#34 Embracing the craic, the folk in the yoke

Shoulder muscles straining with low-speed clutch work, I disgorged the motorbike out of the ferry’s maw down slippy metal gantries.

Stadium-sized sodium lights highlighted steady drizzle- Rosslare docks at dawn- our first sight of Ireland.

The ferry had left Wales at 2:15am, and the passage across had been like a giant sleepover. Adults drugged by driving and children snug in onesies sprawled across sofas, armchairs and on the carpet, snoring, snoozing, or getting up to stagger sidelong into walls towards the toilets, gently rocked by the Irish sea.

We breakfasted at Wexford, opposite the statue of John Barry. The town had a quaint, forgotten air, looking out on a choppy little bay with a single fishing boat. Several spiegeltents decorated the front beside the empty railway line.

Heading northward, we crossed the bridge at Enniscorthy. The River Slaney followed alongside us, brilliant and fast flowing. We stopped at Carlow, our tired eyes arrested by the bricked-up windows of many of the stone cottages lining the approach road.


The high street was more depressing. It was a greyish morning, but the uniform grimness of cheap bars, betting shops, 1Euro shops and Polski Skleps seemed relentless and mean.

Three restorative cups of tea drunk, we headed out and north again, stopping briefly to stretch out under a wind-bowed hawthorn among psilocybe semilanceata on a hill by Ballintlea. The Wicklow Mountains, blue-tinted like a stage backdrop, reared up in the distance, far beyond the agricultural plateau formed of County Laois, County Kildare and County Wicklow.

We continued through dull Portloaise and the cynical architecture of Tullamore (admittedly skirting the town centres) until we finally reached our log cabin near Rathconrath. We had travelled 657km in 20 hours. Tea, and oatcakes with peanut butter sent us plummeting into unconsciousness within minutes of arrival. When we woke, hours later, the sky was already dimming. We roller-coastered along the swooping R392 into Mullingar for supplies, promising ourselves our first real Irish Guinness at the unassuming looking petrol station/grocers/bar we passed.

Top-box loaded with wine, cheese, potato farls and bread, we side-stood the motorbike and went into Gunnings at about 6:30 pm. The door opened into a plain little shop. There were several customers with their groceries, and each nursed a pint of Guinness on the shop counter. Facing us, was an ecclesiastical-looking wooden screen with a frosted glass door. We walked through, and found the bar.


It’s hard to properly describe Gunnings’ rugged simplicity and worn charm. Every surface bears some evidence of age and long usage. Each element seems to have achieved balance with its neighbour- the stone floor, the wooden parquet ceiling.


The battle-scarred dartboard,


and its accompanying scoreboard, almost worn through.


The first, nourishing Guinness,


The skew-whiff leatherette sofa behind.


All things felt right and, despite being still fully leather-clad, we felt we were now actually somewhere else. There were only three other people in the bar, the young barmaid, and two men in earnest discussion on bespoke log-hewn bar stools.

John and Anthony

One and a half Guinnesses in, I went over and asked the nearest man about Irish roads. To the newcomer, it’s not obvious what the broken yellow line on the fast N-roads denotes (it’s a hard-shoulder). The question was reciprocated; I explained where we’d come from, where we were staying. He knew our host. I called J over and we introduced ourselves properly. John introduced Anthony, and explained that they’d been at a wake most of the day. Somehow, within minutes, John had invited us along on a drive to another bar. We had meant to head home, cook dinner and rest up (we were due at a dance festival in the early hours the next night, we had been travelling for 20 hours), that was the sensible thing to do, the responsible choice.

Obviously, we said yes.

John had soon threaded us deep into a knotted network of lanes that we had no chance of remembering. It was somehow like becoming children; aided by fatigue, excited by chance, we absolved ourselves of responsibility. I rediscovered a treasured, long forgotten word my old landlord from Tipperary had taught me: yoke. It means thingamajig.

I videoed a fragment of the journey, talking about Gunnings:

We arrived at The Beech Tree at Streamstown, and found a warm welcome. The landlady lent us plates to make our own sandwiches on, and John and Anthony let us be awhile. Another Guinness in, and we felt ready to mix and were introduced around the bar.

