The Old Man and the Hill

From ALEX BARR

 

Image from Alex Barr

 

To a man of 80 a 1,000ft hill is Everest. But ever since moving to this house in Fishguard, I knew I had to face the trial of strength it offered. The hill is called Cilciffeth. Not even an expert I consulted could fathom its meaning. ‘Cil’ means nook or retreat. But the rest?

I see it from the kitchen window, three miles away, featureless green sloping up to an inscrutable summit, often attended like Bali Ha’i by low-flying cloud. When a challenge is forever before your eyes there’s no escape.

I studied the map and saw a suitable bridleway leading off the road from Fishguard to Maenclochog. I knew that road, too narrow for the speed of its traffic, with nowhere to park safely. I would have to park farther back to begin my walk.

In my youth I ascended each of the highest peaks of England, Wales and Scotland. It was hard to let go that version of myself, even though he no longer existed. I thought I could start from Pontfaen in the Gwaun Valley, despite a longish road walk before the start of the path. How often in my life I’ve rushed into things without investigating the pitfalls. And taken my eye off the ball. The road swung invitingly to the left, and I ignored the smaller road straight on. I was soon lost. The map seemed to make no sense. I knocked at an isolated property where a not-too-friendly woman gave me confusing directions. After another half mile I was exhausted. I thought of the constant cry my wife and I make to each other, ‘Don’t overdo it!’ and aborted my mission.

Too late in life, I’ve learned not to give up easily. My cat Louie is a role model. He sits on my desk, covering my notes, and however often I lift him off, back he comes. So I had to try the walk again. For my second attempt I drove across the bridge that leads away from Pontfaen, and parked in a generous spot provided for riverside walks. No wrong turning this time. I reached the Maenclochog road, and by a house appropriately named Pen-Feidr found the bridleway to Cilciffeth.

I thought a bridleway was a path you can ride a horse on, but I wouldn’t have ridden on that one. It was more stream than path, dangerously uneven, hemmed in by overgrown hedges. Not very pleasant walking. I longed for the view to open up. I was attacked by what I think were horse-bot flies—whatever they were they left furuncular lesions and a swollen finger for days afterwards. I sat awhile on a grassy mound and drank water, saving my flask of coffee for later.

Farther on the path debouched into a wide area between fences, and a view of distant hills, patches of woodland, and scattered farmsteads did indeed open up. I cleared a flat stone of dead brambles and made my second stop, this time with coffee. My home-made lemon polenta cupcake was tempting, but I felt I should save it for the climax if there was one, a decision I was to appreciate later. So far, no thought of giving up. The day had warmed up and I was glad I brought shorts to change into.

Cilciffeth was now ahead on the right. The local Explorer map showed its eastern flank yellow ochre outlined in brown, denoting Access Land. In other words you could walk there at will. But where was the access? Denied, it seemed, by a steep bank topped by a barbed-wire fence. Now I thought of turning back. Less through fatigue than a hopeless feeling, familiar from other walks where the way was barred. But the rhythm of my feet led me on, even though the rough ground made that rhythm uneven, until I saw an opening. It was amateurishly blocked with pallets and rusty pieces of gate, not enough to deter me. Within moments I was on Access Land.

I headed for the summit without an obvious path, through low gorse bushes and tussocks of coarse grass which threatened to turn my ankle. The deeply rutted terrain reminded me of the peat hags on Kinderscout in Derbyshire, where I walked for much of my youth. The thought of having to be recovered by air ambulance or mountain rescue stretcher unnerved me, and the area is notorious for lacking a mobile phone signal. I halted. Go on or turn back?

The map showed the summit just half a mile away, but I had lost the ability to judge the effort needed to cross that irritating terrain. I decided to press on, but halted every 20 yards or so to revisit that decision. Would my ageing legs hold out? At 80, energy conservation is the keynote. But imagining the shame of a second failure drove me on. What the hell, I thought, there are people with no legs who do amazing journeys.

Cilciffeth is one of those hills where the skyline keeps suggesting a summit, then offers more rising ground. Apart from patches of burnt heather the view ahead was featureless. The only landmark was a group of scrubby trees. I headed for them, still uncertain, still stopping now and then. They seemed to get no nearer. It was at this point I thought of my friend M, with whom I enjoyed many walks and whose death left me diminished. What would he have said? ‘Press on regardless!’ I pressed on. Regardless? Not exactly.

And then I saw the fence. On the map it runs due north-south just below the summit, on the side I was coming from. I had feared it would block me from my goal, which was to look for my house in Fishguard from the other side of Cilciffeth, but was surprised to see a gate in it. That told me something. Until you engage with a problem, commit to it heart and soul, you don’t really understand the situation.

That gate inspired me, but I was very tired. I decided reaching the fence was enough, a secondary goal. I took off my backpack and flopped down. Could I now retreat without dishonour? Had I earned more coffee and – at last – the polenta cupcake?

Magic! The sweet sticky substance revived me. I stood. I left my backpack lying and easily climbed the locked gate. An overgrown cart track led on. On the right a slight rise was the summit itself, so near but too far, a distraction from my purpose. A little farther, a little farther. Hang the consequences. Ahead, the fence beside the track began to dip. More and more of the plain with its patchwork of muted colours became visible. No turning back now.

