Thursday, 17 August 2017

Well, well, Wells!

Oh Wells!

Oh Well 

I can't help about the shape I'm in
I can't sing, I ain't pretty and my legs are thin
But don't ask me what I think of you
I might not give the answer that you want me to

Oh well 

Sister morphine made the juddering ambulance comfortable.  I could just see a green paramedic uniform hunched over a clipboard in the dim interior.  I tried to imagine where we were. 

Gurney wheeled into midnight bright A & E unit; lifted to a bed.  Blue nurses, blue doctors, blue curtains: bloods, pressures, pulse, ECG.

Psilocybin would have explained some of it, but this was pain.  Worse than any childbirth, or so my paramedic friend told me…..  Last time I had this pain I was at scout camp the day Marilyn Monroe OD’d and I had cider and cake with my mum and dad then a swim in the coldest river in England…..  Fifty years and counting.

Pills, drips, x-rays, blood pressure standing and lying, echo-graph, etc. 

Morphine wearing off; codeine sulphate and ranitidine; pains abating; deemed well enough to vacate the bed.

Out in the cold and dark at 4.30; taxi home.  Diagnosis, probably acute gastritis.  I disagree, but hey!

Episode over.  In the past.  Finished.  

Oh, well!

Several tender days later, recovering from what I was sure was biliary colic, I woke early in Bristol and saw the sun rise over Clifton Downs.

The Balloon Fiesta was on and eighteen daring balloonists flew

from Ashton Court across Hotwells before the management deemed the wind unsuitable.

As the glowing orbs wafted into the clouds, I set off across the empty city, and up the A37 to Midsomer Norton, then over the Mendips on the A39 to the city of Wells.

It is still early, and the place is quiet, with market traders just setting out their stalls, and the mighty Cathedral just waking up.  In the interests of health and scenery I trek back up the scarp slope above the spring line to the heights of the hills, crossing the Old Bristol Road and following a sunken lane, cut deep into the limestone, 

before reaching the plateau.

From here the view back is fine, across the Cathedral amidst fields, and on to the Somerset levels, and to the sea.

I wander on, along a drover’s road, and then across fields, to the stunning gash that is Ebbor Gorge.  It’s a mini-cheddar, to coin a phrase (sic), though without the crowds, and without a road.  It is designated a National Nature Reserve, owned by the National Trust (in memory of Winston Churchill) but managed by Natural England.  Ash trees, oak, beech, wych-elm and dogwood fill the gorge. 

It’s damp and deep and ancient.  


Once a watercourse following faults and weaknesses in the limestone, it became a cave, then fell in, tens of thousands of years ago.  

It’s more popular now than when I last visited some tens of years ago, but it is still a wild and awesome place.

From the rocky narrows, its not far to the village of Wookey Hole, where visitors wonder at the vast grottoes and children experiment in the Axe-driven paper mill.

Across the fields I can just see Glastonbury Tor, and then I pass through abandoned Underwood Quarry (where in the 1930s bones of a hippopotamus from 150,000 years ago were uncovered) and back towards the sculpted west front of Wells Cathedral.

Founded near St Andrew’s spring at the foot of the Mendips, there was a minster church here before it was granted cathedral status in 909.  The current building was consecrated in 1239, and it would have looked very different with its painted and gilded statues, though it is still impressive today.

I enter through Martin Stancliffe’s 2008 discreet but beautiful visitor centre and cross the medieval cloister.  

Inside the giant scissor arches seem modern, but these were built in the 1330s to support the central tower which was beginning to crack.  

The play of light over the fair stone is glorious, and, despite my lack of faith, I cannot help but feel uplifted.  The undercroft is gently quiet, 

and then above it rises a worn stairway to heaven, leading to the Chapter House and then to the Vicars’ Close.

The Chapter House is a wonder, lit by clear windows where Cromwell’s men smashed the stained glass. 

