Introduction : A Tale of Two Codgers
This is the story of a cussed old codger who walked the length of the land one winter in search of a legend, and of another who followed in his footsteps.
John Jackson was a Character, aged threescore years and ten in 1755. He lived in the wool-rich West Riding of Yorkshire, in a cedar cabin beside the main road at a little place called Woodkirk, on the road from Leeds to Dewsbury. In November 1755 he set out on foot on a three-month hike to Glastonbury and back. He kept an Exact Journal of this highly unusual pilgrimage, and a fascinating document it is.
Who was John Jackson?A somewhat scurrilous description survives, penned by a local historian with the unforgettable name of Norrison Scatcherd. He was writing in 1830, sixty-six years after Jackson’s death and his information seems to have come from local ancients whose memories, if mine is anything to go by, may not have been entirely reliable.
By the time of his great journey, Jackson was living from hand to mouth, cheerfully soliciting and accepting alms as he went along his journey, but in his day he had had many occupations. He had once been a scoolmaster. His pupils remembered him for being “very slovenly in his person”, with “a head through the hair of which, it was thought, a comb did not as often pass as once a year”. They nicknamed him “Old Trash”. He was a “good mechanic”, a land measurer, a stone cutter, a clockmaker who made a clock for the benefit of the cloth-merchants who passed by his hut on their way to Leeds Market. The clock stood near the window, and he “kept a lamp suspended near the face of it, and burning through the winter nights, and he would have no shutters or curtains to his window, so that the clothiers had only to stop and look through it to know the time”.
Jackson may have been poor, but he seems to have had a home of his own. His Exact Journal betrays no anxieties about paying the rent on his curious ‘cedar cabin’ beside the main road at Woodkirk during his three-month absence, which suggests strongly that he owned it; a freeholder, a “little prop and pillar of the state”, in George Crabbe’s words, who “owns the little hut that makes him free”.
He was very devout. He went to church as often as he could, records sermons and details, and makes a point of noting church rebuilding and restoration on his way. But don’t be fooled by these apparent signs of a healthy Church, for it is the heart, and not the face, of Christianity that really interested Jackson. His was a world in which a good Christian practised what he preached, and true as Bunyan’s pilgrim he was not to be deflected merely by the signs of economic wealth.
In fact, the most striking thing about the Exact Journal is just how little he has to say about the signs of incipient Industrial Revolution that were everywhere about him. Emley Moor and Flockton were then becoming warrens of open-cast coal-pits but Jackson wanders between them without comment. The main-road network was being taken over and transformed by turnpike trusts almost as he walks, but though he makes much use of turnpike ways and stops to chat with tollgate-keepers he never praises the new roads but instead is prone to comment on the ‘woeful miry ways’ that many of them still were.
When he does comment on the changes, he is usually unimpressed. City populations had doubled and tripled in his lifetime, but he has little good to say about them. Bristol, then the country’s second largest city, he found to be “all on an hurry and continuall bustle far worse than London”, its “half ruind Cathedrall the least in all England”, whilst Birmingham was singled out for its indifference to ‘strolers’.
Jackson himself, let it not be forgotten, was a “stroller”, and since the Vagrancy Act of 1744 travellers without money such as he were obliged to carry a pedlar’s licence or a pass of some kind. He left home with an ‘Advertisement’ in his wallet, something between a personal testimonial and a begging letter that had been drawn up by an un-named ‘gentleman’, that helped him to get his Pass signed by the magistrates.
The eighteenth century was a dark time for the poor. E P Thompson chronicled the emergence of a new sort of relationship between ruled and rulers, based on colder calculation than before. This was the century of the great Whig magnates, hugely powerful aristocrats, builders of enormous houses and landscaped estates. It was the century par excellence of agricultural enclosures, land reforms and changes in farming techniques. It was the age of clock time; new attitudes to time – including fairs, time off, events (such as Christmas, about which much more anon). It was also an age of increasingly savage laws; and one of Thompson’s greatest achievements was to demonstrate the existence of the “moral economy of the poor”, a sense that rich people had obligations to the poor, enshrined by custom and tradition, which by Jackson’s day was rapidly being eroded. The poor had little sense of a brave new dawn and a better future – that came a century later with the socialists. But they did know that things had been better in the past, before the age of ‘improvements’ that so often seemed to leave the poor worse off than before.
Where was Jackson on all of this? As a clockmaker and a craftsman he belonged to the new and more precise world; as a land-measurer he may even have served as a foot-soldier in the army of Improvement, measuring out newly-enclosed fields. But he was also an antiquarian. His reverence for the past is apparent in his Exact Journal, in which he transcribed epitaphs on gravestones and recorded observations on cathedrals like a gentleman on the Grand Tour. He transcribes great chunks from Camden’s Britannica and even more remarkably he owned a copy of Sir William Dugdale’s Monasticon Anglicanum, not a book you’d have found in many middle-class libraries of the day, let alone on a poor man’s bookshelf.
Radical antiquarians were common in the generations after Jackson. Ritson, Cartwright, Thelwall, Baxter, Northmore, Hunt and Cobbett would routinely look back to benchmarks of better times by which social progress could be measured, or retrieved. Jackson was no radical, but in his deadpan way chronicled various injustices, deviations from a better state of affairs, signs of a world out of time. He had strong views about how people should and should not be treated, and an equally clear sense that lack of virtue will bring its own reward. Seen in this light, Jackson’s pilgrimage, which he undertook at the age of seventy, the three score years and ten that the Bible accorded to man, might be seen as an end-of-life appraisal of the state of Christianity in action across the country; an enterprise undertaken quite deliberately to test the life left in Christian charity.
The Allure of Glastonbury
Why Glastonbury? The place had a strange status in the eighteenth century, not unlike the one that it has today. Its great medieval abbey, ferociously destroyed by Henry VIII, had claimed to be the final resting-place of King Arthur, but this was of much less significance to Jackson and his contemporaries than the knowledge that it had been established by none other than Joseph of Arimathea, he who in the Gospel story had given a place in his tomb for the body of Christ to be laid in. According to Glastonbury legend, Joseph and twelve followers came to Britain to spread the word. They arrived in Glastonbury and founded the ‘Old Church’ on the site of the Abbey. Christianity thus came to Britain before the Roman Catholic church had been established – a ‘fact’ that breathed new life into the Glastonbury story after the dust had settled on the destruction of the monasteries and the legends that went with them. For Joseph’s early arrival allowed English monarchs and Anglican scholars to claim that England, far from being Europe’s religious ‘rogue state’, had received an earlier, purer form of Christianity than the tainted version emanating from Rome.
During the decades just before the Dissolution, Joseph’s legend took on more substance. He and his followers were now said to have arrived at Weary-all Hill near Glastonbury on Christmas Day, and here they rested, for they were all weary. Joseph stuck his staff into the ground, whereupon it transformed into a thorn-bush and promptly burst into flower. Every Christmas Day thereafter the ‘Glastonbury Thorn’ would blossom, as it does to this day.
There were many such stories in the late medieval church, but most of them were snuffed out or went underground with the Catholics. The tale of Joseph and his miraculous Thorn, however, was quite deliberately hyped and fostered, since it provided proof positive of Joseph’s early coming, the antiquity of the Anglican church and, to some, that England was favoured by the Almighty. But more zealous protestants railed against this papist folly, and the original tree itself was hacked to pieces, though not before cuttings had been taken and planted not just elsewhere in the town but throughout the whole country.
By Jackson’s day Glastonbury was already a town of contradictions. Its population, like much of the West Country, was if anything more Protestant than other parts of England, inherently ill-disposed to miracles. It was also a town on its uppers, its traditional trades in decline, dependent in no small measure on the tourist trade that was already well under way. Visitors were taken on a tour of sights and sites associated with Joseph and his legend, and the various offshoots of the Thorn amongst them. In 1685 Bishop Stillingfleet assailed the legend of the Thorn, but the town was already living on its legendary history and its advocates were understandably reluctant to broadcast Stillingfleet’s doubts. Meanwhile, the town’s economic misfortunes were being laid not only at the door of the Reformation, but at the desecration that followed. On the street the failure of the market was blamed on the new market-hall, built from materials looted from the abbey by the town’s sacrilegious leaders.
By the 1750s there was no other place in England to compare with Glastonbury’s licensed miracles and muddled mysticism. The town’s new corporation – it was set up in 1705 – was bound by statute to uphold the Church of England, by economic imperative to uphold the legend of its origins. This was the time when the craze for spa waters was at its peak. Every last village seemed to be claiming amazing cures for the village well, but none came close to the bizarre vision of Matthew Chancellor – nor, tellingly, seemed so plausible to so many people, both locally and nationally.
“Matthew Chancellor, of the Parish of North Wooton, three miles North East of Glastonbury in the County of Somerset, Yeoman, doth hereby declare, that he hath made Oath before one of his Majesty’s Justice of the Peace, That about the Middle of October last, he had a violent Fit of the Asthma in the Night-Time; after which he fell on Sleep, and dream’d he was some Way above Chain-Gate, in the Road above the Wall of Glastonbury Abbey-Gate, where he saw some of the finest of Water in the Horse-track; when he imagined he kneeled immediately, and drank some of it; and as soon as he was rais’d again on his Legs, there was seemingly a Person stood by him, pointing with his Finger, and saying, Take you a clean Glass, and drink you of this Water, a Glass full Seven Sundays following in the Morning fasting, and you will find a perfect Cure of your Disorder. He ask’d, Why Seven Sundays in the Morning? He said, The World was made in six Days, and on the Seventh God Almighty rested from his labour, and blessed it above all other Days. Moreover, he said, Where this Water descends from, is holy Ground, where a vast Number of Saints and Martyrs have been buried; when he added something concerning the Baptism of the ever Blessed JESUS in the River Jordan. He is not certain whether it was Wednesday or Thursday Night he thus dreamed; but the Sunday following he went to Glastonbury, and took a clean Glass, went to the Shoot, dipt the Glass into the Shoot three several Times, drank to the value of half a Noggin, and returned God Thanks; and so continued every Sunday till the Seven Sundays were expired: From which Time he thought himself perfectly cured of that Disorder, which he laboured under more than 30 Years.
People flocked to Glastonbury in their thousands during 1751. A pump room was established, and the locals braced themselves gleefully for a gold-rush, but it never happened. The gentry failed to flock to take the waters; other spas took its place. But the poor continued to come in droves, attracted by its miracles, to the consternation of the better-off:
On May 22 in that fateful year of 1751 the Calendar Act was passed. Eleven days were to be dropped from the month of September 1752, in order to bring Britain into line with the Gregorian calendar used by the rest of Europe. Robert Poole’s inspirational work has demonstrated that, contrary to previous speculation, the calendar change was not in itself the cause of widespread rioting, but it certainly caused a considerable amount of unease. Reform amounted to “an unintended piece of cultural engineering… the calendar was the spine of the year, and to reposition it was as messy as trying to bone a fish: flesh and vital organs remained attached” (Robert Poole, ‘“Give us our eleven days!”: calendar reform in eighteenth-century England’ Past and Present 149 (1995), pp 95-139; Time’s Alteration: Calendar Reform in Early Modern England London: 1998).
No event was more controversial than the rescheduling of Christmas. Dire predictions were rife; new carols were composed, such as the one that Jackson himself heard in Wells, in which the Lord threatened to level the walls of Jerusalem
“Because thou didst not know
The reasonable day,
In which the Lord thy God appear’d
To wash thy sins away”.
Re-enter the Glastonbury Thorn, whose Christmas-flowering properties suddenly acquired a whole new significance. Would the holy plant observe the new regime, or would it defy Parliament and continue to blossom on the old day? “A vast concourse” of people came to Glastonbury for that Christmas of 1752-3 to find out. They “attended the Thorn on Christmas-Eve, New-Stile”, claimed a report submitted to the Public Advertiser,
“but, to their great Disappointment, there was no Appearance of its blowing, which made them watch it narrowly the 5th of January, the Christmas-Day, Old-Stile, when it blowed as usual, and in one Day’s Time was as white as a Sheet, to the great Mortification of many Families in that Neighbourhood, who had tapp’d their Ale eleven Days too soon”.
A few weeks into the New Year, a “Paper” was printed at Hull and widely distributed around Yorkshire, and it caused much consternation and anxiety in that very far-flung region by publicising the Thorn’s rebellious nature.. The “Paper“ in question was a little eight-page chapbook entitled (or, more accurately, beginning with the words) The Wonderful Works of God, shewing the Difference between the Old Cdristmas [sic] and the New.
The Wonderful Works tells the story of Joseph of Arimathea; his presence at the Crucifixion, his arduous journey to Britain, the planting of his staff on Wearyall Hill, the building of the Old Church, how he baptised “above 5000 Persons in one Day” at Wells. Its real purpose, however, is to confirm that the Thorn did blossom on Old Christmas Day 1753, and in a paragraph repeated twice the author tells us that
“there was a great many Gentleman and Ladies from all Parts of England to see ihat [sic] beautiful Thorn where Joseph of Arimathea pitched his Staff, within two Miles of Glastonbury, to the great surprise of the Spectators, to see it bud, blossom, and fade, at the Hour of twelve, on Old Christmas Day, where a Sermon was preached at the same time, by one Mr. Smith”.
One John Sherwood, of Warter, near Pocklington in the East Riding, observing that these claims were “very much taken Notice of, and believed to be true by a great many People amongst us,” resolved to write to the Vicar of Glastonbury and to ask him to confirm or deny the story. The Rev. Prat duly responded, dismissing the account in The Wonderful Works as “ridiculously stupid and egregiously false”. He declared that the Thorn that year had blossomed at Christmas New-Stile “or rather sooner”, and – even more devastatingly – reminded Sherwood that Bishop Stillingfleet “has plainly prov’d that Joseph of Arimathea never was here”.
John Sherwood of Warter had hoped that his letter to the Vicar of Glastonbury would “put an End to the Disputes of a great many People that are in different Opinions about it”, and passed it on to a Yorkshire newspaper, the York Courant, which duly published both letters shortly before the following Christmas. But the vicar’s reply, far from quelling the Yorkshire doubters, simply stirred up further disputes – and prompted John Jackson’s mission to Glastonbury.
Since he was penniless, a friend penned him an ‘advertisement’, which explains his intention concisely:
Whereas. There is and has been an ancient story concerning the White Thorn at Glastenbury (to wit) that it Budded at morn, Blossomd at noon, and Faded at night yearly on Old Christmas Day. Now JOHN JACKSON the bearer to be satisfied of the truth of it himself, and for the satisfaction of others, is willing and desirous to undergo the fatiegue of a journey thither upon proper incouragement and some small contribution toward his expences, and to get the best accounts that he can amongst the neighbours and inhabitants of the place, and if he finds anything to answer his expectation if he lives till Christmas he intends to be an eye witness of it himself, and hopes however by making the best observation he can of all the passages, going and coming and committing them unto writing ; his pains will not be altogether needless nor himself accounted an idle spectator.
And so, on 1 November 1755 (old style, naturally), this strange old character began his pedestrian odyssey. I see him as a bit like Joseph of Arimathea himself, with a staff, and a gammy leg. He wasn’t the only one to travel long distances to check up on the Christmas thorn. Two “simple villagers” were deputed by their neighbours from an “obscure village in Warwickshire” to go and check its habits, a miller named Shon Efan Gruffydd travelled all the way from Pentrefelin in the Lleyn Peninsular, and there were no doubt many others. But only one thought to keep an account of his travels, as unique in its way as the Travels of Marco Polo.
… and me
Right. That’s one old codger sorted & described. Time for the other one – me.
After many years of this and that my thread of gold took me to college in Wales, where I fetched up with a PhD in archaeology. I’m not much of a digger though: my interest is in story-telling, and in the many strange tales that get told about the past. Some are licensed by authority, though it’s the more unusual and outlandish takes that intrigue me most. The Straight history of Wyrd became my niche. I wrote a provocative book called Creating Prehistory: Druids, Leyhunters and Archaeologists in pre-war Britain, and when I moved from Wales to Somerset found myself inexorably and inevitably drawn to Glastonbury. It’s a place that fascinates and appals me in equal measure. I did once toy with the idea of living there but it’s way too heady for me; twenty miles away suits me just fine. It’s full of rogues and charlatans, of course, and I’m very sympathetic to the ‘ordinary’ people who struggle to live ‘normal’ lives in this New Age epicentre, but it is also truly a place of power – whether inherent or man-made is a question I will duck. So when my friend and mentor Ronald Hutton wrote an essay which not only debunked the myths – that’s the easy bit – but also suggested that none of it goes back more than a century or so, I thought, hmm. I started to delve a bit and discovered the strange story of the Glastonbury waters, and then the calendar reform; all of which eventually bore fruit in a short but suggestive pamphlet which I called The Thorn and the Waters (online here: http://www.isleofavalon.co.uk/history/thornwaters.html).
Writing it and researching it took me into some very new territory for me. I’d always seen the eighteenth century as profoundly dull: a place of cold and calculating progress-merchants, shallow wit and cynicism, rational scientists ignoring swirling injustice and poverty, stage-coaches running swiftly upon new-made turnpike roads past gibbeted highwaymen. All that was there, but there was also a lot of resistance, a sort of romantic backlash that eventually turned Glastonbury into the capital of anti-rationalism that is still is today.
And John Jackson? Something about his strange mission appealed to me immediately. For one thing, I was born nostalgic. I was instinctively anti-metric from the day the school tuck shop went decimal, for instance. Illogical I know; I’ve never found a real way to justify or explain it and since I have no truck with the sort of little-Englandism that usually goes with being anti-metric I don’t do much about it, beyond wincing when weather forecasters measure snow in centimetres, and grumbling like an old git at the loss of a culture that saw the world in inches, pints, yards and ounces. So I felt a keen affinity for an old geezer who felt that the world was turning upside down, and decided to ground his doubtings with a journey.
That doesn’t explain why I decided to walk in his footsteps. It’s one thing to go for a long walk, and after seven years beneath the professorial yoke I needed to lay the dust of academia anyway. But why not try the Andes, or the Himalayas, or a thousand-mile trek across Anatolia like everybody else? Even in British terms, my two-hundred mile trip to Glastonbury isn’t that impressive in terms of distance. Thousands hop, skip or jump from John o’Groats to Lands End each year. I wasn’t out to test my stamina, though. Nor was I goal-fixated. I wasn’t rushing, or dawdling. Just wandering along; observing, witnessing, earthing. Taking stock of the transformations that have taken place since Jackson’s day.
There were quite a few of those. It’s not exactly a scenic route, the one John Jackson chose. Leeds. Barnsley. Sheffield. Chesterfield. Derby. Burton. Lichfield. Birmingham. Worcester. Tewkesbury. Gloucester. Bristol. “Sounds like a railway timetable”, said more than one person, and I can’t deny that my heart sank a bit when first I laid out the OS maps and began to plot my route. All those conurbations, and much of the first half of my journey just a few miles off the Pennine Way, the Peaks just out of sight but beckoning, mocking my ploddings. But I quite like city walking. I grew up in central London and my family walked everywhere, so a four or five mile hike on city streets has never been a hardship. In my early teens I longed for the countryside, and I devised something called city-breaking, which involved plotting a route out twenty miles to the nearest field, walking it with A to Z in hand, and stopping off in cafes to read the Kilburn Times or the Totteridge Gazette to earth that sense of distance. And at journey’s end, tired but triumphant, looking out across pony paddocks and Green Belt pastures, drinking up the wide open spaces, grinning like a mad thing at having grounded the vile castle-in-the-air that I thought London to be, the eco-impossibility, the great wen. It has limits; it can be escaped. In the long run, city-breaking left me with a perverse fascination for the Urban Fringe, the place where town and country meet; those sudden frontiers between housing estates or industrial estates and open fields, the messy hinterlands of pylons and scrap-yards. John Jackson’s route actually appealed to me because he walked through all the unloved places. Across the old industrial heartland, from one end of the Industrial Revolution to the other, a walk through time as well as space, just like all good pilgrimages. Trekking through Middle England among the superstores and flyovers and brand-names and sodium lights and the eternal drone of the main roads. Breaking through the barriers between Nice places and Other places, between inner cities and quaint old towns and villages, industrial estates and council estates and agrarian estates. To boldly go where no-one boldly goes, from Barnsley unto Birmingham. A Tourist in Derby? But why not?
It is all so tamed, our land, our world. John Jackson’s century saw a kind of greed for knowledge, a guzzling gormandising desire to put the world in its belly, to know and measure everything. Now we’re stuffed. We know an awful lot but are apparently unable to stop the free-fall into oblivion, and the world has lost its mystery and charm. We need to rewrite the rules of Exploration, now that the summit of Everest has become almost as crowded as the summit of Snowdon. To see the familiar with unfamiliar eyes. To take a step out from the norm, like when you go hitching & turn round to face the traffic with your thumb out: instant transformation from innocent pedestrian to something a bit unusual (at least in these post-hitching times). Finding ways to bring adventure back to landscapes worn characterless through over-definition and too much concrete. We need a new Dreaming, a new perspective. A new kind of vision is needed; a standing-up to the bullying landscapes we’ve created.
So. I needed a long walk. I was starting to feel pretty hopeless about the universe and all that’s in it. I wanted to re-enchant the wasteland. John Jackson’s journey appealed to me as soon as I’d heard about it. Friends encouraged me; more and more it felt like the right thing to do, the only thing to do.
There were issues. People don’t normally set out for walks that last weeks in an English December, for obvious reasons. But any other time of year would have been cheating; so, gritting my teeth and not for the only time at the old fellow’s choice of choices, I accepted that I too would have to walk in December, even though there’d be no kipping in barns as I was wont to do, or even in tents, and so I’d have to find places to stay.
That decision made, it followed that I should strive to test John Jackson’s premise, and check which Christmas day the Thorn was blossoming. But there I drew a line, since walking until Old Christmas Day – modern January 6 – would have meant missing out on my own Christmas and New Year, and it would also have been nigh on impossible to find anywhere to stay for those nights. I also decided right at the start that I was only going to walk one way, unlike Jackson; and I decided to plot a route that would follow his, and take me as near as possible to the places he stayed in too, but I was not going to be too slavish about it. He followed the main roads. Many of them are now dual carriageways. Walking alongside dual carriageways is bad for one’s sanity. But I did decide that I would do the whole trek on foot. Jackson may have accepted lifts from passing carts or donkeys, though he never lets on, but I opted to make a conscious decision to do the whole thing on Shank’s pony and to avoid the ever-tempting motor-car.
Interesting, how my plans mutated. Plan A was to line up interesting people to walk with during the daytime, and spend the night in comfortable and anonymous B & Bs. I had no money of my own, so I had to get blagging. That meant going all-out for the local press, and perhaps because my plan was so bizarre, perhaps because there was a feel-good quality to it while at the time the banks were crashing down and all seemed doomy-gloomy, I got quite a lot of coverage. I became a bit of a media tart, and do you know, I quite enjoyed it.
But although I got plenty of exposure, the readies were much less forthcoming and my target of £1000 seemed ever-more impossible. I was getting demoralised, and was on the point of giving up when I got a warm and enthusiastic vote of confidence from Morgana West of the newly-founded Pilgrim Reception Centre in Glastonbury. She adopted me as a kind of mascot, sung up my mission to all and sundry, and put a framed photograph on a side-table in the shop, making me feel like a well-loved relative. Knowing that someone who I’d never met before wanted me to do this trip made all the difference. It’s the power of belief. Much easier to believe in yourself when others do so too.
It’s funny how things started to work out. The money was still slow to come in – Glaston’s full of paupers with causes and there’s not a lot of money about. But the problems shrank as my determination grew. Reality was being created. Short on cash? Why not change the emphasis, and since most of my costs were to do with bed and board, try and find folk who might be willing to put me up? I met a fellow in a second-hand bookshop who suggested that I should sign up for Couchsurfing.com. This I did, and discovered a community of people around the world who want to meet and harbour strangers, extraordinary testimony to just how much generosity and trust still remains in these scared and isolated times. A tonic for the soul. Within a day I was being offered a ‘hearty meal’ and a place to kip by good folks in Chesterfield. In the end, I stayed with Couchsurfers for five out of my twenty nights away; another site (Hospitality.com) provided another. A couple from the Gloucester Civic Society took me in, and also the Vicar of Chew Magna. Friends, acquaintances and friends of friends took me in for another six nights, so that I only had to find six B & Bs in total, and that my funds could run to.
It was not my intention, but this journey, like Jackson’s, ended up testing the life left in concepts such as ‘charity’ and ‘warm-heartedness’ – and how good it was to find them very much alive. Knowing that I was going to be staying with other people most nights prompted me to make my daily route a bit shorter, so that I was not too exhausted. If someone was going to give me somewhere to stay then the least they deserved in return was a bit of conversation in the evening; and so some more basic give-and-take emerged, basic human interactions, which is what this whole trek turned out to be about.
A shame, perhaps, that my original intention of meeting up with knowledgeable people most days, and discussing Important Subjects while we walked – a shame that didn’t materialise. But there’s always next time, and in fact I was very relieved that I didn’t have the hassle and the anxiety of making arrangements. In the end I tried two formal meetings: one worked well and the other didn’t. Arranging to meet people, especially busy people, in the middle of nowhere when your feet are your only transport, is a recipe for stress.
Thursday 4 December: the great road north
I hitch-hiked up to Yorkshire. Partly to save money but mostly to get me in the mood for adventure. Hitching is one sure-fire way of getting an adventure in this too-tamed land of ours, and I don’t understand why so few people do it anymore.
The day was beautiful, blue and clear, windy but not icy. My beloved, hereinafter known as Mission Control, dropped me at the back of Leigh Delamere services, and ere long I was picked up by a trade-plater out from Cardiff, delivering a tanker to Heathrow. He recommended airports as good stopping-off points for modern wayfarers. They’re usually open around the clock. Good for a kip and a wash. He dropped me at Reading Services, which for hitch-hikers is the Crewe or Clapham Junction of the motorways around London, the place to get dropped if you want to go around the city on the M25.
Lift 2 was a straightforward 40 year old bloke from Cwmbran, delivering posh radiators for Wickes and his work was right down. We got on well, as drivers and hitch-hikers usually do. I love that about hitching. What else can bring well-disposed strangers together so simply? You’re stuck in a tin box with nothing to do except talk, and get to know a bit about another person’s world. He was an under-14s rugby coach but was getting disillusioned: fewer and fewer boys wanted to do it, and there were lots of interfering parents who blamed him for their blue-eyeds’ shortcomings. He was on satnav autopilot and had only a vague idea of where he was…
He dropped me at J9-for-Luton on the M1, and that is a place not to get dropped, if you’re reading this and thinking about thumbing north some day. The slip-road’s off a roundabout with a fence tight to the verge: you’d have to be a very brave driver, or a stupid one, to try and stop there. I walked down to the A5, the traffic howling beneath the motorway bridge, and there remained until a kindly taxi driver came and rescued me, or rather took me from one bad junction to another, not that he was to know. “Still, it’s a beautiful day”, I said. He sighed when I said that. “The sun is the taxi-driver’s worst enemy: everybody walks”. The media were talking up the recession, he told me, and they shouldn’t have been. As a good consumer he’d just splashed out £100 for his seven-year-old daughter’s present. What with her birthday, Eid and Christmas, this was going to be an expensive month. Eid and Christmas? “We’re Moslems but we celebrate Christmas too, for the kids…”
He dropped me at a little-used slip-road off the road to Luton Airport. I did some thinking. I really didn’t want to be hitching after dark, least of all with a stranger waiting at the other end who’d offered me somewhere to stay. It was a bright and golden day but the shadows were getting longer. I decided to give it until 4.00, and then head off to the airport and find a bus. At 3:59 – I kid you not, this is the serendipity of the road – a battered old car pulled up, with a woman of about my age heading for Northampton. She dropped me at Newport Pagnell, and the first thing I noticed was the lack of overhead streetlights. Those horrible, useful sodium streetlights… It was getting dark and God knows where the nearest bus station might be. I was starting to feel a bit Doomed when rescue appeared in the form of a thirty-something digger-driver heading into Nottingham. There was nothing doing on the work front, he told me. He was down to 4 days a week, and that was just scratching around. There were plans to add an extra lane to this old workhorse of a motorway and he was desperately keen to get in on it. What hope for the Green Revolution, I thought but did not say. What is the point. I saw his point all too clearly. He grew up on a Northumbrian hill farm, and it took about thirty seconds of talking to him to wipe out any romantic illusions about that upbringing. His memories were of biting winds, digging sheep out of snow drifts so deep that he had to carry the sheepdog. His daily prayer was that the school bus would be able to get through, and carry him away to a day in the warmth…
I stayed with him into Nottingham, and rode into town on a tram to find a bus to Leeds. I found that I had an hour to kill, so I wandered round the city streets, cheerfully lit but very empty, until I found a pizza joint wherein to rest my limbs and tend unto the inner man. Feeling weary, predictably, but glad indeed that I’d put myself through the Hitch. It’s my tried-and-tested way of breaking through the Ordinary, lived experience, necessary ordeal – though I was very pleased to be on that bus to Leeds. Two hours of moving action and no need to talk to anyone about anything!
A couple of Bradford teenagers in the seats behind me breathed out crisp-packet MSG halitosis, one a chatty chavvy Asian girl in gold hot pants; beside me, a couple of my own age, in a strop and different seats. It was going to be a long journey. I looked out into the darkness, all those orange-lit villages, towns, streets. All that walking ahead of me. All those big ugly cities. What was I doing this for? Why was I putting myself through it?
It Is What It Is, says a voice.
This Is What Is Meant To Happen As It Unfolds So It Is.
Ah, the angelic hosts. On cue I noticed a sign on a church – “no good, no peace/ know good, know peace”. These north-country Christians have a good line in bad puns.
At Barnsley we lost our patient blazered driver and the helm was taken over by some unpleasant little twerp who decided that he was going to go to Bradford before Leeds, thus pissing off half the bus before he’d started. A middle-aged Asian bloke nearby began talking into his mobile – no louder than most people do, but the driver was clearly rattled by the fact that he was talking in another language and said – loudly – ‘keep your voice down mate’. Which he did, but it happened again half an hour later and obviously it was a fairly important call or else he just didn’t hear the driver, who stopped the bus and squared up to him. It was unpleasant, far more disturbing than the phone call, a quite deliberate display of I’m In Charge Here and with not-so-distant echoes of racism to it. A reminder that this was BNP territory round here, a place where entrenched socialism had gone wrong and imploded into some demonic opposite. Yorkshire, home of tolerance. What had become of thee?
We finally pulled into Leeds bus station about two hours later than expected. After several phone calls with my long-suffering but very patient couchsurfing host, he had returned home, but his place wasn’t too hard to find. I slithered over half-a-mile or so of black ice to the Student Quarter, and a terraced house full of young’uns living in comfortable chaos. He was a friendly dude, this much-travelled 22-year-old. We talked about hitch-hiking. Hitching in Britain these days is crap, he told me, compared to France and most places in Europe. That’s an interesting & highly significant turnaround since My Young Days when it was Britain that was easy and France that was difficult (says the man who’d just hitched up from the south that very day, but it is a bit different for me, there’s a novelty value in picking up a harmless old hippy, and even so the journey took a lot longer than it would have done in days of yore). An interesting measure of the social transformation that’s swept this land of ours this last thirty years. We may be better off but on the whole we’re a good deal more fearful. But I’m not sure that he would have agreed. We also talked of architecture, planning, modernism, dreams. This optimistic fellow had little sense of an imploding future. I hope he’s right.
Around midnight he left me to the front room and a fairly chilly night, in my lightweight sleeping bag with the dodgy zip, curled up in front of a cold grate, wrapped around the coffee table. There were bottles on the hearth, red wine, Talisker, and copies of the glossy Student BMJ on the table. “Meet The Good Guys: Gastrointestinal Microbiota”, clarioned the cover. I dozed off dreaming of enormous and colourful effusions of gut flora and old whisky.
Friday December 5: Exhilarating to Barnsley
I took a bus out to Woodkirk, which lies just south of the M62 within a pocket of countryside enclosed by the great conurbation. The little church loomed, the oldest building round here by a long way. I alighted, tiptoed gingerly across the black ice and residual sludge to the churchyard and wide views down the valley beyond. The Dewsbury road was busy with rush-hour travellers, but the church itself was a nice little oasis of calm. It was a beautiful morning.
Woodkirk was Jackson’s home, and since Jackson was a churchman I thought it good to start my own journey by meeting up with the current Vicar of Woodkirk. Amanda Barraclough was tiny, an elf amongst vicars, trendy too, with a pink top and flares with dog collar. She wanted to bring new life to her calling: “If God is so breath-takingly creative, and imaginative, why is the church so predictable? … Holy Spirit, breathe on our imaginations, renew our creativity!”. There were three of us in church, vicar, verger and vagabond, and she gave me a blessing to set me on my way. Afterwards, a keen young photographer from the Morley Observer took about a hundred pictures of us in different parts of the churchyard. Then Amanda walked me down the Dewsbury road to the parish boundary, a nicely symbolic first mile. We talked about a lot of things, all the irrelevant & sundry stuff a vicar is expected to do, like look after graveyards and buildings, about Lee Fair, which is still going (if only just), about Emley Mast on the horizon which Wikipedia claims to be the tallest freestanding structure in the country. About Christianity. What is this thing called Christianity? I used to resent what I took to be the Church’s power and the way it looked like Authority and the Establishment. I used to mock or pity believers as sad folk in need of crutches that enlightened chappies like me would never need. It was the easy target for all our mockery and resentment, and there’s no doubt that a lot of atrocities have been committed in the name of the Lord. But an awful lot haven’t. Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot … the big-league genocides of the twentieth century were if anything anti-religious in inspiration. There is nothing inherently decent in atheism. But why is there still this anger, this deep-seated antipathy to Christianity, as manifested in such things as the Da Vinci Code? Is it that people still feel cheated in some kind of way? “Why is Christianity still in disgrace?”, I asked Amanda, unfairly and ungraciously. “You tell me”, she snorted, but I couldn’t.
Amanda left me with a hug and a last ‘god bless’, and I promptly turned off the main road, down a track, through pony paddocks, ice & mud to an old gritstone farmhouse. Across the bypass, up through Hanging Heaton and eventually into Dewsbury, past a pink dayglow notice outside Dewsbury Baptist Church: ‘God answers knee mail’.
Dewsbury was a BNP stronghold, and Amanda told me about the day the BNP candidates posed in front of her church for publicity shots: a symbol of Old England. I was uncomfortably aware that my mission might well resonate with these people too, since ‘folklore’ has been annexed to the cause of little-England nationalism. Village fêtes, Morris dancers, white-rose-of-Yorkshire, a lot of reinvented Englishness for the folk who think their ‘culture’ is threatened by folk of different colour and background.
But today Dewsbury seemed friendly enough, and I saw white and Asian people walking together in the High Street in a way you probably wouldn’t get down south. Although now part of the conurbation, it feels like a country market town. I stopped off for a somewhat rubbery breakfast in a wonderfully old-fashioned café at the top of a long flight of stairs. Here friendly aproned waitresses served tea and toast to considerably more than Four Yorkshiremen, who really were reminiscing about Eddy Wearing, back-to-backs, Leeds United as it used to be and the winter of 1947.
I headed off down to the bridge over the Calder (there wasn’t one in Jackson’s day; he went over by boat), and crossed into Savile Town. This is Dewsbury’s Asian centre, looking both peaceful and fairly prosperous, and again quite mixed. There’s a very Yorkshire barber between a fish and chip shop with Asian clientèle, and on the other side a halal butcher. No sign of strife here then, but I took a wrong turn into a nice little private estate on the way to Thornhill Edge and saw an enormous St George’s flag. Is the BNP a thing of the suburbs up here?
It was quite a climb to the top of Thornhill Edge, and at the top I stopped for a breather by the well-named Long Causeway, looking out to snow-capped mountains in the distance, and making those anticipated first-day adjustments to rucksack straps. The bag packed up (or down?) well, a pleasant surprise, but I was still working out where everything went, which were the right pockets for the mobile phone, the voice recorder and the water-bottle.
