In which The Author makes his way home from the Forest of Dean
I was awake early again on the Monday morning, after my rather haphazard exploration the day before (see … And Also The Trees.) When I looked out, a good number of the other tents had gone, and my own looked rather sad and lonely in the field.
I gathered a few things together and walked down to the farmhouse for a nice hot shower. There were a couple of children playing in the next field, and there were signs of life in a caravan parked next to the fence. The chickens were roaming around in the yard, and I muttered a quiet curse towards the cockerel, who had woken me for the second day running.
I emerged from the shower room refreshed and ready to face the world. It was only about eight o’clock. I decided to hit the road early and aim for the 0925 bus to Monmouth. Even though I wasn’t in a great hurry to get back to Aberdare, I could feel the usual post-trip-away-comedown coming on.
I wasn’t looking forward to the next job of the day – dismantling the bloody tent. It was still damp from the night before, and I knew that just trying to fold it would be a hard task. Putting it back in its little sack would be a nightmare. I decided to leave the tent until last, and packed the rest of my stuff away. I took my bits of rubbish down to the recycling bins near the site entrance, and then braced myself to tackle the tent.
As I’d found when I was putting it up, it would ideally have been a two-man job. The poles came apart inside the little pockets they slide through, and I had a hell of a job forcing them out. After about five minutes, I extricated the last of the poles and put them in their bag. The tent was down, and I spread it flat on the grass. It seemed to be at least three times longer than the sack was wide, and I couldn’t see any natural folds which would have given me a guide.
I eventually stuffed it into the sack and – as I’d expected – the zip wouldn’t close. I managed to close it loosely with a bit of nylon thread I found on a fence. I took a last look around to make sure I had everything and made my way back towards the farmhouse.
Mrs Lander and her granddaughter were outside when I arrived in the farmyard. I thanked her for her hospitality, and promised that I’d spread the word about the site. After all, at only £6 per person per night, and with the facilities that it offered, Rushmere Farm had been a real find. I told her that if I decided to explore the area in more detail in the future, I’d be there like a shot. Then I said ‘goodbye’ and walked down the driveway to the main road.
I arrived in Coleford at about quarter to nine. The sun was shining again, and I wondered if there was anywhere to have a hot drink before the bus arrived. I’d spotted a cafe in the side street by the cashpoint the night before. I decided to check it out. There was a sign on the door advising customers that they’d decided to close about a month or so before. I knew there was another cafe near the market cross, so I walked across the square to have a look. It didn’t open until ten o’clock. I called into the Tesco Express and bought a couple of cereal bars for breakfast. So far, so feeble …
It crossed my mind that there was a ‘railway museum’ in the town – I’d seen the signpost for it when I got off the bus the previous evening – so I followed the sign and it led me to a pleasant pedestrianised square behind the Co-op. The museum turned out to be Coleford’s old station, with a couple of pieces of rolling stock. It’s obviously privately owned, as there was a contact phone number on the sign near the main entrance. Needless to say, at that time of the morning there was no sign of life.
It’s a pity that the old High Level Station in Aberdare hasn’t been preserved like this, instead of being left to fall into disrepair. I expect Billy’s father’s collection of railway memorabilia would have found the perfect home in somewhere like this.
A short distance from the Railway Museum I found Coleford’s council offices and library under one roof. The library seems to open for about four hours a day, and I didn’t want to hang around until eleven just to check out old OS maps and local history books. I strolled over as far as the Tourist Information Centre, only to find that it didn’t open until ten o’clock. I made my way back to the town square, and decided to have a nose in the small bookshop I’d spotted the previous day. It was bigger than it looked from the outside, quite well-stocked, and had a good range of local history books. All of them were fairly expensive, though. I only wanted a small leaflet to keep as a souvenir, and a postcard to give to Rhian. I didn’t especially want to spend a tenner on a book of photos, even though it was very tempting.
I went back to the square and before long the bus to Monmouth arrived. I took a seat near the back and relaxed to enjoy the journey into Wales. By my reckoning, I’d be able to connect straight onto the Abergavenny bus at Monmouth. For the second time I was glad that I’d resisted the temptation to walk for what (on the map, anyway) seemed like a relatively short journey. The bus went uphill and down dale on a narrow winding road with no pavements. In the meantime, heavy lorries were making their way into the Forest to deliver to shops and businesses. I could have been seriously injured, or even killed, if I’d tried to do the journey on foot.
