Thursday 11 June 2009

hiraeth, or the past isn't what it used to be

a photo from last year, because I didn't take one this year...

We were up in Skenfrith, in Monmouthshire, to swim in the River Monnow. The river was warm and full of life; mayflies were hatching out and bobbing up and down on the air, and I watched one that had just hatched out, standing on the water surface waiting for its wings to be ready to fly before launching itself up...

It was a good day to be there.

On the way back, I headed across country in a roughly southward direction, because it was shorter than going through Monmouth, and it was a more interesting route.

Of course we ended up going much further and taking far longer than we would have done had we taken the main road. But we were never entirely lost. Well, hardly ever.

The lanes got smaller and windier. We meandered down into a valley, then jinked up a hill and into a cool green wood, and suddenly came upon this church.

It's at Llanvihangel Ystern Llewern, which translates more or less as "St Michael's church on the bend of the river where the foxes live". I thought it looked familiar, and I was right, because the Offa's Dyke path passes through the churchyard, having ascended the slope from the banks of the Trothy below. I had to stop.

I had a little reminisce while Katie and her friend chatted together in the back of the car.

The first time I walked along here I was in my early twenties. I've been this way on foot four times now. Once on my own, thinking how nice it would be to share the experience with someone; I wonder how many people are happy with complete solitude? Once with Duncan and Roz. That was a lovely walk; we'd taken the bus to Abergavenny and camped the night before on a hill looking over to the Skirrid at Llangattock Lingoed, before spending the day walking across to Monmouth. And then once with Richard, getting wetter and wetter on our way to Llanthony; by the time we got there, our feet were so blistered that we hobbled into Hay and abandoned the walk. Not one of the happier trips, but definitely memorable, lying in the tent counting the seconds between the flash and the thunder...

...and the last time, two years ago, when Richard and I sat by a bend in the Trothy and ate our lunchtime pasties under the watchful eyes of a woodpecker guarding its nest.

Some of the older memories are imperfectly remembered or confused, and some are fixed so vividly in my memory that I can smell them. Like that evening at Llangattock Lingoed, drinking Felinfoel beer with Duncan and Roz, and sitting out in the stillness of a summer evening, happy in each others' company. Hard to evoke quite why they are so vivid; but they are. And now Duncan is dead, things are changed, thirty years have passed. And one day I shall have forgotten everything.

But not just yet, thank goodness.

Wordsworth's been there too, I think:
There are in our existence spots of time,
That with distinct pre-eminence retain
A renovating virtue, whence-depressed
By false opinion and contentious thought,
Or aught of heavier or more deadly weight,
In trivial occupations, and the round
Of ordinary intercourse-our minds
Are nourished and invisibly repaired;
A virtue, by which pleasure is enhanced,
That penetrates, enables us to mount,
When high, more high, and lifts us up when fallen.

...those are his words rather than mine. I'm just fumbling to try to express my own feelings. Or even just to put a name to them. This is what I wrote in 2003:

We went off to the Black Mountains again yesterday. The mountains were beautiful, and it was a gloriously hot day, and the children splashed around in the stream below a waterfall, although it was fairly well dried up.

...and then I had to leave early to rendezvous with P---- in a motorway service station. AS we descended the mountain I thought of what Catherine had been saying, as we lounged around munching the food and drinking champagne, about how it doesn't get better than this. What she meant encompassed the children's memories of the day at a future time, as well as our present felicity. She was mildly berated by Charlie, who said that she was setting limits on what is otherwise unquantifiable. But there is some truth in it. It's funny, actually BEING in the moment, and at the same time putting it in an historical context. And it's how I felt as Katie and I descended to the car together, down a long path through pastures where the sheep were sheltering as best they could from the heat, under bracken and bushes. And it was very still and quiet, only the occasional cry of a buzzard, and Katie was scuffing the dust up from the path to make clouds and the sound was very striking in the stillness, and her blue dress stood out vividly against the mountains and she was very happy and I was both sharing the moment and storing it to sustain me during the times in the future when we'll be apart... and I guess maybe she was doing the same, although she was more in the moment and didn't realise it.

It's funny being nostalgic for something even while it's happening. But I also remember long-past picnics and outings with my parents, and how it felt then, and how things have gone since then...


  1. "St Michael's church on the bend of the river where the foxes live". What a lovely name for a lovely church. What strikes me about the kind of memories you are describing is that nothing is happening in particular to remember. It’s just a blend of different senses – a moment. Wordsworth knew.

    Rob insists I can’t remember things that happened to me when I was two, but I’ve explained to him over and over again that they aren’t memories of events in the way that he would understand… I must see what Dom has to say about this aspect of memory – perhaps not.

  2. That's the classic country churchyard picture, Dru!

    I live on the bend of the river (Des Moines) where the foxes live.

    There is no complete solitude, even in the seeking for it.

    Thanks for the Wordsworth and the Marland, both exquisite! I certainly remember one or more events from my first two years, as have others I've known.

    As you say, it will all be forgotten, but "not just yet".

  3. I can remember things from very young too; for no particular reason, for instance, I can remember lying on the lawn at the front of the house sucking my toes. An insanitary habit, no doubt, that I've not been able to do for a very long time now...

  4. I can still suck my toes, Dru, and I'm 64. Not that I do. But that's no more insanitary than most of the things I do.

  5. Ouch. I just tried to get my toes as near my head as poss. Epic fail!