When I received the news that I had Type II Diabetes a few years back I should really not have been surprised. I could not have claimed that I had looked after my health and should have known that decades of sloth and excess would eventually take their toll. But, despite this, it still felt like a blow especially after re-reading the medical literature and realising that I was suddenly much closer to meeting my maker than I had ever previously thought.
For the first few months this was very dispiriting. I moped around feeling sad and rueful about my earlier nonchalance about my health. Occasionally I would feel angry thinking “I gave up smoking 60 fags a day to get this !!!“, as if one step I took to look after my health should have undone everything else that would befall me. I didn’t get depressed, but I did get sad and fearful, and imagined a future being blind, impotent and without my legs (having lost these to diabetic vasculopathy). But ‘every cloud has a silver lining‘, as they say, and this fearfulness prove to be very useful; it was the fillip I needed to change my behaviour.
Since then I have walked every day, at least twice a day, and made considerable changes to my diet and lifestyle. But it is the walking that has had the biggest impact on my life. This is not primarily because it helps me control my weight, although it does, it is because of the psychological effect it has. I am fortunate to live in a corner of Wales which is very scenic. Every morning and evening I walk the same 2km loop but every day it looks that little bit different.
In the mornings the walk is a great way to gather my thoughts for the day and plan what projects will take priority. It is a time to think over the news that the radio had delivered with the morning cup of tea. The weather is the major factor on the morning walk. This is the time of day that we can often have wonderful mists which reveal the hidden glens in the landscape. It is the first time of the day I venture out, so is the time I am introduced to the weather for the day. I now meet the rain, wind or frost having spent the last 8 hours warm in bed.
The evening walk is a different kettle of fish. This walk is a time for review; to look back over the day and consider how it went. This is a time to mull and compose correspondence in my head, as the dogs and I walk in the gathering darkness. The weather is less of an issue on this walk, as by know I have been outside much of the day and am well acquainted with what has been going on. On this walk it is usually the sky which is the focus. As the sun sets down behind Cader Idris we can have spectacular displays and hints at what tomorrow might bring.
Illness and death are inevitable. As we age and get closer to the latter we usually have to learn how to cope with the former. I have been fortunate not to have been tested too much. My first proper brush with poor health has forced me to think and caused me to lead a better life than I did before. I will not always be so lucky, but hopefully whatever happens in my life it will cause me to change and I may again find some way to salvage something good from whatever befalls me. (I think tonight’s sunset was making me feel particularly mellow.)
This morning I broke with tradition and took my opening walk of the day near Bontddu. Usually the dogs and I go around the lanes at the house and venture for a further walk in the afternoon. However, I was keen to try this walk as I pass by its parking site about twice a week and had never stopped to visit.
Farchynys is a small hill on the edge of the Mawddach Estuary, there is an old Manor House overlooking the coast, and Snowdonia National Park have developed the area to give public access. There are a number of walks through the woodland and down to the beach at the estuary’s edge. All the walks start at the car park. This is a well maintained space with a well-marked entrance just outside the village of Bontddu.
There are circular routes through the woodland and up the hill of Farchynys itself. These often give excellent views down towards Barmouth. Another route runs down to the beach at the estuary itself. This route like some of the others is suitable for wheelchair users (though with some rather steep runs) although access to the beach will not be possible as it requires crossing two tall styles and a water defence wall.
I hope that the pictures will give some idea of the area. Here you are only 10 minutes away from the village and the main road but the area is wild and unspoilt. The views up the estuary towards the mountains are superb as are the views of the bridge and Barmouth and Fairbourne in the distance.
I am very lucky that for most of my life I have lived with dogs and latterly I have tended to have two dogs at any given time. Just now I live with Cadi and Brân and I think it would be hard to imagine two more different dogs. Their differences are not most noticeable in the physical areas; one is small the other large, one female the other male, one a Border Collie and the other a German Shepherd. But rather they differ enormously in their characters. This means that they have very different aptitudes and I need to bear this in mind when we do things together.
