You can tell a lot about a place by examining its edges. Those liminal spaces, neither quite here nor there, are infused with the essence of identities that pulse from the distant centre. They are, however, far more than a faint homeopathic imprint of the personality of a territory, for the process is an alchemical one and conjures up a whole new identity all of its own, especially at land borders when two such edges rub together.
The England-Wales border is a well-seasoned example of the phenomenon. It is one of the most singular parts of our island, a furzey hinterland that manages to be both Welsh and English, and yet neither of them. It has always drawn me; spending three days last week walking in the Herefordshire borderlands has only deepened that respect and love.
|The Mortimer Trail, with our extra few miles from the border added on|
Two friends and I did the Mortimer Trail, a thirty mile walk between Kington, near the border on the A44, and Ludlow, the grand and gastronomic former seat of the Council of the Marches. It is a beautifully crafted route; you might even say ‘curated’ (if that didn’t make you sound like some blue-sky-thinking arse). On the map, the trail looked erratic and seemed to have little interest in reaching its destination. On the ground, all became clear. Destinations were secondary; the journey was all, as the path steered us thoughtfully around optimum vistas, telling angles and ever changing perspectives and moods. It was a route as carefully calibrated as poetry.
There is a lovely symmetry to it too. Whichever way round you do the Mortimer Trail, you start by rising out from the plains and being afforded a lingering look back at where you have come from. For us, starting at the Welsh-English border to the west of Kington, this meant looking towards home across the broad vales of the rivers Arrow and Lugg, to the sulky contours of the Radnor Forest and the cheeky peak of the Whimble. Wales looked dark and different.
At the other end, approaching Ludlow, there are fine, wide views across the gentler patchwork of Shropshire, Herefordshire and Worcestershire. Between these two corresponding trailheads, you amble for many miles through what feels a little like a very green and lovely No Man’s Land. Hillforts, castle mounds, ancient tumps, turreted barns and fortified churches all whisper their dark secrets. The deep forests, both ancient and conifer, spin further webs of disorientation. There are a few straggled farms and loose, lonely hamlets. It is profoundly stirring, brooding terrain.
|Once the meeting place of three railway lines, the former Titley Junction station slumbers away in quiet fields|
Even though it looks like the essence of timelessness, change has come, of course it has. A few locals we bumped into delighted in pointing out their parvenu neighbours behind security gates and lakes of Farrow & Ball. The bankers, and their bonuses, have burrowed their slippery way into even this old Marcher rock. Ludlow was the catalyst (but still mostly the exception). The handsome but earthy town that I knew as a child has long since traded in its cack-crusted overalls for two hundred quid jeans and some hand-stitched brogues. Yet the other trailhead, Kington, remains little altered, and distinctly recognisable from this description by John Hillaby in his 1968 walking classic Journey through Britain:
Kington is a little, squashed-up, narrow-streeted market town on the Welsh frontier where they sell cartridges and sheep dip, fertilizer and men’s flannel underwear.
The Welsh frontier! It’s a far meatier word than the rather mealy-mouthed ‘border’, and it fits the flavour of the dusty little towns on the savannah, against their backdrop of Wild West hills. Think of Kington, Knighton, Presteigne, Bishop's Castle, Clun, Longtown, even Montgomery and Hay, as frontier towns, and they suddenly make a new kind of sense. This is a frontier, and it has been for two millennia. It is not some folksy quirk for the tourist board, a relic with no significance to the modern world; it is very much a demarcation between distinct countries, landscapes, histories and cultures.
This midsummer pilgrimage has helped me ponder the murky waters of the question I’m getting asked a lot these days: “so you’re standing as a Plaid Cymru candidate – you must believe then in Welsh independence?” Walking along and through the edges of both England and Wales has reaffirmed to me that yes is my unequivocal reply. Yes to Wales owning its own resources and making its own choices. Yes to England doing likewise. Yes to Britishness (a glorious fact of geography) but not its bastardised cousin, UK-ness. And yes to a new age of neighbourly comradeship, a coming together in this potent countryside, a eye-to-eye meeting - at last - of equals. I can understand the doubts, when placed in the context only of the version of the world that we have grown up with, but if you take a longer look, the bottom line is that there is a line. We cannot wish it away – and neither should we want to. It is far too deep, far too powerful, and far too beautiful, for that.