Monday, 23 April 2012

Early Christianity in Mercia

No doubt this is a sign of getting old but I find visiting old churches very interesting. You get this narrow glimpse into life from hundreds of years ago, when Christianity played a greater part perhaps than it does now in our daily life, and yet there are these tantalising hints of something pre-Christian too: the green men, the scrolling beasts, the choices about what symbols were Devilish and which were not.

We had a merry breakfast with Mary and Jessica, who is a Downes Syndrome child of great charm and independence. She comes home at weekends and although she did not remember us was chatty and involved us in all her conversations. She was anxious to get to church, part of her routine, where her daddy was playing the organ, and she was also keen to remind us of her siblings. She looks so well and happy, it was a joy to spend this little time with her.

Then we set off to head back home, through yet more of this elastically expanding and vivid countryside. I realise how much I love rookeries. Each time I see the cluster of strong-looking nests I feel cheerful. Sometimes we see a rook actually sitting on top of its nest. They look simultaneously comic and masterful. I admire their sociability, their strength. Presumably this has been their habit for MILLIONS of years. It's stood them in good stead and they are sticking to it.

By squinting at the tiny print on the road-map I spotted a little pair of antiquities just off our route, one of which was called Odda's Chapel. That sounded good so we went to find it, turning off the road too soon at first and finding a delightful stretch of the Avon with a little sailing club, down a twisty marsh road. We then tried again a bit further east, and reached Deerhurst and there was the amazing Odda's Chapel, reminiscent of St Peter's on the Wall at Bradwell in Essex, a stark, empty, tall, beautiful thing with a marvellous chancel arch and the remains of a residential space created from the adjoining (later) farmhouse.

All this was discovered by the local vicar in the 19thC and various other finds included a dedication stone. Outside, marker posts show how high and recurrently the river swells out of its banks, and makes this little foundation into an island. We walked across one field to the river and saw where we had been standing shortly before, on the other bank. It seems this was the boundary of the Roman empire, and the river was fordable in ancient days, so although now it all seems very rural and quiet, it must once have been an important place, not only with trade and access along the river, but with military implications and visits, and this illustrious long-standing Christian chapel since 1050-something.

But I have kept the best to last. About 200 yards from the chapel, and set back a little further from the river and higher up the knoll is the parish church of St Mary's - a minster dating back even earlier - 800AD. It's a really odd place, with a great towering porch on the west side, a pretty farmhouse at right-angles to the main nave (once an arm of the cloister and still with great corbels which once supported the roof of the cloister-garth). Inside, the porch is in two cells, one bearing an amazing abstract Mary over the door. There are some wonderful early animals on either side of the west door into the nave. Lots of triangle-headed openings, some plasterwork torn away to reveal Anglo-Saxon herring-bone work, doorways up high leading to empty space now, in the nave. The font is covered with spirals and was found as a drinking trough in a field. Its base, which matches very well, was found somewhere else and reunited when spotted by the local Lady. There is on the east end the remains of a vanished apse, all gone now except for one panel which has the remains of an angel up high, very mysteriously difficult to see and now facing into a tiny little exterior alcove or nook. It took a while to get my head round it all...

There has been intense historical and archaeological work done here, Victorian, 1920s, and latterly more or less continuously since the 1970s, and numerous lectures published and on sale. Oh, this place is one of the great early treasures of our land, and having now read some of the lectures I can report it was probably once built of wood, then embellished with stone, and is now all of stone which sort-of follows the shape and height which wood could achieve. The detectives have done a marvellous job, comparing the sometimes barely legible carvings with known examples from manuscripts and metalwork around England and Europe. This little place is just four miles south of Tewkesbury and worth an hour or so of anyone's life, if you want to get a little look into what mattered to our ancestors.

 Incidentally, the very abstract Mary in the porch was once (like all the other carvings) brilliantly coloured - the shape no more than a canvas on which fine details would have been laid, rich not only in colour but in meaning and reference. The two animals on the inside door arch may have had jewels inset... Churches must have looked a bit like fairgrounds inside, all glitter and bling.