A single pier holds up the tierceron vault with thirty-two radiating ribs. On benches around the walls the Canons used to sit to discuss cathedral business every day. As Simon Jenkins says in England’s Cathedrals they saw their great church not just as a place of prayer but as a mirror of the entire community of medieval England

Modern government could learn something from this.  Without the defence of heavy tables, to sit in equality in a chamber like this might be good for cabinets and committees of our times.  Nowhere for the narcissists or the wooden to hide!

Outside I watch the swans on the moat of the remains of the Bishop’s Palace, then make my retreat.  Wells is busy now, and I need to return to Bristol.

Up on the Mendips, between the hurdle stack on Priddy’s green and traces of ancient lead workings I pause for bread and cheese and a pint of Cheddar Ales Potholer at the Hunters’ Lodge Inn.  The landlord here has been in charge for nearly fifty years, and, like the great Cathedral, not a lot has changed in recent times…. 

It’s a long way from the Luton and Dunstable Hospital Trust's A & E department. 

And for that I give thanks.

Oh well! 

Now, when I talked to God I knew he'd understand
He said, Stick by my side and I'll be your guiding hand
But don't ask me what I think of you
I might not give the answer that you want me to

Oh well

Peter Green

Monday, 31 July 2017

A Yorkshire Dales' Diary

Forty Shades of Grey

I close my eyes and picture....

Dear Diary, for some reason I imagined Bolton was in Lancashire, but Bolton Abbey is actually in Devonshire.  No, sorry.  It’s in a part of Yorkshire owned by the Duke of Devonshire (who lives at Chatsworth in Derbyshire). 


Read on….

There's one thing that won't change

Dear Diary,

I love the Dales.  My first visit was as an A Level Geography student at Easter 1968.  We stayed, with much hilarity, at The Golden Lion, Horton-in-Ribblesdale, and explored Gordale Scar and Malham Cove, where, if I remember right, no one had ever been before.  Nowadays, of course, it’s all conveyor belts and escalators, and family this and bus party that.  But we serious geographers had the place to our grey selves.

Jim Townsend, Rich Lovesay, Roger Hollis, Mark Standage and Chris Mackay
in The Golden Lion, Horton-in-Ribblesdale, Easter 1968

Return was inevitable, and as an undergraduate at Lancaster University there were times when it would have been rude to refuse.  I remember an occasion when I was taken to a party at the Old Hill Inn near a pothole at Chapel-le-Dale for someone’s twenty-first birthday celebration and said celebrant downed a world record double figures of pints of Theakston’s Old Peculier before being inducted into Valhalla with a green pint (a pint glass filled from all the spirits on optics behind the bar).  Potholing would have been an easy option.

Then, years after, I lived down the road from Ingleborough, at Burton-in-Lonsdale, for a year while taking my MA at Lancaster, and would sometimes set out from home to climb the flat-topped ‘peak’ that beckoned me.

I learned to love the limestone and millstone grit.  Dry stone walls were beautiful.  Bridges over rills and becks were wonderful.  The farms and barns grew out of the landscape as naturally as molehills or bent hawthorns.  Every day I walked somewhere for a few miles.  This day to High Bentham.  That day fording the Lune to Burton-in-Kendal.

We strayed then, and since, to other dales. The slightly twee Dentdale, with its Burberry reek of Prince Charles.  We had days out with the children.  And separately I explored Swaledale with my brother from the Yorkshire Moors.

On this occasion, I am piloting a brand new VW Golf, and miles mean nothing. Arkengarthdale here we come.  Littondale – nothing. I could say this spoils the experience, and I should have walked. But, Hey!  Four wheels good – two legs bad!

We stay at The White Lion, Cray, a recently refurbished traditional stone hostelry which I strongly recommend; Denis and Amelia are very welcoming and it is very comfortable.  But we walk to Hubberholme, to scent the scattered ashes of J B Priestley, who is commemorated on a plaque here, unveiled in 1986 by his widow Jacquetta Hawkes.  It says: Remember J. B. Priestley O.M. 1894-1984 Author and Dramatist, Whose ashes are buried nearby: He loved the Dales and found 'Hubberholme one of the smallest and pleasantest places in the world.’

