Book review: ‘Deep Country: Five Years in the Welsh Hills,’ by Neil Ansell
Special to the Daily
Few people in the Western Hemisphere can truly understand what it feels like to experience absolute darkness, with a starry sky overhead and an impenetrable obscurity beneath. Though much of this rare earthly isolation is reserved for the remotest regions of the modern world, these were the conditions familiar to pre-Industrial Age men and women, and their imaginations were appropriately fueled by the mysterious ambiguity of that darkness.
But, for those with a tendency toward introspection, there are still places enough removed from the harried pace of today’s society in which one can emulate a similarly pastoral escape. Author Neil Ansell did just that, and he shares an account of his experience in his delightfully engaging book “Deep Country; Five Years in the Welsh Hills.”
The reader is invited along as Ansell revisits the remote corner of Wales in which he spent five years living in an abandoned gamekeeper’s cottage on a retired estate, nestled among the crags and forests adjacent to the blustery and wild moors of literature. Along the “merest whisper of a trail,” and up a hill dripping with bluebells, each sentence pulls the reader deeper into the rich and evocative landscape, which is delivered well-steeped, from the author’s mind, a slow burn from deep within his soul to the pages of his charming book.
On the well-populated and cultivated island of Great Britain, finding a wild solitude can be a challenge, but Penlan Cottage, where Ansell spent five years learning to live each day by the rising and setting of the sun, provided the author with just such a place. Though only 3 miles from the nearest village, the cottage was a forgotten remnant of the island’s agrarian past, and it had essentially remained there, with no running water, no electricity or other modern amenities of any kind. With doors at each end of the cottage open to let in spring air, the walls of the author’s adopted home seemed to dissolve, the outside air stepping in like an invited guest, before it moved on through and down the hill to worry some other establishment.
‘Forgetting I was there’
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With the visiting wind came birds, bats and a myriad of other creatures, and Ansell welcomed them all, viewing their presence as a “privilege,” not a burden. As he describes the landscape that ripples out from the cottage, the reader can picture a BBC period drama unfolding in the mind’s eye — classic, evocative and full of history, and favorite passages from Thoreau’s “Walden Pond” spring to mind, enhancing rather than distracting the reading experience. Breathing slows, the senses come alive, and the bird song present on every page delights and tantalizes.
Ansell’s writing evokes a “simple life led by natural rhythms,” a theme that became his guiding force. Instead of a ponderous tome of self-reflection, the book echoes the life Ansell lived for those five years, his attempt at a deliberate outward gaze, a view into the ever-changing tableau of nature.
“I certainly learned to be at ease with myself in the years I spent at Penlan, but it was not by knowing myself better — it was by forgetting I was there,” the author said.
What Ansell does so effectively in his book is allow the reader to sit alongside him, as he observes and records each day unfolding, the gentle rhythms and complexities of a vibrant ecosystem on ready display for anyone willing to pause and look closely. The book contains a charming sketched map of Penlan Cottage’s immediate surroundings, and it is a delightful addition, serving to better place the reader into the landscape painted so vividly and with such joy through the flowing narrative.
Ansell’s five-year experiment came to a natural conclusion after a serious illness reminded him of the value of a supportive community of friends and loved ones. Besides, he says, “five years is a good long stint at doing almost anything.”
He reasoned that if he didn’t leave then, he might have stayed forever — leaving became the real challenge, harder than adjusting to the unique challenges of living in remote isolation.
“If it had ever been a test, I had long ago torn up the exam paper and walked out of the room; this was just me, living the life that I had chosen,” Ansell said.