VICTORIAN BRITAIN HAD the finest railways in the world. Steel monsters and gothic stations, at once futuristic and medieval.
Since the 1990s, the quality of the service has gradually diminished. Striking workers, sleepy politicians and greedy train barons have only exacerbated the problem. So when my girlfriend suggested we take the train to Wales for a weekend away, I almost winced.
I’ve been hurt too many times before. Travelling relentlessly for gigs has diced my forehead with worry lines.
A delayed journey to Lincolnshire meant hopping off early and hailing a cab. Overcrowding at Manchester meant not everyone with a ticket could get on board. A cancelled connection and missing a replacement bus in East Anglia pushed me towards the bear-hug embrace of another taxi driver. These were all in the last 12 months. When a rail network collapses due to mismanagement in the global south, do the people there think – God, this is like living in a 1st world country?
On the tracks
The Paddington to Stockport leg of our trip was actually okay. We lurched down the narrow carriage until we found a free table and pulled out our devices. After completing the customary rituals (dogged clacking of keys, intakes of breath incrementally more resigned than the last) we accepted that the WiFi didn’t work and would never work.
Sipping coffee from paper cups, we gazed idly at the grassy bowls of field and coiling rivers of the English countryside.
The local train from Stockport to Abergavenny was more of an ordeal. Rust-tinted and packed till bursting, the carriages heaved with families, couples and teens knocking back cheap tinnies of cider. We straddled our bags like they were mechanical bulls and tried to keep our balance.
Abergavenny is a Welsh market town with a central promenade lined with coffee houses, charity shops and Mediterranean diners. In the near distance, a carpet of lush pastures unfurls into a horizon of green hills.
You’d have to squint for a long moment to be certain you’re not in Ireland. The giveaway is the dearth of pubs in the town centre. That’s not to say Abergaveeny isn’t a drinking town. There’s a cocktail lounge, a wine bar serving tapas atop wood-chipped barrels, and a vineyard offering tasting tours. There’s a single nightclub for the local mountain folk to get trollied in, too.
In the morning, we went hiking up the Sugar Loaf. No, not the one in Wicklow. Even the place names were a mirror image of home. Only the bilingual road signs reminded us of our place in the world. There is an eccentricity of spirit here that is so poorly understood beyond its borders.
Though Wales is the least nationalistic of England’s colonies, the Welsh language thrives. The Irish may have fought bloody wars to achieve our independence, but broadly cannot be bothered to revive our native tongue. A group of older women passed us on our way up, the distinct pronunciation of vowel sounds catching on the wind. I paused to listen, tried to get purchase on their weird, venerable words. But the wind gathered pace and the sing-song sounds of their voices were lost.
Born and reared on the parched terrain of Andalusia, our surroundings held an exotic quality for my partner. She went gooey-eyed for diffident livestock, posed for selfies against the backdrop of spritzing tributaries. Enjoying her enthusiasm, I appreciated my surroundings with fresh eyes.
Had I completely taken the setting of my childhood for granted? The lost afternoons in Glendalough, elaborate games of toy-gun warfare on the Curragh. Old memories fizzed with new life.
Around halfway up, the weather turned. Charcoal-coloured clouds pressed in as the elements battered our tired bodies. The trees and hedges of the ascent gave way to stone, leaving us totally exposed to the rogue twists of gale and rain.
Wordlessly, we heaved ourselves to the top. I found us a nook in the rocks to protect us from the belts of wind. Then we cannibalised our salami sandwiches and cheese and onion crisps.
On the way back down, the adrenaline softened into something lighter. Like I was floating a little. Shafts of daylight burst through the gloom with miraculous urgency, the drizzle eased off. No longer yearning for my bed, I grew excited about the evening in Abergavenny.
A hot meal accompanied by lashings of a local wine. Hiking in Wales, it occurred to me, was much like swimming in the Irish Sea. The pleasure is derived not from the act itself, but the having done it – the euphoria of cheating death.