 We went to Tewkesbury for lunch - chose a cafe, visited the warm and welcoming the Abbey, admired the way they get you to pay willingly for your visit (it costs SO much money just to keep the place open). They have a screen where you pop your card in, take the Gift Aid option, and make your contribution. They suggest £5 per head. It seems painless. We also admired the old roof-bosses with musicians and the Magi now displayed in the aisles, and we liked the fine stone tomb depicting a rotting corpse with worms going in and out, and we liked the fantastic towered sepulchres or tombs made like miniature churches within the apse walk... how theses things survived the Civil War I do not know.  Incidentally this was the only church we visited on this trip which had incense in the air.

A postcard on sale shows what happened to Tewkesbury in the recent floods. The Abbey on its egg-shaped island remained above the waters, as did a few of the nearest houses, but the horrid red waters of the river lapped right round the whole town, cutting it off and gnawed at the outskirts. We think we are so safe in our modern world, but the old physical dangers are all still there, confronting us just as they challenged the medieval people who lived and worked here. Hedging and ditching, building good foundations, using the right building materials, seeing where the danger lies - all still needed today.

 I wish I knew more about birds - we saw one kind in two or three places - what could it have been? Solitary, big wings, able to glide and then flap a bit to move along, tail not so prominent as the wings, quartering the empty fields beneath. Was it a harrier of some kind? It looked hawk-like but bigger than birds I commonly see in Kent. We have come home tired, but calmer, quieter. I have been enraptured by this trip to the west. Living in the urban south-east, it is easy to feel (sometimes) that there is no emptiness left, that all is spoiled and filled-in and damaged. But it is not so. Pasture and husbandry, pub and lane, river and wood, hill and rain, it's all still there. Miles and miles and miles and miles and miles and miles and miles and miles and miles and miles of it. Everywhere you look. Go and see.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

South Pacific

I did almost nothing yesterday, feeling very under the weather. Andrew helped Stewart make part of the music desk for the new organ. In the afternoon we drove in Stewart's big BMW down to Cardiff, through mile after mile of radiant countryside. We sightly overshot on the motorway but eventually got into the Bay area, and parked in the appropriate concrete block. Walked to the Millenium Hall which looks like a huge chunky beetle carapace, dark and lumpy - not a very beautiful thing at a distance but with marvellous slate walls and a bronzed overhang to the entrance. The lobby inside is spacious and inviting, spreading out wide on either side. Loos seem inadequate in number with long queues. The lift is very very very slow, up and down - in contrast to the one in the carpark, which is swift, shining and clean. We wandered around, admired a statue of two people and a dog on the waterfront, took Stewart and Mary to eat at Wagamamas, then went back to the Hall to see South Pacific. It's a pacy production, with a terrific orchestra, sold out for every performance, and the audience loved it. This is the production from the Lincoln Center in New York and it has a bit of American pzazz about it, and the Hawaiian 'Bloody Mary' stole the show as far as I was concerned. Home in that smooth motor, under a starry sky, with Venus dazzling from the west. Now it's Sunday morning and we are packing to go home. I must face a dentist to deal with this inflammation and broken tooth.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Brecon Beacons

