Bureaucracy in Brecon and Radnor, with reference to a horse ride through Cusop Dingle by Richard Booth
Introduced by Nina Lyon
I recently found myself writing about Cusop Dingle and dug out Richard Booth’s pamphlet Bureaucracy in Brecon and Radnor, with reference to a horse ride through Cusop Dingle, which is a snapshot of the line of the old border as it was thirty years ago. Booth, the self-proclaimed King of Hay, started the town’s book trade in the 1970s, shipping bulk quantities of secondhand books across the Atlantic in a bid to revive the town’s dying rural economy.
Booth’s horse ride is one I know well, albeit on foot – I lived at the top of Cusop Dingle for years, and my ex-partner always will, and his studio is in one of the ruined buildings photographed along it and the children’s bedrooms are in another. Our relationship with the space, from a crook in the head of the valley carved out by the Dulas Brook and its various tributaries that come down from the Bluff to one side and Cefn and Cusop Hills to the other, is top down: it is the walking route into Hay, one that I’ve sometimes used with children attached to my back when snow made the track impassable.
The top of the hill, neither the long promontory of Cusop Hill to the north nor the ridge of Cefn Hill to the south, is a wilderness of wind-twisted hawthorns and gorse, littered with remains of sheep that didn’t make it, looking across the slope of the Bluff in profile. It is the only bit that retains the sense of broken nowhere set out by Booth, and that still looks like his wife Hope’s haunting photos. Black and white, capturing the long moment of decay of falling stone walls and rusting machinery, the pictures would fit right in with our current vogue for the English – or indeed Welsh – Eerie.
But it is a piece of psychogeography as psychogeography was originally intended, before it took its romantic turn into a celebration of lostness. It documents the signs of the time as imprinted on the physical environment, and it is deeply political – Booth railing, Boothlike, against the quangos and corporate enterprises that suffocated small farming and small-scale livelihoods, the limekilns and brickworks and smallholdings that once thrived up here, at the edge of the forest, served by the overgrown drover tracks that weave along the treeline.
Booth laments the industrialisation of agriculture and the creep of supermarkets into what were then the last outposts of the slow-food age: factory farms did for the small upland dairy herds, and you can’t get decent bacon. He is entertainingly furious, as ever, with the National Parks authority, although the route lies metres across the border in Herefordshire, and prescient on the pitfalls of adopting money-oriented short-termist forestry practice at the expense of ditching old wisdoms on how to manage the woods.
The irony of the pamphlet now is that Booth’s vision of the book town helped fix most of the things he was angry about – the dwindling of artisan labour and old methods of farming and food production – and entrenched the others – the influx of media folk, of whom some early local enmities can be sampled. The solution proved more complex than moving back in time: those bookish types and tourists drove much of the demand for home-cured bacon and craft cider, and some of them even ended up making it.
But perhaps that is the nature of being a visionary: you can start something and make it happen, and it will bring unintended consequences. The wilds of Cusop Dingle remain intact, unanswerable authorities are met with a steelier gaze, and we can’t park for tourists and can’t move for artisan craftsmen in Hay. All those things are, by degree and books aside, Booth’s legacy.
Uprooted: On the Trail of the Green Man by Nina Lyon will be published by Faber in March 2016