Caught by the River

Over The Border #5

Jude Rogers | 2nd June 2017

Words by Jude Rogers

Pictures by @monnow_log

There were clouds in the valley in this morning, white, low and bright, creating a river of light. The hills rose out of this river – otherworldly and ultraviolet, like snow set alight – as if they were suspended in the air, hovering up to the gods. And this was on a morning in May, at a time of year when nature’s colours are usually brazen: the rape fields acid-yellow, the leafy trees shimmering in Technicolour green, the red, loamy earth on the farms like glazed terracotta, stitched at regular intervals with shoots of pale, clear, vivid lime.

After a few hours, the clouds had long gone, and an ordinary pale blue day sat in their place. In the countryside, these extreme moments, these moods, come and go all too easily.

We’ve been here seven months. We are settling in, getting to know people in the village, the pub landlord, the pub garden, the pub lounge, the black-and-white cat that sits on the bench outside the pub, looking like he’s always waiting it for open. (We’ve discovered he’s often waiting for the smaller cat from across the road that looks disarmingly like him, a cat rumoured to be his son, a cat he likes to regularly terrorise.) We have met people, made kind acquaintances, even made some lovely friends with whom we’ve shared nights out and days in, but I feel I’m still slightly sitting on the edges of things, in some ways, between places. It doesn’t help that I’m here and away from here all the time, skittering around like a moth with brittle wings. It doesn’t help, either, that I have felt a little like this for years.

Just before we moved, I read Border Country by Raymond Williams, the literary critic and novelist who grew up five miles away from here in the village of Pandy. First published in 1960, it’s an extraordinary novel, a work of fiction that borrows brashly from Williams’ autobiography, about a lecturer, Matthew Price, that has to come home to this corner of Wales, suddenly, from London, as his father is ill. It is a book about revisiting memories, and tiny moments that may have once seemed insignificant changing the course of your life. It is about how people change, and about politics. It about the “black wall” of the Black Mountains, which I can see from our front window, and the now-familiar writhing, snaking paths of the Monnow and the Wye. It is about places like Llangattock and Peterstone, names that were on signs when we moved here, but are now solid, detailed villages. It is about the sound of the train on the branch line between Abergavenny and Hereford, a line Matthew and Raymond’s fathers both worked on, hooting in the darkening sky. It is also about time, and its ravages.

Before I even had a view of my own, a section about Matthew’s view of a landscape near here, a landscape he had known as a child, struck me forcefully. This character had carried the image of this landscape in his mind, “everywhere, never a day passing…he closed his eyes and saw it again, his only landscape”. But on returning to it as an older man, things were different. “It was not still”, Williams writes, “as the image had been…no longer a landscape or a view, but a valley that people were using”. I live in a valley that I am using.

When a place is distant, it’s breezily romantic, easy to freeze and to fetishise. When a place becomes part of your life, it disappears, then reappears; sometimes you forget it’s even there. It wavers, it shilly-shallies, it glows and it glowers, even in its most dramatic moments, as flowers open their full, glossy petals, as cows moan for their calves, as blossom bursts and then dies, as kites circle, hunting for prey.

Six months after moving, I have realised there is so much light and space here, so much, but it takes time for the light and space to seep in. Today, both of them took over the land, and they took over me.


See previous Over The Border posts here.

Jude Rogers on Caught by the River / on Twitter