Tuesday, 28 November 2017

That good old Rock 'n Roll

Despite the title of this post, I was too young for the actual Rock 'n Roll era, being born in 1952. I was still a very small child in its hey-day. My musical teeth were cut not on Rock 'n Roll but the Mersey Beat.

As I grew up, I initially regarded the music of the 1950s as rather old-fashioned, and not my scene at all, even the lively music associated with typical Rock 'n Roll dance routines. The dancing was especially not my thing - I was too shy and awkward to allow myself to take any interest in such an exuberant, skillful and clearly very intimate physical activity. But in the decades since, my attitude has moved on a bit. I can now see the joy to be had from it all, if you like the Rock 'n Roll style, the sound and the rhythm, and have the confidence to dance vivaciously to it. With a dance partner, naturally.

Well, I don't do dance partners. My instinct is to be a wallflower, and hide in the shadows in case I'm hauled up onto the floor. That said, I think that, given sufficient motivation, I could probably learn the basic steps, and I'm not totally terrified. It might indeed be a thrilling experience, and a bit of me would enjoy being asked.

But I assure you, I am not presently so motivated. In fact I do not dance at all. I generally plead a truthful medical reason: that my knee ligaments, damaged in the 1990s by badminton, won't stand up to very much. But I dare say I could manage a careful, very simple, and not-too-frantic dance routine. It's just that I can't see myself wanting to try.

The matter will soon be put to the test. Next Saturday, as another bit of her spread-out 60th birthday celebrations, Jackie next door is having a Rock 'n Roll Party at a local pub, in their function room. It isn't compulsory, but she wants those who attend - a large number, I'm guessing, and it will include myself - to dress the part, and be prepared to dig the music, and whirl around a bit on the floor. Well, I could certainly do my best to dig the music, even though (as mentioned above) it might take divine intervention to get me on my feet. I was however very happy to dress the part. I didn't mind one bit slipping into a stylish fifties dress. And, thanks to Slimming World, it was a feat I could probably manage with reasonable ease.

First, though, I'd need to buy an outfit at a shop that sold fifties clothing. No problem: Collectif in the North Laine area of Brighton was the obvious place to go. I went there yesterday afternoon. Here's me, outside.

Inside, it was Fifties Heaven. All the clothing was new, but authentically-styled. And it was the last day of their current sale, with 30% off. I looked at the latest stuff, not in the sale. It was lovely, and some of it would be fabulous to wear, but a typical blouse-and-skirt combo would probably set me back almost £100. And that was excluding the petticoat I'd probably need to puff out the skirt in fifties fashion. All too much to pay for what might well be a one-off event.

But there were sale rails groaning with likely garments. I chose three dresses to try on, and went downstairs to the fitting rooms.

This was the most stylish, a black and mint-green number.

I really liked this one. It would have cost £52 in the sale. Plus £21 more for a petticoat they were selling. But there were a couple of problems with it. The material was heavy: I would quickly feel very hot in it, especially as it fitted very snugly around the waist. And to keep the design 'clean', it had a long hidden zip running up the back that I couldn't reach. I had to ask one of the shop assistants to zip me up. I couldn't see how I would be able to get into it - or out of it - on my own. A fatal flaw. So reluctantly, I had to pass it over.

Next up, an all-green dress from their bargain rail. I think this one was marked down to only £20.

Oh dear...it made me look like a paramedic, or a nurse. It would be great as a uniform - trust me, I'm a doctor, and all that. It also lacked pizzazz. A lady waiting close by entirely agreed with me. I took it off with no regrets.

But I was much happier with my last choice. This was a check dress that wasn't quite the snug fit of the first I'd tried on. It was in fact pretty comfortable. My waist was small enough to fit the classic fifties design. I arranged the petticoat under it, and gave it serious contemplation. This and the petticoat would set me back £80. Not too much.

