Goings on in the graveyard

A cemetery that’s licensed for weddings?   I mean, yes – churches are often surrounded by graveyards, so that the newly matched emerge to the sight of the long dispatched, but marrying in a municipal burial ground? img_8616

Arnos Vale is the place, a high walled Victorian cemetery not far from the centre of town, just along from the station and slap bang on an always busy arterial road which at this point is home to a selection of tattoo joints and massage parlours. You can see why I was a stranger to the place.

But the other Sunday, I was up early, the sun was shining and so I thought I may as well go and see what there was to see. From the website I gleaned that, in a nutshell, Arnos Vale was  a privately owned ‘garden cemetery’, inspired by the Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris, which served the city well for over 150 years but by the end of the 1990s it fortunes were failing and its gates were closed.   To prevent the site being levelled and redeveloped, in 2003 Bristol City Council took over the 45 acre site and handed it over to a charitable trust as custodians. (Have a look at their website for more info  https://arnosvale.org.uk/discover/heritage/friends-history-arnos-vale/ )

I have to say that I wasn’t sure what I was expecting. It’s still a working graveyard, albeit no longer a crematorium, so my first impressions were of neat rows of highly polished granite headstones, many graves adorned with flowers.img_8462

I’m ambivalent about cemeteries; I’m drawn to them by a fascination with the inscriptions and the monumental masonry but at the same time I’m reluctant to draw too close to such sites of sadness. The recent graves, still tended by those who are left to mourn and leave mementos, have about them an almost tangible miasma of grief and, for me, to linger amongst them is to intrude upon another’s loss.

So I moved swiftly past these newer interments near the entrance to the cemetery and turned off onto a winding path that led up a steep hillside. Here the stones mark the now forgotten, so long departed that nature is reclaiming their space. img_8473Time, tree roots and subsidence have rearranged the once precise plans to the extent that it feels more of a woodland than a graveyard, the odd headstone rising out of the wildness while the others sink gently back to earth.img_8523

There was barely a living soul about and yet it did not feel remotely spooky being alone amidst the graves. Instead it was all rather beautiful and comforting. It was oddly quiet too. The noise of the city on the other side of the wall faded into the background as the rustle of the leaves and the calls of the birds took over. img_8595

As the morning went on, others were drawn in – an exhausted looking young mother pushing a finally sleeping baby in a pushchair, another with excitable children and dog racing through the woods. By the time I got back down to the café housed in part of a striking modern glass extension to one of the mortuary chapels, the place was busy.

And as a place to get married I can see it now. Either in the contemporary extension or up on the hillside where a large rustic shelter, attractive in its simplicity, stands in a clearing to offer a setting for a woodland wedding. A bit dark and dank for me in October but it would be magical in  midsummer.








Delights on Offa

I’m a bit of a sucker for an Autumn scene – the turning leaves in the weak late sunshine, the glorious glow of golden foliage, Nature’s last hurrah, etc etc. All the trees round me are blazing away, doing the Fall fandango for all their worth, so where better to go to see the spectacle writ large but the lower reaches of Wye Valley where there are more trees than you can shake a stick at?


Chepstow Castle as the sun was rising.

Plans were made which immediately began to unravel. In the course of the usual morning maelstrom of family life, I ran out of time to eat my breakfast. Nothing for it but to sling it in the car with me. There are worse places to sit with a bowl of porridge than a bench overlooking Chepstow Castle.

Not a bad way to start the day as it turned out.

Then there was the bus. What could be simpler? Park in Chepstow, bus to Tintern, walk back along Offa’s Dyke. Yes, so the Traveline website did warn that there would be a diversion as the main road up the valley was closed so it would mean travelling in a minibus rather than something more buslike, but first thing on a Wednesday morning who else would be going my way?

Only a large party from The Ramblers.

We all squeezed on with just one seat to spare. The delightful driver was beside himself with excitement I’ve never had so many people on this bus before.  He took it upon himself to give us a running commentary as we plunged off down ever narrower country lanes. Now you need to keep an eye out  because I often see deer around here… I used to drive the Megabus up to London, you know, but I’d much rather be out in the lanes like these… Look at how well the farmer’s cut the hedge here – makes it really easy for me to see what’s coming… I’m a farm boy really.  Down from Malvern. That’s why I’ve not got the accent… Watch out for the geese around this corner – they make a terrible din when they see me coming and they catch some people off guard… You might see some fly fishermen next, they’re usually up and about early… Oh yes, they’re on the lower ponds today. Those are left over from the tin mines. Everyone thinks you only get tin in Cornwall, but they had it in Wales too… See those benches in that pub garden? When the river floods they float away, you know. That’s why they’re tied down… Well, here we are… Have a lovely day everyone.