Emley Mast from Thornhill Edge
When John Jackson came to Thornhill he suppered at a place called Crossland, and spent the night at John Halstead’s, and a cold frosty night it was and a South East wind. He set off at 10 the next morning, and calld at William Wolfendens John Bayldons and Abraham Greenwoods oth [of the] Carr and dined there. This was Carr Farm, half a mile west of my route, which meandered through a maze of little streets (well, to be honest, I got ever so slightly lost for about the third time this morning. I collared the postman, who sent me down what he thought was the right path but he wasn’t certain since he’d only been down here once as a child on a sponsored walk. It’s funny, how people just don’t walk any more.)
After the Carr, Jackson went to Upper Denby and calld at widow Beamonts and went by Denby Grange to William Halsteads and being driven in by a fearful tempest of South wind and rain I tarry’d till the morning for the tempest of wind and rain continued till cock crowing in the morning. It was a bad winter.
I slithered out of Thornhill down a bit of a slippery bank, the ground red with berries and fallen nuts. The countryside was open now, but the track was muddy and rutted. It was much easier thinking eighteenth-century out of the town, especially on a proper old miry way like this (all ways seemed to be miry in Jackson’s account). I grabbed hold of a branch to swing myself over a puddle and pricked my hand right on a quickthorn. It’s the landlord’s plant, and in the background the dogs of Private Property were howling. Feeling pleasantly resentful, I settled into one of those anti-landlord rants that all left-leaning urban ramblers do when they wander through the leafy shires. Particularly the bits of them that are closest to the towns, like Upper Denby, an upmarket hamlet these days; my track has a gate and a ‘private road’ sign on it.
I followed Jackson foot way down to Flockton, through a resin-scented pine wood with some very mossy walls and up to the A 642. Here I flopped beside a muddy puddle and looked out over Emley Mast, very huge and very elegant. This was once industrial heartland, but the traces are hard to spot, though the National Coal Mining Museum is at the edge of Flockton village. Open-cast mining was already the main industry hereabouts when John Jackson came this way but he doesn’t mention it. He seems to have been doing the rounds of his neighbours, garnering encouragement and no doubt sixpences from Widow Senier, and Messrs Clark, and Dyche, and Gill, and Wat Kay. He arrived at Adam Wolfenden’s farm at Emley Old Hall on his sixth day. On the seventh, he Clean’d the brass watch and tarryd till morn”. On the eighth, All this day I was at the Old Hall; drest the clock and lay again till morn. On the ninth, till after noon I was at the Old Hall, regulated the diary. No tearing hurry then. I got the feeling that old John, setting out on the journey of a lifetime, was milking it to the max. I imagined farmer Wolfenden beginning to get a bit anxious by now. “Happen you’ll be on your way today, master Jackson?” Emley Old Hall today has its own private road, with a posh gate and seven-foot spiked fencing, but it’s still a working farm, with a huge asbestos-roofed barn and the beep beeping of reversing tractors, the unromantic sounds of the modern countryside. But I was feeling fine, on this perfect day for walking, crisp and clear. Starting to be a little bit worried about the daylight, but not very much. It was just very good indeed to be out here.
Emley Old Hall
From Emley Old Hall Jackson went by Park Mill to Britton, and lay at Mr Adam Bayldons who is both Church Clark and School master of Britton. The weather being cold and irksom, he stayed three nights at Bayldon’s. On the first day I spun and made clock string for the clock; on the next finished the clock strings warping and weaving &c, but since the day was more fierce than the day before it.. I..tarryd and lay again this third night.
Park Mill became a coal mine and closed in 1989; a big factory’s on the site today. I crossed the Dearne by the packhorse bridge that Jackson must have taken, and then into Bretton Park. The solid mansion of Bretton Hall, which in Jackson’s day had recently been rebuilt by Sir William Wentworth with money from his wife’s Northumbrian mining family, became a teacher training college after the War and developed a radical, artsy edge. In 2001 it was taken over by the University of Leeds, who sold it six years later; it’s about to become a 120-room luxury hotel. Which just about sums up this past seventy years. In the hopeful 1940s, what better use was there for these old stately homes than to turn them into temples for the new learning? By this benighted century they’ve become way too luxurious for the leaner fitter artisans of the Knowledge Economy. The wheel has come full circle, and places such as this are once more the habitat of the wealthy. The intellectual rabble get re-housed in less exotic places.
The Yorkshire Sculpture Park survives, however, and took me by surprise. I bounded over its sheep-cropped turf, ruminating on the resurrection of Whiggish England by the Tories, when I caught sight of an ominous structure in the valley: a gibbet? – no, merely a suspended giant eyeball.
I wish I’d had more time to dally and explore this amazing space, but by now the daylight was fading and the clouds were gathering, so I strode purposefully on to Haigh and some scary high jinks getting across the roundabout beneath the M1 junction. I got to the middle all right but thereafter the traffic was relentless – at one point I realised that there was no particular reason why the traffic should ever let up, I could be stuck on that roundabout all night… but I made it & took refuge from spotting rain in a bus shelter, one of those new ones with little spring-up seats to perch your bum on, stylishly designed to deter people from getting too comfortable; but I was grateful for a sit-down anywhere out of the mud. When the drizzle let up I set out for my last bit of country walking along the banks of the Dearne, and it turned into a proper little adventure. The river-bank was way too slippery so I walked through the thick, sticky clay of the field until I reached the high fence of a reservoir, with the river on one side and the railway on the other. It was now pretty much totally dark. I followed a track under the railway, heading for the dim and beckoning orange lights of Darton until my way was barred by a 7-foot fence topped with fleur-de-lys spikes (the first of many on this trip) ferociously defending a completely empty compound. I walked round the edge of it back up to the railway line, and then followed that, nervously enough since there were plenty of trains, until I found a place with a gap under the fence. I escaped into the compound, a long and rectangular stretch of land, and followed the fence on the inside towards the lights – but there was no way out. Trapped! But eventually I found a place where some naughty person had bent back the bars, and made my escape.
I came out on the edge of a building site, picked my way across the rough ground to the first-and-last cul-de-sac of the Barnsley built-up area. Past the show houses, estate agents’ banners fluttering hopefully, down the new-made pavement into Darton. Gleeful to be back in the land of street-lights and pavements, I ‘helloed’ a group of youngsters who did their best to ignore me. Ouch! Further on I passed a terrace house with a window-glass over the front door that said ‘Merry Christmas’ back-to-front, for people on the inside going out rather than outsiders looking in, which suited my tired and excluded mood.
Salvation appeared in the form of an enormous Indian restaurant in a converted cinema. It was a tad early for food but I thought I’d be lucky to find better than this, so I sat on a wall, scraped off the worst of the mud, slunk into a dark corner and stuffed myself on curry. Replenished, I redonned my wet weather gear and set off into the drizzle of a bleak Barnsley evening in December and why? Because I wanted to defeat the Bleak Mid Winter. I was walking into the heart of it, facing it out, facing out mid-life bleakness, and hopelessness about humanity, humankind, the human condition, what’s left for us all. Living the allegory, walking through bleak places at the bleakest time of year. There’s spring on the other side.
Barnsley may be bleak but that first B & B was bliss for a sore-footed knackered nutty wayfarer. No-one came when I banged on the door, but the lady next door told me to walk right in and shout for Lee, who was holding the fort for his mum. I was in Room 3, Next Door told me, and I was to have a cup of tea at No Extra Charge.
Lee emerged from the shower, unperturbed and not at all apologetic. He brewed up a cuppa and took me into the tiny dining room. The walls were invisible beneath commemoration plates, straw dolls and miscellaneous nick-nackery. There was an enormous telly perched on one end of the table and Lee sat about eighteen inches in front of it.
“Don’t get me wrong, I love a few pints and a bundle”, he said, explaining why punching his Dad was a bit unusual. The old feller had responded by knocking his son’s jaw off – “hanging down it were”. Lee would be pressing charges if he knew where to find him: he’d done a runner but he hadn’t got a passport so he’d not left the country. The reason for the punch? His dad had been beating up his mum for as long as he could remember and one day Lee just snapped.
‘Kindly refrain from smoking’ said the signs on every wall, so we puffed outside in the drizzle while he shouted insults at the cat, which was understandably trying to sneak indoors (where a mutt sat smug snug and cozy in the kitchen, there’s no justice). He was impressed with the fact that I came from Somerset – ‘Glastonbury’, he said straightaway. It’s the Festival, innit. He was an old hand. When he goes, he drinks vast quantities of cider and gets muddy. “I love the mud, me”. He also loved getting away from responsibility and the people that know you, presumably including his dad. This year he didn’t go because his wife had left him and he wanted to spend the money (and time?) on his kids. He was 31. He reminded me a bit of Martin, my madcap dangerous manic friend, who died half a lifetime ago and is therefore 28 forever.
I could have stayed up watching telly and chatting about festivals and fighting but I was way too knackered so I beat an early retreat. The room was basic. The door had a giveaway Igor creak – no-one sneaks out of here in the night. It was full of empty beds and was wonderfully tacky. A diminutive china santa looked down on me from atop the wardrobe, a jolly sailorman beside him and a brace of black exotics too. I was wearing too many T shirts and they were soaking, gentle reader, dripping with putrid sweat, so I rigged a line from the top of the wardrobe to the ornamental curtain-rope and hung them out to stew if not to dry. Very satisfying.
Saturday December 6: Sheffield and the buses of temptation
good morning Barnsley
Oi Master Jackson! I did Woodkirk to Barnsley in a single day. How come it took you twelve, you old tarryer?
cold stormy rain and hail and raging West wind and wofull ill miry way
Yeah, yeah. Mind you, I was very lucky. Twas another bright and beautiful morning as I headed off into Barnsley town. I walked down main roads that seemed to have fewer cars than there’d be in the south but maybe that’s imagination, or else the weather was keeping people indoors, for there was plenty of black ice about. It was safest walking on the grass verges. I was not the only walker about. I did the last mile with an elderly lady who always walks the two miles into town because she loves it, though she takes the bus back. We clicked straight away. ‘You heading to the station? So am I’ – that good old instant Northern friendliness. Not that our chit-chat was light-hearted exactly. Her husband had cancer and wasn’t responding to the treatment, so the big C was the theme, people we knew who had it, had died from it or recovered from it – hardly jolly stuff but she was warm and friendly.
I met my old mate Steve at the Barnsley Interchange, now returned to the more rugged landscapes of the Pennines from the soft borderlands of Herefordshire. We walked unseeing through the marketplace, too busy catching up; and then through Worsbrough Common down to the bridge across the Dove. According to the statistics Worsbrough’s a sociological black hole, with unemployment running at 80% and much of it up for rebuilding, but to us on that day the place felt warm and friendly.
wayfarer at Worsbrough Bridge
Jackson got lost here back in 1755. He didn’t stop in Barnsley town, but pressed on after dark to Worsbrough where he had a place to stay and lost my way and wandered a great while on the Common but at last I got to the Warren house, and Joseph Newsom did go with me to the Narrow lane end that leads down to Worsbor Bridge. And on the bridge I met a man that said, “Here’s a sore night. How will you ever get home’!” And indeed it [was] 9 o clock and dark and hard it rained. However I got up the lane to Worsbor and calld up Mr Dixons and lay there.
This Mr Dixon was the incumbent, the Rev Jeremiah Dixon, who like John Jackson had no truck with calendar reform. He tried it out in the parish register for 1754-55 but thereafter, perhaps inspired by John Jackson, who knows, he reverted to the old style; it wasn’t until his son John took over in 1778 that Worsbrough parish register finally caught up with the rest of the land. As hosts go, Jackson could have done a lot worse. Dixon’s probate inventory of 1774 includes thirteen barrels of ale and brewing equipment, more than that of Worsbrough’s principal innkeeper. As Denis Ashurst’s social history of Worsbrough shows, Dixon “fed and slept well, having the most extensive collection of cooking equipment of any Worsbrough household and all his Chambers were provided with feather beds, ample coverings and a selection of chairs, tables and mirrors. He was particularly conscious of the need to display his social standing in his Hall and Dining Room with mahogany furniture, glass, china, tea-making equipment, book case and knives and forks all helping to present a gentry aura to visitors on entry.”
Did Jackson the strolling man get to sit on the mahogany, or sip that genteel new tea stuff out of china? Probably not, but Dixon didn’t rush him on. He stayed there for three nights because, as he tells us, the weather was dire: Last night sore rain all the night till morn. Till noon I was at Mr Dixons, and dined there and all this day being bad weather sore rain I tarryd at Worsbor… as before or worse; both rain and snow and no stirring out, for the water was belly deep at Worsbor Brigg. So I tarryd this night again…
Jackson joined Dixon in his rounds: he witnessed the burying of a young woman, and made an atrocious comment about a wedding apparently attended by women so loose in their morals that not any of Worsbor Lads would come at ’em, but only one of a small account. Hey Master Jackson, where’s your Christian charity? Shame on you, from the virtuous standpoint of 2015. The vicar’s wife, meanwhile, was called away about 10 o’clock at night about the death of Mr. Wingfield, a young man newly marry’d, who had been their neighbour about 3 weeks. He had a good estate and something belonging to the University. A neighbour with a fortune worth lamenting, then? Hmm. Excuse my anachronistic cynicism, and thank you Mr Dixon for taking in my old vagabond.
Worsborough these days fades into Birdwell, the home of Charlie Williams until his death in 2006. At the top of the town’s the Wentworth Obelisk, a strange and unregarded hilltop needle built twenty years after Jackson’s journey as a signpost to Wentworth Castle. We flopped down in front of this strange structure, which was then up for sale. I wonder if anyone ever bought it.
As the traffic trundled past gently on the A6135 and the M1 roared in the distance, we got on to the deep stuff. “My general feeling is that religion’s a source of despair”, says Steve. What about Buddhism, I ask, craftily, knowing his sympathies. “It’s bad as anything else, creating an isolated community, that’s what I don’t like. There are so many common things between human beings that have nothing to do with religions. We don’t emphasise that enough. Transcending your own foibles, your own selfishness – but nobody’s saying that sorting out the ego is what needs doing”.
I’m not sure about that, and said so. Ego-consciousness is only a generation old here in the west, and yet the bookshops are full of self-help books. Perhaps the right people aren’t reading them. Perhaps we are starting to transcend our egos, but collectively speaking not fast enough for the sake of human tenure on earth. There’s a race on.. but it really is shocking how environmental issues slip and slide out if the headlines. ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ indeed: climate change doesn’t fit in with anyone’s plans. Not Al Gore’s, not the blessed Obama’s, not my own, certainly not the British Government. And as the economy deteriorates, people will be queuing up for jobs building prisons, warships, roads, airports… anything that will bring in enough to pay off the mortgages, the credit-cards, and keep us wallowing in retail therapy, the shit we’ve some to depend on. Look after today; we can’t afford to think about the future.
But Steve reckons that the Green thing is not that important. “If we make the planet uninhabitable then we’ll have to deal with that, what’s important is why that happens”. Sometimes I know what he means, sometimes I don’t. I live too much in this world of form, that’s my trouble. But don’t go thinking that Steve is some kind of other-worldly saint. We do a good old-boy double-act, me and Steve. Young people these days. The woes of modern hitch-hiking. England’s becoming a harder place. Youth is oblivious. All students have cars. He once laughed like a drain at this photograph:
and waxes lyrical about Alan McArthur and Steve Lowe’s book “Is it Just Me or is Everything Shit?: The Encyclopedia of Modern Life”. ” This very funny, well-informed, belligerent rant of a book adds up to an excoriating broadside against consumer capitalism that the authors hope will sell loads of copies” (I got that last bit from the blurb on Amazon. Amazon! Don’t get me started…)
But we grudgingly concede that there are some things that are better. The internet’s brilliant (if double-edged). Hitching may be harder but you’ve got things like Couchsurfing, conscious and proactive subversion of the Fear vibe. There’s plenty of Good Youth too, doing amazing things. It’s just that, we somehow thought that we were part of an expanding consciousness. We never really thought that the next generation would turn out to be at least as dippy as ours was. Surely they can see the way the environment’s crumbling? It’s their world more than it’s ours now…
After three days, no doubt to the relief of Mr Dixon, the weather changed for Jackson: a very pleasant fair frowning smiling sunshine dusky morning and a Western air. A thing uncommon that 4 complexions should happen to meet in one morning, but so now it happens, but cold and frosty till noon and then turnd slabby [muddy, slushy, sloppy].
He left Worsbrough, and went over long lanes and 4 commons near Tankersly and down the White lane [now the A6136, a couple of miles east of my route] to Chapel town a place of nail makers, and there I met with a neighbour John Spence who lives betwixt Tingley and Black Yate and we went into an alehouse and drank each a pint and parted and went on our way He toward Tingley and I toward Sheffield, but first I mus go through Ecclesfield where is a neat Church compleatly built and I got to see into it and then went on my way to Sheffield
We crossed the M1 at Tankersley, then after a momentary confusion trying to follow a fold in the map instead of a footpath we wiggled around the edge of a wood and onto the golf course that Tankersley Park now is. We wove around the hardy golfers, cut across the black-ice skating-rink of the car park and into the shrubbery, over the A61 and into the top of Chapeltown through a wood with old walls and railway embankments beautifully and colourfully graffitoed. We crossed a perilous main road, then up through Greno Woods, discussing the financial crisis, but we didn’t make it to Ecclesfield church, the ‘Minster on the Moors’, now on the northernmost tip of Sheffield. And then, the long dreary weary haul across the suburbs into the twilight, made all the drearier & wearier by the thousands of buses that passed us by, all going our way and all strictly out of bounds. One challenge that this walk presented, unlike those bog-standard orthodox treks to exotic places, was the constant temptation to desert. At any moment that evening we could have stepped off the path of righteousness and onto the bus of temptation. But the moon popped up to encourage us on, with Venus and Jupiter looking on to make sure that there was no backsliding, and at Hillsborough Steve’s partner Sally joined us and gave us new energy for the last stretch through Walkley, which seemed to be brimming with attractive back-street boozers. We had neither time nor money, so we limped past the lot.
When Jackson came to Sheffield: I took up my lodging at the sign of Old Bacchus near the Irish Cross, where I found both the landlord Edward Steel and Elizabeth his wife a very civil people. And when I went to bed I saw a heap of tuphorn [rams’ horns, used by the Sheffield cutlers for making handles for table-knives] on the midst of the chamber floor which as I supposd might be half a cart load. I rested very well and at morn when I got up in comes Finley Manson a neighbouring barber and by him I was shaved before I went away.
On the way back, Jackson stayed there again and Finley Manson trimd me again and I drank with him and the printer and others besides them. The next day I drest the Clock and was rewarded for it and Mrs. Steel gave me a pair of plain stript worsted garters and bid me wear em for her sake.
The Irish Cross, according to Robert Leader’s ‘Reminiscences of Old Sheffield’, stood “in the space where Angel street, Snig hill, Castle street, Bank street, and Water lane converge”, and from the 1730s was also the site of one of Sheffield’s earliest printing offices. Which makes me wonder whether Jackson was a ‘flying stationer’ amongst his many other trades. Chris Reid, who deserves the credit for re-introducing Jackson to the modern world (see his ‘Sacramental time: John Jackson, Christopher Smart, and the reform of the calendar’ (Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation 41 (2000), pp 205-224), points out that Jackson “seems to have had a good deal in common with hawkers of printed material”, who were often very mobile and very poor. Small printed items and broadsheets were cheap to produce and cheap to sell, and therefore had an obvious appeal to people scratching a living on the breadline. “Oddly”, says Michael Harris, “it was the large population of vagrants – that underclass so complained of by moralists – whose growling bellies were responsible for the spread of the printed word to the far corners of the land”. The link between hawking and begging was “very close indeed”, and Harris’s fascinating study of a flying stationer called David Love reveals a character with some definite similarities to Jackson. Like Jackson, he was happiest on the road; like Jackson, he had been a schoolmaster once, but the money wasn’t much good (he ‘got no more than a penny each week for readers and three halfpence for writers’) and so after only five months he went back on the road. Like “Old Trash” Jackson, he acquired an unflattering nickname at the end of his life (“Old Glory”). Like Jackson, Love was a poet and a writer. He was also a news-gatherer as well as a news-agent, on one occasion witnessing an event, collected details from the witnesses, composed a song and “got it printed, and had them bawling in the streets the same evening”. Could it be that Jackson too was a bit of a newshound? He certainly had an ear for a story and was not above tittle-tattle. Could it be that he not only read about the traditionalist tendencies of the Christmas-flowering Thorn, but wrote about them too, and helped to spread the word by selling it?
The trouble with this walk was all the walking. I had pains in the base of my back, the side of my right heel and my right little toe, and my knees were all wobbly. But I was crooning after an evening of generous old-fashioned hospitality and pampering at Steve’s mum Val’s, a superb curry cooked up by his sister Jo, and an awful lot of whisky. I love being loved. I’d rediscovered my Inner Guest, and resolved to let myself be spoilt rotten by as many people as possible.
Sunday December 7: Rudolph, miners and the Fates of Coal Aston
Sunday morning. An absolutely beautiful day; cold, crisp and bright. I was feeling really cherished from that warm-hearted evening. Glowing with crazy optimism. This trip was all unfolding the way that it needed to unfold. I knew that I might not get glorious weather for nineteen December days in a row, but it was really good not having to deal with rain snow mist fog or just English winter dull sullenness when I was also getting in trim, learning how to carry my rucksack & where everything goes, negotiating conurbations and all those things that might dampen a man’s ardour for a nutty quest like this.
I went from Broomhill to Nether Edge by way of Frog Walk, up the side of the frozen cemetery where a private ambulance was parked up prominently by the entrance. This is apparently Cherry Tree Hill, where as I was ordered at Worsbor, I enquired for Mr Savage … and found him at home. I dined there and he gave me a tester [sixpence]. A spot of googling suggests that this was another clergyman, the Rev. Thomas Savage, who left a legacy to pay for the teaching of eight poor children at Sharrow School in his will of 1782. Jackson stayed over with him on the way back home, and Mr. Savage gave me severall books to lend but without titles. Chap-books perhaps, with their title-pages missing?
Today, pleasant western suburbs merge genteely into pleasant southern suburbs. I wandered through Nether Edge Christmas Market, or rather where it was going to be that afternoon. Several side-streets were closed off, and the stallholders were setting up, hardy folk, a predictable if strange mixture of hippy crafts & farmers-market style meat and poultry. I dropped from the heights of the Edge to the plebeian promise of Abbeydale Road, which belongs to another culture-zone altogether. From Val and Jo’s delicate description the previous night I gathered that it was a trifle on the seedy side, and as I crossed the road, right on cue a news-board proclaimed ‘Red Light District Denial’. I crossed under the railway into a semi-industrial world, and beyond mean streets of little terrace houses with a slightly run-down air to them. The Chesterfield Road roared up above me; I ignored the switchback and cut across on ‘informal footpaths’ as they call them formally, and found a wonderfully high and little-used set of steps that took me up to the high road.
I came out almost opposite what’s marked on the map as the Norton Hammer Brick Works but now is a quarry filled with, of course, retail sheds. I shinned up the steep footpath that weaves around the side of it to the top of Derbyshire Lane, the main drag south from Sheffield in John Jackson’s day. Today it’s just suburban-dull and B-road busy, and it was a relief to get to Grays Park. All hail to the memory of Alderman Gray, and all the small-time small-town saints, the unsung councillors of every party who toil away at prosaic tasks for nothing and whom we in our decadent democracy treat with derision and contempt. His park’s a lovely bit of land, good and high, looking down over rolling countryside. The countryside! The fields beyond! This was my first bit of real city-breaking for ages. Down the hill, through some plain pebbledash streets of interwar suburbia, over the ring-road past Norton College, down past Jordanthorpe, which is a surprisingly run-down council estate to find right on the very edge of the city. I slunk out of Sheffield and of Yorkshire by way of a tatty little footpath beside the Boundary Social Club, and entered Derbyshire through a stile.
The city was broken, though there’s but one ploughed field between here and Coal Aston on the hill ahead. It was muddy but crisp; the furrows were frozen, and easy to walk over. This unlikely hamlet was blessed, or maybe afflicted, by a visitation by the Fates some time in the nineteenth century. Not fate, but the Fates themselves, in person, as the folklorist Sydney Addy reported in 1895, “three tall, thin women standing in a line with three hour glasses in their hands” together with ” a tall man three yards high with an oak tree over his shoulder” and ” a man with a scythe over his shoulder.” Sydney was impressed, understandably: “if I had found an old marble statue of the Matres Deae buried on the common I could not have been more astonished than I was when I heard these words. This popular remembrance, handed down in England through so many ages, of the awful divinities was too plain to be misunderstood.”
The fates were less visible when Jackson went through a century or so earlier, but it seems that they already had it in for Coal Aston. Here, he was told, about a month agoe a woman hang’d her seff and another was drowned and both in about 2 days time. Here, too, he met many people going to the Fayr that is holden this day at Sheffield, and I hear that 2 heifers and 2 pigs are drowned at Stolly Brigs [Staveley Bridge?] near Chesterfield going from Chesterfield fayr which is holden the 25th of November after the new style. Woe betide those foolish marketeers who change their time-hallowed fair-dates to suit some new-fangled calendar.
Nothing untoward occurred to me at Coal Aston, alas, its fateful allure now drowned out by suburbia. As I followed the long straight road into Dronfield, an electronic rendition of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer filled the air. It’s the authentic modern Christmas song, as anodyne as Santa. I slipped into Dronfield down an alley between my old friends the 7’-high fleur-de-lys-spiked fences. To my left, factories smelling vaguely of chemicals were humming away, quietly because it’s Sunday. To my right, playing fields with adolescents running round doing football or rugby or some such, dads coaching from the sidelines. How many of those kids really want to be there, I wondered, remembering my rugby-coaching lift the other day? How many of the dads, for that matter?
I came into town past William Lee, castings, a big if rather a run-down operation. Dronfield was truly Rudolphsville today. Just that one tune, nothing else but Rudolph, over and over again, emanating as it turned out from a Christmas Fayre in the town centre.
From Cold Aston I went down to Dranfield tarryd a while eat and drank and went up to Whittington, a straggling town where is a Church like a Chappel and I was told that the Parsons name is Mr. Peg. This was the celebrated Rev. Samuel Pegge, one of the foremost antiquaries of the day, and it doesn’t seem likely that a natural-born antiquarian such as Jackson wasn’t aware of that. Perhaps he didn’t like him much, or at least his very low church –
And away I went over a level comon to Chesterfield… It’s a main road now, so I went over the top instead, along Hallowes Lane, which soon became a track out to a really lovely bit of countryside, open and rolling. Ouzle Bank cottage, though only a few hundred yards beyond the built-up limits, looks and feels like somewhere wild up in the Pennines.
I was greeted by a youngish guy who was just sitting there, contemplating the view. “It’s wet and boggy further down”, he said, as if to dissuade me from going that way, but it turned out to be an exhilarating stride. The fields became a golf course and an outcrop of woods, attractive in a muddy way and easy to get lost in.
By the time I got to town it was dark and I missed the celebrated steeple, the lofty leaden crooked spire that seems to threaten to fall upon the spectators, as Jackson put it. Enquiring for lodging I was directed to Sarah Statham in Alliwel Street, there I lay and found civil usage and the landlady a notable woman. He stayed here on the return journey too, when both the landlady and a young man was abused by a shameless woman and I called Cutamite for taking their part. Catamite? As in ‘passive homosexual’? John, whatever did you say to them?
I stepped out to the southern suburbs to the home of Ruth and Tom, my first ‘proper’ couchsurfers, in that (unlike Leeds) I got to spend an evening with them as well as a night. They were also the first folk to answer my appeal on couchsurfing. I put the word out, and almost immediately Ruth got back to me: “What a great idea and good to do a walk that is a bit out of the ordinary. Yes sure we would be happy to put you up and we will feed you a hearty meal to set you on your way”. A vital bit of encouragement that was.
Ruth was in her fifties and a grandmother, who travelled around Europe back in the day and had got the travel bug again. I was their second couchsurfing guest and they were hoping to couchsurf themselves in Norway soon. They were welcoming folk (of course). There was a TV with a screen about six foot across which was on all the time, without sound, and she was constantly on her computer in front of it. They were wired up to the nines, with every gizmo going. She was a competition junky, and very knowledgeable about all the ways you can make money online. It seemed to me that her scams and schemes were only bringing in peanuts, but it was better than working, she said. The year before she’d made £157 from search engine monitors ( you get paid for every site you click on), and though what she won she rarely wanted she loved getting the parcels. She was planning her next trip away, and was investigating a whole range of traveller’s scams and tips. Like the bookshop in Paris where you could kip in return for a couple of hours work, and maybe join Jim Haynes for one of his legendary Sunday lunches. You email him for an invitation, slip £20 in an envelope when you turn up, and get to dine with one of the founders of the Edinburgh Fringe….
Tom was a miner at Dolie, a private pit, up by Junction 29 until it shut in ’94. He’s a tall, studious-looking Scotsman, nothing like the miner of the stereotypes. He was a blaster, and has a tender spot on his side from the tool belt as well as the usual range of mining health conditions. But Tom loved the life underground, the danger and the camaraderie. A guy who’d been on Special Ops in Northern Ireland once joined his team down the pit. “There was one pit prop looked a bit dodgy. ‘Bet you that’s still there this time tomorrow’, says I, and so it was. Two shifts had left it alone. Right, better take it down with a clean snatch, I says. Then ‘jump’, and the other guy fell over backwards as fifty ton of rock came down. The Northern Ireland bloke asked for a transfer. ‘You’re all fucking mad!’ Another time I got called to the top because a lady’d complained that the blasting had shattered all the china on her Welsh dresser… the maps are fucking useless.” There’s coal down there for another 250 years, he says. Opencast is not real mining, and it makes a mess of the countryside – “how many more country parks do we need?” chipped in Ruth; that’s what they do with them when the mining’s done.
Their daughter was moving into their house in February with 5-year old grandson Jamie. She was talking of eventually emigrating to Australia – but only if her estranged ex, the father of Jamie, wants to emigrate too. As a joiner, he’d have no problems getting in, and she thought he could take Jamie too, as his dependant. But did he want to go? “He was 30% into it, now 65%”. I smelt a complicated twenty-something plot here, perhaps designed to engineer some kind of reconciliation. Meanwhile she was moving back into her Mum’s council house from a 4-bedroom place and I couldn’t help feeling that things might get difficult. Tom was already wary, “I like my space”, he said, but he was also ridiculously soft and actually enjoyed not only doing all the fetching and carrying but being teased about it. “Sometimes, when there’s the 3 of them in the room, I walk in and they all hold out their mugs and plates”, even Jamie (who thought that the Children in Need presents were for him, and took a pair of £55 sunglasses to the checkout and said ‘Mum’ll pay’).
Tom cooked dinner. Unfortunately for the collective stomach he cooks like I cook. It’s an, um, solid, meal, but I managed to eat more of it than either of my hosts and felt very pleased about that as well as grateful. Odd, sweet couple. This ex-miner, underground blaster, whose job was too dangerous for the Special Ops veteran, now proudly waiting on his wife’s family hand and foot. They’d only been married 12 years, but already he was the Grand-dad. He’d found a family to be in the bosom of.
Monday December 8: Into the Trough District
At breakfast we drank sweet strong tea and put the world to rights. We talked about English nationalism – apparently you can fly a Scottish or Welsh flag but not an English one (if that’s true then it’s blatantly ignored, but interesting that they should come up with it); about the BNP, ‘political correctness’ and what it means, Israel (I laid down the law on that one), and Yorkshiremen. They’d had an American to stay and found him brash; and Tom, casting round for a comparison, came up with the folk from Yorkshire, loud and proud and self-satisfied. Or that’s how they look from Derbyshire, which is a place between places. Yorkshire people are generally seen as having all the virtues, so by way of balance Tom was compiling a little list of Yorkshire monsters, from the Yorkshire Ripper through to Shannon Matthews. Though this Derbyshire zealot was a Scot, from Edinburgh, where his Dad still lived; only Dad actually came from Bristol. We’re a mongrel breed.
That was a warm, friendly encounter, and on the doorstep Tom shook my hand and said I’d a good furrm grasp there, come by whenever you like; and it felt like he meant it.
I stepped out into a very different kind of day, overcast, cold, clammy. More like one of yours, Master Jackson. And now, on my fourth morning, I was feeling like a proper walking man, a stroller, a happy vagrant. Mercifully blinkered by my photocopied maps, narrow bands of parchment that excluded distant and distracting vistas. Never mind those too-well-trodden peaks and the trudgery of the Pennine Way. This was a tour Through the Trough District.
I was off the estate in a couple of minutes and onto the A61, the Ryknild Way, the spinal Roman road that Jackson walked and I was to weave around all the way to Lichfield. I walked out of town against the flow of the commuter traffic and all those resigned faces, doing their Monday morning thang after a fine weekend. I was heading out to Wingerworth. The Hall there was demolished in the 1920s but Jackson called it the neatest building that ever I beheld in all my life before, so here’s a picture, by way of a window into the old stroller’s mind:
It was built in 1724, thirty-one years before Jackson’s journey, “in the rare style of understated Baroque peculiar to England” according to Wikipedia. I’m starting to realise that Jackson too was a master of the understatement, particularly when it came to the homes of the mighty. He walked past the huge mansions at Bretton Hall and Wentworth Castle, both of which had been recently rebuilt, without any comment on their splendour. All he had to say about Wentworth was that the steward had decamped, and has conveyed away money and bills, and the gardener wants 29 pound, and others want likewise. On the way back he went to Bretton Hall and reported on the storm damage: the wind had torn off one side of the rails and banisters of the Hall. Did these two negative observations perhaps reflect your views upon the families that lived there, John? Scions of the modernising and all-powerful Whigs, whereas the Hunlokes of Wingerworth were Catholics, and though clearly not short of a bob were well and truly out of favour and power when you beheld their stately pile?
The temperature dropped noticeably as I left the town limits. It was only half a mile along the main road to the Wingerworth turn, and though there was a very good pavement half a mile of A61 was quite enough for me that morning. Up the hill into Wingerworth, a leafy suburb of big gates and imposing drives but not particularly massive houses, what you might expect really a mile out of a big town, separated by that vital two-field strip of green belt. The church notice board offered Hope, In Our Village, to anyone that might be interested. Three lads were building a garden wall, one wearing a Nepalese hat, and it struck me that they could have been at a festival. They’re brilliant things for breaking down social barriers, festivals. Take Lee, in Barnsley. Nothing more bonding than the shared knowledge of what it’s like to be off your head and beside yourself with joy.
I took a back route down past Wingerworth church and aaah! it was so nice, so-o-o- nice to be back in the open country again. At a woodland crossroads I got in touch with Mission Control and decided definitively that I’d have to sort a B & B out for tonight since my couchsurfing contact in Alfreton had disappeared without trace.
John Jackson didn’t get on too well at Clay Cross, the next point on the itinerary. I went and lay at Thomas Garrets the sign of the George and did write something for James Crowther, and hard by I lost a quarter of a quire of paper, or had it stolen rather and the wind had raged. He stayed there again on the way back and there was a sad crue of cursers and swearers.
I had a couple of very different encounters myself on the edge of Clay Cross. I squeezed through a ridiculously narrow gap in the hedge (they’re all the rage round here, I’m calling them ‘Derbyshire Stiles’) – I had to take my pack off to get through and I wouldn’t have made it had I been an inch or two fatter in the girth – and came out onto Coupe Lane, opposite the Woodthorpe Grange estate. A friendly fellow on the other side who’d watched me struggle through the gap walked with me down the road. He was a taxi driver, walking back to pick up his taxi from his sister-in-law’s hotel where they’d been for a party last night and a good one it was too. Shortly after he turned off I said ‘good morning’ to a painted lady who came scowling along my pavement. Her dog came up to me all friendly, but she yanked it back. “Get down!”, she growled, and “no! when I say no I mean no!”, as she grabbed its neck. She was really angry with it, with me for being there, with everything. Not many years ago I would have taken that quite personally. It’s still shocking, to meet someone like that who’s so determined to avoid civility, but she was so full of anger and hurt that I could only feel sorry for her. And really sorry for the dog.
