Monday, 21 August 2017

Listen to the past's long pulse

According to this article I'd read, Lord Byron invented 'wild swimming' on 3rd May 1810 when he swam the Hellespont from Europe to Asia. Though our ancestors swam in rivers and ponds for centuries before tin baths became commonplace, to get clean and probably for fun too. 

'Oh, Mum,' scolded Offspring the Eldest. 'Don't you know something only starts to exist when a posh boy does it for the first time?'

The posh boys at hand were wetsuited and occupied the whole of the narrow river beach. We sat down by a patch of goldenrod and waited for them to move on or even just up a little. From time to time they looked as if they were getting ready to leave but then started to jump in and out again. Even their sploshes had posh vowel sounds. In the end we left before the whole afternoon was lost to resentment and ill-wishing.

On the way down we'd been diverted through Stanton Drew following an accident on the A37, and it transpired that Offspring the Eldest hadn't visited its famous stone circles, so we stopped off there on our journey back. 

Stanton means Stone Town. The last time I'd visited was with my then neighbour, Cathy. I'd taken my Collected Poems by U A Fanthorpe with me and read the poem 'Stanton Drew' aloud, to her and the stones and the sheep. 

Two days later U A died. 

There's an argument to be made that you should always carry a copy of U A's poems with you, in case of unexpected happenings like an ad hoc visit to Stanton Drew. I'd overlooked this eventuality, however, and was poetryless. 

In any event we weren't on our own. Instead of sheep, there were heifers in the field, and at the entrance, a father trying unsuccessfully to get his two children to smile for the camera. 

As we approached the stones, the father caught me up. 'I'm so glad you're here,' he said. 'My two kids wouldn't walk past the cows till they saw you do it and live to tell the tale.' 

We watched them running, laughing, climbing and striking poses. They don't know yet that it's the stones that have the power. We were glad to have facilitated this first encounter, however ... 

... since it's good to get up close and personal with the stones. Listen to the past's long pulse, as U A says ... 

... even if you can hear the traffic on the B3130 and an aeroplane coming in to land at nearby Lulsgate Airport at the same time. 

Maes Knoll

U A Fanthorpe's poem about Stanton Drew invites the listener or reader to remove everything from the landscape that wouldn't have been there when the circles were created.

Since I was there last, a couple of beautiful dead trees have disappeared. 

More will grow up and grow old and the stones will outlast them. 

Saturday, 19 August 2017

Fairford, Great Coxwell and Uffington White Horse

What in the world is happening when a Church is having, like, a service or something and tourists can't get inside to explore the moment they arrive?

We had to go for a coffee instead. 

But it was worth waiting because this is no ordinary Church. This is St Mary the Virgin, Fairford, Gloucestershire ...

... and behind this door is the only complete* collection of mediaeval church glass in the country. I'd visited beforebut it was the first time Offspring the Eldest had seen it. 

I was determined to get a feel for the church as a whole this time instead of fixating on the windows ...

... but failed.  

It's that West window's fault, with its dull and ordered Salvation and really rather thrilling demons. 

*Well, they say 'complete' but the top section, Christ sitting in Judgement, is a Victorian replacement.

After all that hell and damnation we'd worked up an appetite, so headed off to Great Coxwell for a picnic by the barn.

I first heard of Great Coxwell Barn through my interest in William Morris. 

It was his favourite building, and he often took visitors to see it when they came to stay at nearby Kelmscott Manor. 

It's taken a while to get here myself. 

Great Coxwell Barn was originally part of a monastic grange. Dendrochronological analysis dates its construction to 1292.
Morris called it 'unapproachable in its dignity, as beautiful as a cathedral, yet with no ostentation of the builder's art'. 

I was pleased to see that SPAB (the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings), which Morris founded, engraved his name and dates on the door in 1996, on the 100th anniversary of his death.

Coincidentally, a sumtyme fermer called William Morys died in Cokyswell in 1509. 

I wonder if it was he who carved these initials in the pillar. 

There are other interesting examples of graffiti in the building. Apotropaic hexafoils for a start ...