It wasn't in some eye-catching colour, and the check pattern made it a bit subdued for a Rock 'n Roll Party. But on the other hand, I didn't wish to be the belle of the ball, nor out-do Jackie in the dress department, and this was a dress that could be worn on other kinds of occasion. It might have a long future in my wardrobe. I needed a second opinion, and got it from the ladies waiting outside. Their feedback was very positive. I got the young shop assistant to hold my phone and shoot me whirling around in the dress.

Oh, I say. What fun! 

What to do? This dress fitted, let me breathe, and swirled well. It wouldn't make me look like a superannuated student at a high school prom. Nor a flashy dancer from Grease. It wasn't all blue or red satin. The colours were muted - and possibly unexciting - but it definitely had that fifties look. I decided to buy. 

Back home, I thought wistfully of the first dress, the black and mint-green one. But that zip up the back made it a no-no for me. So I put it out of my mind. I tried the check dress on again. Yes, it was a good fit. I'd be happy in it. More than happy.

Next morning, I examined the dress in daylight. It would need a little ironing. No problem. The check pattern was chiefly dark green and dark blue - Sherwood Green and Navy Blue, to be precise, with the Navy Blue dominant. It looked vaguely Scottish, and I wondered if it might be based on an actual tartan.

It probably wasn't a straight copy of a tartan pattern, because I think those must all be protected designs. But I might be wrong. Who knows, this might identify me as a member of the Clan MacHaggis, with whom the Clan MacNeep have had a centuries-long blood feud. It might be a death sentence to wear this dress. I'll just have to take the risk.

On the night I could embellish it with a scarf. I had a green one that would do.

The really amazing embellishment was of course the petticoat. I was glad I hadn't stinted on the cost of adding it.

Jackie will be impressed! I'm looking forward to next Saturday very much now.

Sunday, 26 November 2017

Sugar Loaf

There were once such things as 'sugar loaves'. It was how refined white sugar was sold to the public. You'd get one from your grocer, a big cone-shaped object of hard, compacted sugar crystals, and snip sugar off it as required, much as you might attack a lump of ice for smaller, more manageable bits to pop in your drink. Here's the Wikipedia article: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sugarloaf. As you can see, whatever the size or quality of the loaf, it had a distinctive conical shape. And the name 'Sugar Loaf' would get attached to any landscape feature that had just such a shape, usually a rock formation or a hill.

South Wales has its famous Sugar Loaf mountain in Monmouthshire, north-west of Abergavenny. That's the best-known. But in Central Wales there is another Sugar Loaf mountain. It's really just a conical hill set in uplands, rather than a proper mountain, but it does stand out in the local landscape. Here's a view of it I took from the side of the A483, between Llandovery and Llanwrtyd Wells on 27th October. I was approaching it from the south-west.

Here's a clearer, zoomed-in view from the same spot.

As you can see, it's not the highest place in the area, but it offers an all-round view, and apparently it's popular with walkers and mountain bikers. As no doubt the whole area is - this is beautiful countryside.

It is however sparsely-populated, with very few out-of-town facilities. I think you would need to be a pretty dedicated, self-reliant walker or cyclist to venture into this area. Here's a map of the countryside thereabouts. Its mostly hills and forestry land, with the A483 winding through it.

And something else: a railway line. A section of the Heart of Wales Line, that runs from Llanelli in the south-west, down near Swansea, to Craven Arms in Shropshire, a bit south of Shrewsbury. A very long, mostly single-track line (although it was originally double-track). I explored the Craven Arms to Llandrindod Wells section last year, station by station - see The Heart of Wales Line on 22nd August 2016. On the day I went Sugar Loaf, I was station-hopping on the Llandovery to Builth Road section, the hilly, middle third of this very long line. Just a little way outside Sugar Loaf station on the map was the summit of the Line, its very highest point. 

