Caught by the River

Pleasures of…January

Nina Lyon | 7th February 2016

brecon-beacons The A470, near Pen y Fan, Brecon, as people enjoyed the snow in the Brecon Beacons National Park. Photo: Ben Birchall/PA Wire

January started in a place that couldn’t seem further from Wales. I hadn’t left Europe in a decade, settled into the relationship with home and routine that comes, at least at first, with children. My ex-partner – their father – had been going to Goa annually since the early Nineties for an upside-down detox of raving and after a hiatus last year, when his mother was very ill, suggested that we all go together. It was an unlikely family holiday: beyond the banyan tree where we parked the battered jeep, and where the chatter of invisible monkeys rose at dawn and dusk, a steady thud of electronic music filled the air.

I’d been there a couple of times before, most recently that decade ago. We stayed in a grass hut on one of the last empty beaches in the north. He’d warned me that it changed every year, and that you could track the new places as they expanded onto beach and into forest, and that those little shacks were now glossy hotel complexes. And he was right. Deserted beaches are, like oceans filled with fish, a figment of a past we took for granted and that we won’t get back.

We spent a lot of time in traffic jams. Watching the narrow lanes to Vagator choked with bikes and cars, girls in sparkly dresses wearing scarves wrapped around their heads to keep out the dust and smoke, so that you couldn’t move for five miles from the nearest rave. I was overwhelmed by the anthropocene turn the place had taken. Even psytrance, possibly the fluffiest and least fashionable musical subculture of all time, had gone a bit dystopian. The fairies were dead and everyone wore black these days. We hung out in a juice bar in Chapora flanked by unsavoury gangster types who barked things in Russian from time to time at their bored, thin girlfriends between rolling joints, trying to talk over the relentless eddies of psytrance and the television news as a cow wandered by, ignored.

My connection with home was limited to occasional emails and my Twitter feed. From an unreal distance, I learned that relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran had cooled, which I followed with the selfish concern of depending on Iranian airspace to get home at a time when most of the Middle East is impassable, and even the Turkish coast was given a ten-mile berth. An event I’d been looking forward to reading at, Caught by the River Calder, was cancelled after floods tore through the valley.

I had planned to read from the first chapter of my book, Uprooted, which was inspired by the January floods of 2014 and opens in a storm. It had occurred to me that the floods might have dated the book, and that the particular anxieties they provoked would fade back soon enough and feel irrelevant, but the situation in Calderdale and elsewhere revealed the triviality of such concerns. We really had learned nothing: the same meaningless political grandstanding happened; the same perverse subsidies remained in place for grouse moors, as though the Tories had given up all pretence of disguising their drive to do best for the landed classes at everyone else’s expense; the same woeful level of scientific and ecological illiteracy overwhelmed most public discourse on what to do about it.

Disconnected from the rest of the broken world, we lay by the pool, not sure what to do with the heat, watching vultures and black kites hang above the hillside.

We made it back through Iranian airspace, beset by mild turbulence that a gin and tonic could not quite knock out. The M4 was empty, wet-surfaced, the sky bright for the first day in months, and the light picked out the swathes of flooded ground on either side. I settled back into routine, waking too early in the black morning, and, as the rain and fog set back in, grateful for having seen the sun.

The month was short, at least here, of wintry weather. We got excited by a fall of snow on the hills and climbed the Dragon’s Back to find it. As we ascended out of the valley, past the waterfall and onto the common above, we heard the cry of hounds. My partner, N, in foreigner mode, assumed the mournful noise to indicate an illegal dogfight in a barn and I had to set him straight: it was just people chasing foxes to a violent death, standard stuff round here. A steady trail of walkers moved in silhouette along the ridge; the local news reported hundreds of parking tickets issued to sledgers in the Brecon Beacons. We contemplated moving to Sweden where, N maintained, you are more likely to encounter elk than people, albeit with elevated motoring and trampling risks.

And then, at long last, we got a bit of magic, a hard hoar frost that coated every thorn.
I ran along the disused railway line behind the house. The silent freezing fog revealed the forms of the avenue of trees on either side anew and the river had a glassy clarity that would change, again, as it thawed. Later that day, when enough of the fog had lifted, I drove along the Wye from Hereford across the old brick bridge at Bredwardine, willows and oak picked out in ice and a mist rising from the river, and the beauty of the place and of our place within it, those bits of human architecture that fit, was there again.

Nina’s book, Uprooted: on the trail of the Green Man, is due to be published by Faber in March 2016.

Nina Lyon on Caught by the River