Wednesday 26 April 1995
"The baby trout's dead," announced my five-year-old daughter, bringing polite chitchat over an evening drink to an abrupt pause. She erupted into the drawing room, carrying a large jam jar with the afternoon's catch from the River Vrynwy of otherwise live minnows, with the slightly more exotic fish belly up.
One of the best things about Wales in spring is the unchanging nature of the routines. It is reassuring to find that the rivers still teem with tiny fish, apparently unaffected by pollution or amateur fishing efforts.
A neighbour, tongue loosened by a strong gin and tonic, then told us how to make a meal of minnows. You put a cork or top on a plastic bottle, cut off the bottom, place a piece of bread inside, then put it in the river for a minute or two. Within a few minutes you strain off your catch, then repeat until you have a large plateful. Dust with flour, deep fry and serve with lemon. Our neighbour assured us river minnows tasted better than whitebait. The only problem is that I know I could catch and cook them, but never eat them.
Wales at this time of year is hardly peaceful and not always picturesque. The air is filled with the chorus of baa-ing lambs, seeking out their mothers. Walking along Offa's Dyke I found the pathway littered with sheep's afterbirths, which the circling buzzards had yet to clear away. My daughter caught a sad, blind lamb, which was stumbling around in circles." It needs to be put to sleep," she informed the owner. It is axiomatic that you never meet a happy farmer. But the hill farmers in Mid and North Wales all seemed to be unseasonably cheerful. This is because they have been conducting the ritual of lambing in comparatively benign weather: no one even grumbled that the lack of rain is holding back the growth of new grass.
The only problem for visitors is finding a surviving local butcher to supply authentic Welsh spring lamb. It seems that the decline of local abattoirs has all but finished off the village and small-town butchers who continued to display Welsh Lamb signs loyally, even in the aftermath of the Chernobyl contamination. We were told to present ourselves before 9am on a Saturday to one distant butcher's be sure of obtaining a leg from just two locally reared lambs delivered to them. Never mind, it was the real thing: sweet and succulent, worth the drive, even if ferociously expensive.
The past is ever present in Wales and no one is more aware of this than a family friend, Professor Barri Jones, the head of Manchester University's department of archaeology. He has just completed his excavations of Roman camps around the tabletop mountain above Llanymynech on the Shropshire- Welsh border, close to where the Vrynwy and Severn meet. He has established that this is the place where Caratacus (more correctly known as Caradog) in AD50 staged his last stand against the Romans, a battle recorded by the historian Tacitus. It was a desperate rallying point for the native Celts, who were joined by fleeing Britons.
Professor Jones, who has also discovered a perfectly preserved Roman copper mine on the hill, is now turning his attention to another disputed tabletop mountain, Thaba Bosiu, in South Africa. This was selected by King Moshoeshoe in 1830 as the focus for the Basuto nation when it was under pressure from Zulu warriors. At one point it had 30,000 cattle on its summit. The area has now evolved into the state of Lesotho and the mountain has been designated, with Unesco's help, as its one formal heritage focus for the nation.
Unlike Llanymynech, this mountain was never taken, despite Boer attacks and British pressure for half a century. Professor Jones says, however, that there are crucial differences between excavating in modern Wales and Africa. On his last visit to Lesotho in January he found himself holed up in his hotel, while members of the local army conducted a shoot out around it.
Back in London, back to the horror of working mother mode, I attempt to get my daughters ready for the new summer term, only to dye all their summer white Aertex shirts pale blue, because I put them into the washing machine with the games kit. My eldest daughter spent the evening phoning her best friends trying to borrow one of their shirts - sheer humiliation for me. I then read reports in Top Sante magazine that working women would love to give it all up and become ladies of leisure, if only finances permitted. What a stupid survey! No one ever asks whether men want to be gentlemen of leisure, though surely it's everyone's dream. Maybe the survey writers don't want women to work.
First day back at the office I cheered myself up with a farewell lunch for Anne Reevell, founding editor of Medium Wave, the Radio 4 media-watching programme, which follows the Archers omnibus, and has become part of the nation's Sunday morning ritual, building an audience of 1.2 million in only 18 months. Her upwardly mobile career is impressive, conducted while juggling a small child, and shuttling between Manchester, where the programme is technically made, and London, where the media inconveniently clusters. Now she is off to edit Heart of the Matter, BBC1's morals and religious slot.
Here we were in one of London's trendiest restaurants, enjoying our artichokes and balsamic vinegar, 20 working women, 10 working men, all having a jolly good time. I wish the misery gutses at Top Sante had dropped in. But no doubt they are too busy living up to the ludicrous name they have chosen for their magazine.
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