The mountain roads around Machynlleth are spectacular on any day but a joy on a windless sunny day in winter. This is on the mountain pass to Llanidloes and its been an ambition of mine to climb this on my bike since I arrived in Wales 22 years ago! I went up on my Dutch Gazelle bike. Such a beautiful heavy bike and so nice to ride, no one expects it to climb a hill like this, but I did it without climbing out of my saddle. I got my Gazelle from Berno in North Wales. He’s a great guy with some brilliant bikes. Would highly recommend him.
I imagine that any book written by Jan Morris will be worth reading. No wonder The Times named her the 15th greatest British author to have emerged since the second world war. Her prose is fluid, dynamic and full of insight. The scope of her approach is grand, yet each sentence is full of detail. The kind of writing that smooths your progress over the terrain of a subject like a brush clearing the ice in front of a curling stone.
Over her very long and distinguished career she has taken her curling brush over subjects as diverse as Spain, New York, Venice and Huddersfield! Although one might imagine that these books are all about travel she refutes the label of travel writer. She writes not about movements and journeys, but about people and places.
Of all her 50 plus books, I’ve only previously read A Machynlleth Triad, probably not long after I arrived in Machynlleth in 1994, a book which imagines the town’s past, present and (perhaps Utopian) future. Having now glided so easily over the 458 pages of Wales – Epic Views of a Small Country I don’t know why I left it so long to pick up my second Morris.
I was reading the 1998 edition, a revised and updated edition of The Matter of Wales, itself published in 1984. The book is mostly concerned with the character of Wales, as defined by the past, so this isn’t a problem, although there are some moments that jar. For example, she talks about the Welsh Assembly as an infant concept, rather than what it is now, a late teenage reality. It would be good to know whether she feels Wales’ vision of itself has changed in that time, especially following Wales’ surprise Brexit vote.
In the 1998 edition, there is much made of the lack of Conservative political representation in Wales, no longer the case. Obviously, there is no mention of UKIP, which secured 7 seats at the Senedd in 2016. Politically, the Wales of 1998 is dominated by the Liberals, Labour and Plaid Cymru. Forgotten insights from the time surface. The fact for example that Cardiff itself voted against having a Welsh Assembly. Which reminds us that people don’t always know what’s good for them, for Cardiff itself has benefited enormously from the presence of governance.
Never the less, putting these things aside (and there is a 2014 edition should you not wish to) the 1998 edition of Wales is glorious and relevant, an exhilarating ride through the many deep and layered cultural dimensions of our small nation. Politics, religion, sport, medicine, industry, community, language (yr hen iaith in particular), agriculture, music, literature, architecture: each subject is covered with equal passion, dexterity and detail.
The one intriguing question I am left with: is this a book for those of us who love Wales but are not of Wales, or also for those who were born here and are already steeped in its language, culture and history. In other words, is it for those who seek a mirror to a world they know well or for those who want a window into a world they wish to know better?
Yesterday I spent the day with our sycamore. This is the longest amount of time I have ever spent with a sycamore, or indeed any tree. I am quite sad that I only spent the day with the sycamore because I was cutting off its glorious crown in a pollard. I had a good lament as I was going along, on the theme of ‘why do we only ever give this amount of time to trees when we need to do something to them, or occassionaly for them.’ Could we not spend a day simply looking, touching, climbing, watching, enjoying, basking in, reverentially meditating on, the tree. Maybe you already are.
Eight years have passed since our sycamore was last pollarded, and in that time the sycamore has grown into a dominant force overshadowing the lawn, overhanging the neighbours sheds and garages, and creeping ever outwards towards the fabric of our polytunnel. In only eight years it has transformed itself, and along with it the feel of the garden. Now removed, the garden feels very different. Traditionally a tree is pollarded for animal fodder or for wood. In suburbuan gardens like ours it also achieves the effect of allowing more light into the garden and preventing wind damage.
At lunch, in between reading Jan Morris’ Wales – Epic views of a small country and drinking hot tea, I took some time being with the tree. Doing all those things we never do.
