Is It Art? Who Cares!


Art was probably my weakest subject at school, but it never really bothered me. I’ve never been able to draw, and have rather envied those who can. Unfortunately, in secondary school I had art teachers who had no time for pupils who were no good at their subject. The worst offender was a Mr Tanguay, who took a particular dislike to me (the feeling was entirely mutual!) and used any and all occasions to pick on and humiliate me. It annoyed me, but I didn’t care, his subject meant nothing to me, and neither did he. I considered him a bad teacher who behaved in an unprofessional way. I was glad to be able to drop his subject when I could.

I came to appreciate art more and more the older I got. I admired the skill and expression of the artist, whether it was in painting, sculpture or whatever. I arrived at this entirely on my own; it had nothing to do with what I was “taught” by Mr Tanguay. My own “art” was writing which I started doing a teenager. I don’t know – and don’t really care – if I’m any good, I do it partly because I enjoy it.

I surprised myself then when I started dabbling in visual art. I had the idea for a collage about the various things we medicate ourselves with, and I also tried other collages cutting pictures from magazines and newspapers. This led to what I call splatter painting. Sometimes they work, sometimes not, but I would certainly never call myself an artist. As with the writing, I don’t know or care if it’s any good, I do it because I enjoy it. And also because it’s a belated middle finger to Mr Tanguay and his ilk.

So below are a few of my efforts to date.


No 1

No 2

No 3

No 4

No 5

No 6

The Execution of Piers Morgan


The Narrow Road to the Far North


When the doors of perception are cleansed
Man will see things as they truly are – infinite

(William Blake)

Voices piercing
by the sliding door –
Autumn wind.

(Matsuo Basho)

I heard and tasted the sea long before I saw it. Over the railway crossing with its brief whiff of oil, then the smell of seaweed hit me. I still couldn’t see the sea, the hammering waves were now a close boom. A short descent, a pile of lobster pots against the side of a hut, and there was the grey-blue heaving mass of the North Sea. Breakers crashed and smashed into rocks, hurling clouds of spray skywards. I tasted the sharp cocktail of salt, ozone and seaweed and drank deeply and gratefully of it. Along a narrow spit of rock ringed plovers pecked amongst the bladderwrack and kelp. I wondered how long it would be before the sea submerged it as it roared into the mouth of the Brora River.

The Beach at Brora


I looked past the estuary to the dunes beyond, and fading into the distance, the dark blue of the northward bound coast. A subtle change in colour marked Helmsdale and its river meeting the sea. I was heading that way tomorrow, and the anticipation was already welling inside me. I remembered previous visits, passing through on the train, where the railway takes a great swing inland to avoid the cliffs, climbing out of the strath up into the bleak heather and bracken of the Flow Country. And tomorrow I was heading that way again.

A day of slate grey clouds and heavy rain greeted me. The dark sea foamed and churned in the sharp wind. Sudden squalls rocked the car as I turned inland at Helmsdale. Though an “A” road, it was little better than a potholed lane, the tarmac wearing the look of something that has endured years of harsh weather and while not beaten was just about clinging on. Parallel to the railway but separated by the river, a train obligingly marked the route as it headed on its long southward trundle to Inverness.

As I passed from Strath Ullie into the Strath of Kildonan, the rain slashed down heavier than ever.

Kildonan –
Rain hammers car roof,
Logging lorries pass.

A897 near Kildonan

Baby trees when I first came were now mature. I wondered if the logs were from trees planted to give rich southerners a tax break in the 1980s. A tax break that dried out the bogs and seriously damaged a unique environment, the Flow Country. Profits for folks far distant from here. Out of sight, out of mind, ignorance was bliss as long as in that dawn their wallets were filled.

At Kinbrace road and rail were next to each other. Past Loch an Rhuthair, and a polished stone welcomed me to Mackay Country: Failte Dùthaich MhicAoidh. My Scottish grandmother (née Mackie) always said she was descended from the Mackays, so perhaps I was in some sense, home. What I’d seen from the train thirty years ago is fixed in my mind with little needed to bring it into the full colour spectacle of memory. A photograph, taken from the train window near Kildonan became an ikon of that journey, and has remained so.