Not a bad way to travel as it turned out.



The ruins of Tintern Abbey are just about visible in the distance on the right. Offa’s Dyke follows the top of the ridge on the left.


The Ramblers were switching buses for Monmouth and a bracing 17 mile trek, so I was on my own for my wimpy walk. The sun had yet to rise much above the ridge so Tintern was still in the gloom, but a short walk along the bank took me from the Abbey to the old railway bridge where the light was looking more promising.  I knew that the Wye is tidal here but even so, it was disconcerting to see a very strong, very swift flow heading upstream. Once over the river (and back in England, if we’re counting), I was soon on  a short steep pull up through the woods to get to the ridge to join the Offa’s Dyke Path. img_8651

On the way,  views of the Abbey opened up every now and then.

All was going well but while the scenery was top notch in many regards, you can see that it wasn’t exactly exerting itself in the leaf peeping opportunity department. img_8695

The woods were resolutely green.img_8698

So green, it was practically springlike, with just a hint here and there of what is to come.


But green is good too. And even in shades of grey the views would be spectacular.


Tintern Abbey seen from the Devil’s Pulpit


And it was quiet. So quiet that my footsteps grew deafening and when I stopped all I could hear was a heavy silence, broken only by the calls of birds somewhere in the distance. With the main road up the valley closed, even the usual faint background noise was gone.

Up here, walking alongside the ancient bank and with all sounds of modernity banished, I began to wonder whether the landscape I was seeing would have been recognisable to the men who had dug the ditch, centuries ago.


Then I got a bit spooked by my back to the future train of thought so I stopped for a banana. Which would definitely not have been in the dyke diggers’ lunch boxes.

Just after Tidenham, the Offa’s Dyke Path goes a bit pear shaped, in my opinion. Because it is obliged to map a route from the Severn to the Dee, and because suburban sprawl and country estates have nixed a right of way straight through, the route planners have had to  do what they can in the spaces that are left. This means that after miles of woodland tranquillity, I found myself spat out onto a B road – not a massively  busy one, but still one with blind bends around which traffic hurtled at great speed. A couple of hundred metres later, the Path headed off down through the fields only to return to the road maybe half a mile further along. This happened over and over again. Kudos to Gloucestershire County Council for their impeccable signposting but this Walk Two Sides of a Triangle But Don’t Get Very Far lark grew tedious. On the plus side, at least I was going downhill.  img_8714

On the minus side, this was Misanthrope Central. I’m fine with bits of barbed wire about the place, locked gates, Neighbourhood Watch signs and all the rest, but this was something else. High walls, huge iron gates, CCTV cameras, signs advising that guard dogs were roaming, notices – on the Path – warning that suspicious looking people would be reported… it all got a bit much.

So what with this and the constant diversions down backways  – not to mention my increasing peckishness – by the time I got hereimg_8758

I was practically stomping along.

And then, tearing myself away from a perusal of someone’s socks on their washing line, my eye was caught by a gap in the scrubby hedge on the other side. A faint path could be seen. Through the scrub and three steps later, there was thisimg_8749o

Not a bad place for a spot of lunch as it turned out.

Talking the walk

Just look at these fine fellows.


Photo found in the attic – who, when and where lost in the mists of time.

What dapper chaps they are in their highly polished Sunday best, straw boaters at a jaunty angle, a flower carelessly thrust through a buttonhole, and a placid dog persuaded to join the party. What fun they would be to meet along the way.

After the solitude of the mountains, time for the camaraderie of the camino.

Walking with a group of friends (strangers, even) is a delight. This past summer, a gang of pals and I enjoyed leisurely canal side excursions as our company of six – with the occasional appearance of a husband or two – strolled the Kennet & Avon from start to finish. Frequently we were asked if we were doing it for some charitable endeavour. Were we being sponsored and did we need our certificates signing? Er, no. But thanks all the same though. Were we twitchers or naturalists perhaps?  Well, some of us do know one end of a pair of binoculars from the other (not me, alas), and yes, it was a joy to see the ducklings growing and the crops ripening as we passed along. But actually it was a whole lot simpler than this.

We were just out for a walk.

And maybe a cup of tea.


But mainly we were there for the talk. Time slows when we walk. Minds wander. We have the chance to have all those conversations there’s never quite room for in the usual way of things. We get caught up with all the news, share the worries, hear the stories, make the plans.


And laugh. A lot.