Clay Cross had a moment of glory in the early 1970s, when its Labour council refused to implement the Conservative government’s Housing Finance Act, which would have meant raising council house rents. Ultimately all the councillors were declared bankrupt, and in 1974 the council itself was abolished. A taste of things to come?
The George, the pub that Jackson stayed in, is still there, albeit rebuilt and now with a Dragon to keep it company, but I shied around the edge of town. The footpath runs out down at Smithy Moor so I headed up to Stretton to walk a mile or two along Ryknild Street. Somewhere just north of Higham I nipped into a bus shelter for a bit of privacy from passing drivers while I took off my overtrousers and cleaned the mud off; but halfway through the operation, with my trousers round my ankles, the shelter began to fill up with people…
Higham’s a long, linear village, mercifully mostly bypassed these days by the A61, which here diverts from Ryknild Street. There’s an odd-looking market cross, moved soon after Jackson’s time and the shaft rebuilt in 1856: the steps look much older than the rest of it. I followed old Ryknild Street, now a very minor way, past a corner-house that looks as though it’s been built on a cliff, down a steep holloway for half a mile or so, past a garden full of yappy dogs, pondering the mystery of why on earth anyone actually chooses to live with things that make that kind of noise all the time, and up the hill to Shirland. Shirland and Higham “are as different as chalk and cheese”, says the Peakdistrict online website. Under Higham. Shirland doesn’t have a page, because although it’s got the church and the big house it’s basically a council estate.
Shirland’s bells were ringing when Jackson came this way on Sunday the 19th day of November, a fine pleasant peal of 5 bells. Jackson was interested in bells; he often recorded how many of them there were, whether or not they were ‘tunable’. This century, according to Henry Walters (‘Church Bells of England’, 1912 pp 84-85) “was the golden age of bell ringing ; then above all England deserved the name of the Land of Bells. Ringers all over the country organised themselves into societies with strict codes of rules. Ringing became one of the most popular forms of sport, ranking with hunting and cock-fighting, and far above cricket, football, or golf. The country squire, the professional man, the tradesman in the town and the craftsman in the village, all found admirable exercise and amusement in bell ringing. Town after town at this period recast or added to its bells, with the object of rivalling or surpassing its neighbours.” Bell-ringers were also rebellious, in a cussed, reactionary kind of way. They controlled the belfry and defied priests and others who tried to tell them when they could and could not ring… more on this when we get closer to Glastonbury. Remember Glastonbury? That’s where we’re headed. It’s still a long, long way….
John meanwhile was gathering miracles. I called at Higham Hills, at Richard Lees, and there I am told of a well near Duffield where it is said that the cripples are cured and some have left their crutches. On the way back, after popping into the Plough at Higham and refreshed me well, he dropped in again, and was well treated and Richard Lee gave me 3 pence. Outward bound, he went on to Shirland Delves, and warmed me at Edward Buxtons, and up the hill I went and lodged and supt at the Ministers House and rested very well. This was Rev Cornelius Horne, vicar of Alfreton, by whom Jackson was also well entertaind on the homeward journey. The weather, though dry, was gloomy cold and windy and Jackson managed to stay for two nights; and before I came away I had a Shilling given me. You sly old stroller you.
No entertaining vicar for me this night, but a farmhouse B & B that Mission Control god bless her had found me just outside town, which I reached just as the drizzle started and the daylight finally ended. Mine hostess had a posh hairdo like a Tory of the Thatcher era, but appearances deceive. She was reading Thomas Freidman’s newly-published ‘Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution—And How It Can Renew America’, which she’d just got from the library, and was keen to get me reading it too. But it does have to be said that her catering was a trifle on the mean side. It was one of those B & Bs where everything is counted: two teabags and a one-cup kettle, branded packets of instant coffee sugar chocolate. Pseudo-milk in tiny cartons was a step too far. Bring me some Real Milk, please, I asked her (subtext: bring me a jug of milk frothing fresh from the cow, o farmer’s wife!) and only after she’d gone did I remember that I don’t drink milk in tea. I’m so wilful. But the bathroom was wonderful:
I passed up on supper that night. I was told of a pub half a mile away that did a ‘very reasonable’ supper but didn’t much fancy the busy, twisting, main road in the drizzle and the dark, so instead I nibbled week-old home-made flapjack (and never has flapjack tasted better), and went to bed replete & to sleep by about eight.
Tuesday December 9: The Revolution that Wasn’t
Old strollerman Jackson dismissed this part of Derbyshire in a few lines. I took time out here however, to investigate the site of a forgotten and unhappy revolution. It was another skylark-perfect morning, beautiful and crisp. My route took me past the ruins of Wingfield Manor, “vast and immensely impressive”, as the English Heritage website says. It once belonged to Bess of Hardwick’s husband, the Earl of Shrewsbury, who had custody of Mary Queen of Scots and kept her here. Bess was good at marriages: she had four of them and each time augmented the family pile considerably. Two of her sons became earls; one of them, the earl of Devonshire, inherited her great house at Chatsworth and all its estates. (He also bought Glastonbury Abbey, amongst many other purchases; it stayed in his family’s hands until 1733 when a descendant lost it in a roll of the dice, or so they said at Glastonbury, but I doubt that Jackson was aware of this connection as he crossed the family’s Derbyshire estates.)
Wingfield’s ruins today belongs to a farmer who only – and very reluctantly – allows access once a month, and today wasn’t the day. There’s a long, straight track beyond the Manor House down to the river Amber, and it got steadily muddier the closer I got to the river. How did people manage to keep their clothes clean in days of yore? Not the gentry perhaps, who had servants to clean for them, but the servants themselves, especially the women in those long dresses; housemaids heading home to Mum’s of a Sunday, wading through slush like this without benefit of waterproofing?
I crossed the Amber, and into the world of the ‘Pentrich Revolution’ of 1817. Just a few miles south of Clay Cross, this county is truly good at breeding rebels. The hardships caused by the Napoleonic Wars and its aftermath, together with galloping automation, put many people out of work and brought about the machine-breaking of the Luddites, of which the Pentrich rising was perhaps the final echo. A local man named Thomas Bacon had wind of a planned insurrection in early 1817: the people of the north Midlands were to march on London and overthrow the government. Unfortunately there was a government spy in their midst, a man named Oliver, and the rebellion was broken up even before it began. Except here at Pentrich, where this Oliver acted as agent provocateur and through Thomas Bacon incited the local population to rise. They called themselves ‘the Regenerators’, and in Belper people claimed that ‘the Levelution is begun’, but Bacon smelled a rat and went to ground. A workless stocking-maker named Jeremiah Brandreth took the lead, and at 10 pm on June 9, the men met up to march on Nottingham. They knocked on doors and demanded support and firearms. They got none, so they turned to drink instead. They marched through the rain, stopping at pubs and demanding drink with menaces, getting more demoralised by the mile. Some melted into the night, but a hardcore made it over the border into Nottinghamshire where they were rounded up by the military.
I met with Eric Galvin of the Pentrich Historical Society, who took a keen interest in the Rebellion and very kindly gave up a morning to take me around the village. He lived in a farmhouse that was actually attacked by the ‘revolutionaries’, a sturdy eighteenth-century house that overlooks the Amber valley, and this connection piqued his interest to the point of starting a major project on this sad episode, which has led to the mapping of all sites in the valley connected with the rebellion, and developing a trail marked by memorial plaques.
Eric began his tour by emphasising how much the place had changed. This urban village has now become a rural one. The green fields all around us were opencast mines until well after the war, and the Cromford Canal was “the most profitable in England, ever, an amazing bit of engineering, 17 miles from Matlock without a lock”. The Derwent Valley was in the forefront of the ‘outburst of industry’ that Eric tells me is the “politically correct” new name for the Industrial Revolution. Now I did not know that.
What happened that night in June 1817? “At Hunts Barn, they split their forces”, said Eric. “Half of them marched this way, had a go at the mill, got to our place probably around 2am. and asked the tenant to join them. He was a pacifist, a Quaker, with a young family, and he refused. The other group went the other way, through the village and got into a row. Brandreth stuck a gun through a window, fired it and killed someone, but I don’t think it was deliberate”.
And afterwards? Brandreth and two others were hanged and then beheaded, many were transported to Australia, others sent to gaol, but Eric’s work suggests that most of those involved were never caught. He took me to a hilltop to show me the landscape of this little revolution, and told me about the reprisals. He pointed to the church, where the curate lost his job for smuggling people out of the way of the authorities, and to the ‘Spaniel Dog’, whose landlady had her licence revoked for allowing the would-be revolutionaries to meet on her premises; “and just below the police HQ at Butterley park, that blueish sort of building is Butterley Engineering, where they went and asked for weapons, cannons and were refused…On the right is the village school, built in 1823 with an endowment from the Duke of Devonshire following comments about the ‘ill education’ of the Pentrich people”. The Devonshire estate pulled down the cottages of the people who were sentenced, much as the Israelis do to the Palestinians today.
How have the locals taken to having these momentous events emblazoned everywhere on plaques? “Some people are still embarrassed about it – slightly; we’ve been trying to persuade the vicar to talk about the rising on the anniversary of the executions in November; he’s quite sympathetic but doesn’t think he can do it”. We move on to talking about the last years of King Coal; he has sad stories of deep mines being deliberately wrecked underground; but he thinks that it’ll come back, some time, one day.
I left him and headed on to Lower Hartshay, where I turned off the road beside the George Inn. Saint or King?, I wondered as I approached it, and saw a fat Hanoverian on the inn-sign… and fell to musing about the state of mind those men must have been in as they plodded through the rain on that ghastly pub-crawl in 1817. Brandreth tried to keep their spirits up –
‘Every man his skill must try
He must turn out and not deny;
No bloody soldier must he dread,
He must turn out and fight for bread’ –
But their neighbours did ‘deny’, and you can imagine that grim growing horror as they realised that there weren’t enough of them and there weren’t enough guns, that it wasn’t going to work. Drowning anxiety and also capability in booze, knowing that the hangover might well last forever.
All this was still over sixty years in the future when old man Jackson strolled this way, with very little to report: I went to Pentrage a Church town and then to Hiege which is a Chapel town, now written ‘Heage’ and apparently derived from the Anglo-Saxon ‘Heegge’ meaning ‘high, lofty or sublime’… I cut down a sublimely neglected track past a yard full of mobile homes (in an overcrowded country, the man with space is king), and did my weekly podcast for the ‘Western Daily Press’ beneath a muddy tree. ‘Has anything exciting happened’, Geoff asked me, “anything you can give our readers?’ Hmm, tricky one that. How to make the Pentrich Revolution sound topical and sexy two centuries after the event?
From Heage John Jackson calld at Mr Jacob Hawkin’s in Marly Park and there I was civilly treated and dined with the master, and there I heard of the Duke of Devonshires death – which in Derbyshire was big an event as the death of a king. Interesting that you wanted your readers to know that you dined with the master of Morley, John. It was something that obviously didn’t happen very often. How did you come to meet this yeoman, old stroller? What word-of-mouth networks brought you to this particular door?
I too headed to Morley Park. I passed a newish farmhouse built right beside the dual carriageway with massive windows on every side: God they’re tough up here, or they don’t mind massive heating bills, and they must revel in road-noise. I stopped off to see the remains of the famous iron-smelting furnaces that now stand tight up against the A38, and they are quite amazing.
They poke up above the hedge like the remains of some ancient civilisation, pyramids, or Mayan temples, lost & forgotten beside a massive trunk road and delightfully devoid of interpretation panels and the like. They’re even more dramatic close up, colossal pieces of sculpture. The earliest one dates from 1780, which is not that long after the earliest of them all at Coalbrookdale. What would my man have had to say about this fiery furnace, if it had been in action when he passed by? Would he even have noticed? The second went up in 1818. Had some of those who laboured on the building of it taken part in the failed uprising up the road a year before?
At Boothgate, a dour apprentice farmer of about 17 agreed that it was a nice day as though the concept of ‘nice day’ was an alien bit of townie nonsense. (I was that 17-year old once). I walked into Belper past a proper hill (they’re rare hereabouts), traces of ridge and furrow visible in a low winter light that cast long shadows over these pleasingly undulating fields.
As I came into town I had an odd encounter with an elderly, winded and very local man who wanted to chat – another passer-by had just escaped. “You don’t get many walkers these days”, he said, which I was curious about because I think he’s right. “Put it like this, fewer coming from Matlock and that.” Why? “There’s more money about” … Ah. We were walking past a row of inter-war semis which had been built by his family; he knew exactly when they were sold and how much they were sold for (number 44 was built in 1937 and went for £240). Gesticulating mournfully and magisterially at the swathe of 70s houses that had been built opposite, he actually did say that “I remember when all that were fields”. Though locally infallible, he was a tad shaky when it came to more distant parts. I told him I came from the West Country, and he told me that he’d been to Yarmouth once.
Past the Greyhound Inn, another “pub opportunity”, ie shut. Another one bites the dust. Belper was a town of nailmakers, and I recently discovered that my great great grandfather was one of them. They were a rough and ready lot, “proverbially unrefined”, according to one Dr Spencer Hall in 1860, making up to 1000 nails a day. His grand-daughter was born in 1875 but her mother died a year later and the old man must have found it hard to cope, for the little girl went to the Workhouse. Here she is in the 1881 census, Martha Moss, unmarried, aged 6, one of a long list of child inmates of the York Road workhouse in Nottingham. Not a word of this tarnishing shame came down to my mother her grand-daughter, who just remembered combing her grandmother’s luxuriant hair.
The town seems quite self-contained, in the way that places off the visitor circuit often do. The main street doesn’t feel as dead as many; there are one or two old-time local department stores and a bookshop with a proudly local window display. I stopped on a bench at the crossroads to write a birthday card, and then plodded grimly out beside the main-road traffic for half a mile before finding a side-turning up to the top of the hill. All this rushing about, ‘taint right.
It was a grand evening, and I love these in-between landscapes, unextreme, undramatic, not Striding Edge or Ben Nevis, just quietly rural and not so far from town. Smoke was rising from a bonfire further down the valley, a friendly farmer tending to it. There’s a Derbyshire look, slightly short, more slight than short. The sort of look you find in Wales, amongst populations that are not so much inbred as very, very stable, over hundreds of generations. It’s one of those parts of the world to which few outside people would think of moving to from choice, but equally you get the feeling that most local people wouldn’t dream of moving anywhere else. Quietly & unselfconsciously proud.
Jackson ended up that day at Bargate, just outside the town, and stayed at William Harrisons the sign of the black Swan, where he traded tales of copper thieves with the landlord and his customers: 2 years agoe, a boyling copper was stolen from Mr Bagly’s of Holbrook, about a mile off Bargate, and that William Harisons copper escaped very narrowly. I went instead to Milford, down by the Derwent, to meet up with Steve again. It was pitch black by the time I got there, and I was very tempted by the bright lights and promise of the King William by the bridge… but Steve came right on time and whisked me away for spoiling in the Pennines – and dropping me back in the self-same lay-by the following morning so I wasn’t cheating, really, but it did feel ever so slightly naughty. And I can’t deny that it was nice to see some real hills, even though I felt like I ought to be shutting my eyes as the road rose upwards: such sights are not meet for a walker in the Trough District. They spoilt me rotten, and fed me well. I showed Sally’s daughter Immy where I’d been and afterwards she told her Mum that I’d apologised for having such tatty maps “but I think that’s what a walker’s maps should look like”. What an enlightened and perceptive soul she is.
Wednesday December 10: Derby Day
Both Steve and Sally drove me back to Milford in the morning, claiming unconvincingly that they desperately fancied a day out in the County Town (and I heard later thought better of it and went to Ashbourne instead).
I took a picture of the Stack at the Mill, nice and Industrial, although it was another gloriously blue day and I could have done with some gloomy grey clouds to frame the chimney. These giant chimney stacks are now far and few, but there was a time when factories prided themselves on how many chimneys they had, and used prints and photos of belching chimneys in their advertising as evidence of their energy and prosperity. That phallic stack, the Great British Dick, was the true symbol of the Empire. Now the Industrial Revolution, (sorry, ‘outburst of industry’), is the stuff of nostalgia itself. The picture of the mill on the Strutt Arms inn sign has faded away to an amazing gold, gold as the Golden Age of industrialism.
These industrial landscapes are all strangely pastoral these days. Dark satanic mills have given way to green and pleasant landscapes, the jagged edges blurred by nostalgia. Would Blake see Jerusalem around him if he came to England now, or would he still find chartered streets, mind-forged manacles, marks of weakness, marks of woe? Perhaps British power fell with the smoke stack, but with the viagra of Trident, and the aphrodisiac of Arabian black gold, we still rise pathetically to other peoples’ occasions.
I walked the mile or so to Duffield along the main road (there’s a pavement), and detoured as did Jackson to the Church, which stands all on its own, a long way from the village, across a muddy field of Longhorn beauties. Duffield Church, according to a well-spoken young chap who was helping out with the Christmas decorations, was one of those whose siting was interfered with by the Devil. They tried to build it up by the castle but the Devil fiddled with the foundations three times over which is why it was built here, by the river… Here Jackson came on his return journey, having stayed at the White Swan in the village, a civil house, and had his vagrants’ pass signed by a magistrate who gave him fourpence. He woke to find a strinkling snow and crazling frost and fair clear sunshine and went over to the churchyard where, as many more affluent wayfarers, he copied down some choice epitaphs from the tombstones. Epitaphs with a clear moral to them, such as that of William Litchfield of Little Eaton, who died in 1740:
Lifes but a moment Death that moment ends
Thrice happy he who well his moment spends
For on that direful point Eternity depends.
and William Atkins (1752)
Mortals be warn’d, on youth do not rely
You see I’m gone live well and learn to dy.
My aim in coming here was to try and reconnect with Jackson by finding some of the inscriptions he’d transcribed. The man in the churchyard lent me a guide to the graveyard, a labour of love that’s been meticulously compiled with every gravestone located and measured out in paces but alas nigh on impossible to use and I never did find the graves, but never mind aye. It was a beautiful day.
I climbed the hill by Quarndon Common, and flopped down beneath a beautiful tree, looking down over Duffield. I rang my couchsurfing host in Lichfield who sounded really keen and eager and pleased and excited at the prospect of my visit, which was exhilarating; and Mission Control found me a berth in a Derby B & B that night as well. A bunch of about thirty ramblers came past at that point. One woman said to me ‘you’re not sleeping out in this are you?’ God forbid! I must look rougher than I thought, or tougher. At the top of the hill, a stretch of old-time creosote fencing separates the new estate from the wood, the path and wild wayfarers upon it, beyond the Pale.
Quarndon’s a First Village Out. I’ve started to recognise that First Villages Out from large towns and cities have a quality all their own. An exaggerated villageness, a sense of rustic identity that emphasises their non-urban status, even though they may be made up of soul-deadening little housing estates. But Quarndon’s a friendly example of the type, and I was much taken with this place, the Bumblebee House, superbly homified by green-fingered occupants who’ve dared to customise it. Sometimes you feel that owners are so conscious of their homes as investments that they will not do anything that might make their place look different.
Quarndon is the place which Jackson’s editor thought he had in mind when he reported that he’d been told of a well near Duffield where it is said that the cripples are cured and some have left their crutches. I’m not totally convinced that this was the well in question, since his report sounds like fresh news and Quarndon had been very well known for a century or more, and Jackson himself walks right past it without comment – but I stopped off at the well house, just below the Joiner’s Arms: a gothicised, crenellated, funny little structure, heavily chained up, lion spout in the corner. It’s been a long time since the water flowed freely here.
At the bottom of the hill I crossed into a great open expanse of glorious countryside. I strode out along a roughly tarmacked track towards Kedleston Park, on my left the furthest frontiers of Derby. I was blithely, blissfully and defiantly devoid of any kind of great thoughts, remarkably happy for a man about to walk into a large city. I stepped briefly off my map into a gap a few hundred yards wide that I’d somehow failed to photocopy, an unusual and slightly unnerving void, but right on cue another walker came towards me and told me where I needed to turn to reach the evocatively-named Markeaton Stones, which proved to be a couple of cottages on the edge of the university campus. I wandered through Markeaton Park, which sports Crafts Village shops and a posh Home farm, and as you move further in mutates into a big open urban space, with families doing parky things & an awful lot of geese on the lake. This is a very soft way into the City, I thought, as I crossed the great empty playing fields to a little humpy bridge over the thundering A38. The action starts immediately beyond the bridge, lightning grafitti on the bridge support to mark the city limits. A kid was doing burn-ups on a mini-quad on the rough ground around it and by some fenced-off compound a bloke in a beanie was skulking ostentatiously. Beyond that students queued for a student minibus, a different world again.
I headed in along Markeaton Street, lots of red brick which made it feel like my lovely old and much-maligned Reading. I crossed an insensitive inner ring-road and sat in a little square outside a pretentious new pub thingy to peel off my muddy overtrousers, scrape the mud off my boots and generally try to Urbanise, or as much as I could. Round here was Nun’s Green, the urban fringe of Jackson’s day and also later – it was here that public hangings took place, such as those of Brandreth and his colleagues.
Jackson’s trip from Bargate was less pleasant than my own. After a misty drisling dropping night, methought was the most sinking cold that ever I felt this winter, he arrived at Nun’s Green and found lodging at Dorothy Garet’s. He soon wished that he hadn’t, for there I found a company of people of evil vain and wicked conversation the men cursing damning and swearing and the women talking baudery talk, and one I thought spinning worsted I thought the most ready handed spinner that ever I saw in all my life and 2 threads at once all along. Old Dorothy was spinning of course line hurds and another was spinning a sort of stuff like old rotten hay. Indeed a weary evening I had and very discontented with both my company and lodging and fear’d of mangey bed or scrubby company but shifted as well as I could and resolved to come theire no more.
(And indeed he didn’t. On the way back he stayed at William Steels house in St. Peters Parish a pious clean civil people…)
My B & B was out along the Burton Road, which is as rough as you like. A seedy unloved jumble of architectural styles; a Car Parts sign slung roughly across the first floor bays of two 1900 semis, and itself now empty and redundant. Just as the hill starts, the houses get bigger and a teeny bit posher, and the B & Bs begin. The door to mine was open to a bleak unfurnished foyer and there was no reply when I rang the bell. A young East European geezer who was also staying there gave me the thumbs up and uttered the sacred word ‘mobilly’, so I duly rang the number I’d been given and the hostess appeared. She’d been alerted to my trek by Mission Control and greeted me by my first name, which I liked. She had warm and honest eyes, and was full of friendly curiosity about my nutty journey. She was from the Punjab and told me that Derby was less noisy than her home city, there’s less hooting of horns and even the cold’s all right but she’s not keen on the rain. The room was just what I wanted, bare and basic, with just about enough room for a single bed and no adornments whatsoever. That is, beyond a fuck-off television hanging intimidatingly from a huge bracket just above the bed. I assumed that it was a one-way window on the world, but how would a punter know if there was a spy camera in it somewhere?
I was surprisingly untired, so dumped my stuff and slipped out soonish in search of a spot of supper and an encounter with this visibly poor and run-down city. The cathedral doors were open, rows of blue-frocked choristers lined up inside, but it felt like a private function so I didn’t go in. I gave a quid to a beggar nearby, collecting while he could because at half-past-eight a Big Bloke comes by and threatens to smash his face in if he doesn’t move along. Things get pretty basic, at the bottom of the heap. Outside on the freezing Square an ice rink was closing down, and groups of teenagers were milling about in the anonymous black, sports-striped garb they strangely seem these days to favour. I found the Dolphin, a proper old time boozer, a tad seedy, very old, and very welcome. I had an expensive but tasty pint of Crouch Best, and as I was out of paper began jotting down a few ideas on the back of one of my maps, like a monk in some impoverished monastery reusing old parchment. The beer was good; I had another, got nostalgic for beery days and beery ways; this monk wanted to get drunk and convivial. Earlier I walked past a night-club (of the interesting variety – promising music and all) and wondered where All That had gone to. Imagined a voice saying welcome back, it’s been a while, but here’s your home. Is Time a corridor with doors to step back into, or just a moving train?
The Dolphin’s Derby’s most haunted inn, apparently, and a starting-point for guided ghost-walks. I walked back past the place where my beggar had been, no sign of him or of a replacement bruiser. The city’s Christmas lighting was very low key, festoons of tasteful blue lights in trees, a surreal green uplighter on one, a big Xmas tree in the main square. A bunch of lads were staggering pissed, out on a stagger night, otherwise there was hardly anyone about. Quite a few shops with ‘Closing Down’ signs before Christmas, not a good omen. Ancient empty streets too dead for dreaming. Back on Burton Road, past a pub with two peace flags over the entrance. The everyday corner shop that five years beforehand would have been run by Asians was now run by Poles. Have you got 30p? a fella asked me, down beside the sold-off NHS plot. I’m desperate for a drink, man. Of course, I always have, that could be me yet one day.
Back in my unadorned cell, monastic apart from that all-dominating television which doesn’t even work, I felt replete and strangely content. Marvelling yet again at how much support I’d had for this project. People say things like ‘fantastic’, ‘amazing’, ‘marvellous’ and such, and not ‘my god you’re mad’ (to my face at least). I still don’t quite know why but I do know that this walk needed to be done.
Thursday December 11: Going for Burton
After Jackson’s dismal night at Old Dorothy’s it’s no surprise to find that the old stroller didn’t hang around in Derby. At morn I went away and tarryd but little save only yt I viewed Alhallows Church which is built up of a new fashion since I saw it before. This was All Saints, which since it had been rebuilt in 1725, a full thirty years before Jackson’s trip, suggests he didn’t come this way too often.
The breakfast room in my B & B was as large, bright and spacious as the bedrooms were small, bright and basic. While I waited for the breakfast I admired the eclectic contents of a recessed shelf in front of me: three salt cellars (top shelf), two devotional candlesticks, salvaged (next down), the head of a miscellaneous goddess on the next and a Feng Shui Buddha on the bottom, left behind by a former employee. These facts I gleaned from my serious-faced hostess who’s keen for a chat. Her husband has owned this place for seven years, which is twice as long as she’s been here. They’re doing the place up, replacing chandeliers with ceiling spots, hiding pipes, exposing brickwork and the like. They are into pilgrimage big time. On their last holiday in the Punjab they sought out every Sikh shrine they could find: one a day for twenty days, with lots of travelling, early starts and late finishes, now there’s devotion.
I walked out of the door and straight into the rush-hour, commuter traffic bumper-to-bumper into the distance in both directions. Within ten minutes I had a scum of something nasty on my lips, something that comes out from the back-end of motor-cars. How handy they are, how indispensable, how totally destructive. Seems like there’s some great cosmic law of balance to negate our vain attempts at progress: every positive advance has negative side-effects.
Despite that taste on my lips I was enjoying the walking. It had become my day-job, my daily purpose, what I get up to do. Walking was working, working was walking, thirteen miles a day, and I was very glad to have it.
When Jackson left his Nun’s Green den, he came away by little Ewer, and turnpike way, over Eckington Park . ‘Little Ewer’ is Littleover, Eckington is Egginton these days and the turnpike road was brand-shiny new, opened in 1753, along the old course of Ryknild Street, now the A38, which from here is ley-line-straight to Lichfield. I chose to wiggle round it when I could, close but not too close lest those powerful straight-line energies were to blow me over, and at Littleover I turned down Moorway Lane, towards Derby Moor, and got my first glimpse of the four gigantic cooling towers at Willington that dominated this morning’s walking, peeking over the suburbs. I sauntered blithely past the Football Foundation’s Derby Community Sports College but the arse end of the Callow Hill Way estate was too much, raw bare sad little houses, built with minimal frills, institutional as the workhouse, with a main road roaring in the background. Down on Moorway Lane, by way of contrast, there were some very ostentatious and expensive-looking pads, one with a Triple Garage. They faced onto open country and wereno doubt priced to match, but they were every bit as ugly as the less-well-positioned starter-homes behind them.
I turned off here and onto the footpaths, another city limit breached, and headed over the frozen muddy fields past Hall Pastures Farm, a big industrial dairy farm from the look of it. Mission Control rang to tell me that a generous sponsor had responded to my appeal and sent me a hundred quid. All hail Cozyfeet of Street. If ever I take to wearing slippers, no other brand will adorn my feet. (And while I’m at it, many thanks as well to the Glastonbury Spring Water Company for the tenner they sent me, and to Roger Saul, the Mulberry handbag magnate, for two packets of spelt biscuits and a box of Honey Puffs from his Glastonbury organic farming venture at Sharpham Park. I’d asked for boring old spondoolics, but was told that none was to be had because of the Credit Crunch. So, munch munch.)
More flat meadows, past a farm-cum-industrial unit at the end of a track, gleaming with forklifts. A bloke in a white boiler suit appeared. I pointed vaguely at the map but he waved me through: ‘you’re [all] right mate’. He had a Black Country accent, the first I’d heard. Derbyshire folk, wherever they think they belong, sound like Northerners to me; now I know I’m heading into the real Midlands. On into Findern, the First Village Out. There’s a hairdressers’ and a Post Office on the Green, and a Village Sign with the church and a tree, saying “2000AD”. Redolent of continuity. Nothing much has changed round here in all those anno domini, honest.
I crossed the A50, and dropped down to the footpath that links up with the Old Road, truncated when the dual carriageway was built. The stump that got left behind – there’s lots of Old Roads like this in England these days, and like most of them this one’s comprehensively bollarded and fenced off to keep away the travellers.
I picked up the Trent & Mersey canal beside a redundant pub that had found new life as the Nadee Contemporary Indian Cuisine, a good use for it really. There was a bit of dredging work going on, and some comfortable boats moored up with names that tell stories – ‘Second Chance’ Findern, Roy and Angie; or the rustick ‘Brambleberry’, Findern, June and Frank.
Into Willington, which boasts three pubs, all with paganistic names: the Green Dragon, the Rising Sun and the Green Man. A giant snowman of inflatable plastic loomed up from a garden on the road down to the river, and just beyond the built-up bit I found another brace of Longhorns in a paddock, the ancient breed of the Midlands, happy in the heartland.
The Trent’s a big river here, and Willington is one of not too many crossing-points. There’s a fine old bridge, and on the old tollhouse-platform some interesting information about the Iniquitous Toll that was finally done away with in 1898 and its centenary appropriately commemorated. Crossing the Trent felt significant, even though I’d be re-crossing it soon enough. A couple of miles beside the vast and gently eddying river was perfect soul-balm, the water-meadows, still very firm and dry and frozen, just right for walking.
I crossed the red-brick ‘Medium Village’ of Newton Solney, and headed out down Newton Lane towards Bretby. This was the ancestral home of the dastardly earl of Chesterfield, the man that piloted the Calendar Bill through parliament, later much renowned for his ‘Letters to His Son on the Art of Becoming a Man of the World and a Gentleman’. “I recommend you to take care of the minutes, for the hours will take care of themselves”, he told the dear boy. A man much skilled in measuring out time.
I was beaming as I walked. It was such a beautiful day, rolling open landscape away to the south-east. Oncomers smiled back at me, happy faces laughed with me, a man on a right path again. It’s funny how I keep losing my path. Probably because it’s not a very obvious one, and I haven’t got a clue where it’s meant to be going to.
Mission Control and the National Forest folk had fixed me up with a B & B in Winshill that night. My man was a retired lecturer-cum-backstreet engineer who made toy steam engines and all sorts in his workshop out the back – “I can put a link in anything, that’s my claim to fame”. He was slightly gawky, schoolboyish, and well-liked on the estate: a friendly schoolboy saw me turn into the road, guessed my destination and took me to the door. He was a bit astonished, maybe quietly appalled, when this field-muddied shaggy oddball appeared on his doorstep, but he was chatty enough and helpful as I hosed down my overtrousers at the back-door tap and broke the conversational ice a bit.
I headed off after that into town. Burton-on-Trent at twilight was an experience. I came in down a tunnel of a hill to greet the impatient homeward-bound commuter traffic by the bridgehead Swan Inn, vast and imposing and now closed. John Jackson called the bridge the finest in all England but the one that’s there today is Victorian. A grand road leads up to the bridge on the town side, wide, with late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century mansions and old brewery buildings, the Three Queens hotel fairly prominent. There are Civic Society plaques here and there but my god you’d have to be a dedicated connoisseur to spend much time admiring them, for this fine street is trashed by traffic. The town’s laid out on a gridplan and reminded me of somewhere in America. I turned left and left again by the Grail Court Hotel, along the pedestrianised Station Street, now sadly tatty, Christmas lights bravely shining out over the few shoppers. High Streets don’t know what they’re for any more: real shoppers spending real money do their stuff on the internet, or else out of town. The Leopard looked inviting, but alas was doing no food of an evening, so I wandered around the back of the High Street, by way of a street market now dismantling and into Pizza Hut which seemed like the best of an uninspiring bunch – in fact the menu sounded quite good, but the result was less so. The manager asked if I came that way a few weeks ago and placed the same order; which was weird for both of us.
I wanted to see or at least to witness a bit of Life and after the pizza drifted to the Anchor, which from the outside looked like a good old seedy boozer and perhaps it was but the life there wasn’t right for me and after a pint of warm beer I left. I walked back towards the Leopard but decided that I didn’t actually want another random pint of warm beer, so I turned back and headed up the hill again to Wilsford. Back at the B & B I did a TV flop, and watched some programme eulogising the modern world: a hymn to human achievement, the hymn of a species in denial.
TV flattens you. TV people act up; they are made up, and tonight I felt oppressed by them. Their performed vitality sapped my own. What was my quest? This B& B has an Avalon toilet, which with the Grail Court Hotel in town must be a Sign.
John Jackson’s Burton was a much more satisfying place. He was impressed by this gallant new Church compleatly fine (rebuilt in 1720), and found lodging at John Cantrels at Bond End and found I thought a very honest and civil people and rested better than ever since I set out from home. Lucky bugger.
Friday December 12: Sacrificial Heartland
Mine host, unused to vegetarians, went out specially for veggie sausages, but didn’t know how to cook them & since I hadn’t the heart or the nerve to tell him I stuffed them in my pocket when he wasn’t looking and dumped them later in a bin. He tried to get me to take away the rest of them – three years he’s being doing B & B and I’m his first vegetarian – but lugging quorn to Lichfield was not a thing I fancied doing. He was polite enough but a bit formal, distant, and I was by now looking forward mightily to my stay in Lichfield with people who actually sounded as though they wanted to meet me. Lonely? I was certainly feeling like an Outsider, feeling like I was failing in my duty as a pilgrim-journalist. Geoff’s question ‘where’s the story?’ lingered. Not that I was particularly looking for a story in Burton last night but maybe I should have been. Maybe I should have persevered with the warm beer. I did try to find the right boozer last night in the Capital of Beer, but couldn’t find my niche. The Anchor was full of pissed old farts playing 50s and 60s Radio 2 songs very loudly, happy enough, just not the space that I was in at all. And then I got a bit confused. Why was I doing this? Some kind of media stunt? Why was I not out collecting stories, or making news myself?
Bollocks to that, said a voice from the sky. There is no Why. You’re doing what you’re doing. It is what it is, this walk, that’s the whole magic of it. What actually does or does not happen is mere detail, it’s the doing of it that matters. Even if I’d put the blinkers on and just stared at me feet all way to Glastonbury, it would still have been worth the doing.
There was a bit of spray in the air, melting the snow into something more like sleet as I walked along the early-morning red-brick terraces, kids trundling wretchedly to school. The way that the Coors logo dominates the town adds to the American feel of it, although immediately opposite their brewery the Coopers Tavern clings on defiantly, ‘Free House’ and proud of it, with a Real Ale menu. I passed a road-sign to Abbot’s Bromley, real Englishe, home of ye olde horne daunce and only ten miles from the Coors Tower.
Ah! The Industrial Estates of Old England. This is actually the first one I’ve had to walk through. There are a lot of empty plots. This stretch of the route is also the Ryknild Way, the A38, and there is something about a long straight road, especially when it’s not very pleasant, that inspires you to march.
