The Solitary Rambler

I was born in Gloucester in 1966 and lived with my parents in the Gloucestershire village of Alvington . My paternal grandparents resided nearby in Woolaston Woodside where we visited on a regular basis.

In 1969 my parents separated. I stayed with my mother and we moved to Chepstow in Monmouthshire to live with my maternal grandparents. It was whilst I was living in this town that I discovered the joys of walking. Chepstow was near the mouth of the Wye Valley , an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty , and I began to explore the footpaths in this area from quite a young age. The Wye Valley Walk and Offa's Dyke Path were two long distance footpaths that started in or near Chepstow, and these were routes I explored the most regularly.

At weekends my mother and my grandparents often used to take me on picnics in the Wye Valley and the nearby Forest of Dean . When I reached my early teenage years I would buy a “day-rider” bus ticket and travel all over these areas by myself. Most of the time I alighted from the bus at a specific location, from where I would go on a walk for a few miles. I would then finish my walk at a point where I would catch another bus to return home.

My other major hobby has always been playing the electronic organ. This all started at the age of about 5 when I received a Rosedale electric chord organ as a Christmas present, on which I taught myself to play. I even started to compose my own tunes, usually as I tended to relate music to places I knew, e.g. when I visited a particular place I would just come up with a tune in my head. The most famous tunes to those that have known my music were called “Offa’s Dyke Path” and “Melody of the Forest of Dean”. On my picnics to the Forest of Dean, for example, I would always hum “Melody of the Forest of Dean” to myself.

My mother was very much aware that I spent so many hours shut away in my bedroom making music on my electric chord organ, so she wanted me to learn to play properly on a professional organ. On Christmas Day 1979 Mum gave me the best Christmas present of my entire life, a Societa Industrie Elettroniche (SIEL) electronic organ. This was a major turning point in my life as I started lessons with a local professional organist and so my skills playing the organ progressed greatly. I also continued to compose my own tunes, so most of my spare time at home was spent doing nothing else but playing the electronic organ.

So, from when I was a boy I always wanted to combine my two hobbies: make a film of a walk and set it to my own musical compositions. It was not until 1988 when I went on a video production course in Bristol that this ambition finally happened. I met a friend called Jasper on this course, who happened to live near Chepstow. He was interested in my idea of making videos in the Wye Valley and Forest of Dean. This lead up to the preparations to make my first ever video.
Escape Into Tranquillity
The Wye Valley Walk  is a long distance footpath following the course of the River Wye between Chepstow and Plynlimon  in the Cambrian Mountains, Mid Wales. In my childhood I regularly explored small sections of the route between Chepstow and Tintern .

During the early 1980s the most common walk I did was a route to the Narth , which was just off the Wye Valley Walk ten or so miles north of Chepstow. That part of the route started from my old comprehensive school in Chepstow, passing through various woods, interesting geological features and picturesque villages, before finishing at the Narth, a hamlet I visited often when I was a boy as a friend of the family lived there.

I wanted to make my first video project based on this walk, and try to capture the atmosphere that I felt when I went on this journey. Now rather than make a documentary film such as a "guide to the Wye Valley", I wanted to make it like a story and give it a dramatic feel, recreating my emotions, moods, etc. that I felt each time I did this walk in real life.

Therefore, during the early summer months of 1988 I met with Jasper regularly to work out my ideas for this video project. I literally sat down and talked to him about the walk, all the places along the way, and the feelings I had about them. He made notes and created a script that clearly portrayed what I had explained was in my mind. He entitled his script "Nine Miles to the Narth", but I chose to call it "Escape into Tranquillity" as I personally felt it was a more appropriate and dramatic title.

The next thing we had to do was hire some equipment to film the project. Jasper arranged to hire a video camera from a company in Bristol, so we were all set to go out and do the filming. I was very excited by this time!

I was on holiday for a week in August of that year, so that was when we went out to record the scenes for my film. The filming took place along the whole of the first ten-mile stretch of the Wye Valley Walk between Chepstow and the Narth. We spent one day filming all over Chepstow, including the street and the house where my maternal grandparents lived, my comprehensive school, the Castle and the Dell, and the main part of the town itself. The other days we recorded scenes in Ditch Wood, Chepstow Racecourse and the ruined Piercefield Mansion Estate , Giant's Cave, Wyndcliff and the 365 Steps, Minepit Wood, Tintern and the old railway station, Brockweir , Coed Beddick, Bargain Wood, Llandogo and Cleddon Shoots, Cuckoo Wood, and finally the Narth.