At those things intended for amusement


and those things which shouldn’t make us laugh but somehow catch us unawares (A tunnel named Bruce? Really?)


but most especially at the misunderstandings and mis-speaks, the You Had To Be There moments which those who weren’t, no matter how carefully you explain, never quite get. (Don’t worry – I’ll spare you).

A canal path is absolutely tip top for a talking walk. No need for anyone to break up the conversation to put her head in a map because as long as we all remain two paces from getting  wet, we can be sure that we’re on the right track. So with the vote cast in favour of the Kennet & Avon,  only one question remained.

IMG_7638 (1).JPG

Which way to walk? Did we want to end our great trek in the World Heritage Site that is Bath? Or at the gasworks?

Tricky one.


We started at the gasworks.

Reading’s an odd place. I lived there for some years as a child and remember it as a town of  worthy Victorian redbrick  endeavour, where you could tell which way the wind was blowing by whether you could smell biscuits baking or beer brewing.


Nowadays it’s gone all satellite city, full  of throw up and blow down architecture. I barely recognised the place. But I did find one vestige of glorious Victoriana


Just look at the decorative brickwork on these canalside terraces. Isn’t it fabulous?

In terms of walking, although the canal did provide a corridor of green, its urban environs were never very far from view at first.


Not until we got beyond Newbury did we begin to feel that we had escaped the city and moved into a land of absolute delight. Of blossom


and reflections


and scenes that came straight from old Ladybird books


and peaceful chugging along.img_6210

We debated the merits of waterborne gardens, from the decorative

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to the productive


to the ingeniously low maintenance.


And we chose our fantasy moorings. Maybe a place in Devizes?


Or this one in Bath?


Never did find out what Fame Free Diesel is though.


All in all, over the course of the summer we spent nine happy days along the canal. That’s way too much to fit into one post,img_6255but perhaps this scene of quiet companionship will sum it up…

Something in the air

There was something about the way the man smiled at me as I passed.  It was a beatific smile, a spaced out, not quite there, smile, on the face of a wiry young man getting into his car. You’ll have a great time up there, he called. It’s fantastic on the top added his friend, already settled in the passenger seat. They could be the poster couple for Hardcore Hikers – athletic looking, energetic and all togged up – but they struck me as ever so slightly high.

Scratch that, they looked off their heads.

Surely not?


I was in the Brecon Beacons, at the foot of Pen y Fan, the tallest peak in that range of South Wales mountains, at a place where cars had been more cast aside like jettisoned back packs than carefully parked. A popular spot, there were all manner of interpretation boards about the place, offering all manner of enlightenment, but I had to start before my nerve ran out.


I am not a hillwalker. Or a mountaineer. I don’t even know the difference. If you carry sharp pointy things – crampons, axes and the like – does that put you in the latter team? Or does that make you a climber? Who knows? I am a lowland walker, the flatter the better for me. In fact, give me a nice canal walk (of which more in another post) and I’m a happy bunny.

I have form with Mountains. Never fit and always badly co ordinated, I dreaded hikes up hills as a child. For some misguided reason, at 17 I signed up to do the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award. A lengthy expedition over Lake District summits was involved. I made it, but I vowed never to go near a mountain again. In the forty years since, I’ve climbed only four peaks, each one out of some social or moral obligation and each one with gritted teeth.

But maybe it’s time I looked The Mountain in the eye.


I set off at a slow pace. A very slow pace.

I stopped to catch my breath. Often.

But gradually I began to climb. The valley floor dropped away and the view opened up.

People passed, cheery greetings were exchanged. Those going up, pink cheeked and panting; those coming down, warning of high winds but with a curiously laid back air. In between while, there was a deep silence, broken only by the sound of the wind in the grass and the beating wings of a large black raptor as it wheeled above me.

My mind began to wander. Are those really walkers across the way and how did they get there? Is that cloud formation not the spitting image of the one at the start of The Simpsons?


And what is that man doing with that bin bag?

As he grew nearer, he stopped to talk. A modest, self effacing man, perhaps in his sixties, he would say only that he tries to come up once a week to do what he can to keep the mountain clean. Did he find the climb hard or had he got used to it?   You’ve just got to find your own pace, doesn’t matter how slow. And you don’t need to keep up with anyone else. Just do your own thing. But when you find your own pace, well, it’s easy then, isn’t it? I wasn’t sure that easy was the word I would have used, but I could see he was right.

But the main thing I come up here for is the solitude. A pause. Same as you.


