If I had a pound for every visitor to our house who, while admiring the westerly view, has added, "You're a bit close to Wales for comfort", I would very nearly have enough to buy a bungalow in Porthcawl. It is a cheap gibe, and although I'm normally very fond of cheap gibes (the cheaper the better, in fact), I'm not one for knocking Wales and the Welsh. With the exception of Michael Howard, obviously.
Anyway, our proximity to Wales, far from being a drawback, is a considerable
blessing. Last weekend we piled the children and dog into the car and drove to the Brecon Beacons, which are less than an hour away if you don't get stuck behind a cider lorry (we did).
We hadn't been to the Brecon Beacons before, which is shameful, but in future we'll be going frequently, not least because we have discovered Llangorse Rope Centre, where, in a vast, hangar-sized hall, children cross precarious bridges and shoot along zip wires while their parents - once they have got over the shock of seeing their precious offspring touching the void high above the floor of a man-made canyon - drink coffee and read the papers.
There's an outside bit as well, which we didn't even see. It's a complicated set-up of zip wires called Sky Trek, and according to the brochure was the "brainchild of the late Kevin Thomas". I couldn't help feeling that the word "late" was a detail they might have omitted, though I don't suppose he met his maker at the end of a zip wire.
Anyway, our three kids were in the capable hands of 17-year-old Rhys, whose slightly alarming facial jewellery belied a gentle and patient nature. He taught five-year-old Jacob to abseil, which seemed like a good idea. Whether it was, only time, and the condition of our curtains, will tell.
For two hours' climbing at Llangorse, all of it carefully supervised by Rhys, we paid £13 per child. That seemed like a bargain to me, certainly when compared to the cost of a two-hour romp at one of those indoor play centres with ball ponds in which fathers secretly quite like to wallow, at least until they emerge clutching the sweaty sock of a child not their own, if my experiences are anything to go by. There was one called Clowntown near where we lived in London and on wet weekends, especially when I couldn't even get into the ball pond owing to too many excited toddlers being in there already, it was like the seventh circle of hell.
The Llangorse Rope Centre, by contrast, is a wet-weekend destination to please all the family. So, however much substance there might be in the old crack that rainy Sunday afternoons in Merthyr Tydfil are to be avoided at all costs, I'm looking forward to telling my Welshist friends that when it's peeing down with rain in England, we actually like to spend time in Wales.
Monkish existence? Not likely
A couple of miles from us as the crow would fly if the farmer hadn't already shot it, stands an 800-year-old former Benedictine monastery, now, like any self-respecting 800-year-old former Benedictine monastery, a luxurious complex of self-catering lodges.
It is called Ford Abbey and is owned by Dr and Mrs Heijn, our friendly neighbourhood zillionaires, who also gave Hereford its rather fabulous Left Bank shopping and restaurant complex. The Heijns, whose fortune comes from the Dutch supermarket chain of the same name, have featured before in my column, and I would hate to overdo the praise, but it seems to me that they have taken a (gold) leaf out of the late Sir Paul Getty's book, by putting considerably more into their adopted country than they have taken from it.
Their latest initiative is a season of concerts at Ford Abbey, the first of which takes place at the end of next week. The Herefordshire-based tenor Ian Storey, who is also the season's artistic director, together with soprano Janice Cairns, will perform a repertoire ranging from Puccini to Gershwin. Further information is available from Ford Abbey on 01568 760700 or www.fordabbey.co.uk, while more lowbrow culture is available at our house just across the fields, where Jane and I have arranged a special screening of Carry On Up the Khyber.
A voice from the wilderness
There are longer borders than the one running the length of the enormous yew hedge in our back garden - China's border with Mongolia, for example - but it is very long, very deep, and, alas, very empty. Advised that there was nothing in it of much horticultural merit, we ripped everything out, intending to re-stock. But Julia Hancock, a highly regarded landscape gardener in these parts, made us wait for a year, telling us that the soil needed long-term preparation.
Anyway, the soil has now been decreed almost ready for the herbaceous
invasion and the big day has been fixed for 19 April. Julia has complimented us on our patience and we have complimented ourselves for not spending all the money that we put aside for the planting scheme. I'm sure that both the wait and the expense will prove worthwhile. In the meantime, Julia herself has unwittingly compensated for the colour missing from our garden by sprinkling us with dazzling aphorisms. She dropped by today and told us that we should split our blanket of snowdrops "just as they have their last day of joy". I don't know whether that's a time-honoured gardening expression or unique to her, but it brightened up my morning considerably.Reuse content