Walks like this make it clear how much the land has been zoned into islands: industrial estates and housing estates and places where you empty your dog and places of beauty where you’re meant to walk. I defy their categories. I will not be contained by zones. I will walk where I will though my head explodes, witnessing wide-eyed all the hellish drive-thru infrastructure that no-one ever looks at. “The most important reason for going from one place to another is to see what’s in between”, wrote Norton Juster in his 1962 kids’ classic The Phantom Tollbooth. He was explaining why the city of Reality became invisible: “one day someone discovered that if you walked as fast as possible and looked at nothing but your shoes you would arrive at your destination much more quickly. Soon everyone was doing it… No one paid any attention to how things looked, and as they moved faster and faster everything grew uglier and dirtier, and as everything grew uglier and dirtier they moved faster and faster, and at last a very strange thing began to happen. Because nobody cared, the city slowly began to disappear.. until at last it was entirely invisible. There was nothing to see at all.”
I don’t want to be too beastly about Burton. I just wasn’t in the mood for it. I’ve since met people who swear blind there’s nowhere better, and I know that even if you do see a lot more by foot than by car you have to spend real time in a place to even pretend to know it.
John Jackson had a great time here, though he had to leave early, so that I neither saw the market nor their fine bridge that has 26 arches over the River Trent and is said to be the finest bridge in England. However on a pleasant lane I travelld to Branston a moderate mile from the neat town of Burton, and being very cold I chanced to call at an house in the way to light my pipe but in the main, it was more to warm my hands and fingers, and as I remember I both eat and drank there too and wrote a good while in the Diary and thought that I found the greatest civillity that ever I found any where since my coming from home, and at my coming away invited me to call at my return from Glastenbury .
Which he did, and was well entertained and sent to lodge at John Swindens a servant conducted me with Lantern and Candle and by their orders too. He went back for breakfast, and his host’s garrulous daughter plied him with tales of domestic disaster: a very strange accident befell her husband on thursday the 29 of last August as he was going to Burton Market an old tree fell on him and killd him and she had then 4 children and another was born next morning and her brother John Minion was slain by an empty cart the 7th of May 1754, Old Stile and in the latter end of November one Thomas Tipper was shot in the Forest of Needwood in cold blood and left a widow and 4 fatherless children. The keeper shot him.
cottage in Needwood Forest, by Joseph Wright
The keeper shot him. Just that. By the lack of further comment, John, it’s clear that you weren’t expecting your readers to have much sympathy with keepers and their woes. You were a defender of the old customs, old values, some crazy and others less so, an upholder of E P Thompson’s “Moral Economy” in which the rich respected the traditional rights of the poor, and in your day these rights were being massively eroded. All that year of 1755 there’d been run-ins between the Needwood keepers and the locals over their right to burn off gorse and furze to make better pasturage, which, as their legal defence maintained, ” they have heard from their fathers and other ancient people who are now dead that it has been always been their usual and constant practise”. Constant practices such as these were by then coming under attack from land-improvers; and soon after Needwood was itself enclosed, despite the endeavours of the local poet Francis Mundy, whose poem ‘The Fall of Needwood’, published in 1776, portrayed the forest as the victim of “Avarice, with his harpy claws”, and his agent, Destruction:
“Onward with giant strides he towers,
Dooms with dread voice thy withering bowers,
High o’er his head the broad axe wields,
Stamps with his iron foot, and shakes the fields!”
Today, wonderfully enough, this area has been zoned for reafforestation as the National Forest, set up in 1995 to create “a new, wooded landscape for the nation across 200 square miles of central England”, according to the website. I was very curious about this project, and had lined up the chief executive, no less, to talk with me about this massive project; but this morning she rang in person to tell me she was sick. It was very thoughtful and she sounded very curious about my mission: her last words to me were a slightly wistful ‘go well’. Yet I was a bit disappointed that they hadn’t sent out somebody, a Ranger or some similar lowly sort of bod to walk with me for a mile or two and talk about it all.
Not that you get to see much of the National Forest from the route that Jackson took, the long wet turnpike way of Ryknild Street, now the A38 and a busy trunk road. The Trent & Mersey canal runs tight alongside, and for several miles beyond Burton I walked along the towpath. Straight as a die, and challenging to the psyche. Canal and trunk road come together near Barton-under- Needwood, where a good old-time transport café lured me in for a mug of sweet tea. The Sun was on the counter: ‘Mob Kill Paedo: pervert murder horror’, screamed the headline. Horrible indeed, especially since the waitress was wearing a Sun-sponsored apron; but is the Sun, with its plummeting sales, still the authentic voice of the British masses that it was in Thatcher’s day? The TV was on, tuned into some property restoration programme. An aspirational clientele, then? But only one person was watching it, half-heartedly. What does it all mean?
A stretch of the old turnpike road survives at Barton Turn, bypassed by the dual carriageway – a quaintly old-fashioned term. Beyond there’s just a fence between the road and the towpath. There are houses here; a Travelodge even; and for the umpteenth time I wondered about all the very many people who live cheek-by-jowl with noise like this. I envisaged making a documentary, subtitled of course, interviewing folk in their back-yards beside trunk roads and airports. You get used to it, I expect they’d say. Some of them might even like it. Most don’t. Take this fantastic posting-house at Wychnor Bridges, built fifty or years or so after Jackson came this way: very grand and very derelict, because the road that once gave it purpose now rushes past and kills its charm completely.
Wychnor’s bridges cross the rivers Dove and Trent, and Jackson rated it jointly with a Severn crossing as the worst watry places in all the way to Glaston. Here I turned off towards Alrewas, home of the Armed Forces Memorial Arboretum since 2007. The man at the Burton B & B gave me some publicity about it this morning. It’s poignant, he said, because there’s plenty of room for names of people that haven’t yet died. Poignant perhaps, but also pretty weird. A pre-war memorial! And what’s it doing in the heart of the National Forest? Will it become a focus for primeval warrior patriotism, like the statue to the German folk-hero Hermann in the depths of the Teutoburg forest?
I sat for a bit at the end of the weir at Alrewas, and then went through the village, a pretty place of red-brick model cottages with interesting skew doors, and half-timbered buildings too. I slipped down a footpath to Fradley village and crossed the Coventry Canal (it joins up with the Trent & Mersey a couple of miles to the west). A new settlement known as Fradley South loomed up behind the green-corrugated barns of Bridge Farm. Give ‘em twenty years, and they’ll have either fallen down or at least they won’t look quite so raw. Opposite, across a largish patch of waste ground, stood three Absolutely Enormous sheds, of which the middle one, lo and behold, belonged to Tesco, the name spelt out in letters large enough to see from Mars.
I was now entering Distribution Central, the authentic Heart of England, from where goods are distributed over the whole country. It’s a sacrificial heart, staked like a crossroads suicide by the national need for Stuff. The scale of things is fascinating and appalling. Articulated lorries seem like toys here. Fradley Park is Brobdinag. The sheds have names like Hercules and Titan. Hercules is 430,000 square feet, then as yet unbuilt but it could be in 26 weeks, as the sign said.
It would be so easy to get into a rant, but earlier I’d clocked an Argos centre and recorded that detail into the voice recorder that I’d bought in my local store a few weeks earlier and which might well have come from this very shed. I’m not innocent. I’m not out to be negative, really I’m not. I’m just trying to get my head around this REAL landscape, to understand it. This is where the business is, this is where the goods are stored, in vast quantities, in these vast sheds, shifted around in these vast lorries all over the country, this is where the Money thinks the future lies. “There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred places, and desecrated places”, wrote Wendell Berry in a justly-celebrated poem (‘Given’, 2005). In the line before that, he tells us to “Stay away from anything that obscures the place it is in.” I think you have to confront those things in order to see through them.
I left Fradley Park at Woodend Lane, heading out over untilled fields towards the blackened steeples of Lichfield Cathedral. I enjoyed this last burst of wintry country landscape, poplars on the horizons. It was a sticky clay soil with some big puddles but I managed not to fall over and squelched onto the tarmac by the well-named Brownsfield Farm. The railway line looks like a building site, fenced off with 7’ fleur-de-lys spikes as far as the eye can see. ‘A right mess they’ve made of this’, said an old lady walking her dog. I stopped on a side-road to Urbanise again. Divested of some of the mud, I felt as posh as a white-tie diner and stepped out urbanely towards the old centre. I was drawn there. I felt an urgent need to feast my eyes on old-world stuff, touristy or otherwise. I needed some balance for my buffeted soul; a bit of beauty, after Burton, the big road and my taste of Brobdinag. I was feeling fraddled by Fradley, overdosed on the twenty-first-century. In need of a different sort of functionality.
I used to dislike cathedrals. Now I find them, literally, marvellous. Full of marvels and wonder. They are profoundly functional places. The reason why the cathedrals were designed to be geometrically perfect is that they are designed to harmonise us. You come in discombobulated from the street, the chaos, the racket, the crossness and ill-will of people caught up in Stuff and clashing with each other – away from that and into peace and harmony, measured peace and proportion. Designed for rebalancing and recentring.
Lichfield Cathedral that evening was the best place on the planet. Outside, under lights, the south choir was being restored, portacabins, dayglo jackets, hard hats, lumps of fresh-carved masonry on the ground, but the doors were open still. There was even a sign that read “welcome… admission free”. I sat at the back of the nave and for once felt no desire to circumnavigate the place. A friendly man came up and gave me a guide – ‘Thank you, I’m quite happy to sit for the moment’. Basking in holiness. Looking up into the fan-vaulting and a tunnel of ribbed gothic arches disappearing into darkness behind the altar, soothing, pleasing lines and angles – trees, indeed, branching over the nave – in the leaves of the trees is the healing of the nations – from the back here, with my dodgy eyes, the rood screen seemed exquisite, pearly and bejewelled. Never have I felt more pleased to be in a house of God.
Regenerated, I stepped out half-an-hour later into the cathedral close at twilight, or rush-hour, as this time of day is more generally known at this time of year. The close was a rat-run, and the traffic jam spilled out and backed up onto the main road beyond. But never mind all that. I was restored and tranquillised. The full moon came up behind the clouds, a golden smudge, as I wandered round the old city, enjoying its intimacies, its small and human scale, its pride of past and place; and then headed out to my hosts tonight and another kind of culture shock, overwhelming but very welcome.
Within thirty seconds on Kirsty’s doormat I’d been told off for not walking further that day and praised to the skies for walking at all, scolded and invited immediately into the heart of her warm-hearted family, and plonked down breathless in a corner of the kitchen while the household merrily exploded all around me. They were happy kids, sound and sorted. Dominic was a diabolo obsessive and very good at it; he was also experimenting with computer animation and showed me an impressive little film he’d made. Bryony played the violin and wants to be an architect. He talked about the ‘chavs’ at school – what are you? I asked: ‘a mosher’ – from the mosh pit, apparently. Bryony? ‘a bopper’, says her brother; she’s not impressed with the label but doesn’t deny it. All this was unfolding in the gaps around Kirsty’s full-on, manic conversation which shot off everywhere, at once energising and exhausting. She’s a talented and interesting artist; there were several bits of weird non-functional furniture around the living room to which she’d given human names; a scarlet-legged footstool with a biscuit tin with scarlet plants a-growing out of it particularly caught my eye.
They cooked up a delicious dinner that was formally served in the dining room, and we had a good old this-and-that chat. What’s Lichfield like? They liked it well enough, though the town is sprawling now. They told me about a proposed ‘eco-town’ out towards Fradley, about which they were as sceptical as anyone else. So what should be done about The Future? I got the usual slightly detached and slightly defensive comments about recycling and lightbulbs and car use. Things won’t change over the next seventy years. I asked about the National Forest but they’re only dimly aware of it, this sussed and savvy family who live on its fringes. Dominic was one of the schoolboys who was drafted in to dig the earth for the first memorial at the Arboretum, but to these folk Cannock Chase is still the place to go for a bit of local Outdoor and Adventure stuff. Lichfield locals look to Tamworth or even Stafford for their shopping and diversion, it seems, though not this bunch who use Birmingham and wax lyrical about the City I’m about to be traversing, and gave me a long list of places to visit this time or the next.
Dominic, noble fellow, was booted out of his bedroom to make way for me, and I slept in his bunk-bed just below the space-ceiling that his Mum had painted for him, atmospheric clouds drifting across planets, spiky stars and all. That night I had an odd dream, a sort of reverse vertigo in which I found myself soaring up the side of the Empire State Building with a growing sense of dread about what would happen when I got to the top. I never did.
Saturday December 13: into the City
Well that was very nice, very hospitable, very lovely people. The next day it was raining, quite heavily too, but I could hardly complain. I knew this was coming. After what, eight good days I had a wet one. I wrapped up in all my wet-weather gear and fished out the Umbrella from its corner of the rucsac, and bounced out of the door looking and feeling like a cross between Mary Poppins and the Michelin Man. I waved goodbye so vigorously that I set off in the wrong direction and three minutes later sailed past their window once again.
I had a difference of opinion with a lady just outside the town. The track ran right through her one-time farmyard. “This is not a public right of way”, she said, “and I’m not letting you through”. So I trudged around the outside of their property. All the way round their house and their two paddocks was an eight-foot chicken-wire fence. Fencing people out, or fencing themselves in?
Just outside the village of Wall I sought and found a bus shelter beside what once was Watling Street, Wall being a Roman town. Very nice to be sitting out of the rain for a bit and listening to the drops falling heavily on the roof; and better to be walking into Birmingham than out of it, when the rain starts.
But there’s not much to do in a bus shelter, and as soon as the rain began to ease I stepped out underneath the M6 toll road and came into Shenstone along a track over the Black Brook, bubbling away and very full. I didn’t know it at the time but somewhere down one of these side-streets an Israeli arms manufacturer was busily manufacturing engine components for the drones that were used in the onslaughts on Gaza. How many people in this village work for them, or buy or sell to those that work for them? How many in the country make their money from the arms industry? Almost a quarter of a million in 2015, according to the Telegraph (11 June 2015, online). Business is booming, and it’s not as if it’s anything new. Britain has selling arms for centuries. What price ethics, in a cut-throat world? “For mine own good, All causes shall give way: I am in blood Stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more, Returning were as tedious as go o’er.”
In Shenstone I chiefly clocked a brace of well-done-up pubs, one of them an Indian restaurant (interesting how many pubs hereabouts have become Indian restaurants), and a run-down manor house at the top of the main street with newspaper in the windows. As I set out upon the much-puddled back-road through Shenstone Park I mused upon a scrap of last night’s conversation that touched upon the social hierarchies of the places on my road today. Four Oaks, northernmost suburb of Sutton Coldfield, is reputed posh, but I don’t suppose it compares with Shenstone, amidst its genuine fields. Caste and status dwindle the further in you go. Sutton I was told is “the sort of place you move to when you get promoted”; from somewhere like Erdington, which has a Good Part and a Bad Part, and beyond that it all falls down Gravelly Hill to the pits of inner-city Aston…
The flooding around Shenstone was quite severe and when the road sank beneath higher banks I had to cut through the fields. After Shenstone Park I followed an old quarry track towards Manly Wood because it beckoned, and time was on my side today. It felt improbably rural, just two miles away from the city limit, looking over sheep pasture and open countryside to the masts on Hillwood Common. Here I came across a wonderful and clearly much-loved tree, a lower branch wrapping around and supporting the weight of the trunk, and swings and slides and stuff on the back of it. A tear-drop plaque very close to Green Barn – “a tear for a loving mum and dad” – got me going too almost. Back onto the Shenstone lane after my pleasantly pointless detour, over the crossroads and up the long straight hill into the city. This is Hillwood Common Road, and near the top’s a cluster of TV masts, moored by an intricate and clever web of guy-wires. A couple of very dejected-looking horses came across the muddy paddock at their base to say hello. Must be hard to be a captive beast, to be fenced in to a muddy compound without shelter and only such food as is brought out to you. Dumb animals, we say, without feeling; what else can we say?
Immediately beyond the masts the city starts. This is Hill, now part of Four Oaks, but there’s no sign to say so, less still one to tell you that ‘you are entering twenty miles of concrete’. I snapped a picture of The First House in Birmingham, a sizeable gaff. They are big houses here, some are quite nice, stockbrokery, with a hint of Deco here and there: a hymn to pre-war affluence, now measured in motor-cars per forecourt (four in one, five in another). On the corner a bright-red post-box stands, defying the winds of change.
The First House in Birmingham
The rain had stopped, and I said goodbye to my friend the stick that I’d found to give the brolly a bit of extra height, so that I could see out from underneath it and also so that I can hold it without having to hold my arm up all the time. I ‘urbanised’ slowly and gently this time; it was still too wet and menacing to shed too many waterproofs, and anyway the rain had washed off most of the mud. Gratefully I walked along the grassy verges – Birmingham seems to specialise in semi-public lawns between pavement and garden walls, balm to sore feet.
Through Mere Green and down the hill to Sutton Coldfield and back onto the main road that Jackson took, the Lichfield Road which here is the High Street. There’s a couple of pubs hanging on in there; the other buildings are lawyers or accountants or estate agents. The Vesey house (Bishop Vesey’s the big noise around here) has three rather sweet first-floor bay windows, overlooking an awful lot of traffic, even on a Saturday.
I stopped for a bit by Sutton Coldfield church: a dumpy, square-towered thing of blackened red sandstone, set back from the main road with a memorial garden before it. I can see why men of the road often do fetch up near churches – in a city they are relatively safe and relatively peaceful places to be. It was also a good place to rest my feet, which were really sore today, something to do with the rain rather than distance. But the church itself was firmly bolted, padlocked and bristling with signs outlining various anti-theft and vandalism methods here… anti-climb paint and smart water … property protected by forensic science. Now I wouldn’t want to say that all this is unnecessary because I do not know; but it does create the sense of the Church on the defensive, fearful and distrustful, and leaves you wandering what on earth it’s for.
Jackson set from Lichfield after morning prayers at the cathedral on a day of Calm and white frost and sunshine. He had an errand to carry out for the Rev Dixon of Worsbrough, with a Mrs Foxhall who lived hard by the Church .. where I was treated well, and she sent to direct me to lodge at John Shake-shafts, there I lay eat and drank, and was diverted by a cherful young lady who told us severall merry diverting stories, and amongst the rest of an English Gentleman that had a Irish Teague for his waiting man, and the gentleman sent him to the post office for a letter, and Teague comes home and tells his Master other people had letters twice the bigness of his, and payd but the same price. ” Shall I (says he) see my master’s money wasted so? But I thought I would come even with them, and I stoele one from ’em, and here it is.” ” Thou Fool says the master that will do me no good.” ” Well, says Teague but I have not sent a letter to my parents this long time. But this will serve I’ll send ’em this.” To conclude I found cold lodging this strong white frosty night.
I’m glad you shivered some, you old bugger, chuckling over stupid Irish jokes. On the journey home he stopped over again at mother Foxhall’s and tarryd till 7 a clock … This Mrs. Foxhall is a very cheerful woman, and has 2 daughters Mary and Betty. She carryd very well and civilly to me and gave me a Letter for Mr. Dixon living in Worsbor. An evening of feminine company to gladden the heart of a convivial vagabond.
I left the Lichfield Road at this point, and followed the line of the railway down Coleshill Street and Ebrook Road. At East View Road the landscape unexpectedly opens up into, well, an east view, over the railway line to a sizeable chunk of open space beyond. It evoked a sudden flicker of ancient pain, that view, like the view from the house of a long-lost lover on the Oxford Road in Reading, looking over the railway and the river to the fields unattainably beyond.
The late afternoon light was subtle, pinky. I felt a bit Outsiderly, passing by all those homely homes at twilight, comfortable looking places, warm places, dolled up for Christmas. I got inexplicably lost somewhere round the back of Walmley Golf Club but eventually spilled out of suburbia and into the world of rough-and-interesting on the Chester Road. Mission Control had booked me a room in a wonderfully cheap hotel which in fact turned out to be three doors down in their ‘budget accommodation’, even better, just right for a cove like me. I am a connoisseur of cheap hotels. The room was marginally bigger and less basic than the one in Derby, with a mirror, an arty artex ceiling and a working television though I could only get BBC1. I watched a daft game show and the start of Strictly Come Dancing while my burning feet cooled down. On Reception was the Duty Manager, a stringy lady with a slightly worn-out look but friendly and generous: she promised me a free breakfast because she admired what I was doing. She made me feel mildly heroic, as though this walk had some more-than-personal significance. Walking through the English badlands was one of those jobs that needed doing, and it just happened to be me that came along to do it.
My feet recovered, I stepped out to find a Balti house – that’s what you do, in Birmingham, funny how even the most exotic of culinary traditions can embed themselves in regional cuisine over a couple of generations. I ate well, though the experience was slightly coloured by the awkwardness and ennui at the next table where eventually the bloke fished out his phone, as he’d obviously been dying to do for ages, to launch into an animated conversation about a game tomorrow, a real conversation, unlike the one he wasn’t having with his wife.
Sunday December 14: Hidden Treasure and Generic Skyline
“Birmingham’s a Hidden Treasure”, said my benefactrice, when I finally managed to get her to sit down for a minute. Has to be said that the free breakfast was a trifle basic, tinned tomatoes and baked beans, but I’m getting used to that & anyway it was all I wanted to eat at eight in the morning. Specially on a Sunday. There was a real Sunday vibe as I set out on the Sutton road towards the city centre. The guy at the bus stop smoking a spliff obviously hadn’t gone to bed yet, and was exuding that wonderful wired feeling you get after an all-nighter.
This seems to be the School Sector, or at least there are lots of private schools, advertising very heavily outside their own gates. New, Junior Boys & Girls Together from September 2008, in even bigger letters: Bargain of the Year. Education’s a commodity like any other. Some other place was offering a deal: 0-3 year olds paid for, 3-5s go free, and back in Lichfield the Little Grasshoppers nursery school on the Walsall Road takes children from 6 weeks to 8 years. Six weeks! This is 21st century baby farming. We’ll keep them out of your hair while you both are out there earning all you can, because life’s not cheap these days, between the hefty mortgage repayments, the school fees and all the goodies you think you need from the out-of-town shopping centres. Certainly not from Erdington High Street anyway, which was as sad as all the other high streets, bristling with closing down sales, gaudy gaming parlours, pound shops and charity shops.
I was well and truly in the city here but Outer Erdington Micros stands defiantly at the top of Gravelly Hill, a parade of big old mansion houses that diminish in social status with every foot in height. My grandfather went to the Great War from a house down one of these side-streets, the home of his father, silversmith, die-sinker and martinet, or so the story goes.
And at the bottom of the hill –
Arguably the most famous motorway junction on earth, or at least in Europe, or anyway the West Midlands. An unbelievably vast array of concrete pillars and overpasses and truly a monument to engineering genius and social blindness. This Thing arrived here; it landed in a built-up area, and replaced a suburb. There are houses built up tight to the roundabout, the Armada Pub for instance (not yet open, or I’d have popped in for a reccy). What must the locals have thought, when they started to see the concrete towers being raised, the uprights for the flyovers and things, watching their neighbourhood becoming trashed for all time? This question was answered in a fascinating BBC 4 programme called The Secret Life of the Motorway. A brace of smiley local ladies were indeed asked about how they felt when they saw the Junction being built; they said that the engineers should try living there for a month, with the windows open. The engineer himself was interviewed on that programme and was as proud of his work as he well might be. It was not his job to question the challenge that came his way, just like it’s not the job of my quarter-million people fellow-Britons who earn good money in the arms trade to question whether it’s really such a good thing to be making things that kill people.
I wandered amid the forest of concrete piers on the traffic island beneath the spaghetti. There are some odd things down here, canals for instance, with ornate balustrades placed there when Gravelly Hill was posh and the waters were to be meandered beside on sunny Sunday afternoons. A canalside walk was opened in 1997 but I somehow don’t suppose that these days people dawdle too much at this particular part of it. Strangest of all were the mosaics on the walls of the subways. Distinctively Sixties, light blue and optimistic, evocative to me of the world of my happy primary school, bright and full of future and promise. Nobody sees them, nobody thinks of them, nobody knows they’re there. All that work, to beautify these grim unlovely subways. Were the designers and their clients such perfectionists that they wanted things to be right even in the most unvisited of places, like cathedral craftsmen carving gargoyles and fiddly bits high up among the rafters? Was it all just window-dressing, a sop to win round dubious local residents? Or was there really once a time when hordes of people hung around beneath motorway flyovers for the fun of it? These subways are not inviting spaces in the slightest, but was there once a time when they were? The Secret Life evokes a time when motorways were cool and motorway service stations chic; and it is to this archaeological horizon that the fine blue tiles on the Salford Circus underpass should be ascribed; but did anyone ever come here and say, ooh, how nice? (Salford Circus is the boring old-time roundabout that sits beneath the multidimensional Gravelly Hill Interchange of Spaghetti Junction. Not many people know that).
The junction siphons off most of the traffic, on this Sunday at least, and things were oddly quieter on the city side although the road’s much wider. This stretch of the Lichfield Road through Aston is blanker, blander; light industrial estates on one side and council/housing association on the other, massive pubs protruding like survivors (though only just); the Swan & Mitre, the King Edward VII, ornate and turreted, denuded– either being done up or taken apart. This is Aston, dead and industrial. I stood outside the motorbike shop and pondered on Brum’s fame for big bikes and heavy metal bands, and it’s not unrelated to Spag Junction and a landscape pounded and pummelled by inventors and industrialists. Somewhere out of sight was Aston Hall, which Jackson beheld on a rising hill a fine house like a noble mans palace and I asking who lived there was told Clement Holt, but whether a knight lord or squire I could not tell. (The answer’s ‘baronet’, John. The Holtes were here from 1618 until 1817. “In 1864 the house was bought by Birmingham Corporation, becoming the first historic country house to pass into municipal ownership” – thank you Wikipedia). For how much longer?
Aston is my ancestral home, or one of them – the place whereunto my great-great grandfather Matthew Stout brought his family, in 1846 or thereabouts. He was a gunsmith. He became a foreman at Coopers and Goodman, small arms manufacturers, who did well out of the Crimean War. If it wasn’t for the arms trade he might not have been able to support a family and I might not even be here.
(note the chimneys…)
Not far past the Albion (the sign’s a fine sailing ship with the wind behind it) the old road came to a full stop while the main expressway glided past on a flyover – a full-stop that’s fifteen concrete feet high, defended by one of those 7’ fleur-de-lys fences too. And just beside it, amidst the grey and uniformity, a tiny human-scale enclosure with caravans, sheds and flowers. Homely and unusual.
I crossed another mega roundabout at Dartmouth Circus where the Sixties tiles were in even better order than they are at Spag; and then into City Centre zone and Corporation Street, where the ghost of Joseph Chamberlain echoes in the very name. These are Victorian buildings, with shops at ground level. The word “Forward!” leaps out proudly from the city coat-of-arms on the gates of the Law Courts Building. Ah, Progress, I remember it well.
The Bull Ring sits behind a bulging wall of mirror glass, like some demented dinosaurian disco city. It’s a cosmopolitan chain-store paradise; every major brand is here, so you can skip merrily from logo to logo. It was busy on this Sunday, in the run-up to Christmas. A choir, 90% female, sang a capella Christmas songs on the Upper Level while behind them kids posed on a big-bollocked bull statue. An enterprising father-and-son busking team played Silent Night nearby: the son, about 7, was learning his saxophone on the hoof. I dropped into St Martins’, an authentic shoppers’ church, and even here it was busy. Quite a few folk were talking at normal volume, there were people setting up for some kind of performance, and forthcoming events were relayed to the faithful on two massive digital screens – “Dec 21@6pm Christmas Carols”. It was rebuilt in the nineteenth century, but sensitively. The East Window in particular is delicately done, muted colours, tracery like old lace. “God Loves a Cheerful Giver”, says the tag on the collection bucket; after St Paul apparently, but somehow it’s Jack Woolley’s voice I hear.
I went past Moor St Station, looking fun, with steam engines and all sorts. I wandered back into the centre, along New St, enjoying everyday big-city surreality. A rather large matron, laden down with bags, with a blue horse balloon flapping around behind her on a bit of string, disappeared behind a giant Christingle.
I walked down Pinfold St, where Jackson stayed: a nondescript late-nineteenth century thoroughfare these days. On both the outward and return journeys he stayed at John Farringdon’s and there was the first observation I had heard made on the mischief of the New Stile viz. that we never had any good weather since it began. And during my stay here I heard a lass of about a dozen or 14 years old severely corrected. I enquired the reason and was told that her mother had many such turnes as these with her before this for she was a naughty wench and neglected her work. So I asked what work and a woman made answer it is the button trade.
No further comment, but would you have mentioned this if you’d approved of that ‘severe correction’, John? The next day being Sunday, and A cold rainy day and a cold western wind, the stroller stayed put except in Church time. For in the forenoon I was at the Old Church called St Martins and received the Holy Sacrament there, and in the afternoon I went to the New Church called St Michaels. And in the forenoon at St. Martins the text was Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.
From the context, I think that you had the souls of those who neglected human charity in mind when you wrote those lines. People who were harsh to children, people who were harsh to strangers.
And while I was Birming I was told that a poor man a stranger had been there but about a week or not a fortnight before and that no body would admit him into their house, no not so much as no warm him, and the poor wretch fell down dead in the street. And now I wonder what answer will be made for this when every man shall be rewarded according to their works. Matthew the 25th chapter. And when the sentence shall be pronounced will the act against strolers save em, if all out of each town be strolers ? Where’s the stranger? Another account I hear that at Asburn in the Peak one Henry Bennet a man that had come from Cubly to Ashburn Fayr taken ill in the street cried out let poor Harry lye down somewhere if it be but on a bit of straw but none regarded him and the people let him die in the street, but the Town of Asburn got soon sued and fined and it cost Asburn several hundreds of pounds before they got rid of it.
I haven’t found any more about the fate of poor Harry Bennet, but it is interesting that Ashbourne was one place where there were “signs of real conflict” over the timing of the Nine Nights’ Fair, according to Robert Poole, the historian of the Calendar Change. Under pressure from horse-dealers, farmers and gentry, the fair was held at the new-style date, ie eleven days earlier, but popular pressure succeeded in getting it put back to its traditional date. It seems quite likely that John Jackson saw these two events as linked, and ascribed Harry Bennet’s to that same spreading callousness which caused authority to ride roughshod over the moral economy of the poor.
At the top of Pinfold St was Victoria Square, and a full-on German Christmas Market, with a brass band incongruously playing When I’m 64. The words ‘Happy Christmas Birmingham’ were picked out in lights across the front of the Town Hall: nice and simple and surprisingly moving, like I’d walked into a big family gathering. ‘Global city, local heart’ is the slogan and for a moment it felt pretty genuine, until I recalled the balls-up over the recycling brochure. Earlier that year (2008), the city council had sent out pamphlets praising Brummies for their recycling skills – featuring a photograph of the skyline of Birmingham Alabama. It was a “generic skyline”, claimed an official, unconvincingly, “intended to symbolise an urban area”. He later fessed up, but how did a mistake like that get through all those tiers of bureaucracy? You can imagine an office junior somewhere picking the wrong picture, but his boss? Her boss’s boss? The council committee? Even the blooming printer? Does it say something about quite how unremarkable the Birmingham skyline is, that none of these Birmingham professionals noticed that their tourist brochures were going out with a completely different city skyline on the front? 720,000 copies were printed and distributed but only one person saw fit to comment. Does that mean that 719,999 Brummies failed to recognise their own skyline? The council declined to reprint the thing; let’s hope that those pamphlets were all conscientiously recycled…
Through Paradise Square and the overflow from the main market, and exit south west, down the side of yet another shopping mall – this one’s called the Mailbox, another one’s the Pavilion, rival shopping centres. These places are where the chic people shop. They don’t go to old-style High Streets, hubs no longer of urban life. Instead they flock to these great private emporia, where the weather’s roofed out and laws of trespass can be invoked against loiterers and hoodies and protesters and buskers and street life in general; sanitised shopping dreamlands, vying with each other to maximise their quota of brand-recognised stores.
I nipped up a side street, and slipped into peace perfect peace, outside and beyond All That. Past the first council houses, and a spot of old-fashioned light industry, and then the Peace Garden itself, where three blokes on their uppers were peacefully passing the cider. Across the big road, Lee Bank Middleway, and down Wheeleys Road into Edgbaston. These are nice, big, early nineteenth-century houses, sentient homes for sentient people. Wheeleys Road morphs into Arthur Road, which reminded me of the university district in Reading. There must be some kind of smell to a university for this area is also Uni land; the older mansions all now house University departments. It’s all very pleasantly leafy.
After leaving Farringdon’s place John Jackson went turnpike way toward Edgeberson, and calld at a mill where 3 or 4 men was grinding edge loom. I sat down and smoake my pipe with them and as they directed me I went a blind watry way to Norfield a little place called Norfield that deserves neither the name of a town nor a village. ‘Loom’ is a Yorkshire dialect word for ‘tool’: these men were grinding edge-tools; perhaps this was the specialist “Auger and Edge Tool-maker in Edgbaston” advertising in 1770. Norfield is Northfield, on the Bristol Road near Selly Oak.
The Bristol road! The first sign of south-westness yet on this trip. I stopped for tea and cheese-on-toast at a friendly café. Today’s Sunday Mirror headlined with ‘Our Hero Pals’, and I noticed another headline earlier ‘Widowed at Christmas’ – this 3rd Afghan War is like Orwell’s wars: inherently unwinnable (even the generals say as much), its origins shameful, but by now serving a fairly clear social function. It’s good to have a war on, somewhere, and preferably as far away as possible. Good to see the boys in khaki, obeying orders and playing with big toys, and it keeps people worked up and frightened. Five minutes later, beneath the Selly Oak Railway Bridge, I spotted a poster put up by Authority urged residents to celebrate in the modern way: “During the Festive Season – Shut Your Curtains – Shut Them Out”. This was the ultimate iconic inner-city cliché, graffiti on the wall beside the railway bridge, sirens in the background as I took the picture.
Terrified, I detoured into the quiet backstreets of Selly Oak (named for a tree on the Bristol Road that was felled in 1909. The stump remains, and dendrochronological tests suggest that the tree was planted no earlier than 1710. “It is therefore thought that the tree became a landmark following the turnpiking of the road from Bromsgrove to Birmingham (now the Bristol Road), which began in 1727.” – thanks again, Wikipedia). I slipped through the back of Bourneville in the dark, which was a shame indeed because it’s a very pleasant place, built with thoughtful philanthropy. There really are a lot of nice houses in Birmingham; it is generally, from north-east to south-west, a good-looking city and that is despite the motor-car, for which so much has been razed and altered. Bourneville faded into King’s Norton through streets of Edwardian semis, big, roomy, comfortable bay-windowed family houses. It has that autonomous feeling that some outer suburbs still often do have, a place with its own centre and a sense of itself as distinct.
Felling the Selly Oak, 1909
And here, in a top-floor flat in an unusual building, I found my next couchsurfer. Vangelis is a psychologist, clearly fascinated and delighted by people in all their variety since he had already played host to almost one hundred couchsurfers. “Nietzsche & Freud are my internal guides in this life, poetry is my breath”, he maintains, and avows an interest in Optimistic Nihilism. I googled ‘optimistic nihilism’, and found this wonderful aphorism: “Nothing matters. So the fact that nothing matters doesn’t matter. Might as well seize the day, then.” Enough to shift the blackest depression there.
“I admire your idea for this trek, it’s a great excuse for a walk around the country”, he told me in his email, “and just to see the Glastonbury Thorn bloom!!!. I thought that the Glastonbury Holy Thorn flowers twice a year, Christmas and Easter, Christianity’s two biggest celebrations….but maybe I’m wrong?” A leading question. And that’s how he was in real life. He got me talking, gave me the stage and sat back, listening attentively. He drew me out on lots of things, and I felt clarity as I basked in the unusual luxury of being able to develop my thoughts with a stranger, while at the same time warming to this person who shows such good taste & insight as to want to sit and listen to my warblings. He was a very good cook. We had a Greek pasta sauce and salad, quite late by my standards on this walk, 10ish, abed by 11ish. The famous couch, though excellent for surfing, psychoanalysis and sitting on, was not so brilliant for sleeping on, but that was partly my fault since the zipper on my sleeping bag had gone.