On the train near Kildonan in 1988

I stopped at Forsinard station for a leg stretch. On a previous visit, I’d taken the train up here from Helmsdale. As I got off, the guard said “bet you wish you’d not got off eh?” Quite the reverse. As the train’s sound faded, a deep silence descended. There was little here: the station, road, a few houses and a hotel. And me. I the hotel, I was amused to see a Port Vale FC scarf slung over the bar (I then lived not far from their ground), and to be greeted with “yes duck, what can I get you?” from the landlady.

Forsinard station

Today, the place looked shut up. But there was now a nature reserve where the RSPB were trying to restore some of the damage caused by forestry. There was a footpath for ten miles across the empty bog to the roadless station at Altnabreac. Perhaps next time…

On into Halladale. I’d left the mountains behind now and entered moorland. The land was mostly tough grass with some bracken and heather, punctuated occasionally by small bits of cultivation. A tough life farming up here, I thought, recalling how the lands had been forcibly cleared in the nineteenth century to make way for sheep. To live in [here] is to be conscious/At dusk of the spilled blood/That went into the making of the wild sky/Dyeing the immaculate rivers (RS Thomas, Welsh Landscape).

After 40 miles of twisting narrow road, I reached the north coast at Melvich. I saw a sign for a beach, so followed it down the rough, unmade lane. A short walk through the dunes, my zipped cagoule immediately inflated by the wind, onto golden sands; wonderful and deserted.

Atlantic breakers
Over my sandy boots,
Let it rain!

I couldn’t have been happier standing there, even as the rain streamed of my coat and soaked my trousers.

A sudden squall
Curtaining the beach,
My soaking clothes.

I headed further west along the coast, glad to be on a decent road. A steep drop through rocky cliffs into Bettyhill – named after a countess of Sutherland, who deserved no such honour after her role in the local clearances. Sharp-peaked mountains rose in the distance, after miles of moors. The blue-grey remembered mountains I’d first seen twenty years ago. I recalled my disappointment that we turned south and away from them. Not today though. I drove past the road previously travelled by and continued west, with joy in my heart.

These were real mountains, rising sharply and sheerly with jagged peaks that would not have looked out of place in Middle Earth. Questing travellers, knights riding to rescue maidens, messengers with parchments sealed in heavy wax… The rain was finally easing and as I drove into Tongue, it had stopped and the looming mountain had resolved into the multi-peaked Ben Loyal. I stopped for fuel at an old fashioned filling station where I had to ring a bell for someone to come and put the petrol in for me. While I waited, I had my first encounter with the dreaded Scottish midges as a cloud appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, (how do they do that?!) and went into full attack. I dived back into the car and slammed the door, cursing the wind, which having been with me faithfully all day had now deserted me.

Near Tongue

Eventually, an old lady emerged and fuelled the car with some reluctance. She scowled as she took my money and was even more reluctant to give me my change. I’d wondered about getting some sandwiches, but she deserved no more of my money. Not quite the Basil Fawlty School of customer service – she hadn’t uttered a single word, nor even a grunt – but deserving of a dishonourable mention.

I’d stayed in Tongue Youth Hostel on a previous visit. One evening, I noticed the sunset and went outside. It was 1030pm, the western sky suffused with a deepening gold, which was perfectly reflected in the still waters of the Kyle of Tongue. The pungent tang of seaweed wafted up, a curlew trilled from the darkness below and a seal splashed its head above the water. Looking south, the water mirrored the mountains: the jagged peaks of Ben Loyal and the smoother Ben Hope, all the shades of rock and grass reflected there. I stood, transfixed by the quiet perfection of the scene. Well, near perfection: the lack of wind brought out the midges and they quickly made their presence felt. Such are the joys of the Far North…

As I drove over the causeway across the Kyle and headed further west, the clouds returned with squally showers.

Slow for a bend,
Road drops faster than my jaw –
Loch Eriboll.

Loch Eriboll

Loch Eriboll

Near Loch Eriboll

There it was, I’d seen it before, but I still gasped in wonder. A wide, nine mile long sea loch, that just appears, unexpected and amazing. Below a small island joined to the mainland by a thin spit of shingle, dotted with the ruins of an old lime works. The road fell and drew level with the water. As it reached the base of the loch and turned, there was a rainbow over the hill.

Loch Eriboll

Grey clouds crack,
A peep of sunlight stabs
My eyes – what joy!

