Watching the water

Were I fifty years younger, I would find constant fascination in government websites. A recent discovery has been the Flood Information Service which this evening carries the following warning for the Langport area:

Flooding is possible – be prepared

The River Tone level at Currymoor pumping station is 7.48 m and is stable. Water will enter Currymoor reservoir via Hookbridge spillway whilst this level exceeds 7.45 m. The drain level at Currymoor pumping station is 5.31 m and is rising. There is a risk of water overtopping Haymoor flood storage area and affecting Curload and Stan Moor if this level reaches 8.30 m. Pumping is taking place at Saltmoor and Northmoor pumping stations. Generally dry conditions with some isolated showers are forecast for Sunday and Monday. The River Tone at Currymoor is forecast to remain stable but may respond to further rainfall. The River Parrett at Langport Westover pumping station is forecast to remain stable as a result but may respond to further rainfall. We are closely monitoring the situation. This message will be updated Sunday evening 15/12/19.

Fifty years ago, the pumping stations included in the warning seemed like battleships in hostile waters, protecting the farms and the villages against the rising floods. They seemed always there; although a second thought about the buildings would have told even someone who knew nothing of architecture or engineering that they were recent arrivals on the scene. A government website says they were built in the 1960s and that there are twenty-one pumping stations in Somerset. Prosaic in appearance, the grey concrete and steel adding to the childhood impression of their being like naval vessels, they possessed a sense of mystery for someone who would rarely pass a day without seeing one of them.

The pumping stations seemed always to be isolated, probably a not unreasonable impression. Even the one at Westover, on the edge of the town of Langport, seems to stand at a remove, as though it were keeping a respectful distance from the other buildings of the town. Of course, given that its work is flood prevention, it is hardly likely anyone would have built on the hinterland of a station; were there a pumping station at the end of a street, the street would be in the wrong place.

The pumping stations seemed to capture the spirit of the place. Like buildings on a seashore, they stood at the margins of dry land and water. The Somerset Levels are lands claimed by hard work; they are flatlands that were once bog and marsh, expanses of wetness, tracts of water. They are still summer lands from which herds might be withdrawn when the winter rainfall comes. Like the childishly-imagined battleships that were guarding a coast, the pumping stations represent a battle to hold on to the land dear to those who work it. Farming on the Levels is very different from that in many places; it is always marginal and always demanding.

The pumping stations declare that the Levels will not be taken.

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Childish fear

Returning from an evening visit to Musgrove Park Hospital, the landscape along the road from Othery to Aller was no more than dark shadow. Suddenly a flash of whiteness crossed the way ahead, an owl gliding over the Sedgemoor lowland in search of prey. “The call of the dead,” I would have been told when I was a child.

Such childhood memories can be frightening.  Growing up amid tales of superstitions is disturbing when those tales seem literally true and where there was neither discussion that might rationalize, nor faith that might expel, such fears.

Stories like that of white owls being the call of the dead induced a terror of something as ordinary as catching sight of a barn owl on autumn evenings.

Claims that there were ghosts, even in our council house built in 1926, prompted me to sleep with the blanket pulled up over my head, lest a ghost come into the room and find me.

Worst of all, wild rumours of UFOs prompted an avoidance of looking up into the night sky.

Chaim Potok’s “My Name is Asher Lev” captures in a paragraph the intensity of childhood feeling:

“He came to me that night out of the woods, my mythic ancestor, huge, mountainous, dressed in his dark caftan and fur-trimmed cap, pounding his way through the trees on his Russian master’s estate, the earth shaking, the mountains quiver­ing, thunder in his voice. I could not hear what he said. I woke in dread and lay very still, listening to the darkness. I needed to go to the bathroom but I was afraid to leave the bed. I moved down beneath the blanket and slept and then, as if my moment awake had been an intermission between acts of an authored. play, saw him again plowing toward me through giant cedars. I woke and went to the bathroom. I stood in the bathroom, shiver­ing. I did not want to go back to my bed. I stood listening to the night, then went through the hallway to the living room. It was dark and hushed and I could hear the sounds of night traffic through the window. I opened the slats of the Venetian blind and peered between them at the street below. It was a clear night. I could not see the moon, but a clear cold blue-white light lay like a ghostly sheen over the parkway and cast the shadows of buildings and trees across the sidewalks. I saw a man walking beneath the trees. He was a man of medium height with a dark beard, a dark coat, and an ordinary dark hat. I saw him walking in the shadows of the trees. Then I did not see him. Then I saw him again, walking slowly beneath the trees. Then he was gone again and I did not know if I was seeing him or not, if I had been asleep before and was awake now, or if I had been awake before and was dreaming now.   Then I saw him again, walking slowly, alone; then he entered, a shadow and was gone. I do not remember going back to bed. I only remember waking in the morning and staring up at the white ceiling of my room and feeling light and disembodied, as if I were floating on the shadows cast by dark trees beneath a moon.”

Asher Lev and the flight of an owl would be enough to send a boy into hiding under the bedclothes.

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Crossing the green

Driving through the village on 30th November, there was no need of a calendar to recall Saint Andrew.  The village green is laid out in the saltire pattern of the flag of Saint Andrew, the patron of our parish church. The green is crossed by the nearest thing we have to a main road, though even if does not manage the status of a ‘B’ designation. When I was young, the level of traffic was sufficiently light to allow racing my bicycle around the corner without fear of collision.

In the bicycling years, I might have named the families living in every house in High Ham; well, in the ordinary houses anyway, it was hard to know the people in the big houses, they had little interest in schoolboys on bicycles. Little seemed to change, though it, of course, did; it was just that when you are a child, time lasts very much longer.

