One of the chief joys of birding, and perhaps one of the main reasons why so many people enjoy watching wildlife, is the possibility of escape. Tracking down, carefully observing and simply enjoying the presence of other free, independent creatures can enable the watcher to become so engrossed in the lives of others that we temporarily forget the struggles and sorrows of our own, and I think even the most contented of souls will still have enough troubles to make this a liberating experience.
In our rushed, unforgiving twenty-first century existence I suspect we need such escapes more and more, though I’m sure countless people have found solace in encounters with wildlife through past ages as well. But there is something about the pace of the world which instills a sense of worry into life, a feeling that time not spent doing anything particularly productive is time wasted, and that the ever growing list of tasks which simply must be done will eventually overwhelm us, swallowing our freedom altogether. Perhaps that is just me.
I sometimes think that if I only had an extra two days inserted at useful intervals, perhaps during a more than usually busy week, everything would be fine. Life would be perfect. This is a fallacy, of course, because my superior powers of procrastination would inevitably lead to much of the time being ‘wasted’. Encounters with birds are my quality time, the occasional breaking out into an eternal, timeless now that stops the racing clock, stills my anxieties and combats my sense of general non achievements. For a moment, it is enough simply to exist.
So wouldn’t it be wonderful if those moments could be stretched to encompass a whole day? Fortunately, there remain a few places in the world which have this effect on me. One of them is Hay-on-Wye, the small, remote yet homely ‘book-town’ just over the Welsh border, nestling on the river Wye between the rolling border hills and the long, brooding ridge of the Black Mountains. Something about the layout of this kind of countryside always relaxes me, with its quiet green sheep-strewn fields, ancient hedgerows and walls, dense hanging woods and twisting lanes. And whilst the Welsh border country is not quite the Lake District in terms of grandeur, that helps keep things a little less spoilt, less ridden with coach parties and chintzy tea shops. Instead, the profusion of bookshops (at least twenty-some, I believe) that Hay is famous for, pleasant cafes and delicatessens, and entertaining history lend the town an offbeat charm which I like to think rather suits us.
What really slows things down even further is that on our second visit to the town we stumbled across an absolute marvel of a bed and breakfast nestled in a gorgeous valley south and east from the town. It’s a wonderful old house that is almost hidden by the equally wonderful garden that surrounds and almost consumes it, feeling like it has stood there so long that it is part of the landscape. Everything there is beautiful: the garden is ordered and yet wild, with a new aspect, leading you further in, visible round every corner. Inside the house has been furnished and decorated with enviable good taste and an amazing array of antiques and curios which rather than distract seem to add to the sense of being comfortably looked after. The welcome could not be friendlier, the hosts at ease and charming. The house wraps you up like a blanket, and in the morning, weighed down by a quite magnificent breakfast, it is hard to summon up the will to leave at all.
Perhaps if all the world were like this, I wouldn’t need my birding fix quite so much. That said, I confess that I still slip in a bird or two whilst we are there as well, and they still provide the countryside with its crown of visible, colourful, active life. This being hilly west country, buzzards are especially common and confiding, which is always a joy, and pleasingly I managed to pick out a raven’s croak in the far distance whilst out in the garden, eventually spotting two black crosses wheeling over the ridgeline on the east of the valley. I even managed to tick off a year bird in the midst of book shopping, strolling easily down to a lookout under the town bridge to check the river for dippers and picking one out bobbing on a pale rock within seconds of digging my binoculars out of my ‘man-bag’. 171 down; time for lunch. If only every twitch was so easy!
That is proof, if it was really needed, that even if I was as serenely jolly as the Dalai Lama I’d quietly head outside, seeking that indefinable extra something that wildlife brings. What I’m getting at, in a very long-winded way, is that I’d quite like to be able to have birds as an added bonus, a pure joy, rather than a necessity to save me from the tedious rush of modern Britain. I need, we all need, special places which calm us completely. Perhaps if we wisely spent more of our time appreciating them we’d return back to the ‘real world’ with that contemplative fire still burning in our hearts, and slowly, step by gentle, loving step, transform it until we all stopped running. Well, let’s not get carried away — I don’t want to try and dress up what is basically a short holiday as the solution to all the world’s problems. But as with birds, so it is with Hay-on-Wye: surely by embracing the things, places and people you love and giving them time, you are bound to end up a better, happier person?
You’ll all be wanting to know where this magical B&B is, I suppose. I don’t like to give too much away but I’ll give you a hint, and if you do go, tell the owners I sent you. And it is very important that at breakfast you ask for everything. You won’t regret it!