For our mid-summer break this year my wife, mother-in-law and I spent a week in the woods. This was not camping, but staying in one of the comfortable, self-catering cabins on a site run by Forest Holidays.
Whereas last year we had chosen a location near Winchester, Hampshire, as recounted in my post Travelling with ink: Blackwood Forest, this time we chose the Forest of Dean, Gloucestshire, and also went for a full seven days rather than three. It proved to be a good choice and we had also picked a week of warm sunny weather.
With the happy prospect of having some time to write, I enjoyed picking the line-up for a week away. After much deliberation (or dithering) I settled upon the yellow Aurora Talentum (my most recent pen purchase), a vintage Montblanc 34, Esterbrook Estie, Delike New Moon, and a Duke 552 bamboo barrel pen. Also I brought the Lamy 2000 multi-pen, a Sailor multi-pen/pencil and finally a Pentel 120 A3 0.7mm pencil, making eight writing implements in all.
To write on, or in, I brought a fresh Leuchtturm A5 notebook for daily journal writing, another A5 notebook for everything else, one A4 notebook (good for planning and drafting) and finally a small Silvine pocket notebook – which is always handy for jotting down addresses, phone numbers, directions or any notes made while out and about.
The fountain pens were inked with various colours but I decided to bring only one bottle of ink, Pelikan 4001 Konigsblau and so if any of them needed refilling, it would be royal blue or nothing. In the event, I did refill the Talentum mid-week. Whilst I like the Konigsblau, I did notice that the pen seemed to write a little drier and with less lubrication than with the Montblanc Royal Blue that it had started with. But it is useful to have a drier ink sometimes, to compensate for pens that might otherwise write very wet.
Our cabin was very spacious and slept six people, (as my sister and her family were to join us for part of the week). The open plan sitting/dining room had a large oak table with floor-to-ceiling windows and was a lovely bright place to sit, especially in the early morning when the room was cool. It did become very warm in the afternoons but we were generally out then.
From our base, it was about a two-mile walk, through tranquil forest paths, to the stunning views from Symonds Yat rock, looking down on a beautiful section of the Wye Valley.
Our nearest small town was Coleford. Here in a local newsagents, I was pleased to find some A5 notebooks called Companion, with nicely textured soft covers in bright colours, and 240 pages of unlined, 80gsm cream paper. I knew of these from purchasing one in blue last year in a post office in Surrey. It turned out to be very pleasing and I wished I had picked up the other colours (red and yellow). Here was the chance to rectify that oversight.
For a larger town, we were about 20 minutes drive from Ross-on-Wye. Whenever visiting another town and exploring the shops I do keep one eye open for any fountain pen shops. It is rare to find one of course, although Ross-on-Wye has a WH Smiths. I had a cursory look at the Fountain Pen section, in particular to see whether they had the newish Parker Vector XL, which I had seen recently in London – not that I would necessarily have bought one, but just as a bit of research. I was not to find one all week.
A similar distance drive took us to Monmouth, another pretty and colourful high street, and lined with bunting for the Queen’s platinum jubilee, and with some attractive side streets and river views and plenty of history, although not the best choice for fountain pen shopping.
A bit further afield, along scenic country roads, we also spent a day in Ledbury, Herefordshire. This is a very attractive town, famed for its half-timbered buildings and historic market building and some nice independent shops for books and clothes, but I did not find any specialist fountain pen shops in evidence.
On our last full day, we visited Tintern Abbey, the impressive ruins of a Cistercian monastery beside the Wye River with wooded hillsides making a picture postcard backdrop. Once there, it seemed silly not to drive on for the short distance to visit Chepstow.
Here, I did find a shop called First Stop Stationery, with displays of Lamy, Schreiber and other pens and a large glass display cabinet for the more expensive pens. On closer inspection, these were from Cross, Parker, Waterman, Sheaffer, Lamy, Pilot, Faber-Castell and possibly some others. Some notable examples were the Waterman Carene, Faber-Castell Ondorro, several pilot Vanishing Points, a smart Lamy Accent in the glossy black with ringed section and even the newly revived Parker 51 gold nib version which I had not previously seen in the flesh although I was not sufficiently tempted to buy one. I did at least buy some Parker cartridges in blue black.
In our final hours of retail therapy, we headed back up to Ross-on-Wye where I had spotted a mandolin a few days earlier, in the window of River Music, in Broad Street. It was still there. I had felt in need of a mandolin, having accidently broken my old one recently when falling off a stool, whilst passing items up to the attic. It had fallen down the stairs, in its soft gig-bag but the neck was broken in two and I adjudged it to be a write-off.
The music shop had a display of ukuleles and a banjolele but it was the Tanglewood mandolin in “Wine red” that tempted me. I am very much a beginner and can play only a few chords, but recently have been captivated watching musicians such as Sierra Hull, Josh Turner, Sam Bush and Chris Thile and whilst they are all in another league, there is a lot of fun to be had from making music, trying to improve and getting to know your way around the fingerboard.
The shop owner told me how he had lowered the action on this instrument, by paring off some wood from the base of the bridge so that the strings sat closer to the neck. He had done a good job, making it much nicer to play, but without overdoing it so that the strings buzzed on the frets. This was a real bonus, rather like buying a fountain pen when the nib has been expertly tuned. At a similar price to an Esterbrook Estie, you get a lot for your money, (although he had me at “Wine red”). And so it was to come home to London with me.
It is probably just as well that there were not more fountain pens shops in this lovely part of the world and I am glad not to have purchased any more. But when a mandolin calls you, somehow nothing else will do.