Driving through the countryside in Herefordshire and then on to Wales is a captivating experience. Perhaps it is the winding roads and the rising and falling of the horizon as you make your way past meadows, hills and then mountains. Small hamlets, castles in ruins, the occasional farmhouse, all punctuate the drive to Abergavenny and, if you are brave enough to do so on a cold January morning, lowering the window will reward you with a steady blast of the cleanest air garnished every mile or so with a whiff of soggy river bank or wet grass or diesel from a tractor as it turns off into a field.
Yes, Abergavenny was my destination. Aber, from the Welsh for “mouth” (of a river) and gofannon, which is Middle Welsh for “blacksmith” and subsequently the name given to the local river, the Gavenny. The reference to blacksmiths relates to the town’s pre-Roman importance in iron smelting. However, my mind was not concentrating on these facts but rather on the strange fusion of cricket, poetry, Nazism, and, of course, ceramics that this town’s history brings together within its old stone walls.
Poetry allusions are plentiful in beautiful Wales, but this town was where Owen Sheers was born – poet, playwright, novelist and actor, and as I say whenever I get the opportunity, the only difference between “poetry” and “pottery” is the letter “t”. Click here to visit his website, and, if you are interested, I can tell you that he is booked to come to the Ledbury Poetry Festival this July.
From poetry to cricket is an easy jump, given the many poems written about this game. For those of you who do not know the rules I would need a whole blog to explain them but allow me to mention writers like Les Murray, A.E.Housman, Harold Pinter and perhaps the best-known, Henry Newbolt (“There’s a breathless hush in the Close tonight…”). One of the most remembered moments in the game took place on 31st August 1968 when the great left hander Gary Sobers became the first batsman ever to hit six “sixes” in a single over of six consecutive balls in first-class cricket. We all remember Gary, but who thinks about the man who bowled those balls? Step forward Malcolm Nash, born in Abergavenny, and forever Garfield Sobers’ partner in cricket history. “My goodness”, says the commentator of the last ball, “it’s gone all the way to Swansea” – click here to see it.
But I digress. I was in Abergavenny to deliver some pieces to the Art Shop and Chapel. Regular exhibitions of fine and applied arts are held at the Art Shop, where artists’ materials can also be bought, while just down the road at the Chapel readings and performances take place with artists, musicians and poets, and you can eat at the Chapel Kitchen too, all ingredients locally produced – something for everyone, from meat-eater to vegan.
The town is small enough to make wandering around in it a pleasure, and if you like your food the place is great for world-class mountain lamb, venison, Y Fenni cheese, pastries, beer and cider – unsurprising since every September it is the stage for Wales’s biggest food festival, set in stunning area surrounded by green hills, including the Sugarloaf that looks down on the town.
But I know what you are thinking. What about the Nazis? Well, OK. On the road to or from Abergavenny you will drive pasty a large stone ruin called Skenfrith, built in 1066 to protect the route from Hereford to Wales and now largely visited by passing tourists. One such was Rudolf Hess, a leading member of the Nazi party of Germany.
Deputy Fuhrer to Adolph Hitler, he served in this position until 1941, when he flew solo to Scotland in an attempt to negotiate peace with the United Kingdom. He was taken prisoner and eventually convicted of crimes against peace, serving a life sentence until his suicide. They had to keep him somewhere straight after his capture, so he was kept under escort at Maindiff Court Hospital for a while and paraded before the cameras and even allowed out on sightseeing trips – he was apparently known locally as the “Kaiser of Abergavenny”.
You will need a coffee when you are there. Go no further than the Chapel – the coffee is seriously good. The kitchen and cafe make breakfasts, lunch and suppers, starting with fresh soda bread every morning.