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Bristol , United Kingdom
My fifth poetry collection, Learning Finity, will be published early in 2022 by Indigo Dreams. I am co-director of the Leaping Word Poetry Consultancy. https://theleapingword.com

Monday, 13 May 2019

Jailbirds and the first Swift

On Saturday I ventured down to Somerset. Jan asked where I wanted to visit and I suggested Shepton Mallet Prison (which was the oldest operating prison in the country when it closed in 2013) because I'm going to be involved in an afternoon of readings there on National Poetry Day and I wanted to know what I was letting myself in for. 


So we set off valiantly from her home near Glastonbury, but although we'd been there together back in October, we kept missing the town altogether and ending up in nearby villages with roads too narrow to do a seven-point turn easily. It was really strange.

And then when we did get there, we couldn't find our way to the town centre and spent a long time wandering around the car park. 




We had some lunch in a cafe.

Then we set out for the prison through the labyrinth of lanes beyond the Church of SS Peter and Paul, but we couldn't find the entrance. In the end I had to ask how a passing local how we could break in. 

Eventually we located it. 

I don't get out much - at least, not to tourist attractions - so £15 each to get in seemed quite pricey. The site isn't at all commercialised either, mainly, I guess, because this is a temporary reincarnation, plans to develop it into the ultimate gated community having recently been resubmitted to the council. What historical information there is comes in the form of bits of paper stuck to the walls. In some ways this is a little disappointing, but I think it also makes going there all the more powerful an experience.

It had taken us so long to get there that we were too late for the two-hour tour by an ex-prison officer, so we wandered around by ourselves instead. 

The visitors' area
One of the treatment rooms


The morgue


I counted the kitchen utensils out and I counted them all back in again


The thing that troubled me about the windows wasn't the bars but the obscured glass. No view of the sky or the exercise yard or even the wall opposite. Imprisonment means being imprisoned inside four walls with no pictures, no decoration and the
only escape route inwards. 
I was also troubled by the fact that the executioner's guest room (he would arrive at 4pm on the day preceding a hanging) was directly across the narrow corridor from the condemned's cell. 


The condemned prisoner would be introduced to the executioner on the appointed day at the appointed time, and a fake bookcase covering a door set into the end wall of the cell would be swung aside and the prisoner marched directly into the place of execution.  


Albert Pierrepoint estimated that he would be dead between eight and twenty seconds after their hand shake. 

These rooms and those below were converted into offices, which is why there's now a ceiling beneath where the trap door was.

No view here either.


The exercise yard

Although we hadn't seen anywhere near all of it, the place was weighing heavily on my heart by now, and Jan looked a bit stir-crazy too. I didn't think I could stay there much longer. 

But when it came to it, we couldn't find out way out. It was the exact reverse of the situation we'd found ourselves in earlier.



We made it outside at last, but I couldn't help wondering how on earth anyone would want to buy an appartment in a place with such a palpably oppressive atmosphere. My heart felt as if it was in the grip of a fist. 

As we made our way back to the town centre I heard a familiar and longed-for screaming and my first swift of 2019 soared overhead. A cheering sight.

And then it was back to Glasonbury for poetry and a party and beautiful birdsong. I'll be back at HMP Shepton Mallet with poems about freedom in October.



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