And then, at last, a little to my right, I saw the long pale row of houses of Harbour Village above Goodwick. As I advanced more of Goodwick came into view. It was enough. To go farther and see my house in Fishguard would have been a step too far. Mission accomplished. I’m embarrassed to admit that I took a selfie.

I retraced my steps, not suspecting what lay ahead. The problem with a mountain, which I remember from many walks with M in the Lake District and Scotland is that if you lose the end of the path you reached the summit by, you may descend by a different path which takes you miles from your starting point. This is what happened.

Walking down through what seemed to be the same gorse bushes and patches of burnt heather I saw a fence and a footpath sign in the distance. I headed for the sign, forgetting there had been no sign beside the roughly barred entrance to Access Land. I climbed over sheep netting, fought my way through brambles, and reached a small gate, the kind with a long upright lever to work the bolt. This gate was unfamiliar? No problem. I was surely on the right bridleway farther along?

But after several gates of the same pattern the path seemed to disappear. I thought of using the compass on my phone to check my position against the map, but it seemed more logical to press on, even though I had to climb over locked gates, field after field, many reached through waterlogged mud churned up by cattle. I began to feel waves of panic, and yet between the waves surprising moments of calm. How odd, I thought. Maybe the calm was the result of years of meditation? Or just the notion that in old age nothing matters?

My strength still hadn’t given out. But where was the Maenclochog road? I saw no sign of it. The landscape of small hills and patches of woodland was no different from that near my starting point, except in the details – a solitary wind generator, the shiny skeleton of a half-built barn. I could be many miles from Pen-Feidr. After several more gates (despite the panic I felt confident climbing them, remembering my youth and my smallholding days) I saw a respectable-looking road. It curved round a hill, gently rising – and completely unfamiliar.

There were no more gates. Now I had to climb hedgebanks topped with fences whose barbed wire caught my clothes. Then – a sign my hiking days were over? – the sole of my right boot came off. And yet, for the most part, I still felt calm. These obstacles were taking all my concentration, which was good. When there are stretches of straightforward slog the mind can fill with bad thoughts. Often snatches of poetry avoid this and spur me on. Tennyson’s Ulysses: ‘Old age hath yet his honour and his toil/ Death closes all: but something ere the end/ Some work of noble note, may yet be done.’ Or – and yes this is corny – Kipling’s ‘If you can fill the unforgiving minute . . .’  (For all their faults those Victorians nailed it in some ways.) And hymns, even though I’m no longer a churchgoer: ‘Through the night of doubt and sorrow/onward goes the pilgrim band…’

I reached the last field. There was a gate onto a road junction. How often I’ve arrived at well-known places from an unfamiliar angle, making them strange, the strangeness somehow rewarding. The highway that curved around a hill was the Maenclochog road! A sign pointing left read Fishguard. A side road to my right led to Puncheston. I identified the junction on the map. I had reached the Maenclochog road a mile-and-a-half from Pen-Feidr.

A route march with Hopalong Cassidy footsteps lay ahead. Would it be too much? To my surprise I enjoyed it, even though the shortest route back now passed the house of the unfriendly woman. Happy, though at the limit of my strength, I reached the car. I had conquered Cilciffeth. Even though I hadn’t seen my distant house, it was enough.

To anyone under 80 my journey will seem trivial. Not to me. Now when I see that hill through the window, I’m glad I didn’t give up. I think of the sayings of friends, parents and mentors I’ve been blessed with over the years. My dead friend M pushing the limits. My father’s stoicism when disabled. My Buddhist teachers stressing the outstanding virtue of patience. I think of all those whose lives are a constant struggle. I hope when I’m dead some brief remark of mine will inspire someone who remembers it.

Finally, a bizarre coincidence. A friend of similar age, who lives a few miles away, phoned me on an unrelated matter. I told him about my walk. He said: ‘How odd – I was up there myself a few days later!’ We had never mentioned Cilciffeth before. It would have been even stranger had we gone the same day and met near the summit. Two Old Men and the Hill – what a story that would have been.

 

Alex Barr’s non-fiction has appeared recently in Griffith Review, The Blue Nib and Sarasvati, and less recently in New Scientist. His short fiction collection My Life With Eva is published by Parthian, and, for children, Take a Look at Me-e-e! by Pont Books. His recent fiction has appeared in Tears in the Fence, The Lampeter Review, the Interpreter’s House, and The Last Line Journal, and is online at mironline.org, Litro magazine, Samyukta fiction, Reflex Press and feedlitmag.com.

You can find outmore about Alex at alexmcclurebarr.blogspot.com and barrsbooks.bigcartel.com  

Kitty Parsons

Kitty has forgotten how long she has been here now but she loves Pembrokeshire for its beauty and it's people. She spends her time searching out stories for pembrokeshire.online, swimming in the sea , drawing and painting as Snorkelfish and eating cake. She says "Pembrokeshire.online has been an opportunity to celebrate this beautiful county and its people. Keep the stories coming. We love to hear from you."

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