The 31 bus arrived opposite the Belfry in Cinderford exactly on time. I realised earlier that I’d forgotten to mention the name of the rather disconcerting hotel/pub in …And Also The Trees. I had the bus timetable stored on a memory stick, and I’ve just retrieved it. If only I could retrieve all my memories that easily, eh…? (Better still, why can’t I just carry out a batch delete on unwanted memories? Actually, I think I might have covered this topic already, in Memory Dump, but I can’t be sure.)
The driver on the return leg was the same man who’d taken me across the Forest about two hours earlier. I wondered for a few moments whether I’d have been better off paying the extra £1.25 and going to Gloucester for a change of scene. I haven’t been to Gloucester for years. I used to really like it there, when there was Joined-Up Public Transport and you could get there and back for a fiver (see Nice Work If You Can Get There.) However, I had a sinking feeling that Gloucester might have gone down the same Clone Town route as Cardiff, Swansea, Bath, Bristol, Hereford, and all the other cites I used to love visiting when I was in my twenties. Now a return ticket by train costs about twenty quid. Meanwhile, you can forget about doing it by bus if you want to get home the same day.
The return trip was exactly the same as the outward journey – Steam Mills School, Gloucester College, The Swan Inn at Brierley, the semi-conscious villages with their corner shops and struggling pubs, the agricultural suppliers, the GSK factory, and finally the descent into Coleford itself.
I hadn’t had a decent look around on the Saturday afternoon. Within two minutes of my arrival, the long-overdue summer storm had announced its presence, and I’d headed straight for the campsite. Now, with blue sky and time to kill, I decided to explore the town in more detail. The independent bookshop I’d found in the side street was still closed. So was the café I’d spotted earlier on. It appeared that I’d missed the town’s peak Sunday trading hours.
Only the Tesco Express was still open, so I called in to pick up a couple of odds and ends. There was only one checkout open, so I decided to use the self-service till. I hate those things anyway, and to be honest I’d have been quicker waiting for the queue to go down. Anyway, I was just across the road from the Tourist Information Centre. I found that it too was closed. As usual, my brain defaulted to Plan B – ‘Fuck it!’ I walked back to the town square and took a few more photos:
There are a couple of great names on this memorial plaque, so I had to photograph them individually. After all, when was the last time you met anyone called Abendigo or Jabez…?
I walked on past the Red Lion pub and found myself in Valleys-style territory again; just look at this for a chapel:
About fifty yards further on, I chanced upon one of the most remarkable structures I’ve ever seen. Coleford hasn’t had a train service since Dr Richard Beeching destroyed the railway system in the UK. If you look at the OS map, there are a number of ‘dismantled railway’ lines marked throughout the Forest of Dean. Only the line between Parkend and Lydney Junction still operates, as a private company running tourist trips at weekends. As a result, I hadn’t expected to see any railway architecture worthy of note in or around Coleford itself. However, I was in for a hell of a shock.
There’s a famous skewed-arch bridge across the Taff at Pontypridd, carrying the railway line into the Rhondda Valleys. You can see it, but you can’t get up close and personal, because it’s in the middle of a traffic roundabout. Coleford outdoes Pontypridd on two counts: the skewed arch bridge at Coleford crosses a road, rather than a river; and it’s made of brick, rather than poured concrete. You really need to see it for yourself to appreciate the engineering ingenuity that went into its construction, but the photos capture some of its brilliance:
As I had at Symonds Yat Rock, I took a couple of dozen photos of the bridge from various angles. Unfortunately (as with most of the disused railway bridges in South Wales), it was impossible to climb onto the deck. I spent a couple of hours in Aberdare Library yesterday trying to find any documentation about Coleford Railway Bridge, but the few histories of the Great Western Railway glossed over this remarkable structure entirely. If it isn’t already a Listed Structure, then I’m a Dutchman. I’m so glad to have stumbled upon it in the middle of a showery Sunday afternoon.
I walked back up past the huge ornate chapel, and almost by accident found what we in the Valleys would call a ‘trip’ – a little flight of stone steps jammed between two houses. I’d already established that the parish church was on a hill overlooking the town, and the steps seemed to be heading in that general direction. It was worth a look. However, before I got to the top of the steps, I caught sight of this extraordinary building:
I’ve no idea what this building is, or who lives there, but it’s not to my taste at all. I followed the steps to their summit and emerged without any warning into the grounds of St John the Evangelist’s Church:
I opened the heavy iron gates of the churchyard and found myself at the top of a steep hill, lined on one side by impressive detached houses and on the other by terraced cottages. I was following my nose, and at the foot of the hill I recognised a building which I’d passed twice the previous day. On both occasions it had been pissing down with rain. Now, I took the opportunity to grab a photograph of it.
As if by magic, I’d found my way back to the junction where I’d first arrived at Coleford, barely twenty-four hours earlier.
Now, please bear in mind that I was travelling on my own. My tent was about a mile or so away (ten to fifteen minutes’ walk up a fairly gentle slope), and there wasn’t much point in heading back there. Sitting in a tent on your own and reading is okay until the light fails; then you’re sitting in a tent and not reading. For the umpteenth time in the past couple of months it was a case of ‘Fuck it!’ – I headed back to the Angel Hotel and ordered a pint of Fosters.