We had hoped to go and see some friends in SW Shropshire but it was not convenient for them, so we went up into the Brecon Beacons instead. The day was so astonishing, visually, that by the time we got back to our base in Hereford I was completely exhausted. In fact I think I have been cooking an infection - an inflamed gum, painful knee, and weariness. This is so unlike my normal experience, and so unexpected, that I know I will not really be able to do justice to this episode of the blog - sorry! I must take back some of my dislike of the River Wye, because up here where its banks are less steep and its floodplain a little broader, it acquires some of the restful qualities I feel I need from a river. In fact, at Glasbury, for instance, where you can launch a canoe and float downstream, there are wide gravelly shoals and beaches and it reminded me of the River Ceno in the Italian mountains above Parma, where we go and stay with our friends Suzanne and Pietro ( near Bedonia. The river makes powerful meanders across its meadows, but the road is often quite far away from the water, and the occasional glimpses you get are surprising and sought-after. We criss-crossed, over and across, up steep lanes, through farmyards, staring at the phenomenal rich colours and contrasts. It was like being in some sort of 1950s movie, with super-saturated colours - brilliant yellows from the poplars and willow buds, deep purples from the distant shadowed hills, radiant greens from the fields and hedges, stark black outlines of trees biding their time, the reds of the ploughed fields and the mud spilling down the lanes, the smatterings of white and pink blossoms through the hedges, the white bundles of sheep-bodies and their wiry babies, the grey stones of the church towers and cottages. It was stupendous. In Hay we had a coffee, I fell in love with an actual magic crystal wand but felt so rubbished by Andrew's disdain for such things that I didn't buy it (I will ring ask her to send it to me). It was made of stone and silver, from Thailand. I loved an 18th century upstairs wooden wall in a trendy antiquey shop owned by two rather alarming women who could possibly be rather occult. We liked the place and thought we will go back, but later over a supper an old friend who lives nearby said 'Hay is a poisonous place!' (and would not elaborate). On to Brecon, taking a tour round the Cathedral where we found a warm welcome, and I liked the almsot African-looking Cresset Stone with its rows of little holes to take night-time candles to light the monks to their services. We wandered around the town looking for somewhere to eat lunch - in the covered market, the microwave in the cafe had caught fire. Everywhere else looked a bit flat.... really all the cafes and bistros now base their cooking on BREAD - pizzas, sandwiches, paninis, baguettes, etc. If you are avoiding gluten as I am this is means you are hardpressed to find something to eat. Jacket potato again, back at the Cathedrals' Pilgrim centre, where a busload of old ladies was having a gay old time, having been to communion earlier on. We avoided the torrential rain which burst down from time to time.... explored the Canal down the valley, and set off again to the mountains. Oh dear - I know this is not a very scintillating report. Nothing much happened. We loved the high moors, saw almost no-one up there (like Dartmoor). We went to the Brecon Beacons Visitor Center and A bought two delicious ice-creams (mango yoghurt and then coffee) from Llanfaes Dairy - superb. The lady who sold us a pretty jug to take to our hostess (who had broken hers last night) had a black eye. Back home, crash out. Supper and laughter shared with another old BBC friend Lyn Webster who lives up here and is planning a new film project marrying Indian and Welsh myth and riddle. It sounnds wonderful. We sat and watched the famous Tyger Band film, made back in about 1973, featuring Andrew and Stewart and the rest of the gang - the film is a bit hard to follow but very well made and the music is superb. All shot on a clockwork Bolex 16mm camera using snitched stock and very well edited. Very funny and also very moving to see our menfolk reincarnated as young 20s again. Sigh. Bed, oblivion. Now we have had breakfast and more chatter, with the sun streaming over the smooth lawn, and Stewart standing and doing more wiring om the extraordinary loom which will be slotted into the organ, sometime soon. We are going down to Cardiff tonight to see South Pacific (ENO production) - a real treat. Then home tomorrow. I am not feeling very well. Not good. This is not how I should be.