Beech tree Guinnesses

We had another Guinness and a half (known as a lady – worth having as it comes in that corset-shaped glass), said our farewells and headed back out.

John suggested we went back to Gunnings. Why not?

But now, it was different and charged with life. The modest space was filled with people, movement and music, talking, clamour, folk airs on aeolian pipes, melodeons, a whistle, a guitar, singing. We had flowed automatically into the bar and now, immersed deep in the throng, we took in the array of glad, open faces. John introduced us to many, most of whom were farmers, or former farmers of beef cattle. We were given snuff, more Guinness, I was given a lesson on the melodeon, discussed the styles of music played (the waltz, the horn-pipe, the jigs, the reels)…

More Guinness, more music and more talk until, 7 Guinnesses and a lady down, we finally had to rest. Martin, cheerfully sober, sustained by the snuff he’d shared, drove us to our cabin and bid us a goodnight. It was, it had been, and it won’t be forgotten.

Generous, honest, warm, hospitable people, all gathered together, embracing us easily into their midst.

How can it be that something so clearly natural felt utterly unfamiliar?

#33 Monsters and minnows

Swinton Bike Insurance are offering a prize-draw:

Swinton prize drawHere’s my entry:

Exmoor – monsters and minnows

A sudden bout of vomiting (my partner’s son’s) meant our planned tour of Southern Ireland was scuppered, so we sulked for a few days before settling on Exmoor. We decided to spoil ourselves to make up for the disappointment and booked this place:


I had to learn a polka for a friend’s wedding in a few days, so I had to pack my accordion. The VFR had little trouble, but we were pretty cosy with two side-panniers, a top-box, the accordion bungied in front of the top-box, J- my partner- and me. Tight!

All I’d known of Exmoor before then was Butlins. This time, there were no yellow-coats, just seething fields of heavy corn, ancient woods and hidden valleys. The VFR is a heavy bike but, as we joined the B3188, it plunged easily into the sinuous, tree-tunnelled fringes of Exmoor.

We stayed at Yarde, soon discovering the landscape is dense with holloways, high hills and quick-running streams. Owls accompanied our later-than-planned pub walk to Stogumber with their plaintive calls.

I had been nervous about taking the VFR, J and myself up Porlock Hill. Wikipedia states that it is `a very steep hill with gradients of up to 1 in 4 and hairpin bends.’ It is the steepest A-road in the country. I’d asked several locals if motorbikes went up- they all seemed confident that they did. Thing is, I’m not tall (5’7″) and the combination of heavy bike, pillion, 1:4 gradient and hairpin bends seemed challenging. There is a get-out, a toll road for less intrepid travellers. That decided it.

There is an ominous sign replete with dire warnings at the beginning of the hill.


We cruised past, it mattered not. J and I don’t use a motorbike intercom system, so I doubt whether she was aware of how psyched I was. Every sensory nerve was firing, a steady mantra of `low gear… use clutch… perfect line…’ looped in my head. The gradient suddenly tilted upward and we were committed, there was no way I could even attempt a U-turn now. The V-four engine pulled smoothly in 2nd as the first hairpin scrolled toward us. Then, somehow, it disappeared behind us with barely a conscious manoeuvre. Following the racing line (though not at racing speed) with a deep lean to the left, the second hairpin passed without incident. Unseen, inside my helmet, I gave a slight `woop’ and grinned, then pulled back on the throttle.

We parked further on at County Gate, a National Trust car-park with massive views


trekked along the coast there and did some painting. On the way back, as the sunset gave way to a chilly evening, we decided to hook a right off the A39 onto the New Road which flows smoothly down into the Doone Valley.

We were both gradually overwhelmed by the weathered, simple beauty of what the road revealed. It is not easy biking- tiny lanes, loose gravel and blind bridges- but it was a valley of unceasing allure. The Oare Water ambles darkly along the valley floor under stone arch bridges, fish darting into shadow. Faded, Georgian manor houses hide just beyond sight amid rambling gardens of rhododendron. A fox and his vixen froze at our passing, then padded away in opposite directions. We parked up and stood by the river, breathing deeply and feeling like we had stumbled backward in time. Apart from the cooling motorbike, there was no outward sign of modern technology for miles.

