About Me

My photo
Bristol , United Kingdom
I am co-director of the Leaping Word Poetry Consultancy, which provides advice for poets on writing, editing and publishing, as well as qualified counselling support for those exploring personal issues in their work - https://theleapingword.com. My fifth poetry collection, Learning Finity, is now available from Indigo Dreams or directly from me.

Friday, 27 March 2020

The Watching Place

This is Beetor Cross on Dartmoor. It's on the B3212 that crosses the moor from Moretonhampstead to Yelverton. 

It's also known as The Watching Place, and there are several stories in circulation as to why this might be the case. 

The first is that it was the haunt of a highwayman called John Fall, whose speciality was leaping out at his victims and taking them by surprise.

Then there's the theory that it marked the point beyond which French and American officers on parole from Dartmoor prison during the Napoleonic wars and living in Moretonhampstead were not permitted to proceed. 

Or that in mediaeval times it was the site of the gallows, where relatives or friends of the condemned person would watch and wait for permission from the Lord of the Manor to cut down the corpse.

My favourite story is that the name dates back to an outbreak of plague in 1626, which was spread by soldiers and sailors travelling between Barnstaple and Plymouth via the Mariner's Way. Some of the inhabitants of a settlement called Puddaven, near Beetor Cross, were afflicted, and as they were no longer able to care for themselves, every evening neighbours placed provisions for them on a flattish stone at some distance from the house. They would then retreat to wait and watch. If the food was removed, fresh supplies would be left the following day. On the fifth day no one came and the food stayed where it was, so the neighbours understood that the last survivor had died. So, having approached the house, with no response to their shouts, the neighbours set fire to the thatch and burnt it down in the hope that this would stop the plague spreading further. From this time, it is said, the area became known as the Watching Place.

Something about this old story, the solidarity shown by neighbours during a time of great fear and uncertainty, lifted it above its rivals and prompted me to start writing a story of my own. As part of my research, I read all the folklore I could connected with the moor, and found several other stories associated with outbreaks of plague.

Notably, there was the story told about Merrivale by the celebrated chronicler of Dartmoor, William Crossing, who recalls that the area of Bronze Age relics on Longash Common was once known as Plague Market, the tradition being that during outbreaks of plague at Tavistock,
food would be left there by moor folk for townspeople to collect. 

And another that attaches itself to sites all over the country, but on Dartmoor to the ruins below Hound Tor: that the mediaeval village was abandoned during the Black Death.   

I visited and was moved not just by the deaths of the villagers but by the detail of their lives also, such as the fact they built their houses into the side of a hill, with livestock housed in the shippon at the lower end, and a gully cut to drain the slurry  ... 

... and the step leading up into the cramped communal sleeping chamber.  

And I read and wrote, and wrote and read, and after seven years there was a coming-of-age novel ... 

... and after a few more years, during which it sat on my laptop while I wrote poetry, and won a prize to have a collection published, it finally emerged into a largely oblivious world under my publishers' Tamar Books imprint.

I picked up a copy the other day and read the back. Swine flu ... avian flu ... SARS ... We are frequently warned of imminent, drug-resistant pandemics. But what is it really like to wait for the end of the world?

I flicked through. Social distancing. Self-isolation. It's all in there, centuries before these practices were formally identified and their names coined.  

There's even a scene involving frenetic hand washing, though no emphasis on that as a way of avoiding infection, because my characters, stuck in 1349, wouldn't have known that. And besides it's fleas they should mostly have been avoiding. 

Every day on Twitter there are countless stories of selflessness, bravery and idiocy surrounding Covid-19, and I'm reminded again and again that while pandemics come and go, and technology and medical treatments improve, people are essentially the same as they've always been. We're all in the Watching Place now, and I feel a renewed closeness to characters that were such a big part of my life for so long.

Illustrations by Dru Marland

Saturday, 21 March 2020

A Poem for World Poetry Day 2020

Poets are natural hoarders. They understand the importance of memories to the process of writing, and stockpile them for when a future poem might demand, say. the inclusion of a complicit glance, an unexpected gift, or the fall of sunlight through a woodland glade thirty years earlier. 

The restrictions placed upon outdoor activity by COVID-19 means that everyone will now be ransacking their reserves, falling back on memories of loved ones, favourite walks and landscapes, past holidays in distant places, to get through these lean times.

And once we've exhausted the highlights, it will be the mundane that sustains us. The memory of a bottle of glue in a Christmas stocking, the luxury of using it for sticking pictures in your scrapbook. Carefully stabbing open the slit on the red rubber top with the sharp point of a pair of scissors. Turning it upside down and dabbing it hard on a bit of paper to get the glue flowing. And when it was all used up, the disappointment of going back to the gloop of your mother's homemade flour and water paste - its squidginess between the stuck down picture and the page, the inevitable damp wrinkles, the speed with which it congealed in its jam jar. 

Those of us who are able to make are lucky. If we are feeling strong enough, we have the wherewithal to get through this time. It starts between our ears. It turns into words on a page, a drawing filling a blank piece of paper, the rise and fall of notes on suddenly cleaner, quieter air. We at least can make something of this situation. 