Thursday, 19 April 2012


Today our hostess took us on a little tour SW of Hereford and into Wales (land of my fathers...). We set off towards Abergavenny but she suddenly remembered Kilpeck and asked if we would like to see it. WOULD WE LIKE TO SEE IT????? This has the most famous sheela-na-gigh in England. (Look it up). The church is set in an egg-shaped church yard, a sign of great antiquity. Usually circular.... 'They' say the Devil couldn't hide in the corners of a squared off church yard, but somehow, this seems a poor explanation and any aerial photo will show you that this plot is definitely not circular, and not accidental. I think the 'egg' shape is something else, but I am probably obsessed. There's a whole lost village here, never excavated, but clearly visible. Also the sad remains of a Norman motte and bailey castle, now overgrown with trees and rather pulled about. English Heritage might be doing something about it, but so far their work amounts to a pictorial sign bolted onto a gate. Trying to walk up to see was too treacherous for me in my slidy boots. I called out for a stick to help me back down again and retreated. Back to the church - WOW!!!!! Outside, holding up the eaves, are dozens of corbels - animals, angels, peasants, faces, wheels, my sheela-na-gigh, musicians.... wonderful. Its VERY reminiscent of Barfreston church on the way to Dover, but with less weathering, and so more definition. Also bigger. Red stone. Luverly. Inside, apart from the font, there is a stoup which looks like a pregnant tummy with hands held across it, and that may be older than the church. This has carved elements below, which look like a lady's bum and thighs, or like a phallus with balls. Hmmmn. A wondrous place. But what really excited me was one of those corbels outside, on the very eastern-most point of the apse. Here there is a corbel said to be the Devil with the Lamb of God. No sign of Devil, and the Lamb is now identified as an Equus Dei, a sort of Christian horse. As some of you will know I have a very special interest in any early representations of horses in or on early churches. They are always associated with the Devil. This particular horse has a marvellous spear-like Cross over it, which rests on one hoof. To me, the connection with the stories of St Eloi and St Dunstan are unmistakable. I will have to explore all this further. Anyone with any information and willing to share it, would be very welcome. We called into the local gastropub to use the loo, and had a nice coffee, till the muzak drove us out. Then we went on to Dore Abbey - a massive Cistercian foundation now lacking its entire nave, but still enormous and beautiful, with ancient stained glass, carvings, an apse, and so much... very French in flavour, not surprisingly, and an odd survivor of Henry VIII's raids, as this truncated end has served as a parish church since the mid-16th century. Hooorah. All Cistercian churches were dedicated to St Mary. The outside of this old priory has a prominent window with the same pointy egg-shaped design, which I have seen in Greek Orthodox icons, often as the border for a Christ in Majesty. It also appears on the pretty and mysterious sarcophagus in Minster church on the isle of Sheppey and it always makes me think of a particular and intimate female shape. (Remember the sheela-na-gigh). Around and outside in the fields, there were some long-legged horses, and lambs and ewes, and daffodils. A sign on the lych gate commemorates an officer who died in the first World War, 'killed in action, by his friends....'. or so it says. V amusing (now). Then to Abergavenney for lunch in a cafe called Cwtch, meaning 'cuddle', and all very nice. The owner gave us a taste of her new pickle made of beetroots and fresh oranges, with cumin and coriander. Yummy. Her shop must once have been an apothercarys' but was also a grocery and she said the old fittings are now on display in the Castle Museum. So, after I had bought some walking boots, we went to see all this. The Castle was blasted to bits during the Civil War, and remains a spacious rather elegant ruin, with muddy grass between the eloquent stone relics which once formed stout walls and corridors. The Museum shows that Herman Hess was imprisoned in Abergavenny, surprisingly, but that due to the remoteness of the place no-one in the area suffered from bombing during the war, except one random fire-fighter who was blown over a hedge when he tackled a loose explosive. Then we went for a walk on the Sugar Loaf Mountain (so I could try out my new walking boots), and our hostess could get a good walk. She was disappointed as I was too puffed out after 20 minutes steep climb and yet another huge rainstorm threatened. I did feel a bit weedy about this, but a) my socks kept slipping down inside my boots, and b) the rain when it arrived shortly after our return to the car was absolutely torrential. Ha! Back home, through the blinding storm. Reading Pigsties and Paradise (an account of lady diarists visiting Wales in the 18th and 19th centuries. Then supper, a bit of blogging and now time for bed. I did hear, during the evening, that one young man readint my reports so far, has much enjoyed my account of Plymouthe which he knows. He had not thought of that city in that way. Our host, who plays the organ, is building his own, and beside the dining table has a huge loom of wires and connections, which he has taken two years so far to create, and which he will install in his own little organ loft upstairs within a month or two. Various parts have been acquired from dealers over the last year or so - stops, pipes, pedals etc. It is a labour of love. The whole thing will be dismantle-able, when he comes to sell the house. He disdains installing an automatice transposing mechanism (which he could easily do), as all proper organists should be able to transpose pieces at sight, up or down. I hope my reports will be of at least as much interest as the diaries of the lady travellers to Wales in the 1790s and 1820s, whose works I have been reading this afternoon. They mostly complain about the dirty inns, and admire the sublime and picturesque effects of architecture and landscape. I am not sure what I am missing.


