August 3rd, 2009

What We Did Last Week: 1

First place we stayed was Bridgwater. Notice that it doesn't have an "e" in the middle- which can trip you up if you're looking for it online. It's one of those towns from which the tide has gone out. It used to be an important port, it used to have a castle- and it still has some of the grand buildings that went with its former status- including a street of merchants' houses from the 17th century. I'm not sure what goes on there now.  We met my mother, sister and brother-in-law on the second night- and Ian took us all out to dinner. The restaurant had taken over a very splendid classical building in the centre of town- fomerly the Corn Exchange- and has glassed in the portico. This doesn't deter the town youth from hanging out on the steps. So there we were on one side of the plate glass eating our italian treats and there were they, just feet away, flirting, larking and kicking a ball about. It was very odd. We pretended we couldn't see them and they pretended they couldn't see us, and every once in a while the ball would cannon off the glass.

From Bridgwater Ailz and I drove out to Burrow Mump and from Burrow Mump to Othery and from Othery to Glastonbury. These are three places on the great ley-line that bisects the country at a angle, running from St. Michael's Mount in the West to  Bury St. Edmunds in the East. It's called the Michael line- after St. Michael the archangel and dragon slayer-  and has a sister called the Mary line which runs alongside it and intertwines with it. Michael and mary are Christianized versions of the Sun God and the Earth Mother. Or so it says in the New Age  classic The  Sun and the Serpent by Hamish Miller and Paul Broadhurst (which I'm glad to see is still in print). I'm not sure how much I believe in ley lines, but i love the poetry of them and that's enough. It's certainly interesting/suggestive/strange that Burrowbridge, Othery and Glastonbury- and so many of the other places along the line-   have churches in them dedicated to Michael.

Burrow Mump is a miniature of Glastonbury Tor- an odd little hill with a ruined church on top. Setting ley lines aside, it's very likely that it supported a post-Roman look-out station and beacon- one in a lne with Glastonbury to the East and and Brent Knoll to the West. There should be legends attached to it, but I'm not aware of any- except for the tradition that it was an outpost of King Alfred's command centre in Athelney.  The ruined church is now a memorial to the men and women of Somerset who died in the two World wars.

Burrow Mump

Somerset is full of fine churches- in the middle ages wherever there was wool there was brass- and Othery is one of them. Broadhurst and Miller notice the fine modern carving of St. Michael over the south door (which now supports a bird's nest) but seem to have missed the much finer one (late medieval I think) high up on the east face of the tower.

I grew up believing that the Reformers- from Henry VIII to Cromwell- had smashed all the mediaeval religious art in England. That's not true. They smashed what they could find and/or reach. There's still a great deal left, often high up- and therefore  neglected and weathering away.  It's hard to tell now, but Othery's St. Michael looks like a masterpiece to me. I wish they'd take it down, put it indoors somewhere and hoist a replica in its place.


The south face of the tower has a female saint who, from the napkin over her arm, I'm ready to guess is Mary Magdalen. i think she's a masterpiece too.


So, on to Glastonbury.  Glastonbury Tor is one of my two favourite places on the planet. The other is Avebury (which we visited later). Avebury is also on the Michael and Mary lines; make of that what you will.

I've just read an essay on the history of Glastonbury by Ronald Hutton. He concludes that all the woo-woo stuff- the Zodiac, Joseph of Arimathea, St Patrick, King Arthur, the Holy Grail- is unsupported and bogus. Some of it was concocted by medieval monks with an eye to making money- and some of it by the modern day, cockney romantics who have been flocking to the town since the second half of the 19th century. He also thinks it doesn't really matter- and neither do I. It's like the leylines. There's a level at which it's all true and speaks to the soul and I'm not going to try to explain it. 

We didn't go into town; the town is essentially the New Age Lourdes and I can take it or leave it; but I did climb the Tor. I climb the Tor on every visit. It's as close as I get these days to performing a structured spiritual exercise.

What We Did Last Week: 2

We had lunch in a lay-by, then went to Wells. Wells is the most photogenic town in England. Stand anywhere on the high street, point your camera in the direction of the cathedral and you can't go wrong.

We thought of going round the Bishop's Palace and gardens, but they wanted lots of money off us, so we went to the barrier and I took a picture of the facade. There were some very old men, dressed in white, playing croquet on the lawn. Oh, England, my England!

We left Wells and tootled up into the Mendips. We passed through Wookey Hole, famous for its caves- and it turned out to be the very day they were auditioning for the new- and very well paid- position of Witch of Wookey. I was particularly interested because my friend wyrmwwd had thought of applying. I saw a sign by the roadside that said Witch Auditions Car Park and  spotted a photo-op. So here's a picture of Ailz with the cars of lots of putative witches behind her.

The historic Witch of Wookey is a stalagmite/tite formation in a cave. The legend goes that there's a real petrified human body at the heart of it. The new witch will be required to dress up, play pretty with the tourists and give good cackle. Ian was watching the news that night and says the post went to a local girl- a former estate agent. The judges said they chose her for her sense of humour. 

After Wookey we climbed to the top of the Mendips and then down through the Cheddar Gorge. There were lots and lots of people in the Gorge, some climbing, some strolling, some buying tat, some eating chips. We shuddered and passed on.

Here's a view of the Somerset levels from somewhere between Wookey and Cheddar

What We Did Last Week: 3

The next day (Wednesday) it rained and rained and rained- and the car got filthy from bumping over unimportant Exmoor roads. We were going to Ilfracombe, where we had  booked into a dispiriting family hotel which Ailz immediately christened "Lurch's Place". Actually it wasn't so bad; there was a time when all English hotels were similarly dank and gloomy. Besides, it was cheap.

