Saturday, 25 April 2015

In Border Country

'No ten mile walks over Dartmoor for you,' said the physiotherapist, 'Not yet, anyway. But you can absolutely do some short ones. Little and often.'

So since the estate agent was showing some people around the house on Saturday morning, I decided to vacate for the greater part of the day.  In readiness, I leaved disconsolately through my beloved Pathfinder Guides. It's a bit of a comedown to be ordered all the way back to the easiest, green-graded walks.  But although I'm limping less and my stride is longer, my poor arthritic knees have come out in sympathy with my recovering ankle and actually, yes, I know the physio is right. 

And I found one I'd wanted to do for ages, starting at Newland in the Forest of Dean.  So that's where we went for my first bout of walking rehab.  

Newland was founded around 1200AD, when land was cleared in the Forest for a new settlement.  Its church, All Saints, dates from that time and we headed there while waiting for the pub to open. 

There were lots of examples of the Ugly Cherub School of Headstone Carving in the churchyard, including this one grappling with what I think is an egg-timer ...

  When shall we three meet again?

... and even a modern specimen.  (Rest in Peace, Jake.)

Inside, lots of interesting stuff but a dearth of information about it and the church.  There were a couple of tombs with effigies from the 14th and 15th centuries, and a couple of altar tombs with no particulars about them at all, sadly.  I did learn, however, that the woman who had this beautiful window made on the cusp of the 20th and 21st centuries in memory of her husband died unexpectedly on the day it was to be dedicated, and so, several months later, the dedication was made to both of them

Best of all, though, I liked this brass of a helmet, crest and figure of a mediaeval miner with a hod and a pick-axe.  I've seen him variously described as holding a candle in his mouth and stuck to his cheek with clay.  What a desperately hard life that must have been. 

Next stop, the Ostrich Inn which has an illuminated collection of ostrich eggs I myopically mistook for skulls at first glance.  The staff were happy to accept well-behaved dog owners on leads, and served us an excellent lunch.

Then we were off on our walk through the churchyard and down a very steep hill called Savage Hill, which made me laugh as Hill is a family name.  

We then walked down through Astridge Wood and whilst, unlike in the Forest proper, it wasn't thick with bluebells, it was pretty enough. 

I spotted one or two Early Purple orchids as well.  

Once through the wood, the views down ... 

... and up the valley were beautiful.  Just over the hills on the far side of the Valley Brook lies the River Wye - indeed, the brook is one of its tributaries - so we were well and truly in border country. 

It was an easy and very pleasant walk around the head of the valley ... 

with watchful ewe and lambs ...

... geese and goslings, which, thankfully, we didn't have to pass  ... 

... and this stag leaping a fence. 

There was also a less pleasant pheasant farm and a sewage works, but hey, this is the countryside.  

Lovely as the walk was, I did get tired and I was relieved when the tower of All Saints Church came back into view.  

It was only then that we realised our route took up back up Savage Hill ... but we made it. Good training for Dartmoor later in the year.  

Thursday, 23 April 2015

'Withdrawn' - Luke Jerram - Leigh Woods

And so to Leigh Woods, high above Avon Gorge, to see 'Withdrawn', Luke Jerram's latest installation of five fishing boats, run aground in a glade a few minutes' walk from the car park.  Inspired by the floods on the Somerset Levels last year, it's associated with Bristol's status as European Green Capital, and is intended to provoke discussion about climate change, tidal surge, the collapse of our fishing industry and other ways in which we impact our environment.   Which is all very important and worthy, but actually I mainly wanted to see it for its surreal impact.

And it is extraordinary and strangely beautiful.


Is it likely to make people think about our personal impact on the environment and what we can do to reverse climate change?  Maybe ... but not as much as seeing photographs of rusting ships anchored on what was once the Aral Sea, formerly one of the four largest lakes in the world and now known as the Aralkum Desert, following the implementation of Soviet irrigation programmes.  These truly are shocking.

I was disappointed to see from Jerram's website that the boats will only be in their present setting until early September, because I get the feeling this is somewhere I'd go back to again and again as the seasons change.  We'll get to see it in the green lagoon light of high summer, but I'd love to see it also in the low-lying mist of early autumnal mornings, or thick with hoar frost, or even snow.  And in years to come, as nature gradually enters into a collaboration with the artist, like this trailer I spotted some years ago in a field near Kington Langley, Wiltshire ... 

... or more relevantly, perhaps, the abandoned barges protecting the bank of the River Severn from erosion at Purton.  I love the way they now appear to be diving beneath or emerging from a wash of grass seeds, as if they are now semi-submarines.  I do hope Bristol City Council will have a rethink.

Hmm, surface-underwater ships ...  what is it I'm thinking of?  The Dawn Treader? The Lady of the Lake? ... Nah, it's Marine Boy!


Monday, 13 April 2015

Sand Point Bleak

My favourite sort of landscape is bleak.  Not shopping centre car park or industrial estate bleak, though. My kind of bleak generally involves trees that look like this.

This specimen is to be found at Sand Point, just north of Weston-Super-Mare, where I went for a bit of a hobble on Saturday, sun and blue skies belying the chill, prevailing wind.  
Sand Bay itself boasted a set of warnings that wouldn't disgrace an Australian beach ... 
... while the Point had a rather more charming notice.

Ah look, there they are.  
There were cowslips, bugle and birdsfoot trefoil as well.  And seals.

