Caught by the River

Shadows and Reflections – Alex Smith

28th December 2014

Shadows and Reflections: the annual collection of postings where Caught by the River’s ever-reliable contributors and friends old and new take a look back on the events that have shaped the past twelve months.Today it’s the turn of our West country correspondent, Alex Smith.

Green Lane down to Waterhead Creek

2014 was a funny old year for doing the outside things: with just about everything that my buddy and I get up to once we’re on the hoof being dictated one way or another by the weather, we found ourselves largely doing other stuff for a large part of the year’s beginning. We then made up for that enforced slothfulness by getting out and doing as much as we could for that long, dry summer. We may have retreated back inside from mid October onwards, with just the odd foray onto the moors here and there, but the sum of our getting-outs, if we were to analyse such things, probably add up to a hefty old surplus on the doing-stuff ledger. If we were to use a MOTD-style heat map of 2014, the penalty areas might have looked a little Van Persie but the midfield would have been chocker with Sterling-like activity. A sort of dit dah dit of a year. A dot dash dot. A Morse code R of a year. If at the time of reading we’ve had some snow you might want to add a little white full stop but sitting here right now, it has been a year that started with a rainy season, that moved on to a long hot dry one and that ended with the impressive rain gauge measurements that defined its start. Of course, we didn’t let a little wetness stop us from making the odd dash out between the storms. Mostly we cycled the lesser minor roads of the South Hams, you’re never too far from shelter when you go out like that, but the exposed high grounds of the Dartmoor National Park make their own weather so we didn’t concentrate too much on that side of things. We did do a couple that we just about got away with, but just because you can doesn’t mean you have to, so most weeks we didn’t get out at all. You’ve got to enjoy it to do it after all.

So the first proper go at getting out this year was during the Easter break when we set off to cycle the Dartmoor Way in two days. The Way is a circular route that takes you around the outside of the moor and allows you to visit some of the nicer market towns and villages in doing so. We had put a few days aside for it but my mate scheduled-in a mercy dash to help a mate out on what would have been our third day so, on the night before setting off, we decided to dump all the kit and travel really light by booking ourselves into a bunkhouse in Okehampton for the only night we’d be away. And, as Okehampton stands at 12 o’clock on our route, we believed that our starting point would have to be on the 6 o’clock: Ivybridge. It’s a long story, already told at length, so I won’t go over the details here. Let’s just say that 4 o’clock would have been much the wiser decision. And taking it on in an anti-clockwise direction an even better one. We did it, though. And had a right old time doing it too.

Glastonbury came through for us in the end. For the second time running we (in this case a different bunch of mates who schedule our whole year around it) found ourselves sweating on the spring resale. For the second time running we were successful, but one big shadow for this year is that we were unsuccessful once again in the ballot for 2015. So our fingers will be well and truly crossed for the spring resale once again. The rain there on the Friday put paid to too much stage hopping on the Saturday and Sunday but what a bonus the Stonebridge- Crows Nest- Park triangle is turning out to be. Props to everyone involved, especially Carl and his team. Too many highs to mention but John Grant at the Park Stage was right up there and TOY in the Crow’s Nest is still a regular talking point. I missed two golden chances to see The Fat White Family, so not all good, but, as has come to be the norm, the last weekend in June proved to be the most entertaining thing I did in the year.

My getting-out buddy and I managed another long trip in mid July, driving up to Oxford and embarking on a canal towpath cycle trip north from there. It started really well and the first night was spent camping at the Pig Place, a working smallholding next to the canal. The heat had brought with it some isolated but tremendous electrical storms that thankfully passed us by but made for great viewing out of the tent flaps. The lightning went to ground twice at villages nearby and the air was electric. Fantastic. The next section was not so good, though. A puncture or two before Banbury and a chat with the guy in the cycle shop that unearthed a few unwelcome facts about the upkeep of the towpaths around those parts. We kept on with it, though, and, perhaps not that surprisingly, I had to return to Banbury when just short of Cropredy due to the need of a new tyre, the old one losing the integrity of its sidewall from being run flat just one too many times. Got to Cropredy late but still had lunch and a couple of pints before heading off towards Fenny Compton. The towpaths from there on in varied in quality and we were well in need of the overnight break, camping in the garden of the Wharf Inn and only partly enjoying the unfettered use of the disabled loo and shower which doubled as the camping amenities. It’s a strange old feeling walking out into a busy pub having just showered, your towel and washbag and smelly cycling kit all about your person, steam escaping behind you and wafting over the diners in the restaurant. We gave up on the towpath the next day after my mate had three more punctures all at the same time. We took a long wide circle on country roads to Kidlington and a couple of pints at the Rock of Gibraltar, sitting outside in the sun whilst a blues festival happened about us. From there we took the better towpaths back to Oxford, stopping only for another pint at the Jolly Boatman at Thrupp.

