‘Are you ok there?’
‘Yes, we’re just doing a treasure hunt.’
— Meeting wanderers on a twilight path, somewhere near Newport, Pembrokeshire.
I awake inside the headmaster’s office of an old school building in Aberystwyth, a small but pretty university town by the sea. The students are still away for their summer break, giving the town a tranquil but not too desolate feel. I look out its jaunty multi-coloured Victorian terraces, so self-contained and sure of itself. Yet there’s little around Aber, and nothing in the landscape I passed earlier would suggest its existence. It’s not sucking the life out of its surrounding areas, unlike most of the major cities, nor is it desperately trying to prove a point, often badly, like many of the smaller cathedral cities. I hear the cry of the gulls in the air, and as Nia and I wander into the town for some breakfast, I can’t help noticing passers-by with a swing in their step.
We’re breakfasting at Sophie’s, another local tip, and we’re both dining on a large and excellent veggie breakfast. It’s been a long time since I last paid for a meal, the costs on a thrice-daily basis being far too prohibitive, but this is worth it. Being both vegetarians, a still unusual coincidence, we discuss our reasons for not eating meat. I prefer not to discuss it with meat-eaters, simply because often when you tell one that you’re a vegetarian it ends up with a misunderstanding, in that they will often immediately begin to justify their eating habits. Hand-reared, corn-fed, organically-nourished, a good (albeit short) life: OK, no worries. They’re not my concern, only my own. Where a choice is available, I’d prefer not to be involved in the preventable and barbaric slaughter of sentient beings. My choice isn’t intended to impact the meat industry or meat-eaters because it’s an ethical one, for myself alone. Whereas Nia has been a vegetarian for most of her life, I have only been one for the last eighteen months, with periods of around three-four years in younger life of vegetarianism and even, for a difficult month, being a vegan. Now there’s a challenging diet!
Nia’s partner Tristram has coeliac disease, meaning he cannot eat gluten without feeling very ill. Eating out can be difficult, as he struggles to eat anything with wheat in it. Chefs may add a dose of soy to this or flour to that, and inadvertently cause him serious stomach pains. Yet like with others with coeliac disease I’ve come across, it was not a condition he was born with, but something that became more apparent over time. Long periods of stomach aches that uncurious and dismissive doctors brushed aside; the use of the Internet to find out more information that led to a self-diagnosis; and eventually returning to those uncurious doctors to press for a test. There’s no treatment, just dietary control.
I can’t help wondering about the great growth in allergy and autoimmune disorders over the last fifty years, particularly in industrialised developed countries. Why are they rising? Coeliac disease affects one in a hundred people. Have there been changes in wheat production? That may be a possible cause, but there’s been a much wider growth in hayfever and asthma, affecting around a third of peoples across the world now; and in more recent times, there’s been a growing prevalence of food allergies. Up to half of all British children are diagnosed with a kind of food allergy. Various reasons have been mooted, most credibly that of hygiene: we are exposed to far less bacterial organisms from an early age, and childhood vaccinations have, whilst saving many lives, reduced pressure on the immune system to strengthen itself. Much more of the food we now eat is processed and preserved. Prevalence of allergies first grew in the West, but is now spreading as a feature of an industrialised and massive population.
I have several allergies myself. For the first time in my life, I’ve managed to get these under control. I’m drinking milk, eating wheat in most of my meals, and out among trees and grass pollen without the problems that would’ve beset me before. Being out in nature for the first time, and in a situation where getting ill isn’t an option, my body’s become stronger in more ways than I’d anticipated.