Yesterday we drove from Plymouth to Hereford. We decided to go over Dartmoor, despite, or maybe because of the threatening weather. Having been to see the Turner & the Elements exhibition at Margate (for the second time) last week, my eye was tuned in to mists and lowering clouds, and we certainly had a dynamic atmosphere to explore. I may have been a bit harsh in my comments yesterday about the grief-stricken or crazy tone of Plymouth, and I would not want to be seen to be condemning it - it is a hard-working, active, dedicated place with stunning views and impressive topography. I was just very aware that it's not an easy place to move around in. You cannot go directly to your objective. You must go around, up, down, behind, askance. A very mental place. Leaving, out through the increasingly leafy suburbs we found road-works and a coach which had blundered into the middle of the entrapments and barricades. There may have been an edge torn off a building, not sure. Resulting hold-ups were short-lived and merely amusing. I have never been across Dartmoor before. Climbing away from the sea, one is rapidly aware of the climatic differences brewing from altitude, as the glistening vivid green buds of the low lands shrink and shrivel, and the landscape turns brown and bleak. The skies did not let us down, with huge swathes of dark and soggy threat sweeping along. We kept seeing patches of sunlight on neighbouring hills - always somewhere else. These stabs of theatrical illumination served to make our own position all the more dark and bitter. Only two little Dartmoor ponies to be seen, sheltering against a belt of foreign-looking trees. Solitary corvids swept past, with wing tips turned up, floating past almost like hawks. I longed for these to be ravens, but I think they were crows. Rookeries were not to be seen. Up to Princetown, and the great prison like a Gothic warning, with the rain drenching down over it, and the water running down the roads in inch-deep streams, and the light struggling to get in under the clouds. The ground is all heathery and brown, quite desolate. If any inmate were to escape (would they? could they? how long since that happened?), it would be frightening to be living in one of the solitary houses around, so easy to be held hostage..... The strong Celtic quality to the architecture - stone cottages, slate roofs, small windows, low stone walls, lots of pebbledash rendering, all dark and wet... some of this has been mitigated by cheerful modern paints, and occasional enticing signs offering Tea or Pottery etc. but not very effectively on a cold spring morning. We had the whole of the moor to ourselves, it seemed, seeing fewer than eight vehicles altogether as we crossed to the north. Getting down into Moretonhampstead we found some of the most constructive bad parking ever to be seen: farmers' wives double- or triple-parking, huge delivery lorries unloading wares, through traffic entirely trapped, people backing in long lines to make space, and all done in a carefree manner implying this is a daily practice. Very instructive. Skirting round Exeter we started on what became a marvellous Comparison - hence the title of this blog. The Exe Valley is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen, and yet I have never heard of it. Its wide meadows and wandering river are scenes of the utmost tranquility and fruitfulness, unspoiled, calm, inspiring. We stopped at Stoke Canon for a coffee. There they have a Community Pub - brilliantly conceived and executed as a piece of social engineering - filled with happy people (playing dominoes), advertising the next Film Night (The Blues Brothers), talking about the last one (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest), serving coffee by a very roundabout way.... When we asked, the barman looked a bit wild and said it would take ten minutes as the chef hadn't arrive yet. We agreed to wait, and eventually he came in with two mugs of fragrant coffee which he had collected from a shop over the road! While we drank it, he chatted with us and then the chef himself arrived, shouldering a big bag of chopped vegetables or something. We saw the village has also gained funding from the National Lottery for their church, so they are obviously very well organised in Stoke Canon. Eventually we made it to Watchet - or Williton to be precise - to visit the Bakelite Museum. The mill it's housed in is at least as interesting as the collection, which is a not-quite experiece. It's the personal and slightly weird collection of an artist (whose marvellous self-portrait hangs on display), taking in not just Bakelite but all sorts of 19th and 20th plastics: radios, toys, TVs, eggcups, clocks, puzzles, electric fires, hairdryers, plates, picnic sets, hoovers, golf clubs, ornaments, chairs, caravans, bikes, more and more stuff, some of which I have myself bought years ago, and so slightly dispiriting because one's OWN LIFE is here part of a museum display. Very idiosyncratic, and we can only hope that in future some august institution will buy all this and set it out in a more spacious hall, with better labelling and lighting. Actually, the present building is full of holes (no glass in some of the windows), so it was cold and bleak in there, and the pouring rain and dark skies did not do much to help. Going to the loo there was rather like getting to the garden of Polhawn Fort, by way of a wet path beside towering cliff or quarry face, creeping round the back of the building. The M5 gave us more Turneresque experiences, with wild spray pushing up in front of us as we sped over rivers and past ranges of hills barely visible in the rain. Still, England is lovely. We pressed on to the Severn Crossing and then up into the Wye Valley - something I have longed to see since my Damascene discovery of Dorothy Wordsworth's Journals three years ago... I was mortified to find the road to Tintern is in fact high above the river, up on the shoulders of the valley. You only get that view of the meadow flats as you get to Tintern itself. This was not what I had anticipated, and I was aware of being ill-prepared for my visit to this hallowed place: Turner and Wordsworth having presented it to us so powerfully at about the same time, a Sublime, Picturesque landscape, offering an inner view of ones own life. Anyway - we paid up and went in, mooching round the huge ruins, stepping over vast puddles, wondering at the height of the structure, reading the rather good signs... Then Cream Tea in The White Monk Tea Room (all tips going during 2011 to charity, no mention of tips in 2012. The River Wye is a sinister looking creature, tidal at this point and always rather frightening with steep muddy banks and no quarter. I don't like it. The contrast with the Exe earlier this morning was very striking. This is how I would like you to remember it. The River Exe and the River Wye. Is there a River Zed?