Port Eliot was great again and the Caught by the River stage and its surroundings a real delight. Loved the new site for the bar and the vibe ran late into the night. Highlights too many to mention but a night jumping about to Don Letts and Andrew Weatherall cannot ever go unremarked. Or maybe Jeff spinning 7” vinyl well into the last night, a jumping crowd, again, and happy people all around.

I discovered two new favourite cities in 2014: Manchester early on in the year on a trip up for the 6Music festival that we based a long weekend around (and where we started most nights with a couple of beers at the Port Street Beerhouse in the Northern Quarter). Then Bordeaux in the summer: a kind of pre-holiday couple of days until the Saturday changeover, a city bright and vibrant and young and full of craft ale. The old part of the city is seductive and the restaurants and bars thrumming and fun. Lovely place.

A late summer walk to Kingsand. Just an impulse getting-out, an afternoon otherwise wasted. On the last leg, heading back towards the ferry, the track ran alongside a field of ready barley waiting for the combine harvester that was noisily working the next-door field. The machine kicked up dust as it did its work: a fine, granular dust in the dry air and a powder coating in my nostrils and a gritty meniscus to the corners of my eyes. A light wind teased the heads of the barley in front of me: where it blew, the tilt was enough to show ochre, and where it didn’t; the lighter tops gave a sandy landscape to the sloping field, just the occasional green islands of rogue grasses here and there. This zephyr did not travel in any one direction, rather it chased across the barley heads in a haphazard manner, rampaging around the field, looking for all the world like a gang of short but sporty Ed Sheerans, all chasing the same ball around the playground, just the tops of their heads visible, barging through the barley tops, both sides running together, two teams of unschooled under 8’s re-enacting a Harry Enfield skit. I propped myself on my sticks and watched for a good long while, but I knew the time of the ferry I wanted to catch and the show didn’t look like stopping anytime soon, so, in time, I slowly walked the track that ran along the field and was rewarded with a brush-by at the gate and just the suggestion of a rustle as it passed.

My wife joined us for the Number 6 festival this year and the weather gods shined on us for once. I’d attended before, but on those two occasions I went with other travellers and the weather wasn’t so kind. The Estuary Stage came into its own in the sun and there was nowhere else in the daytime that could equal it, apart, perhaps, from the deserted beaches we reached through the woods on the Sunday. I’m glad she came because I think this third one will in all likelihood be my last. I mean, I like Estrella as much as the next man, but come on. Of course, that means that there could easily be two festival-sized holes in 2015.

So the weather closed in six weeks ago and the chances to get out have been limited. We went out last-week-but-one on a walk not too dissimilar to the barley one, where two old salty dogs in a pub in Kingsand entertained us with some Olympic standard swearing, all from a standing start by the fireplace, and, memorably, we had a Dartmoor jolly on the last true summer’s day, a month before then, where the photos came out better than they ever had before. On the Saturday before the Tuesday where I find myself writing this, a small group of us took ourselves off to a bright Cape Cornwall to blow the cobwebs of the previous night away before starting the next leg of drunken party celebrations in Saint Just. The haze was magical and the swells were large and smooth and round before they broke over the rocky promontories just below us, at which point they crashed then flattened to the most amazing brilliant white. A seal surfaced just off the point of the nearest rocky finger, visible to the quickest eyes before diving again. Some never saw it. Some saw it every time it came up. I suppose you have to know what to look for and how to look at (and through) water. A basking shark once passed close by at Queeners Point and my fishing buddy couldn’t see it through the glare until the dorsal fin first knocked his float and then the tail gave a sense of its mass and its course. There! There! There!, you hear that a lot when looking and pointing at the sea. And a lot of frustrated Where?’s.

Alex Smith on Caught by the River