Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Castles, Poets and the Usual Stuff

After all the half-timbered buildings in Stratford-Upon-Avon, it felt appropriate to continue the theme by going to Wales in Dru's Morris Traveller.



Having deposited Son the Elder in Newport for his Robot Wars sessions, we drove up the Usk valley to Llangybi, stopping first at the St Cybi's well which has A Literary Connection courtesy of T S Eliot, who wrote in his early poem, 'Usk':

'Do not suddenly break the branch, or
Hope to find
The white hart behind the white well.
Glance aside, not for lance, do not spell
Old enchantments. Let them sleep.
'Gently dip, but not too deep.'
Lift your eyes
Where the roads dip and the roads rise
Seek only there
Where the grey light meets the green air
The hermit's chapel, the pilgrim's prayer.'

This sounds a lot less mystical when you realise that the White Hart is a pub.  Unfortunately for the cash-strapped Dru and me, it's a gastro-pub so we had to make do with faggots and peas from the chip shop in Usk, but if you have a few spare coppers to rub together, it might well be worth trying, even if just for the channelling of the poet.    


Llangybi also has a lovely 13th/14th century church with mediaeval wall paintings and all.  See how the walls lean outwards? ... or is it me on the cider? ... no, they are definitely leaning.




This picture is a very rare type of wall painting depicting Christ with the tools of those who work on a Sunday in the process of wounding him.  Hmmm.  Begs the question, just how painful is a black Bic biro and a laptop?  




And this is the top of my favourite headstone in the churchyard.  It holds the bodies of Frederick Evans who died in 1831 aged 2, his father Evan Evans, died 1839 aged 59, and Sarah Evans, a widow until 1867, aged 82.  

'Long nights and days I bore great pain,
To waite for cure twas all in vain;
Till God above he thought it best
To take my pain and give me rest.'


After Llangybi Church but before the faggots and peas, Dru and I took the road less travelled by (probably because it is marked private) up to the castle, which is also known as Castle Tregrug.  En route we were joined by a black dog, which seemed fitting in this shadowy borderland, even if the dog in question was a Labrador with a red collar and a tag in the shape of a bone bearing a Newport postmark.  


Ted found the young whippersnapper a bit of a nuisance.  











The ruins were impressive, however.  I particularly liked the Tower House with its carved remains of fan vaulting amongst the ivy and umbellifers.    



Dru was able to tell me that what looks like an age-old holloway are, in fact, civil war fortifications.  
Having reunited the Labrador, who turned out to be called Sid, with his owners, we went three miles on up the valley to Usk. 

This is Ted waiting patiently for our dinner in the chip shop.


Usk is one of those towns that time forgot, apparently, and whilst not really being Tom Jones country, appropriating the title of one of his hits for the name of a shop selling undergarments doesn't feel like too much of a liberty (bodice).  


Usk Police Station.

'Hey, let's be careful out there!' 




While we ate our not very picnicky picnic we watched locals cooling off in the River Usk, non tidal here and not muddy.   Terrifyingly, some of them were jumping from the disused railway bridge into the not very deep water.  


Usk Castle is less hidden and neglected than Llangibby Castle, but it's still pretty far from being National Trustified.  


This is the view over the town with the Tithe Barn in the foreground.  Trelawney's Cedars to the right were grown from seeds brought back from the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, the last resting place of Keats' body and Shelley's ashes.  


The garden is sensitively maintained, with room for wild strawberries ... 


... and a fenced-off forest of Giant Hogweed.  



I liked the way the almost spent valerian seemed to flame from the walls under the hot sun.  


There was a service going on at Usk Church so we couldn't go in, though we did see the grave of the last Welsh martyr, St David Lewis, who was executed for being a Catholic priest in 1679 and buried in the churchyard.  


There was just time for a drink before picking up the Roboteer, so we stopped off at the Hanbury pub in Caerleon, again on the banks of the Usk, only to spot this plaque commemorating yet another poet, Alfred Lord Tennyson, who, like Eliot, was sufficiently inspired by the area to put pen to paper.  

'What have you two been up to?' asked Son the Elder, after our traditional post Robot Wars debriefing.  

'Oh, castles ... and poets ... and ... '

'The usual stuff then,' he interrupted.  

Well, quite.











Friday, 26 July 2013

On Courting Seats and Benches

William Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway in 1582, when he was 18 and she was 26.  Anne was the daughter of a farmer who lived outside Stratford, in the nearby village of Shottery.  Their first child, Susanna, was born six months later.  