This act of destruction has brought us closer. It feels right to read Wales whilst meditating on one of its tree’s. We are how we relate to the land around us.
As I looked at the tree I tried to see the pollard I had just comitted upon it as nothing worse than an overdue haircut. Even so I can’t help thinking I have committed a brutalist assault. I have removed the tree’s winter structure. And its glory. And when summer rolls around, the sycamore will not quite be the home it has been, to all the things that rely on it: moths, ladybirds, bees, hoverflies, birds. There is loss.
Never-the-less this is the cycle of life and something else will bloom with it diminished. And the sycamore wood itself should have another life, carved into ‘love spoons’ as is the Welsh tradition, or made into furniture. At the very least warming the four souls that inhabit our house.
I console myself that there is nothing in this day’s work that humans haven’t been doing since Roman times
Some practical thoughts
A pollard should not be attempted with any weather present. Such days in Wales are rare, and should be grabbed with both glove protected hands. Yesterday was such a day. No wind, no rain, no fog, no snow, no ice pellets. Just one long blue sky and fire ball tracking through it. Ahhh, even the memory of it is worth savouring. You’ll see from the photographs that I haven’t finished. That’s because I was doing the job on my own with an electric chain saw with grab jaws. The jaws grab each piece of wood safely but can’t reasonably tackle thick branches. These need to be roped and sawed with a hand saw and friends present to help. Even so I wore steal toe caps, appropriate grippy gloves and a helmet, mask, ear muff combo.
Caution is a watch word for tackling a job like this, especially on your own
without ropes to guide the branch fall. Tackle only branches you are confident will not damage you or anything around you (if you’ve never done any tree work before don’t tackle a job like this). Take your time. If you need to, have regular breaks to clear away what you’ve done and take a look at what you need to do. Do the job one branch at a time. Lean as little as possible.
I loved this part of the job, even though I had a couple of moments when I didn’t feel that confident about my own skills and safety. Thinking things through carefully you can problem solve your way through the job, and before you know it you have a large pile of branches on the floor, and a sense of pride.
Once all the wood is down on the ground cut lengths for fire wood and branches for kindling. Make sure you know what length of wood will fit in your log burner. The kindling you see here are the side shoots taken from the logs I cut. The tops of the branches have yet to be processed.
Many of you will have been sickened by Donald Trump’s abusive comments about women, but men also need to call out people like Piers Morgan, who this week called for a Men’s March. He said “I’m planning a ‘Men’s March’ to protest at the creeping global emasculation of my gender by rabid feminists. Who’s with me?”. Not me, Piers. You should be standing by women not cry babying. Men don’t need a march to protect their own rights. They have a patriachy doing that quite nicely. So today I made a pledge to the white ribbon campaign. This is a campaign specifically aimed at men to speak out against violence towards women. I hope you’ll join too.
Weekend apple tree pruning following Chloe Ward’s great book How to Prune an Apple Tree, available from https://www.amazon.co.uk/How-Prune-Apple-Tree-imperfect-ebook/dp/B01B67ZCNU/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1485170228&sr=8-1&keywords=how+to+prune+an+apple+tree
I was actually using the ebook edition on my tablet so could read and take photos at the same time. Currently a bargain at £2. It has loads of 5 star reviews on Amazon and it really is easy to follow. Suitable for young and old trees.
Pruning on a garden scale is a lovely meditative experience and gives you a chance to get to know your trees better, as well as your garden wildlife. This robin was following me round the garden for an hour.
http://www.thedolectures.com/ will be with us again in 2017. Apparently they sold out in a day last year so register your interest in advance and you’ll get an email telling you when tickets are on sale. Good luck!
http://www.slow-journalism.com/ is the website home of the brilliant magazine Delayed Gratification. Delayed Gratification tells the news three months after it happens, after the frenzy has passed and we can reflect with some disctance on what actually happened. It also comes with some really cool infographics and no adverts! Because there are no adverts it costs £10 for each copy, which is expensive, but then again it must be worth it to support a magazine which is both extremely good and free from commercial influence. It must be one of the very few magazines in the world that is content only. Pick up a subscription and get it delivered to your door.