... and tally marks ... 

... and masons' marks.

I hadn't told Offspring the Eldest our ultimate destination before we set out, but the pub we stopped at gave the game away.

And here it is for real, the Uffington White Horse.

When I'd visited before, we'd been able to sit on the horse itself, but now fears of erosion means that it has been temporarily fenced off. 

We still had a beautiful wander along the ridge, however. 

A sit in the late afternoon sun, watching what my friend Andy thinks was probably a hobby hovering at head height over the side of the hill before walking back to the car in a shower of swallows. A good day. 

Saturday, 12 August 2017

My Own Private Wyoming

First thing Thursday morning the sunlight through the gap in the curtains was doing something interesting to the half line from U A Fanthorpe's BC:AD that I painted on the wall last week. 

And since it is written that the British Isles are permitted only one sunny day per week throughout August, I packed Ted dog in the front passenger seat footwell and headed for Dartmoor.

I had a hankering to see Double Waters again - the spot in the far west of Dartmoor where the River Tavy and the River Walkham meet. So we parked at Magpie Bridge outside Tavistock and set off.

The Walkham valley is a bit magical.
I was reminded of this when my camera took a photo of its own accord. I've no idea how it did this, but the result shows promise. (I'm pretty sure it's my head and not Ted's arse, though he is still moulting and shaggy-looking.)

It's a bit of a scramble down to Grenofen Bridge. Every now and then the path by the river peters out so you climb the muddy, stony bank to a higher alternative, only for the original, idyllic path to open up again about ten yards later.

There did seem to be a lot of downed trees. 

Past Grenofen Bridge we were on familiar ground, though I hadn't been there for almost 11 years. It's sylvan and gorgeous ...

... though there are also plenty of reminders of the river's industrial past, such as this revetment or retaining wall which supports the track into the old quarry. 

West Down Mine Chimney. There were at least six mines here in the past.  The most famous, probably on account of its name, is the Virtuous Lady Mine.

But the river always refocuses your attention as it tumbles over rocks and pools in hollows. 

And all this to ourselves. Almost. 

Eventually we reached a spot where the river runs tight around the base of a cliff. You can only follow it further by climbing a steep track and passing through a cleft in the rock ... 

... and just like that, you're in the valley of the River Tavy and there are two rivers becoming one below you. This is Double Waters.

Sitting on a handy milestone, I remembered that 11 years ago the rock and the two valleys had reminded me of something from my childhood, but I hadn't been able to recall what it was. But having recently reread all of Mary O'Hara's stories about Ken McLoughlin and his horses in Wyoming, I knew this time: it was like that episode at the end of Thunderhead Part III where Ken dynamites the pass into the Valley of the Eagles so that Thunderhead and his mares can't escape from their place of safety.

I watched the two rivers for a while - the Tavy the stiller of the two, the Walkham fretting over rocks as it loses itself in its neighbour's waters. 

Our return route was over Roborough Down. On the way I kept an eye out for wild boar, which were big news in the area ten years ago but seem to have gone deep undercover since.

I also looked out for adders because I'm not sure Ted doesn't know not to sniff at them and he sniffs at a lot of things on Dartmoor.

Just about the only thing we saw, however, was a buzzard high overhead and something that scurried into our path and then departed as quickly and insubstantially as a blown leaf.

As we climbed out of the woods, that glorious ridge of tors to the north came into view: Cox Tor, Roos Tor, Great Staple Tor, Great Mis Tor, and King Tor.  And I had an inkling then as to why Dartmoor started to mean so much to me during my childhood.
I don't think it was so much my father's annual road trip - from Haytor Rocks to Widecombe-in-the-Moor to Dartmeet to Princetown and finally Postbridge - as my imagination: reading about far grander landscapes I'd never have a realistic chance of seeing for myself, and finding an echo in my own, more modest wild place. Dartmoor, with its hills and its loneliness and its wild ponies, is my Never Summer Mountains, my Valley of the Eagles, my green grass. And if we're going to bring that blessed red pony into it, it's my own private California too.