Friday, December 5, 2014

Wiltshire's Historic Landscape

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Late afternoon sky over Avebury - Ian Newman

With the lack of daylight hours and the unpredictability of the weather, December and early January tends to be the time of year that we keep our day trips local. Not a hardship when you are as fortunate as we are with our local landscape!

The dry cold weather of the last couple of weeks has given us ample opportunity to get out in the countryside and, with the leaves mostly off the trees and on the ground, we have given the wealth of ancient and medieval history available on Salisbury Plain and among the chalk downs our full attention.

Standing Stones at Avebury - Ian Newman
The aim of our trip to the Avebury World Heritage Site last weekend was to get some great shots of stones wreathed in mist, however , we arrived to find full sunshine had a good walk over Overton Hill and Fyfield Down on the ancient Ridgeway before returning to Avebury to be rewarded with excellent late afternoon and early evening light and the chance to take some good photographs (albeit without the mist).

Wind blasted trees and sarsen stones, Fyfield Down - Ian Newman

There has been much excitement around Old Sarum Castle near Salisbury this week, with the discovery of the layout of the medieval town which had grown up around the castle and neighbouring cathedral. This was achieved by Ground Penetrating Radar without even breaking the soil. Check out the BBC News item here.

Old Sarum from the air - English Heritage

Old Sarum was an Iron Age hill fort, which was then occupied by the Romans as it was on the march from Londinium (modern day London) to Aquae Sulis (Bath). After the Romans withdrew, the Saxons occupied the castle which was in a commanding position within Wessex (the kingdom of the West Saxons). After the Norman Conquest in 1066 William put a very strong garrison into Old Sarum to keep Wessex under control (Harold Godwinson, the Saxon king defeated at the Battle of Hastings, had been Earl of Wessex). The Domesday Book was presented to William at Old Sarum. Domesday was the list of taxable assets within William's new domain (most of which had passed from Saxon to Norman ownership) and the symbolism of where it was presented was absolutely calculated to emphasise who was boss!

Cathedral Footprint from Old Sarum Castle - Ian Newman
In 1220 a number of factors (not least the friction between the clergy and the garrison) led to the construction of a magnificent new cathedral two miles away in the growing town of Salisbury.

Old Sarum is managed by English Heritage and is open throughout the winter.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Rewilding, Reintroduction, Wildlife Photography, Deer and..........Natural Capital

Last Saturday I attended the Southern Area Members Gathering of the John Muir Trust (JMT). I was accompanied by four Countryside students from Harper Adams University, so their take on the meeting will be very interesting (and ultimately, as they follow their chosen career path, more significant than mine).

The John Muir Trust is a charity set up to protect wild land and wild places - very much the ethos of John Muir, the Scot who emigrated to the United States and was instrumental in persuading the then President, Roosevelt, that wild places should be valued for their own sakes. This was the trigger for the creation of National Parks within the USA and ultimately in many other countries worldwide.

The main content of the morning's proceedings was the annual report by Chief Executive Stuart Brooks which touched upon many aspects of the Trust's work and outlined the Trust's stance on a number of  issues, some contentious. There are some issues upon which the JMT is still deciding its position.

The JMT is still  committed to rewilding the tracts of land that it owns in both Highland and Lowland Scotland and is always on the lookout for suitable properties in England and Wales. As part of its commitment to reducing deer numbers the JMT is in favour of reintroducing a 'top predator' species. The reintroduction of the wolf is now off the agenda and the 'w' word is now taboo. The proposed reintroduction of the European Lynx is gathering momentum, the public debate will be interesting.
A picture of a European Lynx would have been good at this point, but I don't have one. Perhaps if and when they're reintroduced.....

The concept of 'Natural Capital' was discussed. Natural Capital is a system by which natural and ecological processes which provide a 'service' to man and/or industry (such as trees providing natural flood defences, vegetation providing water purification etc) are assigned a monetary value.

