20 April 2017
I woke this morning in a cold sweat. It took me at least five minutes to think clearly and to realise that my dream was just that, a dream and no more.
In my dream, then, I was climbing the Sugar Loaf, one of those lovely hills in the Black Mountains near Abergavenny in Wales. Long before you reach Abergavenny you can see its peak, a perfect conical shape, a Welsh Mount Fuji. It dominates the little town at its foot. The old loaves of sugar looked something similar. Hence the name.
Let me explain what terrified me last night. It has nothing to do with sugar.
In my dream I joined a large group of walkers at the foot of the hill. First we all had to go to a machine and scan the walking permit which we had been obliged to download and print a month before.
On scanning our permit, we were each given a number which was our identity for the day. On the Sugar Loaf you are nameless from when you check in at the ‘Up Entrance’ until you check out at the ‘Down Exit’. Once you have checked out, your number goes into the database and you are not allowed to visit the hill for the rest of that year.
At the ‘Up Entrance’ there was a large sign with the text in big letters “Enjoy your Sugar Loaf Experience. An Award-Winning Attraction”. Entry to the ‘Up’ path meant joining a long queue. This queue was organised in those zig-zag lines where you have to shuffle along one way then turn and walk back in the direction from which you have come. This is how you queue when you have to show your passport at airports. At each turn you see the same faces as before, tired but resigned, as you shuffle forwards.
Having spent twenty minutes going backwards and forwards we at last arrived at the ‘Up’ security gate. Any sandwiches, flasks of tea and bottles of water in our rucksacks were confiscated. No personal food or drink is allowed on the walk. On the other side of the gate there was a machine which sold sandwiches, tea and bottles of water. Then we were met by a robot which smiled mechanically and addressed each of us in turn ‘We hope you have a lovely time while participating in your Sugar Loaf Experience’.
There was one route up and one route down the hill. These routes were cordoned off from the base to the peak leaving a path about two yards wide. Straying into the heather and bracken on either side was strictly forbidden. Offenders were fined heavily if they did this and on a second infringement they were banned from walking on any hill in the country for the next ten years. A third offence is punished by a lifelong ban.
We then began the ascent. Walkers are told to go at the same speed so that a regular line is maintained over the whole route. There is to be no bunching or grouping. Chatting is allowed but only to one person at a time. Pairs are permitted. Groups of three or more are not. Nor were we allowed to stop to take a photograph. All walkers are given 30 seconds at the peak when they may take photos. No walker can change direction or choose another route. It is like being in Ikea.
In this way we went up this beautiful hill, too frightened about disobeying one of the rules to take in the views over Wales with the wooded valleys and peaks of the Brecon Beacons beckoning hazily in the distance. One older man near me found the pace of the line too much and we took turns to help him along so that he would keep up with the rest of us and not exceed the time allotted for the climb. If he arrived late, penalty points would be added to his walking permit. Collecting ten penalty points means a ban from walking in future on any hill over 500 metres high.
‘Thank you so much,’ he said as he puffed up the hill. ‘Last time they gave me three penalty points, and I mustn’t collect any more. I really mustn’t.’
Each person was allowed 1 minute 30 seconds at the top. This was to avoid overcrowding. The time is calculated by a sensor which counts all the people walking in the Up lane. An extra 30 seconds were available if you wished to take photographs but this had to be paid for by credit card before a personalised temporary photography permit was issued.
There was a fast-food franchise at the top of the hill selling hot dogs, ice cream and Coca Cola. The prices corresponded to the altitude we had reached. A stream of pure, cool water had originally crossed the official ‘Up’ path. However, this stream had been diverted and was no longer accessible though it still remained in sight about ten yards from the path.
At the peak the Official Experience Photographer took a picture of each walker, whether they wanted it or not. This photo could be bought later at the ‘Down Exit’ at the bottom of the hill.
After the photo, we shuffled along to the start of the Down Lane, occasionally snatching a glimpse of the hills in the distance. Loiterers were reprimanded and their walking permit numbers were scanned for future reference. Two offences of slow walking at the peak meant they would not be given another permit for two years.
We began the descent and did our best to keep a steady pace in the same way as on the ascent. There were no pauses and no stops.
At the bottom was a machine with a row of plastic buttons with faces ranging from a broad smile to a small smile. We had to press one to assess our ‘Sugar Loaf Experience’. Having chosen a face, we then applied for a ‘Personalized Sugar Loaf Certificate’. This was issued once we had swiped our credit cards once more.
Just before we left by the ‘Down Exit’ we were met by another robot which said, ‘We hope Your Sugar Loaf experience will be something to remember.’
I do not think that I will ever forget it.
‘Tell others about your Sugar Loaf experience’ continued the robot.
Well, now I am telling you.
In spite of my dream next month, all being well, I will be in Wales once more. I will go to the Sugar Loaf and I will walk up it. I will sometimes walk slowly and sometimes fast. I will stop and sit down from time to time. I will wander willy-nilly around the top as much I wish. I will take as many photographs as I want and I will chat to other walkers, three, four or five at a time. I will sit down on the grass on the far side sheltered from the wind. I will slowly eat my sandwiches and drink my tea. I will quietly gaze at the mountains, hills and valleys around me. I will enjoy the purple of the heather and the sight of the clouds racing eastwards towards England. I will walk down when I am ready and, above all, I will reassure myself that, for now at least, my dream was no more than a dream.