My plan to get the connection was completely scuppered when we arrived at Monmouth. A van had a puncture, and the driver had parked in the middle of the road to change the wheel. It couldn’t be helped, but the traffic was tailing back in both directions. By the time we negotiated Monmouth’s narrow streets, the Abergavenny bus had gone.
Undaunted, I decided to make the most of the sunshine and have a look around the town. Apart from the very brief stopover on Saturday, I hadn’t been there for years. Mother and I used to go there regularly years ago, for a change of scene from Brecon. I remember one time we bumped into Tom Evans in a car park. Tom used to teach Geography in my school (although he never taught me), and he was a mainstay of the Cynon Valley History Society. We knew each other by sight, and I think we were both startled to meet up in the middle of Monmouth on a Saturday afternoon.
I walked through the busy main street as far as the Shire Hall.
There are a couple of interesting statues commemorating sons of Monmouth outside the Shire Hall:
The co-founder of Rolls-Royce was the son of the 1st Baron Llangattock; even though he was born in London, he grew up at The Hendre, a few miles from Monmouth.
(In a side street, I came across a hair salon which was offering discounts to anyone who was willing to have their hair cut by a student. I was tempted, but then I wondered whether I’d have to have a Henry V cut, and decided against it.)
Just opposite the Shire Hall, I spotted an independent bookshop that was in the process of closing down. I called in to see what they had in the way of postcards and local interest books. I was the only customer in there, and I chatted to the middle-aged lady behind the counter for a few minutes. I told her that I could sympathise with her predicament; after all, I can remember a time (not too long ago) when Cardiff city centre boasted Lear’s, Lear’s Children’s Books, Lear’s Bargain Books, Lear’s University Bookshop, Dillons, Waterstone’s, Claude Gill, Chapter and Verse, W.H. Smith and John Menzies. Now, that list has been reduced to just three – and the survivors are struggling.
By some weird twist of fate, I spotted a small book on a table. It was called The Bookshop Strikes Back, by Ann Patchett. It’s an inspiring story of an American writer who realised that her city no longer had a bookshop, and resolved to do something about it by opening one herself. It was priced at £1.99, so I decided to buy it (more out of a sense of guilt than anything else). The lady charged me £1.20. Everything was selling at 40% off the marked price, just to clear the shelves.
Just across the road, in a side street running down from the Shire Hall, there were two other small bookshops side-by-side. One of them looked quite modern and very well connected, with a large list of author events and signings displayed on a board in the window. The other seemed to be more of a traditional independent bookshop, haphazardly stocked and far more interesting. I followed my instincts and bought Rhian’s postcard in the second one.
[A digression: Out of curiosity, I’ve just googled the name of the former shop. As I’d suspected, it’s owned by the last manager I worked under when I was in Waterstone’s. I knew the name rang a bell with me when I was passing the window. After the way he treated us all when he was running our shop, I wouldn’t piss on his shop if it was on fire.]
I had a little wander down the back streets. In the same cobbled lane as the side-by-side bookshops, I stumbled upon the Savoy Theatre. I don’t know how big it is inside, but I don’t imagine it’s as big as the Coliseum in Trecynon.
I emerged from the other end of the land and found that I’d made my way to the old Priory Church, which dominates one end of the town with its mighty spire.
Not far from the church, I found my way to the library. I didn’t go in, because I knew I’d get lost in old maps and archives if I did. Like the church (and many of the other buildings in the town), it’s built of red sandstone. That rusty-brown hue is the main colour of the buildings in the town. A short distance away, there’s a little green space which is home to the town’s war memorial.
Not far from here I found a small pub called The Griffin, tucked away on a corner. Some years ago, Pam, Gaz and I discovered a pub in the back streets of Monmouth, which reminded us of The Carpenters – it had a decent jukebox, live music, and a fairly rock/biker/hippy customer base. This pub hosts live music and looks as though it might have been the same place.
Then again, it could have been The Queen’s Head, which is also tucked away on the corner of some side streets …
Or, possibly, it could have been The Old Nag’s Head …
Anyway, none of them were open, so I’ll probably never be sure.
There were some more interesting buildings tucked away near the church, including two chapels which couldn’t have been more different in style.
There’s one massive building, of course, which you can’t help seeing wherever you are at the top end of the town – Monmouth School.
I haven’t had chance to look at the Buildings of Wales guide to the county, so I don’t know anything about the history of the school, but it’s an impressive view as you enter Wales from the Forest of Dean.