There are two schools of thought on this: one is that by showing that nature will help the balance sheet, industry and big business can be encouraged to adopt greener practices; the other is that the cynical number crunchers within industry will run rings around environmentalists and conservationists when it comes to the manipulation of statistics to their own ends. The other down side to Natural Capital is that enthusiastic, well-meaning amateurs like my 'good self' know in our hearts that nature needs to be protected and turning it into a 'balance sheet asset' may well disenchant that vital army of volunteers and activists who do so much good work.

The JMT has not decided its stance on this but intends to be party to the 'conversation', which I feel is sensible.

So after a heavy morning receiving updates on natural issues of great moment it was a 'breath of fresh air' to have an audio visual presentation by talented young wildlife photographer, camera man and presenter Bertie Gregory. Check out his website, if he's this good at twenty one I can't wait to see his material in a few years' time! An excellent way to round off the morning.

The afternoon focused on deer management with Mike Daniels providing the view from the Scottish Highlands, Charles Harding from Exmoor and John Stowers, the South West liaison officer of the 'Deer Initiative' ( a national group drawn from a number of agencies).

The overwhelming conclusion, which surprised no-one, is that there are far too many deer both north and south of the border, but the issues have significant regional differences. In the highlands the red deer can only be shot during a short season when the meat is in its worst condition and this precludes them from being used, other than locally, as a food source.

The deer population in England and Wales is hugely out of control. Some venison is being sold locally but numbers are on the increase.

The main issue with deer in the Scottish Highlands is ecological, can the landscape support them. The increased numbers are harming the landscape. The issue in England, especially in central southern England is that there is a huge deer population living in close proximity with a huge human population and the place where the two species collide (quite literally) is on the road. There are a staggering number of Road Traffic Collisions (RTC) each year involving deer and these are increasing in line with the population increases of both species. So the question is not just ecological but social.

A final note of caution, we think deer are a problem (and they are) The number of wild boar in the countryside is increasing at an alarming rate (after all sows have six to eight young rather than a female deer's one). Following the (small) breakout from a farm in the Forest of Dean, there are estimated to be around two thousand wild boar in the forest. There have been similar breakouts all over the country so there are a lot of them out there. The prospect of a  RTC with a wild boar is a very daunting one.

Any way, a good meeting - pithy and pertinent (as it should be) and plenty of food for thought.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Trees, Toadstools and Conservation

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The Cathedral Oak
King Alfred's Cakes

October and November have been great months for walking in the woods. We've managed to get to Savernake Forest and have a chance to view the Cathedral Oak, reputedly the second oldest oak tree in the United Kingdom. With a circumference of over 10 metres and aged over 1100 years, the tree still looks magnificent. The biggest and oldest is also in the Savernake Forest and is known as the Big Bellied Oak, but that one is showing its age now.

There are plenty of interesting fungi around in the Savernake at the moment. The one in the picture is known as 'King Alfred's Cakes'. If you're ever out in the woods and need to keep your camp fire going, these little fungi burn slowly with intense heat, like charcoal.

Tree Tag, Selworthy Woods

Sweet Chestnut, Selworthy Woods

Selworthy and Cockerhills wall restoration

We took the opportunity to measure, survey and map a number of veteran and notable trees in Selworthy woods on Exmoor's Holnicote Estate (National Trust). We came across this beautifully reconstructed wall which is a part of the recently completed Selworthy and Cockerhills wall project. The task was undertaken by volunteers under the supervision of the Honicote Ranger Team. What a fantastic job they've done.

It's easy to believe, as you walk through the superb ancient woodlands in Britain, that they look after themselves but the opposite is true - they are maintained by small dedicated teams of professionals supported by an army of unpaid volunteers. We're certainly grateful and very much enjoyed making our  own very small contribution the other week.

Maple Ridge

Looking For Indicator Species, Holnicote
 Another opportunity to go back to Holnicote, this time to help daughter, Heather, with her grassland management project but more of that when we have all the data!

Monday, October 6, 2014

Farewell Summer, Hello Autumn

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What a wonderful summer it has been, with the inevitable 'hiccup' during August when the schools are on their long summer break.

Our splendid 'Indian Summer' finally seems to have given way to something more akin to autumn. Our final guided group holiday is under way in the Lake District, all of our 'self-guided' walkers have had their vacations and returned safely home and our final 'tailor-made' group of the season has returned to North America. We are busily finalising our 2015 programme.