And so to Durness, an Old Norse word meaning “wolf’s cape”. It was good to be back. The object of my first solo journey, reached after three hours on the post bus from Lairg, bumping and swerving along the 56 miles of single track road. The weather was filthy, and after leaving the Youth Hostel in the morning, I spent days walking round in waterproofs, sheltering where I could: behind walls, in the White Heather café, in the pub, until the Youth Hostel reopened at 5pm. But now, miraculously, the sun came out. I parked and followed the steps down the cliffs to the rocky beach and into Smoo cave. I was awed by it the first time, and it still impresses. The great arched space with a little brook – the Allt Smoo – flowing out of it. A wooden bridge leads to the flooded inner chamber into which the brook cataracts with a wonderful gushing roar from a sinkhole above. It was thundering in, throwing clouds of drenching spray back onto the bridge. I stood there for several minutes, watching, listening to this wonderful spectacle. There were a few others about, but was easily able to shut them out and the place became mine. I was it and it was me.

Smoo Cave

Smoo Cave

Smoo Cave

Smoo Cave

A short video of the waterfall:

The last stage of the journey took me south out of Durness. I passed the road to Cape Wrath (pronounced “rath”, nothing to do with anger, an Old Norse word for “turning point”) then the road followed the Kyle inland for several miles. The Kyle became the Dionard River which soon left the road and vanished into the heather and moss towards the rearing mountains of Beinn Spionnadh and Cranstackie. These swept up steeply to plateau like summits, sliced with frequent shining rills and cascades.

Kyle of Durness

South of Durness

South of Durness

South of Durness

South of Durness

After a few miles, I reached Rhiconich. The hotel was to be my base for the next few days, and my room gave views down Loch Inchard. Since my first visit, the road had been diverted onto a new wider road for the few miles down to Laxford Bridge. The old narrow road now led to a few cottages and was part of the hotel car park. After dinner, I walked a short way down it to the old stone bridge over the Rhiconich River. I looked along the narrow valley to the peak at Arkle, which reminded me of a volcano…

View from the hotel window, Rhiconich

old road bridge, Rhiconich

View of Arkle and Rhiconich River

I suddenly felt every one of the 500 miles to home. And the distance delighted me. Concerns, anxieties, all that gently fell away, and a calm sense of perspective moved in. My sense of wonder was fully engaged and would receive further stimulation over the next two days of exploring. I’d arrived. And it was wonderful.

Racist Hairstyles? Really?!


I read that Jesy Nelson (a singer I gather, who I have to admit I had never heard of) has been criticised for wearing her hair in dreadlocks. Apparently because she isn’t black, this is cultural appropriation. I’m sadly not surprised.

Get some perspective for fuck’s sake. What next, it’s racist for white musicians to play the blues? Racist for me to make a curry? I hope she refuses to apologise and tells the critics to fuck off. And never mind the most basic fact: how she styles her hair is nobody else’s business.

Cultural appropriation is not a thing. Have there been any cultures in history – remote tribes aside – that have not borrowed from or been influenced by others? So a non black singer has dreads in her hair, a white guy wears an Arab scarf, I make a curry for dinner. And don’t get me started on those white lads who dress and speak as if they’re from Jamaica.

I’m offended bleat the snowflakes.

Well, as Stephen Fry said: “SO FUCKING WHAT?”

No Electric Trains for Swansea


It was announced this week that electrification of the Great Western main line from London would stop at Cardiff, and not extend to Swansea, despite promises by former PM David Cameron. I’m not surprised at this. Given the state of the Great Western electrifiction – comprehensively messed up by Network Rail – it’s understandable the government will try and cut costs.

While it’s disappointing for Swansea, let’s stop shouting and take a step back. Try and get some perspective.

The city will still get new trains, as the fleet will be bi-mode, i.e. diesel and electric. If the old HSTs were to stay on the line, or the service reduced to a shuttle to Cardiff to connect with the electrics, then the outrage and talk of “betrayal” might have some justification. The wires aren’t going into Bristol either now. Or Oxford.

I’m no fan of Chris Grayling, but his point about the line speed is fair. This line is constrained by geography and has low speeds: Cardiff to Bridgend for example has a maximum of 75 mph with a number of curves. The only possible way around this is to use tilting trains, which as far as I know has never been proposed.

