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.
Regular readers will know that I’ve been planning a break away from Aberdare for the past few weeks. The stifling, small-minded, and claustrophobic (polyphobic, in fact) nature of the place has really been getting me down lately. I’m bored to tears with seeing the same bloody faces and having the same mind-numbing conversations day in and day out (see A Brief Interlude). Last weekend I decided to do something about it.
I’ve had a tent for a number of years, but I’ve never actually used it myself. Mother bought it for me as a Xmas present after I went to Cropredy with the boys one year, and it seemed as though I might be doing festivals more often. In the event, that was my one and only festival. (See Another Strange Coincidence.) For various reasons I never bothered going again. Leafy borrowed the tent one weekend when he went camping ages ago. Other than that, it’s lived in the cupboard under the stairs for its entire life. I decided that it, and I, could do with some fresh air.
I had a bit of money from a proofreading job I’d completed recently, so I picked up a few odds and ends during the week. I managed to get a decent sleeping bag, a small rucksack and a bedroll in Argos, and they cost even less than the catalogue prices.
I had a look at the Forest of Dean tourist websites, and found a nice little campsite about a mile outside Coleford. I phoned them for some more information, and was surprised to learn that it wasn’t necessary to book in advance. Unless you’re bringing a caravan, and need to hook up to the electricity points, you can just turn up, pay for your pitch (£6 per person per night), and set up camp. They’ve got shower facilities, and it’s only a short walk into town to pick up essential supplies. It’s even on the main bus route between Monmouth and Coleford. It sounded ideal. Don’t these things always sound ideal on paper?
I spent quite a few hours studying the OL14 Ordnance Survey map, and even longer poring over a series of confusing (and often mutually contradictory) online bus timetables, until I had a plan figured out. That was the plan I referred to in my previous entry. Anyway, just after I posted that, I left the house and made my way to the bus stop.
The first couple of steps went perfectly. The trip to Merthyr was the bog-standard bus journey via Hirwaun and the A465. Try it for yourself some time – I won’t spoil the surprise. The 1000 X4 Cardiff – Abergavenny service departed a few minutes late, but it’s Saturday, so who cares? Nearly everyone who got off in Merthyr was over 60, so they were only joy-riding with their Welsh Government free passes anyway. Real people only travel on weekdays.
I haven’t done the Merthyr – Abergavenny run for ages (not since the timetables changed and the last cut-off became stupidly early). I was surprised at how quickly the journey passed, to be honest. Years ago, the bus seemed to take hours to chug slowly through Brynmawr, Tredegar, and Ebbw Vale, and the other small settlements which cling to the Heads of the Valleys Road. Maybe the time went by quickly because I was doing the crossword and occasionally tweeting my position for future reference. Maybe they’ve just improved the road system. Who knows?
I arrived in Abergavenny just before lunchtime, and had nearly an hour to kill before the next leg of the journey. The sky was bright, but the sun wasn’t shining. I hadn’t listened to the radio forecast before leaving the house, but it had been wide of the mark all week, so I figured that if it rained at all, it would probably be just an odd shower here and there. I called into the Tourist Information Centre, situated conveniently next to the bus station.
When I say ‘bus station’, I’m perhaps being a little generous. Four concrete islands in a sea of tarmac, and two little shelters off to one side, hardly qualifies as an urban transport hub. At least in Trecynon we have shelters on half of the stops.
On the other hand, the Information Centre is modern, brightly lit, and stocks a huge variety of leaflets, guidebooks, maps, postcards and souvenirs. However, they didn’t have the one thing I wanted – Monmouthshire County Council’s guide to bus services. I asked the lady at the counter, and she told me that they’d run out. Apparently there’s a new edition in preparation, taking account of the forthcoming timetable changes. It seemed a funny time to revise everything, right in the middle of the tourist season. Still, ours is not to reason why, is it?
