I’m at the bottom end of Brecknockshire set for one of the longest drives Wales has. I’ll cross Brecon, enter Radnor, cross Montgomery and end in the south of Denbighshire. I’m travelling from one side to the other of Powys, the giant county created in a fit of local government reorganisation in 1974. This is the paradise of Powys, the ancient kingdom, the land of Cynddylan, Rhodri the Great and Maredudd ab Owain ab Edwin. It’s been restored.
Powys might be the largest of Welsh regions but it is also the least populated. You can drive miles through intensely green upland without seeing a soul. There are places here where you can stand on hilltops and as far as can be seen spot no evidence of human intervention. The Green Desert, the late Harri Webb called it. He published a book of the same name in 1969. The concept only really hits home when you drive through it. All is hawthorn, ash, scrub oak, pasture, Sitka spruce reforestation. A glowing, constant green – evidence of ancientness, non-intervention, and constant rain.
Webb’s poetry was accessible, historical, humorous, and often highly political. He sang, he rhymed, he amused. The nearest writer we have to him today is the outspoken and entertaining Mike Jenkins. Neither poet actually spent much time in the Powys desert. Why would they? There’s nothing here.
I exaggerate, naturally. There’s Newtown and Brecon and Builth and the great Powys capital, Llandrindod Wells. A place of smelly water and middle class, where business meetings involving participants from both the north and the south are always held. The geographic centre of Wales. Equal misery - to get there everyone has to travel.
So why am I making the great green drive? So that I can write the introduction to Mike Parker’s next book, Real Powys. The Real books have hitherto concentrated on conurbations, built-up environments, big towns, cities, streets, places where industry has changed the landscape, places where people live. Cardiff, Llanelli, Merthyr, Aberystwyth, Swansea, Wrexham, Liverpool, Newport. In the pipeline are Bangor, Pembroke, more Swansea and Cardiff once again. But that still leaves great slices of Wales unrealised. Most of the country, in fact. Getting the Welsh compiler of the Rough Guide to have a crack at it was an obvious move.
Parker spent a time on television travelling around Wales’s B-roads in a camper van. He’s a map fanatic, author of the excellent Map Addict, a sort of history of the object mixed with his own often hilarious involvement. As an immigrant he’s written perceptively about the native Welsh. His latest, The Wild Rover, covers the chequered and turbulent history of the British footpath. That’s due from Collins next month. Real Powys will come from Seren next year. Expect green on the cover.
An earlier version of this posting appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail. #191