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Chapter 57: Hills versus Valleys
Tregaron to Carmarthen
1967. Vietnam rages and so do the students. Homosexuality is decriminalised, abortion legalised. The moon’s still unmarked and psychedelics are exploding. Warhol’s Marilyns and Sgt. Pepper change the world of culture. Des still had the same moustache as all four of the Beatles on that cover. A silver slug on his lip, unchanged since then. He had a fluffy brush of white hair on his head. He started driving his lorry in 1967 and he’d not stopped since.
The Welsh hills hadn’t changed much since then. Neither had the roads, meandering, maundering, serpentine through the valleys. And neither had Tregaron. Des’ lorry was the first vehicle to pass, slowing down with a fuzz, clunk and a hiss. Red and green dragons flew in the breeze on tiny wedges of bunting.
It’s always exciting getting in a lorry. It was only my second in Britain. Lorries had once been the heart and lungs of hitchhiking but when the insurers changed their policies, a screen descended. The only other lorry I’d had, the driver didn’t speak English. Des didn’t seem to mind. He’d picked up a fair few hitchhikers his time. As we drove his chair sprung up and down like a jack out of its box.
Des knew the Welsh roads like the inside of his cab. He’d spent his life driving them. He was never a long-distance driver, wouldn’t go to Europe or anywhere far like that. “Oooh no,” he pooh-poohed rhythmically, shaking his head quite sure, “I went to Birmin’am and Liverpool a few times, but I never liked going over the water like.”
Home was in Carmarthen, as it had been for longer than he remembered. “Things have changed a bit there,” he mused, “Things goin' out of town a bit now with shoppin’ centres like…” The sense of community had moved on too. It was still there a little but it wasn’t what it was. “You used to go over to your neighbours for a meal or a coffee but now everybody’s workin’ or they don’t want anything to do with it. I don’t know.” His voice was melodic, rising up and down like the roads he drove.
Des rose every morning at five o'clock. His two dogs saw to that and he chuckled at the thought. He’d leave the house by six, taking his load wherever it was required, collecting whatever was needed. That day it was timber. He was home by three nowadays.
“That’s a long day,” I said.
“Yes,” he sighed, “Too long really,” the nostalgia of age creeping into his voice. He was 80 after all.
Des’ granddaughter had moved away to Bedford. “She wants to go into the West End,” he smiled proudly, “She’s had six auditions for Moulin Rouge, so fingers crossed. Fingers crossed!” He made the lucky sign and shook the wrinkled fingers as they embraced. If she gets the part, Des will certainly make the journey to see the show. He wouldn’t drive though, the train would be easier.
The road twined under oak trees and a tall monument with a striking gaze burned in the sun on the hill. A dark black barrel pointed skyward crooked with age. The top looked like it had been chopped off by a low-flying plane. Des said didn’t know what it was for. It was the first time he’d wondered. He’d driven under it who knows how many times. He did know that it was unsafe now. Apparently, they’d blocked off the entrance so people wouldn’t climb it. It was a strangely captivating tower. Ugly I decided. The map told me it was called the Derry Ormond Tower, built to look like a canon by the unemployed 200 years ago.
The meadows and valleys glowed a verdant green. It was nice to see them back that colour Des remarked. They’d been a parched mustard blond until a few days before. I would have preferred the dryness compared to what the forecast promised. But it seemed that day was destined to be clear. No rain until morning.
In Lampeter, Des’ lorry fuzzed, clunked and hissed to a stop again and I lowered myself to the pavement. The lorry slugged down the hill and a man in green wellies flapped and huffed the other way. He spotted me and asked if I was hitchhiking to Carmarthen. I said I was and he carried on running up the hill. For a minute I thought he was running for me, to his car perhaps, but I decided he was just a little mad.
The other side of Lampeter was flat in a wide valley. A big Co-op filled a car park and the road floated on the meadows. A pillbox leant on the fence and you could see right through the windows to the cows beyond. Further on I watched a buzzard drop on its prey from the arm of a telegraph pole. I’d never seen a buzzard catch anything before. It was surprisingly ungraceful. I watched it as it tore the poor creature apart. Even more ungraceful.
Nikki stopped to give me a ride. She had an English accent, immediately obvious after Des’ lilting Welsh. She was from Essex originally. Me too, I told her. Nico and Nikki from Essex. Nikki was a school teacher and had grown up in Southend, teaching for a few years there before moving to Wales. She said something about Southend having lots of immigrants who’d nick all the children’s shoes. I asked what she meant. In Essex, everyone has to have designer shoes she replied. I didn’t understand.
Nikki was coming home from a sponsored walk with school. It had been ten miles in the hills around Tregaron and it had been a success. She loved teaching in Tregaron. She’d been doing it for 23 years. Wow I said, that’s a long time. Apparently, there was an art teacher who’d been there 36.
Nikki had straw blond hair and a red pinched face. Small dark eyes perched above, and yellow pebble teeth clung below. Physics and chemistry was her subject. She taught in English though many of the kids were bilingual. She didn’t speak Welsh. She loved the pace of life in Wales, the hills and the countryside too. On a day like today, you could see why.
Hers was a small school. There were only about 55 students in each year so Nikki knew each one by name. In Essex, the teachers only ever knew the cleverest and the naughtiest. Everyone else just merged into one big mass. Nikki scrunched her face up every time Essex was mentioned.
Nevertheless like all schools in the country, the school in Tregaron was struggling. In 2009, despite the best A levels in the area, the government closed the sixth form. The kids would have to go to a college in one of the bigger towns. Some would have to get up at 6:30 just to make it on time. Many wouldn’t go.
Everyone knows schools are in dire trouble, she said and I agreed, but nobody has a clue what to do about it. Things just go on the way they are. Children come through, grow up a bit and leave, year after year. And nothing changes. The exams had got harder this year apparently but that hardly improved things. Now the kids didn’t understand most of the questions.
Perhaps the issue is the way we examine things I suggested. It probably all needs a rethink. A.I. has brought it into question. Students getting robots to write their essays etc. I mentioned a headteacher I spoke to recently who told me they’d been using AI to help with marking. We laughed at the thought of A.I. teachers marking A.I. students, a little nervously perhaps. A.I. hadn’t really made a difference in Tregaron, Nikki said. It was the sort of school where kids don’t come in during the sheering season, so she was sure that kind of thing was a way off yet.
Nikki told me how her mum used to live nearby but she moved further in land not too long ago. She couldn’t deal with the damp. The constant fine drizzle and long wet winters. It made her joints ache.
It wasn’t damp that day though. It was beautiful.
We slowed into Carmarthen. The town’s crumbled grey castle merged into the town above us on the hill. It looked like an ancient relative in a family photo, alongside youthful offspring. It seems there’s always something interesting on Welsh hills.
Perhaps that’s more than can be said for the valleys. Nikki dropped me by a Portakabin selling hot tubs.
She pointed out the train station as I got out and when she’d gone, I realised that people often drop me near the station. I wondered why and decided it must be because they secretly think no one else would be mad enough to pick me up. I hoped that wasn’t the case. I still had a way to go…
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