John Jackson lodged at the Bulls Head in the village of Kings Norton and there I lay on the floor without bedflocks but not without good bedding. And here was an old man that drank to me and tells a story of a gentleman that about a week ago fell down as he was a getting on horse back and died in a few hours after, and that then he was for going to Brummijum markit. He might have had a better bed than I that night, but I had more cheerful company.
Monday December 15. Bonkers santas and bonking drivers
I had a Proper Breakfast in Molly’s Café on the green, the first place in ages to offer a veggie breakfast and really nice it was too. According to the papers, the episode of ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ that I saw the start of went on to generate a voting furore. Since this is the first (and last) time that I’ve ever watched it then this must be something to do with me.
That was a bit of a trudge out to West Heath, one of those murky grey mornings along a busyish road and through some samey suburbia, leavened in my mind by a little cherry tree that was blossoming out of season. A good sort of day to clock the CCTVs looking down on us from every other lamp-post, or so it felt, and the school-run cars rumbling past drearily at twenty-five miles an hour.
In West Heath I photographed a house that was crawling with little Santas. It’s curious, how Santa is getting more and more diminutive and child-like, neotenised. I saw another lawn surrounded by santas no more than six inches high (I cannot grace a six-inch santa with a capital S). He’s getting perilously close to becoming a kind of garden gnome. Can’t help feeling that more is less when it comes to Father Christmas. There should be just the one of him, and that rarely seen, especially since he has totally eclipsed Christ at Christmas for most modern children. Belief in Father Christmas is a big thing, and breaching that belief is a big thing too. A breach of trust. I think that Terry Pratchett had a point when he wrote about the vital role of fantasy, in the discussion between Death and his grand-daughter Susan at the end of Hogfather:
“You have to start out learning to believe the little lies.”
“So we can believe the big ones?”
“Yes. Justice. Mercy. Duty. That sort of thing.”
“They’re not the same at all!”
“You think so? then take the universe and grind it down to the finest powder and sieve it through the finest sieve and then show me one atom of justice, one molecule of mercy. and yet” —Death waved a hand – “and yet you act as if there is some ideal order in the world, as if there is some… some rightness in the universe by which it may be judged.”
“Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what’s the point—”
“My point exactly.”
I came down Alvechurch Road to Longbridge Road, and there ahead of me was the open country once again. The Last House in Birmingham was a lot less posh than the First one, probably because this is more or less Longbridge here, home until recently of the giant car factory that in the 1960s employed 25,000 people.
Ah, the footpath out! The wide open spaces once again! The fields and the mud! It was a fantastic moment. Birmingham wasn’t horrible at all; it was just very urban, and there was an awful lot of it. Some strange folk shin up mountains and bag munroes and such. Me, I bag cities, and Brum was my biggest bag yet, but I was pleased as a pleased thing to be out on the other side of it.
This first field was studded with trees from former hedgerows, one of them with a well-used rope swing – sure sign of a warm-hearted and laid-back farmer. In the distance, the Upper Bittell reservoir looked very mysterious and misty, its edges ill-defined in this hazy morning light. I was feeling fey and light-headed. I walked under a tree with a branch just like an arm, tickled the ‘armpit’ and realised that it was a long time since I’d flirted with a tree.
The first house out of Brum on this path is a farm cottage at Cofton Richards (the village here is Cofton Hackett, which if it isn’t known locally as Smokers Corner then it ought to be). A car was parked at the bottom of the track, with its engine running, which was a tad unnerving – was I about to be mugged or kidnapped? No: it was just a couple keeping warm whilst getting frisky. Ever the gentleman, I looked away, nipped swiftly through a side-gate and took a short cut across a ploughed field. Foolishly. Within seconds each foot had a massive halo of mud and weighed about a hundredweight. Cursing randy motorists I glooped my way across to Barnt Green, a nineteenth-century railway settlement, and crossed under the M42. I skirted Linthurst golf course, a very old-fashioned affair: four old-timers were silently putting, all wearing cloth caps and white jackets, and one was actually wearing plus-fours.
At Vigo I headed out across country on the bridleway to Finstall, which crosses a lovely tract of high ground, sheep pasture, perfect for walking. Finstall House, behind high walls, was mostly shuttered up. Three dogs in tiny box-kennels set up a bawling welcome for me as I approached, and the gate across the footpath was bolted. The track headed left but I took an illegal short-cut to the right so I didn’t have to go back on myself. A bit of a buzz there, a bit of wilful trespass; but those tiny kennels annoyed me, and I felt justified.
After Finstall I headed down the track towards Bromsgrove station car-park, where a neat herringbone of cars waited like a row of patient steeds for their commuter owners to return. I didn’t go into the town, even though John Jackson called it a strong market town. A pleasant town. I’m sure it is, but didn’t want to have anything to do with towns just then.
And then, around a corner, Redwood Grove. Look at it four-square, in the eye. This is what the future looks like it. These places have replaced council estates, built on a much meaner scale, and the denizens pick up all the bills. The sales director called it “a perfect option for people working in Birmingham who refuse to pay a hefty price for a city centre property but want to enjoy the convenience of apartment living and the luxury of a short commute”. Yeah, right.
I climbed the rise and flopped down with relief beside a wonderful ancient blighted oak tree outside Stoke Court, contemplating the Aston Fields Industrial Estate across the railway tracks below me, and the music of Waste Management Solutions’ crushers crashing and gnashing through metal and glass, with a regular refrain of reversing beeps and now and then a train.
Just then the sun came through. Yee hah! The clouds disappeared and it grew quite warm, suddenly spring-like, in this run-up to the winter solstice. I stepped from one scrap of map to another like Alice between her looking-glass chess-squares, and down on to the towpath of the Worcester & Birmingham canal, and with it the satisfying knowledge that I could stay on this towpath right in to Droitwich if I ran out of daylight.
I sat for a while beside a very rustic lock no. 26. This canal is only just wide enough for a single narrow-boat, but this slender waterway is one of the hubs of the canal system, as I realised when I walked into Stoke Wharf, where dozens of holiday barges were moored up for the winter. Dilemmas, dilemmas. With less than an hour of daylight left, I came to the Astwood bridge and had a choice to make. Should I take the track, which is clear enough on the map (well, it’s a series of tracks and footpaths, that’s the trouble), or stick with the safe towpath? It all depended on the state of the fields. If darkness fell and I was on a halfway decent track, or even firm pasture, then great; but what if it was sticky sticky ploughland, when every footstep’s difficult, in the dark..?
Was I man or was I mouse? inquired a voice from nowhere. Put like that, what could I do? I squashed my inner mouse and left the safety of the towpath and boldly went through the heart of Astwood Farm, which these days is two very different places. There’s the farmer’s Astwood Farm, an enormous shed with enormous tractors, and the expensively-restored Astwood Farmhouse beside it. Living next door to those massive machines might take the edge off country living for some.
Getting from the middle of nowhere to the edge of somewhere before darkness falls is always a bit of an adrenaline buzz. The track was fine, at least to start with, concreted through to Walmer Farm; thereafter a bit sticky up to the back of Westfields, a rough-and-ready dairy farm, squelchy as only a dairy farm can be. I leapt between clumps of solid ground across the poached meadows and around the overflowing slurry pit and through some much-trampled gateways, but I made it through to the hard-standing. Twenty minutes later would have been difficult. I bumped into the farmer on his doorstep: ‘you all right are you? Yes, the footpath’s straight up the drive’.
The light was fading fast. I had a mile or so to do along the B4090, mercifully Roman-straight and even more mercifully pavemented, sandwiched between the road and what I later learned was the Droitwich Canal, in the early throes of restoration. On the town side of the M5 bridge the street lights began. Made it! And lo and behold, some thoughtful person had placed a bench here just for me. Blessings upon you. Gratefully I scraped away the mud, and rang a few B & Bs that Mission Control had kindly furnished me with, and settled on the first that I found, and after some convoluted directions-giving made my way there, dumped my stuff and changed into my ‘evening wear’ and went off in search of sustenance.
Dining out in Droitwich on a Monday night in December was a challenge. I could only find one restaurant, a pretentious Indian place that wanted to charge me for water. Is this even legal? Seething, I had the absolute minimum that I needed to fill my belly and left as soon as I could. The manager showed me unctuously to the door. “I will say this”, I said, very quietly as I left, “if you’d given me a glass of water I’d have spent twice as much”. He looked pained and I walked out feeling much better. On to the Star and Garter, where I nursed an expensive pint and looked at the backs of the four cronies on the bar, a sad crew of locals as John Jackson would have called them, moaning endlessly and unpleasantly. “I’m not racist but -”. I didn’t stay for another. I walked past the vast half-timbered Raven Hotel and wondered how it manages to survive, especially since it seems to have turned its back on the town: “for security reasons the door to the street is shut, please come in via the car park”. Back out in the empty streets, the silence was leavened by church bells somewhere. Pointless, wonderful campanologists. Peal on.
Tuesday December 16: Salt, the Goddess, and the Land of Heavenly Spring
That was a good little pit-stop, and I’m pretty sure that the landlady put me in the best room in the house. She was a funny little round woman with an enormous smile; we had a nice little chat that morning. She and her husband must have been in their sixties and obviously without much money of their own; they’d taken a six-year lease on this place and were halfway through it, but business was none too good.
The old stroller didn’t dawdle in Droitwich on his way to Glastonbury, but he stayed here for a full day on the return journey at William Brooks the Sign of the Bell near the Hospital in Droitwich. He wrote about its four churches, now reduced to one, and noted that This town has in it 30 Salt houses and pays above 4000 pounds in every month for duty to the King and the salt makers buy their salt of the huckster shops. This salt is called Basket Salt and is the finest salt.
Since salt made Droitwich famous, I toyed with the idea of blowing a few bob on a brine bath, but the brine bath turned out to be closed, so that was that. I went instead to find the much-overlooked Brine Well, which I found, thanks to the good ladies in the Parish Centre, up a little tiny alley called Tower Road. It was locked and neglected, huge equipment dimly visible through barred windows behind an interpretation plaque that had itself become a somewhat mildewed artefact. I learned about the Brine Stream that runs beneath the town, and the great growth in production during Jackson’s century. 15000 tons of salt were produced in 1771, ten times the medieval figure; and at one point Droitwich produced about a third of England’s salt, blimey. It’s a big deal, then, but Droitwich doesn’t seem particularly interested in its salty past; doesn’t know how to connect with it. There’s something sadly standard-issue about the tourist publicity in this little town, as if it’s all been generated elsewhere by some agency on a contract.
Today was Podcast Day. I duly rang into the Western Daily Press, and tried to explain to my hypothetical hordes of eager fans, whom I visualised sitting there beside their maps with rulers and bits of string at the ready, that I really wasn’t out to break the land-speed record. People kept giving me shocked expressions when they learn how slow my pace is: odd, how some folk think that the only possible merit in doing a walk like this is to get it over with as fast as possible. My brother meanwhile joshes me for my ten-mile-a-day routine and imagines an extended pub crawl.
But today really was a short day, even by my standards. Since I’d arranged to stay that night in Worcester, all of four miles away, I was well ahead of myself, but perhaps because my pace had slackened it was the most challenging day so far. The weather didn’t help. It was misty and foggy, one of those days when the clouds touch the roofs and the trees sort of fade out. Much better than rain, much easier to walk in, but not exactly uplifting either. With time on my side, I decided to detour via Westwood House, where Jackson had a goodly welcome from the housekeeper. My route out took me past a sports college and a fitness centre and I found myself railing against the ubiquity of this mindless keep-fit culture. I crossed a main road into Learner Driver country, watched the eighteen-year-olds doing their bit for global warming. This is reality, this is much more reality than a handful of greenies protesting about runways and suchlike. Reality is learning how to drive as soon as you can, learning how to earn as much as you can, spending your spare time shopping or working out, cogs in the machine, mindlessly making money, mindlessly spending it. What happened to that revolution in consciousness we once told ourselves was on its way?
I climbed a bank beside a sorry set of allotment buildings with a St George’s flag planted prominently on the ground. It’s a defensive symbol, you see it also on the pubs now, for people who feel that their culture is really threatened. Mine hostess of the night before talked about Tipton, where she came from. “I wouldn’t want to live there now”. Why not? “It’s where the Terrorists come from”. Code, the Muslims. This is Enoch Powell stuff, the fear behind that Rivers of Blood speech. Racism made kosher by 9/11. That’s when you realise that it really is a crusade that “we” were fighting in Afghanistan fuelled on some level by visceral racism. Our heroes were out there killing Taliban, the ultimate in evil “ragheads”, as Prince thingummy and no doubt all his mates called them. Well they might, arguably, have been “evil” once, but by 2008 they were just Resistance, resisting in the same way that the French resisted in the War. There’s nothing like having your country invaded to rally people .. the whole thing is disgusting, not to say hopeless; and every week a few more witless heroes got killed in a war we’d forgotten why we were fighting.
On his way back from Glastonbury, Jackson spent a couple of nights in Worcester at an alehouse in the way the Sign of the Py’d Bull … the Landlords name is John Sermos and a hansom young man and of a very hansom carriage . A curious observation to make there, John. Did you have an eye for the boys?
While he was there the Lady Packington sent me a shilling and I both eat and drank and one that I took for her daughter gave me 6 pence and a letter to carry to Mrs. Wheelers in Yorkshire and with abundance of cheerfulness this night as said before I lay at pyd Bull and thought it was the hottest night I felt this year hitherto. Jackson then moved on to Droitwich, and At morn I went over to West wood to Sr John Packingtons a nasty miry wofull way to it. But a charming place and neatly seated and a beautiful building, a fish pond said to contain 122 acres of land, and there was swans swimming upon the large fish pond. I went up the stone stairs into the kitchin delivered my welcome message to the housekeeper from Mr. Wheeler, and I was well entertained and the housekeeper gave me a shilling.
What was going on here? Generally Jackson seems to ignore the gentry. But he also admired the hall at Wingerworth, a Catholic residence, and the Pakingtons of Westwood were renowned for their loyalty to the Stuart cause both during the civil war and after William of Orange took over. Was John a closet Jacobite? I wouldn’t be surprised, although the Diary has no direct allusion to the old cause even though Bonnie Prince Charlie’s ill-fated invasion of England in 1745 had passed through the north country before fizzling out in Derby. Jacobite sympathies were not the sort of thing you’d admit to in a diary written for public consumption, as Jackson’s was. For their parts Lady P and her daughter were clearly impressed, or charmed, by the old man’s story, and its implication that something was awry in the cosmic order.
The footpath runs along the edge of Jackson’s giant fishpond and not particularly close to the big house, which loomed photogenically out of the mist. I had a mildly hairy moment at Westwood Farm. I followed the track down from the House to the main road, which goes through the middle of the farmyard. “No Unauthorised Entry”, said the sign, so I followed round the edge of the buildings and discovered that there was a bloody great wall all along the main road, so I had to slip into the Forbidden Zone. An old retainer was tending the garden of his bungalow so I went up and explained myself to him in the plummiest accent I could muster. He waved me through respectfully, and by the main road gate a walker’s organisation had been forced to put up a notice telling people that they are not allowed to use the track, even though the main road was very busy.
What is galling is the knowledge that their private track was clearly once a right-of-way, since it continues as one across the road; but I’d only got a couple of hundred yards before I found that even this had been lengthily diverted around another Posh Bloke’s Residence. At every footpath stile and crossing there were notices that no-doubt busy people have had to go round posting up in order to avoid road accidents: don’t go to Westwood Farm because they won’t let you through, and you’ll have to negotiate the A4133. I’d moved into a new culture zone, out of the unloved Midlands and into the “the land of heavenly spring”, as Stanley Baldwin described Worcestershire. This is desirable space, so keep out.
At Salwarpe I joined the Droitwich Canal, as yet unrestored and very green with duckweed. The remains of a balance bridge lurked beside a dilapidated lock. The canal, it seems, was abandoned in 1939, but restoration is at hand. To Fernhill Heath, where I stepped through a hedge onto a track past a primary school playground, hectic with random and life-giving child exuberance. I rejoined my old friend the Worcester & Birmingham Canal for the run into Worcester City. A tall, fairly elderly woman passed by, comfortable-looking, as though she had an easy conscience; and with her an elegant spaniel with exactly the same expression. Dogs and their owners…. The towpath would have been a fine and sneaky way in to the city, but I felt that I was missing out on something so after a mile or two I cut through the backstreets in search of the city’s soul. I picked my way through the mud of an informal network of tracks and Ways Through behind a council estate, complete with ingenious and informal feats of ramshackle engineering, illicit plank bridges over ditches, formal fences breached, scrubland repossessed.
I emerged beside a school a few minutes before kicking-out time, quite surreal just seeing the parents gathering round, in ones or twos, alone, not talking to each other, just waiting to whisk their little darlings away to safety, presumably juggling child-collection with their jobs. How do they do it? Why? I can’t remember any of my mates at primary school who had to endure the indignity of parental collection every day. Are these over-protected infants better loved than we were? Not necessarily. As I walked down Mayfield Road, I passed a woman my age or older, dragging a little girl who can’t have been more than six years old and might have been a grand-daughter. She was snarling at her: “… didn’t you? Didn’t you? I’m talking to you! Luke wouldn’t have you, so you’re coming with me”. She was really angry, shouting in pure accusation. Maybe she had been naughty, but I don’t think so; and what can a child that young have done to merit such treatment? That little girl was so hunched up, defensive: ‘if I hide inside myself then maybe she’ll stop’. Who’s Luke? Her dad, possibly? Is granny pissed off because she’s been dumped with the child again? I was tempted to say something to her, just to let the child know that other adults didn’t automatically agree with her, but I’d a sense that I would have only made things ten times worse.
I entered the city down grimy Rainbow Hill, the cathedral looming out of the mist. The traffic was gridlocked: it was that time of day. A pub called the Evolution was doing ‘recession sessions’, and the headline on the Daily Star told us that “they’ve stolen all our jobs”. The bankers? The fraudsters? No! the migrants. Every single job since 2001 has gone to migrants. This is exactly how bullying works. We can’t get back at these people, can’t get back at the banks who’ve done the real damage, so we’ll kick a few immigrants instead. I wandered along pedestrian streets towards the Cathedral, and stumbled upon the quite incredible Guild Hall, Queen Anne resplendent above Charles I and Charles II: a belated royal reward to the town that had held out the longest against Cromwell. The chandeliers were lit; there was some grand function there that night, and I was at one with every pauper who’d ever stood outside a civic junket. In solidarity I bought a Big Issue from a guy whose desperation was palpable, then wandered past blue Christmas lights in the trees to the Cathedral, de beata Maria, as Jackson noted, smug in his bit of Latin. It’s generally in churches that I catch up with the old stroller most clearly; places already ancient in 1755, places still surviving unlike so much else, places offering respite and regeneration, soul-food after the day’s travails.
I sat at the back once again, and watched scarlet-clad priests and readers sound-checking for a Christmas reading (the Shepherd sequence, twice over), and let the day’s itchy-scratchiness fall away, marvelling again at the power of these places. As at Lichfield I felt no desire to do the tour, get caught up in detail and see all the bits that you’re allowed to. I didn’t want to consume this place, to master it with any kind of heady knowledge, but just to let its ambiance wash through my street-agitated soul. Rebalancing. Recentring. That’s what it’s designed for.
Back on the street, police extras were giving my Big Issue seller a hard time, but he was pissed, and stroppy, and I felt that I could do no good by intervening. In front of the Guild Hall a guy with a tin whistle was playing Away In A Manger over and over again: I gave him a quid to compensate for walking past the Big Issue man and marvelled at the splendid Christmas of Light atop the porch of the Crown.
At Worcester I saw a signpost to Leominster and to Hereford. Points west! Herefordshire’s another of my heartlands, where my ancestors raised famous cattle, where Alfred Watkins led reality astray along the old straight track, where a mappamundi enshrines a different vision of the world, where I once spent a wild winter alone curing heartache with hedge magic, where the ashes of a young soul-mate were scattered on a hilltop. Musing, I got lost, and suddenly came upon the Severn. Across the river, Macdonalds Golden Arches beckoned. Gateway to another land.
This really wasn’t my day for footpaths. I followed the riverbank northwards right up past the race-course and the rowing club, convinced that there must be a right-of-way through, and there wasn’t; so I had to go right back into town and around the sodding race course, finding ever-deepening empathy with Victor Meldrew; then up through a blissfully calm, dark and silent tangle of alleyways, including the memorably-named Back Lane East North, and after a final burst of faff as I unpacked to find the address of that night’s hosts I got there, and praise be.
On his way back to Yorkshire Jackson was directed to Mr. Richard Taunts the Sign of the Salmon Fish in Church Street and I lodged there and found em a very good civill people. I was staying with Michael and Judy Dames, and very good civil people they were too. He is a mythographer, a latter-day Geoffrey of Monmouth or maybe an Alfred Watkins; the man who grounded the Mother Goddess at Avebury. A high-profile excavation of Silbury Hill in the mid-sixties, relayed to a breathless Britain by BBC TV, failed to find the expected royal burial at the foot of this giant and enigmatic mound, and Silbury suddenly became even more mysterious and alluring. Dames, newly ensconced as a teacher of art history at Swindon College, found the experience to be “intoxicating, golden… that silence is so arresting”, and began to develop his highly influential take on the Avebury story, which resulted in two books, The Silbury Treasure (1976) and The Avebury Cycle (1977). They are both of them powerful (especially the first); cogently argued, provocatively illustrated, and an entire landscape has since become imbued with his ideas. Not just Avebury either. To him the Kennet is a sacred river: it rises at the foot of Silbury and ends up joining the Thames at Reading, where I spent many wonderful, deep and meaningful years, and the sense of specialness that Dames unleashed at Silbury rippled down to our more prosaic town. I played a proud part in a town-wide protest to prevent Them from building a road across the confluence, and the power of that female river was strong in my mind at the time.
But solving mystery means ending history. Once the question’s answered, the debate is closed. The beauty of archaeology is that you never run out of questions. The answer’s always elusive, over the hill; the mystery’s over there. Archaeologists had been casting doubts on the idea of a universal mother goddess for a generation before Dames went to Avebury, but to Michael the questions that they’re asking were simply wrong-headed. I wrote to this notoriously stroppy man in the last days of the old millennium to get his views on ‘fringe’ and ‘mainstream’ archaeology for a piece of work I was doing at college. Pah! he wrote back. “Institutions habitually define their own centres and fringes, as if they had some absolute validity, and take arrogant liberties with those benighted souls, hovering (as they wrongly suppose) on the edge of their glorious light.” To him, “the entire basis of methodological assumptions made by Archaeology as a discipline are ill-conceived and inappropriate, especially when applied to the prehistoric era. Visually illiterate, largely uninterested in myth and religious expression, obsessed with linear as distinct from cyclical time, analytic rather than synthesising in outlook; both the archaeological ghetto and those on its fringe, desperate to clamber in, illustrate just how far pseudo-scientific reductionism can carry our benighted experts from the universal poetry of ancient times, which is still available to those who enjoy the freedom to roam, without the encumbrance of departmental affiliation.”
Wonderful stuff. Once he realised that my admiration, though qualified, was real, we began to develop a mutual respect, conducting a sporadic and very old-fashioned correspondence. He was very sympathetic when Pete Hay died, an artist and good friend of mine in Reading, similarly in tune with the soul of the town and its rivers (he set up Two Rivers Press, which is still flourishing today). And so, when I realised that Jackson’s route would take me through Worcester, I wrote to Michael; and he replied immediately and keenly to my request for a place to stay.
He and his wife Judy gave me a warm, no-nonsense welcome. Good food well cooked, and an evening of interesting conversation, in which amongst much else I learned that Glyn Daniel, a prominent archaeological polemicist in the 1960s and 70s and scourge of the ‘fringe’, as editor of the Thames & Hudson ‘Ancient People and Places’ series had turned down Michael’s offerings. This series had a big role to play in arousing public interest in archaeology, but archaeology was only one small part of the T & H output. They saw, and see, themselves primarily as publishers “of illustrated books on art, architecture, design, and visual culture”. So instead of that being that, another editor at T & H saw the potential in Michael’s book and took it on instead. They backed a winner. The Sunday Times review produced a nugget that T & H gleefully printed on the back of Silbury Treasure, calling it “A treasure chest of stimulating atavistic symbolism – Wordsworth would have loved it.” What Glyn Daniel had to say I do not know.
Michael has an austerity, an awkwardness about him. He’s the product of a straight-laced, RAF family as he told me, and those inherited laces are still pretty straight. Almost literally. He moves his arms from the elbow, as though the upper parts are strapped to his chest. And although he made a point of praising Judy and speaking for her, I had the feeling that she really wanted to speak for herself, and not to have her meaning interpreted for her, often wrongly (that happened several times). This seems significant, in view of Michael’s impact on the cult of the divine feminine. Judy is an artist herself: ‘I love Nature’s indifference to me’, she said. Indeed.
Wednesday December 17, Severnside sliding
And it was yet another incredibly beautiful day! Tempered only by a Need for Speed today, since the map was telling me that the last part of my journey was likely to be the trickiest, in the dark, by the mighty Severn, then in flood… I went across the road with Michael to view his curious christiano-pagan nativity scene behind the church, and then set off back into town, past the tollhouse on the Barbourne Road and the usual inner-city run of stylish early-nineteenth-century town-houses that are blighted by the fact that they’re on a main road. I like Worcester. I like its scale. So does Michael; they moved here from Birmingham, and he was waxing lyrical about living in a County Town, a cathedral city and the focus for its community. This is probably romantic big-city outsiderliness: I felt just the same about Gloucester, when I used to hitch there as a teenager on the run from London in pursuit of the real and the authentic. I was shocked to discover that Gloucestershire country folk didn’t see their county town in that light and I don’t suppose that Worcester and its shire-folk have any more comfortable a relationship.
I slipped down past the cathedral through a set of landscaped gardens to the Severn. I crossed the Worcester & Birmingham canal at its workaday junction with the river, and wove around a maze of barriers through a vast new construction site to the place where the hardcore ended. And oh, what an ill woeful and miry way was the Severn path to Kempsey, slim – slow- sliding, the top layer a slithery slippery goo that was hard to stand on, let alone to walk on, and – as the notices every few hundred yards helpfully point out – the bank itself was subsiding. The footpath was narrow, and bordered with big houses and hostile signs put up by folk who clearly resented having to share their patch of riverside with passers-by. I passed a little frontage fenced off with an eight-foot high railing, painted black, quite an elegant railing if you like railings. There was just about enough room for a couple of benches and a table, and a sign on both sides saying ‘private river bank’. We sit behind our railing, we look through our railing. It may spoil our own view, but these bars are our own. We live in our own prison, thank you very much, and it’s private, so keep out.
I finally crossed beneath the southern bypass. For the next stretch along the slithery riverbank I walked like a Nordic with a stick in either hand. It definitely speeded things up and made the whole thing a lot safer, although unfortunately one of the sticks that I had prised out of the mire turned out to have a little bit of nettle wrapped around it, which I grasped all too firmly between opposing forefinger and thumb. And it was hot, and I was wearing too many clothes, but before grumpiness could really set in I found a pathway up the hill to Kempsey, and waded through my most serious puddle yet, perhaps six inches deep, with no problem from which I deduced that my new boots must be extremely good. Just beyond I met a rights-of-way officer counting walkers, for reasons I never did get although we discussed a few strange contradictions. How exercise has become commodified. How strap-cashed people pay good money to private gyms but wouldn’t dream of walking anywhere, even to the gym. Meanwhile, the country’s still wide open for rambling, and thank god for the dog-walkers. Though the hedgerows now bear poo-bags as a modern kind of fruit, the needs of doggy people keep a network of little paths around villages and towns open and alive, and for that my many thanks.
John Jackson came to Kempsey, which he wrote as it’s pronounced, “Kemzy”. He was much impressed with the handsome Church and a new tower of a new fashion; but what really took his fancy was a black gravestone in the churchyard, which had a notable epitaph on it wrought in fair white letters I coveted it but could not get till my coming back again for my ink was lost and it was time to secure my lodging—which I did at a black smiths house the sign of the Dog and the evening was pleasant moonlight and there was ringing at the Church 5 pleasant bells.
On the way back he did indeed get to see Nicholas Hancocks Epitaph as it is here written verbatim—
Farewell false world Ive had enough of thee
I value not what thou canst say of me
Thy smiles I court not nor thy frowns I fear
Alls one to me my head lyes quiet here
What ill thou has seen in me take care to shun
And look at home theres something to be done.
Great stuff. Kempsey today had an open, high-up sort of feel. I passed a massive row of old glasshouses, and popped into the churchyard to see if Nicholas Hancock’s epitaph was there in plain view; but it wasn’t; and I had no time to dally. I passed the Talbot – closed, but “a fantastic food-led opportunity” for someone apparently, and stepped out onto the main road to do a spell turnpike way as Jackson did himself. I turned off at Baynhall, and then along a path that runs behind Kerswell Green. I crossed a turf-harvesting place, field full of gentle lawn that’s been cut into widths about a lawn-mower wide. The M5 was half a mile beside me on my left, far enough away not to be distracting, while over to the West the Malverns sat enticingly.
There is something special about those hills. They make a good place for a ponder about humanity down below, as William Langland knew when he sent his hero up there in the fourteenth century:
“A marvel befell me of fairy, methought.
I was weary with wandering and went me to rest”
He fell asleep, and had his “marvellous dream” of Piers the Plowman, and the “fair field full of folk” in which “the rich and the poor,
Working and wandering as the world asketh.
Some put them to plow and played little enough,
At setting and sowing they sweated right hard
And won that which wasters by gluttony destroy…”
English peasants, people “living hard lives, In hope for to have heavenly bliss.” I don’t suppose you came across Piers the Plowman, stroller man, he was little known in your century, but I expect that you and Langland would have got on well. I was quite struck by Langland’s description, perhaps because it was so localised, that fair field full of folk. Many years ago I actually slept out up there myself, and woke to find a model aeroplane club doing its stuff all around me in the morning.
Langland’s Dreamer: from an illuminated initial in a Piers Plowman manuscript held at Corpus Christi College, Oxford (and nicked from Wikipedia)
On the return journey Jackson nipped across the river to Upton on Severn, where there was also a Church rebuilding and a tabernacle erected till the Church be built. The Church steeple still stands (“It was not until 1754 that it was decided to erect a new nave in the then currently fashionable classical style”, says the village website). At Upton he lay at Mrs. Bricks till morning, and there runs the charming Severn. “Charming” seems a surprisingly arch word, especially from one who had floundered so much on its banks. Perhaps he was being sarcastic.
At Birch Green I picked up a really lovely little lane heading towards Severn Stoke (or ‘Shyving Stoke’, as for some reason Jackson calls it). Radio Somerset rang to ask if their reporter could walk the last mile with me into Glastonbury, at exactly the same moment as a really old fashioned looking military plane appeared from nowhere a hundred feet above the ground and drowned out all communication. I’d broken a fingernail and a strap had gone on my rucksack, but I got round it by tying it to something else and anyway, on a day that was just so beautifully glorious as this even old Grump had to pipe down and grin a bit. This is champion country, champaine country as they sometimes called it, wide open and unhedged. These fair fields, if not full of folk, at least had people in them: a hippy-looking farmer with unvast quantities of what looked like hops, and in a kale-field four people in fluorescent jackets wandering around like policemen looking for a body but probably doing something agricultural.
In the interests of speed and historical accuracy I should have dropped down to the A38 again but the day was just too good for it. My soul rebelled, and I resolved to stay on the high ground and give ‘Shyving’ Stoke a miss. I rounded Knight’s Hill upon which stands a folly, a Panorama Tower built by James Wyatt as a point from which the Coventry family could survey their lands; and I too was revelling in the longest views since Emley Moor on the first day, my sense of freedom accentuated by the trucks on the M5 crawling away in the valley. On a clear day you can see forever, this is one of those sorts of places, the sort of place and the sort of day when sensible people go walking for fun – ha!
I clumped back down to earth in Kinnersley, when I passed a man walking towards me who tried desperately to pretend that I wasn’t there. “Good afternoon!” “uh”. “Beautiful day!” “uh”. It felt like a cold slap across the face, but poor man, he’s in his own prison. Why is it that people in rough grimy and poorer places are so much friendlier than people in picturesque Severnside villages? Why is it that the nice parts of the land end up being parcelled out amongst people who barely talk to each other let alone anybody else, sitting tight in their slivers of Eden, while to them Hell is doubtless a place where people talk to strangers and mingle in public places?
At Baughton I encountered some beautiful black-and-white buildings and half-timbered barns as well that reminded me of Herefordshire. From thence to Naunton across fields flat, fertile and boggy, and a stream spanned by a splendid footbridge that gloriously proclaimed itself to be “another product provided by the access team”. Naunton’s nice to look at but again not very welcoming. A builder stared at me sourly. I greeted him with a “what a beautiful day” and got no reply but I think I wrong-footed the sarcastic comments he was about to make to the rest of the workforce. Sometimes I felt like Quentin Crisp: “If at first you don’t succeed, failure may be your style”. Some days the whole world was with me and I was borne aloft like a lord. Others, I was the ineffable weirdo from weirdo central, and this was becoming one of them. I crossed the A38 again, and struck out for Ripple church across a field of onions. Outside the village hall I ran into a fellow weirdy-beardy, a gentle-giant type working for the water board (or multinational, as it now is). A much-needed friendly face. We exchanged fraternal greetings, and talked about the mud, and doing the John Wayne swagger to keep yourself from sinking, and I went on feeling a bit more like a human being. It’s a nice evocative kind of name, Ripple, and a pretty village, half timbered, quaint buildings and crazy angles. There’s no trace of an old railway on the map but the Railway Inn stands beside the Station House and an unmistakeable railway bridge.
The long lane out of Ripple towards Tewkesbury is called The Bow, appropriately enough because it does bow back out again though my path didn’t. There was still plenty of daylight but I was about to run out of tarmac. I passed a couple of nice black and white houses, and crossed the county boundary by the scrapyard beside Bow Bridge, over the Mythe Brook. This I’m pretty sure is the bridge that Jackson calls “Ribble Bridge”, and in his day on the bridge is a grave stone written “Here lyes the body of Francis Polliot Esquire.” But I could read no more for the stone was broken and the letters lost. An old gravestone re-used for road-building?
I turned on the right hand and the foot way led me over 2 or 3 very pleasant closes. Pleasant closes! You jest, Jackson! I, too, left the road here, and immediately the terrain got tricky. The field was flooded right to the edge; some nimble nifty fence-clambering was needed, risking groin and limb on barbed wire till I found enough of a headland to walk along. It was still a beautiful day. I caught a sight of Tewkesbury Abbey, and the sunset was stunning, or must have been for more relaxed folk.
This piece of land is called The Mythe, from an old English word that allegedly means ‘the joining of two rivers’, in this case the Severn and the Avon. There’s a ridge between the two of them that the main road follows, but my route is the more direct and also the older. Only a few weeks after Jackson came this way a group of gentlemen were petitioning for a turnpike road that would include the high (and modern) route, but the landowners protested that the top road had only ever been used in time of flooding. Which must have been pretty common, even though it seems that Jackson came through on a good day. The route across the Mythe was everything I feared that it might be, and at the end of the first field I actually got water in my left boot for the first time on this trip, but I was in good spirits, partly because the sun was so bright, partly from the adrenaline, partly because I had to be. Grumping’s a luxury you can’t afford when you’re racing against the dying of the light. The footpath through the caravan park was underwater so I skirted up the hill, nipped over the fence and walked in between the caravans, climbed over a kissing gate that was padlocked shut and onto the embankment of the long-gone Mythe Railway. A few hundred yards further on a bridge was missing, and as I shimmied down and around the embankment I bumped into a friendly dog-walking woman who warned me in a very matter-of-fact way of major puddles and mud-banks up ahead. They must be used to these things, these Severn-side swampies.
