7 November 2010

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

As snow falls between the trees, deepening the silence, chilling the sense of depth in woodland, the sense that we do not quite belong any more in this ecosphere is enhanced.  Frost's poem, ninety odd years old now, reminds us that the human world of affairs and business is out of kilter with the rhythm of nature, even though sleep, that essential cyclical mystery of our being, is part of it all:  our superiority means that we can order our sleep to fit the plans we strive to follow.

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

by Robert Frost

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark, and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

25 October 2010


When everyone (including Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud, Harold Pinter, and my dad) were very much alive (1975), Doctor Brother Gibbs Senior and I managed to see "Nomansland" in its entire novelty at Wymondham's Theatre in London's best end, with Ralph and John on top form, the former oily with motorcycle grandeur, the latter with grubby raincoat seediness. 

Now, here in this picture, we play Hirst and Spooner (men in their sixties) and contempt-plate the passing of life and lives on Nomansland Common, Wheathampstead, shortly before our dad took flight for kingdom come.


Here is Chaos....

R I P Paddy Fermor, master of the English Language, whose lifetime correspondence with Deborah Mitford, the Duchess of Devonshire, Mistress of Chatsworth House, is only outshone by the correspondence I had with him when I lived by Lake Bracciano in Italy and wrote to him about his description of the reflection of Bracciano Castle in the lake which I could see from my balcony.  Charmingly and not at all in tearing haste, he replied (from Kardamyli, on July 7th 1988).  "Alas, I mustn't agree to the idea of a visit!  Things are going so badly and slowly with my present book - largely because of being led astray with reviews, introductions, and visits, I've taken a vow that they must all stop until a safe, secret part of the book is reached and I am sure you will understand." 

16 October 2010

The Self Unseeing

The interior of the Barley Mow Inn, in Kirk Ireton, Derbyshire.  A pub that dates back to the days of King James Ist and which has altered less than many old hostelries.  Although geographically quite out of keeping with Thomas Hardy, I could not help but recall this poem in this very English interior.

7 April 2010

Between the Cradle and the Grave

Crocuses spring from the grave.  A picture composed at Ayot St Lawrence in Hertfordshire, where the neo-classical church upsets the landscape and the crumbling ruins of the older village church romantically satisfies the visitor.  The Palladian stretch of the more modern church separates one Lord Brocket from his erstwhile wife, with the legend that what the church united in life it will separate in death....

Here in a moody self-portrait, I muse on a picture of my parents and brother, taken in France a lifetime away, while my father lies close to death in hospital.  I rehears funerary thoughts with the paradox of life reviving in spring in a place of death.....

4 April 2010

The Palace Beautiful

The Palace Beautiful as mentioned in the "Pilgrim's Progress."  In the background are the Bedford Levels - this is one that will be explored further.....

10 March 2010

5 March 2010

What is this Life?

A moment's comtemplation whilst crossing the M1 just outside Redbourn in Hertfordshire on a walk from Harpenden to Berkhamsted to visit my ailing father. 

The Jitterbugs

1 March 2010

From the West Country - The Mendip Fringe, 2

Chew Magna lives up to its name, and once upon a time it must have been magnificent, if the size and style of some of its buildings is anything to go by.  There’s a third storey to some of the eighteenth century houses that would have been home to quite a few servants, and there are outhouses and stables and walls and gates and ornaments and decorations and a degree of opulence not found in every village.  Harford House is one such dwelling.  Another is The Firs, which boasts 16 chimney pots.   Hence the name, “Magna,” and that’s the way it still feels.  Though I am not quite sure who is building what out of breezeblocks right in the centre of town, near the triangular village green with its ancient thorn tree.

The village has history – you can feel it.  It is the largest village in the area, and was already important in Saxon times.  It was a thriving centre for the wool trade in the middle ages, and the Bishop of Bath and Wells built a palace here near St Andrew’s church, some of which survives as Chew Court.  The church itself is notable for its 15th century tower, embellished by pinnacles, and inside has a Norman font and rood screen.  Also from the 15th century is the Church House, now called the Old Schoolroom, which has a beautiful fa├žade with an ornate doorway and five windows giving onto the village green.  Much of the manor house was rebuilt in 1656. A house called “The Rectory” (though surely not the original?) was built on the main road south in 1672.  Many wealthy businessmen from Bath and Bristol have chosen to live here over the years, possibly to live quieter and healthier lives, possibly to enjoy retirement, but they have endowed Chew Magna and created a harmonious and elegant town.  There are three pubs, the Queen’s Arms, the Pelican and the Bear and Swan (a fine building from 1886, with something Victorian in its wooden furniture), and three nearby farms provide bed and breakfast for those who would like to prolong their visit.

