Thursday, April 9, 2009

Three White Chimneys

After we saw the Mappa Mundi (and the library of course) and had walked around Hereford for a bit, the temptation to cross the border into Wales overcame us. (We were 10 miles away) On the way from Cuddesdon to Hereford the sweeping low folds of the Cotswold hills had given way to the deeper vales and higher hills of the west. This is the landscape that inspired The Shire for Tolkein. There is a roundness about the hills. As we drove closer to the Welsh border, the hills became dotted with farmsteads and sheep.

“Can't you see it? The three white chimneys!” Craig pointed with one hand as he drove with the other. He had spied a collection of white buildings on a facing hillside. The house had three white chimneys.

“That sounds like the name of a house or a book title,” I said. The words, simple and each clear and descriptive, were so catchy together. Had I been a traveler needing to discriminate one farmstead from another I might well have been told to look for the house with three white chimneys. It was visual shorthand. Where the land is mostly pasture, the farms look similar. But a traveler could have picked out a house with three white chimneys. Plus, it sounds good. I wouldn't mind if my house were called Three White Chimneys. In the car, scenery like this passes like a movie, but on foot or horseback, this walk must have seemed long and lonely. I wonder how much the car has changed life for the people here.

As the sun was fading we tried to pack in as much looking as we could. Stopping here and there, we saw the ruins of an old priory, Abbey Dore, that we had to approach by walking down a farmer's driveway, his cows sheltered in a barn constructed on the foundation wall. As time ran out, we noted a British Heritage site called Skenfrith Castle and decided to head there. The signs to the site and our trusty TomTom led us along a narrow twisting river valley first on one side and then the other. We came upon it suddenly. The huge hulk of the castle was unattended and surrounded by spring grass. We parked across from the row of cottages that faced the castle. The daylight quickly fading, the first thing I noticed when I opened the car door were the shouts of 3 or 4 boys and an equal number of girls of various ages as they carried on a rather free form but spirited game of soccer. Their bicycles had been dropped where they stopped. The air had the moist feel of early evenings in the spring when the warmth of the day falls precipitously to the coldness of night, the dew forming on grass almost as we watched. As we made our way around the castle wall to the entrance, the children noticed our presence, but quickly returned to their attention to the game. As walked up the stone stairs, the ball bounced near us on the castle wall and back into play. There were no motion sensors or ropes and guards, no admission booth. No one paid any attention to the 2 strangers wandering through the soccer game and into the roofless castle and keep.

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