It was touch and go but somehow I got through the quagmire before the daylight had totally gone. I scrambled up through the quarry near the place they call King John’s Castle, and gratefully on to the A38 and the street-lit causeway and into town. The bridge across the Avon is called King John’s Bridge though the name is nineteenth century, and it’s been much patched up and rebuilt; there’s not much left of the good stone bridge that Jackson crossed. What did you think of Tewkesbury, John? It’s a handsome market town and a Corporation and has a large Old Abbey Church and a tunable peal of 8 bells. Sounds like you got that from a guide-book. Where did you stay? at Mrs Grubs in the Smithy Lane. – I could imagine staying there myself. On the way back he had his vagrant’s pass signed by the Town Clerk and had 3 pence given me. Better than nothing, aye.
Handsome Tewkesbury still is, streets of half-timbered houses that are balm for the eyes. I was drooling for a drink, so I went to the Anchor for a couple of good pints. Tonight’s couchsurfing host then rang me to say that he’d had to take a friend to hospital for chemo. He’d hidden the key somewhere, and talked me through the directions on the phone. I was a utter stranger. That display of trust completely compensated for the scraps of negativity I’d encountered today. Faith restored.
I found his house, and let myself in; and I was very glad of that couple of hours on my own, letting my feet go through the pain barrier, massaging them on the carpet and vaguely dozing until my host got back. Roger was an artist, painter, photographer, sculptor; also 66. Coming up fifty I found myself newly interested in people in their sixties, the routes they take, their strategies for survival and enduring sanity. He was an outward-bound teacher – worked in Birmingham schools, got seconded for outward-bound training and ended up with a business of his own in the Forest of Dean. He was small, with a boyish smile that reminded me of someone I couldn’t remember, an occasional stammer too. We had a high-powered transfer of information – first a mini-biog from me and then the same from him, thus assuaging our mutual curiosity. He lives in a newish house that backs on to the Avon with views over to the Malverns, not that any of this was visible by now. All the living area is on the first and second floors – deliberately, I assume. Roger showed me the 2007 tide mark on the wall about 3’ up, and the one power-point below that level that fused the system; he took the carpet off the bottom steps after that.
He’s a Christian so I asked him about that. Seems that his parents were not, but he came to it as a teenager and though he lost sight of it a bit during his working life he’s now pretty involved with the local evangelical Church of England, which is full (the evangelical Anglicans are doing well, he tells me, and the other sort are disappearing). He had to go out again on some mission or other, so I went out too and scoured the High St for an eatery. There’s plenty of them, too many places chasing too few customers, but I ended up at The Weatherspoon – ie the Hop Pole. It was fairly full; lots of good real ales, reasonable food reasonably priced, local history pictures on the walls, supplied by local groups and local people duly credited. The Universal Local, pitched at folk like me. Arrgh.
Thursday December 18; Another Hidden Treasure
We had quite a little chat this morning before I went, Roger and I, and amongst other things touched on ley-line-lore – apparently people sleep better if they’re oriented north-south, best to have your feet to the north, better than east-west anyway; that’s a new one on me.
Tewkesbury in the morning early was just lovely. Wood pigeons were doing their stuff, and it is such a good-looking town, with its half-timbered houses and the Abbey glowing golden (with a bit of red in the buttresses). My great-grandmother died here and I can well understand why she chose to end her days somewhere like this. Inside the Abbey all is massive rather than graceful; fan vaulting rises somewhat awkwardly from pillars that are huge, clumpy and simple. I sat at the back of the nave again; somewhere in the choir people were talking quietly, though their voices were ringing, as voices in big churches do ring.
Tewkesbury’s a surprisingly unapproachable place, even today. You’ve really got to want to get here. ‘A’ roads and even motorways seem to collude in keeping casual visitors away. Back in the day, with the Severn flooding so regularly, the roads could be all but impassable. Travellers paid farmers for permission to cross their land rather than try and make it through on the highway: a few decades before Jackson’s journey a man named John Sticer “said he had once an empty cart, drawn by seven or eight horses, in danger of being smothered. Some of the horses were pulled out by their necks!”. It was not until 1756 that the local turnpike act was passed, so when John Jackson came through the year before that, on a day colder and worse than the days before it, rain and sleety snow and fearful miry watry flood the road was as bad as ever it had been. I found it the hardest days work of all the way hitherto and there is not either town or village twixt Teuxbury and Gloster but only a little place called Lye. On the return journey The Leigh was as far as he could make it out from Gloucester – I traveld toward Teuxbury but I fell short and tarryd till morn at a farm house near Lye, and cold night.
The road was duly turnpiked, tarmacked, eventually in places dualled, and I wasn’t tempted by it. I turned off in the town to Lower Lode, and back to the banks of the Severn, along what was once an alternative route for all traffic. It was seriously considered for turnpiking, until the locals pointed out that it was ‘generally overflowed’. Roger assured me that nowadays this section is built on raised embankments, and although the concrete path had a sheen of mud to it I walked relatively dry-shod to the enchantment of Deerhurst.
Here is Odda’s Chapel, a lovely little place. Its simplicity is carefully preserved; the door is open, very primitive pews are placed around the walls. At some point in its history this gem went out of use and disappeared from view, engulfed within the fabric of the house next door. It was rediscovered in 1885 and the story of its finding is the stuff of Famous Five romance, almost too good to be true. The chapel’s existence was known since 1675, when the foundation stone had turned up in a nearby orchard, inscribed not only with the dedication by Earl Odda but also the exact date (12 April 1056). The house, “a rambling picturesque farm-house.. with a general reputation of being very old”, became vacant in 1885, and the owners were planning on converting it into cottages when the vicar, George Butterworth, an antiquarian of note, took advantage of the building works and came to have a look around. “At the back of the building a keen eye was just able to trace on the plaster, 14 feet from the ground or so, a faint marking of a somewhat semi-circular shape. It struck the writer that possibly this ill-defined line betokened the existence, beneath the plaster, of a round-headed window. On removing the plaster this proved to be the case.” Further investigation revealed the entire chapel, and when they felled a fruit-tree just outside they found another inscribed stone built into a Tudor chimney stack. Such things just don’t happen any more.
There’s a poem on the wall, ‘A Little Sanctuary’ by Admiral R A Hopwood, an enthusiastic naval officer, who apparently came across the chapel during the Great War:
And I chanced upon the chapel when the world was full of strife
And entered there to rest in silence and alone
And its spirit bare me backwards just as far from modern life
as the name of ‘odda’ graven on its stone
Hopwood was as impressed as I was by the manner of its discovery, and mused on the simple faith of the Saxons, when ” ‘what I think’ had yet to conquer ‘what I know’.” Strip away religious quarrels and acquired sophistication, and something true remains:
an they put away the plaster from the England that they love
they shall find a little Saxon chapel there.
I find this yearning for peace and meaning from the depths of the Great War quite moving, though Earl Odda was no simple Saxon but a powerful magnate, kinsman and ally of king Edward the Confessor; and I have to confess that my own first visit to Deerhurst, some years ago, was the occasion of an act of gross impiety:
I first chanced upon the chapel on a frisky kind of day
and me and her got carnal in the chancel…
I walked on through a chunky flood gate onto the lane into Apperley, savouring the rusticity of the moment, aware of another city looming. Across the river was a row of shadowy hills: the Black Mountains, Wales, another lifetime, another set of stories. Apperley’s nice; some black-and-white half-timbered places, and lots of small houses. Outside a big but run-down house, a row of dead sunflowers were strung out along the wall, heads down, looking like a faded-out Victorian family with a shameful secret. I stopped for a breather on the village green, on a bench behind the war memorial, watching the ducks scurrying round on the pond, talking on the phone to Morgy in Glastonbury about some appalling operation that her partner’s new-born nephew was having to undergo. I sat there a bit too long: it was getting colder and the wind was getting up.
On to Apperley Court, a place that has turned its back on the main road. What was once the entrance drive, ceremonially planted out as such, is now a humble bridle path. At the crossroads I went straight over along the lane to Norton, ignoring the big sign that said ‘road ahead closed’ because I really didn’t fancy the long detour up to Jackson’s turnpike road.
It is an exciting river, the Severn, by English standards. It feels untamed, wild. It makes the Thames seem as dull as the Droitwich Canal. And this was an exciting bit of walking. The fields on my right were seriously under water. The fields and the ditches were brim full – not quite up to the tarmac but only a few inches below it; and at the canal sluice, pretty much level with it. Somehow I stayed dryshod, and after that the road went slightly uphill, praise be, past the first building on this road: the Red Lion, a nice big red brick affair with a load of outbuildings that I’d bet is very popular on summer weekends. The river does a big meander here, forking off in a gorge to the west, and I never got so close to it again.
Bishop’s Norton is a slalem of sharp, tight corners and nice little houses, including one in garish scarlet on the Green. Like Apperley, this feels like a place you could live in without a lot of money. On to Twigworth, along a raised causeway. There were church bells in the distance and mistletoe in the trees, very nice and seasonal. On my left the Cotswolds had begun to loom, and May Hill on my right, and ahead I caught my first sight of Gloucester Cathedral rising up over the flooded plain, easily the biggest building on the horizon. It’s good to see how often cathedrals are still the biggest buildings in their towns. I rang my folks, and described the landscape to my father, who got the moment perfectly, which is not a thing that happens often. That was good, and somehow special: it’s the detail I remember most about this day, seven years later, when the old chap was laid up in hospital and my mother had passed on to green pastures somewhere wonderful.
That sight of the cathedral told me, in some strange way, that I’d slipped from the southernmost Midlands into the West Country. Journey’s end was in sight, the feeling was there now. It was funny to think that in another week I wouldn’t be doing this. In another week it’d be Christmas Day. New Style, mind. Strictly speaking of course I didn’t really want to find the Glastonbury Thorn in flower on New Christmas Day, but since the vicar was planning to present me with a sprig on Christmas Eve what would the poor chap do if the darn think wasn’t blossoming? Would I be forced to accept a plastic substitute?
After Twigworth the path got nasty, but that was no problem for a veteran hedge-hobo like me. I nimbled through the everglades, hopped and leapt between the dry bits, and got up close and personal with a thorn-hedge. Through the ironically-named Drymeadow farm, where a gateway under water forced me to take a short cut through the hedge and into the yard. A few miserable horses stood around in an atrocious mudbath; I climbed over the gate, into the manger, onto the track and out.
In the distance pile-drivers were sounding from some new town-edge development, but here it felt timeless and abandoned, gypsyish and mysterious in a very wet kind of way; and right on cue a black rabbit shot across my path. What does that mean? Stress up ahead, says one internet site. Fear of intimacy, says another. Dream of a black rabbit and you’ve found something elusive, says the Dream Dictionary. I like that meaning best. Life is but a dream. At the end of my track was a gate, with a sign on the other side saying ‘private – no right of way’. A tractor drew up just at that moment and I braced myself for a little lecture, but instead he said ‘hello mate, how’re you doing?’, an unexpectedly pleasant surprise
The City Limits are at Innsworth, and, sing a hymn to benches, one of the mini-discoveries of this trip was that public benches are a fine thing. Here by a bus-stop on the outskirts of Gloucester I once again tried to transform into something more suited for the city by divesting myself of as much mud as I could. I was as muddy as I’d yet been on this trip, caked in Sabrina’s bounty. Yet again I wondered how the hell they managed in John’s day. How did you cope with rain and mud? What were you wearing on your feet, old stroller, when you tackled these woeful wet miry ways?
I went in through Longlevens, along Innsworth Lane; mostly 1930s-seeming semis punctuated by the odd older building. Then London Road, with some nice older buildings, and grand old Hillfield House in its bit of parkland. Seagulls wheeled and chattered, an amazing sound after all these landlocked weeks; and a couple of gypsy lads came trotting a horse along the main road. They were in a rough little buggy with no lights whatsoever, and their total complete defiance of all rules and regulations was a tonic for the soul.
I headed as of habit now to the Cathedral first, and found it closed till 4pm for a carol service (!), so I sat eating overpriced tea cake in the Comfy Pew café outside, a very friendly, bustly Irish woman presiding. I relaxed listening to idiot music on Severn Sound, the local radio station, which as I recall broadcast details of my first book on its first day of existence. I’ve got this strange connection with Gloucestershire. As an apprentice countryman in my teens, I fell in love with the mahogany Old Gloucester cattle when they were on the brink of extinction. Although I was working silly hours as a stockman on a farm in Bucks, on my weekends off I’d hitch west to Gloucester and unearth ancient farmers and countryfolk in pubs to tell me tales of even older farmers and their backward farming ways. Fascinating and formative times. Eventually a book emerged, published by publishing magnate Alan Sutton when his venture was still a tiny operation in Eastgate Street.
John Jackson finally reached town from Tewkesbury about 8 a clock at night wet and weary [and] took up my lodging at the house of Samuel Chamlois in a wet street called by the peopl Catton Parish [perhaps St Catherine Street?]. He stayed here all the next day, hearing more bad news of floods: but a few days agoe 7 lads were drowned all on one day, and one was about the age of 16 years and the horse was found but the lad they cannot find and this is a sad misfortune. He did a bit of tourism, view’d the Cathedrall of St. John the Evangelist, and the Colledge and the Bishops Palace and the City. But the Bishop was away and one woman only left to keep the house. I view’d the streets and markets and went to see my old friend Mr. Raikes, Printer, who gave me a Tester [sixpence].
This was Robert Raikes, founder and proprietor of the Gloucester Journal, one of the West Country’s few newspapers at this date, and it is odd to find him described as Jackson’s ‘friend’ since the Journal took a very cynical view of Glastonbury’s miracles. Matthew Chancellor’s dream, and the Glastonbury Waters craze that then ensued, was dismissed as a “Pious Fraud” designed to “destroy our Religious Protestant Principles”. Once people started to flock to Glastonbury in numbers after 1753 to observe the Thorn in bloom, Raike’s commercial acumen led him to change his tune a little: “as these religious or curious People always spend some Money in the Town, they may depend upon being always welcome”.
Jackson, scrounging sixpences, wasn’t one of they, but what news-hound would not be charmed to hear a story as good as his at first hand?
Having a bit of time to kill, I decided to see if Raikes had indeed made mention of Jackson’s visit in the Journal. I went to the old library in Brunswick Road, where I did so much of my research for the Gloucester book back in the 70s. I popped in here last on September 11 2001, and it was looking pretty tatty then. It looked no better now either, but the local studies library had moved across the town to the same building as the archives, so I set off back through what was then a newish bus station and is now a tatty one. Private affluence, public squalour. We are becoming more American by the day.
At the Archives, I looked at the issues of the Gloucester Journal for December 1755 to see if Raikes had hinted at a visit from a religious or curious Person on his way to Glastonbury, albeit a rather poor one, but there was none. Ah well. It was a rather long shot. But I was shocked to find no reference whatsoever to Christmas in the issues for the 23rd or 30th. There was not the slightest indication that Christmas week was any different to any other week. A startlingly clear reminder that many Protestants disapproved of Christmas altogether as a man-made distraction from true piety, an excuse for excessive mirth and extravagance, a distraction from the duty of work. This attitude of mind gained currency steadily throughout the century: the slide down to the world of Scrooge. “To the fashionable world”, says Ronald Hutton, Christmas “was increasingly an anachronism, and a bore”. What I did notice, in the issue dated 23 December, was an advert “to give NOTICE to all Persons, such as Weavers, Hatters, Taylors, Shoemakers and others THAT there is, in the Parish of Wickwar, in the County of Gloucester, A very Large QUANTITY of BOYS, all fit for ‘Prentices, of all Ages from 16 years old to as young as they please”. Overseers of the poor, trying to offload surplus people: another enterprise later to be savagely satirised by Charles Dickens, another nail in the coffin of the moral economy, another sign of the brave new world that Jackson was resisting.
After a bit of confusion over squares I finally landed at my hosts this evening, David and Marilyn Champion of the Gloucester Civic Trust, who had a lovely house in Brunswick Square. I was slightly dreading this encounter, being so unpresentable and mud-struck, but I had no need to worry for they were warm and welcoming. Their house was built in 1825 for a barge-owner (it’s only three minutes from the docks), and sensitively done up: my room had its own sumptuous bathroom, a first on this trip. Great to be around people who are passionate about the town they live in, and this couple were definitely that. She was in cancer remission and they had decided to dedicate the time that was left to the things that really matter, which to them was the City of Gloucester, much overshadowed by Cheltenham this last couple of centuries but which, as they were keen to tell me, has more listed buildings than York. She’d put a huge amount of effort into raising funds to renovate St Michael’s Tower, the town’s fifteenth-century centrepiece, and was nothing if not inventive. They’d come to an arrangement with a developer to let them make use of a town centre site for Saturday car parking at £2 a pop, with keen members of the Civic Trust out there collecting the cash.
Writing this up in 2015, I see that Marilyn died last year, having raised over £300,000 for the cause. According to her obituary in the Gloucester Citizen “she would cheerfully say that she had avoided death three times and just carry on with the work of developing the Tower as a high street frontage for the trust and its work to build civic pride, encourage tourism and provide a programme of events based on the city’s long and colourful history”. I’m proud to have met you, Marilyn. Your sort of dedication changes the world.
Friday December 19; of pilgrimage, mad dogs and rare cows
I first went to Gloucester when I was 15, or even maybe 14. I arrived on the night bus from London at 4am and planned to sleep upright in a phone box until dawn. After about twenty seconds of that I resolved to walk the streets, and promptly got picked up by the rozzers as an IRA suspect (donkey jacket, hessian sack, obvious Fenian attire). Back at the station, when they realised that i had more spots than stubble, they gave me a cup of tea and let me stay in the interview room until it was time to catch my bus out to the boondocks, to meet my first herd of Old Gloucesters. A year later (but that was a time when months seemed like years) I came back again and spent a third of my wages on a room in the shabby old Lamprey Hotel, where everything was brown, the draperies smelled of ancient ashtrays and nothing had changed since the thirties; and I lay on my bed looking out at the floodlit cathedral in ecstasy and delight.
I did have a more normal teenage side. I was keen on the Pink Fairies, the Velvet Underground and Black Sabbath. I was a dedicated drummer. Russell Hunter was my hero and I practiced paradiddles on tractor-bonnets and odd bits of tin. I’d had the odd spliff. I’d had a starlit walk along the Devon lanes the previous summer with a beautiful girl who had laughter and promise in her eyes. But staying in a seedy B & B on a research trip in quest of a rare breed of cow was pleasure beyond measure because I knew for certain that no-one else was doing it. I was freakier than the freaks, and I was out in pursuit of Real. The Real countryside, the world beyond the concrete, the sodium lights, inner distribution roads and general cozy brown snow of the east. Real as a 5am milking. The heart of the land, the soul of the land, a long long way from London.
That’s what took me to Gloucester, grinning like a glad thing at every face I saw in this idealised English country town. Meanwhile, in that other reality, Fred West was kidnapping, raping, murdering and burying my contemporaries in Cromwell Street, only a couple of streets away from Brunswick Square. And back in the good old days, John Jackson was twice told about a local man who had inlisted himself into the King’s service about 6 weeks agoe, and his mother, to try if she could get her son loose again goes to the soldiers and officers and her husband coming and finding her there fell to fighting and beating her without mercy and carryd her home on his back each leg on each shoulder and her head and carcase hanging down behind his back. And a girl being in the house cries out she’s dead. Nay (says he) she’s but drunk, she’ll come to her self again. And he threw her down. But it proved that she was dead and he is put in Gloster Goal.
I headed out from the Champions’ house along the Bristol Road, seagulls wheeling above what once were docks. Radio Bristol rang me up about doing an interview. Such a bore. But what can one do? I felt like Bianca Castafiore, happily harassed by paparazzi. The Bristol Road is one of those long, straight old main roads now bypassed by the motorway. Car showrooms with plastic pennants (where did that idea come from?), industrial units with hints of basic Deco, here and there a cluster of 1920s semis. Flowers pinned to a telegraph pole, together with a few crosses, a picture, and a poem to the memory of Andrew George Smith 1.5.1970 – 1.8.2001 penned by his brother Paul. It’s interesting how these modern roadside shrines have emerged, like the lovers’ padlocks that are weighing down many a bridge parapet. The emotional charge of living folklore.
Pilgrimage too is making a comeback, big-time. Someone I know went to Compostella two years running, and reported that numbers on the Camino had doubled in the space of a year. But what is this thing called ‘pilgrimage’? As far as Christians are concerned the idea of pilgrimage as a route to spiritual fulfilment is quite a new one. Both Colin Morris and Eamon Duffy suggest that most pilgrimages in medieval England were local affairs, in Duffy’s words “not so much like launching on a journey to the ends of the earth, as of going to a local market town to sell or buy geese or chickens: shrines were features by which they mapped the familiar, as much as signposts to other worlds and other social realities”. Medieval folk often took a very practical and pragmatic approach to the business of pilgrimage. “Surrogate pilgrimages were extremely common”, writes Duffy, pointing out that “The devotee who pays someone else to go on pilgrimage is clearly happy to dispense with the symbolic value of journeying… The point of pilgrimage is not the journeying but the pardon it secures”. It took Protestant reformers to come up with the idea of what Bishop Latimer called the “‘very godly and ghostly pilgrimage”, a way to live your life, most definitely not to be confused with the “Popish pilgrimage” which sent people “running hither and thither”. The “true pilgrim way”, in Neil Keeble’s view, thus became “not literally from place to place but metaphorically from this world to the next”.
John Jackson, the old pioneer, literally walked his talk. He combined both positions with a spirit of frankly scientific enquiry. His expedition had a research agenda: to test the mutability of the human calendar against the God-given timepiece that was the Glastonbury Thorn. But like a good Protestant he was aware of his journey’s godly and ghostly aspects, and the very real possibility, as a stroller of seventy, that he might not return to Yorkshire: I a Pilgrim far from Home … hope Gods Goodness will Defend /And bring me to my Journeys End. /Amen Amen Amen. His friends certainly thought that Glastonbury was a fit focus for a pilgrimage, as demonstrated by the verse that one of them wrote to celebrate his return –
Welcome Old Friend from that fam’d land
Where trees in winter bloom
Where Saints did live, in days of yore
Whose relicks vie with Rome
Now drop your pilgrims staff and tell
What wonders you have seen…
And today? “Today Glastonbury can be seen as one of the most popular and multivalent pilgrimage sites in the UK, it is an example par excellence of a contemporary pilgrimage centre”, according to the Estonian scholar Tiina Sepp whose PhD compares Glastonbury with Compostella. They represent two very different sorts of pilgrimage destination. With Compostella, it’s all about the Camino: the journey is everything. With Glastonbury however, ” it does not matter in the least how one travels there; all that counts for most people is experiencing the powerful energy of the place.” Ah well. I never was one of most people. Seems that the very word ‘pilgrimage’ is out of fashion in Glastonbury at the moment. Some see it as too Christian: ‘contemporary spiritual paths’ is a more inclusive term. Other Glastonians make the opposite connection. When the local paper asked its online readers what they thought of my journey, one commentator claimed that “Most of those who sit around the holy thorn in the graveyard go on a pilgrimage once a fortnight. First the DSS in Wells and then on to Nisa.” The Thorn was going to flower early this year, I was warned, because “It’s been peed on by Special Brew all summer.” There was briefly a time, I admit, when Special Brew was my own nectar of the gods, but that was long ago, and I promise that I have never piddled on the Holy Thorn.
But back to the Bristol Road. Somewhere down by Autoglass, monoxide scum on my lips, I had a happy encounter with a cheerful water gypsy from Wolverhampton, a huge grin on her face & two small strings of beads poking out from under her hat. She’d stalled her barge ten minutes down the road, but it wasn’t her problem, big laugh. I didn’t understand either. Don’t bother with Glastonbury, she said, mistaking me for a true man of the road. Gloucestershire people are much more friendly than Somerset people.
When the stroller set out from Gloucester it was a cold clear frosty sunshine morning, and mine was something similar, with a dippled, stippled sky, quite dramatic, ribbed clouds under the sun. He went by Quidsley and through the Church yard which stands in a level grovy woody pastture amongst an endless innumerable deal of appletrees as if the Church stood in a thick orchard. I came into Quedgeley, past the Orchard at the Green Farm crossroads. The road alignment’s shifted slightly, and there’s a nice line of older cottages set back from the road here – Friar Tuck’s, and Little Thatch, a black and white building. Past The Pet Select Shop (The Shop For Your Pets At The Vets), and Quedgeley’s little dumpy steeple peeking over the top of Tesco’s. I sat for a while in the churchyard, communing with the old stroller. It’s a nice, dinky little church with a big churchyard, surrounded by estates rather than orchards (though there’s a Local Nature Reserve nearby containing “the remainders of an old apple and pear orchard… Local people are encouraged to pick the fruit for their own use.”) Ring ring twitter ring. Bleeding twittering birds, couldn’t hear my mobile phone over their racket. And it was some other media engagement, another posh voice from the local Beeb wanting to do an interview, threatening to send a film crew to chase me around South Gloucestershire the next day. (Most of these arrangements came to naught, I hasten to add, else I’d have had my own quaint Radio 4 afternoon show by now).
I crossed the Gloucester & Sharpness ship canal on the swivel bridge that carries the road to Longney. It’s not just wider but grander than run-of-the-mill English canals, with imposing, classical-fronted bridge-houses dotted at frequent intervals along the bank. I hailed two unusually jovial fishermen; they’d only caught one small roach in an hour and a half but it was better than having to spend time with the wife, har har. There wasn’t much happening on this canal this December day. One barge went past, at a fair speed; it might even have been a working boat, and it left a whiff of some very aromatic pipe smoke in its wake, of the old-fashioned tobacco kind, the sort of thing you’d expect an old-fashioned bargee to smoke. There was one solitary barge parked up here, little, blue, nondescript, timeless. It was a long way away from any road, the perfect place to moor up if you want to get away from the world (except the M5, from which there’s no escape).
The canal was built to circumvent some of the Severn’s more treacherous, lengthy and mischievous meanders. Just to the west is the Arlingham loop, a cul-de-sac of a promontory where time moves slowly. I came here three times in pursuit of the Old Gloucester. In early 1976 I poured hard-earned beer down the throats of agricultural veterans in the Darrell Arms, who told me impossible details about a herd that’d been dispersed fifty-seven years earlier. The last of the old herds, dispersed in 1972, belonged to Robert Dowdeswell of Wick Court, and here, after much parley, I was finally invited to meet his surviving sisters, the Misses Dowdeswells, genteel bird-like creatures, who were then living in one large room of this wonderful and then sorely decaying early Tudor pile and treated us to Battenburg cake on bone china. But my finest memory is of Jasper Ely, water bailiff and man-mountain, whose capacity for alcohol was legendary. After ten minutes or so of chit-chat about his few Gloucesters he asked me if I liked cider. I said that I did. We went into a shed with four enormous barrels which he said contained 900 gallons, which he made himself and all for his own consumption. He produced a cracked cup and a two-foot length of plastic pipe; got the suction going, and gave me my first taste of true scrumpy. He may have spent the evening yarning about elvers and lampreys and the tricks that Severn poachers know, but if he did I don’t remember. I think I kipped in one of his barns.
I left the canal at Park End, crossed a beautifully built little wooden bridge but after that found no trace whatsoever of the path. I did the John Wayne swagger-stagger across a boggy meadow and managed not to sink. I crossed the unexpectedly splendid avenue that leads to Moor Farm from Moreton Valence, past a rather scary scarecrow, wearing muddy scarlet, suspended two inches off the ground just like a hanged man; did some nifty nipping across pheasant coverts to dodge the worst of the flooding, had a quick chat to Radio Gloucester and popped through a hedge and into Whitminster, accompanied by the merry shriek of a car alarm or a siren or a something, the Cotswold scarp looming large ahead of me.
Past Holbrooke Crescent, opposite the primary school, one of those really nice-looking 1950s micro-council-estates. “When did you last worm your dog?”, demanded a large poster on a lamp-post, appropriate greeting for a village once renowned for curing mad dogs, as John Jackson heard: N.B. To this come a many people from all places about for cure of mad dogs bitings and its said are always cured. I found confirmation of this in George Baer’s History of Rabies: In 1735 two individuals “advertised their skills as successful ‘Dippers of Man and Beast’, charging high fees for immersing unfortunate victims of dog bites in the tidal waters of the River Severn. One advertised as follows: ‘William Bennet at the George Inn at Whitminster, six miles below Gloucester, Continueth to Dip Man and Beast…in the Salt Water, with Success’.
Jackson got bogged down in Whitminster. The road, though turnpiked in 1726, was notoriously bad here – a long levell miry way. He stayed at the White Swan (he called it the White Horse, but he was wrong) and was scarce got in when near dark and it rained heavily all the night. We saw not our host nor hostess but only the maid for we sat in the slut kitchin till the maid conducted us to our lodging and there was a woman and 3 children one was a lad about 12 or 13 years old, without hands and he fed and served himself with his feet and took the bread and chese with his toes instead of fingers and the woman told me that she had born 16 sons and one daughter. “Slut kitchen!”. Tut, tut, Mr J, clearly put out by that reception, but he stayed there again on the homeward trip and was entertained very well, and at my coming away gave me a glass of Brandy.
After Whitminster, he had to negotiate two sad watry floods, the crossing-points over the rivers Frome and Cam, just a marshy mile from their confluence with the Severn. Over a meadow, a mile long to the midleg in water I waded to a mill, and got over, and back I came on the other side, and into the road again, and about a mile or two further I came to another floody place called Cam Bridge and there the water was over both the bridge and battlement and spread itself a great way along the road on both sides of the bridge, and I waited a great while at the alehouse, and at last I hired a horse and got a guide to help me over. For a man as poor as Jackson to have to hire a horse and guide shows just how bad the road had become.
I by-passed these treats. I crossed the A38 (the shop is on one side of the dual carriageway & the village is on the other; I wonder how many deaths the gods exact for this arrangement?). Past the Old Forge looking old and genuine, and a battered ancient farm with rusting barns and Belgian Blues in the paddock, and out on the road to Eastington. Over the M5, nervously. Earlier I’d blithely crossed a slippery slimey sort of a plank over a water-filled ditch maybe eight foot deep, but I crossed the motorway bridge on the inside of the pavement and I took my hat off, just in case it blew away. Across the A419, hectic with traffic from M5J13; then the dilapidated Cotswold canal at Pike Lock, beside a former workhouse now a Camphill centre, then crossed the river Frome a mile upstream from Jackson’s watery crossing-point, moving a tad faster than its Somerset namesake perhaps but still safely within its appointed limits. At Eastington I left the road and crossed the churchyard through a ridiculously tight stile – someone’s obviously been to Derbyshire. A local worthy on the village green was making good where somebody had driven over the verge, but he wasn’t desperately chatty so I didn’t loiter. On to Millend, a nice little corner with a run-down old farm and a fantastical towering derelict mill (and on the back of it, of course, the statutory planning application to convert it into luxury flats. Today’s English country buildings would look truly surreal to a man of Jackson’s day. All those functional places that don’t do what they look like they should do and once did. Form, not function, is everything in rural England now). It’s a strange and pleasing landscape, studded with funny little bits of hamlets lots of them with names ending in ‘End’: West End, Nupend, Nastend, Old End, Churchend – all linked by a web of footpaths and odd little lanes and tracks. I got a bit lost in Cress Green, but mercifully came across a postwoman, bedecked in all sorts of Christmas regalia, and between us we worked it all out. Down to the main road, past a smallholding with a couple of polytunnels and a bit of an orchard, and across flat low lying and well drained fields.
I stopped for a breather beside two rather splendid oaks, a little island in the middle of a cornfield, remains of a hedge on the way to Downton Farms. About half a mile away the M5 rushes past. The track came out by Church Farm, home of Frocester Fayre with a Y and a farm shop. Beyond’s the tower of St Peter’s Church, more or less abandoned in the early nineteenth century but rebuilt against the vicar’s wishes in 1852, and finally re-demolished a century later. Past Moor Lane farm, yet another that’s down on its uppers; then cutting across behind the farms, Pinnells End, Field Farm, heading up to Ashmead Green. All well-drained sheep pasture, and a joy to walk upon.
Cam Peak loomed ahead like a sacred mountain, hard to reach. I took a wrong turn but by good fortune spied a local in a garden and got directions. Back up the hill, and through the secret lanes towards the Peak. The wind was up, but the hilltop was exciting and inviting, and also a short cut; so I cut across the turf of it, exhilarating in my lack of exhaustion – couldn’t have done this so swiftly three weeks ago – and as I neared the star-clad top I dropped a prayer to Rhiannon as requested by Laurence Main, threatened yet again with having his daughter taken from him because They don’t like his lifestyle. He’s the King Billy of the Old Straight Track, the toothless but ruthless ley-line shaman who staged his own Glorious Revolution and sundered the very small world of diehard ley hunters: my way or the highway. He’s no team player but that doesn’t mean he’s a bad father. An original, an albion aboriginal, and as entitled to bring up his own children as anyone else.
My hosts this night were musicians, friends of Geoff at the Western Daily Press. They lived in a small but warm and homely cottage on a back lane beyond the Peak. They fed me well and talked of channellers and spirit guides and a wonderful tour around Dorset twenty-five years earlier soon after they’d got together when the force was with them and King Arthur was in the air. They told me that I was akin to Merlin and produced a deck of home-made oracle cards; I drew ‘watch my ego before someone else’s ego does so’, ‘throw your ideas out of the window’, ‘look for the light in the darkness’ and ‘time is passing’. Make of that lot what you will. My reading was that Glastonbury was getting closer.
Saturday December 20 Thornbury day
Very nice to wake up in the countryside! It was a murky old morning but it wasn’t actually raining and didn’t feel like it was going to either. There was no clear border between cloud and hill; trees faded out and got fluffy around the edges. Moist but healthy, and a nice landscape, hills and rills and hidden valleys.
I dropped into Dursley down a 1 in 8 holloway, and came into town up Drake Lane. In Long Street I passed the now-closed White Hart Gallery, next door to the gabled and mullioned building that was the White Hart, where Jackson stayed on his return journey. He admired the neat beautifull Market House, built in 1738, and he had a friend in Mr Lawson the miller, whom he visited both coming and going, but he was appalled by the local cuisine: in this town I saw 2 swine lay killd and burnt as black as a toad and one lay on a table and the other ith’ mucky miry way , the ugliest object I thought that ever my eyes beheld and that and more of their cookery is more proper for dogs and swine than men. Their toad back bacon and Cabbage kettle stinking porrage like Trayn oyl or like the stink of the Hog Stye (Train oil = fish or whale oil, used by clothiers). Yum yum. John Blunt, vicar of nearby Beverston, came to Dursley’s defence in 1877: “it may be safely asserted”, he wrote, that no-one from Dursley had ever written “in such uncomplimentary terms” about John Jackson’s home town of Woodkirk, and he explained Jackson’s unsavoury comments thuswise: ” ‘Toad-back-bacon’ is a term known in Gloucestershire for bacon that has been smoked in the chimney until it is black on the outside, and hard within. North country people seldom smoke their hams or bacon, and the Yorkshireman’s palate was evidently not yet trained to the more luxurious bacon-curing habits of the West of England.” Touché.
I wandered along yet another struggling small-town high street and headed off up towards Cam by way of the then-derelict Pike House on the Kingshill Road. I staggered up Stinchcombe Hill feeling like an alpinist and at the top found a fair golf course, full of folk, putting away to the gentle roar of the M5. The sky had brightened up a bit, strafed with blue, tassled over by the sun, but fading out into mist across the estuary. Somehow I took a wrong turning and walked back down the hill into Cam village, fool that I be. I verified my whereabouts by hailing a dog-walker on the track, a man with a proper thick accent that you could wrap yourself into like a cloak, a warm plaid of locality that us displaced types do not have, standardised and unprotected. He doesn’t know too much about Stinchcombe because he comes from Cam, which is well over a mile away.
I crossed the M5 once again, and passed Standle farm, with its long row of grey asbestosed-roofed sheds, tatty, messy, working, real. My way turned left through gargantuan tractor wheelings, a fairly fiendish footpath experience which ended up with me ramming my little finger on a thorn in a hedge as I went over a stile. Another reminder of the Thorn in whose honour this strange journey was being made. Thanks, Thorn.
