Sunday, 14 February 2016

PARALLEL LINES

Of Time and the Railway, an artist film by Robert Davies, is showing at Oriel Plas Glyn y Weddw as part of the gallery's winter season of exhibitions (see previous post).

The film was recorded from a fixed camera in the driver's cab of a train travelling from Birmingham to Aberystwyth on 86 different days and then edited into a single journey, moving through different times of day and different seasons.

I came to North Wales by train via Somerset (yes, a very roundabout route from Cumbria!).  A tunnel took the train under the Severn Estuary (the estuary is the geographical star of Philip Gross's poetry collection The Water Table), and on to Newport where I changed trains for the service to Holyhead.  I travelled the whole length of the Welsh Border and then along the North Wales coast to Bangor.  It seemed an epic journey for the little two carriage diesel on a a route from south to north, running counter to the roads that go from east to west, trading between the two countries.  What a beautiful journey - the train weaving in and out of England and Wales, into small towns then out into the countryside.

I travel through Abergavenny (the town by the river Usk with its associations with the seventeenth century Metaphysical poet, Henry Vaughan).  Then on through A E Houseman Shropshire Lad country, stopping at Ludlow, where the poet's ashes are buried (marked by a memorial in the churchyard).   The train squeezes between the hills of the Long Mynd and Caer Caradoc and stops at Church Stretton.  My father would cycle here from Birmingham when he was in his teens.

The recent heavy rain has left impromptu pools in fields, and these new patches of water have been quickly colonised by ducks, gulls, even swans.  I see winter flocks of rooks and small unidentifiable brown birds flying over.  A council somewhere along the route has adopted the image of a red kite on a local transport services poster, which I glimpse at one of the stations.

The bilingual "Y Waun/Chirk" sign reminds me that I'm back on the Welsh side of the border - Chirk and Wrexham have links with the artist Mildred Elsi Eldridge, who was married to the poet R S Thomas.  At Chester the line passes the Racecourse, the Roodee, the oldest functioning racecourse in England.  It's deserted today, except for one man and his dog crossing the inside of the large lop-sided circle of the course.

Over the river Dee, into Wales again, and the railway realigns itself westwards.  In the distance the Wirral (where I lived for three years), the distant houses of Parkgate a brilliant white in the sunshine.  Tidal sandflats probed by long-beaked waders.  There are caravan sites and the coastal resorts of Prestatyn, Rhyl, Colwyn Bay.  I think of Larkin's vandalised poster in "Come to Sunny Prestatyn", then remember that he wrote what is a classic railway poem, "The Whitsun Weddings".

The sun glints off the blades of offshore wind turbines.  The railway and the sea keep good company along the North Wales coast line.  Sometimes the train window frames a square of sea - it's like looking from a ship.  Razor blue waves are being blown in on an incoming tide.

My destination is Bangor, a kind of gateway to the Lleyn peninsula.  Bangor is now the end of the branch line which Beeching axed - the route ran through Caernarfon and on to Afon Wen, linking with the northern end of the Cambrian coast line.  I'm dependent on a hired car from here on.  Caernarfon is the home of the writer Patrick McGuinness, a fine poet and novelist.  I particularly like his "Walls Lleyn" (in The Canals of Mars) which has gaps between words, just as a drystone wall is "half stone        half hole".

A Lleyn poet who deserves to be better known is Christine Evans.  Her beautiful poem "Letting in the Light" is engraved on the glass wall of the gallery's film theatre where Robert Davies' Of Time and the Railway is being shown.

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