This fantastic summer has left the hedgerows overloaded with berries. Our apple trees have been breaking under the weight of fruit and we have been inundated with raspberries, gooseberries, currants and strawberries. Blackberries, damsons and elderberries have all been abundant in the hedgerows and the sloes, whilst not around in the quantities of the others, have yielded sufficient for sloe gin! So we have reached the time of year for bottling and preserving and for making jams, jellies, chutneys, country wines and cider. One of my favourite times of year.

The cider is brewing!
Our friends at Camel Valley Vineyard have had a bumper crop of grapes this year.

The autumn is a great time for getting out for a walk too. The leaves are just beginning to change colour and, in the woods, spectacular fungi are beginning to appear.

Chicken of the Woods fungus, Exmoor
If you're looking for a great place for an autumn walk, why not try the South Downs or Exmoor.
Exmoor is our particular favourite, especially in October and early November when the red deer 'rut' is under way and the hills and woodlands are alive with the sound of the bellowing of stags!

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

It's Been A Fantastic Summer for Butterflies and Moths

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Silver Washed Fritillary - Photograph by Heather Newman
My previous blog was entitled 'It's Been A Good Year For The Orchids', well if it's been a good year for the orchids it has been an outstanding year for the phylum Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths).
It would appear that a combination of a wet, mild winter with very few frosts and a warm dry spring and summer has been perfect for wild flowers and, therefore, perfect for butterflies. It's a very long time since I have seen a summer with such an abundance of wild flowers and insect life and, as I am constantly reminded by my family, I've seen quite a few (summers).

Burnett Moth on Ragwort - Photograph Ian Newman
Scarlet Tiger Moth - Photo Ian Newman
Magpie Moth - Photograph Ian Newman
The Cornish coast has been a riot of wild flowers and insect life this year. Moths are widely regarded by 'non-entomologists' to be the dowdy poor relations of the butterflies, but the 'daytime moths' seen on the coast path have been an absolute joy.
Small Blue Butterfly - photo Ian Newman
Our daughter, Heather, has been involved in reintroduction programmes for some rare species of butterfly as part of her work on Holnicote Estate on Exmoor. Check out her Facebook page; 'Heather's Holnicote Diary'.

If this has stimulated your interest in butterflies and you would like to be involved in their conservation check out the Big Butterfly Count which ends on August 10.

Friday, July 4, 2014

It's Been A Good Year For The.......Orchids

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Pyramidal Orchid

 Well, the wet, windy winter wasn't to most peoples' taste but the wild orchids obviously loved it. This spring and summer have been by far the most prolific 'orchid season' that I have seen. One of the reasons that we moved to the Wylye Valley was the abundance of flora in the surrounding calcareous grassland, but this year has been exceptional.

Bee Orchid
On our local hills we have found Fragrant Orchids, Spotted Orchids, Pyramidal Orchids, Bee Orchids, Butterfly Orchids, Twayblades, Marsh Orchids. A veritable feast of wild flowers.

Lesser Butterfly Orchid
Further afield the Cotswolds, Cornwall and Exmoor have all had exceptional orchid seasons.

Narrow Leafed Marsh Orchid
What a treat it has been, and they're still out there - but not for much longer! Get out into the countryside while the opportunity is still there.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Old Father Thames Keeps Rolling Along.............

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Clifton Hampden bridge and church

Hambleden Mill, Hambleden Lock

Walkers on Wittenham Meadows
Just returned from an interesting two weeks exploring the river Thames. There are few rivers that show so much contrast between source and estuary.

The Thames rises among the Cotswold Hills near Cirencester and then wends its tranquil way through Cotswold meadows and woodland to reach the great academic city of Oxford, where it briefly becomes the Isis (the Roman name of the river was Thamisis and Oxford likes to be a little 'different'). Below Oxford the Thames begins to widen and increase in power. There are wonderful stretches of towpath to walk notably the stretch from Culham to Dorchester-on-Thames visiting picturesque Clifton Hampden and the famous Barley Mow pub on the way. Dorchester Abbey is a very significant (as well as beautiful) building in the development of Christianity in Anglo Saxon

The stretch of Thames between Henley and the pretty village of Hurley is well worth an afternoon walk (especially if you detour into Hurley Lock for a cream tea!) and passes historic Medmenham Abbey, former home of the notorious 'Hellfire Club'.