At the unveiling ceremony Priestley’s son, Tom, said that his father had found here that the landscape was balanced, as well as varied and beautiful. He had travelled all over the world, but Hubberholme remained his favourite spot as he enjoyed its smallness, the great age of its buildings, and its peace. 

We raise glasses to the departed in The George, where Priestley sat and smoked his pipe.  It is indeed a rather fine spot…..  I can still smell the tobacco…..  In 1933, on the road for his English Journey, Priestley wrote that, Before I leave this inn I will add that for lunch they gave us soup, Yorkshire pudding, roast chicken and sausages and two vegetables, fruit pudding, cheese and biscuits, and coffee, all for two and sixpence each.  And that – when they have a mind to – is the way they do it in Yorkshire…..

The weather is what you would expect - Grey. It’s a Brexit summer, so it rains, though, to be fair, not all the time.  We drive up to 1,300 ft at Kidstones Pass, and then slip down into Bishopdale.  The great thing is that the rain keeps the crowds at bay, and stokes the falls, so that the river Ure at Aysgarth is roiling, but unattended in the wet. 

Up the hill, past another Bolton, this time Castle Bolton, closed to the public today for a wedding.....  Momentarily I wonder about the augury of marrying in a ruin where Mary Queen of Scots was once a prisoner.

Then over Redmire and Grinton Moors, reaching 1,500 ft, down into Swaledale, then up Arkengarthdale to the remote Tan Hill Inn, at 1,732 feet above sea level the highest inn in the UK, currently up for sale at £900,000 for the lease.  Grey skies pile over the moors, with only the glint of lorries passing along the A66 to the north as signs of life.

Through Keld, and then Thwaite, and over the Butter Tubs Pass (second of three King of the Mountains climbs in Stage One of the 2014 Tour de France) (some mishtake? Ed).  England’s only truly spectacular road, according to Jeremy Clarkson

Near Hawes, we enter the dragon, or rather make our way through the thirteenth century  Green Dragon Inn to visit the famed Hardraw Force, which, after the rains, is boiling and hissing down its 100ft straight drop, the highest in England.  

The peat-rich water pounds down onto the rocks below and the spectacle is greater than even J M W Turner could imagine.

Hawes is busy, with nowhere to park and the masses avoiding the rain in pursuit of tea and cakes, so we press on over the highest road in North Yorkshire, reaching nearly 2,000ft above Oughtershaw Beck.  

From here we enter Langstrothdale and follow the youthful Wharfe back to Hubberholme.

The upper stretches of Wharfedale, From Buckden to Kettlewell, are gentle and quiet. Grey Arncliffe, in Littondale, is even quieter, 

and the road up through Halton Gill, under Pen-y-ghent, is exposed and raw, until you approach Malham, where the crowds rise up to climb the Cove.  Here, in 1968, I took a picture from the top.  

There was no one to be seen; no eroded path, no flights of steps, nothing but grey stone and water.  Now the valley is dotted by bright cagoules, as families flock to see the three hundred foot cliffs in the drizzle.  

Nearby Malham Tarn is less approachable and lies serene under grey skies, but Gordale Scar, romanticised by William Wordsworth in his sonnet, Gordale (let thy feet repair/To Gordale chasm, terrific as the lair/Where the young lions couch;) is much trafficked, and understandably so.

Reggie Fair and Phil Bailey with some intrepid sixth formers in 1968

Dear Diary, the river Wharfe (the name means winding river) flows nonchalantly by Bolton Priory.  Upstream it courses through the Strid, where a chasm of eroded rock is beautifully set in oak woods.

Henry VIII has many things to answer for, one of which is that he caused Romantic Poetry. Without his dissolution of the monasteries Wordsworth couldn’t have drooled over Tintern Abbey, nor written the following lines:

And, up among the moorlands, see
What sprinklings of blithe company!
Of lasses and of shepherd grooms,
That down the steep hills force their way
Like cattle through the budding brooms;
Path, or no path, what care they?
And thus in joyous mood they hie
To Bolton's mouldering Priory.