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Plymouth and Cornwall

With my 'would-be novelist''s hat on, I would definitely chose Plymouth as a location and metaphor for confusion, madness and grief. It is a vast city, sprawling out over a complex of steep hills and complex harbours - a series of drowned valleys, with such a history of war and preparation for war that the whole layout and architecture is pressed to extremes. How many wives have waved goodbye to their young officer husbands? How many mothers pressed their twisty young sons to their sobbing bosoms as the lads went off to the Navy's stern clutches? The whole centre of the city was bombed and burned to ashes during WWII, and the archaic was replaced with the brutalities of mid-twentieth century concrete and traffic management flow. Being an Atlantic seaboard, they are used to rain there, as we found, and they use granite in copious quantities for their walls and steps, so that the tone is really dark and grim, at least at this time of year. However I should also mention the wonderful red stone pavements we saw, either marble or granite - of superb quality and fit for a palace... these areas just roughly arranged around the Barbican. This ancient area remains as a sort-of quaint fishing port, surrounded by rip-off restos in the pretty old warehouses, and the Citadel up beside the Hoe is a wonderful masculine fortress - rather plain compared to its French equivalents created by the great Vauban, but still impressive. I think I mentioned the squads of young men doing their physical training all around the town, running, straggling, being urged on by the demi-gods who are in charge of them, these latter being older, shining with vigour and health, making it all look easy. Training in the hilly streets of Plymouth is still easier than being shot at in Afghanistan. Our hotel - being a concrete slab from the 60s - was alright, but exasperating somehow, as it was run down where it need not have been. In writing my blog yesterday morning, the machine was taken over by some anti-virus routine sweep, and my precious paid-for-in-advance minutes were gobbled up by its activities - but the staff could not have cared less. An old lady hoovered round me. In our room, the carpet was truly threadbare and ever so slightly sticky.... (yuk). But the view from the window was magnificent, worth every penny of the extra £20 they charged us. The waterways were laid out in front of us like a smaller version of the Bosphorus in Istanbul. Warships manoeuvred around the ways, sometimes with tugs or pilot boats in charge. Lights gleamed and flashed in the darkness. Under the onslaught of the might depression sweeping over Britain, the waters were slate grey and ominous. The Eddystone lighthouse, removed from its rock and rebuilt, stood sentinel on the Hoe to our left. Marvellous. We had a small outing in the car - found our way into interminable council-type estates - thousands and thousands of houses and apartments, piling up the hills. Here and there, little areas reminiscent of Bristol (Clifton), and in fact in one such we saw a sign to BBC Plymouth. We picknicked our lunch back in our room, showered and put our gladrags on, and then headed off to find the wedding which had summoned us. This meant crossing on the Torpoint Chain Ferry - and HOORAH! for this marvellous, efficient, quaint, historic, funny gadget. A short wait, then onto the broad open deck, preceded by an ambulance with its light flashing. Not much traffic. With a clanking of the chains and barely any shudder, we were off! The quarter mile took less than 10 minutes and there we were, in Cornwall. This saves 29 miles by road! We tootled out onto the peninsular towards Rame point - along a narrow cliff road with huts built by the citizens of Plymouth during the Blitz and now much sought after, and down down down, with the Atlantic on our right... down a narrow private track, tight into the cliff, with water rushing down and a huge storm gathering on the far horizon out at sea. Parking, crossing a little bridge, along a paved flat roof, down a fantastic steep granite spiral staircase, into a red-brick vaulted spacious bedroom! What???! Is this Polhawn Fort? Yes! Through another huge red-brick ceiling bedroom, and a sitting room, and then into a series of gun-rooms, now decorated with fairy lights and wedding-feast tables, but once clearly a gunnery platform, with a series of wide chamfered window embrasures backed with huge granite window sills. The wedding party was in the garden - a windswept grass terrace on the sea side - having photos taken before the storm struck. There was barely time for hallos. As the hail and sleet arrived, we all rushed back inside, to hugs and greetings. Slowly the party gathered, with beautiful babies and children, glamorous girls, swoony-looking tall American and Canadians, glowing grandparents, helpers doing final adjustments to the tables and decorations, photographers with massive cameras snapping away at everything.... Someone explained, the guns here were never fired in anger. By the time the building was finished, that particular war was over. The amazing vaulted rooms (reminiscent of the old Parson Woodford restaurant in Norwich if you knew that) became a hospital. Whoever owns it now is on to a good thing. It's booked up forever as a wedding venue, romantic, wild, hard to find, and very memorable. Well, a wedding is a wedding and this was loving, funny, a bit rude, very informal, very international, generous, laid-back, very pretty, well fed, well supplied with every kind of drink, and a joy to attend. Dinner was actually fish and chips! All delicious and brilliantly managed. Funny speeches, honest and amusing. Such love, from all generations of the families. After the dancing started, we crept away, the first to leave, and somewhat reluctantly, but Andrew had toothache and we had a way to go back.... .along the cliff, back to the ferry (clank clank), through the city to the hotel, and to crash out like old people. Sigh. Another howling night as the storms swept across. We tried to feed a clever young seagull which eyed us up from a tiny ledge below our windown. We watched a German frigate gently make its way out of the huge harbour. We ate a private and utterly delicious breakfast of fruit salad and croissants (courtesy of Marks and Spencer) at a cost of £3 or something, compared to £11.99 a head in the admittedly pretty but grotesquely overpriced hotel dining room. I gave my lovely white rose (from the wedding) to the maid who was going to clean our room, along with a tip. On the TV there was a programme about climate change knocking out the Egyptian civilisation.. I fell asleep during the last 10 minutes, but I think I got the main gist of it. At this moment we are in Hereford after a magnificent day's drive, which I will describe tomorrow. For now, talk with friennds is waiting.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Crossing England.... Roman city abandoned, Marines train in Plymouth