Reluctantly, we left. It was late twilight, we were hungry. The road wound its way back toward the A39, then perversely morphed into a far more challenging series of hairpins amid steepness than Porlock Hill. Somehow, despite my tiredness, I managed to ride us safely upward but there was no avoiding riding up the wrong side of this capricious lane.

Our getaway on Exmoor ended too soon. We had come here to soothe the regret of missing Ireland yet, we hadn’t spoken of Ireland once. The polka was learned, stresses purged, new roads embedded deep in our memories and pledges made to return on the motorbike to this happily underpopulated corner of Somerset.


#31 Travelling

In my mind, the dark roads had already unfurled themselves ahead of me, the broken white line flickering to my right. I had begun to lean into corners that unspooled from the dense night beyond.

So, when the journey was aborted by a stomach bug, that particular anticipated experience was severed from this time-stream. Last night’s midnight-run from here, through Wales to Pembroke Docks was left hanging like an ellipsis. To be continued…

Mastering the disappointed child-within is decorous, and necessary. As my mother would gladly attest, I’m predisposed to sulk. This last-minute cancellation of our motorbike trip to Eire is prime sulk material, I could (un)happily use up this kid-free week in a heavy funk. Yet, somehow, I won’t. The ferry can be re-booked, there are refunds on the air-b-and-bs. A bumble bee is surveying the lemon balm, and my sweet-heart’s foot is resting against me.

Next year _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ __ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

#23 Redventures

I sold my motorbike- Reddi-  on Monday. Here she is, or was:Image

It had not been quite a year that I had her, but we have had some memorable times:

  • never-ending waterfalls above Talybont reservoir
  • the after-work trip to Tintern last summer, sitting amongst the beeches above the Wye painting in the fading light, jumping the wall of the abbey, roaming the silent ruins in the dark, roaring back up the sinuous road to Chepstow, and across the Severn Bridge
  • Dymock woods, via the Wye valley- working the jaw of a badger skull , ceps,  yellow stagshorn fungi


  • finding the Somerset floods- parking by Ivy Thorn Way on Cockrod, above Street, gazing out across the ruined fields shimmering in late afternoon sun, then skipping around puddles
  • coffee and breakfast in Bradford on Avon, then to Devizes and up Roundway Hill, cat and mouse with deer, sliding down the deep, fleshy folds of the landscape on our arses, water-colour painting side by side

IMG_2073 gliding partridge, a few hares.

Last Wednesday, I dismissed my class a minute earlier and was the first out the school gates; I had a taxi waiting there. We drove to my daughter’s school, collected her and then headed into Bristol to the Colston Hall. We met my daughter’s mum, who took my daughter home with her while I caught the 4:35 Megabus to Leeds, 207 miles away. Barry met me at Leeds bus station and drove us to his place near the A1, and I bought his motorbike:

8It was a long way to go, and it had only been a one-way ticket, but I had talked with Barry for quite a while during several long  phone conversations. What particularly encouraged me was that his voice was almost exactly the same combination of Yorkshire straightforwardness and gentle kindness of a previous Head of Department. Strange to perceive so much of a personality through a voice. He gave me several cups of tea and a cheese and tomato sandwich. His house was traditionally furnished, some oil paintings of sailing ships and a grandfather clock. He offered me a spare bed for the night but, as I needed to collect my daughter and go to work in the morning, I declined. I set off from Leeds on the new bike at around midnight.

I took it slowly at first, getting accustomed to the torque-y engine, then leaned forward and flew down along the misty carriageway. I got lost. I should have found my way to the M1 and shot south towards Birmingham. I somehow stayed on the older A1 and was soon penetrating the borders of alien territories: Rutland, Sherwood Forest, Cambridgeshire. The bike is quick, so by the time the recognition that I was far off-course fully dawned on me, I was in deep.

The truck stop at Stibbington was a welcome sight, I think I pulled in around 1:15am. The man working in the empty cafe sorted me out with directions to Leicester, black coffee and a snickers. The chairs were all up, the light seemed jaundiced and faded. I was glad to share a little time, small talk and company before stepping out into the void. Apparently, he’d never had the co-ordination for bikes- liked them, but would have killed himself.