I'd already visited and photographed Llandovery and Cynghordy stations. I was looking forward to seeing Sugar Loaf station. Then I would go on to Llanwrtyd Wells, Llangammarch Wells, Garth, Cilmery and finally Builth Road (that is, the former Builth Road High Level). I won't cover those other seven stations here: that's for another post. For me, Sugar Loaf station was the intriguing one, the must-see one. For not only was it the most remote station on the Heart of Wales Line, it was the least-used. It was in fact the least-used station in Wales. It wasn't presently in the UK Top Ten Little-Used Stations list, but I think it once had been, and might be again. That need not rule out a well-kept appearance, with the kind of high-tech facilities you often see installed even at off-the-beaten-track stations, such as a Help Point with digital real-time train information and updates, a telephone, good lighting, decent seating inside a swish new shelter. Considering its position high up in the mountains, I thought there was every expectation of at least a weatherproof shelter, so that a tired-out walker might sit out the long wait in between trains comfortably shielded from the wind, rain, and sleet. 

Driving on, the A483 skirted the base of the Sugar Loaf hill. There was a lay-by at one point, offering a fabulous view down-valley. I was tempted to stop, but didn't, something I regretted afterwards. The road straightened out. Now where was the Sugar loaf station? What, there? Was that it? I parked Fiona and took pictures looking up and down the road. This was looking back from whence I'd come. Nothing up there, except an isolated haulage depot.

This was looking forward to where I'd go. Nothing in sight.

There wasn't even much traffic on the road. The map showed a few farms hereabouts, but really anybody getting off the train and hoping for a close-by pub - or anything like a village - would be disappointed. You'd have to be completely self-sufficient. And prepared for a long ride or walk to the nearest amenities.

It was a good thing there was a station sign, otherwise you wouldn't realise there was a station there at all! Let's see what a closer approach reveals...

The station was originally opened in 1868, to serve some railway workers' cottages - in those days, routine track maintenance was handled by local men who lived on the spot. Railways were labour-intensive: men with shovels. Presumably the cottages (with their vegetable gardens) had stood by the roadside. Now long gone, of course. The station was closed in 1965, in the middle of the Beeching Era. I dare say it had been genuinely possible - and not just the result of contrived accountancy - to make out a justifiable case for closure on economic grounds. This station must, on paper, have made a thumping loss, being so little used. Here's a map published in 1967. No station. And nothing much else, either. 

But it was reopened nineteen years later, in 1984, with the increasing popularity of outdoor activities. It must have been thought that more and more people would want to use the train to reach this spot, or travel from it, much as they do on the Settle to Carlisle Line. It was a commendable decision, to scrape the moss off one of the old platforms - only one was needed by then - and install new access and at least basic facilities for the anticipated passengers. But they haven't materialised in the numbers hoped for. Here's a close-up of the modern map, covering the same area, more or less, as the 1967 map. Apart from more forest to the north of the A483, almost nothing has changed in fifty years. It's not hard to believe that nothing much will change in the next fifty. 

I was still hopeful of finding a well-equipped station. Leaving Fiona behind, I walked up to the station entrance. There was track of sorts, and then a gate that could do with some repair and repainting. No lighting for after dark, you notice. This wasn't what I had expected. Other stations on the Heart of Wales Line had received obvious TLC. This seemed to be a Cinderella station!

What was beyond the gate? Hmm. Steep steps down. The station was in a cutting, and had no view. Again, not what I expected. I'd imagined extensive views from an exposed position.

Another thought: this wasn't a place to get off the train if you were disabled. You'd be seriously stuck. Well, let's see what lay below.

Gosh, that 'seat' didn't look very comfortable! Surely they could have provided something that, if necessary, might serve as a bed to kip on while awaiting a train? And the shelter was pathetic, much worse than the standard bus-shelter designs found nearly everywhere else in the countryside. This one offered very little protection from the elements, and your feet would get frozen. I found out later, but didn't realise at the time, that the plastic bin with the weatherproof lid was the receptacle for a Visitors' Book. Well, had I known that, I would have left a pertinent comment! 