At Newport I rejoined the A38, the main road to Bristol. Wrote the stroller, This Newport is a thorow fayr, in Bristol Road, and has 4 famous great inns viz. The White Hart, the Bell, the Lion, and the Crown, and all looks very grand. Too grand for Jackson, who stayed instead at Widow Aldred’s house. These days there’s a strip of council housing, a derelict motel and just one remaining inn, the White Hart, now renamed the Stagecoach, and it was too grand for me: I regretted crossing the threshold immediately. I bought a less-than-mouth-watering toasted cheesie and a pint for an eye-watering £7.80. The barman was as surly as he dared to be and I gave him surly back. “What’s that in English?” I snapped at him, when, with elaborate sarcasm, he tried to describe the girth of a sandwich in centimetres.
Just beyond the pub the old road is set back from the new, with some lovingly unrestored ordinary cottages next to Newport Chapel (which is derelict: built 1710 rebuilt 1820). These are the sort of old houses in the countryside where veteran locals still live; too close to the main road for incomers. For two or three miles I walked ‘turnpike way’ along the A38, which is a bit ironic since this was one of the few bits that Jackson didn’t walk along: actually I’m doing penance for not following the stroller’s detour into Berkeley, where he set out from Newport on a sore heavy dismall rainy day, and that night tarryd at Philip Jones’s. Another man and I sate up all the night for the beds were all taken up and she left us coals, and the stranger said that he thought she got nought by us; but the night was rainy and we payd 4 pence for fire. The weather next morning was as bad; At 8 at morn the tide was up, and Severn out so that there was no way to get out of the town for the water was unfordable. He approved of the handsom neat new built steeple in the church yard, (for building which one Mr Clark was paid £740 two years earlier), with a clock and 6 good bells. Delayed by the weather, he attended the morning service and noted darkly that the minister omitted the first Lesson – a possible sign of sabbatarianism or even Puritanism – but whether on purpose or not, concerns not me. Afterwards he viewed the Church and the Earl of Berkleys monuments which are all black dull and duskey &c: curious phrasing which might just be a moral judgement on the noble family and particularly the current Lady Berkeley, notorious for her paramours. “There is nothing so black of which she is not capable”, wrote Horace Walpole. “Her gallantries are the whitest specks about her”.
On his way back to Yorkshire Jackson stayed once again with Philip Jones, and visited my very good friend Mr. William Jenkins and both found and left him sewing Sail Cloth and I tarry’d a good while and we discoursed very freely, and I was very civilly entertain’d and had some copper coin given at my coming away. A reminder that Berkeley was then a port, as the names of Jones and Jenkins are reminders that Wales is only a few miles west of the Severn.
At Stone Village, I clocked a couple of big houses, probably once coaching inns, looking uninhabited and unloved. If you could afford a big house, would you want to live tight to an A road? The village green’s quite sweet, and there was an apple tree still with the apples on it, in December. A miracle? Or is it simply that no-one does much scrumping on the A38 these days?
I turned off the main road – bliss! – and slipped down the lane to Lower Stone past something called the Avon Space Centre – Storage Solutions. An excellent name, but isn’t it weird that these places should even be needed. More and more people with more and more stuff, stuff, stuff that we cannot let go of & must needs turn farms into warehouses to store it all. Jackson came this way too, and Called at an house that stand on a hill and hard it raind and I desired to warm me and the gentlewoman said can you not keep you warm with walking. Hower I was bid come in and I sat and rested and warmed me well and eat and drank and she went down the hill and set me thro’ a gate and directed me toward Rockington [Rockhampton]. But the way wet misty and a blind path over the watry level meads. I lost my way and wrong I went a mile, at last espying a little house I went to it, ill wet and weary I suppose it a farm house and there warmed me well and got well refreshed and the old man of the house directed me toward Rockington and to Thornbury, over wet meadows, and miry lanes toward Thornbury, and calling at an house in the lane I found the good woman reading in the Duty of Man. And this Mrs. Child was the only person I had seen reading in any house at any place since I came out of Yorkshire . She gave me victuals and drink and a peny, and on the way back though she was absent yet her son and daughter did treat me civilly, and gave me some coyn at my coming away.
That observation about literacy is interesting. Rab Houston’s study of the development of literacy in Northern England confirms that people were more literate in the North than elsewhere in Jackson’s day, a fact which he puts down to “a strong tradition of philanthropic endowment of education”. Though Mrs Child’s choice of reading matter is a little depressing. This classic homily, “Containing the Faith as well as Practice of every CHRISTIAN, laid down in a plain and familiar Way, for the Use of All, but especially the Meaner Reader”, was then being advertised in the Gloucester Journal at a discount price for quantity “to those who give them away to promote the Eternal Welfare of the poor Neighbours, Servants and Charity schools”…
Unlike the stroller I had a map, and at Lower Stone I left the road and cut across the fields to Sundayshill, after a close encounter of the canine kind. Not that I was attacked, merely barked at ferociously and savagely by some pent-up monsters behind a fence. There is nothing more excluding and repelling than this, which is exactly what their owners intend, of course. Dogs, more than any other domesticated animals, are their owners’ creations, a kind of fleshly putty that people mould around their needs, weaponised at one extreme, neotenised at the other, creatures to play god with. That’s why I like cats.
Sundayshill was beautiful, a little forgotten clutch of houses beneath a low golden sun. I went up through Oakhall Farm, a pristine smallholding, neither done-up nor derelict. At the top of the hill stands another lovely farmhouse, poultry strutting about and a big black ram in the paddock opposite; in the valley beyond, some 1970s agricultural buildings, grey and very real. Somewhere a hunt was in full cry, and all through this long afternoon I could hear it baying in the distance. This was a fine and splendid bit of walking, following the setting sun over hills and ridges. A pylon line strides out dramatically towards the estuary. I came to the edge of the ridge somewhere above The Knapp, and had my first glimpse of Thornbury. Down across a wide open field, onto Crossways Lane and managed to reach my host’s bungalow at last light.
He was a nice bloke, Jim. Used to be a Transport Manager for Shell until he retired. We had very little in common except goodwill to one another and that is often all you need for an interesting encounter. It’s very curious: I probably connected less with him than with anyone else on this trip and yet there’s something about him that fascinates me. Otherness, I suppose. He did all the talking and I was delighted to let him do so. At the end of a long day’s walking all I wanted to do was to sit back gratefully and put my feet up, and let them slowly tingle back to normality. I didn’t want to get controversial, didn’t feel a need to pontificate. It’s just like when you’re hitching, the same vibe. It’s the hitcher’s business to keep the driver happy, it’s their half of the deal.
Jim was two different people, and slipped between them seamlessly and confusingly. One was this open, trusting, interested man who’d discovered a whole new world since his wife left him, and talked enthusiastically about all the people he’d been meeting and the things he’d been doing and the clubs he’d joined, loved his grandchildren and lets a couple of landless vegetable-growers make use of his largish garden. A people-loving bloke, in short. The guy who invited a perfect stranger to stay the night. The other was a slightly moany put-upon blazer-wearer who compared his beloved mother to Margaret Thatcher. I think he’s just struggling with the loss of who and what he used to be, which was someone who was very set in his ways. Clearly absolutely devastated by the break up of his marriage, though from the way that he talked about his wife’s many shortcomings and the mid-life crisis that sent her astray, and above all the fact that she didn’t like people very much, I had the feeling that he’d lost nothing that he didn’t need to lose. It would be so much better if people when they get divorced stopped seeing their marriages as failures simply because they didn’t last for ever.
Once my feet had cooled down I went off uptown foraging, and very nice it was to be out on such a clear and beautiful night, Orion strutting his stuff in parallel up aloft. There was a high wind from the west, which took the edge off the cold as Jim had told me it would. I cut through a series of modern closes, quietly festive, and came into town the long way round. The place was absolutely festooned with Christmas lights, dripping with them. I scouted about for food and ended up opting for an Indian, in a restaurant that once was a pub (there’s an essay (or maybe a sermon) to be written about how across the land pubs abandoned by boozers are being turned into splendid Indian restaurants). I sat on a tiny table, musing on my day’s journey and on Jackson’s. This day I saw more ground drowned and under water than ever I saw in all my life before and its dreadfull to see the Severn, he wrote. Mrs Child, the woman with the book, sent her son to shew me the way to Thornbury, and to see me well over the mill dam; which he did, and we parted, and it was about 7 at night. This would have been Morton Mill, which with its millpond has now been built upon. Today Thornbury is engulfed by a sea of small houses, solid, samey, boring, like England, like the BBC, like talking about the weather. “It’s strangely reassuring, the fact it’s all so boring”. England’s a place you come back to after having had your adventures somewhere else, tamed and mastered long since. What a comfortable, complacent lullaby. Now serious flooding is once more endemic; the sea levels are rising, the ice caps are melting and talking about the weather is becoming a trifle scary. At the table next to mine that night a group of twenty- somethings were talking merrily about Stuff, stuff they had and stuff they wanted, stuff that might end up in a space-centre, long-haul flights they were planning to make. Soon they’ll be pairing off and breeding. What hope for your young, youngsters? Where will they park their children once paradise is paved and there’s nowhere left for the floodwaters to go?
Back at Jim’s, replete, I tried very hard to stay awake and wished that I had the slightest interest in motorbikes (he’s a Ducattisti: he bought one when his wife left, which seemed like a fair exchange) and he’s been having lots of fun on it but the clock was moving more and more slowly. I held out until 10.00, then retreated to the world’s tiniest bedroom and curled up like a cat in a shoebox.
Sunday December 21; St Lucy’s Day
Aah! The Magic Laundry Basket that my bag had become. My new-washed socks weren’t dry but I unearthed an evil-smelling pair of dry ones from the bottom of the bag that did the job nicely, thanks.
Back in 1755 the weather, once again, was uninspiring: Cold misty and gloomy but some dim glimmering of sunshine, and toward night i. e. in the evening sleety rain and snow and cold. The stroller was laid up: being ill and irksom I did not stir out all the day, but stayed two nights at Thomas Walker’s, reflecting on atmospheric phenomena and the simple ways of Gloucestershire folk. The Aurora Borealis sore surprised the people in Dursley, and they fancied that the air stunk like brimstone and this was on Tuesday evening when I lay at the Star in Dursley. And on Saturday evening the Moon Bow, Borealis, and Thunder, surprized the people at Thornbury, and Thomas Walker’s wife said that
And Summer’s rain,
Forebodes no good,
To an English Man.
He set off for Bristol on the winter solstice, and was told that the villages I was to go through was Alleston [Alveston], Ansbury [Almondsbury], Patchway, Filton, Horvil [Horfield], and Stokes Croft. And I am told that at Patchway lives one Mr. William Barclat who got a sprig of the Holy Thorn, and set it in his garden and it grows and thrives and blossoms &c. as that on Weary all Hill on Old Christmas Day and that many people come to see it. And that a man stands with a Hedge Bill to defend it that the people do not come near it to pluck, or break it. And victuals and drink is given to such as come to see it. Barrels of drink given to strangers and poor and good victuals also.
Jackson doesn’t mention the Patchway Thorn again, so presumably he couldn’t find it. Nor can I find any trace of a William Barclat, or Barclay, or even Berkeley, in Patchway, but this story is important because once again it equates respect for the Glastonbury Thorn and the old moral economy, in which people were generous to the poor.
My day was wild, windy, blustery. I slipped through the new suburbs, and Thornbury’s unusual new outer perimeter wall, defensive-looking, described in a council map as a “strongly defined edge to development”. Up past the mast, round the edge of Little Abbey Camp, where the finds have been mostly Roman, across the A38 along the Abbey Lane towards the M5. The wind was up, and I ranted away like Lear on the heath, bemoaning the reality gap that exists between how people see the world and what needs doing to keep it habitable for humankind. The scale and the nature of the changes that will be needed if Jim’s beloved grandchildren are going to have a life worth living. Those twenty-somethings in the restaurant last night were having exactly the same sort of conversations that twenty-somethings were having a generation ago, only with added Stuff (bigger cars, more exotic holiday destinations). They weren’t sitting around talking about ways of going greener, getting by without cars, not flying off to the other side of the planet for a holiday; that just isn’t how it is. When the blokes got talking about Bloke Paradise out in Thailand, where the birds are on your tail all day long, the closest they got to wisdom was the (indignant) realisation that the women were more interested in their money than in their manly beauty. One of the two women at the table dared to suggest that maybe they needed the money, but this did not provoke snorts of indignation and outrage about third-world poverty and prostitution, that just isn’t how it is. It’s time to give up on “hope”: that’s just a word to quieten children. All this green stuff is so much tilting at windmills. A foolish distraction, this far along the end-road. Time to hunker down for doomsday…
… Enough! According to a nineteenth-century tradition ” ‘in the time of the wars’ blood ran down Abbey Lane like water, and many people are still afraid to go down the lane at night”. Perhaps I was picking up on some of that ancient anger.
My mood was saved by a sign put up by a bunch of wonderful geologists, passionate about the bones of Mother Earth. Coming into Itchington, just before the bridge under the M5, is ‘Bristol’s Time Gap’, a little geological face, fenced off and with an Information Plaque put up by the Geological Society for the West of England.
Itchington hamlet’s a collection of quite big houses, including a wonderfully derelict farmhouse. I do like a bit of dereliction. I’m a sucker for the splendour of decay.
I had a choice of routes here: either to go through Earthcott Green, hit the city at Bradley Stoke and pick up the A38 Gloucester Road at Patchway, or to take the country route by way of Winterbourne. It was still early in the day; I didn’t need street-lights yet awhile and the prospect of a last blast of countryside seemed too good to miss out on. It was the solstice day, the shortest day, old St Lucy’s Day, and every scrap of daylight was precious.
‘”Tis the year’s midnight, and it is the day’s,
Lucy’s, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks;
The sun is spent, and now his flasks
Send forth light squibs, no constant rays;
The world’s whole sap is sunk”….
Past the electricity sub-station and the hamlet of Latteridge, on a dog-leg of the B4059. Walking into a wild south west wind, warm enough, but frisky when it comes to the blowing-off of hats, unless I kept my head right down and looked at the land two inches in front of my feet, so I went hatless and balding into this teasing Lucy’s wind. Out along The Marle Hills, grandly so-called on the map though a fairly unassuming ridge. There’s a little farmstead here, deserted, abandoned, the roof completely caved in, and again I was surprised to find such attractive rural real estate gone to dereliction so close to city and motorway. There was a Toyota pickup parked in the yard, and a shot rang out from somewhere nearby; to kill a creature, or just to let me know that I’d been spotted?
The soil here is keuper marl, lovely and red and also extremely muddy, now there’s a change. But these red loams were homelike, good to see. I squelched to the lane by Perrinpit Farm and for the next couple of miles shadowed the B4058 a field or two over to the east. Behind me the sky was dark and dramatic, but there was bright blue sunshine ahead. A goodly omen. At Frampton Cotterell I spotted my first bit of dry stone walling, and a mole both mighty and hyperactive had turned up veritable hillocks; the soil looked so rich I could understand how a mole might feel about it. I crossed the B4057, and found myself in a triangle of pasture, wild enough though boxed in with roads. Today’s merry motorway medley comprised the M4 and the M32. The Bradley Brook meandered through the middle, with a picturesque rustic bridge and beyond the railway viaduct of Pye Green; I was aiming to go under it but somehow ended up by following the Brook, now in its own little gorge, and was expelled out onto the 4058 just before the railway bridge. I cut off quickly up Moor End Road, across Hambrook Common, and then below Whiteshill I picked up the Frome Valley Walkway (another Frome), then finally crossed underneath the M4.
You know you’re getting south when you cross the M4. (In France, it’s the rivers you tick off – the Seine, the Loire, the Dordogne…) Here there’s a splendid cacophony of pillars, and tight up against the motorway was a little house with a flagpole and a flag that said simply Merry Christmas.
The city doesn’t quite reach the motorway at this point, though I thought it did. There were one or two false starts to my Bristol city experience. I crossed the ring road, and slipped in to the built-up bit near Penn Drive, where I sat by a tiny pond and engaged with waterfowl for a bit. Through affluent Frenchay, the First Village Out, then back to the Frome and over Frenchay Moor to the Oldbury Court Estate, landscaped two centuries ago by Humphry Repton to provide “such a variety of sublime and beautiful scenery as seldom occurs in places of much greater extent”. I sat on a bench beneath some winter-denuded trees, rang my parents and talked Bristol with my father, who was here as a student. I could have stayed on the riverbank and meandered in gently through Repton’s pleasant landscapes but I was ready for the city now, so I scooted off south along a shortish, meanish, very urban street that took me to the forlorn heart of Fishponds. A sign on Woolworth’s announced that it would be closing in eight days’ time. Nearby was The Old Post Office, now a bar. Will there be an Old Woolworth bar? Old pubs aren’t doing so well; seems that today’s discerning drinker chooses to tope in a building designed for some other use. Across the road, the Fishpond Boots was closing too, but there was a planning application in for a gaming licence, so that’s all right.
Serendipity struck a little further on. I stumbled upon a Moroccan restaurant called the Marhaba where I found a real welcome and a superb dinner too. I walked in looking like no restaurateur’s dream punter, yet I was treated like a lord. There was one family of fine-boned Somali folk, and at the table next to mine a couple of Arab blokes, friends of the proprietor, and straight away I hit it off with them. Especially the older guy, who was about my age and as opinionated as I am, and since our opinions tallied perfectly all was well with the world. Talking to other diners in a restaurant is a very un-English thing to do. I asked him if he found the English cold. Well, a bit, he said but that’s how the English are with each other. It’s partly down to climate. When it’s hot, you live outdoors and mix with everyone. It’s also because the English are so individualistic, and that’s to do with wealth. The rich buy themselves a way out of life, I said. You need people when you’re poor, he said, and then sat back and pulled a face, full disgust and mistrust – I don’t need you, I’m rich, who are you? The poor need everybody. Which is why it’s good to be poor really. Good for people, good for the planet. What about America? “Wilfully ignorant. They think that what’s good for America must be good for the world, and not that what’s good for the world must be good for America too”. Obama, then newly elected and the hope of half the world? Let the man prove himself, if he can. Our breath is not baited. (And a week after our conversation the Israelis launched a murderous month-long bombardment of Gaza, in the run-up to Obama’s inauguration. Bush was still nominally in charge, and Obama sat on his hands: “there is only one president at a time”, he told the world. I went out for a walk the day he took office.)
Somewhere below Freemantle Road the shops acquire metal shutters: sure sign of the Inner City, vibrant, intense, and simply interesting, after the blandness of small white country towns. There was a bible study group going on in a converted shop, maybe twenty people with books open on full shop-window display, next door to a busy halal butcher. Fishponds Road becomes Stapleton Road, full-on artery of Easton. Past the Black Swan, now a major venue for black music, Son of Jah Shaka on the posters. The Kensington Baptist Church, founded 1831, all nations can worship before you: Rev, in about 17 languages which I think is a little bit hopeful but what do I know. Even though it was cold and clammy, people were out on the street socialising, just like people do in warm and sociable countries. Past the Congregational Church, also a church for all nations; past the Irie Diner, absolutely packed, the Sports Bar ditto. Money-transfer signs over every other shop. Just before the City Centre I cut off north, up Wade St, crossed Newfoundland Way by the neon-lit multi-store car park of Cabot Circus and across a corner of downtown that felt as cold as Newfoundland.
I climbed steep staircases through the Dove Street Estate, wove around back-streets and landed on the Cotham Road. I sat on a wall’s edge to get my breath back, gentle prosperous early nineteenth century mansions all around, and marvelled at the difference that ten minutes’ walk can make in a big city. And a couple of hundred feet of altitude, of course. From Easton to Cotham is a very long way. Half a dozen students in fancy dress sauntered past, tiddly, singing carols, denizens of a different universe to the Irie Bar and the money-exchangers of the Stapleton Road. Up here all is safe and comfortable, but pale by comparison, pale as white skin.
I had no clean clothes. I knew my socks were rank and Mission Control had put the fear of stench into me, so as I had an hour or so to spare and a good hunch that tonight’s high jinx would mostly be taking place indoors and that I would therefore be shoeless, I prayed for a launderette and one popped up on cue; so I stripped off as in the advert and stuffed an improbable number of small silver coins into machines.
My host tonight was Ronald Hutton, professor of history at the University of Bristol who has carved a fine niche for himself as the historian of modern paganism. Over several books and many articles he has demolished claims of pagan continuity from prehistory, but instead grounds it in the much richer tilth of seasonal customs and inventive imaginations. Paganism is a new religion, but what’s wrong with that? He is an active druid; and today being solstice, he had generously invited me not only to stay over but also to take part in the rites of the Druid Grove, which this night was meeting in his own home. As he explained it to me beforehand, with characteristic and comprehensive clarity, “the Grove gathers between 6 and 7 pm, and then goes into a taking-stick circle to introduce guests and exchange news. The evening’s rite is then explained and we perform it, followed by a round of poetry, songs, jokes and (very short) stories. There is then a party, with nibbles and drink consumed that people have brought, and everything is usually wrapped up around 11 pm”. So I was told, and so indeed it was. The participants were mostly middle class and middle aged, though the Spirit of the West was a postman from Pensford who was indignant that English Heritage won’t put the stones at Stanton Drew back upright. Cloaks and staffs abounded. A sardonic onlooker might have dismissed it all as Yuletide charades, but sardonic onlookers should be shot. This was strong ritual, and a long way from the enforced and banal jollities that keep so many unbelieving Christmas-celebrants clockwatching. What made this different was that all involved were acting with good and deep intention. At one point all lights were extinguished and Madron and Mabon said their stuff, very effectively; especially Madron, the mother, herself pregnant with her second child now, speaking with the pure voice of mother-love: ‘there is nothing you can do that will make me stop loving you’. Fine words to hear on the eve of the longest night.
Monday December 22; Riots, old coal and ancient harmony
You Are the Undesirable Other, remarked Ronald conversationally over breakfast, and I hadn’t made a pass at anyone. This prodigiously productive professor, whose workload makes me weep, nonetheless finds time to champion the scholarship of many lesser fry and over the years I’ve benefited from his advice and patronage in lots of ways. He stood as referee for dozens of applications I’d made for research fellowships, none of which had come to anything, and why? Because, he said, my stuff is just too radical and threatening for Oxford and Cambridge where most of these fellowships are based. I suspect that things like age and perhaps lack of Oxbridge credentials might have more to do with it, but the notion that I might have reduced the intellectual establishment to ostrich-like ontological ostracism was heartening, especially at that time of the morning, and I sallied forth into Clifton feeling as undesirably ferocious as the Gruffalo.
I like Clifton, and I’m not generally all that keen on the posher parts of towns. It’s a comfortable place, full of comfortable people who are comfortably off, with rooms full of books and music, people who take holidays in interesting places and quietly do a lot of good where it’s needed. At least, that’s how it feels when you walk through it: I’m sure it’s got its share of monsters. I went into town along the Pembroke Road, a street of big houses with huge bay windows; past Brandon Hill, down Park St, across the city centre and the river Avon, and so to Bedminster, which in Jackson’s day was still in Somerset. Glastonbury country, at last.
Iolo Morganwg, stonemason, antiquarian and creator (less charitable folk prefer the label ‘forger’) of a huge body of Welsh mythology that baffled scholars for generations, was convinced that Brandon Hill was a volcano. “Stupid Bristol”, he railed, for not having noticed this; the town was possessed by “the Demon of Idiotic Dullness”. Mary Ann Constantine has shown how eighteenth-century Bristolians were regularly castigated for their “grubby commercialism”, and for being “too preoccupied with commerce to consider less material matters”.
Our stroller was a just such a castigator. He did not approve of Bristol, in spite of its bright lights (I saw such great deal of lamps and other illuminations as I never saw any where before). The tiny church of St Ewen’s, believed by some to have been the original Bristol Minster, had been popular with puritans and radicals in the Civil War, and it seems the memory lingered, or a version of it: he was told that Old Noll demolisht the Vestibulum of Bristol Minster, and that is the cause that it appears as an Old Parish Church. ‘Old Noll’ was a gargoyle name for Oliver Cromwell, as evil as Old Nick to someone like Jackson since the original Glastonbury Thorn had been chopped down by zealous puritans.
On his way back he spent a full day viewing and observing the City, but he wasn’t any more impressed with it. He view’d the half ruind Cathedrall the least in all England, and I viewed the Colledge Green and the fine cross thereon and viewd the Harbour and shipping that fills the Harbour with ships and other vessells as close as one can stand by another a great way and the town all on an hurry and continuall bustle far worse than London – and indeed the city was then booming, and devouring its own past. The “fine cross” on College Green had actually been moved there from its original site in 1733. “It hath been insinuated by some that this cross, on account of its antiquity ought to be lookt upon as something sacred”, said the City Council at the time, deploring such sentimentality. This “ruinous and superstitious relic” should no longer be allowed to hinder traffic, especially “when we consider that we are Protestants and that Popery ought to be guarded against in this nation”. A few years after Jackson’s visit, the Dean of Bristol sold the cross to the banker Henry Hoare, who transported it to his Stourhead landscape garden in six wagons; it still stands at the head of the lake, an honourable and beautiful retirement for a discarded city relic.
Jackson kipped at Bedminster, or tried to. He went to the double neckt Swan and enquired for Joseph Jubb as his mother had directed me but in vain for I was told that his wife died, and his child was left to the parish, and he gone into the army 3 years agoe. So I went to the Glass house till morn but there I stood and walkt and got no rest there. No wonder you were in such a bad mood, old stroller. Why did you head for a glass-house when you needed somewhere to sleep? Did you hope to find yourself a corner by the chimney?
At morn I left Bristol, and turnpike way I went up the hill, and called at the turnpike house where the way parted, and found in the house a notable sensible woman and her son, a shomaker, at his work, and she attended on the turnpike, I sat and rested, and talked there near 2 hours ; and the woman directed me the way to Wells, and though it was but about 11 ith forenoon she told me the way over Mendip would be too long for me to reach Wells this night. So I went on the left hand way and passed by Shoo [Chew]. It was not the modern Wells Road that he set out upon, but the Bridgwater Road, newly and controversially turnpiked. Turnpikes were ferociously unpopular around Bristol. Why should we have to pay to get from A to B, folk reasoned, when we’ve never had to pay before? Earlier attempts to turnpike this road had come to naught, but in 1749 the deed was finally done and gates and toll-houses were erected. Immediately sparking off open revolt from farmers and farm-labourers. Faces blackened, sometimes dressed in women’s clothing, the rioters repeatedly attacked and destroyed the gates along this stretch of road and Bedminster was one of the first. By the time John Jackson came by six years later things had quietened down a lot, and the authorities were convincing themselves that even poor road users could see the benefit of improved roads (and surely, after all those woeful miry ways, the stroller was one of them?); but the job of turnpike keeper was no sinecure and that “notable sensible woman” was probably pleased to have a son to hand in case things started to kick off.
In a forlorn bid to keep the locals sweet, carts carrying coal were exempted from tolls: a reminder that the North Somerset Coalfield was already very active. There was coal in Bedminster too. In 1748 Bedminster’s first deep pit was sunk at South Liberty Lane, not that Jackson noticed it. At one point there were 18 local pits; South Liberty, first and last, survived until 1925. It’s an amazing thought, that there were working coal-mines within a mile or two of central Bristol less than a century ago. Will they let the frackers in as close? All that’s left to show for it today are pub names – the Jolly Colliers, the Miner’s Arms, both of which I passed.
I left the Bridgwater Road at the Cross Hands and took Jackson’s ‘left hand way’ along the Bishopsworth Road. It was a sticky and monotonous old climb, the weather close and clammy, and as usual there was far too much traffic. All the feeder roads were blocked, everybody seemed to be going into town. Has to be said that South Bristol is not an immediately inspiring place.
I left Jackson’s route at Whitchurch Road, and cut through to Withywood and Hartcliffe, where the City Council built almost ten thousand houses in the 1950s. These estates today are the poorest parts of Bristol, with “all the indicators of deprivation, including high levels of crime, high unemployment, poor schools and poor public spaces”. And yet, as always, there are people to love these unloved places. Such as the local history teacher Anton Bantock, who died last year, founder of the ‘Malago Society’ which studies the history of these neglected southern suburbs. ‘Malago’ from the curious name of the little river that flows down from the Dundry slope. Bantock had a theory that the name might mean ‘mischief maker’, and in the 1970s he helped his pupils to write and produce a musical called Malago. “This tells the story of the Gods and nymphs who used to inhabit this valley, but were driven away by humans and their industrialised mess. Only three remained (the Malagojusted Nymphs).”
“Walking thru Hartcliffe. It looks a lot more dangerous than it feels” – on Youtube, worth a listen. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cVhTk7tTDu8
Bishport Avenue marks the southern limit, and a piece of steep rough ground, sandwiched between system-built concrete council cul-de-sacs, is the way out. It was quite a scramble, through the sort of informal slightly edgy edge-land that really appeals to me. The Estate fades out into a thicketed hillside, a maze of little paths and forgotten fences and kid’s junk and surrealities, like these bike-bits firmly rooted in the ground, an outdoor gym?
It’s been allowed to go wild, a cultivatedly natural barrier between the city’s riff-raff, and the country bits beyond. At the top’s a stile, across the modern county boundary. Dundry Slopes belong to Bristol, but North Somerset controls the high ground. Of all the citybreaking that I did on this journey, this one was the most dramatic.
I stopped for a breather beside Dundry Mast, looming out of the mist, but it was cold up here and I got a bit chilled, so moved on fairly swiftly into East Dundry savouring the culture shift. A rustic-looking farmer on a funny little old tractor waved as he passed, and though no doubt this is prime commuter land it looks and feels very remote and rural, with the sweep of the Mendip Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty around me. And a massive chicken farm at the end of the village.
I had plenty of time so I decided to head off to Stanton Drew, a two or three mile detour. I stopped for a while on the little road between Norton Hawkfield and Norton Malreward, parking my arse on a thoughtfully-provided bench beside a leafy stream that runs into the Chew, feeling, odd. The same feeling I’d had walking past Temple Meads station earlier, and knowing that I could be home in an hour. I wasn’t feeling homesick, more that I knew I’d have to work a little harder at keeping up the spirit of adventure. Knowing that I needed to avoid getting into Nearly There mode, or the rest of it would become a plod.
Stanton Drew is a fantastical late Neolithic site which is still, mercifully, incredibly little visited, when compared to Stonehenge or Avebury at least. There’s a car park and a pub and an honesty box, but otherwise you’re on you’re own. Perhaps it’s the lack of tourist tat that keeps the crowds away. It’s a huge complex. The Great Circle is 370 feet in diameter, and was once surrounded by an even bigger ditch. There are two smaller stone circles outside the big one, and within it there were once nine concentric rings of pits about a yard wide that may have contained massive posts. It’s a circle-lovers dream, and a natural magnet for geometrically-inclined antiquarians, including some of John Jackson’s contemporaries.
‘Renaissance’ means ‘rebirth’, the rediscovery of ancient wisdom from the classical world. By the eighteenth century most scholars had moved into the Age of Enlightenment, where scientific discoveries were allowed to be new. Some still cast around for different ancient exemplars, John Wood and William Stukeley, for instance, who thought that there was little new under the sun: ‘innumerable discoverys & inventions, as we now account them, were formerly things well known, & afterwards lost’, in Stukeley’s words. In ancient times, when there was less distraction, the coherence of the whole universe was much more apparent than it had become by the eighteenth century; but it was still there, to be perceived by those with eyes to see. “A contemplative person, viewing and considering the world around him, is ravish’d with the harmony and beauty, the fitnesses of things in it, the uses and connexion of all its parts, and the infinite agreement shining throughout the whole”. The ancients contributed to this state of primeval harmony by building stupendous structures like the pyramids, or stone circles: “the first ages of the world were intent upon grandeur only”. This was the world of the Freemasons, of the Great Architect and of his interpreters such as Pythagoras and Solomon and Hiram, and of course the Druids.
Wood and Stukeley were arch-rivals. They were both very keen on Druids, and also on stone circles. They both made meticulous measurements and observations at Stonehenge, and Stukeley’s work at Avebury has coloured interpretation of it ever since, but Stanton Drew was Wood’s particular obsession. This “quack in antiquity” (Stukeley pulled no punches) devised a historical scheme all his own which he presented to the public with total confidence in which Bladud, the founder of Bath, brought four eminent philosophers to Stanton Drew from Athens, “and there made them a model of the Planetary World”, which became the Metropolitan Seat of the British Druids. Stukeley snorted at these “fabulous whimsys of his own crackt imaginations”, but Wood was not just your average antiquarian. He was also the developer and architect of Bath, responsible for establishing the uniform and distinctive style that has made the place so famous. There was, he said, a “great Resemblance”, a “manifest Connection” between the Works of BATH, or the City of Oak Men, and those of Stanton-Drew, or the Town of Oak Men“, and he brought the Druid circle into the heart of his new city. The Circus, his architectural masterpiece, is “a permanent hymn of praise to the divine architect”, as Ronald Hutton says, and perhaps “the first stone temple ever built in the name of Druidry.”
Neither Stukeley nor Wood saw any contradiction between their admiration for the Druids and their own professed Christianity. There was a place, albeit a small one, for Glastonbury in Wood’s scheme of things. Where could be more natural, he asked, for Joseph of Arimathea to set up his stall than here, “in the very Heart of all the Druidical Works above mentioned, to preach the Christian Faith to the Britons”? John Jackson would have agreed with that. There was a line of reasoning which had it that the ancient British were so naturally disposed to worship that they were well primed for Christianity when it came; and he copied into his Diary a piece of verse written over a century earlier by the historian and geographer John Speed: As were the Brittains famous for their zeal/ To Gentile gods, while such they did adore,/So when the heavens to earth did truth reveal,/ Blest was the land with truth and learning store”…
(All this is what you might call an Aside. A double-detour from the straight and narrow of John Jackson’s route that takes in not just a prehistoric site but a city several miles away which I didn’t even go to. The truth is that my notes get scantier and sketchier the further south I went, and seven years down the line I can’t remember a thing about that particular visit to Stanton Drew…)
I headed to Chew Magna along a footpath that followed the little river Chew, but the last quarter-mile was along the B3130 and that was scary since the light had all but gone. B roads are the worst for walking: they twist and turn and there’s often nowhere much to go except to jump into the hedge; car-drivers are often locals who drive faster than they should do because they know the road so well; and to cap it all this particular road’s a back-way to Bristol Airport.
Tonight I stayed with the Vicar of Chew, Charles Roberts, who responded warmly and positively to my email requesting accommodation even though his family was about to move house. He was urbane and good company, a fluid and fluent speaker, happy to pick up every hint and talk at length about it. His wife’s a nurse specialising in the elderly, quiet and helpful but also happy. He started out as a musician, a professional bass player, and was playing in orchestras in South Africa when apartheid came to an end: exciting times, and that’s where he studied Theology. He is clearly committed but he didn’t talk much about religion. It’s his job, one that he enjoys doing but I got no sense of a yearning burning union between a soul and his Maker. Maybe it’s hard to keep that sort of thing up after a couple of decades of diocesan politics, keeping the buildings standing, and helping elderly folk get respite care over Christmas. He did say something odd about how women are good at the touchy-feely side of things which is why they make good vicars, as though he doesn’t see his own vocation in that way.
So what is the job like? What does a twenty-first century rural clergyman have to do? He’s basically a manager, looking after five (now six) parishes, and there’s a lot of bureaucracy. I didn’t realise that the church is its own planning authority when it comes to alterations to ancient fabric, for instance. Caretaking these amazing spaces has become a large part of the C of E’s endeavour, time, energy, money. But though many no doubt deplore this necessary fixation with buildings it is in fact no mean service that they’re performing, just keeping these beautiful buildings open for all of us, believers or otherwise. A labour of love.
I was taken out for supper-on-the-parish at the Ring o’Bells in Compton Martin and had a pleasant if very runny tagliatelle. A stalwart from the congregation spotted us and cajoled us back for a mince pie with her friend down from London; two formidable but friendly ladies. They got chatting about hierarchies and things, and I realised that the Anglican world is a large organisation like any other, an office with its line-managers and gossip-mongers, a big and friendly club for those that choose to belong to it. ‘Are you an Anglican?’ one asked me directly. Not as such, madam, but at least I’m not allergic to them any more.
