Friday, 25 April 2008

As old as the hills!

Living where we do, in an area of outstanding beauty, it comes as no surprise that people want to share the Rock with us from time to time. As we are only 250 meters from the Offas Dyke and almost exactly at its halfway point we sometimes see weary walkers stagger past hoping to find refuge in the pub at the end of the valley.

There is a footpath that runs along the boundary, and at one point it crosses in front of the house. Some people might view this as a disadvantage when at any time your peaceful afternoon can be interrupted by complete strangers tramping across your garden, but as we are keen walkers ourselves we value other people’s right to roam. It has at times provided us with entertainment and some strange conversations.

Most walkers are a friendly bunch, and as they are crossing our property I always engage them in conversation, usually with a cheery “Walking far?” query. This then follows a trail as well worn as the Offas Path itself, where you from, where you going, yes it is a beautiful spot, yes we are lucky to live here, yes the dogs are big, and friendly, stick to the path, stay clear of the moor and beware the moon.

Walkers usually respond to my friendly enquiries with enthusiasm whilst their heart rate returns to normal after being given the Rock HQ welcome from some massive dogs, some are pictured above. Having been on the receiving end this canine stampede as I walk up the drive I can understand that some walkers might view the welcome as bordering on the intimidating, but they have to understand that they are in the dogs’ playground. I sometimes wonder how some of the grumpy ramblers might react if I suddenly jumped over their fence and ambled across their back garden. Probably not in the same accommodating manner as we do at the Rock.

We often get Geologists, either singularly or in groups, as we live on a pretty old rock, it being 700 million years old while the ones the other side of the valley are a mere 300 million years old. Because of this geological accident those that are interested in this fact travel miles to wander over our hill chipping bits off here and there, examining the crystals, the structure and whatever else it is they do.

More of them later.

As I said previously most walkers are a happy bunch, now and then a few grumpy ones wander through trying desperately to avoid eye contact, shoving hands into their wet anoraks so as to avoid waving at me, but as anyone who knows me will testify I am particularly hard to ignore. Most appreciate the local knowledge I pass on to them or advice on how to find the path once they get out of our yard, thus avoiding incidents like two mountain bikers stuck at the top of the cliff or wandering into the Cauldron and sinking up to your knees in bog.

One walker was particularly rude, clutching his girlfriend protectively to his chest as the Rock pack bayed its greeting. Above the din I heard him accuse me of deliberately setting the dogs on him. My response was short, sharp, too the point and heard a few miles down the track. I don’t think they enjoyed their visit and they didn’t find the path.

Unusual characters turn up, like the time a chap wandered into the yard dragging a suitcase, he was dressed for the outdoors, looking very weather beaten but still looked odd dragging a suitcase, not carrying a rucksack. Turned out he was from Wolverhampton, unemployed and on holiday. He had been told he didn’t have to sign on for a month so he had just gone for a walk, two weeks away from his home he was about ready to turn around and head back. He turned down my offer of a shower and a meal but accepted the chance to camp and use the outside tap. He really enjoyed the peace and tranquility of the Rock.

Unfortunately for him he chose to camp the weekend of our son’s party before he went to Sandhurst so he had to put up with loud music and about fifty people dressed as The Village People or similar. Still, he enjoyed a burger from the bar b que, put up with the dogs visiting his tent (the beagles stole some of his food) and stayed on for two nights.

Another chap stayed and chatted for over an hour while we potted and planted in the spring sunshine, he refused a glass of cider as he had to drive but you could see he wanted it so much it was almost painful. He left us to our task vowing to return one day and take us up on the offer of chilled dry cider.

Groups tend to be fun; a rowdy group of women went through one sunny day asking if I was Ben, they were keen to meet him as pictures of him dressed as George Michael were along the lane, remnants of another party.