A gentleman is drinking his coffee outside and watching us as we leave. ‘Excuse me, you don’t mind me asking, but can I lift up your bike?’ His name is Nigel, and he struggles to raise the front wheel, but the back just won’t lift off. ‘Ooh, it’s heavy!’ His confused look has him quickly explaining his purpose: ‘I’m planning to do a bit of touring meself, but my bike’s too heavy. Just wanted to check another.’ The bike was never light to start with, but all the gear for living a spartan existence on the road can make it feel like riding a motorbike but without the engine. He’s very friendly, with a disarming smile and off the cuff manner, and we heartily encourage each other’s respective trips, his a more modest proposal to explore north Wales. He’s amazed at the cut of my bike that it’s gone this far. ‘No way…’ is the response I hear, perhaps looking at me too, with my dirty jeans and scrawny face as much as the battered road bike with its taped up components. ‘It’s all possible’! Disbelief is a fair reaction!
I part ways with Nia. She’s in the process of finishing her PhD write-up, and who knows what next… I wish her all the best. I cycle up a difficult hill and travel along a main road that cuts through the country. The scenery’s green and a little undulating but not taxing. I pass through Llanrhystud and a pub sign appealing to prospective drinkers to apply within.
Eventually I reach Aberaeron around 20 miles away, an absolutely lovely seaside village. I pass picturesque pastel Victorian terraces with jaunty bunting criss-crossing the streets. There seems to be an endless series of local fairs. I pop into Y Popty, a local bakery selling delicious flapjacks. The friendly baker tells me about life in the town, and assures me that Fishguard isn’t far, my provisional destination for the day. Before I’d reached Aberaeron, I’d been told that some of the best fish and chips can be found here. I cycle by the village’s harbour where boats jingle in the breeze. There’s a stand selling delicious honey ice cream, worth the price and the queue, finger-licking good. I enjoy the early afternoon scene, the sun and the passers-by in their relaxed delight.
The writer Dylan Thomas would come to Aberaeron when he lived in nearby New Quay, visiting his mate Thomas Herbert who lived by the harbour. His poetry, plays and literary works are suffused in seaside villages like these and their surrounding countryside. There’s nothing particularly mysterious or intriguing about them, on the surface, but their unselfconscious, unpretentious and traditional ways of life have allowed for some truly eccentric characters to flourish, like the unique and strange marine life to be found in a rock pool.
Though born in Swansea, Thomas was ambivalent about the place. ‘An ugly, lovely town’, he called it, ‘crawling, sprawling … by the side of a long and splendid curving shore. This sea-town was my world.’ But he often moved around, and by the time he was developing what would become his most famous play, Under Milk Wood, he was living in the nearby village of New Quay. I rejoin the main road following the mid-Wales coast and stop there next.
‘It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched, courters’-and-rabbits’ wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea.’
Thomas began writing the draft of the play whilst in New Quay in 1944, but the fictional village of Llareggub (try reading it backwards…) is as much a dreamy collage of places Thomas had lived in before, as of the story’s same dreamy collage of impressions that transcends individual character or speech. Elements of New Quay, Swansea, Aberaeron, Laugharne and other places that Thomas lived in inform it, but it’s a work that lends beauty and mystery to the mental lives of a simple fishing village. Hearing it read aloud, its lyrical majesty becomes most apparent. Thomas attempted a play along these lines from a young age, writing and rewriting stories and fragments that would later become Under Milk Wood. But in ‘Quite Early One Morning’, a short story about waking up early and walking through New Quay, he finds his greatest inspiration. ‘The cliff perched town at the far end of Wales’ becomes his muse. Western Wales comes alive in Thomas’ words.
New Quay itself is more touristy and populous than Aberaeron, though is still a fine place to pass the afternoon. I plunge down a steep and slightly dangerous hill, whizzing by caravan parks, road fatality signs and speed camera warnings for monitors that don’t exist. There’s a nice enough stretch of shops when I arrive into the village, layered up a hillside that ends in the beach, some selling overpriced fish and chips, others angling equipment. It’s absolutely packed with holidaymakers licking ice-cream and praising the weather.