There was nothing remarkable about our area of Somerset. With the exception of Glastonbury, now world famous for its pop festival, few people would have heard of most of the places. “Undulating lowland”, the geography teacher called it. Some of the undulations were steeper than the picture of gentle rises and falls might suggest, particularly when pushing a bike up them, but it was a fair description. Much of the countryside around had been under water until the reclaiming of the levels; the county’s name derives from the fact that it literally was “summer lands”, in the winter the pastures disappeared.

No-one famous had ever come from our village; no-one famous had lived in our village; being honest, it was hard to think of anything significant that had ever happened there. If somewhere could have been noteworthy for nothing ever having happened, then we would be well-known.

Travelling through the village, were it not for cars along the roadside, the time could have been any in the last thirty years. “Unchanging” hardly expresses the continuity of the place.

Perhaps it’s being unchanging, unremarkable, undulating, that gives somewhere an English quality. These are the people who go to work every day, paying the taxes that allow the Government its adventures; these are the custodians of the landscape that is passed from generation to generation. It is these small, anonymous, and unremarkable places that provided the soldiers for generations of wars.

The village, and its innumerable counterparts across the shires, provide Chesterton’s people of England (though even Chesterton would have been viewed with suspicion in our village). Unmoved in generations, it is their capacity to cope with every circumstance that allowed the most stable political regime in the world – a country not invaded in nine hundred years, a country without a revolution in more than three hundred.

Passing through the village, there is a sense that those who have retained intact so much of the past are a people not be underestimated.

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Bingo nights

Driving through the village of Aller this afternoon, a sign at the roadside announced that the Christmas bingo at Middlezoy would be on 7th December. I wondered if they still held the Christmas bingo in Burrowbridge.

I remember going to such a Christmas bingo. Our journey down to Burrowbridge was slow. The headlights lit up the steep banks on either side of Turn Hill  There were coloured lights on the dashboard of our old Austin Cambridge; the only light that was easy to understand was the blue light that told you whether your headlights were on full beam.  The hill has a hairpin bend, we probably drove down at no more than 20 mph.

It was 4.40 and we were going out for our tea before going to the Christmas bingo at Burrowbridge village hall. No memories of the tea remain, but the bingo night remains vivid. There were lines of wooden folding chairs with an aisle up the middle and on the stage one of those machines that blew ping pong balls around in a rectangular glass box. There was an opening in the top through which the caller would push his hand to take out the numbered balls.

The men running the bingo (they were all men) were big countrymen. Solemn as undertakers, they all dressed in suits and conducted the whole evening with a great deal of gravitas, as though levity might in some way call into account their integrity. A book to play the ten bingo games cost twelve and a half pence. Everyone would have bought tickets for the raffle as well. Each game came in two parts – there was a prize for the first person who completed whatever line they might call out – top middle or bottom – and then a bigger prize for the first person to complete the card.

The prizes were brilliant, there were turkeys and hampers and bottles of sherry and boxes of chocolates. It was no wonder that the hall was filled to capacity and the overflow sat in the kitchen where the serving hatch was open so that people could hear the numbers.

The air was electric as each game approached its conclusion. To be able to shout “house” seemed to generate as much delight for a winner as they would have felt if they were lifting the FA Cup. There would have been a huge wave of conversation as the winner’s card was taken to the front to be checked. Once a person had made a false call, a number had been misheard; beetroot would not have described her colour.

We were rustic and unsophisticated and easily pleased, but no night in the West End, no dinner at the Ritz, no dancing to an orchestra, could have matched the excitement of bingo in Burrowbridge village hall. Passing through Othery, on the chill November air, there seemed the voice of the caller, “Downing Street Number Ten.”

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Sports past

The nephews’ rugby club ties lay ready for the Sunday morning match. Now playing at junior level, they must change into collar and tie after the match and conduct themselves in a mannerly way.

Fifty years ago, there would have been no opportunity for most local boys to have played rugby, nor would there have been any accessible facilities at which to play. Instead, many hours were passed playing football with a heavy leather ball in a field along our road. Some of us had boots, but none of us had kit, no shirts or shorts, certainly nothing with the logo of an expensive sports equipment company. Games were played in old clothes, jeans and shirts. Jumpers were removed, for at least four were needed to provide goalposts.

Fine evenings were times for games that frequently generated disagreement and sometimes raised voices, but rarely a result. It was a simple matter for the losing side to plead that ninety minutes had not been played and the match would be abandoned rather than concluded.

Cricket was played less frequently, usually only in the summer holidays: only one family had the necessary equipment. It was not a full cricket set, that would have demanded two bats, six stumps and four bails, instead it was a set with a single bat and four stumps. There may have originally been bails, but these were easily enough fabricated with twigs from the hedge. There was one wicket at which to bowl and one bat with which to play. The fourth stump provided the point to which the batsman should run and the approximate point from which balls should be bowled. There were never enough players to have two teams, (unlike football where four players allowed for a match), instead turns were taken at batting, people trying for the highest individual score. Mercifully, no-one could have afforded a leather cricket ball, otherwise the lack of pads and gloves, combined with the uneven bounce from the surface of a field grazed by dairy cattle, might have led to painful injuries. The game was played with a tennis ball which possessed none of the qualities of a cricket ball and which allowed a good batsman to remain at the wicket all evening, swiping the ball in all directions.

Female company was rare on those distant evenings. Entirely absent from the games of football, they might occasionally have joined a game of cricket. Of course, the day came when they became a greater attraction and evenings were no longer spent in sporting effort.

Looking at the kit bags ready to be taken to the match, kicking a football in a dairy pasture seemed something from Victorian times.

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