His directions sent me on the A47, a much more involving road of plunging corners, rippled straights and unexpected, sleeping villages that scrolled past like silent narratives.

When I slipped into surburban Leicester at around 2:15am, I was quite tired. I pulled in to the Shell garage at the junction of Uppingham and Coleman Road to refuel. I asked a young asian lad getting out of a Golf GTI for directions toward Birmingham. He wasn’t sure, so he asked his mate who was pissing against the wall of the garage. When he’d finished, he offered to escort me to the M42. And so it was, that these two hospitable ambassadors of Leicester lead me through the intricate,  empty city. I left them at Enderby with a salute of thanks and began the penultimate stage.

I stopped in the Waitrose/Petrol station at Hopwood Park on the M42. I had another black coffee and texted J at 3:18am. I bought deep red tulips, which I locked into the top-box and set off. I arrived in Keynsham around 4:30. I took my bike cover off Reddi and, after it’d cooled, placed it onto my new bike. I got changed and drove to J’s.

There was a candle for me in the hallway. The pre-dawn chorus was beginning. I got a glass of water from the kitchen, blew out the candle and went upstairs, my mind still racing.

The motorbike journey had taken 4 1/2 hours from the witching hour until dawn.

281 miles

4 hours journey time

Average: 70 mph

#18 A stream, a painting and chicken-of-the-woods

After so much pleasure and fulfillment, a day of discovering my own company. I haven’t been out on the motorbike for almost a month and so today, despite heavy clouds and strong winds, I packed, trundled the bike from the back of my house, and went out. After passing through Clifton, Bristol to drop off a broken amp and buy a small watercolour kit and paper, I went against the current of the Avon, under the suspension bridge and left the city by the south road towards Weston-super-Mare. I followed my nose. The bike was smooth and I felt like a child again, swooping and flicking the front round pot-holes and puddles. I eventually ended up in the Mendips, south of Priddy, above Wells, on a hillside above Lower Milton. There was just room enough to park the motorbike by a stile that lead downwards. I locked the bike up and mounted the stile. Ahead of me, the hill dropped down, bordered by a line of hawthorns along the ridge, and a tunnel of hazels interspersed with tall ashes below. My eyes lifted to the horizon to see the distant Glastonbury Tor gazing back at me. blogpic

I walked down, a little awkwardly in motorcycle boots and headed for the trees at the bottom. I could see a stream flashing out from beneath the low canopy, so climbed over a fence alongside and sat against the base of one of a pair of massive ashes that stood alongside the water. This is what I saw:

2013-06-22 002I lit my smoke and opened my new watercolour kit. It is a Windsor & Newton Sketcher’s Pocket box. Inside, there was an excellent and detailed folded instruction leaflet that I read whilst I smoked, the sound of the stream and nearby sheep increasing my sense that I had found the right place.

The instructions suggested that I begin by sketching an outline. This, I did:

2013-06-22 003

I dipped the seed head of a flowering grass beside me into the stream at my side to wet the paper.

I then applied my first set of washes, left to right, as instructed:

2013-06-22 010I used moss from the tree behind me to drop water into the mixing palette:

2013-06-22 009I admit to feeling slightly smug that Nature had laid everything on for me so conveniently. When we are smiled upon, it makes sense to smile along.

I added in the next few stages of darker washes:

2013-06-22 011

2013-06-22 015The line of dark green showing the shadowed fringe beneath the canopy of the distant trees on the brow of the field beyond me.

While that deep blot of green mid-left dried, I went for a stroll.

