I am really starting to wonder about this book box of mine, from which I draw supposedly random titles from the TBR stacks. It's starting to seem a bit less than random. I mean, I just read a book about Merlin in his Welsh cave, and I end up with a book about a walking tour of Wales, which mentions Merlin and Arthur frequently, starting on page 2. I also just finished a book about a long journey, none of it on foot admittedly, but the box apparently thought another travelogue would be good for me.
I am not complaining, however. I've had this book on the TBR shelves for at least 10 years, I'd read the first page a couple of times, but I always put it back on the shelves for later. This time I read it straight through with great pleasure. It is an account, as the title suggests, of a walking tour through Wales, from Cardiff in the south to Bangor in the north, some 180 miles. The adventure was partly inspired by spring fever:
I felt my annual restlessness. It came with a desire to give it searoom or - more likely - landroom: it is a restlessness which can generally be appeased by a long walk. This time, I told myself, it should be a really long walk. I harboured deeply sequestered thoughts of a particular country that I wanted to survey and absorb something of, if only through the soles of my boots . . . I took from a cupboard a tubular-framed backpack purchased at a south-east London Greenpeace jumble-sale and crammed it as concisely as I could . . . then made a few phone calls to friends of friends who might be helpful, patted the dog, kissed my wife, and with a cheerful 'Who knows? - I may be at least three weeks,' set off. I was departing for the closest-to-hand foreign country: Wales.I knew nothing about Anthony Bailey when I started the book, but by the end of the first page I was quite happy to set off with him for Wales. He reminds me of a slightly less antic Eric Newby. He has the same interest in people, with the knack of drawing them into conversation, as well as the same determination to climb mountains and follow his own path. Unlike Newby, he travels alone here. Perhaps his wife doesn't have Wanda Newby's taste for adventure (or toleration for miserable traveling conditions). He has a relaxed colloquial narrative style, and he doesn't take himself too seriously. Like Newby, he is also interested in local history, including the legends of the past, and its literature. He often cites early accounts of Wales, two in particular:
At some points I expected to cross the routes of two distinguished earlier travellers - the archdeacon Gerald, who in 1188 made an extensive Welsh journey on horseback in company with Baldwin, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in the course of a trip to gain support and recruits for the Third Crusade; and George Borrow, the determined traveller, linguist, gypsy enthusiast, and Bible proselytiser, who traversed North Wales from east to west and then the whole country from north to south in 1854.Bailey later notes that when Gerald and Baldwin got to Bangor, they badgered the Bishop of Bangor so persistently that "in the end, there was nothing for it but that he himself should take the cross." I'm very tempted now to read Gerald's account!
I was lucky enough to spend a few days in Wales many years ago, visiting Caenafon and Conwy. But I admit I know very little about the country, its history or geography. This book was a perfect introduction. It was published in 1992, so some of its information may be a bit out of date, but I would still take it along if I am lucky enough to visit again. As he meanders north, Bailey describes the landscape he is moving through and the people he meets along the way, while also considering the history of the places in the wider context of Welsh history. (There is a very good map at the start of the book, which I consulted constantly.) He is particularly interested in the survival of spoken Welsh, the part the language has played and continues to play in Welsh identity, and the politics surrounding it.
I didn't know when I started the book that Anthony Bailey wrote for The New Yorker for many years, though I could have guessed it from his writing style. I don't remember ever reading anything of his in the magazine, but he has an impressive list of books published, including art history, more travel, and two volumes of autobiography, as well as novels. I will definitely be reading more of his work in the near future.