I made my way along the main street to the King’s Head. It was nice to see a bustling little town centre, with independent retailers apparently weathering the storm. I spotted a second-hand bookshop and an independent bookshop as I made my way to the pub. They’re both endangered species these days. There’s a better class of charity shop in affluent areas, and even the takeaways are a cut above what you’d see in the Valleys. I had a pint to kill time while I finished the crossword.
I like going into pubs where there’s obviously a good regular crowd, where the staff and customers know each other, and just eavesdropping on the conversations. They’re never as exciting as the pub conversations you hear in The Archers or on the TV soaps. The price of the joint for Sunday lunch, and the successful outcome of a knee replacement operation, were the selected highlights on the table next to me this lunchtime. I wouldn’t have minded staying there for a while, but at £3.25 a pint I thought better of it. Anyway, they were serving meals and the restaurant part was packed, so I gave up my table to a middle-aged couple who were ordering food by the bar. Before I left, however, I had to take a photo of a hideous and rather frightening object above the fireplace. It makes the fake moose’s head in the Prince of Wales seem quite comforting.
I made my way back to the bus station, where a good number of people were already waiting. We were all bound for the 83 service to Monmouth, as it turned out. This is operated by Phil Anslow Coaches, a company I’d only ever seen mentioned in publicity material for the Network Rider Ticket (which, fortunately, I was holding). I’d spotted one of their buses when we stopped in Brynmawr, so I assume they must be based in that neck of the woods. The driver was very friendly, and seemed to know some of the passengers by name. I suppose that on a route like that he must see the same faces fairly regularly. After all, as I was about to discover, it goes way off the beaten track …
All I knew is that it went through Raglan. The timetable showed me that much. I also knew that the most direct route from Abergavenny to Raglan is along the A40. At the Raglan end, there’s a rather confusing junction when you come back down from the Midlands. There’s also a rather stunning castle.
[A digression: The first time I ever travelled on that stretch of road was with Mother, many years ago. (It might even have been the time that we went to Bradford for my university interview, come to think of it.) I don’t know whether you’ve ever been on an unfamiliar road and had the sinking feeling that it hasn’t yet been opened to the public. Instead of tarmac, the surface is that pale cream concrete which is supposed to make for a smoother, quieter ride. There’s hardly any traffic apart from your own car. There are no junctions, no roundabouts, and precious few signposts until you emerge back onto the real road network some ten miles further on.]
Anyway, our bus didn’t go that way. In the absence of a detailed map, you’ll have to forgive me if I’m vague on the details. We travelled down country lanes (some of which were barely wide enough to take our little minibus), through some unexpectedly isolated settlements, past large farm buildings built of sandstone, and, rather disappointingly, didn’t go through a large pointed stone arch which loomed ahead of us just past a tiny junction. I can’t wait to do the return journey so that I can make some notes and then refer to the map when I get home.
Raglan itself turned out to be a church, a pub, a post office, a small shop, and a handful of cottages set among rolling farmland. I didn’t even have chance to photograph the castle – I was sitting on the wrong side of the bus, and had a very restricted view through the window. We arrived in Monmouth on time, and I needed to find a gents’ toilet. (That pint had managed to open the floodgates!)
I went into a pub called the Gatehouse, situated right at the end of Monmow Bridge, and ordered a hot chocolate. There were two chatty young barmaids serving, and they asked me if I was in town for the Festival. I had to confess that I didn’t know there was a festival.
‘Oh yes, there’s lots of bands playing, and things going on all round the town,’ the taller barmaid enthused in an ‘almost Brenda-from-The Archers‘ accent. ‘There’s loads of campsites around the town as well.’
I told her I’d come up from Aberdare to get away from crowds and people. As soon as I mentioned my hometown, her friend piped up. Apparently she used to go out with a boy from Cwmaman. I didn’t ask his name – it might have been somebody I knew, and that would be far too close to home for comfort.