Really, the place was cheerless and disheartening. If I had tramped ten miles to get here, I'd have wanted more. Maybe word had got around. You know, on social media. Or TripAdvisor. That this was no five-star hotel. And that was partly why only perverse or insane folk boarded or got off trains here.

Apparently there were just 132 of them in 2015/16: not quite three a week. To put this in perspective, in 2015/16 Cardiff Central station handled 14.5 million passengers, of whom 1.8 million were changing to another train there. In 2015/16 London Waterloo station handled 105.2 million passengers, of whom 6.1 million were changing trains there. So 132 people at Sugar Loaf was a very, very small number. You'd definitely be one of a very select band. It was possible, if not probable, that only fanatical train enthusiasts actually used the station. Fanatical in the ornithological birding sense, I mean. The totally enthusiastic, who might try to book a train between Pilning and Golf Street...

What other facilities were on offer? There was a 'pimple strip' near the platform edge, presumably to tell you it was close, and you should step back. There was a sign a little distance up the line to mark the Summit. There were heathers and alpine plants in a kind of untidy garden. There were in fact two lamps on the platform, so that the driver of an approaching train might see people on the platform making a hand signal for the train to stop and pick them up. Surprisingly, there was an electronic display giving the time, and details of the next trains to arrive. But if you wanted to study the timetable, you'd have to climb back up to the gate. 

It was, I suppose, remarkably sunny for a station down in a deep cutting. I took a couple more souvenir photos, more than the place deserved; but I didn't think I would be coming back in my lifetime.

I considered the merits of hanging around for the next train. Not to board it, just to photograph the event. Back at Llandovery, I'd photographed the timetable.

The top left section for the weekday services (it was a Friday), when enlarged, told me that the next train was the 4.11pm to Crewe. After that, the 4.29pm to Swansea. And it was still only 3.17pm. All too far ahead. 

I'd already maxed out on Sugar Loaf station. I couldn't wait patiently the best part of an hour, just to see a rare train arrive and depart. So it was farewell.

As a matter of fact, I did catch up with the next two trains further up the line, at Garth and at Builth Road, so I didn't need to go without a train-sighting in the end. It would have been more than nice to have got a picture from the road bridge just south-west of Sugar Loaf station, but life is just too short; and I'm not a dedicated train buff, just a casual photographer. 

Back home, I was curious to know how the Summer 1962 (pre-Beeching) weekday train service compared to the 2017 offering of four trains a day. Well, I had the 1962 timetable.

The old-style timetable was confusing, but it looked like five trains a day, had Sugar Loaf station then been open. The Heart of Wales Line served - still serves - three spa towns, and must once have had a much better service, to cater for those coming to Llandrindod Wells and the other watering-places for a health cure. That sort of thing went out of fashion long ago. The spa hotels remain, but the era of packed trains up from Swansea, or down from Shrewsbury, is just a memory, and a few intrepid backpackers and muddy mountain-bikers can't fill the gap.

My sexy night attire. Not.

I have no idea how many readers may have wondered what I wear in bed. For all I know, hundreds have salaciously speculated, and would love to learn the truth.

Or nobody may have. It seems most unlikely that any normal person would really give a tinker's. But then I have that curious statistical evidence from Flickr, which tells me that pictures of myself are - for some strange reason - far, far more viewed than any of the 19,000-odd other pictures I have uploaded. The difference in viewing numbers is absolutely startling. My footwear is especially popular - you know, things like boots and wellies.

I can't say whether it's good thing for one's characteristic image to be an old boot. But hey, I value every viewing. It does anyway give me hope that a post on the garments that grace the slim and shapely Melford body at night might be of wide interest.

I like pretty things to wear at night, but must confess at once that I don't romp around in filmy, see-through negligees and sexy satin bra and pantie sets. Turn away now, if this revelation bothers you.

Nor do I sleep in the nude. I used to, every night, writhing between the sheets in my ecstasy. But nowadays I feel the chill much more - partly as a consequence of losing a serious amount of weight - and, except on hot sultry summer nights, I need to wear something.

