A Walk through Wales, Anthony Bailey (Harper Perennial, 1992), my first contribution to BookJotter’s Wales Readathon. I reviewed Bailey’s book back in 2010 for my other (now defunct) blog, so some of what follows is shamelessly cribbed from that post.
Some travel books relieve me of the desire to take a particular trip: Jack Hitt’s tale of walking the Camino de Santiago (see my review here) is one example. Fiction often produces similar effects: books by Eva Ibbotson and Ann Patchett have convinced me that a trip up the Amazon won’t appear on any future itinerary of mine.
But in the case of books about places I’ve already visited, my response invariably is to start planning a trip that retraces the author’s route, and right now I’m trying to figure out if October is a good time (weather-wise) to hike through Wales.
On a rainy spring day, Bailey begins his walking tour on a pier, next to a Victorian pile “clad in terracotta, with hexagonal chimneys, gargoyles, and a castellated clocktower”, and heads into the valleys and hills north of Cardiff. Within just a few days, he has reached a fairly rough trail in the Brecon Beacons, the line of mountains that run almost horizontally across the southern half of Wales. At one summit, he writes:
A hazy sun shone. To the south I had a view over the reservoirs almost to Merthyr. The upper faces of the mountain resembled old light-green velvet, very thin and worn. On the north and east sides Pen-y-Fan fell away in almost sheer drops. I stood for a few minutes a little way back from the north edge, rocking slightly from the strength of the wind that hit the scarp and came over the top…. This wind … felt high, but, as in a sailing boat or open plane, it made you feel as if you were in motion. The air, the wind, was blowing solidly toward Pen-y-Fan, and the earth, the mountain, the summit of Pen-y-Fan, was turning through the wind.
Other challenging trails reward Bailey with equally expansive views (when the rain lets up) of meadows and bog heaths, hills and long valleys leading to the sea — the wild terrain that produces slate, peat, coal, and sheep.
As we travel with him, we learn history, geography and biography — something armchair travelers expect in such books. But most interesting to me were the conversations he had with people he met along the way, farmers and housewives, festival singers and hotel owners, gatekeepers at castles and toll booths, all with stories of only local importance that, nevertheless, when assembled by Bailey, create a fairly full portrait of this lovely country.
Bailey is a sailor, novelist, historian, and critic, with books about JWS Turner, sailing the Outer Banks, life in a New England village. In this tale of a coast-to-coast trek that takes him through two of Wales’ national parks, he helps readers understand how history and myth play out in the Wales he saw during his travels — King Arthur, Owain Glyndwr, Dafyd ap Gwilym, King Offa, the Welsh language itself are all topics he wanders through, examines carefully, and then considers as he hikes up the next hill.
Bailey has no political or ecological axe to grind, especially as an Englishman in some very anti-English parts of Wales. He does occasionally bemoan the loss of farmland to caravan parks, and can’t help noticing the military jets screaming their way above the otherwise quiet countryside. He also understands Welsh resentment of the English, who in the 1980s and 90s were buying up property in Wales, thus raising housing prices above what most Welsh could afford. Nearly 30 years later, the future of the Welsh language seems a bit more secure, but what about the future of Wales itself in an era of Brexit and widening income gaps? As I was reading Bailey’s final pages, the Welsh Assembly joined with the Scottish Parliament to ask that Brexit be postponed.
Bailey ends as he began, on a pier, his back to the city behind him (this time it’s Bangor). In his final words, I hear a sigh of contentment mixed with regret: I can go home now (smiley face); my trip is over (frowny face). As a sailor, he understands this feeling well:
I felt like a lone sailor at the end of a voyage, wanting to go ashore and yet dreading the loss of independence and the cessation of onward movement; looking forward to going back home but knowing it would involve having to live with the urge to set off again.