Sunday, 5 June 2016

As the Hay Festival ends

The Hay Festival comes to an end today. This is the first year I have been since 1996, when I heard Sebastian Faulks discussing his latest novel Birdsong. I have been for two days this time, and have greatly enjoyed the atmosphere, the talks and discussions (some of them superb, others decidedly quirky); I like the relaxed feel of the Festival, and the scope for whole families to come and immerse themselves in a place where (of all places in Britain) books count.  Yes, it has been good to be back in Hay, good to be surrounded by bookshops, to see the swifts above Hay Castle and the late sun on the Black Mountains.

Taking in this view while waiting for the bus back to Hereford, I remembered that, ten years even before my first visit to the Festival, I had once been for a memorable walk along the Olchon Valley, the other side of Hay Bluff. I wrote about this walk at the time, and only the other day turned up the typescript. I don’t think it ever appeared in print, so here it is now. If I had been blogging in those days, it might have been an early and rather self-conscious post to my blog – but (hard to believe) the World Wide Web had not been invented then.

A Short Walk in the Olchon Valley (1986)
At 10pm the night before the great Olchon Valley parish walk, I was stuck in a traffic jam trying to get out of London. The rain was dreadful – real Wye Valley weather in the West end – and my only consolation as I sat wondering what time I should be home was that the Black Mountains hike next day was bound to be cancelled.  I should have known better.

At 2pm the following afternoon I was shouldering my rucksack and setting off from Red Darren car park (in truth little more than an improvised lay-by) in pursuit of some thirty friends, most of whom had already done a full morning’s walk from the tail of the Cat’s Back down to Longtown – aptly named – and up the mountain lane that climbs the NW side of the valley. The weather was ideal, dry and not too windy. I only got my feet wet once, and that was when fording the Olchon Brook, a very respectable stream that flows into the Monnow just north of Pandy. We were to follow the Olchon almost to its source behind Hay Bluff, climbing up an old track (sunken in places) that led to the top of the pass and then over and down into Powys.

It must have been along this same track that Vavasour Powell, the celebrated Puritan preacher, came on his visits to the dissenting congregation who had made the Olchon Valley famous as a centre for the Baptist cause as early as 1650. These Baptists practised immersion in the Olchon Brook, and the names of their first ministers, Thomas Watkins and Thomas Parry (Llanigon) are still honoured in the district. The ‘gentle flock of Olchon’ as they were known, met openly at first in each other’s houses, holding services in Welsh and English; after 1660, however, they were harassed and had to meet secretly before persecution drove them out of the valley altogether and westwards into Wales. Wherever they went (and some finally settled as far west as Rhydwilym in Dyfed) they spread the Baptist cause that had been nurtured in the barns and cottages of the Olchon Valley – the same neat buildings we could see from the ridge of the Black Hill.

Some people hold that walking should be a solitary activity, and jib at the thought of being part of a crowd on a mountain. I have a certain sympathy with this view, but the fact is we weren’t a crowd: we soon spread out, and one of the pleasantest things about such walks is the ebb and flow of conversation as you catch up the person in front, fall back to wait for someone behind, or simply measure your pace alone. Thus, in the course of the afternoon, I spoke with a hospital physician about geriatric care, and negotiated with a small boy who wanted to carry home in his anorak pocket the remains of a sheep’s skeleton; I discussed the changing shape of boiled sweets in Britain and the diversity of Welsh devotional poetry, swapped stories about the perils of automatic doors on tube trains; argued over the correct name of the hill behind Ludlow that we could see – just – in the distance (Clee Hill, The Clees, Brown Clee; which was it? We never agreed) and startled a late lark in the heather.

The varieties of clothing and gear worn by those walking was always a good topic of conversation. The joining instructions had advised, with mandarin understatement, that ‘something rather waterproof is indicated’. In the event, green wellies, dubbined boots and ladies’ tennis shoes all made it to the top and down again, although the owner of the tennis shoes had to be given portage over a ford by two members of the PCC.  A man who rather resembled Clegg from Last of the Summer Wine or the whipper-in of a Northumbrian beagling pack was kind enough to compliment me on my turn-out; he did not fail, however, to remark the trouble I’d had preventing my thick walking stockings from falling down – an embarrassment I hadn’t experienced since early days at school. If only I’d remembered my headmaster’s advice: “Never go out without your garters, boy!”