For one train an hour, this was always a marginal scheme. Instead of sulking about this, I think the city council should instead be lobbying for service improvements in the new Wales rail franchise: such as new rolling stock, as well as for the retention of direct trains to Manchester.

The People Person


I’ve come to know too well
The modern boss, the people person:
The always open door,
The fake friendliness,
The politician’s smile,
The sharpened knife concealed
Until you turn your back.

The people person, yes,
Who knock people down
To use as steps to speed them
Up the greasy path,
Or cross water bridged
Only by the drowning,
Oh yes, I know the people person.

They know all the talk,
The right yarns to spin,
To fair recruit lovers and friends
Into jobs, bend rules
To sack those they dislike,
And bury those who complain
In sickness and ill-health.

Every day they polish
A halo no one else can see
As up up they go,
Up, ever up to the top,
Spotless, Teflon, Untouchable.
Watch out God,
The People People are coming.

Swansea Bay


Night, and the Devon coast has faded
After sunset made opening closing windows
Flash gold across the miles
Across the border,
Across the sea.
A neon night, headlamps searchlight
All along the Mumbles road,
That wind sweeps sand
Where trams and trains used to go.
A neon night, clouds throb orange,
A blast furnace mirror over the bay,
Volcanic pulses counterpointing
The lighthouse flashes on their rock.
Night, and here the dark
A coat that snugly hugs,
One I once knew well, then put aside,
Now rescued
From the back of the wardrobe and
Gladly worn again.
Beyond traffic, waves roll,
Wash sand seaweed and oyster shells,
Like the one I found last time
And keep on the window ledge,
That even through dust
Carries a whiff of salt
Fifty miles inland.

For Thu-Van


I’m not going to scream
Or tear my clothes
(I’m far too British anyway)
But simply say
“I can’t believe you’re gone”.
I don’t know how or why,
Especially why…
You’re gone, but you are.
And I can’t believe it.
I remember
Giving you lifts to work
Or waiting with you for the bus
As a wren sang in the trees above.
And the conversations,
How we sorted out the world…
Rain drops in the river now
That flows into the sea,
Evaporates to fall as rain again tomorrow.
I’m not going to scream
Though I want to,
I’ll listen for the rain,
Think of you there,
Your gentle voice amongst
The rustling leaves
As the wren sings in the trees.

From My Diary, June 5, 2017


An annoying day winds down, and I’m glad to see the back of it. It’s been raining and blowing hard all afternoon, and I’ve sat and listened quietly to it. No distractions, the block pleasantly quiet.

The driving drum of rain on PVC window frames is one of my favourite sounds, up there with sea crashing onto a rocky beach, a river’s rustle and the song of a skylark on a hot summer’s day. The open windows rattle and creak a little as the gusts bellow through the flat, a ship rolling in a heaving sea. The sounds surround me, wrap me gently in the warmest, softest arms and breasts. Annoyances hurled into the wind and carried away.

Time for bed, though it’s still light. A book open, music adds an extra background sound – the dreamy Sigur Rós () album seems to work well. It will soon be time to close the curtain and kill the lamp. But not just yet. Savour the peace a little longer.

Raining Again


It’s raining again, and raining hard,
Late August, and for once the building’s quiet.
I sit beside the open window,
Listen to rain pattering plastic windowsills
And imagine I’m back at Grandma’s house,
In a comfy chair by the picture window
Looking out at the wet green garden.

In winter, the fruit trees bare,
Rattling bones on each other,
Spring, wind blown blossoms
Snow confetti round the greenhouse,
Summer, the borders awash with colours
Brighter than a child’s painting,
Autumn, the leaf litter swirling,
Crunching underfoot.

All the effort they put in
Mowing, planting, pruning, weeding
(How did they ever have time to go to work?)
Worth every ache and pain
To create this small city Eden.

So I drink deeply of the rain soaked air and
Remember, remember that house, that garden
Of long childhood summers
That were never quite long enough,
A house forever more home than home,
A house that always comes to mind
Whenever rain tap taps on PVC.