Tuesday December 23; Mizmazed on the Mendips
John Jackson spent the night at the George at Shoo Magna, and a cold night it was, which considering he’d spent the previous night pacing around Bedminster must have been a bit of a bummer.
The next day, a day gloomy and calm he set off across what’s now the middle of the Chew Valley lake, across Chew Park to Compton Martin. Mendip loomed, as he was well aware: Mendip, a large rough Common 6 miles broad, and 40 miles long. Large as Nottingham Forest. Compton, which he called Copen… lyes lurking under the North side of an high hill or bank, i. e. the North edge of Mendip, up a steep lane I went and knew not which way to go, till espying a guide post I followed its directions. And hard by the way side, I seeing a little hill, of a blue scaly earth, and a hole in the top of it, about the wideness of a good large wool basket, I went to it, and looking in, I saw it was a dangerous deep pitt, I went a distance off, and sought 2 stones, and cast into it, and according to the sound, and the time of their falling, I supposed it might be 30 or 40 yards deep.
He’d come into the heart of the ancient Mendip lead-mining district, a lunar-looking landscape of pits, spoil heaps and dangerous shafts known locally as ‘gruffy ground’. The pit he’d found was probably the Lamb Leer Cavern tight by the road, discovered about eighty years before Jackson came a-strolling by lead miners and already quite celebrated: the geologist John Beaumont called it “the most considerable Vault I have known on Mendipp hills”. He put the depth at 23 fathoms, ie 46 yards, so the stroller wasn’t far out. Further on he’d have passed the Devil’s Sinkbowl, a huge swallow hole, and then the Priddy Henges, four Neolithic circular enclosures each of them over 600ft in diameter, which survived all those centuries of lead-mining until some twat managed to plough one of them out in 2011. He was fined £10,000 and ordered to restore the earthwork, but as the woman from English Heritage said a “really, really rare piece of Neolithic engineering had been lost forever”.
I didn’t take that route, partly because there’s a lake in the way and partly because the Old Bristol Road, although a minor road these days, is still too busy for comfort, especially on a foggy kind of day. For once Jackson had the better of the weather. My day was murky and mizzly, a special kind of West Country weather that’s somewhere in between mist and drizzle. Hard work to walk through, and the visibility was crap.
I slipped quickly off the B3130 rat-run and headed off towards Chew Valley Lake, a reservoir built in the 1950s, nicely managed, well landscaped, a nationally-renowned centre for birdwatching. I followed a signposted bird trail around part of the lake. The little tweeting things were everywhere. Not for the first time on this trip I’ve thought I’ve heard my phone go off and grabbed it eagerly anticipating some important call, only to find that it was some bloody bird making a racket and no doubt laughing at me under its wing. It’s about time someone caught ’em all and retrained them to make a different noise. I dunno, something more modern? Sirens maybe?
At Bishop Sutton I crossed the main road beside the village hairdresser’s, and thoughts of God’s creatures were once more uppermost as I climbed the long hill up to White Cross. I passed – and smelt – a dog-walker with a delightful bag of dogshit in his hand, scooping up a sloppy one while his hound looked on distastefully. It must take the edge off dog walking these days, at least for responsible citizens. No more wide-open horizons. You’ve basically got to keep your eyes glued to your dog’s arse, ready to whip out your little bag at the first sign of anal dilation and then carry the stuff home with you. Lovely. Instead of breeding dogs that can’t breathe or walk properly, why don’t these weirdo Crufts breeders try for a dog that doesn’t defecate? It’d be a winner.
I cut off down a truly muddy path that wiggles behind Hinton Blewett and picked up the road to Coley, or rather I began by niftily avoiding the wettest bits by nipping over a fence and walking smugly alongside the quagmire in a well-drained field. But then the path went one way and the field another, so I had to negotiate barbed wire and slithery muddy ruts until gratefully coming up to the lane, and a pleasant enough drop into Coley.
For some reason the lane thereafter runs tight beside the B3114 for a few hundred yards before joining it, and suddenly the entire hunt erupted and came past me. There must have been 20 or 30 of them, very friendly, very smiley and the first guy said ‘all right mate?’. The one at the rear said ‘fucking thing’ but I think he was talking to his horse. There was a cluster of gels in the middle, and kids too, and all was very seasonal: some of the horses had tinsel round their necks. There were support vehicles and gnarled rustics, and lots of upturned thumbs. Everyone was looking a bit sheepish and anxious to please as if they knew that I would disapprove. Which of course I did, but what could I do? What did I do? I smiled back at them, is what I did. Should I have ruined their day and mine by starting a shouting match? And anyway they’re not allowed to kill the fox these days, so this kind of pretend-hunting’s all right really, isn’t it? No, it isn’t.
On to Greendown, up and through a well-spaced beech copse. Ooer, what a sticky wet clammy wet murky day this was to be sure, almost Welsh in its intensity, the sort of day when you can’t put anything down without it getting wet and muddy. I stopped for the briefest of breathers in a green corrugated barn, intimidated by massive farm machinery. Beyond, the path follows a drystone wall fenced off with barbed wire on both sides: seems like a rather pointless loss of land, but it must be cheaper than mending the wall.
Misty, murky Mendip. These hills are not huge but they do have their own rules, their own micro-climate. I did a couple of hundred yards on the B 3135, and turned off gratefully into Stockhill woods for what was meant to be a short cut down to the road that Jackson took. Visibility was down to twenty feet, tops. There were a few walkers about, including a couple of old -timers who were mystified by my mission. Walking to Glastonbury? Was I headed to the festival then? You’re six months out, gents….
I rang Morgy to talk about tomorrow and arriving in Glaston. “I’m lost!”, I jested. “Don’t know if I can make it…”
Ho ho ho. Mischievous, murky Mendip.
The path turned sharply to the right. Right? Never! There was a gate in the fence around the wood, however, a nice pedestrian gate, designed for a footpath, surely. That must be it. Though the map shows the wood running tight up to the road… well, perhaps it was just a very short section of open land. Even the OS isn’t infallible. And anyway I could hear the road, well, a road. So I headed through the gate and across the field towards the road. It was quite a long way, but visibility was low and getting lower. Maybe it was affecting my hearing.
I got there at last, and turned resolutely left. It was nice and straight, just like Jackson’s road (in fact just like most of the roads on the Mendip
plateau, but I ignored that bit.) I stepped out, wondering why the crossroads that should have been awaiting me kept retreating into the distance. Not until I was actually within earshot of the A37 did I accept that those wicked little woods had spun me round and led me, mizzle-mazed, astray.
The traffic was roaring. A trunk road in the fog means death to a pedestrian. What to do? Mercifully the fields are big and open up here, so I crossed a tumbledown wall and followed on the field-side for an unpleasant mile or so to the top of Pen Hill. Here the main road swings mercifully off to the left to zig-zag gently downwards. I cut along the old road gratefully, these days a cart-track that drops steeply through the woods; across the tarmac once again and then dog-legged onto a footpath that followed the dilapidated but high wall around Stoberry Park. I came into town along a side street aptly called ‘Little Entry’, between high forbidding walls, and got my first glimpse of Wells Cathedral.
Jackson reached Wells at nightfall. Enquiring for lodging I was directed to East Wells – now St Thomas Street, the paupers’ end of town, later renowned as “a ghetto for the poor and disreputable”. He found lodging at Mrs. Mary Winter’s, widow; and there was a woman that fought her husband, and disturbed all the house, and this was New Christmas Eve, and there was a woman that sung and dictated this carol and as she dictated as follows though very deficient I thought I would bring it
A CHRISTMAS CAROL TAKEN DOWN AT EAST WELLS ON THE NEW CHRISTMAS DAY.
Jerusalem, said he ;
That kill’d the Prophets of the Lord,
That once was sent to thee.
How often times would I
Have kept thee from all ill;
Even as a hen her chickens keep,
But thou art stubborn still.
Thy lofty strong and stately towers
With rockets shall confound ;
And make thy sumptuous buildings all
Lye equal to the ground.
Because thou didst not know
The reasonable day,
In which the Lord thy God appear’d
To wash thy sins away.
Even to our theologically illiterate eyes this is obviously strong stuff. In the eighteenth century this was breathtaking, almost seditious. The first three verses are a paraphrase of Matthew chapter 23, verse 37, in which Jerusalem is doomed to destruction as punishment for the hypocrisy and perjury of the Pharisees, its religious leaders. Verse 38 condemns the Pharisees to losing touch with God until such time as they acknowledged Christ. The last verse of the carol thus equates the failure to celebrate Old Christmas Day with losing touch with God. This was a huge charge to make. Not only did the carol directly equate the old calendar with belief in Christ, but by implication those in authority who failed to acknowledge “the reasonable day” were as Godless as the Pharisees.
There was more of this cryptic, elliptic bible referencing in next day’s Diary entry, the New Christmas Day, a gallant fine calm sunshine day… I went to St. Andrews, Minster, vulgarly called the Colledge Church [ie the Cathedral], both ends oth day. And the Dean preached out of the second chapter of Hagai and 7th verse. The dean in question was Samuel Creswick, an outspoken supporter of the Whig government whose “sermons and coercion”, according to Linda Colley, had helped to unseat the local MP in the election of 1754. These, of course, were the same people who had introduced Calendar change. The dean’s chosen bible passage concerned the building of the second Temple: “I will shake all the nations; and they will come with the wealth of all nations, and I will fill this house with glory,’ says the Lord of hosts.” It was just the sort of reading that an old-fashioned chap like Jackson might expect a Pharisaical dean of an over-mighty Cathedral to read out on the date they’d set up to usurp and replace real Christmas.
“New Christmas Day.” An idea as preposterous and meaningless to Jackson as “New Solstice Day” would be to us. There’s a screed to be written about how the Solstice is starting to supplant Christmas for many people now. People looking for something ancient, eternal, constant, real, just as Jackson did, only they’re looking back beyond the Christian centuries to find it, or they’re trying to. And this night, after staying one night with a pagan and the next with a priest, I was back with the Druids. A three-night Druidical sandwich, with a Vicar in the middle, or a Christian sandwich, leavened by druidical bread?
I rang tonight’s host from the top of the High Street, and Penny came to meet me half-way across a playing field and take me back to their snug cottage. They’re a lively and inspiring pair, Penny and Arthur, and I’ve got to know them quite well since 2008. Penny is sharp, wise, kind and witty. She edits the magazine of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, and writes best-selling books with titles like “The Path of Druidry; walking the Ancient Green Way”. She writes with a light touch. Take her druid detective hero Gwion, a sort of pagan Brother Cadfael. “Armed only with his trusty wren bag of tricks and obligatory hip flask, Gwion does what a druid detective has to do!” Penny believes in ‘living lightly’ on the earth – not just in what we consume but also being light of spirit. “Some of our deepest spiritual experiences can come from joy in the moment: celebration is a vital way of honouring life.” Arthur is a blues musician, trading under the moniker of Z Z Birmingham, who can gather a crowd to a busking set at Glastonbury Festival just by his verve and repartee. Their daughter Ursula was there too, a sorted Woodcraft Folk veteran: she and a clump of them still hang out together and make music and do sensible things like staying in a shack on an island in the Mersey, of all places. (And these days she plays the fiddle in a gypsy folk rock outfit called Ushti Baba, lively enough to get even old bones dancing.)
I wished I’d been able to stay awake for longer that night, but I was pretty knackered. Walking through fog and mizzle is very draining. Likewise getting lost. Mizmazed on the Mendips, only twenty miles from home! How did that happen? I blame the knockers , lead-mine goblins, who sent a fog along to blow my wits in circles.
Wednesday December 24; Glastonbury, and beyond
A slightly less murky day. Penny insisted on getting up and feeding me, then walked with me to the Cathedral and handed me over to Palden Jenkins. An esteemed glastafarian, a maker of ley-line maps and authority on the sacred landscape, webmaster and pro-Palestinian, I was quite chuffed when Palden agreed to walk the last bit with me. He “landed ‘by chance’ in Glastonbury” in 1980, and talks of the place as “a centre of intensity, operating in its own reality-bubble”, a place to which visitors find themselves “surreptitiously drawn into an elastic, dimensional and paradoxical reality while is deeply educational and life-enhancing….. It is a place of transformation, a place for making deep decisions, for experiencing truth and illusion, for crossing thresholds and for seeing things afresh. Some people studiously avoid the place, or they get mysteriously repelled, while others get irresistibly sucked in, whether by choice or ‘by chance’. Normality as most people know it doesn’t operate here. Glastonbury’s place-energy obliges us to yield to the experience of swimming in a much larger, more mysterious reality.”
Is that ‘true’? Objectively ‘true’? Can such things be measured, or is all this so much New Age baloney? I first came knowingly to Glastonbury in 1986, on the way back from the Elephant Fair with my old mate Simon in his camper-van. I’d been tripping, dancing through the night into the grey-blue of an acid dawn to some random psychedelic band in a tent somewhere. Driving, manic, mad and beautiful sounds, the stuff of life smashing through my brain. Spaced-out, wrecked, eccentric, zonked and blissful, splashing through puddles, slashing at reality’s mooring-ropes. We stopped off in Glastonbury on the way back up-country, tripping still, grinning at everyone, all these people lucky enough to live in the heart of the land. They didn’t grin back much, and it was years before I bothered with the place again. (The festival’s another thing, and I could and maybe will write reams about it but not here and not now….). Has to be said that this was a bad time for a couple of long-haired visitors to try and buy a pint in Glastonbury. The wonder and the idealism of that vibrant alternative culture, people who tried to live the dream, had been systematically trashed by Mrs Thatcher’s shock troops at the ‘Battle of the Beanfield’ in 1985 and thereafter things took a darker turn. People got angry, scattered, embittered. Travellers came to Greenland Farm in Glastonbury after the Beanfield and were only – and forcibly – evicted a few months before our visit, and the town council had just invested in a ‘Hippy Wrecker’ to remove unwanted vehicles.
Call me a hippy now if you want to, I don’t mind. I see it as a badge of honour. But back then, although we might have looked like hippies and done the things that hippies were supposed to do and even smelled like hippies we certainly didn’t call ourselves hippies. Hippies were very unhip in the 1980s. Yesterday’s people, faded as flared blue jeans, and Glastonbury was the great hippy cliché. I didn’t have anything against the place, I just didn’t feel drawn to it, though it was there somewhere in the background, it goes without saying. A lot of places don’t go without saying, for instance Reading, where I happened to be living, and I was part of the saying of it. Reading to me was an incredible town, with a community I never dreamed of finding, exciting and inventive and dynamic and colourful and creative. It was the sort of place where folk washed up accidentally with no expectations, and were pleasantly surprised by. Glastonbury is almost the opposite of that, so hyped with hope and expectation that a lot of folk are doomed to be disappointed by it. On a bad day there’s a sullenness about the High Street, and as many marks of weakness, marks of woe as you’d see in any set of chartered streets. And all those hippies! It’s the only place in the world where I wish I had a suit to wear.
That’s on a bad day. But I like the fact that Glastonbury is a magnet for people who believe there’s more to the universe than meets the eye. People who believe in greater things, and believe that Glastonbury is a gateway to those things. People who know that it’s a special place. I think that all places are special, including car parks and industrial estates and motorways and housing estates, but it’s sometimes hard work seeing that and it is good to come to a place where specialness is taken for granted. Glastonbury recharges my batteries. I see it as a kind of anti-capital. A unicorn to the lion of London. A place that’s allowed to be sacred, an earth centre that’s way beyond nationalism. And if you think that that’s all bollocks, remember the opening ceremony for the 2012 Olympics, where athletes from around the world placed their flags upon a replica of the Tor. You may say that I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.
Palden was much involved in setting up the Glastonbury Camps in the 1980s, which morphed into the Oak Dragon Camps, low-key mini-festivals that really began to take off once the free scene had degenerated into an angry tribal mess of mud, khaki and special brew. People like Palden kept the spirit going and the colours bright. Later he developed the pioneering Isle of Avalon website, and it was through this that I got to know him (my piece The Thorn and the Waters is still on it). What really intrigued me, though, was his deep and growing interest in Palestine. He’s been heavily involved with the Hope Flowers School in Bethlehem since 2003, and now spends lots of time in Bethlehem. To the extent to which he had to give up Glastonbury. “Palestine and Glastonbury are both very intense places and something had to shift – I couldn’t live in both.” He left town a couple of months after the walk.
Palestine’s been a big and growing thing with me too. I have helped to build up a strong and active group in my town, and Palden was our very first speaker. He has an interesting idea about the Israeli separation wall as “a line across reality”. For a century Britain has played this grim, duplicitous role in Palestine. Our leaders don huge blinkers, lie through their teeth, pretend that what is happening isn’t happening. I think that we have unfinished business there. A responsibility to create the right sort of reality, and in the process find some moral compass for our own country too. Bringing peace to Palestine will draw a poisonous thorn from the lion’s paw. It’s a huge and probably impossible mission, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not worth doing.
We walked quite well together. He’s got strong opinions but he’s also a good listener, which is a fine combination. As a fount of local knowledge, I let Palden choose the route. We went across the Levels to Godney: I like this landscape of run-down smallholdings and little roads, and odd great lumps of geology poking up of which the Tor of course is paramount, appearing and disappearing. We stopped now and then for a swig from his thermos, and spent about a half an hour on the Lake Village site; a triangle of gruffy ground, gruffy from the exemplary excavations of Arthur Bulleid a hundred years ago, which unearthed an iron-age settlement of international fame.
A lot of what is claimed for Glastonbury’s prehistoric past is incapable of proof, so on the face of it the Lake Village is a bit of wonderfully Real archaeology. Based on stuff, dug out of the ground. It’s all there. Tangible. And since Bulleid and his co-digger Gray were scrupulous recorders of what they found, the Lake Village became a text-book example of good archaeological practice. Over the years a lot of influential theories about Iron Age life were developed based on this data. But then along came John Barrett in 1987, who reappraised the theories built on Bulleid’s data and concluded that even such conscientiously objective work as his was riddled with subjective assumptions. Data without interpretation has no meaning. All data collection has to be understood in its own historical context, including the agendas and technologies of archaeologists and the zeitgeist that produced them: “Objectivity is not a matter of ‘unbiased’ observation, rather it is concerned with the self-critical evaluation of the way observations are collected and used to construct an understanding of the past”. All wonderfully liberating stuff to come across when I went to study archaeology at Lampeter as a mature student, like finding a grammar for my own language. I went there expecting to be taught the Truth about antiquity – what I learnt is that there is no truth beyond the present. The past is constantly being made up & turned over like soil beneath the plough, and you never get quite the same crop twice.
I was getting more and more nervous as we walked the last mile into town since Morgana had promised me some kind of reception. She’s an interesting soul, a kind of fairy godmother to this whole walk since without her I would probably neither have done it nor ever have got around to writing it up. She has a penchant for purple velvet but is also very down to earth and practical, a good and gifted organiser, and – o rarity amongst New Agers – very willing to reach out to people of other faiths, including Christians. She’s keen on building bridges with the town’s traditional community, and set up a thing called ‘Glastonbury: Unity through Diversity’ in tandem with councillor Bill Knight, whose family has been running the town’s main fish and chip shop since 1909: now that’s diversity. “Building bridges between diverse beliefs is essential if we want to live in a community that has great social cohesion”, says Morgy. “It doesn’t have to mean we have to all become one homogenised blob, but it can mean that we can respect each other, even if we don’t agree.”
We crossed the roundabout at the end of Northload Street, and the man from BBC Somerset appeared; he was quite engaging – “it’s good to see someone have a really mad idea and then carry it out’ – and began the interview as we walked down the street. From out of a pub doorway Herself emerged, Mission Control, ambushing me with soft blandishments; so there were now four of us as we turned the corner into the High Street, and just up past the George and Pilgrim we were accosted by the Town Cryer, no less, Graham Coles, now sadly deceased, clad in pea-green livery and there to Oyez me into town in a voice that you could have heard on the Tor, with hand-bell to match. A splendidly eighteenth-century kind of greeting.
A local TV crew appeared, and there were loads of people waiting in the churchyard at St John’s to watch the Vicar, David MacGeoch, cut me a clip of blossom from their own thorn-tree. But best of all was the song that Emily Portman had composed and sang for the occasion. She’s now quite famous, ‘one of the new British folk scene’s most beguiling presences’ according to Uncut. “Dark, dark is the considerable beauty of Emily Portman’s work” (fROOTS), but this was a light little song, knocked up in ten minutes as she told me, “proper broadside style”, and thanks to her the stroller and I have become twin lumps of folklore:
There was a man of Wakefield town
John Jackson was his name
Who journeyed to see if the thorn would flower
Two hundred miles he came
To see the flowering thorn at last
All on a Christmas morn
Surely we sing of no better thing
than our winter flowering thorn
Now we welcome Adam Stout
All on this midwinter morn
He’s walked by mud and over mire
to see our holy thorn
To see the flowering thorn at last
All on a Christmas morn
Surely we sing of no better thing
than our winter flowering thorn
It was all wonderful, joyful and more than a bit overwhelming, and in the end I was quite pleased to slip off home for pampering, spinach pie and a Christmas which we celebrated on Boxing Day. But although that was the walking bit done, the Walk with a W didn’t stop on Christmas Eve. Festivities over, I went into a flurry of transcription, turning random recorded mutterings and notes on scraps of paper and backs of maps into words on a screen, and within a few days instead of the proverbial blank page I had well over a hundred pages to edit, yippee! Like a sculptor with a goodish block of stone to work with, call it cheating or writing by numbers, I don’t care. For me it works.
A lot of things became clearer when I started writing. About how something was re-born in me, some faith in humanity that slipped when I stopped hitching so much, when hitching stopped being easy. All those kindly people who gave me so much support; all those folk who invited a stranger into their homes to stay overnight and generally fed him very well indeed: warm blows from the heart in the War Against Trust. About charming the land, and the importance of walking everywhere, including the unloved and the unsung places. Breaking down the barriers, getting past the artificial lines that we lay out on the landscape – Thou Shalt Work Here, Thou Shalt Play Here, Thou Shalt Walk Here, Thou Shalt Shop Here, Here and Here, Thou Shalt Live Here.
There were challenges, like over-researching. When it comes to history, I’m an information junky. There’s always more. I’ve killed quite a few research projects stone dead by not knowing when to stop. The challenge was not about being thorough but about not being thorough. Trying to keep it light and interesting. Writing it up not down. Taking the cussedness out, or some of it. And then there was the race against time, or more precisely the spring. Writing about December in January is wrong, and in February it’s criminal. I found myself growling at daffodils and blue skies, keen to keep that winter feeling going for as long as possible. But eventually the flowers got to me, and other things crept in and stole my time, and the project languished a quarter-finished for seven long years until two things happened almost at simultaneously to stir me into action – a pointed reminder from Morgy, and Stewart Harding’s serialisation of his own Long Walk to Glastonbury back in 1973, which gave me the impetus and the magic formula, to write it up one day at a time and put it up online for folk to comment on, and give me reason to stick at it.
Looking at the photos from that day in the churchyard, it’s clear from all those shiny eyes and bemused smiles that there was a lot of Feelgood Factor going on then too. Mine was a heartening Christmas Eve good-news-story, some daft bloke who’d walked across the country to see a thorn-bush blossom. But what everyone missed in all those photo-ops was that by rights it shouldn’t have been in bloom at all. God had bowed to the earl of Chesterfield and his modernisers, and allowed the Glastonbury Thorn to flower on New Christmas Eve. The Almighty’s moved with the times.
How was it in 1755? John Jackson, tellingly, didn’t rush over to Glastonbury himself on New Christmas Day, just in case perhaps. Instead he spent the day at Widow Winter’s in East Wells, tut-tutting at the pharisee in the Cathedral. He left at about noon on the next day, the New St. Stephens Day … over wet lanes and comons, and Hartly Bridge, and twixt Hartly Bridge and Glaston I was sunk so deep in the mire and clay holden fast by my left leg that I almost despaired of any getting out again without help, however at last with hard strugling I got out…
An ominous arrival indeed, with the Tor then fully in his sights (Hartlake Bridge is at the edge of the modern town). A test, like Christian’s ensnarement in Doubting Castle on route for the Delectable Mountains? When he finally got into town the stroller was directed for lodging, to Widow Summers, in Nilot Street, a good civill religious old woman ; and here I rested well, and without disturbance for there was no lodgers, but I, nor any family but herself, and a young woman. (Widow Winter in Wells, Widow Summers in Glastonbury? Either that’s coincidence, or else these names are made up, though if so then it’s for reasons I do not ken).
Next day he went sight-seeing, in search of what curiosities I could find; to the Tor, recently restored, famous as the place where the last Abbot of Glastonbury had been hanged on Henry VIII’s orders, but Jackson didn’t mention that. In the afternoon he went to Weary-All Hill, where the Thorn had grown until it was cut down by Puritan fanatics in the Civil War. All that was left on the hilltop now was an old useless scandalous windmill with 2 broken sails and nothing else, ‘scandalous’ presumably because this prosaic and not even workaday building was standing on sacred land. In a field beneath the hill I found a young man graving [digging] and gathering red potatoes I stood and talked a good while with him and he told me where the Holy thorn did grow, and pointed to the place, but said it was above 50 years since it was seen there and I heard afterward that the owner of the ground had ridded it from the place to avoid the strangers coming to see it. And that afterward nothing prosper’d but all he had went to ruin and he died a begar.
An interesting twist to the story! But this wasn’t enough for Jackson. He needed to see the place, the very place, where Joseph had thrust his staff into the soil all those years ago. The place of the Miracle. Another young man took him to the exact spot, a square place just like as if there had been a little garden, and in the midst of it a little hole not a foot deep and about the wideness of a little hat’s crown and there the young man said the old thorn stood but now it is at yonder house, and pointed to Mr Buxton’s house, which is vulgarly called Esquire Stroud’s great Farm House, I asked the young man his name and he told me that his name was John Willis and that he lived at Street and so I thanked him and we parted …. at Mr. Buxton’s (that is Esquire Stroud’s great Farmhouse) I saw the richest Fold of Manure that ever my eyes beheld I went and desired to see their Thorn and the Mistris sent an old man with me into the garden, and he bid me climb into it, and I did and got two or three of its twigs and came away and went into the house and thanked gentlewoman and she gave me Bread and Cheess and Small Beer
– for which he seems grateful enough, though I think that there is sarcasm and quiet anger in this account in which windmills, spuds and dunghills are mentioned in the same breath as the God-sent Holy Thorn.
The next day, being Sunday, he went to the Chaingate spout below the Abbey to drink of the water that had cured Matthew Chancellor; and then he went to Morning Service at St Benedict’s, and came face to face with the vicar of Glastonbury whose denial of the Thorn’s miraculous properties had brought Jackson here in the first place. After the service the Minister came to me and gave me a 6 pence of silver and I said Sir but this is not all I want of you. He looked earnestly at me a while ; but spake not. So I told him the place I come from is called Woodkirk, 3 miles N. W. from Wakefield in the West-riding of Yorkshire where great disputes had been about the Holy thorn and some contended for it, and others against it, and I resolved to venture life and limb to find the truth of it, and how some did perswade, and others did encourage me to come, and others had given me money. Both Gentry and Clergy. But some had been ready to say I would never come there but go and tarry a while some where from home and come back and say I had been there and now Sir I desire you’l give me a line or 2 from under your hand to testifie that I was here this day. And so he bid me follow him home which I did, to his house which stands in the High Street, on the left hand as we go up to Catton Street [now Lambrook St] He went into his study and I with him it was a handsom well furnish’d room, and handsom library neatly set up. And he wrote a short testimoniall and gave it me. I thanked him, and went down to Mrs. Sumers, [and] got something to my dinner.
That’s feeble, Jackson! When push came to shove, were you a bit intimidated by this fine minister, with his handsome library? (Which a spot of sleuthing suggests was the medieval building now known as the Tribunal; today it houses the Tourist Information Centre and the Lake Village Museum).
The Diary itself now blossoms into a full-blown tour-guide, with lots of juicy topographical observation, chunks of antiquarian text, and a great deal of understated, implicit criticism of this crude country town that failed to venerate its sacred legacy. There was the ruined abbey, whose condition was already the object of much scathing commentary amongst visitors, and was then tenanted by a rustical sowr and surly fellow who, Jackson was told, if he had seen me he would not let me see about me there. The town’s two churches weren’t much better, St John’s, so crowded … that its prospect is lost, behind the buildings, and St. Benedict’s, hard to get to it for a great deal of muck and mire. The town had twenty pubs, he tells us, one Apothecary Shop and one Excise Office, but no Stationer Shop, nor Post Office. And as I am informed one man in the town keeps 50 Cows and makes 50 Hogsheads of Sider every year. It was rustic, rough and ready, and Jackson got quickly bored. With several days still to kill, he went back to Wells, where an old man recommended that he should go to Axbridge, twelve miles to the west.
And off he went. After all those weeks of slow and painful walking across the mud of middle England this excursion is eyebrow-raising. Avalon was clearly not such a Beulah that he wanted to hang around; or perhaps, stroller that he was, he just could not settle? He went via Cheddar, and stayed at the George and Dragon, where he was so well and civilly used and treated with strong drink and cydar, &c., that he stayed there again on the way back, where John Tippets’ son took him home and gave him good cydar, and Cheddar Cheese and fine Bread. A fine combination there, John.
He got back to Glaston on Old Christmas Eve, and since there was no room for him at the inn of Widow Summers he stayed with Widow Bartlet at the Seven Stars. And then, at last, the moment we’ve all been waiting for.
Old Christmas Day that year began cold, wet and windy. I was for going to Esquire Stroud’s great Farmhouse to view the Holy Thorn in blossom but Mrs. Bartlett my hostess said it was needless for the same was to be seen at the far end of the street at Mr. Downey’s, and I heard ’em say that it begain to put out between 2 and 3 o’clock in the morning so I went to Mr. Downey’s and Mrs. Downey went with me into the orchard or garden I know not which and there it stands amongst the large appletrees it is a large tall tree and the body bole or trunk of the tree is as thick as a man’s body or thereabout. I got a small twig of it as it was partly in bud and hardly in blossom. At noon he went back to the Chaingate, where William Ralls civilly gave me some Chaingate blossom of that Thorn and sent a young man with me to shew me the Holy Thorn there. It stands in an orchard at the backside of the Chaingate water on a rising ground in the North-west corner of the Abbey grounds and like Mr. Downey’s Thorn I got a twig of it in unopened blossom.
Not quite the spectacular opening of the flower that he might have hoped for, but better late than early. At least it hadn’t budded on the newfangled day. That evening he had a chat with his landlady, Mrs Bartlet. I enquired whether the thorn did ever bud or blossom on the New Christmas Day, and they angrily answered me nay nor never will, and I understand though not like the Newstile yet they say that we must not go to rebell against the Government, and no Divine Service was read yet most of the day the bells rung as hard as they could at St. John’s Church.
Those wonderful unruly bell-ringers, guardians of traditional and customary values. The clergy had few rights over the belfry, or the activities of the bell-ringers, who could make as much of a racket as they wanted, whenever they wanted, to celebrate whatever event they felt like celebrating, to communicate important community information, like the start of gleaning after the harvest, or to rally people to resist an encroachment on a customary right. It was said that the crowds who’d gathered to defy the keepers in the Forest of Needwood that year were “gathered by the tolling of Barton church bell”. Glastonbury’s ringers had a reputation for being “a troublesome sort of men”, who would ring the peal for a visitor – for a fee, and would let him know in no uncertain terms if that fee wasn’t large enough. When the unpopular Francis Blake was elected Mayor in 1737, the bell-ringers ostentatiously refused to ring him in, instead saving their thunderous pealings for a wedding. And here in Glastonbury on Old Christmas Day they confirmed the old calendar resoundingly.
Next day Jackson went to see the Mayor and he gave me a pass signed and seled with the Corpration Seal i.e. Mitre and Crosier, a necessary preparation for the journey home. He packed away some twigs of the Holy Thorn full of buds, and some also in blossom in two vials full of Chaingate water, also several fragments of stone from the venerable ruins of Glastenbury Abbey, and Widow Bartlet gave him some Sweet Leek seeds. He waded out past Hartlake Bridge to Wells, and there on Childermass, Old Childrens Mass Day, he watched a toymaker confirm the traditional calendar by making China Toys for the gentry. He then made a whistlestop and rather pointless visit to Bath, in which he chiefly deplored the fact that the Abbey is made like a parish Church no choristers chanting but blue coat boys singing there, and as for the town I had but a slight view of it and so can say but very little of it only this that there is a fine bridge, and the town stands very like Halifax but twice the bigness of it. Twice as large as Halifax! Now there’s a claim to fame. He rejoined his old route at Bristol, and thereafter more or less retraced his footsteps all the way back to Yorkshire. He finally reached home on February 14, made a fire and lay in the Cabbin, and five days later he finally filld up the Diary. And here ends the story of my long and tedious and troublesome Glastenbury Journey.
Jackson added a preface, a thunderous and prophetic Introduction, in which he declared that the Christmas flowering thorn was truly supernatural. Miracles I find have not ceased, and indeed I think our preservation and that of the whole Creation is the greatest miracle of all, considering our present situation, in the midst of sinking nations ; and the wars of elements in the bowels of the earth; and thundring threatenings of a proud and ambitious tyrant, who now spits fire at us ; and is now making chains for us.
Is not our blooming state of prosperity a Divine miracle ?
The Island we live in is only a little Garden upon the Brittish Rock.
0! How wonderful a miracle is our present existence. I pray God to make us truly thankful for all his mercies
The bloody field the vacant stall,
Have cry’d aloud repent.
Diseases too repeat the call
On the same errand sent.
But earthquakes still speak louder yet
And shake our guilty shore
The fools that slumber near the pitt
Wake now or wake no more ;
When M and D and double CC,
LU and double II
Do mark the year I greatly fear
Strange alteration’s nigh.
The ‘sinking nations’ bit is a reference to the Lisbon earthquake of November 1755; the ‘proud and ambitious tyrant’ is the King of France (of course), and the ‘blooming state of prosperity’ an allusion to Britain’s great run of luck in the Seven Years War. Nonetheless the land was ‘guilty’, full of sinners oblivious to their fate. Pride comes before a fall. What inspired this outburst? There is nothing so specific in the Diary itself. News of the Lisbon earthquake reached London by November 10 (21st, old style), and spread like wildfire through the provinces, yet even though this newshound was meeting all kinds of people on his journey he saw no reason to mention it. Was it something someone said when he got back and was discussing the implications of his remarkable journey with his many friends in Yorkshire?
1757 came and went without strange alteration of any major kind. Jackson lived for another eight years, during which time he must have been sorely tempted to delete those over-confident lines. Maybe strange alteration’s nigher now, but I won’t put a date on it and I hope that I’m as wrong as Jackson. Dystopia’s too easy.
After his death, the Diary somehow or other came into the possession of William Mason, rector of Aston, south of Rotherham, and a well-known poet in his day. It was eventually transcribed by a Derbyshire cleric, the Rev Gerard Smith, and published in 1874/5 in a local antiquarian magazine called The Reliquary. And thereafter the manuscript disappears from view. I’d give a lot to know what happened to it. Gerard Smith’s transcript feels both authentic and complete, but there are one or two small but definite typographical errors which show that he wasn’t infallible, and unless the thing turns up we’ll never know how much the diary was tampered with or altered, by Jackson himself, by Mason, by persons unknown.
There was a small flurry of local interest in Jackson’s journey in the decade or so after it was published, but it was then forgotten for well over a century until Christopher Reid, now Professor of Rhetoric at Queen Mary College (there’s a job!), came across it in the British Library and read it, as he says, “with great excitement”. He wrote a paper which I first read in early 2007: within days a photocopy of Smith’s transcript arrived on my doormat, sent by my friend the folklorist Jeremy Harte who thought that I might like it. By complete coincidence, if there is such a thing. Personally I call it synchronicity. Two hints like that compelled me to read the Diary properly, and to get excited about it. Just as two hints this summer, from Morgana and from Stewart, goaded me into finally settling down to write this up. There’s pattern in the universe yet.
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