The settle by the hearth in the original downstairs room might or might not have formed part of the chattels when Will and Anne met and wed.  It is in a rickety state because one of Anne's Victorian descendants claimed it was 'the courting settle' and sold bits of it to visitors.
And this has become known as the Courting Seat.  Hmmm.  
We know precious little about William and Anne, and that includes the most of the circumstances surrounding their wedding.  The age difference could be construed as an indication that a prolonged courtship was not necessarily a component of their liaison and that Anne got knocked up by a young lad intent on getting his end away rather than marriage. Certainly a failure to marry her would have constituted a scandal.  On the other hand, women like Anne whose mother had died often stayed home to look after younger siblings and married later than usual.  Plus, given that her family were, at that time, more prosperous than the Shakespeares and of good social standing, she would have been considered a catch.  So maybe marriage had been the future playwright's intention all along.  

If there has be a courting seat at all, let's stick with Titania's ... 










Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Creeping Like A Snail Unwillingly To School

The school Shakespeare attended from the age of about seven to fourteen was housed in the town's half-timbered guildhall, which was built by the nediaeval Guild of the Holy Cross about 150 years before Shakespeare was born.  The building still stands and forms part of the King Edward VI School.  As such it is open only rarely to the public ... 

... which is why, when we spotted a trestle table and several slightly morose schoolboy guides hanging about the entrance, we had to go in.  

The downstairs hall, which in1553 had been taken over by the newly formed town council and used for administrative purposes, would orignally have been painted a dull red.  Some traces of figures on the walls remain. 



The bottom left hand corner of this photo shows wattle that forms part of the wall.















Also in 1553, the upper hall had become the schoolroom of Stratford Grammar School.  Only boys were taught there, of course; about 40 altogether.  They sat on wooden benches arranged facing each other along either side of the room, rather than at the ancient (but not ancient enough) and heavily carved desks that fill it now. 

Our guide told us that papers found in the Muniments Room indicated that the school's most illustrious pupil had sat at the front of the class on the left hand side of the room.  

I have a healthy suspicion of papers found in such places, as the Muniments Room at St Mary Redcliffe in Bristol was where Thomas Chatterton famously 'forged' his Thomas Rowley poems.  

However, if Will had sat there and if he had been able to turn in his seat and look out of the window without his teacher rapping his knuckles with a ruler, his view would have looked something like this. 

The Elizaethan curriculum consisted mainly of the study of Latin, a little Greek, and mathematics.  At the end of each term, the older boys would have put on performances of plays by the classical Greek and Roman playwrights.  Travelling actors visiting the town would also have put on performances here - and so here are the seeds that found such fertile ground in Shakepeare's imagination.
















In the adjoining room, the red rose of Lancaster and the white rose of York illustrate the town's claim to neutrality during the Wars of the Roses. 





'And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school.'


As You Like It


Monday, 22 July 2013

In The Churchway Paths

I hadn't been to Stratford since I went on a primary school trip -or was it Brownies? - anyhow, it was in the 60s.  And to my astonishment, it hadn't changed a bit.  At any moment, I thought, I would see flower beds planted with scarlet geraniums - and lo, there they were.





We decided to while away the time till the performance by wandering down to Shakespeare's church, Holy Trinity.  This is the font in which he was christened three days after his birth on 26th April 1564, much damaged (having served between 1747 and 1861 as a water cistern!) but still a thing of beauty.  

It's not known where he and Anne Hathaway were married, but we do know that they married in haste to avoid scandal, as Anne was pregnant at the time.  Baby Susannah, their first child, arrived six months later.  

 And here he lies in the chancel, his tomb joined by those of other family members in the vault he had built.

The monument was installed by Shakespeare's friends after his death but its Jacobean sepulchral style and the fact that it has been restored and repainted over the centuries means that it's impossible to know whether what J Dover Wilson described as 'a self-satisfied pork butcher' is a genuine likeness or not.  


What we are exposed to in childhood has a potent affect on our imagination.  I pictured Shakespeare gazing around the church during a boring sermon and set about reconstructing in my head what it might have looked like .  The 14th century rood screen would have been there then, having already survived the depredations of the Reformation.

Some mediaeval stained glass has survived, as has the stone altar which was found hidden beneath the floor in Victorian times, so although it predates Shakespeare, he almost certainly would not have seen it in situ.  

 This 15th century misericord could almost be inspiration for The Tempest ... 