William Wordsworth
The White Doe of Rylstone, 1807

So I turn to my history books to look up ‘Enery the Eighth ('Enery the Eighth I am, I am!) and find this….

[His] character was certainly fascinating, threatening, and intensely morbid, as Holbein’s great portrait illustrates to perfection. [His] egoism, self-righteousness, and unlimited capacity to brood over suspected wrongs, or petty slights, sprang from the fatal combination of a relatively able but distinctly second-rate mind and a pronounced inferiority complex…..  

(John Guy in The Oxford Illustrated History of Britain)

Fake News, my friends!  I'm the most successful person to ever run for the presidency, by far!

Dear Diary: I am certainly flattering Donald J Trump by drawing any comparison between him and our very late king, but, although the dissolution of the monasteries gave us some spectacular (and very romantic) ruins, it was an act of vandalism on a par with those of the so-called Islamic State.  As John Guy explains:  Of the unplanned effects of the dissolution, the wholesale destruction of fine Gothic buildings, melting down of medieval metalwork and jewellery, and sacking of libraries were the most extensive acts of licensed vandalism perpetrated in the whole of British history.  

There is of course no parallel with Trump, but consider this: Trump Tower rose up on the site where the Bonwit Teller department store once stood. Trump bought the building and started demolishing it in 1980, after having promised to save the Art Deco grillwork above the entrance and the sculptures above the eighth floor, as long as it did not cost too much. The Metropolitan Museum of Art wanted the pieces from the building.

But without a word, all were destroyed. A spokesman for Trump, who was likely Trump himself, told the New York Times the sculptures "were without artistic merit." As for the grillwork, he said, "We don't know what happened to it." (Spectrum News, 29/9/2016).

The dissolution was also a disastrous economic gambit.  John Guy again:  The bitter irony of the dissolution was that Henry VIII’s colossal military expenditure in the 1540s, together with the laity’s demand for a share of the booty, politically irresistible as that was, would so drastically erode the financial gains as to cancel out the benefits of the entire process….. 

No comparison, of course, with Trump’s intention to vastly increase expenditure on the US military.  And note this from the New York Times in June 2016: 

ATLANTIC CITY — The Trump Plaza Casino and Hotel is now closed, its windows clouded over by sea salt. Only a faint outline of the gold letters spelling out T-R-U-M-P remains visible on the exterior of what was once this city’s premier casino.

Not far away, the long-failing Trump Marina Hotel Casino was sold at a major loss five years ago and is now known as the Golden Nugget.

At the nearly deserted eastern end of the boardwalk, the Trump Taj Mahal, now under new ownership, is all that remains of the casino empire Donald J. Trump assembled here more than a quarter-century ago. Years of neglect show: The carpets are frayed and dust-coated chandeliers dangle above the few customers there to play the penny slot machines…..

AnywayThere's one thing that won't change….

Oh, and The matrimonial adventures of Henry VIII are too familiar to recount again in detail, but, If Ivanka weren’t my daughter, I’d be dating her…..


Dear Diary: I came here for peace and quiet.  I came to escape the nightmares of Brexit and Trump!  Leave me be!

We retire to The Falcon Inn (used as the original location for The Woolpack in the TV series Emmerdale Farm – or so they tell me) in Arncliffe, Littondale, for pork pies and mushy peas, and a jug of local ale.  Away from it all…..

What could be better?  

Let it rain!

Dear Diary: There's one thing that won't change - I shall always worry about Don.....

But most of all I miss a girl

In Hubberholme's sweet town 

And most of all I miss her lips 

As soft as eiderdown 

Again I want to see and do 

The things we've seen and said

Where the breeze is sweet as Langstrothdale 

And there's forty shades of grey

[With apologies to Johnny Cash]