Well. I've almost given it away. I have two white sleeveless cotton nightdresses with little blue flowers on them, courtesy of Marks and Sparks, and rotate them on a weekly basis. Here's one. (Obviously I'm shamelessly cavorting around in the other just now)

Yes, it's not very exciting, but it is quite pretty, and comfortable even under a winter-weight duvet.

I have two other nightdresses. They were a gift from my older cousin Rosemary. The style and fabric combine to make these rather more cosy to wear, perfect for the caravan in fact. And I do wear them at home in the spring and autumn. But not in the winter, because I'd roast if I wore them in bed, underneath that winter-weight duvet. Here they are.

Mmm, I agree. These are definitely passion-killing. Pretty, practical, perfectly modest and proper; but stunningly unsexy. I am of course nude underneath, but you'd never really guess. Nor would you care.

Well, I think I've probably now blown any reputation I may have had for being hot stuff in the bedroom. Nobody who can wear such prim attire can possibly be credible as a potential sexpot.

I'd best leave my confession of night-time dullness there. I'd only compound matters by mentioning the sensible full black knickers I wear during the day. Mind you, I'm sure I recall a scene in the 2001 film Bridget Jones's Diary, where the dastardly Daniel Cleaver (played by the very naughty Hugh Grant) discovers that she (Bridget) is wearing pale green knickers that look exactly like my black ones, and to her great surprise, considers them super-sexy. But perhaps my memory is at fault. In any case, I'm more than thirty years older than the Bridget Jones character, and - I dare say - infinitely less appealing, whatever I might put on.

Saturday, 25 November 2017

Worms Head: devils in the skies

I'd left myself walking back to Fiona in Swansea, after subverting (purists might say sabotaging) two exhibitions at the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery. Before the Art Police found me, I made good my escape from the city, and, with their sirens fading into the distance behind me, sped westwards onto The Gower peninsula. Destination: Rhossili, and then a walk to Worms Head.

I'd visited those places several times before. Indeed, I first saw them in August 1986, on the way back from a bed-and-breakfast holiday with W--- and Adrienne at St Dogmaels, near Cardigan. This was the last holiday on which the now-teenage Adrienne came with us: in years to come she would holiday with her school friends Sue and Emma, eventually journeying to places like Greece, Jamaica, Los Angeles, and of course New Zealand. A true globe-trotter!

Meanwhile, W--- became reluctant to take any holidays at all, not wishing to lose income nor the workplace indispensability she enjoyed - she was a high-level PA, working through an agency, but of course still only 'temping' when all was said and done, and she felt she dare not be absent on leave. I wasn't going to push the situation. So we ate well, and had a local social life of a kind, but never had another holiday worth the name.

It was a dull time of my life, the late 1980s - so different from the M--- era (late 1994 to mid 2008), when we travelled extensively. And both eras were vastly different to how things are now, when I do it all independently. Neither W--- nor M--- would have let me mess about in art galleries. Neither let me do anything they considered foolish or attention-seeking. They wanted me to be serious, dignified, capable, predictable; supportive of their plans - mine didn't matter; and to tolerate their weaknesses, pay the bills, and not embarrass them. It was a role. I had my place. But I couldn't be myself. I felt taken for granted, undervalued, made to live within strict limits that my parents also insisted upon. Why did I go along with it? Never again, not for anyone. I'm out of the birdcage, and never going back in. Never, never.

Rhossili was a place that M--- and I had also visited, twice on the same holiday in 2009. By that time, things had become fractious between us. There was an undercurrent of unhappiness that we both strove to put a lid on, but the crack that would become a chasm was already there, and we were steadily moving apart.

I returned on a sunny day in 2011, on my own by then, to smooth over the memories of earlier visits, but only with partial success - although I did better than was the case at Newtown Quay on the Isle of Wight recently (see A lump in my throat at Newtown Quay on 8th November last). I still think going back to places to exorcise them of sad or disturbing memories and associations is a good psychological technique, if you want to 'recover' them for future visits. But, unfortunately, a single revisit may not be enough!