Lost Branch Lines: The Heads of the Valleys Line And Other Observations


January 2008 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the closure of the spectacular, steeply graded line between Abergavenny and Merthyr. When I first travelled in the area in the early 1990s, I had no idea there had ever been a railway here, and on the steep climb up the A465, it seemed unlikely. The Merthyr, Tredegar & Abergavenny Railway (MTA) was promoted by local interests and was incorporated in 1859. The first section, up to Brynmawr (“Big Hill” in Welsh) opened in September 1862, and used parts of an old tramway. The LNWR was keen to tap into the mineral wealth of South Wales. It had already reached Hereford via the Shrewsbury & Hereford Railway and had running powers south of there. In 1861, it secured a lease of the MTA, and an extension to Nantybwch opened in 1864. Plans to extend beyond there were opposed by the Brecon & Merthyr Railway, who had plans of their own. To circumvent this, the LNWR built a line jointly with the Rhymney Railway from Nantybwch to Rhymney Bridge down to Rhymney, which opened in 1871. This proved a worthwhile investment as with running powers to Cardiff, the transfer of goods between broad and standard gauge was avoided. The LNWR quickly opened a goods depot of their own in Cardiff. The next extension opened in 1873, to Dowlais, home of the famous ironworks. The LNWR and B & M settled their differences and with a new section of joint line, Merthyr was reached in 1879.

The line was heavily engineered, with severe gradients throughout. Starting from Abergavenny Junction (about a mile north of the present station), the line fell briefly, crossing the river Usk, to Brecon Road station. There was a large engine shed here, which once housed 100 locos. After here, the line started a gruelling seven-mile climb at 1:38/40 through the spectacular Clydach Gorge to Brynmawr. This is the highest town in Wales at some 1200 feet above sea level. The line then crossed high moorland, frequently scarred by industry, and undulated sharply with gradients as steep as 1:35, crossing several viaducts (including an impressive 770 feet long example at Cefn Coed which survives) and a 1040 yard tunnel at Morlais, near Pantyscallog. After Dowlais, it fell at mostly 1:46/50 and passed through a five mile semi-circle to reach Merthyr, some 400 feet below Dowlais.

As the MTA passed along the north edge of the coalfield, several branches were built to better tap into the valleys. The first to open, in 1867, was a 1½-mile line from Beaufort down to Ebbw Vale, mostly at 1:42. This was followed by the extension of the Sirhowy Railway north from Tredegar to Nantybwch, in 1868. After a proposed sale to the GWR fell through, the LNWR leased this line in 1876. In 1869, a branch from Brynmawr to Blaenavon was opened, which was leased to the LNWR straight away. This five-mile line climbed away from Brynmawr at 1:40, to reach a summit of 1400 feet at Waenavon (the highest on the LNWR and I believe the highest standard gauge line in England and Wales), before descending at the same gradient to Blaenavon, home to collieries and an ironworks. Part of this line survives as the Pontypool & Blaenavon Railway. Five years later, the line was extended down the valley to Abersychan, where it met the GWR.

The final branch opened in 1905, from Brynmawr to Nantyglo, with the passenger services operated by the GWR. This made the high windswept station at Brynmawr a busy place at times. Indeed, as early as 1882, there were more than fifty trains each way between there and Abergavenny Junction. In 1909, there were more than forty passenger departures, with around thirty of these to Newport, spilt between three different routes. In 1944, the station sold almost 98,000 tickets, twice as many as Swansea Victoria. Not bad for a town 1200 feet up in the hills!

Thanks to the ferocious gradients, powerful locomotives were required. 0-6-2 Coal Tanks were a staple from 1890 on, with sixty or so being based at Abergavenny at one time. Larger 0-8-0 and 0-8-2 types worked heavier trains, and there was also a massive 0-8-4T type, though this proved too long for some of the lines curves. Even so, coal consumption on the route was double that of the rest of the LNWR.

Traffic at the quieter Merthyr end of the line began to decline as early as 1890, when part of the production at Dowlais was moved elsewhere. The ironworks closed completely in 1930: I think it was after a visit here that Edward VIII made his famous “something must be done” remark. Of the thirteen mineral trains that reached Abergavenny Junction in 1909, only one started at Merthyr, though it remained the starting point for most passenger services. There were some through trains, and even a summer Saturday train from Merthyr to Blackpool. Trains were slow on account of the gradients, and typically took about 1½ hours for the 24½ miles.

