Review: All the Wide Border – Wales, England and the Places Between by Mike Parker
Matthew G. Rees
A long time ago on a river in Wales an official of the era explained to me the justification for spending public money on a pass that enabled salmon and trout to swim upstream where they might otherwise have been impeded by a weir.
He said that people, even if they never went anywhere near the river, were happier if they knew there were fish in it.
More recently, on a BBC Radio 4 comedy show (of the slightly shouty sort), I heard a participant refer to a crop (I forget of what – but it seemed legal) that he said had been grown in ‘a forest in Herefordshire’.
The pinpointing of the location seemed to be done as an indicator of the quality and authenticity of the product (which may have been a mushroom, or a root vegetable of some kind).
I mention these matters because of the way I think they speak to how we all in some varying degree carry a hope of a better country (even a Promised Land).
And there are other angles to it. On one hand, ‘forest’ evokes a sense of magic and enchantment. On the other, are notes of mystery and darkness.
Mike Parker is a decorated writer who describes himself as ‘a middle-class Englishman turned cymro o ddewis (Welshman by choice)’. Originally from Kidderminster in Worcestershire, he has settled in Montgomeryshire, Mid Wales. A book by him – On the Red Hill – has told of his homemaking in a rural village with his Welsh partner Peredur. Parker has, among other things, been a Westminster parliamentary candidate for Plaid Cymru, coming second in 2015 in the West Wales seat of Ceredigion, now held by the party.
In his latest book, All the Wide Border – Wales, England and the Places Between, Parker turns his attention to that line which he crossed and its often-elusive nature amid the spine of shires on Wales’s flank with England, collectively known as the Marches (a term relating to boundary or border with roots in Anglo-Saxon and Latin).
The first thing to make clear about Parker’s book is that it is certainly not a volume of the coffee table variety. Nor is it really a work of the kind that tends to be termed travelogue. It is, rather, part history, part psychogeography, part polemic, part panegyric, part love letter. One senses throughout a fascinated, frustrated, restless and (at times) almost angry compulsion on the author’s part.
The second thing to record – as I suspect even those who are unpersuaded by his arguments will agree – is that he often writes very beautifully, with an ability to transport the reader and a knack for the nailed-it phrase. Pause for a moment in one of his paragraphs and you really can be there: on that ridge… in that churchyard… amid those ruins.
Take, for example, this passage from the book’s prologue –
‘The March, the middle land, is a will-o’-the-wisp. Hillforts and castle mounds growl from the green; church bells toll in lonely sunset skies; lanes twist and creak through the woods to take you where you least expected. Even the names on the map refuse to choose a side, written in a mash of two languages that have coupled in a hayrick and spawned a beautiful bastard third.’
Also this passage about the Vale of Ewyas in the southern March (a place I first knew in boyhood and am nervous to highlight for fear of its overexposure) –
‘…driving the thin ribbon of tarmac that climbs out of Hay, across the sheep-straggled shoulder of the Black Mountains, before descending into the folds of the valley of the infant Afon Honddu. “Something in the air of the place seems to have a profound spiritual effect,” said the 1969 Shell Guide to Wales, words I could only whisper in awestruck echo. It felt like processing down the nave of a great green cathedral, buttressed by mountains and baptised by the scampering waters. The roll-call of pilgrims, hermits and oddballs who have found solace here is long, and I yearned to join them.’
The third thing to mention about Parker’s book is that it is in many ways a meditation: on Wales and, particularly, its future. It sometimes seems as if Offa’s Dyke (which Parker likens, amusingly, to an early leylandii hedge) is the author’s perch on which to peer westward and consider what is best for the country he has made his home.
Parker’s thesis is that if its time hasn’t yet come, then it is inexorably drawing near. The ‘it’ being independence – Wales’s separation from England. Parker believes devolution a massively good thing, and his yearning for further steps is palpable.
In his account of travels on and into the Welsh border (its psyche as well as its physical geography), Parker detects signs in the landscape of – to his eyes and mind – the same longing. The fading he sees in a Union flag painted on limestone cliffs at Chepstow is to Parker a portent.
Bringing into play a raft of contemporary issues (from Covid to Ukraine) and making his volume satisfyingly encyclopaedic with examples and facts, Parker navigates from the Severn crossings in the south to the likes of Pontcysyllte Aqueduct in the north, immersing the reader in the soil and what he feels to be the spirit of the Marches.
