Letter from the Garth
The Wooing Silhouette
Have you seen it from the A470?
An irresistible rock, wooing feet and pen. A mother hill rising above the cities like a shrine. A holy face interrupted with tumuli and skylark.
Y Garth means ‘the ridge’ or ‘the promontory’.
The word manifests itself in the fourteenth century, scratched into vellum by a monk, capturing an oral tradition in the crucible of his candle-lit scriptorium.
‘A wely di y garth mawr draw’ asks whether you see that great hill yonder?
Well, do you?
The Moon Night & the Eye
The Garth is never still.
Amber lights necklace its base volcanically. Each line snaking towards Cardiff’s sirens: the blues and the reds, alarm-clocking this dreaming lord from slumber.
He can’t turn them off because his hands are subterranean which means he can’t pull the wooded duvet over his head either. Instead, he’s hypnotised by orbiting cars and the wheel of winter wonderland.
He listens for the lapping waters of the Severn. Calm. Distant. The touch which once covered his balding head in a slow, frozen mass.
There’s a spot on the eastern side where this night can be carefully observed. An outcrop. It looks like a young mountain trying to break through, trying to catch a glimpse of moon, trying to compete with its brothers in the north. Only its fingers make it. Bare. Just grey stone, good enough to sit on.
From the crest, I drop to my bum, and find that ledge. I turn and face the hill, before skirting around to the seat. As I shuffle carefully, I freeze. Not a dizzy spell or animal, but an eye staring back at me from the cliff-face. A Monte Cristo prisoner? Impossible. A forgotten member of an underground menagerie? I doubt it. The hill itself?
I adjust my drifting contact lens. I blink and realise that I’m looking into a mirror glued crudely onto the rock. Perhaps some Huw or John thought it would be fun. I imagine this lad in a bunkbed across the valley, crawling to the window, and laser-penning the mirror with his new toy freshly delivered from St Amazon’s Black Friday sleigh. He gasps like an archaeologist when the green beam hits the mirror.
I turn to the moon.
Lunar light is purer. Like our squirrels, it returns into our forests, shifting our gaze away from the orange haze. The hill marks a luminous shift – artificial giving way to natural.
Beyond the Garth, conurbation turns to terrace; the terrace morphs into hamlet; the hamlet becomes a farmhouse; and the farmhouse disappears into Wales, eventually fusing with the stars.
The Morning Jog
“Is your Strava set?”
“I don’t need it now,” I show him my wrist, “behold…a Garmin.” I flash the black watch at my doctor friend. He squints in the early light, nodding all impressed. Creating clouds with our breath, we rub our hands before lifting our eyes towards the hill and the real cumuli.
It’s been a difficult week for him. Strep A and the epic hours, it’s starting to show. He doesn’t talk about work, but it marks his face with an indelible sigh.
“One sec.” He says, opening the car, opening the glove compartment, and chucking his phone in. The clatter is accompanied by a sniff, our noses in sprint mode.
We start at the school and jog towards the path sign, mossed-up and faint. The cold squelch surprises our legs. Water seeps through the trail runners and the watch beeps, telling us that the GPS is ready. It has a mind of its own and it never starts when you want it to.
My friend is fitter than me. He evolves into a deer, masterfully skipping from boulder to pebble. I’m panting heavily, regretting last night’s tiramisu.
“It’s wet this morning!” I break the silence, hoping that the chat will slow him down. It doesn’t.
“I know. This path’s a stream! Come on.”
The muddy lane opens into woodland. The leaves form a boeuf bourguignon while a dog walker spends a penny, zipping-up as we rush by. We pass a tyre swing and look at one another. We want to but choose not to. The tyre swings in the wind, a pendulum of sorts, waiting for our return.
“We head towards the holly tree and look for the stile.”
“The stile with the sheep’s skull?”
The stile transports us on to the hillside. Smaller trees are claw-like, and the full-stop crows helpfully punctuate its beauty. Undergrowth stubbles for a while, but a good track leads us through a herd of cattle. The view is as good as ever and the trig point comes into view like a cross on a Spanish peak.
“Mercy, I’m too heavy for this.”
We race. I feign exhaustion, and sprint to the trig.
I get there first, but he has the energy to jump up on the cairn. He stretches his arms like that Brazilian statue, and closes his eyes for the first time in weeks…
The Old Ways
The tumuli on our tops are an archipelago of burial sites. For now, the earth protects their crouching bones. But even those are unearthed eventually when the soil is sifted.
Not all the land has stayed-put. Mines have scarred its slopes, and stones have been looted from its store. The Garth, however, retains its form because its root is Pennant sandstone.
Nan Shepherd wrote that one must enter ‘into the mountain’. Remember, this entrance can be tricky because the hill makes us vulnerable, tempting us with its glory and peaks.
Seers are those who sojourn in the mountain; the ones who return; the inspectors of crag and crib; the ones who speak with angels and dream of ladders; and the ones that find water in the most unlikely places, weaving Brocken Spectres out of moisture and light.
May we all be surveyors, not baggers, with hind’s feet on high places.
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