The higher I climbed, the darker grew the clouds over the summit and, as I reached the ridge, the gusts I had been warned about hit me, momentarily knocking me sideways. But as luck would have it, the wind cleared the sky enough for the most glorious views to open up before me just as I got to the top.

img_8411Like this

img_8417and thisimg_8420and this.

There were a few others on the summit, but they drifted off and I was alone. Solitude. I perched low on the cairn, out of the wind, to eat my lunch while I gazed out from my eyrie on top of the world.

img_8426High as a kite on mountain air, a banana never tasted so good, a Snickers so essentially perfect.

And an hour later, back down in the car park, I was the one with the spaced out, not quite there, smile. I was the oddity smiling beatifically at no one in particular.

So I looked The Mountain in the eye.

And I get it now.



Stories in the stones


At walking pace, the landscape tells its tales. Stories told, stories heard and stories  sparked off by the stones. Before I leave Cornwall, here are a trio.

A story told.

When it came to finding a place to stay, there was plenty of choice at the tail end of the summer. So why Mousehole?IMG_7936.JPG

It’s a quaint old fishing village, just along the coast from Newlyn and Penzance, full of narrow streets, crammed with outrageously picturesque views. Like here IMG_8260.JPGand hereIMG_7934.JPGand the granite arms of the harbour walls hold the boats safe on a stretch of coast where the weather grows wild and the seas treacherous, even if that is hard to imagine on a calm September morning.IMG_7944.JPG

So yes, it was a perfect spot for a few days away.

But what really drew me to Mousehole was a much loved story.


In The Mousehole Cat, Antonia Barber retells the folk tale which sees Old Tom and his cat Mowser saving Mousehole. Stargazy pie is involved. Nicola Bayley provides the illustrations and they conjure up such a delightful vision of the place that, though bedtime stories are now far behind me, I have long wanted to see it for myself.

And so we did and the village is indeed just as charming as Bayley paints it. (The book’s still in print, by the way. Take a look – http://www.walker.co.uk/The-Mousehole-Cat-9780744523539.aspx).

I heard a whisper that the artist herself lives in Mousehole. Could it be here?IMG_8036.JPG

A story heard.

The coast path from Mousehole to Newlyn is not terribly exciting. For most of the way it runs alongside the main road carved out of the hillside. For a short stretch near Newlyn, the path diverts down to the shoreline and onto a narrow, once industrial space, possibly the course of an old railway, with the remains of old port buildings on one side, giant boulder sea defences shelving down to the water on the other. It is maintained with the lightest of touches and nature is doing her best to reclaim the land, the grass growing long wherever it can get a foothold and bushes springing up around the ruins.

I came upon a man, perhaps in his eighties, slashing at the grass with his stick while a lively young collie bounced around him in that way that small children and big dogs do when excitement takes over their bodies.  I wondered if he had lost something and whether he would allow me to help him find it. I began with my usual opener – What a lovely dog you’ve got there.

The man carried on with his search, the dog ignored me.

He’s not mine, he’s my daughter’s. I just mind him in the day

More slashing at the grass.

He’s lost his stone.

Slash, slash

He won’t go for a ball and he won’t go for a stick. He’ll only go for a stone

The stick hit something hard. Success.

He’s a stone dog.

He bent to pick up the stone. The dog stepped back in readiness.

When we’re out and I spot a good stone, I pick it up and I pile it over there, see, so I’ve always got nice one ready for him.

With that he threw it and they were off. IMG_8213.JPGAll that remained were the cairns, testaments to the story of an old man, a stone dog and their devotion, one for another.

And finally, some stories imagined.

In the melange of exhibits at Land’s End there is a wall of millennium pledges inscribed upon slate plaques. It is really rather peculiar and if there was an explanation there for the project I missed it.

Some people felt the need to promise to do something worthy to mark the dawn of a new era. Charity work was uppermost in the minds of the Foggs and the Warners.12.jpg

Sixteen years on, I began to wonder how things had turned out. Christopher will be pretty fluent in Cornish by now17.jpg

and Violet’s car will have taken a pasting.

The Brinkworths will have happy memories of Disneyland Paris fullsizerender18and Sonia will have it all in hand. 16But the ones which touched me were the ones which had me longing to know what happened next. What are the stories in these stones?13.jpgDid the Woodings manage to sort out their problems together? Does Stephen still love Michele (and how does she feel about him a decade and a half on)? How have things turned out for Ann? Going with the dear old flow no matter what hinted at so much but said so little. Let’s believe that she’s landed at a good place. 15.jpgAnd did Penny’s soulmate ever make it to the UK?

I hope so.