It was a very different pub from the one I’d been in the previous night. The attractive (if extremely squeaky) barbint was nowhere to be seen; instead, the place was in the hands of a bored-looking guy in his twenties. The rest of the punters seemed to be of the same demographic group. I set up my Netbook in the corner and worked my way through the 200-odd photos I’d taken throughout the day. Think about that for a moment, will you: back when I first owned a camera, that would have been ten or twelve rolls of film, plus developing costs, and with no guarantee of a decent result. I couldn’t even have afforded to have ‘Photography’ as an interest on my CV, never mind as a major interest in my life, as I told you in Picture This.
I was getting peckish by this stage, so I enquired about bar snacks. The answer I got was bizarre in the extreme. When it comes to bar meals, the Angel Hotel has a very strange policy: they don’t actually cook food on the premises. That would be far too straightforward. Instead, they keep the menus for the fish shop, two local Chinese takeaways, and the kebab shop, behind the counter. If you fancy anything on the menu, you ring them from your own mobile phone, and within ten minutes or so your meal will be delivered to the pub. The proprietors provide you with a plate and cutlery, and you can munch in comfort while enjoying your pint. How cool is that?
It was too early for food, so I sequestered myself in a corner. This cosy little alcove was lined with framed sets of Players’ cigarette cards and old advertisements. As soon as I sat down, I experienced one of those synchronicities which have been haunting me for months. On a shelf at about head height was a Phrenology head. I hadn’t seen one of those for years – Tim and Dick M.’s father used to have one as a paperweight. Only a few hours earlier I’d seen one in the window of Curioddities in Cinderford. Now, in a pub in the middle of Coleford, there was another of the bloody things. Maybe I’d had a bump on the head at some point over the weekend. Maybe I needed my own bumps felt. All the same, it was a fucking odd coincidence.
I was scrolling through my photos when a young lady (blonde, and therefore not my type) approached me and asked me if she could share my socket. The Netbook was plugged in and charging its battery, and the other half of the socket was broken. I looked at her charger, and spotted that it was a USB cable with a 3-pin adapter attached.
‘Plug it straight in here,’ I told her. ‘That’s what it’s for, after all.’
‘Oh, right, thanks a lot,’ she said.
Of course, her phone appeared as an external drive on Ubuntu Linux, and I assured her that I wouldn’t steal her pictures or infiltrate a virus onto her hard drive.
‘I’m good,’ I winked, ‘but I’m not that good.’
While she was chatting to her friends, I tuned into the conversation around me. There seemed to be two basic themes: one group of lads in their twenties were comparing notes on their various drug experiences – what they’d taken (coke, powder, MCAT, LSD, and so forth), how much they’d paid for it, who they’d bought it from, what had happened while they were on it, blah blah blah…
The other conversation was about football.
And that was it. Just football.
I only knew I was in England because I was in the company of Football Pundits rather than Rugby Pundits. The sudden realisation that I’d travelled for fifty-odd miles into another country, only to relive the same fucking Groundhog Day scenarios I’d been running away from, hit me with the force of a coal-fired industrial steamhammer. I bought another pint and wondered whether the whole weekend had been a colossal and expensive waste of time.
Then, just as I was wondering (again) whether someone could come and rescue me, the blonde girl reappeared to reclaim her phone.
My Netbook had gone into ‘Hibernate’ mode (as had I, pretty much), and when I unplugged her iPhone it came back to life. For those of you who’ve never seen my Netbook in action, here’s what its screensaver looks like:
‘Ooh, you’re a Doctor Who fan as well, are you?’ she gasped.
‘I love it,’ I told her, and she went back to her pals, happy to have found another geek in the pub.
It didn’t occur to me until several hours later that I’d missed a wonderful chance to wind the poor bint up:
‘Well, now, you know they’re replacing Matt Smith in the Xmas special? I really shouldn’t be telling you this, but… I got sick of the paparazzi hanging around my place. I’ve just come here to get away from it all for a few days. But – don’t breathe a word to anyone… Okay?’
It wasn’t the first time I’ve missed a golden opportunity with a young woman, and I’m pretty sure it won’t be the last.
I had a couple more pints and decided to get a takeaway to munch on the way back to the campsite. I looked into the one Chinese restaurant, more or less behind the pub, and it was heaving. Foolishly, I decided to go to the other one instead. Maybe having chips as a default addition to the order is a Valleys thing. Maybe not.
Anyway, I emerged with a decent mushroom omelette (and no chips) and headed back to Base Camp. I’d only been in my tent for about two minutes when a full-scale thunderstorm unleashed itself overhead. I had but three consolatory factors to keep in mind:
I was under cover (of sorts), as opposed to out in the open air as I had been the previous night;
I had something hot and fresh to eat;
Everyone back in Aberdare was currently experiencing the very same weather system I’d experienced the previous evening.
I zipped up the front of my tent and wondered whether the site owners would miss a cockerel if it suddenly went missing overnight.