Eric slept soundly that night in Hay-on-Wye, little Z’s floating up from his beard and hovering near the ceiling for a few moments before gliding down to rest on the many old books piled around him. I slipped out of my bed, army crawled across the floor and, with a little fan of my fingers, tried to snatch his copy of The Great Divorce, Indiana Jones-style. Alas, Eric had gone to sleep with the book tucked under his arm, and every time I gave it a little tug he snorted and a fresh batch of Z’s poofed out of his mumbling mouth.
None of the above is true, but you get the picture.
We woke up the next morning and agreed to eat lunch on our own and meet back at the B&B at 1:30, which would give us plenty of time to get to the next show in Birmingham. Eric took a careful count of his books, gave me a sideways glance, at which I shrugged innocently, then we headed out. Right away we realized that we were both hungry for breakfast, so we stuck together through the cobbled streets of Hay, streets we had memorized thanks to the previous day’s frantic book hunt. We walked toward the clock tower, a sort of five-points intersection at the lower end of town, passing bookstore after bookstore: Murder & Mayhem (a mystery bookshop), Addyman Books, the Poetry Bookshop (they carried a first edition of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poems, which could be yours for a cool $7,000), Rose’s Bookshop (specializing in children’s literature), each of us amazed that God had allowed us this gift of a trip, on one of the few sunny February days in the history of Britain. We had espresso and breakfast at the Granary Café, at the table right next to the quietly crackling fire. This was our second meal at a restaurant which featured fireplaces that were more than decorative. We checked our email, sipped our coffee (which was quite good), and said little. Eric and I both require silence in the morning, which makes nine days of jetlagged travel not just bearable, but pleasant.
Then came the hunt. Remember those Looney Tunes episodes where Ralph Wolf and Sam Sheepdog clock in each morning with a friendly greeting, fight like bitter enemies all day, then when the whistle blows, signaling the end of the shift, they abruptly stop their shenanigans and bid farewell like old friends? I’ll let you decide who was the sheepdog and who was the book-stealing wolf.
We thanked the good folks at the Granary, stepped out into the street, and before I could say a word, Eric disappeared in a poof of smoke. I revisited all the same shops but the butterflies in my stomach had flown. Not only was my brain tired from scanning the spines of thousands and thousands of books, I knew with a grumble of certainty that every shelf had been scoured by the Book Mole himself. There was little chance that I would find any more treasures today.
I turned out to be entirely mistaken.
There’s nothing like the delightful loneliness of wandering an unfamiliar town. For an introvert like me, there are few things quite so refreshing, and I take full advantage of every opportunity to do so when I’m on the road. I can’t think of a single time when I’ve meandered through whatever town or city I happened to be in and not discovered something interesting and almost mythic: a footpath shooting off into the brush (once I walked about six feet off the main road through some privet and happened upon a 200 foot drop into an abandoned quarry), or a narrow and foreboding alley that looks like something out of Sherlock Holmes, or a creek tucked deep in a gully between the parking lots of the Walmart and the Discount Tire, and when you climb down to it you find a green world snaked with giant tree roots and piled with pillow-sized rocks, a world that seems entirely content to go about its happy business while the people up top push shopping carts full of junk to their cars. And that’s just in America. Now imagine going for a wander in a 1,000-year-old town.
I lit my pipe and followed a muddy path along the River Wye for a few miles, finding it wonderfully easy to imagine what this place might have been like when there were serfs and farmers and lords and ladies living out their lives along this same river. At a bend in the river I turned around and saw with a catch of my breath that the ruins of Hay Castle were visible in the distance over the tops of the bare trees. This was more or less what a boatman would have seen all those years ago as he floated the Wye with a load of cabbages to sell at the market. All of a sudden I felt ten years old and was perfectly content to let Pappy nose through as many C. S. Lewis first editions as he wanted. I spent a few hours out there alone, sketching and puffing and reading and praying before I realized I was hungry. Thirty minutes later I was back in town heading straight for the Blue Boar, a pub that came highly recommended by the woman who ran the B&B.
I sat down near the fireplace, which once again burned actual wood, opened my journal, and wrote for a while as I waited for what turned out to be some of the best cod and chips that I’d had on this trip. I’m a sucker for fish and chips, and find it almost impossible not to order it when I’m in a pub. The sun angling through the window was warm, the atmosphere was perfect, my belly was happy, and I was more than a little disappointed when I realized it was 1:30 and I had to rendezvous with Pappy at the car.
He had acquired a few more books, but nothing to make me jealous. Thank goodness.
The drive to Birmingham was as uneventful as it was enjoyable. We listened to the Bon Iver album for most of the trip, since Pappy had never heard the whole thing, and its landscape of sounds was the perfect complement to the soft hills around us. I’m sure Birmingham (pronounced “BUR-ming-um”) has its share of history and beauty, but we didn’t see much of it. We were pushing our schedule hard to get there in time for soundcheck, and it was dark by the time we arrived. We were greeted in the parking lot by one of the most English people in England, our host Toby Minton. I didn’t remember until I saw him, but I had actually met Toby and his family two years ago when I played in Llantwit Major, in Wales. It’s hard to say why, exactly, but Toby looks unmistakably English. If you put Toby in a lineup of 100 Americans I’d peg him without hesitation as the lone Brit. I don’t know, maybe it was the tan sweater, or the neatly parted reddish hair, or the way he carried himself with a sort of nervous politeness. He was a pleasure to talk to.
Eric and I were treated with such kindness there, and they fed us well, too. By the time the show started there were a few hundred people in the room, and it’s safe to say that Toby might have been the only one who knew what he was in for. See, there just isn’t much Christian music in the United Kingdom—much less is there non-worshipy, acoustic singer/songwriter Christian music. One of the fun things about playing over there is that there simply isn’t any context for the sort of music we do. I can imagine the conversations:
“Gareth, darling, do you know about this program they’re putting on at the church tonight?”
“I believe I read something about it, Susan—some American with a guitar. He’ll be wearing a cowboy hat, no doubt.”
“Don’t be silly. It says here that he’s a Christian songwriter. Not a cowboy.”
“Well, the last thing I need is more stodgy hymns. I say, we get enough of those on Sunday.”
“Not hymns, either, dear. Story songs.”
“What the devil is that supposed to mean?”
“I don’t have the faintest idea. But if we don’t go, Toby will never let us hear the end of it, you know.”
“I suppose you’re right. Nothing good on the telly that night anyway.”
Eric and I did our best to connect with these good people, banking on the Buechner Principle that our stories all intersect somewhere if we look closely enough. And here’s the delightful thing: the people were so warmly receptive, so effusive in their applause, that Eric and I hardly knew what to do with it. Honestly, there were times when I watched with glee as Eric had to interrupt the clapping so he could introduce his next song. By the end of the night we were both glowing. Thanks, Birmingham. Our cowboy hats are off to you.
Pappy and I followed Toby a few miles to his house. Pauline, his wife, made us toast and tea and we visited with them and their two teenage sons until I could hide my weariness no longer and they showed us to our rooms. The next morning, Toby had a treat for us. He had sent this note to my manager before the trip:
We wonder if they would they be interested to hear that our house, where they will be staying, is actually right next to what is now called “The Shire,” only half a mile from Tolkien’s childhood home, and the adjacent Sarehole Mill and Moseley Bog where he explored and played as a young lad?
Yes, Toby. We would be very interested, indeed.