Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Happy returns

I like returning to familiar places, be it to holiday destinations, restaurants or even the route I walk the dog. Given the choice of somewhere new or an old favourite, most times I opt for the latter. My wife likes to tell the story of how I once cut short an all expenses trip to Kenya to spend a week in the Peak District; friends react with incredulity, the presumption being that I'm missing out on opportunities and the delight of new experiences.

Judged by their terms this is undoubtedly true, but looked at another way they miss the point; for returning to familiar places is not necessarily about sticking to what's comfortable. In fact, it is often by returning that we see things anew, gaining fresh perspectives on what we presumed to know already. Most of all, returning to familiar places allows for a depth of response, especially to landscape and people, which can only come from long association.

Yesterday I walked the cliffs above Porthgain; it is an old industrial village with a quaint mix of industrial archaeology, gentle harbour and steamy pub that makes it a thinking tourist's hot spot. Like Dylan Thomas's' fictional Llareggub it has 'a picturesque sense of the past, lacking in towns that have kept more abreast of the times' - though I sometimes wonder if anyone really believes the sentimental artists impressions on the heritage notice boards.

I quickly climbed the steps by the Pilot House to reach the disused quarries above the western cliffs, the horizon fading as the sea curved to the far end of Wales. It was cold, the fields pale and sheep trodden, only gorse flowers brightening the greyness of stone, sea and sky. Head bowed into the wind I was looking at little more than the path; it was littered with sheep droppings. I smiled as I remembered how my dog used to eat them and how when I shooed her she'd dash into the culvert running parallel to the path.

There is no particular reason to use the culvert in preference to the path, yet a few summers ago it was there I saw my first Grayling butterfly, and returning since I've discovered that on good years Clouded Yellows concentrate on the leeward side. Yesterday, as I neared its end I watched a Chough gliding on the ridge lift above a cave that I once kayaked into on a surge of foaming surf.

I was remembering all this when unexpectedly my elder sons D and M strolled towards me: 'We thought you'd be here,' they said, 'we came to meet you.' As we walked together, peering over the cliffs at a cold December sea, for a while at least, a familiar place was as new and full of wonder as anywhere could be.

This is the eleventh consecutive year I've been in Pembrokeshire at New Year. I wouldn't want to have been anywhere else.


  1. "Newcastle is Peru" wrote Tony Harrison in a good poem on how the familiar can be the strange. Wasn't Dylan Thomas's fictional place "Llareggub" with two "g"s i.e. "bugger all" backwards?

  2. Oh so correct about the spelling. Corrected now, and picture added too.