Without doubt the strangest encounter was with a group of thirty or so Orthodox Jews, complete with ringtails and headgear who stumbled up the track one sunny day. Their leaders were keen to convey their competence and insisted they needed no assistance, but as they pointed to their maps I pointed out they were in my garden and looking at the wrong map. As I tried to explain where they should be and showed them which map they were on it became clear I had more chance converting them to Christianity than getting them to understand where on the planet they had just walked to.

I eventually led the group up the hill and onto the ridge and to a point they could recognise and so walk towards where they should be. During the walk curious questions were asked, what’s that, a duck, how many ducks do you have, 12, how much is one duck worth, depends what type, approximately, five pounds, good good, what’s that, a dog, how many dogs and so on. Eventually I got bored with the questioning and started to give nonsense answers, 5000 sheep, 100 pounds each, huge collective intake of breath, how much land do you own, all this, what the whole hill, yes, how much is it worth, I don’t know I inherited it, why don’t you sell it and buy somewhere nice? I bit my lip and remained a helpful guide, I began pointing out the geology but as they don’t believe the Earth is 700 million years old it fell on deaf ears.

I left them to their own devices once I was sure they knew exactly where they were and where they should be heading. Rocky was stuffed with kosher crackers and we wandered home. Later that night, around 11pm we could hear voices in the yard. I lifted the bedroom window, another group of Orthodox Jews was hopelessly lost. This time I led them to the road and insisted they phone their leaders for a lift.

Walkers also have a habit of turning up when you least expect them. Once after a days toil, covered in grime and sawdust from the chainsaw, caked in greenery from strimming back the bracken, totally filthy I decided not to change but go for a walk around the hill with the dogs and goat before it got dark I wasn’t concerned about being seen in such a state as no one in their right mind would be walking on the hill late on a Friday afternoon in the winter.


I bumped into a gang of walkers all of which were a tad concerned meeting me, probably on account of the way I looked, maybe it was the goat, but more likely they were concerned at the massive sheath knife on my belt. Or the machete I was carrying to clear any stray branches or gorse bush off the path. I gave them a cheery smile which I think they mistook for an insane grimace from a psychopath, have you seen any walkers on the path one of them nervously asked. Judging the impact my appearance had on them I decided to play up a bit, strangers, in these parts, don’t get many strangers round ‘ere, I exclaimed rolling my eyes. They looked nervously at each other, walking far I enquired as they turned ran back down the track. I left them and set off again wondering what tales they would tell at the hostel later. As they were running towards Mad Keith’s shack they would probably have some more close encounters with deranged locals before their day was over.

Back to the geologists.

Several times a year we meet them. Last time they were here they were gratefully climbing over our cliff and eagerly taking samples from a 45 ton rock that had landed in the garden some months before. I tried to get them to take bigger lumps of it to save me having to break it up with a jack hammer later but they were already overburdened. I also resisted the temptation to swap the rocks they already had for ones from my new rockery.

This time two of them were sliding down the hill clinging to the perimeter fence like their lives depended on it. This was probably the case and to compound their difficulties the Bernese Mountain Dogs were trying to help by sitting on any extended limb. Suitably rescued they ventured along our track to find a one armed builder stood in the rain by a mass of concrete blocks.

Walking far I cheerily enquired.

And so they told their tale. They lived in Hereford, and digging in the back garden they found a rock. On enquiry they found it was a very old rock, 700 million years old in fact. So they thought they would come and see the Mother Rock.

I looked at them and at the hill containing the massive Mother Rocks. How would they recognise the parent?

These weren’t just geologists, these were geriatric geologists. Both had to be almost as old as the rocks they studied. It crossed my mind to ask what they were doing eight foot down in their back garden. I watched the rain dripping off their noses that were red with cold, the mud all over them, and the pattern of dog paw prints on their coats and decided that I had better not delay these pensioners any longer as they still had an hour to walk to their car. They might die.

The dogs and I watched them slowly walk down the lane. It really does take all sorts.

So if you are lucky enough to come and share our hill, be prepared for the Rock HQ welcome as you enter our playground, and don’t expect to stay clean.

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