The White Tower, Tower of London

Hampton Court Palace

The Shard and 'More London'
The 'metropolitan' Thames is different altogether. Busy and bustling as recreation rubs shoulders with commerce. The stretches of Thames between Hampton Court, Richmond and Kew have a green and rural quality which belies their location in one of the worlds great metropolitan cities. The 'Pool of London' between Putney and Tower Bridge has a bewildering array of iconic historic buildings such as the Palace of Westminster, Somerset House, The Tower of London, St Paul's Cathedral 'cheek by jowl' with the Shard, the Gherkin, the Walky-Talky and the Cheesegrater.

This combination just should not work and anywhere else in the world it wouldn't, but in London it just does! 

Monday, April 28, 2014

'O to be in England, now that April's there'

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Raglan Castle, tower and moat

Sugar Loaf and Skyrrydd Fawr from the top of the tower at Raglan

 Daughter Rebecca has all but completed her degree at Trinity St Davids university in West Wales, which will bring to an end our regular shuttles back and forth across the Severn bridge and through the Brecon Beacons National Park.  On our most recent journey, on a beautiful day and given that the degree in question is in Medieval Studies, we stopped to visit Raglan Castle near Abergavenny in the 'Welsh Marches'. Raglan Castle was the last castle to be built in Wales (other than follies) and was the most impressive castle not in Royal ownership, it is now in the care of Cadw (the Welsh heritage protection agency). The view from the top of the tower takes in two of the black mountain summits near Abergavenny.

'May Blossom', Cotswolds.
The blog title is a quote from Robert Browning's poem 'Home Thoughts From Abroad'. We have to agree with the sentiment. The hedgerows have certainly burst into life. The hawthorn and blackthorn, collectively known as 'the May, are putting on a spectacular display of blossom this year. This week our other daughter, Heather, has been checking some route descriptions in the lovely area of the Cotswolds to the north of Bath. Newly hatched chicks in the hedgerows and trees, birds of prey in the air (no coincidence there), blossom in the hedges and on the crab apple trees and new lambs gamboling in the fields - a perfect time for walking.

The rolling Cotswold landscape near Bath

Closer to home, the bluebells are well and truly out in Great Ridge Woods!

Monday, April 7, 2014

From The 'Norman Conquest' to 'Allez Yorkshire' - a week of great contrasts

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Camellia, Battle Abbey

Undercroft, Battle Abbey
Last Wednesday saw Ian visit Battle Abbey, near Hastings in East Sussex. The purpose of the visit was twofold: to look at the '1066 Country Walk' long distance path and for daughter Rebecca to get some pictures of the 1066 battlefield to help her with her final university dissertation on the politics of Saxon England with particular reference to the Godwin family.

English Heritage are making a good job of looking after the site, the weather was bright and sunny and the battlefield itself was covered in meadow flowers. The camellias around the abbey walls were stunning.

A visit to Battle Abbey and an examination of the circumstances which led to the Saxons' defeat does emphasise how coincidences can change the course of history.

The Saxons under the newly crowned Harold Godwinson had been awaiting a Norman invasion on the south coast and were thoroughly prepared for it. What they had not factored in to their thinking was that there might be an invasion by the Vikings in Yorkshire led by their warlike king Harald Haradra and Harold Godwinson's brother Tostig. The Saxon army had to run over 200 miles on rough tracks, they covered the distance in a week at 30 miles a day, fought and won a savage and bloody battle and then heard that the Normans had landed in Sussex. The professional core of the Saxon army ran back to the south with the King and new, inexperienced men were conscripted to help fight the invaders. This inexperience turned out to be the decisive factor in a battle which shaped the destiny of England. It's difficult not to feel a great admiration for Harold and his royal guard, the Housecarles, to have run the length of the land twice and to have fought  two titanic battles against such formidable foes is remarkable. The moment that Harold fell spelt the end for the Housecarles, when their 'gold lord' fell they would defend his body until their own death.

