All writers have places they retreat to, spaces to disappear off into and unwind; thinking spots. As much as writing is of course about putting pen to paper and actually getting the thoughts and words out, a large part of the process is about thinking, mulling, working things over in your mind; developing a character’s habits here, tweaking an idea about a plot line there. One of the many reasons I love the hills and mountains is that they open my mind in different ways, subtly altering my sense of perspective, physically, mentally and figuratively, such that as I wander I’m usually filled with fresh inspiration.
But a good thinking spot does more than simply inspire you, it recharges you as well; you go there fatigued and weary and return to civilisation renewed and ready. Obviously as all writers must I keep some of these places to myself; part of their appeal is that they are secret retreats, after all. But there is one I want to share, Bwlch Nant yr Arian. Nant yr Arian is a visitor and outdoor activities area set in hundreds of acres of forestry and high moorland on the cusp of the Cambrian Mountains, about fifteen miles from Aberystwyth. Beloved by mountain bikers across the UK, it is home to an extremely successful red kite feeding station; every day, year round, at either two or three o’clock in the afternoon, depending on the season, carrion is thrown for red kites which gather together from miles around. These majestic birds duck and weave, soar, glide, climb and wheel about in enthralling aerobatic displays, with the hills and forestry providing a stunning natural backdrop. Each day, it’s possible to see hundreds of these graceful falcons, once severely persecuted and on the brink of extinction and now once again a common sight in the skies of West Wales demonstrate to the world their elegance and beauty.
Besides providing a refuge for falcons, the whole area is maintained for the public to wander at will. This isn’t, of course, a wilderness area with mighty soaring ridges, glaciers, formidable river crossings and technical terrain, but it doesn’t need to be. Situated about a ten minute drive from my front door, I can arrive there easily with absolutely no hassle, and find myself about a thousand feet above sea level, with hills all around me, and slip away from the demands of civilisation for a while. All at once, the scent of moor and heather tinged with the fresh tang of pine streams across the air; the breeze is noticeably wilder and tinged with a hint of a chill. Mist clings to the surrounding hillsides and wafts in from time to time, playfully hiding and then revealing the scant traces of the wider world-the odd farm here and field there-turning the landscape into a mirage of itself.
Setting out on a path towards a forested ridge, I enter the pines, and the sound of the road up to the pass dies away behind me, the enclosing trees deadening the noise to a whisper. The wind is keener here and shakes the pines, murmuring through the forest like an ancient voice. For this is an ancient land; glimpsed here and there through the mist on the moorlands below can be seen traces of iron-age habitations, legacies of peoples long since vanished. And yet, the whispering of the wind is timeless; standing at a high point and looking out across the murk, I could have been stood here five thousand years ago, and the wind would still have been scudding roiling clouds of mist across the hillsides, dropping flecks of rain-or in winter, sleet and snow-across the rocks and ferns, as it will do in five thousand or a million years from now.
Setting away from the main path, I wander across a bridleway and then off again onto a minor trail heading into one of the deepest parts of the forest. Here, dropping down slightly, the trees are still, and blessed peace reigns. The mosses and lichens lie as a rich carpet between each of the trees, the light catching them up into hundreds of subtly different shades of green; and in this vibrancy, this riot of life, is the gentle calm of the quiet, the sound of nature being nature. I had no plan in mind as I walked today, no objective, nothing in my heart at all but to simply be, to experience, and to savour all of the sights and sounds of this wild place. Gradually making my way through the forest, moving as silently as possible so as not to disturb the peace and tranquility, I came eventually to an inviting-looking log looking out across the forest to a distant hillside, and there I sat.
“A poor life this/if full of care/we have no time to stand and stare”. And so there I stayed. I sat, took in the view, the gradually-shifting mist, the scent of mountain air, pine and fern, closed my eyes and just listened, listening to nothing. Listening to nothing at all, but the wind in the trees, caressing and cajoling them, the murmur of distant birdsong, a contemplative stillness; listening to a forest simply being a forest. I must’ve stayed there for twenty or thirty minutes, perhaps longer, just listening, just being, and allowing myself to simply be, without plans, routines, thoughts or cares; a young man in a forest, surrounded by, and part of, nature. That twenty minutes or half an hour spent listening to the forest was more restorative than hours of civilisation’s creature comforts; each time I wander here, subtly and by slow degrees, my spirit feels renewed.
That, in a nutshell, is why it’s such a beloved place for me. A bolthole in the hills, full of the mountain air and the peace of nature, close to home and yet, once there, a million miles from civilisation, because there I can just drift away again and be. Writers need places like this, in fact, all of us do. Nant yr Arian isn’t the only one I have, of course, but it’s one of my favourites, a place where I can wander and let my mind wander, a place that takes me back into memory and sparks inspiration for the future. It’s a small peace of mountain beauty on my doorstep, and I’m grateful it’s there; drop in there sometime, you won’t regret it.