We were off the Cat’s Back, that narrow ridge leading down from the Black Hill’s summit, by 5.30pm, and home an hour later. It had been a perfect walk, the ideal antidote to London traffic jams and all other hazards of the way we live (most of us) now. The youngest member of the party was four; the oldest – well, much older than that, anyway.

And why did we do it? I suppose you could say because the vicar asked us to, because the church windows needed money spent on them again; but we did it also for the company, for the change and for the pleasure of discovering a very beautiful valley few people ever explore. We went for the exercise, we went for the view, we went for the supper afterwards. All in all, you could say we went for the sheer heaven of it.

                                                               *     *     *
I have reprinted this piece in memory of two people who had a great influence on me and who, though they belonged to different generations and different traditions (one Welsh Baptist, the other Church in Wales), liked and admired each other: the Rev. Tomos Richards and Canon James Coutts. Each of them contributed, in different ways, to the writing of ‘A Short Walk in the Olchon Valley’.

Adrian Barlow

[Illustration: The Olchon Valley, looking toward Hay Bluff; © Copyright Jerry Fryman and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Saturday, 4 June 2016

Edward Wilson: pipe smoking and Polar exploration

To The Wilson, Cheltenham’s Art Gallery and Museum, to celebrate the acquisition of a fairly ordinary-looking smoker’s pipe.  And rightly so, for this pipe belonged to one of the town’s most distinguished sons: the Polar explorer, doctor, artist and naturalist, Edward Adrian Wilson (1872-1912). More than this, research into the pipe’s history has shed light not just on the complex character of Wilson himself but also on the importance of pipe smoking to those who chose to boldly go where no man had gone before in the early years of the twentieth century.

Made of polished rose briar, the pipe is of the ‘Billiard’ style. A silver band protecting the joint where shank meets stem is idiosyncratically engraved with Wilson’s monogram EW (See illustration below). The letters GBD, stamped both on the wooden shank and on the silver band, identify the pipe’s maker as the Paris-based firm Ganneval, Bondier and Donninger. The band, however, is stamped with London hallmarks, dating it to 1900. The initials AO, also stamped onto the silver band, identify A. Oppenheimer & Co. as the London distributor of the pipe.

It’s more than thirty five years since last I smoked a pipe myself. Like me, Wilson had taken it up at university: an 1893 Cambridge photo shows him smiling, boatered and bow-tied, with pipe in mouth. Certainly he smoked one for most of the 1890s and not even TB, severe enough to force him to go to Davos for treatment, put him off for long. He hated the forced inactivity of the regime his Swiss doctors imposed, and was jubilant when eventually allowed to take up his pipe again. ‘SMOKED ALL DAY!’ he recorded in his diary.

Many pipemen, I suppose, have a love-hate relationship with their pipes, and this was certainly true of Wilson. He was a man of extraordinary gifts and interesting contradictions. He used to give up smoking for Lent and would go up into the woods above Cheltenham, to throw his pipe away in a gesture of finality. But when Lent was over, back he’d go to retrieve the pipe and start smoking once again. Not so surprising, perhaps: pipe smokers hate to be separated from their pipes and will go to great lengths to be reunited with them. Robert Graves, in Goodbye to All That, has a story about the Everest mountaineer George Mallory, who

once did an inexplicable climb on Snowdon.  He had left his pipe on a ledge, half-way down one of Lliwedd precipices, and scrambled back by a short cut to retrieve it, then up again by the same route. No one saw what route he took, but when they came to examine it the next day for the official record, they found an overhang nearly all the way. By a rule of the Climbers’ Club climbs are never named in honour of their inventors, but only describe natural features. An exception was made here. The climb was recorded as follows: “Mallory’s Pipe. A variation on Route 2; see adjoining map. This climb is totally impossible. It has been performed once, in failing light, by Mr G.H.L. Mallory.”