Once all the footage was in the can I needed to edit it. Jasper catalogued all the scenes we had recorded, and I hired a professional U-matic video recorder to copy the footage onto a U-matic tape in order to make it easier for the final editing process. I knew what music I wanted to use as the film's soundtrack long before we even went out to record it. Therefore, I dubbed onto tape a large section of music taken from the albums " Atom Heart Mother " and " Dark Side of the Moon ", as well as recording my own compositions.

The final stage was to do the actual editing. I contacted the Watershed in Bristol , where I had attended my video course with Jasper earlier that year, and arranged to hire their editing facilities for a couple of days. They had a professional U-matic editing suite, which was why I pre-dubbed my video footage onto a U-matic tape beforehand. I then spent two days overall editing my video, dubbing on my pre-recorded soundtrack, and adding commentary and titles. It was not a smooth process in the end, mainly because I was left on my own in the editing room not really knowing what I was doing. The staff were not particularly helpful either, except for when it was time for me to pay them for using their editing suite! So although I finally managed to complete the editing, it was quite a frustrating couple of days. After the editing was completed I copied the finished product from the master U-matic tape onto a VHS tape. I could then sit down at home and watch my film!

It was wonderful to see it. I was pleased with the results, even though the pace of the film was slow. Part of the reason for this was that I had composed the music before filming, so the scenes were very long in order for the soundtrack to fit. Anyway it was still not a bad effort considering this was my first video I had ever made. I was happy enough to want to make another one.

Another chance
After "Escape Into Tranquillity" was completed I wanted to do more projects. Just before the end of 1989 I bought my own camcorder so I would be able to make as many videos as I wanted.

I wrote a script entitled “The Lost Villages”, which I wanted to film around Fedw Wood in the Wye Valley in Monmouthshire and the surrounding area. This was the first time I had actually written my own script, as Jasper had written the script for the first film, even though it had been based on my own ideas. I listed out on paper all the places and interesting historical and geological features that I wanted to visit in my new film. From the completed list I then made notes against each item of any personal memories I had, my feelings about them, and any historical interest relating to them. The last thing to do was to collate all this information and structure it into some kind of a storyline.

Once the script was finished the next task was to find someone to do the filming for me. I had lost touch with Jasper by now, so he would no longer be an option. Therefore, I decided to place adverts in shop windows for people to take part. I wanted a cameraman plus one other person to actually play a role in the project in addition to myself. A few people responded to my adverts, one of whom was a young man from Chepstow called Phil. We met up and we agreed he would be the other cast member. He also told me he had a friend who would be interested in being the cameraman.

One morning in the early winter months of 1990 Phil and I travelled to the Fountain Inn at Trelleck Grange to commence recording “The Lost Villages”. Unfortunately his friend was not available to do the camerawork, so Phil and I had to adapt our method of filming by taking it in turns to film each other's close-up shots. For all the shots requiring the two of us together in the same frame I had to mount the camcorder on the tripod, press the record button and run into position next to Phil. This was just not what I wanted at all, and although Phil and I got on really well, I was not happy with the way the filming was working out. I also discovered that leaving the camcorder on the tripod without a cameraman was not a good idea as, unfortunately, towards the end of the day the wind blew the camcorder over, sending it crashing to the pavement. The camera was badly damaged, putting an abrupt end to my project.

Preparing for the series
So what was I going to do now? It was several months before the camera was repaired, by which time I was no longer in touch with Phil. Therefore, "The Lost Villages" remained unfinished, so I had no choice but to abandon the project. However, looking back on it now, the little bit of filming that we had managed to do was not done particularly well as we had no cameraman, so as a result I don't think I would have been happy with the finished film if we had continued to record it in this fashion.

In the autumn of 1991 I met my friends Nigel, Richard, Martin, Jenny, Michael, Scott and Anthony. We all shared the same interests so I kept in regular contact with them. They ultimately became some of my closest friends.

At the end of 1992 I moved into a shared house with Nigel and Richard. In a conversation with Richard one day I told him about my video projects, and that I was still keen to make them if I could get other people involved. He was interested in the idea himself and offered to be my cameraman if I did want to make a new video project. I was thrilled and decided to take him up on his offer.

Now that I had my cameraman I needed other people to play on screen roles. Michael was a regular visitor to our house so I approached him on the idea. I knew he loved acting, as he was a member of a local drama group. To my delight he agreed and we decided to commence filming in August 1993.

However, I decided that I did not want to have another attempt at filming “The Lost Villages” just at this time. Instead I wanted an introductory story where Michael was the main lead and I would make an entrance towards the end of the film. Therefore, I wrote my script called “The Solitary Rambler” in less than four weeks in time to start recording in August. The rest is history.....
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