Ilfracombe is lively- and the north Devon coast spectacular. The Landmark Theatre - which is built to look like a couple of sandcastles side by side- has a cafe where they serve really good sandwiches.

in the evening the sun came out and we drove along the coast and were glad we'd come after all.

What We Did Last Week: 4

Which brings us to Thursday- which was the day our niece Jo was getting married. We had sandwiches at the Landmark and then bumped over more unimportant Exmoor roads to Hunter's Inn in the Heddon Valley.

This part of Devon is isolated. You can't get a phone signal in most of Ilfracombe- and as for the Heddon Valley, forget it.

They say this is an overcrowded island. Don't believe them.

The Hunter's Inn looks like this.

It's a special place. The present landlord saved it from demolition, took it on as a challenge- almost as a dare (because it wasn't making money)- and has turned it into an award-winning success. He deserves it all, because he seems to be a really nice bloke. A lot of walkers come through the valley- which belongs to the National Trust and he'll feed them any meal they want.  It's the inn in a hole at the end of axle-breaking roads that never sleeps.

Ailz lost a pendant (of considerable sentimental value) at the wedding. The cleaning staff found it next day and the landlord rang to tell us. It's that kind of personalised customer-care that counts.

The river Heddon looks like this. 


What We Did Last Week: 6

We had been planning to head off East on the Friday morning, but instead we had to go back to Hunters Inn, not very far, but in the opposite direction, to retrieve Ailz's pendant- which meant we got to see the family again- which was nice.

The pendant is a silver apple.  Ailz's brother gave it her- probably for her 21st. We think it probably came adrift when she was snuggling baby Matthew (see final picture of the previous post).

We were heading to Devizes. On the way we stopped off at Cleeve Abbey- also known as Vallis Floridia.  Cleeve has lost its church, but retained its great hall with original- and very splendid- roof intact. It also has fragmentary wall paintings and the best part of a fine tiled floor.  It's a quiet place in a quiet valley. 


We were pretty tired by this stage - and I can't remember what happened next. Did we go check into our Travel Lodge or did we go straight to Avebury. I think we went straight to Avebury.

Glastonbury may very well have been a green field site when a Saxon King decided to build an abbey there- apparently the Saxons preferred green field sites- but Avebury has been a holy place for six thousand years. What were they thinking of, the people who built it? Who knows? Something to do with the sun and the moon and the stars- and that's all we can be sure of.  It's a complicated piece of architecture or engineering (I'm not sure which is the more appropriate term) -  with its ditch and bank and circles and avenues of stones, so the beliefs it expresses (or hints at) were probably quite complicated too. I feel, when I prowl around it, as if I'm prowling around the inwards of a huge clock.

I didn't take any decent pictures on this occasion but I took some when we went back on Saturday- when the light was better. I'll post them in their proper sequence.

Our hotel was about a mile from the centre of Devizes- at the intersection of several roads, with a housing estate to the right and an industrial estate to the left. It was a noisy place to be on a Friday night- though not on a Saturday night, oddly enough. Ailz thinks the people who were squeaking and chattering and grunting until deep into the morning were working girls and their clients. Could be.

Oh, and I'm forgetting; our bedroom window had a great view of the Devizes White Horse, which was carved into the hillside in 1999  to commemorate the Millennium. It replaces an early 19th century Horse (called Snobs Horse because it was created by the shoemakers of the town, popularly known as snobs)  which faded back into the hill a century or more ago.  As Millennium projects go I reckon this is a good'un.

What We Did Last Week: 7

On Saturday- another dull and dreepy day- we went to Lacock. You'll know it if you're a fan of BBC costume drama. They filmed Moll Flanders, Cranford and the definitive Pride and Prejudice here. Then there's the Abbey. That's where they filmed scenes from the first two Harry Potter movies.

But the place's greatest claim to fame is that it was the home of William Fox Talbot, one of the three founding fathers of photography. There was Niepce- who was the first to fix an image, Daguerre, who, building on Niepce's work, invented the beautiful dead-end that is the Daguerreotype and Fox Talbot who, working quite independently, discovered a method of fixing images that was much quicker than Niepce's and unlocked the potential of the photographic negative. As a photographer myself, I regard Lacock as holy ground.

Fox Talbot wasn't only a photographic pioneer, but a man with wide-ranging interests- scientific, literary and political. He was, for instance,  one of only two Englishmen in his generation who could read cuneiform. He makes me feel small.

There isn't a house in Lacock that's later than the 19th century, and most are older. The very oldest, now a tea room- where I had Wiltshire rarebit with plum chutney and Ailz had a sort of cinnamon teacake called a Lacock Lumb- claims to be King John's Hunting Lodge- and I see no reason to doubt it.

The abbey is a real abbey, more specifically a nunnery- with an intact monastic cloister and Tudor and 19th century gothick add-ons. It's a beautiful house. 

A Chinese bride in her wedding dress was being photographed in the cloisters by her husband who was also dressed in his wedding gear. They'd been married in Hong Kong and had travelled all the way to England, with their wedding clothes in their luggage, to pose for photographs in romantic locations. Isn't that sweet! 

After leaving Lacock we asked Jane the Sat-Nav to take us to see something prehistoric. First she took us to a farm track with no public right of way; then she took us to a roadside hedge we couldn't see over. Desperate to end the day on a high note I settled for the nearest church.  And here it is, St George's Preshote- a Victorian rebuild with a 15th century tower. Preshote is a contraction of Prestes Hotte- Priest's Hut.

It's a lonely church- down a narrow lane in a field beside the river. In the porch I found this fragment from the old church- a woman's head- and another medieval masterpiece. Medieval art is seriously undervalued, I think. We'll miss it when it's gone.