Sometimes the places we visit are well-known – the enigmatic Stiperstones in Shropshire; the Norman-carved church at Kilpeck in Herefordshire; the sole survivor of its kind in Britain that is the Monnow Gate at Monmouth.
But our journey is far from conventional, and Parker is far from the average guide. He has us stop at times at places of strange dilapidation and eerie desolation.
He treats us to some wonderful lines, writing for example of the ‘slow hiss of time’ at the small and remote village of Bettwys-y-Crwyn, which despite its name is situated not in Wales but in south-west Shropshire, England – evidence of the curious and uncrow-like way in which the official border weaves.
He is particularly good on the isolation that some Marches communities possess; effective, too, on what he feels to be a lingering, historic turmoil.
Caught in a storm at Bryn Amlwg on the Shropshire-Powys border, the author writes –
‘At this border crossing, lawlessness hangs like cordite on the breeze, and seeps into everything.’
The sense of distance from metropolitan centres including Cardiff is something Parker picks up on. Later, he quotes – approvingly – a passage by Welsh writer Jan Morris –
‘It is as though the British Isles are tilted permanently to one corner – the southeast corner, bottom right, where London stands seething upon the Thames… Everything slithers and tumbles down there, all the talent, all the money…’
The lines are good ones but arguably somewhat aged (written by Morris in the 1980s). This reader is tempted to tinker, replacing ‘British Isles’ with ‘Wales’. ‘London’ with ‘Cardiff’ and ‘Thames’ with ‘Taff’.
Even readers with direct experience of the Marches will likely encounter a surprise or two in Parker’s book. I had some vague knowledge that playwright John Osborne had in later life set himself up as something of a Shropshire squire. But I didn’t know that he was buried in the churchyard at Clun, a community more readily associated with the verse of A.E. Housman. Yet, there the Angry Young Man grown old rests – in a yard shared with a notable Marches ‘character’: the horse-wrestler William Lock.
Parker can himself seem if not angry then at least irritated quite a lot of the time. He has quite a few targets. Among them: the once Borders-based musician Mike Oldfield (over Brexit); the Westminster sketch-writer and Herefordshire resident Quentin Letts (Letts’ book: 50 People Who Buggered Up Britain); the Welsh Rugby Union; the House of Windsor; Boris Johnson – and more.
People and things Parker seems to like include Michael Sheen, turmeric cake, second-hand bookshops, Welsh (association) football, and the Senedd – except its appearance, which he likens to that of a Scandinavian regional airport.
At Eaton Hall, near Chester, Parker takes offence at the gated family seat of the Dukes of Westminster.
Few of us enjoy the spectacle of enormous wealth. Maybe I can, though, offer a small footnote about the sixth duke (who died in 2016 and who Parker quotes, not terribly favourably).
Several decades ago, the duke – Gerald Grosvenor in ordinary monikers – was an attendee at a Church-organised conference in Hereford on the subject of depression among people in rural areas, particularly young men in farming communities who at that time were susceptible to an unusually high rate of suicide (and quite possibly still are). Grosvenor, I think I’m right saying, had a personal interest in the subject: at points in his life he had suffered depression.
He arrived at the Bishop of Hereford’s ‘palace’ (in reality not that grand a property) at the wheel of a rather swish Jaguar XJS, but did so without flunkeys, bodyguards or ‘advisers’ of the kind we today see bag-carrying for even fairly junior politicians.
His presence and involvement helped bring profile and recognition to a difficult and hidden topic. My point? Toffs – even landed ones with ludicrous wealth from London property – aren’t automatically bad people… and have sometimes been known to do the right thing.
To be fair, Parker does have a few good words for the Williams-Wynn family, once huge landowners at the northern end of the Marches, for their contributions to language and the Arts.
But some of Parker’s ‘targets’ seem a little low-hanging.
I would have liked to have read him protesting the pay of the boss of Welsh Water whose recent twelve months’ remuneration – annual salary, bonus and pension contribution – has been calculated by observers to be £675,000 (at what – in Wales – is effectively a State concern).
Perhaps also the rewards given to those vice-chancellors of (in part) publicly subsidised Welsh universities whose personal financial packages are said to be close to £300,000 a year – in a country where many pension-less private sector workers subsist on the minimum wage (including, one suspects, not a few in-debt young graduates).
