Posted by: Lizzie Ross | June 2, 2010

Cardiff to Bangor, by foot

A Walk Through Wales, Anthony Bailey (1992), Michael di Capua, 287 pp.

On a rainy spring day, Bailey begins his walking tour on a pier, next to a Victorian pile “clad in terracotta, with hexagonal chimneys, gargoyles, and a castellated clocktower”, and heads into the valleys and hills north of Cardiff. Within just a few days, he is on the Brecon Beacons, the line of mountains that runs across the southern half of Wales, on a fairly rough trail:

Generally the track went straight down into the hollow in which the stream ran and immediately up the other side — this was often the steepest, muddiest, wettest way. Sometimes it took a jog uphill and went diagonally down the bank to the stream at a point where there was less depth of water or a narrower gap to jump. Now and then, however, such a detour upstream brought the walker to a morass.

But the challenging trails reward Bailey with expansive views (if the rain lets up) of meadows and bog heaths, the wild terrain that produces peat and sheep.

As we travel with him, we learn history, geography and biography — something armchair travelers expect in such books. But most interesting to me were the conversations he had with people he met along the way, farmers and housewives, festival singers and hotel owners, all with stories of only local importance that, nevertheless, when assembled by Bailey, create a fairly full portrait of this lovely country.

Bailey has no political or ecological axe to grind; in his professional life, he’s an art historian and critic, with books about Vermeer, Turner and Constable under his name. Bailey does want to understand how history and myth play out in the Wales he saw during his travels — King Arthur, Owain Glyndwr, Dafyd ap Gwilym, King Offa, the Welsh language itself are all topics he wanders through, examines carefully, and then considers as he hikes up the next hill.

Just as an aside, I always wonder how pre-electronic travel writers took notes. Did they have pen in hand, continually jotting something into a moleskine? Or did they rely on phenomenal memories, furiously scribbling into a nightly journal to clear their minds for the next day’s experiences? Bailey is such a meticulous writer, that I can almost see him stopping at every mile post to record his thoughts — but he’d never get far with so many stops.

With digital recorders (both audio and video), such challenges are gone, and smart phones enable travel writers to tweet and blog every experience, almost moment-by-moment (much like proud parents, who would live their lives behind video cameras). But the kind of unmediated writing that tweets and blogs make possible is a poor substitute for the careful thought and analysis that a captivating tale needs.

So give me travel books. Then at least I’ll have the illusion of a well-crafted work.

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