Running For The Hills

Running for the hillsI 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. P1010077

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.

Ceres Fife RCAHMSI’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.

 

 

Reading on the hoof

Reading on the hoof

…and I’m back! Scotland furnished me with a whole heap of exciting new books to get my teeth into (metaphorically, of course, but I am one of those people who reads in the bath and writes in the margins), so here’s a quite overview of my recent acquisitions:

IMG_0612The Hedgerow Handbook, Adele Nozedar – a gift from the aforementioned lovely friend, this came accompanied by a massive jar of delicious beetroot and orange chutney. I love foraging, preserving and – of course – ingesting, so this book will enable me to do those more safely, more successfully, and more enjoyably. It has beautiful hand-drawn illustrations, and is handily sized to fit into a small rucksack or large jacket pocket. You can read much more about it here. It’s not the sort of book you can ‘read’ like a novel, it’s more like a poetry anthology that you dip in and out of as the mood (or need) takes you. Some of the recipes sound bizarre (Himalayan Balsam Curry), some delicious (Rose petal Turkish Delight) and all interesting. Nozedar gives a history of the plants and their uses, as well as practical recipes and tips on how to find and identify them. The perfect present for autumn!

On the Black Hill, Bruce ChatwinOn the Black Hill, Bruce Chatwin – another gift from the lovely AND generous friend, this one I devoured in a few hours on the long journey to Inverness via Blairdrummond. A name I vaguely new, but an author whom I’d never read, Bruce Chatwin cuts a rather mysterious figure; he died, tragically prematurely, of AIDS at the age of 49 in 1989. On the Black Hill is the tale of two twins and their lives on a farm in Wales, whose lives roughly span the 20th century. The brothers are bound together by love, hatred, biology and duty; their tale is hypnotic in the transfixing madness, stubbornness and inscrutability of its characters. The book embodies all that is cruel, beautiful and inevitable about the farming life, telling the story of a century as it charts the life of this remote family. Thoroughly recommended; now to find something else by him to read…

The Time by the Sea, Ronald Blythe – this appeared in the ‘Sale’ box of the wonder that is The Watermill in Aberfeldy.

Time by the Sea (and my duvet)

Time by the Sea (and my duvet)

The Time by the Sea is Blythe’s autobiographical rememberings of Aldeburgh in the 1950s, peopled with such luminaries as Benjamin Britten, Imogen Holst, Peter Pears,  and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson. I have high hopes for it as I love, love, love Ronald Blythe’s Akenfield, set in a Suffolk my father’s family grew up in but which has now almost completely disappeared. It was made into a hugely popular film in 1974 by director Peter Hall, and charts life in a Suffolk village through the 20th century without pathos but with a clarity which makes you look anew at the world around you. If you can’t lay your hands on a copy of the book (and don’t want to pay for the film before you’ve seen it!), you can watch a snippet of it here:

The Lacuna, Barbara Kingsolver – another Watermillian find, this one is by the author of the brilliant Poisonwood Bible. IMG_0615I haven’t read anything by Kingsolver for years, but this one features real-life characters  including Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo fictionalised in the story of Harrison William Shepherd. For a full review, have a look at what the NYT had to say.

Also, long car journeys have been perfect for long sessions in thrall to Radio 4 – here’s one of my favourites, a snippet from the fantastic Listening Project: Peter and Amy – Ronnie’s Recipes (The Listening Project)