I love reading books when I’m sat in the place they are set in, mixing the pleasure of being transported to a different time whilst staying in the same geographic location. I feel like I’m slipping between the universe’s folds, watching a story play out in front of me somewhere between the time it happened in and now. Last month my husband and I were on holiday in the Welsh borders, and whilst he headed out to bag some hills I took myself off to Brecon to amuse myself in bookshops and cafes. It was strange day, the day after the UK’s referendum on its membership of the EU, and I found myself listening to the lilting Welsh accents around me to hear local reactions to the vote. After an hour or two pouring over the papers in the library and feeling cross, I hopped across the road to The Hours, a lovely little cafe bookshop with wooden beams and an upstairs full of secondhand books. My eyes soon alighted on a gem, a just-my-type of gem, Horatio Clare’s Running For The Hills (2006). A self-proclaimed ‘family story’, it follows the Clares as they struggle with, and settle in, to life on a Welsh farm in the 1970s and 1980s. I went downstairs to part with £3 for it, but got lured in by delicious smells coming from the cafe’s kitchen, so settled down to read it over lunch – I didn’t end up paying until the food was long gone and I was several chapters in.
The Clares, well, Miss Williams and Mr Clare Senior as they are at the time, acquire the farm in the days of their courtship, bought by him for her as a symbol of their love and in response to her need for space to be outside of London. It’s bought at auction for £11,000, out-dated and wild and full of mice and romance. Jenny and Robert marry soon after, and two boys are born within a few years – heroically named Horatio and Alexander. The marriage begins to disintegrate under differences of personality, the pressures of depression and distance, and in the end it’s Jenny living there by herself with the boys shuttling between Wales and London. For all this domestic instability the book isn’t a depressing read: Jenny’s love of the landscape is beguiling and easy to share, and anyone who has every longed for the space and freedom of living up in the hills will share her affection of this little corner of Wales, hunkered down by the Black Mountains.
For me it was an especially delicious read, as a few days before we had walked to remote Llantony Priory and along the way had come across a couple of farmhouses high in the hills, one derelict and empty of human life, the other in the process of transformation from ruin to homstead. The former was a tiny cottage hiding away in the woods, smelling of mould and mice, the latter a great late mediaveal manor lying at the valley’s head, painted a warm butternut yellow. No doubt the Clare’s house lay somewhere between the two: habited but gently crumbling, returning to the earth decade by decade.
What is unusual about the story is that it is told in the third person, with Robert and Jenny at a slight remove, but that it also moves into the first person as Horatio becomes sentient: what were Jenny and Robert’s becomes ‘ours’, and ‘I’ appears. Clare has drawn directly from his parents’ letters and diaries, combining this source material with his own memories of childhood, and it must have been a curious process, moving between what you could remember doing, seeing and feeling and what your parents recorded as having happened at the time to construct a narrative. You might expect a certain amount of navel-gazing too, but Clare is too wise a storyteller for this, and keeps his audience enthralled in the haphazard world of a London family making a go of it on a Welsh hill farm. Although the Clares’ marriage fails, the farm falls further into disrepair, and money runs away like water, I finished the book with a strengthened desire to do it myself, to live remotely and farm a small piece of land.
I’m making a small step in this direction later this month, moving from the bustle of Edinburgh to the rolling hills of Fife. We’ll be taking on the lease of a small cottage in the village of Ceres, and I can’t wait to have a garden to tend again and a kitchen bigger than a cupboard to cook in. The house (the middle one in the picture above) is older than most of the places we’ve lived in and we’ll have to walk over an ancient footbridge to get home each day. There’s no farm to tend, but I can’t wait to have space to roam in the evenings, and leave the omnipresent drone of cars and the wailing sirens behind. Edinburgh, you’ve been grand – but my heart’s in the country.