England really is the most beautiful country. We had all the benefit of sunshine, sloe blossom, primroses, buzzards, baby lambs, empty roads, early bluebells and distant views to heal us after leaving the damned motorways and the spiritual insults of Fleet Services on the M3. Why do we not complain about these plastic hell-holes? The noise levels are nearly as bad as being in the car at 60 or 70mph - muzak, air-driers for your hands, gambling machines, the general acoustics, and the sound of cash registers on every side. Fleet actually has a tiny Waitrose shop, with FLOWERS for sale, which was the only natural thing to be seen in the place. I was grateful for a clean and relatively spacious toilet, but the rest made me want to turn and flee..... Out into the lanes, heading towards Ramsbury for lunch with an old BBC friend, but calling first to Silchester to see the Roman remains. This is an extraordinary place. If a Roman were to reincarnate here, he would be astonished. A thriving city of 40 hectares (roughly the size of Canterbury), which was the capital of the Atrebates, and was going full pelt for about 500 years, with Forum, baths, theatre etc. - well the whole thing has just completely vanished, apart from its banks and walls. Anyone who's interested in what Canterbury may have looked like before the Saxons rebuilt it (on completely different alignments, as we know), could come and look at this lost city. How are the might fallen...... Ramsbury is another feast for those interested in how our country works. A village which had a bell-foundry and a big parish church presumably built on wool, edging on some of the finest and richest estate lands in England, and once had 14? pubs, now has two. It also has two extremely wealthy inhabitants: Mr Hyams who built Centrepoint, and a Norwegian who owns H&M. One is a recluse, the other has helped to rescue the big pub (The Bell), from decline. We had our lunch in the Bell, and very good it was, stylishly done out and with friendly service. The pub is rather surprisingly owned by a clerical lady who lives in the cloister of Salisbury Cathedral. She has no need to sell it as it produces a fine annual rent of £40,000 so they say, and she has very little to do for that. However, the villagers are lucky that the Norwegian decided to repair it (I hope I have been told the right story here), because it is now the focus of the whole place. He also set up a brewery, and I am told Ramsbury Ale is excellent. Our friend owns a pretty cottage in one of the main streets. It is a b&b, and has a little millstream at the end of the garden, with crayfish in it. He would need a licence to fish them out. He has in his garden a nest of a goldcrest and of a green woodpecker. All very tranquil and he was very jolly and full of stories of our old acquaintances and friends. The sun shone. We had a lovely time. Then off again through the lanes, through Marlborough (last visited for the funeral party for my lovely uncle Laurie), over the Wiltshire downs. We missed Stonehenge but passed by those mysterious beckoning barrows at West Kennet, and the astonishing Silbury Hill. I used to drive past all that on a regular basis when I worked at BBC Bristol. The military sections of the downs heading south from Avebury are all marked with flag poles - red flags unmistakable, and rather quaint-looking in these days of drones and computer-targetted long-range missiles. We had a long way to go to get to Plymouth, but the A303 proved to be a totally delightful experience with hardly any traffic or hold-ups. We arrived at the hotel at about 7. This is the Quality Inn. Quality is one of those words, isn't it......? Can mean anything. To change to a room with a sea view is an extra £10 a night. Breakfast not included, an extra £11 each. Business like approach from all the staff, but a rather faded and tacky feel to everything. Bedroom carpet thoroughly worn out. Things feeling a bit sticky. This computer has to be paid for £1 for 10 mins, but an anti-virus pops up and eats your time and no-one cares or suggests a reimbursement. We walked out for supper - down along to the Barbican, and disdaining the swanky, found a Greek/Italian resto and had superb fresh crab and scallops. Then back up to walk round the Citadel, and back along the Promenade, where two young men were skate-boarding with a kite in the darkness. We walked under a line of cherry trees with fantastic massive pink blossoms - magic. They may all blow away in the night, with this great storm coming. We had wild winds in the night, the whole building and the windows and outside doors all howling their protest. We went out for breakfast in a cafe by the sea - Andrew had the full veggie works, I had 2 poached eggs and left the toast. But I bought some repro posters with maritime stories - wreck sales, tars needed, slaves for sale, news of Nelson's victories, etc. Then we explored the West Hoe, with its tiny little harbour which is about to be restored. We saw squads of marines out training - running, running, up and down these steep hills, some carrying might backpacks. Young men, gathered up into life in a 16th century fortress, the base for the 29 Commandos... Now we are going to get ourselves ready for Alyson's daughter Judith's wedding, over in Cornwall this afternoon. We will cross by the ferry. I am happy to tell you the cherry blossom mostly survived the storm. I will post pictures of it later.