The stream delved down into a cleft that led downhill amongst yet more hazels and ash. I had to dip and clamber through several thickets until a clear path appeared that followed the stream, only deer-prints suggesting any other visitors here. It is an enchanted place, verdant with self-seeded plants at the feet of their mother trees, ripe with the mushroom-like fragrance of ancient boughs decomposing in the cold, moist air.  I found a lurid chicken-of-the-wood mushroom to take home and cook:

2013-06-22 016

A black cat appeared from nowhere, slipped across my field of view and disappeared. For a moment, I thought I saw a deer in my periphery and my senses sharpened. They then heightened and my whole spine tingled in caution as the image resolved to this:

2013-06-22 017

A decaying chair. A sinister throne with its ghastly sitter momentarily absent. I leapt across the stream to take some other shots:

2013-06-22 019

2013-06-22 018

The feeling that I got seemed to suggest that now was a good time to leave. I headed directly up the bank

2013-06-22 027and found myself in a vast field that I knew led down towards Wells:

2013-06-22 021

I walked back towards the shadow of the trees, past a rope swing, and added the finishing touches to my first ever concerted attempt at a watercolour. I used the stream to rinse out the palette,

2013-06-22 028

then added what I could to finish the painting:

2013-06-22 001I left this place, clambered up the hill and took a photo of myself because I felt happy:

2013-06-22 032I looked like Sade:


#15 May Hill

I had thought my precious things were kept in a trunk in my bedroom: the photos, old books of my poems, small carvings, penknives, binoculars. They are not. Within the span of a day, many of these things left the trunk and were hurled into the unknown for God-knows-who to pick up from a roadside and vanish. But they are not my precious things.

J is working on a film this week and wanted props for a scene: writer’s things, notes, effects from boyhood. I have these sorts of things. I packed a selection in my tail-pack, strapped it to the motorbike and headed into a beautiful afternoon. I had caught a glimpse of May Hill the previous weekend as I drove down Tog-Hill (on the edge of the Lansdown Hills behind Bath). Its pine-crested top was quite distinct at almost fifty miles. The ride up was good, though the hill was not signposted at all, so I followed my nose once I’d found Newent. May Hill belongs to the National Trust and is reached over a cattle-grid and a cemented track which leads to a car-park, an easy 25 minute walk from the top.

I parked, and then set about the business of taking off my leathers and assembling my kit. Between the tail-pack, my rucksack, leathers and helmet, I carried around 25kg with me up the hill. It was a steady climb and didn’t take long. From the top, the views seemed unending.


I stripped to the waist, laid my kit around me and settled down for a kip.


Around twenty minutes later, I woke, ate a sandwich and began to write what came to mind:

Facing south west, looking towards Symonds Yat where I was conceived on a January day in 1974. The thought that it would have been cold, so the chance that it was in the back of a car is quite high.

And so. Nothing is perfect; beautiful, purposeful beings are born from small, imperfect beginnings.

Then west, to Gloucester where I came into the world and passed from hand to hand until I came to be in Cornwall with Margaret and Colin, my adoptive mum and dad. They came from a terraced street of brick houses by the railway line in St Austell that held many unspeakable things, and from a likely loveless semi-detached in Sutton Coldfield.

Why did I want to see J’s school?

Because: I want to know her in the past as well as now. The feeling that loving her completely is made more so by following paths she walked as an innocent, inquiring girl, beautiful, free.

The pledge I made I am re-avowing- I want to be complete, the understanding that I am not yet. That, for many reasons too well-known to list, I doubt myself, feel ungrounded, unsure and unsteady often.

Just as I had no control over being born, passed over, raised, sent away, so the need to feel certain about how others feel about me is wasteful, a negative leak of energy. There are things that can’t be known. For every one of us, the mind of another is a vast landscape through which it is a privilege and an adventure to travel.

I love J.

I love her the way otters move in water- the delight, the pleasure of immersion in a medium that lifts and soothes, urges and sustains.

The noise of an animal interrupted my writing. I looked up into the pines that crest the hill, and saw a lone cow loping through the trees. I ran over to see.


Soon, she was joined by others.

IMG_0442They moved smoothly through the glade, the established tenants, then diminished down the westward slope.

I hadn’t much time, as I was to meet J at her mum’s in Cheltenham for dinner and then go to a gig. As I had carried so many unlikely objects with me, I took a few daft shots,


IMG_0431then headed down.

I changed in the woods, surrounded by wild ponies and a few foals. I put the tail-pack on the bike, the rucksack on my back and left the hill behind me. Re-entering Newent, I noticed J’s school which I had cast about for on the way in. It has a clear southward view to the hill. I cruised through the town and, when I joined the B4215, pulled back on the throttle to make up for any lateness. Ten minutes later, I glanced back in my mirror and saw that the tail-pack was gone.

