I have mentioned that we have been returning annually at Easter to the Welsh Borders for over thirty years. Quite a lot has changed in that time.
In the 1970s this upland area was, despite -- or perhaps because of -- its proximity to the lush English borderlands of Herefordshire and Shropshire, isolated and surprisingly "backward". Tumble-down farms without electricity, and ancient, muddy men in string-tied coats who had retreated to the one habitable room in their timber-framed farmhouse were commonplace. If you have read Bruce Chatwin's novel On The Black Hill, you will know how it was. There was a strong sense of a pre-WW2 Britain.
Indeed, if you have an affinity for such things, you can still sense a continuity with the standing stones, burial mounds and hillforts that litter the place, often used as the basis of improvised shelters for livestock, combined with rattling sheets of corrugated iron and flapping feed bags. It is a place where History telescopes in and out quite dramatically.
In those days, the many second-hand shops in towns like Llandrindod Wells and Presteigne were Aladdin's Caves of Victoriana. As farmers died and farms were cleared, large quantities of crockery, ornaments, books and furniture emerged into daylight, and were carted off to the nearest market town. My partner having a weakness for Victorian plates, and me having a weakness for books and bizarrerie, we spent many happy rainy-day hours rummaging through the heaped boxes and bookshelves in damp back rooms.
In the intervening years, much has changed. Things like quad-bikes and EEC grants have rejuvenated hill-farming, and many younger farmers are bravely trying to make a business out of what is, at heart, a way of life. But the main agent of change has been a steady influx of incomers, especially those in pursuit of alternative lifestyles and "quality of life". For all its remoteness, it has always been remarkably easy to buy organic wholemeal bread and even tofu in the Welsh Marches. Galleries, craft shops, meditation centres and the like are easier to find than a Post Office. Large properties with land have been relatively cheap, and communities of sophisticated, like-minded settlers are scattered everywhere.
This last week, we had an odd encounter. The Prof and I drove out to a pretty valley in the hills, where we intended to do a modest circular walk in the rain. Now, though we've walked for recreation most of our lives, we have never been "lifestyle" walkers, and have always found amusement in the people you encounter on long-distance paths like Offa's Dyke, kitted out with matching cagoules, gaiters, and those preposterous ski-pole type sticks people have started using, often with one in each hand. To be honest, we probably look more like a couple of tramps, in our battered wellies and improvised multiple layers of clothing, than public-sector professionals on vacation.
As we came out of a muddy field onto a track, we noticed up ahead that a farmer had recently built a little cluster of some truly ugly, wooden chalet-style holiday lets in a field. As we came nearer, I could hear music, which gradually resolved itself into the unmistakable, plangent sound of Adele singing "Someone Like You". And then, as we passed one of the little chalets, we saw something amazing: a naked couple sat in a garden hot tub, drinking wine with the stereo pointed out of the window, as the gentle rain fell and the sheep grazed.
I'm no Martin Parr, so I didn't have the nerve to get the truly brilliant shot that lay before me. Besides, we were giggling so much I doubt I could have held the camera steady (MP, of course, would have blasted the scene with his flash, then pretended to be looking up at the hillside). Another one that got away. Ah, well.