I made my way back to the Shire Hall, and spotted a little archway just beside it.
It led me into a cobbled square surrounded by small specialist shops, and I thought for a moment that I was back in Reggie Perrin territory, but updated for the twenty-first Century: ‘Five boutiques, four artisan bakeries, three coffee shops …’
There were some more beautiful sandstone buildings behind this little enclave, so I took a photo before returning to the main square.
There was a pub here called The Punch House, and it was open by the time I’d completed my journey around the town. I still had time to kill before the bus, so I called in for a glass of Coke.
As I’d walked in, I’d had a sinking feeling that it might be a Wetherspoon pub. To my amazement, it was actually part of the S.A. Brain estate – it’s very unusual to find one of their pubs this far from Cardiff. (Monmouth isn’t Wetherspoon-proof, however – I passed their offering when I was on the way to the bus station.)
While I drank my Coke, I eavesdropped on the conversations going on around me. It sounded as though the weather had put the mockers on the festival the previous evening. Mind you, it turned out that I hadn’t missed anything special – the headline act had been an Oasis tribute band. The real thing were bad enoug h…
I walked back along the main street to the bus station. A few minutes later the Phil Anslow bus arrived, and I bought my Network Rider ticket when I boarded. I found a seat near the middle of the bus and sat back to enjoy the journey.
The drive out to Raglan was a rerun of the outward trip, and we passed farmhouses and cottages set among rolling fields. I was trying to concentrate on the scenery, but two teenage girls sitting beside me were engaged in a non-stop US-style Teenspeak ‘conversation’: ‘I was, so, like, Oh. My God., like…’ and so forth. They were looking forward to receiving their A level results in just over a fortnight. The eager young minds …
When we got to Raglan, I decided to have a second attempt at photographing the castle from the bus. In the film Flashback, Dennis Hopper’s character offers some good advice to Kiefer Sutherland’s, along the lines of ‘You can’t shoot from a moving vehicle.’ He was right – and it applies to cameras as well as firearms. I had Raglan Castle in my viewfinder perfectly as we came off the junction, believe it or not …
In Raglan itself, we found ourselves at one side of a traffic jam. A lorry was parked in the middle of the village, and nobody else was going anywhere fast. After checking that nobody wanted to get off, the driver turned the bus around and we headed back out to the junction. I didn’t even bother trying for a shot of the castle this time; I’d learned my lesson.
We made our way through the narrow country lanes at a fair rate, and I wished (again) that the map had covered the area we were travelling through. I remember that we passed through a village called Great Oak, and I saw a signpost for a place called Kingcoed – a weird hybrid of English and Welsh elements. If you’ve driven along the A40, and ever found yourself wondering what is on top of the occasional overbridges you encounter, now you know:
We arrived at Abergavenny and the Merthyr service was already in. I jumped off one bus and straight onto the other, taking a seat near the back. I didn’t see a lot of the scenery on the journey to Merthyr, as I dozed off. It was really warm on the bus, and I was so tired that the whole weekend caught up with me. I woke up again when we were travelling through the outskirts of Merthyr. Once again I was able to get off one bus and on to another.
By now, the Forest accent was long gone, replaced by the expletive-heavy Wenglish dialect I’m used to. I jumped off the bus in Aberdare and made my way straight to the Prince. I’d been tweeting my progress, so Rhian knew I was on my way home. I hadn’t been in there long when she came in. I gave her her postcard and her ‘piece of rock’, which amused her greatly. She worked the 4.00-8,00 shift, then we walked to the Glosters for a pint. We were both bored to tears of the same old faces and the same tedious conversations in the pub. I showed her some of my photos, before I decided it was time for a bite to eat, a nice hot bath, and an early night.
I’ve been looking through the public transport websites again this week, and reading various entries about the Forest of Dean in my reference books. I think I’ll be spending another couple of days in that part of the country if I can get the money together (and the weather stays fine). It’s close enough to be within an easy morning’s travelling, and far enough away for you to forget about home for a while. In spite of the unpredictable weather, the rip-off attraction prices, and the rather laissez-faire attitude to tourist information, it’s definitely worthy of a repeat visit.
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 semiconscious 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 cafe 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 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 stone. 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 asked 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 … OK?’
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.
Being a Non-Linear Account of the Life and Opinions of The Author, Cross-referenced and Illustrated, with Occasional Hesitations, Repetitions and Deviations.