When Em and I were travelling back from getting married in Cardiff a couple of months ago we called in at Presteigne to see Hilary and Ian Marchant. They told us about the Presteigne pantomime which they were to appear in. We hatched a plan to visit Presteigne again to enjoy this theatrical performance. The weekend just gone was the one.
On Saturday 10th December we caught a tram to Manchester, then rode with Arriva Trains Wales to Shrewsbury where we boarded a single railcar to travel down the Central Wales line (now branded "Heart of Wales") as far as Knighton. Here we knew we had a wait, so we walked towards the town centre looking for warmth and refreshment. We found both in the friendly snug of the Horse and Jockey.
Unfortunately my picture came out a bit fuzzy. After enjoying our coffee and beer and the local chat we followed directions to the 'bus "Station". In this part of the world "Bus station" means the same as Bus Shelter elsewhere. There was some disagreement between the times given online and those shown on the timetable notice. The latter proved to be correct, so we had a long wait in the drizzly dusk of one of the less picturesque parts of Knighton. We had a good view of the roofs of the old town though.
The clock tower
and the chimneys as people stoked up their woodstoves.
We had begun to refer to this area as The Shire, Tolkien's idyllic home of the hobbits, not just because of the picturesque qualities of the landscape and buildings but also because of the friendliness and helpfulness of the people.
The little bus eventually arrived. We were the only passengers as it plunged through the puddle spattered darkness along winding up and down roads. At the village of Norton an old lady joined us, the driver waited patiently while she had a long parting conversation with her friend, then we were off again, not stopping until we reached the Radnor Arms Hotel where we had booked a room.
We were a little disappointed to be shown to our room in a modern garden annexe rather than in the historic building itself, but the accommodation was comfortable and the breakfasts were hearty.
We were starving, so we soon were out at the Chinese takeaway across the road. Em had a bit of a rest, then we set out for the Memorial Hall, a short distance away. The place were crammed. These productions are very popular. We found some seats and waited for the show to begin. It was called Oil be Buzzard, hardly a traditional panto. Lots of local in jokes but funny for outsiders too. Ian was playing a Mancunian gay emperor and Hilary played the emperoror's mother. Stephanie, their daughter, played Hildegard the Horrible, in charge of a zero hours contract sweat shop producing garments for the aristocrat. A thoroughly enjoyable performance.
We were invited to dinner at Chez Marchant the following evening.
Our plan for Sunday was for me to go exploring and Em to rest after a very tiring Saturday. After enjoying breakfast in the hotel, she returned to bed and I walked along the road towards Kington, passing a sleeping dragon on my way out of the town.
When I were a lad I used to hitch hike everywhere, but then the fearfulness promoted by those who seek to control us set in. Lifts became so few and far between that you could die of exposure before you got a lift at the average motorway junction. It was 6 miles to Kington. I could walk it, for there is no Sunday 'bus service, but I thought I might as well raise my thumb as I walked along.
The very first car stopped, but was going the wrong way. The second vehicle also stopped. It contained the couple who had breakfasted at the next table in the hotel. They hadn't planned to go via Kington but insisted on diverting to drop me off there. The lady, of South Asian heritage, was a social worker involved in fostering and adoption in Bristol. They were heading home. They dropped me in Kington town centre and proceeded on their way.
Kington is another pleasant friendly town of the Shire.
I walked around the shops, mostly closed on this Sunday morn, bought some food to keep me going at a surprisingly well stocked little supermarket, then walked back the way I had come to start my exploration.
My intention was to explore a little of the network of rural branch railways that used to serve this lovely area. These started with a horse drawn plateway which, by way of the Hay tramroad, linked up to the canal in Brecon, 35 miles away. This ran as far as New Radnor to tap the mineral resources. Later a railway was built through to join the main line at Leominster, the plateway was converted to a standard gauge railway and a branch was built to Presteigne. The three routes met up at Titley junction, where not a single house can be seen. It's a 2 mile hike from the junction station to the village of Titley. The lines were never really busy and the old tram route from Titley Junction to join the Hereford Brecon line at Eardisley was the quietest, going from nowhere to nowhere much via nowhere in particular. It closed in 1917 and its track was commandeered for military service. After the armistice the line was re-instated and it carried on with one train a day until finally succumbing to another wartime economy measure in 1940.
The Presteigne line struggled on with passengers until 1951, the last goods train running in 1961. The New Radnor extension also closed completely in 1951, leaving just the Leominster to Kington route. This had recieved a boost during the war as military hospitals were built nearby, receiving frequent trainloads of wounded men. Nevertheless, the peacetime passenger service ceased in 1955 and, with the passing of the final freight train in 1964 the whole network was dead, or was it merely sleeping?
My plan was to explore the trackbed at least as far as Titley Junction, where the owner of the old station house has relaid about a mile of track and occassionally opens to the public and runs steam trains.
Kington station building still exists within the industrial estate that has grown up on the station site.
I found my way on to the old trackbed and followed it through pleasant green fields beside the river.Arrow. Soon I passed an isolated farm.
A bridge over the river was missing at Bullocks Mill so I had to walk along the nearby small road.
A crossing keepers cottage survives, though it looks like it may have originally been a watermill.
Behind the cottage the trackbed once more crossed the river on a now absent bridge. I walked uphill past delightful houses, standing aside to allow the passage of 4wd vehicles.
