Looking for Community: Oliver Balch’s Under the Tump

My eagle eye for anything related to Hay-on-Wye led me to this book, a memoir of sorts about moving to the Welsh Borders in the search for a sense of community. Journalist Oliver Balch and his wife had previously lived in London and then started a family while living in Argentina. Although they loved the vibrancy and social opportunities of city life, when they moved back to the UK in 2012 they were in search of something different:

I fancied living somewhere with open skies and fresh air; somewhere I could strap on my walking boots and head out for a hike; somewhere alive to the sound of birdsong rather than bus exhausts. I envisioned the same for the boys. Growing up in wellies and with dirty knees. Weekend camping trips. Swimming in the river.

But it was more than just the natural scenery that drew him to the England–Wales border town of Clyro. “I liked the idea of finding a place where I could truly belong. It would be good to be on the inside for once, to be a thread or stitch in the social fabric.” It was John Updike, of all people, who inspired him to seek out small-town life. “For a writer, it’s good to live between a widow and a plumber,” Updike wrote – to be surrounded by different, ordinary people and get to know your neighbors in an old-fashioned but still desirable way.

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After the family settled in at Pottery Cottage, another of Balch’s guiding spirits was Reverend Francis Kilvert, curate of Clyro from 1865 to 1872. He’s known today for the diary he started keeping in 1870. As he went around visiting, he made pen portraits of his parishioners, often summing people up through one apt phrase of Dickensian description. In a sense, Balch is trying to do the same thing with these sketches of his new community members. Meanwhile, he weaves in biographical information about Kilvert in much the same way that Helen Macdonald does about T.H. White in H is for Hawk.

Francis Kilvert [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Francis Kilvert [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
There’s still an active Kilvert Society today, and early on Balch joined them for a tour of Clyro. With the River Wye, the Black Mountains and the book town of Hay-on-Wye all in range, it’s a splendid view:

The Wye is at its nearest to the east, huddled in the dip between two rippled fields of honeyed wheat and brilliant yellow rapeseed, its emerald-green waters rushing fast above the reeds. … Burrowed among the trees above its far bank stands Hay, a blue-grey patchwork of tiled rooftops amid a swathe of sylvan green. Poking above the tree canopy is the castle … And then beyond, of course, the barren bouldery bulk of the Black Mountains. Implacably wild. Their beauty hard, unremitting, almost brutish in their bluntness.

Balch starts trying to fit in by joining the regular drinkers at the Rhydspence Inn, an old-fashioned pub, on Wednesday nights. He’s closest with Tony, a farmer, and subsequently observes the Young Farmers group. In other chapters he profiles the unconventional, hippie types drawn to the area, like the owners of Hay’s fair trade shop; and the locals and shopkeepers involved in the Thursday market. He also sits in on some community planning meetings and learns about a recent anti-supermarket campaign. The Town Council and the “Hay Together” interest group are often at odds, he learns. A Chamber of Commerce meeting turns into an argument about renovating the Castle, one of Hay’s chief landmarks.

Hay Castle (a partial ruin) with the outdoor 'honesty bookshop' below. Michael Graham [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.
Hay Castle (a partial ruin) with the outdoor ‘honesty bookshop’ below. Michael Graham [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.
My favorite chapter of all was about the Hay Festival, one of the foremost literary festivals in the UK. (It starts this week, in fact.) Although I’ve been to Hay five times since 2004, I’ve never attended its annual festival. I loved getting a peek behind the scenes, as Balch interviewed an author who’d written a guide to the local area. For Balch, his feelings about the festival prove that he’s finally thinking more like a local than an ‘incomer’:

Part of me is elated that the outside world has landed on our doorstep. For a brief window in late spring, everywhere I turn there are urbanites like me. … Simultaneously, part of me recoils. … I feel invaded. Some traitorous wretch has spilled word of our rural haven and now legions of out-of-towners have arrived, overrunning the place with their unmuddied cars and city manners.