I had a quick look at the Festival schedule, and pondered staying there for the weekend instead. Then again, I’d probably have had to pay over the odds for camping, and I knew Rushmere Farm only charged six quid a night. I decided to press on regardless. Actually, I’m wondering if I can hang it out until Wednesday night. Look at this for a gig:
I was sitting in the bus station in Monmouth, waiting for Stagecoach number 35 to Ross-on-Wye to pull in, when I felt the first drops of rain. For a second – just a second – it crossed my mind to stay put. After all, the Monmouth Festival might have been fun, and I could always make my way out to Coleford on Sunday. But I decided to press on regardless and pitch camp early. It would mean that I’d be well placed to explore the Forest proper all day Sunday, before coming back on Monday.
The fare from Monmouth to Coleford is a very reasonable £2.50. It had crossed my mind (in a moment of madness while perusing the map) to walk it. As soon as we set off and crossed the Wye into England I knew I’d made the right choice. The road into the Forest is quite steep, winding, and narrow, without pavements in most places. Although it’s a lot wider than the byroads we’d taken between Abergavenny and Monmouth, I wouldn’t have fancied walking the whole distance. Anyway, I was carting my camping gear, and it would soon have weighed me down.
The bus made its way along the Forest road, lined with thick woodland on both sides, and punctuated by large outcrops of red sandstone every so often. Nobody got on or off, and even when we stopped briefly at Staunton, only one passenger boarded. The conversations all around me were general snippets of gossip, moans about various ailments, remarks upon food prices, and the usual nonsense that bus passengers all over the country use to pass the time. But the accents told me that I was far from home. Have a look at the ‘flashback’ scenes in The Singing Detective, and you’ll get a taste of the Forest accent. It was good to learn that it’s still alive and well, even among the young people here, who’ve been brought up in the age of mass communication. In fact, in the pub where I’m sitting typing this right now – the Angel Hotel in Coleford – there’s a lovely sign under a low-hanging fixture.
I was so busy watching the scenery go by that I completely failed to spot Crossways looming up ahead. By the time I saw the signpost for Rushmere Farm, we were too far past the stop for the driver to pull up. It didn’t matter anyway; it wasn’t that far from Coleford, and I wanted to have a brief look at the town before pitching up for the evening.
I got off the bus in the town centre, where I was immediately knocked out by the war memorial. It dominates the square, as does the solid sandstone parish church on the hill behind. I took one photograph, ate the last of the sandwiches I’d made this morning, and wondered whether to try out one of the pubs for a livener.
And the heavens opened.
Our summer – which, in fairness, has been a vast improvement on those of the last few years – ended abruptly as I sat by the memorial. I grabbed my stuff, watched the few shoppers diving for cover into shops and pubs, and headed back to the main junction in the town.
According to the signpost at Crossways, Coleford is half a mile away. Well, we all know what they say about country miles, don’t we? I trudged back up the way we’d come, and eventually reached the gate of Rushmere Farm.
There was no sign of life, so I made my way to the farmhouse and rang the bell. A few moments later a little girl, probably five or six years old, peered out through the glass door and scurried away again. Shortly after that, I heard the voice of a middle-aged lady, scolding her gently for leaving me standing in the rain. The little girl turned out to be her granddaughter; she should probably not be left in charge of the reception desk for a few years yet. The lady took my details and I paid for two nights’ camping before she gave me a brief outline of the facilities. Campers were pretty much free to set up where they liked. There’s a shower block and two toilets attached to the house, electric hookups for caravans, and her husband is halfway through building another shower block nearer the site. It’s a big site, and I surprised that more people weren’t already set up for the weekend – especially given its proximity to the Monmouth Festival. Maybe everyone else had listened to the weather forecast.
I walked the short distance to the nearest field, past a sign warning of ‘free range animals and children beyond this point’. I found a nice spot near the edge of the field and eventually managed to set the tent up and unpacked my stuff. (Useful tip: ‘two-man’ is not a measure of capacity, it’s an indication of how many hands you need!)