So by ironic coincidence, Ian's travels took him from Battle on Tuesday to North Yorkshire on Wednesday, but not on foot!

Swaledale Family Group
Perfect 'squeeze stile' in a perfect drystone wall
The purpose of the visit to Yorkshire was to put together some new route descriptions in Wensleydale and Swaledale  and to check out some existing ones. The other purpose of the visit was to keep in contact with some of our accommodation providers in the area. Walk leader, Roy Gatley, made the trip too. Ian and Roy stayed at Ebor House, an excellent bed and breakfast in Hawes, and dropped in for coffee and a catch-up with Chris Taplin and Peter Westwood at the excellent Stone House Hotel at Sedbusk.

Yorkshire is hosting the first stage of this year's Tour de France, not another invasion (thankfully), and Yorkshire's tourism chiefs seem beside themselves with excitement. Dales folk, however, are not prone to public displays of excitement but seem to be looking forward to the inevitable increase in visitor numbers ('appen there'll be a lot of cyclists about then!).
The lounge bar at Stone House

'Mousie Thompson' mouse on the bar at Stone House.

Monday, March 31, 2014

From The Very Heart of England to the Welsh Borders - walking in the ancient kingdom of Mercia

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Beautiful cottage in Broad Campden
Way back in the dark ages, after the Romans had departed but before Alfred the Great unified the Saxon kingdoms of England and defeated the Danes, England was divided into a number of kingdoms. The best known of these was undoubtedly Wessex, but the people of Gloucestershire, Worcestershire, Cheshire, Herefordshire and Shropshire might disagree. These counties all stand in the ancient Saxon kingdom of Mercia. The best-known king of Mercia (certainly to walkers) was Offa who built a fortified earthwork for the full 180 miles of frontier between his kingdom and Wales. almost one and half millenia later much of the earthwork is still visible and a long distance path runs along its original course.

With a number of walks to look out in the general area, last week saw Ian walking in Gloucestershire and Shropshire. The first walk was in Gloucestershire and took in Chipping Campden and Broad Campden. Chipping Campden is a small market town with the most intact Flemish medieval high street in England, Broad Campden, in our opinion, contains the most attractive cottages in the Cotswolds (see picture).

Clun Castle

The next walk to look at was over in Shropshire, in West Mercia. This walk was a far more rugged proposition, the country around Offa's Dyke is high and wild with big far-reaching views. The towns are solid, attractive and, for the most part, have or have had a castle. The castle ruin in the picture is in the little town of Clun. The walk in question started in Clun and ended in the attractive hillside town of Bishop's Castle. After a brief valley walk and a climb upon to the Cefns ridge there was not a soul to be seen all day, with only sheep and birds of prey for company. This border area has a turbulent past, during the Roman conquest in the first century the local Celtic chieftain, Caradog, fought a guerilla war against the Romans, gaining their respect and eventually being made a Roman citizen. Most will know him better as Caractacus. The Saxons of Mercia (under King Offa) had their skirmishes  with the Welsh and after the Norman conquest a local Saxon thane, known as Wild Edric,  gave the new rulers a hard time!

During medieval times this area was known as the Marches of Wales and the barons were known as the Marcher Barons. They still owed a loyalty to the English King but had rights that no other Norman barons possessed; they were able to bestow market charters, establish hunting forests and create boroughs.  There were also a number of Royal taxes from which they were exempt. The Marcher laws were repealed in 1536, so had been in place for over four centuries. This area either side of the border between England and Wales possesses the highest concentration of Motte and Bailey castle ruins in Britain.

Ragleth Hill from From Colebatch
Shropshire remains one of England's best-kept secrets, most British people probably couldn't point to it on a map. The walking is superb, anyone who loves wild, lonely country steeped in history - Shropshire is the place for you.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Joy of being in Ancient Places

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Oak - covered tumulus by the Ridgeway path near Avebury

                                                     Do I belong to some ancient race
                                                     I like to walk in ancient places
                                                     These are things that I can understand 

                                                                                           The Levellers
This week has been spent walking routes, tweaking route descriptions and checking the condition of any paths that we feel may have been under threat. This week we have been concentrating on area close to home - the ancient landscape of Wiltshire.

