Review: Country Diary Wales by John Gilbey
This attractive volume charts journeys made by the author primarily in Ceredigion but also in the adjoining parts of Gwynedd, Powys and Pembrokeshire.
These vignettes originally appeared in the Country Diary column of the Guardian, and are here collected and ordered chronologically, beginning on the 1st of March and ending on the 25th of February.
The structure is simple and convincing: the author ventures out and observes the landscape, nature, the weather, and, in a certain sense, himself.
The walks are guided by the turning of the seasons, and if I were to summarize before expanding, I’d say that this diary is a chronicle of change and the restlessness of the world, natural and otherwise.
The text is greatly enriched by the author’s own photographs, which are frequently striking; these are not mere illustrations but a continuation of the text, and often a counterpoint.
Each walk is a short text, typically a few hundred words, and correspondingly concise, accompanied by at least a single photograph. As the title itself suggests, the subject matter is bucolic, but not necessarily idealistic.
It is to be praised that the author avoids a cloying sentimentality that sometimes characterises explorations of the Welsh countryside. Likewise, I appreciated greatly the use of Welsh names in a consistent manner (Afon Rheidol, Cors Fochno, and so forth) and the occasional references to the geographical commentary contained in Welsh-language placenames.
If anything, given that the author evocatively pries details from the landscape, this aspect could have been explored further, as Welsh placenames frequently allude to deeper strata of history, geography and mythology.
The concision of the writing can sometimes produce a slightly austere effect, however, and in a few of the walks, the last sentence could have been removed as the final thought or observation is occasionally bathetic, ending with a dying fall.
But it must also be noted that occasional bathos is a price well worth paying for the vigorous clarity of the writing.
I myself am familiar with many of the walks traced here, and the thrill of recognition was elevated by the unfamiliar and the unknown.
Though this is not a guidebook as such, it will undoubtedly introduce readers familiar with these parts of Ceredigion and Gwynedd to previously hidden corners.
Even if one were familiar with every walk outlined here, such a reader would benefit from the edifying newness of another’s vision.
Both the images and the writing threw a new light on Borth and the surrounding area in my case, and indeed many other areas, which has pushed me onwards along the paths.
The haiku and the englyn are frequently cited as classic examples of laconic, lapidary expression, but these are forms of verse, of course. It would be far too simplistic to compare the short pieces of concise prose found here to either of these well-established forms of poetry, but the broad ground for comparison is legitimate.
These essays – or micro-essays – are well-suited to the diary, and the author has found a form that he can replicate with unity and creativity.
These individual pieces do not feel like an ad-hoc collection or a compilation, but a coherent seasonal journey.
The author’s attentiveness to the natural world is the strength of this work. Anybody with an interest in the flora and fauna of Wales will find here an abundance of considered observation.
This naturalist element merges seamlessly with the environment and unobtrusive asides which succeed in imparting a sense of place and cynefin. It is almost an invitation to reflect yourself, and of course, to walk.
This is fundamentally a work in motion, a personal cartography. I am glad to see that a book of conscious walking such as this has been published; to walk and observe is a meditative act, one which is at odds with the everything-everywhere insistency of our digital world.
The mark of this book’s success is that I felt able to access and appreciate quite directly the author’s being in his landscape.
The scale, too, is important here: in addition to the unavoidable landmarks of the mountains, the beaches and the great bogs, we are also guided along narrow lanes deep in the interior, and to overgrown encampments up in the moors.
Much of Wales falls into this category: a series of small habitats (cynefinoedd, to use the more evocative Welsh word) mediated by personal experience.
As the climate changes and as the pressures on the land increase, we can all better protect our environment by observing it and knowing it.
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