On matters of succession (William Windsor’s appointment as Prince of Wales et al), I wonder if Parker (whose earlier book Map Addict saw him write and present a series for BBC Radio 4) might not also have offered readers an opinion on the pattern of management at the BBC in Wales where three generations of the same family have been heads of the corporation.
One contention of Parker’s seems to be that financially the grass has been and is greener on the English side of the Marches.
However, the case of Bert Coombes, author of These Poor Hands (1939), who fled life on a dirt-poor Herefordshire smallholding for better prospects in industrial South Wales, would seem to suggest otherwise. (Herefordshire has historically had some of the lowest private sector wages in the English West Midlands – into which the county tends to fall for accounting purposes.)
I would also have liked to have seen more use of public transport by the author. Many – perhaps most – of Parker’s journeys seem to have involved cars, the referencing of road numbers, highways and car parks.
I know that finding public transport beyond Wales’s urban areas isn’t easy. In fact, the provision is abysmal – so in some respects Parker can’t be blamed.
But given his full-throated support for devolution and given that this book is an account of the Marches, one is inclined to ask what has the government in Cardiff done specifically for rural areas on the Welsh side of the border in terms of public transport (also social infrastructure and low-cost housing)?
Bus and rail links are vital if the creeping – and in some cases highly advanced – monopolisation of such areas by moneyed people (both English and Welsh) is to be resisted.
Parker gives disappointingly small space to the railways that once ran into the Marches (or at least its foothills).
However, I remember – perhaps 25 or so years ago – there being quite earnest discussions about the reinstatement of the Wye Valley line – and as a proper ‘working’ railway rather than a short ‘heritage’ route. Parker refers to the magic of walking on an old part of the line – but it is a mention by him made in passing.
A feature of public transport, be it bus or train, is that one’s views can be altered, and knowledge added to, by others – particularly ‘locals’ – who may be on board. Motorcars cocoon.
If it still exists (and I hope that it does), the Hereford to Brecon service bus via the Golden Valley is one that used to be worth the ride.
Although I concede the two books have different aims, a major contrast with Welsh Border Country by P. Thoresby Jones (1949) is the latter’s extensive referencing of railway and bus services – these being of a kind that meant the districts of the Marches were reachable by visitors who didn’t have cars.
Importantly, the availability of transport must have helped sustain the lives in the villages and small towns of the Marches of those who were less well-off but wanted to live there and whose families had lived there for generations.
Those still alive who knew the Marches of 40 or 50 years ago will likely feel that a few of its precious parts have been lost to an altered, more prosperous demographic and, in some cases, unsympathetic ‘improvement’ and commercial tat.
Special places and wonderful natural beauty remain, of course. But one fears for them and the possibility of a kind of gated suburb or upmarket retirement park writ large.
‘Up for it’ as he quite often seems to be, I’m not sure Mr Parker ever in his book takes his standpoints into what might be called a genuine ‘lion’s den’ (in terms of possible hostility to his opinions).
Maybe – in fairness to him – such a den doesn’t exist. Perhaps the people who live in the Marches know – by and large – the kind of place the border country is: neither wholly English nor wholly Welsh – a land apart. Which is to say that, in a way, they already have their independence and are relatively content with it.
In a cartoonish fashion, locals ‘have the T-shirt’, it might be said: Hay-on-Wye bookseller ‘King Richard’ Booth did it all (independence) way back in 1977.
A second – shorter – quibble: Parker’s strong and repeated support for the Welsh Government’s lockdown policies during Covid seems a little dated now, at a time when growing numbers of non-swivel eyed people are questioning the efficacy and legacy of those measures (and have been disappointed by the failure to hold a public inquiry in Wales on decisions taken in Wales).
Occasionally, passages in Parker’s book teeter on the edge of apologia. In a section on the welfare of the River Wye, where pollution has become a hot topic, Parker is swift to exonerate the Welsh Government of any failure. He may be right. However, a local activist quoted by Parker seems more nuanced, fearing that the ‘human ego’ of different administrations and authorities may be a potential problem.
It should be said, though, that in large part Mike Parker’s book is engaging, entertaining and very readable, particularly given the difficulty of the task he took on. He comments that ‘finding the essence of this furtive border is a notoriously frayed occupation’.
His attempt – in its lyrical, irreverent and convinced way (with photographs from his travels) – may well go down as the best yet.
All the Wide Border: Wales, England and the Places Between is published by HarperNorth and is available from all good bookshops.
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