The sad news is that my tent may be blue, but it isn’t bigger on the inside. All my kit is sort-of shoved over to one side, and there’s just enough room for me to stretch out inside. I’ve got a horrible feeling that this weekend will do my back no good at all! Even so, it’s got to be better than sitting at home listening to what Sharon O. described as the ‘disc-cutter’ sound of motorbikes for two days.
Anyway, I typed a draft of this using LibreOffice while sitting in the tent, listening to the rain bouncing off the outer skin. I tweeted a few updates while I was there, including one (only half-serious) plea for one of my friends to pick me up. The novelty had worn off very quickly, I must admit.
I went to log on to the Internet, and then realised that I’d left the MyFi at home. I used it this morning to post my previous entry (see On the Road Again), and I must have forgotten to slip it into the Netbook case before I left the house. At least it’s locked, so that nobody can use my bandwidth while I’m away. Having said that, I haven’t had a decent phone signal since leaving the site, so I doubt whether I’d have had much of a reception anyway.
Which is why I’m currently sitting in the Angel Hotel, as previously noted. It’s a big old coaching inn which now functions as a pub, disco and restaurant.
It’s reasonably priced and has suddenly become extremely busy after a fairly quiet start to the evening. There’s a mixture of people in here, from a small gang of teenage girls, through couples in their thirties and forties, to a group of older guys propping up the bar. There’s obviously a birthday party going on, as a bunch of women in fancy dress have just come in. (Or, possibly, they’re wearing traditional Forest costumes.) Everyone seems to know everyone. It’s a proper small town boozer, the way the pubs in Aberdare used to be when I first started going into town. It’s also got possibly the squeakiest barbint I’ve ever encountered in my life. (I mean she’s got a very high-pitched voice, by the way – we’re not that well acquainted!)
There’s one other feature that reminds me of my early drinking days: the disco music. Even though everyone (except the birthday party crowd) is wearing fashionable clothes, the sort you’d see in any pub in Aberdare every weekend, Madonna’s ‘Holiday’ (taking the piss, surely) has just led into the Pet Shop Boys’ ‘Left to My Own Devices’. Either there’s some massive disruption in the Psychic Network tonight, or the DJ knows I’m here and is taking the piss big time!
One of the older punters – the very smartly dressed chap who was sitting at the bar, probably in his early seventies – came over to chat after he spotted me taking photos. He had the proper Forest accent, undiluted by the mass media. It was a delight to hear, and he was really pleased when I complimented him on it. He told me that the Angel will be heaving later, as youngsters and not-so-youngsters from miles around cram in upstairs, to the town’s only nightclub. He’d come over for a chat after seeing my camera and Netbook, wondering if I was a potential buyer sizing the place up. He told me that it’s on the market, and that J.D. Wetherspoon have been sniffing around in recent months. I told him that, if they came here, it would kill the rest of the pubs stone dead. It’s happened in a large number of towns they’ve invaded, after all.
I might have another pint here, or I might wander to another pub. I haven’t decided yet. The DJ has just played ‘Planet Earth’ by Duran Duran, and we’re now revelling to Erasure singing ‘A Little Respect’. Maybe that’s another part of the Psychic Network playing silly buggers – flashbacks to eighteenth birthday parties in Aberdare are unconsciously affecting the music selection. Maybe, like the little musical island Philip Marlow keeps returning to in Dennis Potter’s masterpiece, popular trends pass the people of the Forest by. Or, just possibly, maybe the good people of Coleford have yet to learn of the existence of the likes of Oasis, Radiohead, Coldplay, Tinie Tempah, Nicki Minaj, or Stereophonics.
Lucky barsuds, yum, as they say in these parts! (Don’t worry – I won’t mention them to the locals if you don’t …)
Being a Non-Linear Account of the Life and Opinions of The Author, Cross-referenced and Illustrated, with Occasional Hesitations, Repetitions and Deviations.