Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Pilgrimage to Hergest Ridge

For those of a certain age, the name ‘Hergest Ridge’ is more readily associated with a 1974 Virgin label album than the whale back sweep of high ground spanning the England/Wales border twixt Herefordshire and Radnorshire. Released in 1974 by Mike Oldfield, the album was Mike’s follow up to the global phenomena Tubular Bells. Composed when he was just 17 years old and released as Virgin’s very first LP release a few years later; the album from the ‘Progressive Rock’ stable saw the young musician play over 20 instruments and recorded it as a unique instrumental album. In the 70‘s Prog Rock was known for its long winded instrumental passages- Think Yes, ELP, Genesis, Jethro Tull et al- but normal service was usually resumed when a 5 minute drum solo or Hammond Organ extravaganza duly returned to the vocalist. Tubular Bells was pretty unique in that Viv Stanshall's introduction to the instruments aside, the album was a pure instrumental work of classical ambitions.

Tubular Bells remains for me a timeless work which people will still be listening to in 200 years. However, at the time, the recording and promotion too its toll on young Oldfield and overtaken with the scale of its success and suffering a mild form of LSD induced pyschosis, he retreated to Kington just inside the English border in Herefordshire and under pressure from Branson to record a follow up, composed Hergest Ridge. The name chosen randomly by Oldfield. His eye settling upon the aforementioned 1500' massif which loomed above the town in a 'that'll do' manner.

The album never match TB in either sales of critical acclaim and even Oldfield himself says its not his favourite work, but for many-myself included- its more understated tone and themes still manages to capture one’s imagination. I love it!

Despite my regard for the album, until last week I had never set foot on Hergest Ridge. Despite it only being less than 90 miles from where I live in North Wales. Taking advantage of a decent weather window-see my last blog- I paid a flying visit to the area, intent on finally climbing the ridge itself. Most people it appears start from the lovely little town of Kington but studying the OS map, it looked as if the tiny Welsh village of Gladestry was a good option to gain the ridge from the west. Initially following what is the well trodden Offa’s Dyke path.

Fortunately the weather couldn’t have been better. Clear blue skies and not a breath of wind. Actually a breath of wind would have been nice as it got very hot on the ridge. Walking up from Gladestry was very like walking the little south Shropshire Hills in character. Sheep cropped grass, bracken, undulating bald hills falling into lush, pastoral valleys etc.

You could see why Oldfield liked riding a horse across the flat expanses of the ridge-the song ‘On Horseback’ closes the album....

‘I like beer, and I like cheese
I like the smell of a westerly breeze
But what I like more than all of these
Is to be on horseback.’

With the sun beating down we meandered across the ridge to the trig point, taking care to keep clear of a wild mare with her foal and from there, headed for the remarkable little grove of Monkey Puzzle trees, planted 50 years ago by someone who felt the ridge matched the Patagonian environment from whence they apparently first came. Leaving the Kington end of the ridge for another visit, we dropped down off the ridge and circled back to Gladestry.It had taken a long time but I’d finally made it and with the album booming out of the van speakers, we headed search of cider!

‘So if you you feel a little glum,
To Hergest Ridge you should come.
In summer, winter, rain or sun,
it’s good to be on horseback’.

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