The Only Straights in the Village

In which The Author and his friends are the victims
of an unfortunate misunderstanding

A few years ago, a gang of us went to see the League of Gentlemen at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane – it must have been about seven years ago, as Gema and I had just split up.
James T. and I decided we wanted to raise an elbow in the Coach and Horses in Greek Street, in memory of the great writer and piss-artist Jeffrey Bernard (see also ‘A Day in Parliament‘ and ‘Missed the Coach‘). However, the minibus was parked up near Drury Lane. It’s a fair walk down the Strand and into Soho, but it was a cracking day and we were in the mood for an adventure. Emma and her college mates wanted to stay local, so James, Sharon, Susan, Vicky and I set off down the Strand. By the time we’d gone half a mile the girls were complaining. They’d worn shoes which were very nice, but totally unsuitable for walking in …
James and I gave in to their nagging, and agreed that we’d go to the first pub we came to. In St Martin’s Lane, just off Trafalgar Square, we spotted a pub sign. Sharon read it as Railway and Beaver – no stupider than the Pickled Pepper, we thought – so we walked in.
The girls ordered drinks straight away. When I got to the bar the penny dropped immediately. By then, the girls had been served, so it was too late to make a discreet exit.
After about twenty minutes, Sharon leaned over to me with a horrified expression on her face.
‘Steve,’ she whispered behind her hand, ‘it’s a gay pub!’
I whispered back, ‘I know!’
‘When did you find out?’
‘About three seconds after I got to the bar!’
I still haven’t decided whether it was the counterpack of The Pink Paper, the arty photos of shaven-headed tattooed hunks, or the box of free condoms on the bar that gave the game away.
After his pint James needed the loo, but he wouldn’t go unless I accompanied him to make sure he didn’t get propositioned. As a large, shaven-headed, tattooed guy, I think he figured he was Top Totty.
It was only when we were leaving to rejoin the others that I checked the name of the pub. It was really Halfway to Heaven.
I recounted the story in work on the Monday, and Jason D. looked at me in sheer disbelief.
‘Didn’t it occur to you? The clue’s in the name!’
And indeed it is! ‘Heaven’ is possibly London’s premier gay club, situated under Charing Cross – a stone’s throw from the pub we’d been in. It’s a meeting place for guys and gals before they go clubbing.
Hence the name …

Making Hay While the Sun Shines

In which The Author goes on tour

For the last couple of years, Mother has been talking about the Skirrid Inn. She heard about it from a friend, and has always said that when she was confident that the car would get there, we’d take a trip there. Finally, with her new car up and running and the sun beating down on our part of the world, we decided to visit the place for ourselves.
There’s a huge road improvement scheme going on between Brynmawr and Abergavenny at the moment, so we drove up and around Brecon before taking the A40 towards Abergavenny. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and we passed through picturesque villages just as the trees and flowers were coming into bloom. It wasn’t too warm for driving, and the roads were fairly quiet. If we’d done it in two weeks’ time, with the schools on holiday, it would have been a very different story. We passed through Crickhowell, and I suggested skirting Abergavenny entirely, meeting the A465 north of the town.
It’s funny that Mother’s been driving for well over thirty years, but seems to have lost her confidence as she’s got older. Whereas years ago she’d think nothing of driving to Bradford or London, now even small market towns are a daunting prospect for her. From my vantage point in the passenger seat, the road systems are unnecessarily complicated, there’s far too much redundant signage, and – of course – you’re in contention with idiots for road space. It’s not entirely Mother’s fault.
Anyway, by some mischance we missed the turning which would have taken us around Abergavenny, and ended up going through town. It wasn’t as bad as Mother feared, but she admitted she would have got lost on her own. We set off in the direction of Hereford and left the town behind us. A few miles out of Abergavenny, we simply had to stop the car and take some pictures.

I’ve never been close up to a field of oilseed rape in full flower. It’s incredible. It stretched on over the hillside and almost to the foot of Skirrid Hill. Vincent Van Gogh would have painted this scene a hundred times in a hundred different aspects, simply to rejoice in the exuberance of the colour. Mother said the scent of the flowers took her back to her childhood, but she couldn’t pin down the memory. There was another chap taking photos as we arrived, and when we reluctantly walked back to the car another guy was making his way towards us with a bag of camera gear. It was one of those totally unexpected scenes that you can’t resist capturing forever.

Llanfihangel Crucorney was less than a mile further on. We parked up and had a look at the church. It was locked, of course, but we were able to look around the grounds and take some photos of the exterior.

Then we decided it was time to explore the pub itself. What an incredible place! It was first recorded in the twelfth century, and the building is centuries old. It’s built of sandstone and has a fascinating interior. I’ve just put a couple of photos here to give you a feel of the place.

We had lunch there, and chatted to the owners and a couple of regulars. They were a really friendly crowd, far less snobby than the people we normally meet in Brecon. It’s a lot more down to earth, and the pub doesn’t have any pretensions to be anything other than a decent village local. While we were chatting, one guy suggested driving from Llanfihangel to Llanthony, about six miles away. I’d heard of this place – my friends Rob and Kath H. go walking up there quite often – but I’d never been there before. It’s not exactly accessible by public transport. We finished up our lunch and set off for Llanthony.
The road is narrow, twisted and quite steep in places. It’s not even marked on the map as a B road, and we realised why after a couple of miles. Still, it took us through some breathtaking countryside and finally to the tiny village of Llanthony. It’s nothing more than a ruined priory, a church, and a few farms and cottages, high up on the slopes of the Black Mountains. But it’s a fantastic place to just sit and listen to the birdsong.
The ruins themselves are quite spectacular, if only in terms of their sheer size. It’s almost impossible to imagine what the priory must have been like when it was in its medieval heyday, with a thriving community of monks. Now, it’s a ghostly and mysterious place. We ate our picnic in the grounds, listening to spring birdsong and contemplating the fantastic scenery all around us. It’s no wonder that hermits and pilgrims must have been drawn to this spot in times past – it’s a magical place.

Then I had a stupid idea. I suggested following the road through to Hay-on-Wye, and then returning via Brecon. We hadn’t realised that the road was even narrower and more winding than it had been on the earlier stretch, and climbed high into the Black Mountains. It’s known as Gospel Pass, and at one point the car was struggling in second gear to cope with the ascent. We frequently came head to head with oncoming traffic, and had to wait while one of us backed up and made room for the other. A gang of bikers passed us at one stage, and we felt that they had the right idea – it would be the ideal way to enjoy the journey.
Near the top of the pass, we stopped and found a herd of horses roaming free on the hillsides.

From here, it was downhill to Hay-on-Wye. The last time I was in the town, I was about fifteen, and I couldn’t remember much about the place. It’s bigger than I’d imagined, an organic little town which has grown up over the centuries with no overall plan. It’s the sort of town which used to be commonplace in England and Wales, full of interesting shops and cafes, pubs and alleyways full of surprises. It’s a pleasant change to go to a town and not to be confronted with the same old shops that make so many modern high streets look pretty interchangeable. In any other town, this lovely building would have been converted into a Wetherspoon by now:

In Hay-on-Wye, it’s a bookshop-cum-B&B. A unique combination for a unique town.
After wandering around for a couple of hours, we decided to head for home. In half an hour or so we were on the Brecon bypass and heading for Aberdare. It’s hard to believe there are so many fascinating places on our doorstep – and even harder to believe that we haven’t visited them before.