Here's a map of Rhossili:

And here are some views of that vast beach, and the high downland behind it, from 2009.

We climbed those downs. There were people hang-gliding there. With my Nikon D700 camera, and the heavy 24-70mm f/2.8 zoom lens, I was able to get some nice pictures against the sun.

That's Worms Head in the background, as it looks when high tide is approaching. It does look like a sea-monster on the surface of the water, doesn't it? The name 'Worm' means 'serpent' or 'dragon' in Old Norse. Very apt.

In 2009, we'd walked out to the tip of Worms Head at low water, earlier in the day. It had looked very different. Here's a map, and some shots taken then.

That's M---, as usual walking on ahead. She didn't want to walk with me. In front of us was a rock bridge, and then at the end a difficult scramble onto the tip. I lost track of her at some point, after a vague undertaking had been made to meet up back at the car (not Fiona then - it was my old Honda CR-V). I pressed on, wanting to get to the furthest part of the headland. I got this far:

But, scared of heights and weighed down by my ponderous photo equipment, I baulked at attempting the final climb to where those daring people were. After that, I made my way back, feeling a bit heavy-hearted. It's awful to know that a relationship is dying, and that the togetherness is ebbing away. It was nobody's fault that meeting-up again wasn't so easy. M--- wasn't where I thought she'd be, and apparently I wasn't where she thought I'd be. It strained the situation just a little bit more. (This wasn't quite yet the era of most people carrying always-on phones. I'm sure I had mine with me, but she wasn't carrying hers, and I couldn't simply ring her, and ask her where she was) Thank goodness the mood was somewhat repaired an exhilarating walk up to the top of the downs overlooking the beach, with those late-afternoon views of the hang-gliders.

Fast-forward to 2011. It was another fine day, and scenically nothing had changed. I didn't revisit Worms Head but simply pic-nicked in the back of Fiona, off deli-bought goodies, admired the view, and had a closer look at the beach. I wasn't ready for a full exorcism. But despite the sadness of 2009, I didn't feel the place needed the full treatment. Feelings sometimes do go away. Sunshine helps so much. It was enough to sit under Fiona's raised rear hatch, my legs stretched out, and enjoy my al fresco lunch.

Now it was a breezy afternoon in October 2017. The sun wasn't brilliant, nor hot. It was a cool day, and the sun had turned hazy, with the sky steadily clouding over. But I was determined, if only for the exercise, to go at least to the cliff edge overlooking Worms Head. 

It looks bright enough, but it got duller. I had hoped for a goodish sunset, but knew I was going to be disappointed. Still, there would be a view of sorts, and perhaps the sky would get interesting. It did. The setting sun lit up the clouds in the sky rather well. 

That didn't stop me taking a shot of Worms Head with the sky strangely coloured. 

You may hate it. I like it. 

By the time I reached the coast-watch lookout station, the wind was more insistent. Although frozen in mid-spin, that wind-gauge was whizzing around fit to take off: 

As with the lurid Worms Head shot above, I imagined a version of this coloured differently. Thus:

Showing this to my friend and neighbour Jackie recently, she said she could see a masked face in the upper right of this picture, a being with outstretched wings. I can see it too. When you change the colours and tones in a photo of clouds, you often do see odd things that weren't noticeable at the time.

But sometimes you do see, as you take the photograph. In the next shot, taken at Bewl Water on the Sussex-Kent border in 2005, it wasn't hard to make out a devil in the sky. I simply had to play with the Curves tool afterwards on my laptop, and make him obvious.

Back at Worms Head in 2017, I saw a vision of hell-fire in the sky. My fate, if the bloodhounds of the Swansea Art Police had picked up my trail! 

But - being skillful with maps - I saw a way around Swansea, via Dunvant and Gowerton and thence to the M4 motorway. 'They shall not catch me,' I cried, as I sped eastwards on my way back to Pandy. And they didn't. 

I remain at large.