I wander down Church Street, past the Dolau pub, his wife Caitlin’s favourite drinking spot. There was once a draper’s managed by Mr and Mrs Ogmore Davies, and a bank overseen by Mr Pritchard Jones – persons he observed and merged into characters like the Ogmore-Pritchards. I stand by the shelter where fishermen used to sit and talk, and pass along a narrow promenade overlooking Cardigan Bay. The Hungry Trout pub was once the village’s post office, a frequent calling point for Thomas when posting his scripts to London, run by Will and Lil Evans, who become ‘Willy Nilly’, a postman who is also a town-crier, like Jack Lloyd, the other postal worker there. Just up the hill is the Black Lion, a regular watering hole for him. It’s been refurbished since, but once can still look out at the sea from an open window, ‘observing the salty scene’, as Thomas puts it in the poem New Quay. For fans of Dylan Thomas, this is a wonderful place. Scratch beneath the surface and one can find out about the characters and scenes that inspired him. I drink a local Moho beer, raise a silent toast, and head out, past the invisible remains of ‘the pump and the town clock, the shops in mourning, the Welfare Hall in widows’ weeds’.
It’s a damn steep climb out of New Quay and I quickly tire. Eventually I reach the very top, pausing for a huge truck to bring a mobile home into a park, and passing the Synod Inn, a small local landmark. Thereafter I’m following that same single-carriageway main road for some time, all the way to Cardigan, past farmers’ stalls selling new potatoes and fields of dozy sheep.
Cardigan’s another small and somewhat isolated town. The local paper warns: ‘Big Cat’ shock sighting in Woodland’. I’d better be careful where I wild-camp tonight! I head into the obligatory large out-of-town supermarket to pick up supplies, where I see the same items and bargains as everywhere else. One supermarket cashier is unsure what’s even in Cardigan, and brings over a friend who is similarly unsure. He lives in Carmarthenshire further to the south, quite a distance away, suggesting that unemployment is a problem here. The conversation spills down with others in the queue, and we’re all chatting and laughing with a liveliness that feels nicely unusual for a modern non-place like the supermarket.
The cashier knows a good deal about local history and he tells us about the ‘Rioting Rebeccas’, involved in a wave of violent protests from 1839-1843 in south and mid Wales. Their targets were toll-gates, and their grievance unfairly high taxation. They were organised by farmers and labourers who would often dress as women, and either wear masks or blacken their faces. Their attacks were noisy and carnivalesque, with mock trials taking place. He tells us about the beauties of Pembrokeshire and the majesty of St. David’s, until it truly is time to pay and leave.
So… Cardigan. I dip through the small town, where much of its parade of shops seems to have fallen on hard times, wiped out by the nearby supermarket. I head over a pretty river and out, taking a steep road up to the charmingly-named St. Dogmaels. This was the first part of west Wales Dylan Thomas visited when he stayed on a farm here, aged sixteen. There’s a ruined abbey here, first established in the 6th century, and a delightful old stream which is the quintessence of village tranquillity, and a string of shops further ahead, including a good chippy by the name of Bowens. It would be a nice place to stop, lovelier than poky and grey Cardigan, but Fishguard is still some miles ahead, and the light’s beginning to wane.
Me and the bike are tiring out. My back wheel keeps coming loose and becoming inoperable. The chain continues to fall off from time to time, usually when shifting gears whilst climbing a steep hill – the worst moment! And now, what’s this? My front light’s bracket has broken loose and a vital component has disappeared somewhere behind me. Ah man, these hills up St. Dogmaels are exhausting me. But the views of the valleys around are wonderful. light’s bracket breaks loose on one steep downhill sprint. Ah man. I’m tiring up the hills, but the views of the valleys around are wonderful. Pembrokeshire’s a special place.