There are plenty of photographs of pipe-smoking explorers and mountaineers seen with pipe in hand or clamped between teeth. Look at any photo of Capt. Scott smoking: you’ll probably see he has an identical-looking pipe to the one that now belongs to The Wilson. Just how much his pipe mattered to him, Scott himself explained in the South Polar Times, May 1902:

The day’s work is nearly over; but a solitary joy remains; throughout your recent adventures you have always kept your mind’s eye on the pipe, tobacco and matches that are distributed about your person [….] The solace of that pipe […] is a thing that only the true smoker can appreciate.

George Seaver, Wilson’s first biographer, claims Wilson didn’t smoke while on Discovery, and Scott himself referred to him as ‘a non-smoker’. Not smoking during the expedition (especially if he travelled with today’s pipe, probably presented to him on departure) would have been a severe test of his resolve, for other members of the team all puffed away with gusto. No wonder Discovery had to set sail with 1,300lbs. of tobacco on board: smoking mitigated the extreme cold and dulled the appetite.  Wilson did, however, return to his pipe once back in Britain. Some of his time after 1904 was spent in the Scottish Highlands researching the causes of disease in grouse. He reported that rubbing his socks with pipe tar helped keep the mosquitoes away from his ankles; no doubt wreathing himself in tobacco smoke offered further defence.

I suspect it was this presentation pipe that he smoked in Scotland. Although it comes in a well-worn and much-used leather carrying pouch, the pipe itself has has not been heavily smoked: there is only one tooth mark on the stem. There is, however, some slight pitting on the edge of the bowl. This suggests to me that Wilson was accustomed to knock out his pipe on a convenient stone or rock in order to dislodge the dottle. Seaver claims that by 1908 Wilson had lost all taste for a pipe, and never hankered after it again. Certainly this pipe wasn’t one retrieved from the Antarctic after Wilson’s death: it surfaced in an auction of contents from Hooton Pagnell Hall, where his brother Bernard (who managed this Yorkshire estate) had accumulated a personal collection of memorabilia associated with Edward. One can surmise that the pipe came to Bernard from Oriana, Edward’s widow; after his death, she distributed mementoes of her late husband to the family.

I have some fellow-feeling for a man who gives up his pipe altogether; I also have a sneaking admiration for those who carry on, often in the face of opposition from family and friends. Scott of the Antarctic never gave up – until forced to do so in those latter days, when tobacco as well as food had run out in the hut where he finally died, his arms cradling Wilson.  I know of few more touching letters than the last one Scott received from his wife, Kathleen, before his death:

'How can I guess how things will be with you when you get this… But oh dearie I am full of hope. My brave man will win – with his own right hand and with his mighty arm hath he gathered himself the victory. Now don’t forget to brush your hair – and don’t smoke so much and altogether you’re a ducky darling and hurray for you!'

Adrian Barlow

[Notes: Robert Graves’ account of Mallory’s Pipe comes from Goodbye to All That, (1929; London: Penguin Books, 1960) pp.35-36.  George Seaver writes about Wilson’s struggles to give up smoking in Edward Wilson of the Antarctic (London: John Murray, 1933) pp. 30, 49, 55, 88 and 161. Kathleen Scott’s last letter to her husband (found when his body was recovered a year after his death) was made public in 2012. You can read the full text of the letter here.

[Illustrations: (i, ii and iii) Edward Wilson’s pipe, now in The Wilson, Cheltenham Museum and Art Gallery, reproduced by permission of The Cheltenham Trust and Cheltenham Borough Council; (iv) detail from the west window of Binton Parish Church, near Stratford-upon-Avon, depicting Captain Robert Falcon Scott and colleagues about to set off the for South Pole (Wilson on right of image). The window was designed by John Lisle and made by C.E. Kempe and Co., 1915

My thanks to Ann-Rachael Harwood, Curator of Human History at The Wilson, and to Gill Poulter, Heritage and Exhibitions Director, Dundee Heritage Trust, for their help with this article.

Text and photograph iv © the author.