Even in the decade that I’ve been visiting, I can recognize some of the processes Balch pinpoints – essentially evidence of gentrification going on in Hay and the surrounding area. Under the ownership of an American female entrepreneur, for instance, Booth’s Bookshop has been transformed from a falling-down jumble sale into a well-presented independent bookstore with a posh café. Some of the locals Balch meets are delighted with the changes, while others feel that the snobs are taking over and driving up prices for regular folk.

If I was a bit disappointed with this book, it’s because I didn’t fully heed the subtitle – “Sketches of Real Life on the Welsh Borders.” It’s not meant to be a chronological narrative of Balch’s time in Clyro but a thematic tour, with some common threads running through. This means that, depending on the reader, certain chapters will probably seem much more interesting than others. So the best part of “The Young Farmers” chapter, for me, was a description of a cow doing a messy poo (“the most splendid jet of steaming gravy-colored excrement”); otherwise I found it entirely tedious.

The view from the Castle, looking back over the town towards the hills. By Schuy (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons.
The view from the Castle, looking back over the town towards the hills. By Schuy (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons.
Perhaps I wrongly expected this to be exactly like Paul Collins’s Sixpence House. This 2003 memoir of trying to make a life in Hay is among my all-time favorite reads. Although similar on the surface, Under the Tump is a very different book. I appreciated it most as a narrative of searching for a place to call home – something that will surely strike a chord with any reader.

With thanks to Faber & Faber for the free copy.

My rating: 3.5 star rating


Further reading:

  • I wrote an article on Book Towns – mostly about Hay – for Bookkaholic in 2013.
  • Other books that reference Hay-on-Wye:
    • Reading in Bed by Sue Gee opens at the Hay Festival.
    • In The Red House by Mark Haddon, a dysfunctional family vacations in the countryside near Hay.
    • In Next Life Might Be Kinder by Howard Norman, the main female character is from Hay.
    • One of the settings in The Rise and Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman is a bookstore in a small Welsh village. (Okay, not quite Hay.)
  • Plus one from the TBR: in The Bookman’s Tale by Charlie Lovett, an antiquarian bookseller browsing in a shop in Hay finds a book that sets him off on a quest.
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7 thoughts on “Looking for Community: Oliver Balch’s Under the Tump

  1. Interesting! I might not want to read this book, but I’ve added Sixpence House to my list. 🙂
    I loved the book shop (and its setting) in Tom Rachman’s book, but wouldn’t we all?

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    1. I felt a bit sheepish coming towards the end of this review and saying, essentially, “go read this other book instead.” But I guess that’s how it works out sometimes! Someone who’s interested in social interactions in rural Wales, however (and I’m sure that someone must be out there), would probably prefer this book to Sixpence House.

      I love books that incorporate a bookshop setting, and Rachman’s was a great one.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I might find some of this interesting because I know the area of Hay fairly well and would likely recognise some of the persona’s. does it deal with the history of the festival at all? Thats quite an incredible story

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    1. Oh yes, this would be of local interest for you. I enjoyed the brief appearance by Richard Booth (whom we once saw in his eponymous shop).

      No, the book doesn’t go into the history of the festival at all.

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  3. Yes, I too am going to plump for ‘The Sixpence House’. I have friends who have just moved into the area, so have been looking for something that will give me a sense of their new lives. Also, I’ve never been able to decide whether I’d like to go to the Festival, or whether it would be a price-inflated luvvie-fest. Any ideas?

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    1. I’m conflicted about the Festival. Apart from one summer visit, we’ve only ever been to Hay in the off season, and we rather enjoy the feeling of having the place to ourselves. I can’t imagine it heaving with tourists. At the same time, it could be nice to be part of a bustling crowd of literary types. Ultimately, though, I think Hay Festival is so large that it might be overwhelming. I tend to seek out smaller literary festivals like Oxford and Bloxham and attend a few events.

      Liked by 1 person

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