“Confusing real matters with the machinery of the tale is a serious mistake.” J.R.R.Tolkein.
My default method of coping with life has always been to retreat into an imagined reality, a made-up world of myth, magic and heroic deeds. Eventually I read and loved The Hollow Hills (Mary Stewart), The Dark is Rising (Susan Cooper) and Earthsea (Ursula K LeGuin) but it all started with The Lord of the Rings. In the autumn of 1976 I was at university in a city I hated, studying a subject I didn’t like which was going to lead me into a career I didn’t want. What to do? I could have transferred to a different campus, changed course or left and found a job that interested me. Instead I chose to become engrossed in the fate of Middle Earth. When the Fellowship of the Ring was formed, I was forced to decide where my loyalties lay. I drifted aimlessly about in Further Education, squandering opportunities and wasting taxpayers’ money, all the time wondering whether I was more suited to becoming an elf, a dwarf or a hobbit.
In the end, I decided to develop a Gandalf-ian approach to life in general and dress sense in particular. I binned my student uniform of jeans, sweatshirt and trainers and took to wearing long raggedy skirts, a cape and baggy boots. These days, even though I am older and should be much wiser, I still channel my inner Gandalf when faced with a challenge. Why? Well, it’s not because I’m surrounded by short people with hairy feet who have a tendency to become invisible at awkward moments (although some of my friends tick at least two of those boxes), it’s because Gandalf is pragmatic, decisive and a strategist; and he knows the wisdom that comes from wandering ancient tracks and trails. Also, I still have the cape and as there’s nothing wrong with it, no moth holes or rips, it needs to come out every so often and get worn.
I had heard a tale that the narrow lane at the side of the High Corner pub in Llanharan led to an almost forgotten landscape that could only be reached by foot. A high claim in these days of off-roaders, quads and mountain bikes, and one which could only be proved by a boots on the ground exploration. I had packed my creased and out of date OS map along with a picnic and my sketch book but then, at the last minute, had decided to switch bags. The picnic and the sketch book made it into my rucksack but the map got mislaid in the transition. Luckily all of those years when I orienteered (badly) has left me with something called ‘map memory’ so I knew roughly where I was going. In short, this translates as uphill. Really steeply uphill. Eventually the tarmac lane petered out and a kissing gate marked the way into a field. I stopped long enough to do a field sketch and tie some wool around my shoes so that when I came to knit a wallhanging of the route, I’d have yarn which had picked up some debris and would be coloured with what I call indigenous dyes but other people label mud.
The path turned west and was easy to follow across the sloping field. A few sheep kept an eye on my progress as I moved past them but, surrounded by lush green grass that is the inevitable result of rainfall totals on the slopes of the Blaenau Ridge, they weren’t really interested in me. The track was less steep now but still relentlessly uphill. To the south the vista suddenly opened up and the flat lands of the Vale of Glamorgan, the cold waters of the Bristol Channel and even the North Devon coast came into focus. Little white clouds scudded across the sky and the breeze felt fresh and clean.
For me there is a peculiar joy to solitary walking in remote places. On this particular day though, I wasn’t alone. On the wooded slopes of Mynydd Coed Bychain (The Hill of Small Trees), a couple of riders on dark horses were making their way through the shadows. Every so often they stopped and the rider in front stood up in his stirrups, scanning the horizon as if looking for something. I watched them for a bit but it started to rain and I thought it wise to concentrate on my footing as the path rounded the curve of the hill and then wound upwards. Ahead a rocky outcrop crowned the bluff and below, the valley widened as it ran down to the little settlement of Llwyn y Brain (Grove of Ravens) at its mouth. A man stood on one of the boulders atop the cliff face, his form silhouetted against a greying sky. Sitting next to him, alert, ears pointed forward, was a sheepdog. I looked away for a moment to navigate a stony bit of track and when I looked back, both had disappeared and I was back to being in a lonely landscape.
The moors of Mynydd Portref are covered with windmills and the Ridgeway path doesn’t skirt them at any great distance. They are quite hypnotic to watch and listen to and I was doing both when I met Gandalf.
“It’s good weather for them,” he said.
I was annoyed because I hadn’t noticed him approach. If you walk alone in the countryside, you become quite alert to movement and sound but on this occasion, transfixed by the turbines’ sweeping blades, my alarm system had failed. I turned to face the speaker. Even though he had swapped his cloak for a red Berghaus jacket and the blue hat wasn’t as pointy as I remembered it, he looked like the Gandalf of my imagination, with a softly curling, greyish beard, tired looking eyes and a long walking stick grasped in his right hand. He leaned his head back and for a moment or two we both watched the wind being turned into electricity then he turned and yelled over his shoulder, in a most un-wizardlike way:
“Margaret! Get a move on. We’ll be late for lunch!”
A bobble hatted woman with one limpy leg staggered into sight.
“Don’t feel sorry for her.” He had seen the expression on my face. “She’s not wearing proper walking boots. Got some daft designer things on she bought yesterday and thought she could wear today without getting blisters. All she’s doing is spoiling my day out. It’s not the first time. I’ve had enough. I really have. I think we’ve reached the stage where as soon as I can, I’m going to leave her.”
“Oh,” I said, feeling awkward especially as Margaret arrived just as he had come to this conclusion. I didn’t want to get involved. I was busy planning the wallhanging map I wanted to make of my trek.
“Hello,” she said holding out her hand. “Has he been telling you I’m holding him up? ”
“Not at all,” I lied. Gandalf had wandered down the path and out of earshot. “Trouble with your shoes?”
“No!” she exclaimed. “Not at all. I’m just pretending I’m useless so that he’ll dump me. We met on a dating site a few weeks back. He’s supposed to be kind and attentive with a good sense of humour. Actually he’s a grumpy old sod and I can’t wait to be rid of him. I think today could be the day he’ll finish it. Must go,” she said. “The more he sees me limping, the more annoyed he’ll be.”
As she disappeared into the distance and his shouts of “Margaret! Keep up!” faded away, I thought how probably it was best that Gandalf stayed where he belonged. In my imagination.