Cadi is the Border Collie. She is clearly the brains of the two. She is much quicker to learn things though not necessarily the more obedient. She is the dog we need if we are trying to do anything with the sheep. Her instincts are to gather and herd and despite our lack of skills she has developed into a good and useful working dog. We can send her into a field and following the judicious use some “come by” and “away” commands we can round up all of our flock. We have found that it is better to rely on her instincts of what is the best strategy for working with the sheep rather than our own – she reads them much better than we can.
On the other hand Brân would be of little value in this arena. His instinct is to hunt and although he is very keen to get at the sheep this is rarely of any help. If you want to imagine his strategy then visualise a testosterone fuelled teenager showing off in front of a group of girls at a billiard table. Imagine him slamming that cue ball and sending all the other balls flying. This is Brân’s strategy, it may be helpful to explain Brownian motion to those who do not understand it, but it has little to commend it in agricultural terms. Though he may have the word “Shepherd” in his breed name he seems to have little of this in his DNA.
This does not mean Brân doesn’t work. Cadi is a useless guard-dog. If anyone arrives at the farm she is pleased to see them and offers to let them in and show them around despite how unsavoury or malevolent they may appear. Brân, however, is much more fussy. He only allows those he knows in. If you don’t have an invitation form us then Brân is not happy for you to enter. If he decides you are not invited he throws his 45kg at the gate and barks a loud “keep out”. This is usually very clearly understood by people who call.
When it comes to going for walks, often, I will go with both dogs. They like to play with each other, and it means they cover a great deal more ground than I do, thus they also get a great deal more exercise than they would have received if it had just been me an one dog. But it is not the case that I can take either dog for every walk. Some types of walking only really suit one dog.
If I am going jogging I need to go with Brân. Actually I prefer the welsh verb loncian to the verb jogging. I feel loncian conveys more of a sense of clunky, dis-coordinated , uneven movement than jogging with its association with running and fluid movements. Cadi can not stand to watch me jog. She sees my wheezing, sweating and facial grimaces and thinks something is wrong. She starts to bark and jump up and down to warn me to stop and draws attention to the fool I am making of myself. So for jogging I take Brân. He paces effortlessly along side. His long legged, fluid strides, look easy and effortless and this seems his natural pace. The only problem is that when I look at his effortless grace it reminds me just how awful my own performance must look.
The other exercise I take is hiking. I enjoy this as it requires no equipment and I am lucky to live in an area which makes hiking glorious. There are trails and pathways which look as if they have not changed their appearance for hundreds of years. I also enjoy it as it requires no special clothing. I loath lycra and gym clothing. I have a body which needs to be hidden rather than seen. I do have bulges and curves but they are all in the wrong places, I curve out where I should curve in. My bulges are not rippling muscle but wobbly bits in the wrong place. If you wished to imagine my physique, and I’d advise against it, then think about making a model man with a potato for the body and four cocktail sticks for the limbs – there you have it. I enjoy hiking is it may, one day, shrink the potato but in the meantime I can wear camouflage clothing
When hiking I am best with Cadi. She won’t pester the sheep and she can be let to run free. She is also a better listener than Brân. I can have much deeper conversations with her as she understands a great deal more and there is no need to use “baby talk” in the conversations. She is the ideal companion as she will also help eat half of your sandwiches, even the ones I don’t like, and this improves the exercise as it cuts down the calories consumed. As they say, a calorie in the dog is a calorie less in me.
Over the recent months I have discovered that one of my favourite morning walks is the meander to Pwll Y Gele. This is a gentle stroll of just over three miles with no difficult terrain being largely on the road or good footpaths. The time of day, nor the weather, really matters much for this walk, as it always holds interest. On the outward leg you have open vistas looking towards Cader Idris and Foel Offerwm and on the return journey there is Aran Faddwy to fill your view.
If the weather is poor it is still worth the walk to see the clouds and winds whipped up like an impressionist painting over the mountains and the rain will soon fill the streams and waterfalls to make them interesting. On a pleasant morning, like today, the sun and its warmth will have brought out the birdsong which changes as you proceed through different birds areas. Although this morning the woodpecker and his tapping seemed to be everywhere
On a pleasant day there is much to be seen which will repay proceeding slowly. This is a meander, or stroll, not a walk to be taken quickly and earnestly. There are many reminders of older agricultural and industrial practices if one is careful to look and not press on by. There are the oblong raised mounds which are the remains of the domestic rabbit warrens from the days when rabbit was a staple meat. These are termed cony-garths or conegars which is not a great deviation from the Welsh word for a rabbit warren of cwningar. The spelling is a little different but the pronunciation is largely the same. The old dry-stone walls show a pattern of farming quite different to that of today with many more smaller active farms. Here are there, there are the reminders of older practices such as the beacon towers used to pass information across long distances in the days before electronic communications.