Chew takes its name from the river Chew, which rises at Chewton Mendip and flows seventeen miles to join the Avon at Keynsham.  This also gives its name to Chew Lake, which was created in 1956 to provide water for Bristol.  I walk down the Chew Valley, under the watchful eye of Chota Castle and its potent black guard dog, and survey the bright expanse of water from the dam.  This is a shallow lake, averaging fourteen feet deep, but it covers over twelve hundred acres when full.  Many farms and houses were lost when the valley was flooded, but roads and hedges reappear in times of drought, and tree stumps can clearly be seen at the shallow end.  It is very popular for fishing (mainly fly fishing for trout, though pike of over thirty pounds have also been landed) and sailing, and is well managed as a recreational facility.  The lake recently hosted the World Fly Fishing Championships, and fishermen can make use of Woodford Lodge, a custom-built clubhouse, while other visitors can find refreshment at Chew Valley Lake Tea Shop.  There are also Nature Trails to follow and bird watching is also popular:  over 260 species of birds have been recorded here.

The fishing season does not start until late March, (for information call the Bristol Water Fishing Hotline, 09066802288, 25p per minute) and I have an appointment in Blagdon so must make tracks.  My route takes me through Chew Stoke, something of a poor relation to Magna, but a pretty and thriving village nonetheless.  The architecture is more vernacular and the pubs (The Yew Tree Inn and The Stoke Inn) possibly more rustic and homely.  There are some quaint touches, such as a neat little two-arched bridge over the brook where Pilgrim’s Way meets The Street.  Quite a few of the buildings date from the eighteenth century and there are many farms close by, some with names that tell something of their origin or the past (Fairseat farm, Pagan’s Hill Farm). 

I take a rather indirect route over to Blagdon, to sample the air at the summit of Gravel Hill, which reaches some one hundred and thirty metres above sea level, and from where there are superb views around the surrounding countryside.  I drop down Pit Lane, with the local names becoming more intriguing the further I go (Dewdown Lodge, Pixey Hole).  Eventually I reach the tail of Blagdon Lake, just below Ubley.  With time pressing I decide on skirting the Lake, informed by locals that I risk the wrath of the Bailiff if found without a permit.  Unfortunately there is no information about where such a permit may be found, though I would be more than happy to pay the £2 requested as a contribution to the well being of the local wild life.  The lake is stunning in the winter sunshine, and I hardly see a soul all the way round.  The birds, from heron to teal, are happily making the most of the off-season, however, and, had I had time to linger and make use of the hides, I could have observed the shimmering light and the flickering birds to my heart’s content.

This lake is almost one hundred years old now, and is stocked with trout, like Chew, by Bristol Water.  It is about 440 acres of watery heaven, nuzzling the Mendip foothills, skirted by mature woods, 42 feet deep at its deepest, and known to aficionados as the birth place of still water trout fishing.  Boats (rowing or electric motor only) can be hired from Blagdon Fishing Lodge, where permits are also obtainable in the season, or enthusiasts may perch themselves almost anywhere on the seven-mile perimeter.  There are supposed to be about two hundred thousand trout in this lake, and some catches have weighed in at over three and a half pounds, so there’s plenty for all!  There are facilities for other visitors, too, however, and you do not have to speak the language of small flies and nymphs, buzzers and diawl bachs, to enjoy these surroundings.  On Sunday afternoons, from May 27th until September 30th, the Blagdon Pumping Station and Visitor Centre is open, with a still functioning beam engine as well as many exhibits and hands-on displays, and there is plenty of space for picnics and a nature trail as well.  

I manage to reach the track that leads up towards Blagdon Church without the pleasure of the Bailiff’s company, however, and make it to my destination slightly out of breath at the last climb, but exhilarated.  The view back over the lake and the countryside from the garden of the New Inn is wonderful, something you would not expect just ten miles southwest of Bristol city centre (as the crow flies!)  And the log fire, ale and vittles inside the pub is worth the trip as well!

26 January 2010

My days are in the yellow leaf

From the West Country - The Mendip Fringe, 1

There’s a certain something about Bus Stations.  The cosmopolitan bustle, the unhurried purpose, the smell of spilt oil, and the purr of big diesels – all controlled but disparate movements and noises blending into a general hum of purpose.  Within the bright confines of the snack bar, tea steams in polystyrene cups, ashtrays spill over with teabags and crushed fag ends.  On the stands, men, women, young and old, queue in patient order, their expectations quietly contained behind their masks. The colourful coaches and double-deckers nuzzle in and load, then edge out and depart, heading for magical destinations, the great elsewhere.  Fishponds.  Bath.  Weston-super-Mare.  Midsomer Norton.  Yate.   