It contained:

  • A book of my own poems from between 1989 and 1997
  • The plaster of paris cast of a sculpture of Joseph’s grandfather (above)
  • A framed photograph of White Horse Hill
  • Notes for my screen-play
  • A glass J paper-weight
  • My Opinel knife
  • Binoculars
  • Two large photos of me from the 70s
  • Camper shoes
  • G-star jeans
  • All Saints shirt
  • A carved Native Indian head

I think I grimaced, said No, and turned around.

A motorbike may possibly be the worst vehicle to have when thrown into an anxious rage, it allows for absolute expression of mind-state through speed, adrenaline channeled through the throttle like a nitro add-on kit. I scoured every inch of the hedgerows all the way back to May Hill. I knew that anyone who saw the pack would want it. The Kriega US-20 is a beautifully made, expensive piece of gadget luggage and this one was brimful of surreal treasures.

At the car-park on May Hill, not a sign. A gentleman in his car informed me of the non-emergency 101 number. As I sped back into Newent, I caught sight of a man at the side of the road, his wife lying on the pavement. Something moved me to stop and ask for help. Steve had just returned from winning an amateur rugby match at Twickenham and had drunk a lot of pints, his wife was too pissed to move. Steve reassured me that he had seen my pack a few hundred yards back and, if it wasn’t there, that it would be in Newent Circle Club. I was incredulous, this wonderful, drunk giant of a man had the answer. We embraced, his height emphasised by being on the kerb, me in the road. I felt like a child. After another emphatic handshake, I mounted the bike and rode into town.

There was no sign of the pack, so I called in to the Circle Club. No pack. No-one knew anything and, moreover, it was now apparent that everyone was extremely drunk. I left my number and began to walk the main street. In the chinese, several casualties said they’d seen nothing. In the Co-op, a girl called for her manager who didn’t show. In The Red Lion, the bar-man took my number, as did the lad in The George which was crammed with eighteen year olds leering and drinking and shouting and swearing. In CostCutters, the woman at the till and a drunk customer both said that it’s a terrible place here, they’ll take anything. This was Newent on a Bank Holiday Sunday.

I was late and felt I had done everything possible within the limits of my diminishing power. I headed for Cheltenham. Still pulsing with fury and loss, I found my driving became more daring. I now know that I am able to lean and take a corner at 70 and I also know exactly what speed I am willing to take my bike to on an empty dual carriage-way between Gloucester and Cheltenham. I think I made the journey in about twenty five minutes.

I arrived and gave J’s mum the white saxifrage I’d brought in my rucksack for her birthday. I chalked MANY HAPPY RETURNS X X X on the pot with a piece of chalk from White Horse Hill. It made me feel slightly better. I was too late for dinner and J’s mum was not well, so I set out to catch up with J en route to the gig. A railway crossing lowered in front of me. I stopped, turned the engine off, dismounted and leaned with my chin on the crossing gates. The train was headed north, bound for Birmingham New Street. It was a train I had been on many times as a child between school and home. I felt many former selves passing before me. The gates raised and, as I accelerated across a junction, I heard a faint shout and, at the same time, knew and saw in the periphery that it was J. I turned around as she ran up the street, pulled over and cast my helmet, glasses and gloves down on the pavement and we wrapped ourselves in our arms. She was crying, I tasted the tears and kissed them. It’s not your fault.

We didn’t go to the gig. We were overcome. There was too much to feel, too much to say without the words. We found many precious things in the course of the night, none more true than how we find each other. We lay against a tall pine opposite the marquee and heard the singer’s voice rumble the fabric. I tasted the lovage in the picnic J’s mum had sent with her. I lay my head in her lap and breathed the air.

My lost things, our lost loves, the lives we once had are now and forever gone, yet somehow still with us. They made us.

We went out then, into the deepening indigo, away from the show and the people. J showed me the caryatids beneath the flat she shared with her first love. Above, a pair of attic windows were flung open to the sky, and I imagined the lovers inside, drifting into the night as ghosts.