Passenger closures began in 1941, when the Blaenavon service was withdrawn, though the line remained open for freight until the 1950s. The Ebbw Vale branch closed to passengers in February 1951 and the joint line from Rhymney to Rhymney Bridge two years later.

The line passed to the Western Region on nationalisation, so what happened next was entirely predictable. As seen, coal consumption on the steeply graded line was high, and freight trains were slow. Coal traffic had begun to decline, and the WR routed all through freight trains away from the MTA in 1954. In January 1958, the passenger service was withdrawn, with the final working being a special on the 5th.

This left the Newport-Nantybwch trains via Tredegar and the Sirhowy Valley, and these ended in June 1960. Part of this line survived for freight until 1970, when trains were diverted onto a former tramway on the other side of the valley. The Nantyglo branch, the last service to use the once busy Brynmawr, survived long enough to see DMUs, and closed in 1962. The final section to close was Abergavenny Junction to Brecon Road in April 1971.

I made two visits to the area in 2007 courtesy of a Freedom of Wales Flexipass. I wanted to visit the Pontypool and Blaenavon Railway, so caught a Stagecoach service from Abergavenny up to Brynmawr. From the A465, I could see the route of the line in a few places, and there was a viaduct clinging to the curve of the hillside. From Brynmawr, I changed on to the hourly Newport service. I alighted by the Big Pit Museum, then enjoyed a couple of trips on the P & BR, probably the friendliest heritage line I’ve been on. A two car “108” was in use, and the steep climb was clear to see. After ascending in first gear, the return simply used gravity! I got talking to the driver, and he said they were keen to extend southwards to Blaenavon High Level, and in the longer term, further up the hill towards Brynmawr. I wish them every success, and fully intend to return, if only to hear a class 37 on the 1:40!

A few days later, I took the bus all the way to Merthyr. It takes about 1½ hours, comparable to the train, but with the advantage of serving both Ebbw Vale and Tredegar. Beyond Brynmawr, a lot of the alignment has been destroyed by improvements to the A465: Rhymney Bridge station for instance, is now under a roundabout. I returned to Cardiff in a 150 from a rather Spartan Merthyr station: from five platforms with trains to Neath, Brecon, Abergavenny and Cardiff (fifty departures a day in 1920), down to a single platform with an hourly service to Cardiff. Such, I suppose is progress. Still, at least the surviving train service is finally to be improved to half-hourly.

The route of the MTA can still be traced in several places. Most of the viaducts, including that at Cefn Coed, are still standing, while ventilation shafts for Morlais tunnel can be seen in the car park at Pant on the Brecon Mountain Railway. My OS map suggests at least some of the line through Clydach Gorge has been turned into a cycle path. It would be a hard climb, but a rewarding descent!

In 2011, by which time I had a car, I visited Clydach Gorge and walked a section of the trackbed from Clydach to the eastern end of Gelli-felen tunnels. Clydach station is virtually intact and privately owned, and while the trackbed here is now part of NCN route 46, the section through the station and the Clydach tunnels is sealed off. A detour onto what a local man told me was a tramway, takes you to the other end of the tunnels and back onto the trackbed. The Merthyr bound tunnel at Gelli-felen is bricked up, but the other isn’t, with only a few boulders at the entrance. The path detours round it, though I didn’t go any further that way. Need to make another visit, I think…

1: Brynmawr
2: Ebbw Vale
3: Beaufort
4: Sirhowy
5: Tredegar
6: Ponststicill Jn
7: Heolgerrig
8: Pantyscallog

Timetable, September 1957

References & Further Reading:

Lost Lines in Wales, Nigel Welbourn
South Wales Branch Lines, H Morgan
The Origins of the LMS in South Wales, Gwyn Briwnant Jones & Denis Dunstan
Country Railway Routes, Abergavenny to Merthyr, David Edge

Clydach Viaduct, looking west

View from the viaduct towards the former Lime Works

Clydach station, looking west

Clydach station, looking west

Clydach tunnels, looking east

MP 7, just west of Clydach tunnel. This has now had a repaint.

Llanelly crossing, looking east

trackbed near Llanelly crossing, looking west

Gelli-felen tunnels looking west

Gelli-felen tunnel looking west

Looking east, Gelli-felen tunnels behind the photographer

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