At the end of the lane, on the edge of the Forest, before you climb into the wilderness of bracken on bare hillsides, with only gorse and bramble thickets here and there covering the land and very few discernible paths crossing it, you come to a clearing. In this clearing, leaning against a rocky overhang, stands a dilapidated, ancient caravan surrounded by the detritus of open-air living: tarpaulins, plastic buckets and basins, wooden bins, a rusty bicycle, an iron wheelbarrow, piles of logs, cooking pots and pans, tools for many purposes, axes and spades and saws and hammers, all of them discarded by civilization and lovingly collected. There is a jeep which hasn’t been on the road for decades, how it got here is anyone’s guess.
Strewn all around are rough-hewn benches and chairs and a few tables, in various stages of completion, made of sawn logs nailed together. The sort of furniture that you’d put in a hidden corner of the wilder reaches of your garden, if ‘rustic’ is what you are after. You’d probably not sit on the benches and chairs very often or for very long; genuinely ‘rustic’ and comfort don’t mix.
The whole site almost has the air of an abandoned rubbish tip, except that there is also a heap of smouldering ashes in the centre of the clearing, which allows you to realize that this is somebody’s ‘home’.
As you stand and stare, you become aware of a tremendous noise all about you, a cacophony of sound, which is difficult to attribute, quite overpowering. As your eyes adjust to the semi-gloom of the clearing amidst tall trees, both coniferous and deciduous, you notice an endless flickering of small bodies hurtling between the trees, landing and disappearing, reappearing and taking off for another perch. Birds, hundreds and hundreds of birds share the clearing with the occupant of the caravan, a man, shaggy and shabby, dirty and dressed in ragged clothes, but tall and strong and weather-beaten.
Frank the birdman has finally joined you. You simply have to stop and talk to him, he will not let you go, even though you might now want to be on your way.
Frank seldom sees people up here and makes good use of them when he does. His nearest neighbours have long given up on him, in fact, he and his encampment have become a thorn in their flesh. His life story is an interesting one. He and his family once owned the farm down the lane, they were prosperous enough to scratch a decent living from the land, sheep farmers, like many round here, with a few arable acres thrown in. He and his brother inherited the farm, but fell out with each other within a few years; the farm was lost and they had to sell. Frank soon enough lost the proceeds from the sale too, he is not very forthcoming about the reason, although there are still people living round here who remember. Frank got into the jeep, towed the farm labourers’ overflow caravan as far as it would go, bought the useless plot of land where the jeep stopped dead and became the birdman of Clun Forest.
He lives off the sale of his rustic ‘furniture’ and a state benefit payment; it might even be a pension now. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there is not also a little left-over nest egg. Frank has no hesitation in asking passers-by for contributions to bird food; summer and winter he feeds his birds. His rusty bicycle takes him round the supermarkets of the area, who let him have stale loaves of bread for pennies. He also buys many pounds of the cheapest lard, dried fruit and anything else at the end of its sell-by date, flour and grain at cost price. Some of the local bird-watchers help him transport the larger quantities, otherwise he struggles on his bicycle to get supplies in.
Frank needs little for himself, the one and only luxury item in his caravan, where he lives summer and winter, is a radio. He likes a bit of music, he says. I am surprised he can hear it over the din the birds make.