Other mounds represent reminders of the old charcoal industry which was itself part of the iron industry which was important in these parts. It seems that on the edge of every hill there are the adits, looking like caves, which are the entrances into the many mineral mines in the area. One of the biggest reminders of these changes in industry is Pwll y Gele itself. Those who understand Welsh will immediately have a clue as to this areas importance in history, as Pwll Y Gele translates to The Leeches Pond. Indeed, a few hundred years ago Wales was the centre of the industry breeding leeches for medical use in Europe (In the Victorian days 42,000,000 leeches a year were used medicinally in Britain). Pwll Y Gele was one of the pools used for breeding such leeches. The leeches are no longer here but the area is still a wonderful site to see bird, animal and insect life.
Names, such as Pwll Y Gele, are valuable links to our past and there is a problem in Wales that sometimes these names are being lost. Names, which carry historical information, are sometimes changed by new owners of properties to something that they feel more pleasant on the ear. Thus Bwthyn Y Gof, the Blacksmith’s cottage, is bought and renamed Ashview or similar. People who do not know the meaning of these names, or who find the names difficult in their mouths, often change the names to modern English versions. Sometimes there is an attempt to preserve the historical link but often it is lost and another pleasant but anodyne name replaces an informative name which was part of the history of the area.
Some have suggested laws to prevent this occurring which is not a strategy I’d support People have the right to change the names of their houses as they see fit. It may well be that new names are, in fact required, as time progresses. If I open a church or sanctuary I may wish to rename my property to reflect this and we should not make the mistake of confusing heritage with culture. Out heritage and past do help create us, but our culture is hopefully always developing as we adjust to, and cope with, new challenges.
However, our links to the past are important and we shouldn’t discard them unthinkingly. People who move into an area need to recognise these links and learn from them, so that they too can benefit from the knowledge they impart. They also need to recognise that when they rename, for example, Y Hufenfa to The Old Creamery while they may have managed to preserve some information in the name (Hufenfa is Welsh for Creamery) they appear dismiss the indigenous language and to cast it aside. This looks and feels like colonialism ! In changing an established name they run the risk of looking too aloof to learn new words, or seeming supercilious in their avoidance of contact with the local tongue. If one wishes to settle in an area it is usually because the culture and history of the area appeal to you. This being the case, it would be anticipated that you would engage with the culture and the local life. If you convert your little bit of Wales into your little bit of England (Or Scotland) then don’t be surprised if you are thought of as more an occupier or invader than a neighbour. In small communities society is strong and welcoming but you have to want to take part.
Perhaps there is one caveat I’d add before taking this stroll, that is – Go with quiet companions. I much prefer this walk with the older dog. With the young dog; he is too excited by the sights and smells to behave sensibly, and 45 kg of excited dog bounding through undergrowth does not make for a relaxing and quiet walk. The same caveat applies to grandchildren. A three and six year old will be keen to have brought their bikes and scooters, the noisy toy that they just bought, and will want answers to all the questions of the day – “Why is the sky blue ?”, “What is that mountain called ?”, “Why is it Cader Idris and not Cadair Idris ?”, “What’s a leech ?”, “Could a lot of leeches eat a whole sheep ?”, “Are we nearly there yet ?”. This noise will precede you and act as a warning for all the more timid wildlife who can then hide. This is unfortunate, as this walk goes through land which has a large deer population, and if one walks quietly (especially in the morning or at dusk) one is almost guaranteed to meet them as I did today.
However, my grandchildren and going to have to mature for a few more years until they are going to be able to share this experience. Meanwhile they are happy enough with the rabbits, squirrels and the dragonflies by the lake who seem less susceptible to the din.