Today I'm going for a walk, following a route (to the best of my memory) I last took with my grandfather, up to St Mary’s Vale and over to the Rholben below the Sugar Loaf above Abergavenny.
Walking with my granddad always seemed like saying goodbye, he resented the way old age tricked his mind into believing his body could still achieve when it no longer could. He would complain frequently and recount the achievements of his youth, the ease with which he could reach the peaks. In my hazy memory walking with my granddad is forever autumn, both literally and metaphorically. There was bitter regret in his voice and whining wail of resentment, a proud man looking and sounding pathetic. He struck me once with the metal dog lead when I protested, inconsiderately, that I didn't want to go for a walk.
They were quite distant as grandparents, emotionally reticent, both to my mother and her two sons. Walking became a form of escape from the tight air of that house on North Street. There was always an atmosphere there I could pick up as a child, old, stale, cold. Something haunted that place and it didn't only live in the dark turn in the stairs before the relief of the electric light switch.
So walking became an escape. Even if it was often with a bitter, resentful old man. Old paths have old memories, places aren't immune to imagination. Yet there was always the prospect of returning to the back parlour, warm, and the only room in that echoing house that seemed safe from the chill aura. There would be a heavy, lard-based tea and a nap after the excitement of televised wrestling. The entertainment of Methodists.
Many years later my mother tearfully and far from sober told me the secret. I'd always slept soundly there, at least after a period of vigorous horizontal running had thawed the icy sheets. A diet of exercise, lard and sugar would probably do that for me today. Bed too was an escape, of comfort, especially after confronting the dark turn in the stairs. I could picture the walks in my head and marvel at their beauty in comparison to my home in a dark, coal-stained valley.
I still have that joy for the hills, not the summits my granddad resented, but for the slowly curving angles of the lower slopes, the cool shade of the trees, the constant opening and closing curtain of views. It's little wonder my mother felt the same, despite her polio-afflicted leg. There was more than just freedom and escape; there was life and breath that may have been denied her when my grandmother tried to suffocate her with a pillow. In the bed in which, many years later, I had slept.
When others talk of the landscape having history, or even, more prophetically, memory, you will have to forgive my inclination to find it remote, impersonal. We bestow these things on the countryside, it's not inherent. Except perhaps in deep geological terms, or the hand of man tilling and chopping. Essentially it's Romanticism, a construction, as is mine. The landscape holds no memory, we do.
So today I'm going for a walk, or maybe it's a pilgrimage; to remind myself of the comfort of those hills and why they are the breath of life. As Paul Gaffney might say ’we make our paths by walking’, and our beds to sleep in.