'Look at the seals!' a couple cried as they accosted us on the ridge.  'Have you got binoculars?  There are hundreds of seals down there, coming in on the tide. We've been watching them for the last half an hour!'

I squinted in the sun. I could see what looked like very black bits of shadow on the water. I supposed they could be seals ... maybe?  'Er, thanks,' I said.
We descended from the top of the Point to a path running above the shore.  'Nah, not seals,' we'd agree, and then, as a black shape curved and lifted with a wave, 'ooh, hang on, though ... '

Back up on the ridge there were wide-ranging views over to Cardiff and Newport and upstream to Clevedon and the Severn Bridges ... 
... and in the opposite direction, and altogether closer at hand, Sand Bay itself ...
... Worlebury Hill and Birnbeck Pier ... 
... the island of Steep Holm ... 

... and Flat Holm up ahead, where Guglielmo Marconi transmitted the first wireless signals over open sea to the Welsh mainland. 

I was finding the rough terrain very challenging in places with my less than reliable ankle, so we decided to head back to the car park via a pleasant earthen path that wound around the side of the Point.

This worked really well for me until it petered out and I was confronted with a large expanse of very steep, smooth rock.  There was nothing for it but to slide down very carefully to the beach below. (This is what it looked like at the bottom.)

I wonder who lives in a house like this?

Heading back home, there were  none of the expected queues of traffic between Weston and Bristol and we were in good time for our meal out with friends.  But not before I'd opened some of my photos in Paint.  Definitely no seals.  Probably bits of black sea weed lifting with the waves, and made sharper and darker by the sun.

Come to think of it, the pain in my ankle was sharper and darker too, but a small price to pay for all that mud and salt and bleak.  

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Romeo and Juliet : Shakespeare At The Tobacco Factory

Here's a review I wrote for the local rag of Shakespeare At The Tobacco Factory's recent production of 'Romeo and Juliet'.

Photo collage by Craig Fuller and Farrows Creative

Romeo and Juliet: Shakespeare At The Tobacco Factory

A broken ankle meant that we deferred our tickets for 'Romeo and Juliet' at the Tobacco Factory to the final night, by which time I hoped to be fit enough to venture as far as south Bristol.  Much of our city south of the Avon is as alien to me, a North Bristolian, as Birmingham, but if nothing else, Shakespeare's most famous tragedy teaches us that we should abandon our prejudices and leave our comfort zones, and this I did.

'Romeo and Juliet' can seem over-familiar at times, forcing directors to come up with ways of making their vision fresh.  The most recent production I'd seen prior to this was Bristol Old Vic's 'Juliet and Her Romeo' in 2010, starring Si
ân Philips and Michael Byrne as the eponymous lovers, with Verona transmuted into a nursing home.  Shakespeare At The Tobacco Factory's offering, set, nominally at least, in Paris, 1968, couldn't have been more different in tempo and atmosphere.

From the start of this production, the audience is plunged into frenetic action, symbolised by a playground roundabout centre stage, which sees service as a meeting place, the barricades, the literal social whirl of the party at the Capulets' house, the lovers' bed, and a bier.  Each scene gallops past, the fight scenes so explosive that the actors playing Mercutio and Tybalt gasp for breath after their supposed demise in a quite uncorpselike fashion.

For me the pivotal scene is the one in which Romeo meets Juliet at the party where she is supposed to fall for Paris, her parents' preferred suitor.  You have to believe in the star-crossed couple's onslaught of passion for the rest of the play to work.  This scene is done superbly well in Baz Luhrmann's 1996 film, a similarly exuberant and modern take on the play, as the lovers gaze at each other through an aquarium and the rest of the world seems to fall away.  In this production, under Polina Kalinina's direction, there's barely a break and nothing to convince us that Juliet is any more important to Romeo than Rosalind, the love she supersedes, that deep, life-or-death connection lost, along with much of the dialogue, in a whirlwind of action.

Friday, 10 April 2015

Cabbage and Tripe

When I decided I wouldn't be going to Devon this Easter, I didn't know that I would actually have to visit, not for a lovely long walk over Dartmoor or along the coast path, but to attend the funeral of a family friend at St Gregory the Great, in Dawlish.  It was a beautiful day for it, and I'm glad if this made it a little more bearable for his family, for he was a good man and his going is untimely.

So I did get to see some Devon primroses after all, nestling between gravestones. 

There were a few familiar names in the churchyard. Harry Percy on this bench, for a start. '... a son who is the theme of honour's tongue, Amongst a grove the very straightest plant, Who is sweet Fortune's minion and her pride' Shakespeare tells us, of an earlier lord by that name.  I wonder if this man lived up to his namesake's reputation? 

And then there were Babbages - lots and lots of them, which is quite exciting as Dawlish lies only three and a bit miles north-east of Teignmouth, where Charles Babbage, inventor of the-first-mechanical-computer-that-eventually-led-to-more-complex-designs, settled with his family in 1808.

What d'you mean, tenuous?  They've got to be connected, right?

But then I found myself wishing that they'd been Cabbages instead, to go with all the Tripes buried there.

After the funeral, there was just time to celebrate my aunt's birthday back at the biscuit tin by the sea in Holcombe, my cousin and her partner having driven her up from Cornwall.  There was the haziest of views of Rippon Tor, Saddle Tor and Haytor Rocks as we drove over Little Haldon Moor on the way back to Bristol, but it was enough to make me hope we'll be back down there soon under happier circumstances.