the saddle and clear the wheel when I stop – if ever I could. I sort of topple over or else catch my baggy trousers on the saddle. I’ve even collapsed in a heap of jangling gears and ticking wheels. I’m getting better at it though and once or twice have vaulted off magnificently – or at least, alighted without getting tangled.

I found the same thing when helping a friend with his willow harvest early this month. Sounds romantic, doesn’t it? Stooping down and cropping the withies close to the knuckle and close to the ground. He grows them for his basket weaving and willow-sculpture business. What else would you do with Grade 3 agricultural land on the edge of town? Why, run a basket weaving business, country-craft and management/team building centre of course.

Clipping the withies is one thing, straightening up afterwards quite another. But I felt the better for it after two days of honest manual labour (oh, alright, two mornings ...)

'It's gripped, sorted ... Let's ...'
Now I’ve got the bike back on the road I’m feeling even more virtuous. It’s the first time I’ve cycled for about 5 years – I got fed up of the punctures on my old reconditioned unisex bike. All I have to do now is go easy on those valves and we’re fixed, gripped, sorted ... As they used to say on The Fast Show, 'Let's off road.