 ... and this for Benedick and Beatrice?  



A late 15th century angel in the nave. 



A number of the tombs predated Shakespeare's death.


Some traces of mediaeval wall painting - all that remain of the profusion of paintings that would once have covered every surface.  By Shakespeare's time they would have been whitewashed over.  


Richard Hill died in 1593.  His memorial is covered in graffiti with serifs (my favourite sort), including a William with an upsidedown initial W.  Pretty safe to say that it wasn't our William wielding a sharp implement one particularly dull Sunday. 




Puck: 'Now it is the time of night
That the graves, all gaping wide, 
Every one lets forth his sprite
In the churchway paths to glide'






















Sunday, 21 July 2013

All’s Well That Ends Well, Stratford-Upon-Avon, Friday 19th July 2013

You know you are in Stratford when the curry house is called Thespian’s (sic) and boasts a bust of Shakespeare in an alcove.  At our hotel, the theming was relentless, with even the door hangers bearing quotations,  ‘To sleep, perchance to dream’ indicating that the room was unavailable for cleaning – which is rather disconcerting when you consider that Hamlet’s ‘sleep’ was, in fact, death.  The reverse – ‘Out, damn’d spot! Out, I say!’ – was altogether more apt.

'All's Well That Ends Well' is regarded as one of Shakespeare's 'problem' plays.  Its main theme can be summarised as 'how to be a man' and concerns Bertram's rite of passage from arrogant ward of the King of France to returning war hero and belatedly loving husand of fellow-ward, Helena, their arranged marriage having been the spur for his departure for war in Italy without consummating it. 

That Bertram resents having to marry Helena even though she is beautiful and otherwise universally admired can be explained by the fact that he is still young and immature, and she is of lowlier birth.  What is more difficult to understand is why she so ardently loves a man who not only despises her, but has few redeeming characteristics.  The ultimate success of the play hinges upon the actress in the role being able to make you believe in her passion, and unfortunately Joanna Horton’s portrayal falls somewhat short.  Her Helena lacks that witchy spark that is evident when she cures the King of France of his apparently fatal illness, and the fact that she tends to recite her lines rather than say them doesn’t help. 

More pleasing is Jonathan Slinger’s portrayal of the odious and cowardly Parolles, an inveterate liar who is quite prepared to betray his fellow soldiers to save his own neck.  Using the typewriter upon which his defamatory statements were recorded as a block for his mock beheading is inspired, given that his name translates as ‘Words’.  Less well conceived is the periodic, over-energetic dancing to loud music to signal to the audience that young soldiers work hard and play hard. It reminded me of the Young Generation on the Rolf Harris Show in the late 60s and early 70s, and felt almost comically out of date.

Quibbles aside, it was a delight to catch this rarely performed play and I would recommend a trip to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre to see it.

The RSC’s production of ‘All’s Well That Ends Well’ runs at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 26th September.  


Photo © Daily Mirror

Thursday, 18 July 2013

The Gloucester and Sharpness Canal and Purton Hulks

It was hot in Bristol last night, so rather than lie on the settee and sweat, I decided to seek out a bit of a breeze.  The River Severn seemed like a safe bet.  


We parked by the Gloucester and Sharpness Canal at the village of Purton to the north of Sharpness and watched a storm of swallows swoop for flies under the bridge.  A couple of swans swanned about, ducks duckled and it was all very idyllic.  













At its beginning the canal runs very close to the River Severn, and in 1909 it was noticed that a new channel was developing near the shore which threatened the integrity of the canal bank, so during the next half century a number of barges and trows were hulked to form a tidal erosion barrier.

Each boat was taken out of Sharpness Dock on a high spring tide, towed towards the shore and left to ride up the bank as far as possible.  Then holes were knocked in the hulls so that they would fill with silt.  

In this boat's graveyard there's also a schooner 'Katherine Ellen' which was impounded in 1921 for running guns to the IRA and several Ferrous Concrete Barges built in World War II.  
 
















Over the years the ground level has built up, and many of the hulks are now submerged in long grass.  


















Here wood is stripped and repainted with lichen and great rusted nails stick out at angles.



One barge, its rudder like a whale's fluke, sails below the surface.



Out beyond the shore, another wreck lies visible at low tide. 
By now the sun was setting so we turned back towards the canal.  


The moon was floating among the grasses and weeds.  It was definitely time to go to the pub ...


... where Ted came between a man and his drink.