Caught by the River

Over The Border #9

Jude Rogers | 31st August 2018

A summer update from the Welsh Borders from Jude Rogers.

There are Welsh summers, then there are summers that exist in other places. In the experience of someone who spent her first eighteen years enduring the former, I know they are usually indistinguishable from the seasons that preceded them. The skies hang saggily silver, constantly with clouds. Fine rain falls from them for months, with a comforting lilt, without pause. But this year was different. After the winter that stretched out its chill until Easter, the first glows of real heat came in early June, then everything accelerated. Hilltops quickly scorching to pale yellow. Roses living and dying, living and dying. Flowers, apple trees, blackberries, lawns, growing at triple speed, as if they were under the camera of a time-lapse photographer. A hill burned for three days; a ridge along from us burned for three days. Not a very Welsh business at all.

But with the clouds far away for a change, we did something we could: climb the highest points of Monmouthshire possible with a four-year-old in tow. From these bright-skied heights, how quickly borders disappear. From the top of the Skirrid Mountain seven miles south of our house, the tall arches of the second Severn Bridge shimmered their way over the water, taking us to the chimneys of Portishead, glittering like elegant turrets of castles. To the east sat other peaks that became a happy part of this scene: the round bump of Ross’ May Hill, and the jagged anomaly of the unearthly Malverns, the smaller cousins of the Brecon Beacons that wandered too far from home.

From the peak of Hay Bluff on another day, the harsh curves of the Wrekin offered a warm greeting in the distance, as did the nearby ragged spine of the Cat’s Back on the way to the Black Hill, the last outpost of the Black Mountains just over the border in England. We climbed the Cat’s Back too, our son’s little feet and little legs following us with a series of fed-up miaows. Then we looked back to the homeland, the many summits of Wales rearing and rising like dragons. But although I was standing in England, I still felt part of that roar.

Monmouthshire may have its smaller mountains, its gentler hills, than Wales’ more dramatic lands to the West, but it also still feels like a borderland for deeper reasons. In terms of parliamentary legislature, it was not part of Wales at all for over four hundred years (Henry VIII’s 1542 Wales Act had excluded the county; this wasn’t officially fixed until 1974). Second-hand bookshops in Abergavenny and Monmouth still heave with Victorian to mid-century tour guides to Wales and Monmouthshire, and that “and” affords this area a strange outsiderness. It also offers a shimmer of status and elevation – this is a county that sits outside the rough bluster of slagheaps and valleys inside which industry bustles busily, that fights, that makes noise.

Monmouthshire’s extremes are more genteel, in all ways, and that feels odd for a Welsh girl. It’s sometimes why I feel a little too earthy for my surroundings, my accent softened, but still steeped in the estuary waters of Loughor, rolling over to the tinplate towers of Llanelli. Where I live now, most accents sound glossily nationless or neatly posh, or at their most regional, ahhing up and down with a Hereford West Country twang, rather than a coal-throated Ebbw Vale burr.

Nevertheless, when I am in the Monmouthshire hills, my heart lurches for the person I was as well as the person I am. It’s as if the shape of a landscape, rising and falling dramatically, confirms the twist of my DNA, or the beating of my pulse. But these heights are not intrinsically Welsh, and any fool, including me, knows that: they just occur in this place often, just as clouds do, and as rain does. They fire off a memory of the early roots of my identity, but when I look beyond the hills, I see other echoes of myself in distant places. And then I remind myself that I barely knew Monmouthshire only three years ago, despite it absolutely feeling like home now for nearly two. This admission feels wrong in my mouth: like the syrupy confession of an invader, moving onto other people’s lands, changing them from the outside. I want to honour this place, and I love it, and respect it, even when its colours burn brighter than I ever imagined, even when the backdrop to its high, jagged lines is one of an unfamiliar blue.

But summer always ends soon enough. For our last trek of the heatwave, we took friends up onto the Hatterall Ridge, the last line of the Black Mountains, which we can see from the windows in the front of our house. We began in the soft morning sun, and ascended as grey started to move in from Powys. By the summit, we were walking through clouds, thick with wet, clinging rain, dragging our children whining damply through the mist. The only views from the top were not those of the village we had moved to, but of a silver, saggy nothingness, and of our ourselves. I felt the water soak through to my skin on the top of the mountains, and I couldn’t help but smile.