I recently went on a five-day cycling holiday in The Brecon Beacons in Wales. For those of you who don’t know the area, it’s a national park, and a place of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The Beacons themselves are a row of magnificent mountains that loom large above the area, appearing around every corner as I cycled along.
I had cancelled trips to Wales for the past two years, both times because I had
ground to halt mentally, and the thought of packing my saddle bags, and heading
for the Black Mountains was simply too much to contemplate. However, before these relapses I had begun planning my trip, and as a result I had acquired maps of the region and a guide book. So, this time I was well prepared.
I’ve told a lot of people about my trip, both before I left, and after I returned
home. ‘Who did you go with?’ was the most frequently asked question.
I went on my own.
Generally, people where surprised to hear this. I am usually an out-going person, comfortable in the company of friends, family, as well as people I don’t know very well.
I was perfectly happy to go on my own because I find it really important to have my own space in order to maintain a degree of equilibrium. It’s not that I dislike being around people (in most cases my family), it’s more that if I start heating up, growling and
generally feeling a rash of anger simmering, I don’t unleash these feelings on my loved ones.
I came home from Wales with plenty of things I want to share with you in future editions of this blog. This is the first in a series of messages from what Wales’ national poet Dylan Thomas called ‘the heron – priested shore’.
Cycling up hills that seemed to go on forever, or meandering along country lanes with no
particular destination in mind, I passed by many miles of hedgerows.
Hedges are something I have been thinking about a lot recently.
The reason for this is not only the fact that I was rolling past so many of them on my
cycling holiday, but also because over the past few months I have got to know
someone who regularly used to sleep in hedges. In the parlance of support services sleeping in hedges counts as ‘chaotic behaviour’. Over the months that I got to know him better I came to admire Adam*, and the way he had managed to achieve a robust recover from the difficulties he had faced over the course of many years. When I met him, he had stayed out of psychiatric hospitals for over twelve years, whereas before that he had spent the best part of a decade in and out of psychiatric wards. He has lived in his own flat for nearly a decade. As we got to know each other better he shared with me the central role that alcohol had played in his life. So reliant was he on drinking to function that I remember him telling me that he would have to drink a bottle of wine before venturing out into his back garden to tend to his vegetable patch, for fear of being seen by neighbours.
As I cycled along the lanes in the Brecon Beacons I thought a lot about what it must be like to sleep in a hedge. Prickly, ticklish, uncomfortable, I guess. But a place of shelter, too. While I was in Wales the remnants of a hurricane that had battered the eastern seaboard of the U.S.A. arrived on these shores.While it was so windy cycling downhill along the main road into Brecon I could barely exceed 5 mph pedalling as hard as I could, things changed when I entered the country lanes that meander up into the Black Mountains. Sure, the going was tough – more of that another time – but the wind simply went away. I caught it only in occasional gusts as I passed a gate set into the hedgerows as I passed by. The hedges protected me almost entirely from the high winds swirling across the region. It was then that I had a sense of the refuge that sleeping in a hedge could provide. Yes, there’s discomfort, for sure; but there’s also protection from some of the most forceful of the elements. Adam told me that there was a time when he had first moved into his flat after years spent in and out of hospital, that he didn’t own a mattress. He spent three years sleeping on the floor under duvet, clothes for a pillow. I started to understand better how sleeping in a hedge could provide a kind of comfort that a cold floor could not.
Hedges do other things, too. Most of the time they restrict the view. So, from my vantage point on the bike that meant just looking forward, at what was in front, not looking from side to side, not looking over my shoulder, just straight ahead. Hedges prevented me from seeing the climb that lay ahead. After each corner on a long climb winding up the side of a mountain the lack of a view ahead kept me thinking ‘well, the summit must be right around the next corner…..well, the next corner, then.’ Had I been able to see the steady ascent facing me, would I have climbed as high as I did?
Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
The night above the dingle starry,
Time let me hail and climb
Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
Trail with daisies and barley
Down the rivers of the windfall light.
And as I was green and carefree, famous among the barns
About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home,
In the sun that is young once only,
Time let me play and be
Golden in the mercy of his means,
And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman, the calves
Sang to my horn, the foxes on the hills barked clear and cold,
And the sabbath rang slowly
In the pebbles of the holy streams.
All the sun long it was running, it was lovely, the hay
Fields high as the house, the tunes from the chimneys, it was air
And playing, lovely and watery
And fire green as grass.
And nightly under the simple stars
As I rode to sleep the owls were bearing the farm away,
All the moon long I heard, blessed among stables, the nightjars
Flying with the ricks, and the horses
Flashing into the dark.
And then to awake, and the farm, like a wanderer white
With the dew, come back, the cock on his shoulder: it was all
Shining, it was Adam and maiden,
The sky gathered again
And the sun grew round that very day.
So it must have been after the birth of the simple light
In the first, spinning place, the spellbound horses walking warm
Out of the whinnying green stable
On to the fields of praise.
And honoured among foxes and pheasants by the gay house
Under the new made clouds and happy as the heart was long,
In the sun born over and over,
I ran my heedless ways,
My wishes raced through the house high hay
And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows
In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs
Before the children green and golden
Follow him out of grace.
Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
In the moon that is always rising,
Nor that riding to sleep
I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.
Dylan Thomas (1914 – 53)
*Not his real name