Nearby are the Preseli Hills, source of a remarkable bluestone used at Stonehenge and valued for unknown reasons by Neolithic peoples. There are many ancient monuments there, but in this fading light it’s hard to make out much more than the setting golden sun and the outlines of the hedgerows. I’m following a tiny unclassified road that cuts through fields and by the occasional cottage along the Pembrokeshire National Park. It’s a wonderful route lined with hedgerows and sheep eating grass in the distance, just sleepiness, just nice. I pass through Moylegrove where there’s a steep drop and sharp ascent. These roads are achingly hilly. The wheel comes loose again and it is now fully dark by 8.15! I think back longingly of the infinite gloaming of the Highlands, of being able to cycle until 10.30. Fishguard is too far. I decide to aim for Newport, a small village somewhere in the distance.
As the darkness sets in, my little lights struggle to even make themselves seen. A couple of cars mill around slowly, interior lights on, passengers peering at pages. One goes out to inspect a footpath sign. They’re searching for some kind of treasure, they tell me. I see more cars like theirs as I travel alone the lonely and dark roads.
These kinds of things feel possible in this landscape. I follow the road down into Newport. It’s now too dark to even follow the road, but fortunately Google Maps comes in handy, and I follow its suggestions and the nearby outline of the road to descend into Newport. I’m staying specifically by the Carreg Coatan Arthur stones, an ancient Neolithic burial chamber surrounded by a small hedgerowed space that looks like the empty lot of a house. A large capstone is supported by a number of smaller stones, a proud symbol of a person’s life and aspirations five thousand years back, through a symbolism and purpose now incomprehensible. I pitch up my tent behind a hedge, relieved to have found somewhere secluded and delighted at the significance of the place.
And my word! The stars are all out, every one. I trace several constellations like the saucepan shape of the Plough, and find the North Star, and Mars. It’s so clear, and I admire the Milky Way in its seemingly infinite distance. Like watching the families of osprey or buzzard fly about earlier, I’m becoming familiar with nature. I inflate my mat, put a sleeping bag against my head and lie out on the grass, watching the stars. I take some MDMA and listen to Brian Eno’s Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks record.
Why, you might ask. I’ve drunk alcohol on a daily basis, enjoying myself and meeting many people in the pubs of these islands. With booze, for all the long-term health problems and short-term misadventures and misguided tragedies, there’s still a cultural affirmation of its fun. ‘Go on mate’, I imagine you saying, ‘you’ve deserved that pint after that hill/raincloud/headwind/strange town!’ It’s cheery and cheeky, light-hearted, the stuff of laughter.
Yet in popular culture at least, there’s a certain lag behind about illegal stimulants, and a certain hypocrisy too. Many of us have taken them, certainly among older adults, and yet few will admit to it, and most discourage it, unless, again, a certain amount of drink’s been taken, and then one and all are partial… In the worst instances, cannabis use might lead to mental health problems, or MDMA or cocaine to some kind of heart attack, true, but how many more have died under the influence of alcohol? How many are run over, beaten up (or beat others up), fall down staircases, and generally do regrettable things? Well, the poet Federico Garcia Lorca once said that ‘only mystery makes us live’. I’m not looking to get out of my head, but to understand and explore my own imagination, my own capacity for new experiences and impressions. It’s not something I do often at all, but for a rare moment like this, with the stars, safe and relaxed, it’s a relatively harmless and deeply pleasurable pastime. So much for a disclaimer!
It is an extraordinary experience and I am gripped for several hours, watching the satellites, making wishes on the odd passing shooting star, and tracing lines on those stars at an infinite distance from us. A man looks at the cosmos to understand his place in it, and finds he has no place. Just the consciousness of matter experiencing energy. I close my eyes and spend time imagining travelling to one of these distant stars in a craft that would never return to earth. I wonder what I’d need, or who would be with me, or what we would do, new routines and habits fixing our wayward moods and desires into a cool and rhythmic way of life like the beeping and whooshing of the craft’s machinery. Then I think of my wife, and my family. In that intense joy, let me share what I make of my final wish, that every person alive now can at one time also experience the happiness and peace I feel at this moment. And with that, by this inscrutable stones and beneath these inscrutable stars, I close my eyes and fall asleep.