My idea was to find a way back on to the trackbed but as the road was clearly going up the valley side and turning away from the railway I decided to walk back. A long hike along the switchback road eventually brought me to the main Kington- Presteigne road and I walked along its winding tarmac for the best part of a mile before I saw a public footpath waymarker pointing in my desired direction. I walked downhill across a soft and spongy field. It being dinnertime I sat down on a piece of agricultural machinery to eat my meagre lunch of meat and cakes. A flock of sheep stood staring at me, unsure if I posed an existential threat to them. After about 5 minutes of cautious advance they all suddenly bolted for the gateway behind me. From my rural perch I could see in the distance the private station, a diesel locomotive and several carriages.
Refreshed, I descended steeply into a field of inquisitive horses, then over a brow and through a gate to join a little road. As I got nearer to the station I noticed a classic road coach parked in the field next to the railway.
I had an idea that I could follow the trackbed of the
Prestiegne branch back to that town. The girders of the bridge over the road
had been removed decades ago, but it was clear from the stone abutments that
the lines had been diverging immediately after leaving the station. I climbed
up on to the embankment, which gave me a better view of the little diesel loco
(a Planet I think) in the station.
The Presteigne branch was so densely wooded that it was almost inpenetrable. It was now about 2 PM and the light was already beginning to fade. Had it been summer I would probably have persevered, but, anxious to get back in the daylight, I backed out and descended to road level again.
I walked back to the main road, which I followed through the village of Titley.
I waved my thumb at every passing vehicle, but the afternoon drivers were less generous than those in the morning. The 14th vehicle stopped. The driver was a South African man in his 50s. He told me that he had lived in Britain for 30 years, and in Kington for the last 18. He loves this country, and this area in particular. We got on to the subject of the damage that mankind is doing to the planet. His contribution to saving the planet was the invention of a more efficient barbecue. I wondered how these concerns squared with travelling about in a large motor car but I was unsure how to raise the matter without seeming ungrateful for the lift. He brought it up himself. He clearly felt a conflict between his love for the planet and the seductive comforts of the 21st century.
Back at the hotel, Em had rested all day and was preparing to go to a talk on traditional Welsh woven fabrics. She found the hall filled with about 100 people and enjoyed it tremendously. I suspect that such a talk in Ashton would struggle to get half a dozen attending.
Like so many traditional crafts, the handful of woolen mills that remain in Wales are run by elderly people who would like to retire but have no-one to hand the business on to. Their machinery is ancient and renewing parts as they wear out is a problem as there are no longer any suppliers and very few skilled engineers who can make parts. With prices in the hundreds of pounds per blanket they do not supply a mass market!
I went exploring the town in the gathering dusk
Outside an antique shop there was a basket of old Ordnance Survey maps, something that I have a particular weakness for. I selected several that I didn't have in my collection and went in. There was no-one in the shop to guard its wares but a door was open into living accommodation at the back. I went to the door and called, but no-one stirred. After a short wait I shouted louder. A small elderly man slowly and carefully descended the curving enclosed staircase. He took a little money for the maps and told me that he was closing down in a couple of weeks as he had to go into hospital for a major operation. He grumbled about the taxes that he has to pay, presumably not seeing the link between paying taxes and getting his operation for free. In America people can be bankrupted by an unexpected health problem.
There's at least one other shop in Presteigne that apparently remains open, often unattended, 24 hours a day, with much valuable stock outside under an awning. Here in The Shire it seems that the default assumption is that people are honest, whereas elsewhere the assumption is that they are the opposite. One of the irritations of modern life is the constant need for ID, to prove that you are who you say you are. The Groucho Marx trick of looking in a mirror and saying “yes, that's me” doesn't work any more. I always feel insulted when I'm required to produce my ID, I know I'm trustworthy, why don't they believe me.
We returned to our room for a while then walked down to Ian and Hilary's house near the river where we spent a pleasant evening eating a nice meal and discussing the bizarre nature of the modern world, Ian's new book, his magnum opus, a history of the hippies, among many other things.
In the morning we rose early to pack before breakfast at 8. We walked slowly to the bus "station" on the site of the former railway station. The bus we caught was the once a week service to Ludlow via Knighton and was surprisingly well loaded.
We had a long wait in Knighton before the next train so we looked for a cafe in the town centre, getting a closer look at the clock tower that I had previously photographed from afar.
The cafe was not very friendly. We were now on our way out of the shire and returning to normal. I asked for black coffee and when the cafe lady put milk in it I reminded her that I asked for it black. She argued, saying that I had asked for white coffee. This was a bit silly of her as not only would I never ask for white coffee as I am a bit allergic to milk, but there would be no point anyway as white is the default setting for coffee in the British Isles. Grudgingly she made me a replacement beverage. Em decided that she wanted to wait on the station, so we walked there, then sat for a far from unpleasant hour in a new but traditionally constructed platform shelter. Em sat in her wheelchair because the slats of the seat were of cold steel. I sat on the seat and started reading the book that Ian had lent me, "Sailing into England" by John Seymour.
The train, once again, was a single railcar, quite well loaded.
I enjoyed the journey through the wet countryside beside a meandering river. This time the train stopped at some of the request halts. Once upon a time this was an important double track freight route to South Wales. It was saved from closure by Beeching because it runs through seven marginal constituencies. Now it is single track with about half a dozen trains each way per day and, as far as I know, no freight.
Our little railcar terminated in a bay platform at Shrewsbury. We walked along the main platform to await the Manchester service. Shrewsbury has a wonderful station, overlooked by the castle
and with a view of the abbey.
The turquoise train slithered us rapidly further and further from the shire to deposit us at, well, Mordor would be unfair, perhaps Babylon would be more appropriate.