I board the Chew Valley Explorer, bound for Churchill via Blagdon, and head out of town, gradually leaving the suburbs behind.  For a change it is great not to have to drive, and, also for a change, it is wonderful to be able to gaze out of the windows, taking in the surroundings, not just having to concentrate on the exhaust fumes in front.  It is also great to have the raised vantage point that a bus affords, and soon we are skimming past Chew Lake, which shines like a polished mirror in the sun over the still, silver, frosted, beautiful countryside.  There is a clear crystal blue sky, frost everywhere, frost on the grass, frost on the roofs, and villages still in the winter sunshine: Bishop Sutton, Chew Magna.  The weak sun just glimpses over the skyline through the bare trees.  In West Harptree the church clock gleams golden like a face reflecting the sun.  Then Blagdon where the church tower stands proud above the lake.  There’s a chill in the air; it’s a sharp crisp winter’s day.  The bus leaves me to linger here, and there’s plenty to see and delightful pubs to savour, but I climb the hill, past Pratt’s garage, left in a time warp with 1950’s petrol pumps and signs.  Further up the hill, past the pottery, there is Channel View, 1908, and indeed you can still see across the landscape to the Bristol Channel. 

Then, above Blagdon, Luvver’s Lane plunges off between hedges, catkins high above the path, symbols of spring to come.  The hedge has been trimmed neatly but violently with nicely layered piece of hedge, uprights driven deep in.  Blackbirds chatter excitedly in the woods. 

At 200 metres above sea level, at the end of Luvver’s Lane, leading on to the Limestone Link, with Big Batch rising up to 325 metres above on the south side.  A charm of goldfinches leads me across the Barrington Combe road to moor land rising on left.  The bridleway churned up by horses, feet and bikes though the ground is frozen bone hard.  Near Goatchurch cavern I cross a deep gully carved by a stream; the limestone strata above Barrington Combe gently undulating like waves.  There is a waterfall gushing down the hill but it disappears down a swallet hole and the streambed is left dry. 

The sun is warm on my back, though there is ice on the puddles.  There are strange cuts and dips in the land, with spiky reeds.  Dry stone walls crumble among the trees on one side; on the other, Rowberry Woods fall away deep inky black with the sound of water flowing at the bottom of a deep scarp. 

I reach the foot of Dolebury Warren.  Before me is a ridge of limestone covered in grassland.  According to the information board this is a place of bee and pyramidal orchids, yellow wort, drop wort and kidney vetch.  Tiny but beautiful spring annuals such as rue leaved saxifrage, common storks bill and early forget-me-nots thrive on the shallow rocky soils.  In places bell heather and bilberry grow amongst limestone heath.  The acidic soils derive from sands blown onto site during the last glaciations.  Dolebury Warren is specified a site of specific scientific interest by English Nature and a scheduled ancient monument by English Heritage.  There is a 2000-year-old Iron Age fort from which there are excellent views out over the Bristol Channel.  The National Trust owns the site that also has a medieval rabbit warren (which provided the local inhabitants with fresh meat) and a Celtic field system.  The crisp frosted grass matches the shadows.  A buzzard flies low across past me, unconcerned by my presence.  I pass ancient anthills, hummocks grassed over and trimmed by the sheep like green nodules, ridged hillsides and bare trees:  not a single leaf. 

I am alone, high above the countryside around, but fringed by trees.  There is evidence of a tree felling programme within the hill fort ramparts to enhance wildlife interest:  they are taking out non-native trees, especially turkey oak and sycamore of very little wildlife value; good quality English oak and hawthorn, ash, spindle, holly and wayfaring trees are being retained to keep the open parkland aspect.  The ramparts are impressive with sizeable limestone blocks and scree stones, and the fort is some two hundred metres long, sloping towards the west.  There is an amazing view, and it is a brilliant defensive position.  The levels are flat like a map and diminutive church towers and steeples mark the parishes below. There is a steep track down through woods to the A38. 

There are four pubs in Churchill.  The extraordinary Crown Inn, CAMRA pub of the year 1999, on the corner of Skinners Lane and The Batch, which is a place that is almost from another time, certainly from a wilder world.  A step away there is the bright and cheerful Nelson Arms, and on the A38 there are two pit stops, one on either side of the road: the Stag and Hounds and the Churchill itself, with the grand old man’s cigar-toting portrait as an Inn Sign.  The Crown, however, is a different experience.  It is not an everyday, modern, carpet and fruit machine boozer at all.  Possibly, just possibly, it’s a place that started life around the end of the last glaciations, where Iron Age men raised horns of mead.  Certainly it is a fitting place to end a stumble through limestone gorges and over a 2000-year-old fort…