Sunday, 15 April 2012


We're off to the west tomorrow morning. First calling in to see our friend Watty at his bed and breakfast place at Ramsbury, then to Plymouth for a couple of nights. On Tuesday we're going to a wedding. The bride is Judith Elliman, the only daughter of my schoolfriend Alyson. Alyson and I were in the British Museum a few months ago, when she told me about this lovely news and she said she wondered what she might read to the guests. I asked if I should write something for her, and not long later sent her something, which I am pleased to tell you moved her very much - she cried. I knew her mother very well, and was thinking about this 'chain' of mothers and daughters, and music and time. Anyway, not long ago she rang and said she'd realised she could have 'the horse's mouth' at the wedding (me!) and would I like to go? Of course I am thrilled we are going, even though I haven't really seen Judith since she was a little girl, and although the weather forecast is not terribly brilliant I am really looking forward to it. We'll be heading up the Wye Valley afterwards, to Hereford and then to Shropshire, to stay with other friends, of which more anon. I am not AT ALL ready for this trip, nothing packed, haven't even decided what to wear for the great day. This is because work has been totally overwhelming and the weather has been so variable (hot, cold, wet, dry, windy, calm.....). Now it's nearly 10pm and I shall have to get up early and pack and do all that stuff. Oh for a Jeeves. 'Your cases are all in the car, madame. I put a flask into the car for you, and some fruit, for your journey....' Nothing so elegant for me. It'll be a bit of a rush! Heigh ho! Westward ho!