A Perfect Circle is from my fourth poetry collection, The Shadow Factory, more of which can be read here on the Indigo Dreams website. 

Friday, 13 March 2020

A field trip to Flax Bourton

The advent of the Corona Man each Friday, with all his lovely bottles of lovely fizzy pop, was one of the highlights of the week when I was a kid. These days, in his new incarnation, he's not so welcome. And given he seems to have his feet firmly under the table, it might seem counter-intuitive to set out on a field trip for a gig in May that might not happen, but the IsamBards are intrepid, and always travel in hope. (Plus, performances can always be rescheduled for happier, healthier times if necessary.)

It was in this mindset that we drove to Flax Bourton yesterday for a meeting with my old school chum, Adrienne. I'd been to the fascinating Church of St Michael's and All Angels a few years earlier, but for my fellow 'Bards, this was their first visit. 

I enjoyed watching their delight as they discovered the Saxon carvings, and couldn't resist re-photographing them myself.  

St Michael slaying that poor old dragon

An early byrd getting the wyrms

A fox - or wolf - and a fern

And in fact I spotted a few things I'd missed first time round.

No, not the lead-lined Norman font ...

... rather, the cork from a bottle of port plugging it ... 

... and the clutter Ade rues, but which every church has behind the scenes. 

 The typically Saxon proportions of the nave

Pameli appreciating the Saxon doorway

Other things I missed during my previous visit were the 15th century carved hares on the exterior of one of the chancel windows, and which are now badly eroded ...

... and this scratch sundial to the side of the porch. 

In the churchyard there's mistletoe ... 

... the base of the preaching cross ...

... and a discarded skull and antlers ...

... while in the lane nearby, a clematis montana was in full blossom, a sight I always associate with my son's birth in May. But then a lot of things are topsy-turvy this spring.

Monday, 9 March 2020

A spring poetry walk at Arnos Vale Cemetery

The IsamBards, of which I am one, have performed poetry walks around the Botanic Gardens, at last year's Bee and Pollination Festival, across the Suspension Bridge, on the platform at Temple Meads Station, and even undertook a poetry boat trip a few years ago. Our most recent venture is our first poetry walk around Arnos Vale Cemetery. Here's a few photos. 

A male angel, I think, or at the very least, an androgynous one

A holly tree, all of which have self-seeded from burial wreaths

The weather looked a little threatening for poetry walks ... 

... but it brightened up by early afternoon. 

The Clueless team from Radio Bristol appeared for a spring poem, read by Dominic Fisher, at the end of their show. 

Then it was time for the walk, guided by Janine Marriott, an expert in Death. 

The event was a sell-out and our audience interested and very good at listening.

My favourite series of poems were the ones addressed to the stillborn babies and their mothers, which we read in the corner of the cemetery where so many of them were buried last century, in unmarked graves and often without the knowledge of their parents.

It would be nice to think that we had made some small restitution.

By Rajah Rommohun Roy's tomb

In the wooded vale, the trees were making a strange moaning noise as the wind blew them against each other. It would be a decidedly eerie place to walk on your own in the dusk. 

My fellow IsamBards, Dominic Fisher, David Williams and Pameli Benham

Sunlight through the trees

We've had foxes grace a rehearsal, and ducks on a previous poetry walk, but down by the Guinea Graves, a black cat came to listen (and eat grass).

As our poetry walk drew to a close, the light was positively celestial. 

There was just time before we went home to visit my grandparents, and infant uncle up in the top part of the cemetery, all dead before my birth and now beginning to disappear altogether. 

We had a great time, and hope to do more poetry walks at Arnos Vale over the course of the year.

Saturday, 7 March 2020

No Name Brook and Sam Treasure's Quarry

Does a brook called No Name Brook have a name? Possibly not. 

Actually, this might not be No Name Brook. It might be a tributary of No Name Brook but I can't check on a map because it isn't named. 
We were in Stoke St Michael visiting local poet, Louise Green, who took us down the lane that runs past her house to Stoke Lane Quarry, known locally as Sam Treasure's Quarry, which is all kinds of pleasing.

I was consumed with envy. What a place to walk your dog, or sit and write poems. 

We then headed on through the wood ... 

... to where either No Name Brook - or the tributary of No Name Brook - disappears into a swallet, which is, I suppose, a cross between a swallow and a gullet, etymologically speaking.  

The black holey thing is the entrance to a cave, of which there are many under the Mendip Hills. A sign on the rock reminds cavers to tell people where they are going in case they don't come back at the expected time. 

Back in the village we popped into St Michael's Church, which is mostly a Victorian rebuild and somewhat lacking in quirk, to be honest. 

Even St Michael's dragon failed to cut much of a dash. 

The real treasure on show is the appliqued hanging depicting the village as it was in 1918, which Lou had a hand in stitching and which was made to mark the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. 

It's hard to get a good general photo of it because of the non non-reflective glass, but the real joy is in the detail anyway. 
Seventeen men and boys from the village died during that conflict. 

They are represented by tiny silver figures, each with its own red poppy of remembrance. 
There is one outside what is now Lou's house but then was his. It seems fitting that he should be commemorated by a member of the family who lives there now.