Review: Sound Walk to Hay-on-Wye made us attentive to the aural textures of the world
It’s one thing to present a radio programme but quite another to preside over the creation of a whole new genre but that’s precisely what the Welsh writer Horatio Clare has done with his ‘slow radio’ walks. He’s sauntered around Greenland and followed in J.S. Bach’s footsteps across Germany when the composer was unknown, tracing his journey to being a musical genius. They’re antidotes to the usual thrum and white noise of life, gentle, insightful opportunities to go for a walk without leaving the house.
The sound walk recently re-broadcast was a gorgeous, languorous walk along Wales’ crinkled edge, slowly tramping the sinuous borderlands from Capel-y-Ffin to Hay-on-Wye and took just over four hours and was a veritable balm for the spirit. It took the listener in pretty much real-time along Offa’s Dyke, pausing to consider parts of the land known ‘only to its farmers and poachers’ and called for new methods of recording.
The resulting walk was a mesmerising listen, shot through with the delight of enjoying emptiness, of appreciating gaps between commentary where one could enjoy the sussurating wind or heaven-bound bursts of skylark song. And that commentary was often judicious and sparse, as Clare paused to savour the smell of nettles or the colour of the red, Devonian sandstone earth underfoot or the blue of the high skies.
The words often came as little clusters, or bouquets, as he noted the violets and celandines in the hedgerows, saw black sheep ‘painted onto a field’ or noted how the ash was late this year. He sees cumulus clouds like ‘giant puffballs’ as he crosses a Welsh landscape that is ‘deep, ice-cut, ridge-shouldered, piled’ and talks about the other side, places such as the Golden Valley of Herefordshire and villages such as Peterchurch, which have a different tempo, with their ‘hobbity green hills’ and lusher coombes.
Being a keen-eyed birdwatcher, too, Horatio Clare ticked off the various species such as the handsome wheatears and notes the myriad calls and song-signs, from the ‘throaty coo’ of the wood pigeon to the mewing of soaring buzzards overhead. And of course he shared his enthusiasms, not least for the hill faces where fenced land yielded to ‘the great freedom of the tops’ or ther gnarly rootscapes at the base of the gorse.
There was a sort of incidental soundtrack with folk songs by Sam Lee and lush orchestral works by composers such as William Mathias, György Ligeti and Alun Hoddinnott as well as traditional melodies played by harpist Catrin Finch The ambling, rambling peregrination was also interspersed with bright little snatches of conversation with the likes of Brecon-based poet Chris Meredith invoking the names of local streams such as the Rhiangoll and hills such as Allt yr Haul, a genuine sunlit upland, as well as verse by the likes of Thomas Traherne and Shelley hymning larks.
Tom Bullough, the gifted prose-poet of Radnorshire conjured up the addlands, or headlands of this sparsely populated county in readings from his novels, coloured with dialect and particularised in terms such as ‘pitch’ for slope, local language reflecting a deeply known landscape. Likewise the Hay-on-Wye based artist and printmaker Susan Milne painted sprightly word portraits of her patch, demonstrating a deep affection for the place and its daily inspirations, as befits someone whose studio is an old shepherd’s hut.
As the minutes melt away the land rises and Clare appreciates the deceptive horizons of the Black Mountains and the change in terrain as he gains height to a ‘sponginess’ with ‘pale sedges, dark peats… mosses and bent sheep’s fescue.’ The romantic in him could not but be satisfied by the huge portals of beautiful aquarium blue in the sky. It was often exultant, joy-filled, very, very special radio, but quietly so, the producer’s restraint allowing us, too, to appreciate the way each ten-yard stretch of path has its own character or the ‘lovely moment when the mountain shows you the path to come.’
Sometimes we heard just the squelch and footfall of boots and at other times quiet, convivial musings about the shapes of the land, the magic it holds, especially in the liminal, in-between-place that is the border. Clare has a voice rich as exploding fruit and a love of place – he is never that far from the Black Mountains’ sheep farm where he grew up – and a way of expressing it that simply captivates. You walk in step with him, enjoy his knowledge about tough grasses on the moorland stretches or the sure sweep of a kite’s forked tail. It’s gossipy presentation. How celandines bloom at the same time the swallows arrive or the seasons come slower on one side of the mountain because of its shadow.
So, the programme unfurls like ‘goosenecks of fern’ fronds. Haze dissipates to reveal Hay Bluff. Tiny dwellings dot the view. The Gospel Pass is a revelation. The skies open out above Hatterall Ridge. Meanwhile, a small plane crosses overhead. A foal staggers into view. It’s all simply transporting stuff. The sound walk was a pointillist landscape painting for radio where the artist’s brush is a microphone, and we were made attentive to the aural textures of the world when properly listened to, the unintrusive words of the presenter deft strokes to make the colours bright. Golden bursts of gorse. Bright pasture. The arch of a ridge against the sky. So many larks.
Sound Walks to Hay-on-Wye broadcast on BBC3. You can listen again here.