I couldn't shake the reverie that had taken over in the past week. As I sat on the log in the shade of the trees, here it was again, fit to burst and lay me out across the leaf-carpeted ground.
That morning we'd sat our final A-Level exam, then got straight in the car and raced down to Shorn Cliff, in the Wye Valley, with the Foo Fighters blaring out of our open windows into the June sunshine. I think we both felt the same thing, like the tempered relief of hitting the jug at the end of a tenuous runout when you know the crux is to follow.
On my first visit to the crag 9 months earlier, I'd sat on that same log underneath the slab, in the dappled light and the autumn breeze, ankle-deep in fallen leaves and contentment.
I was at that cusp of control in life. Hidden in the trees overlooking Tintern Abbey, Shorn Cliff had become my territory, one free from exams and judgment and one which was becoming more familiar.
As the seasons passed, I was there most weekends. The bluebells burst through the fern undergrowth in spring, and life began to return amongst the trees and the caves and the cracks. The herbs peeked out of pockets in the rock, which is more textured than elsewhere in the valley, with solution runnels, sharp flakes, and a slippery surface, like some sandstones.
I met Tony Penning here once. He was Famous as far as I was concerned. At least, he was on the front cover of the Symond's Yat guidebook, which was Famous enough for me. As I'd dabbed the next crimp nervously, I'd watched him on a dusty E2 with a couple of dodgy pegs, swearing quietly, while his belayer rolled a cigarette and played with the dog.
We'd chatted briefly before they'd disappeared down one of the fainter paths to a less-traveled section of the crag. I was getting to know those paths well. They led you through the undergrowth, over fallen yews and ash trees and, in late spring, through the overwhelming scent of wild garlic. The pockets down here were stuffed with herbs, too.
Every crag has its aroma. It's been my grounding on a lonely runout: lean in and take in the scent. Smell the rock. On the limestone, you've got the herbs, the garlic, and the flowers and I loved it. Gritstone, granite, and rhyolite might exchange Christmas cards with Nature, maybe lend a cup of sugar, but they'd never take its bins out. Limestone would, and it would load in the cuttings from the garden on the sly.
A few months earlier I'd spent a happy Sunday traversing the deserted crag, stopping to read my book and drink tea. All I knew was I wanted to climb and I was happy here, and I was still finding out exactly why.
The hours passed and I worked my way back along the half-mile of rock, finding the sequences that interested me, connecting the pockets and the dust as the dusk descended. I never liked to leave before dark. It seemed a waste of precious daylight and I had that youthful sense that all of life needed to be packed into the next 5 minutes.
I paused in the gloom of the warm evening as the bats started to fleet and swipe through the air. Their timing and dexterity was mesmerising, if anxious. It seemed that nothing else in the world would distract them. I watched, but not-watched, in that way that in the low light the colours fade and objects merge and you feel the sense of things more than the reality. One late summer evening I saw a nightjar. Just the once. Its movements were different, more adroit, and calmer than the bats'.
On that post-exam day, though, we'd leave before dark and toast the sunset away with the freedom and detachment of teenagers with few commitments in life, just the sense of a future that was out of sight and out of our hands.
But, before that, the ache in my calves built and I coaxed my fingers into another sharp-edged pocket. I paced out above the runner, heart-in-mouth, anxious and excited. In that moment I was freed from judgment, or so I thought. I leaned in and inhaled and Tony Penning's words appeared in my mind, shouted as he'd disappeared down the garlic strewn paths.
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