The highlight of the week was walking a ten mile stretch of the Ridgeway National Trail. The Great Ridgeway originated as a trading route as far back as the neolithic period, and has been in constant use ever since.This stretch of the path took us from Barbury Hill, a bank and ditch fort constructed and used during the iron age and the Romano British, to Avebury by way of the Hackpen White Horse, Overton Round Barrows, West Kennett Long Barrow and Silbury Hill.

Mysterious and iconic, Silbury Hill
The whole area around Avebury has been designated as a World Heritage Site, and rightly so. Avebury itself is an attractive village with a stunning double stone circle (henge) which runs through it, so (unlike nearby Stonehenge) nobody can fence it off or prevent access to it. Moving freely around these stones is a privilege which is open to all.

Part of Avebury stone circle.
What is the reason for the mystique and mystery surrounding the chalk downlands of Southern England? The fact that they were the first areas settled by humans following the 'hunter gatherer' period must have a lot to do with it. They were suitable because chalk soil was well drained and the soils were fairly thin, lacking in clay which made them easy to work with primitive tools.

Above the mist on Cotley Hill
The hills above our home village are topped with earthworks and landscape features dating back to the bronze and iron ages. Toward the end of last week we had some gloomy valley fog, but if you persist and climb the hill sometimes you are rewarded as you break through into the light.

Next week's walks will be in the Cotswolds and Shropshire, so we shall look forward to those.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Chalk Downland, Bucolic Views, Wild Coast and Ancient Welsh Manuscripts! A varied week.

Horningsham Church across the fields
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 A fine dry weekend provided the ideal opportunity to swap the wellies for walking boots and get out for a decent walk on the downs. The walk I chose was from the pretty village of Kingston Deverill in Wiltshire over Cold Kitchen and Brimsdown Hills to reach the attractive estate village of Horningsham and  the magnificent viewpoint of 'Heaven's Gate'. Heaven's Gate gives a stunning view down onto Longleat House and its grounds. My daughter Heather kept me company as well as Phoebe our springer spaniel.  The first spell of fine weather brought out numerous walkers, all relieved that the wind and rains have abated and everyone we met was in very high spirits.

Llandovery Castle

Wednesday saw me heading over the Severn bridge to visit our other daughter, Rebecca in West Wales. I took the scenic route through the Brecon Beacons National Park and stopped to have a look at Llandovery. Llandovery is the gateway to 'Kite Country'. The red kite was saved from extinction by a reintroduction programme in the wild area of mid Wales north of Llandovery and these beautiful birds of prey are now incredibly common. There is a very atmospheric castle ruin at Llandovery, a motte and bailey construction built around 1116.

The Harbourmaster Hotel, Aberaeron

Aberaeron Inner Harbour
The reasons for the trip to Wales were threefold. Firstly visit our daughter, secondly find a suitable base to organise some of our walking holidays on the magnificent coast of Ceredigion and thirdly visit the exhibition of the four 'iconic ancient books of Wales' at the National Library in Aberystwyth.

I had hoped that the coastal village of Aberaeron would make a suitable base for one of our tours and it certainly did not disappoint. It goes straight into my 'special places' file. A quick stop for coffee and cake at the Harbourmaster hotel in Aberaeron and then on to Aberystwyth to see the ancient books. For those with an interest in dark age history the books were; The Book of Taliesyn, The Red Book of Hergest, The Black Book of Carmarthen and the Book of Aneirin. These books predate the first printing press by centuries and were hand written by monks. Very few people were able to read these books (not even the aristocracy) so back in the days when they were written they would have been given an almost mystical status. I always enjoy being in this part of West Wales, you hear very little English spoken which serves to underline the fact that you really are experiencing another culture.

A four hundred mile round trip is a big day out, but I felt quite uplifted by all the visible history in West Wales. I  must confess that I did allow myself to feel just a little smug after the rugby result on Sunday, though.