An ascetic life

The village name means “the big island,” looking at a BBC aerial photograph of the village in the winter of 2014, a picture showing the village surrounded by flood water that isolated it for five weeks, it is not hard imagine what Muchelney may have been like in former centuries.

The abbey at Muchelney dates from Saxon times, established during the time of Ethelred. Perhaps the inaccessible location was part of the motivation for the choice of location, perhaps a place cut off for weeks and months of the year corresponded to the ascetic ideal of those aspiring to a monastic life.

The abbey at Muchelney never grew to become a significant house, at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries in 1538, there were just ten monks at the abbey, even at its height there were no more than twenty. Perhaps the dampness of the location and the smallness of the community made the abbey an unattractive place to be, when there was majestic abbey at Glastonbury to attract novices, who would wish to join the religious community at Muchelney?

The monks of Muchelney seem to have compensated for the smallness of their numbers by creating a house that was not lacking in comforts. The British History Online website tells of a visitation of the monastery that found living conditions well removed from the monastic ideal:

In 1335, Bishop Ralph of Shrewsbury wrote to the abbot concerning the comperta, the things discovered, at a recent visitation of his. He says he found the monks living in luxury and enjoying private privileges which were quite unauthorized. They were not content with the simple cubicles in the dormitory but had made themselves larger beds in the form of tabernacles, which were too ornate and richly covered. They were in the habit of leaving the convent without permission and rode on horseback through the country, and some were wont to take their meals in private and not as they should, in common with the others in the refectory. Secular men, women and girls were allowed in the cloister area. In the refectory the utensils were far too costly and good for the simple life that should be lived there. All this was to be corrected by the festival of St. Michael. He forbade the monks to leave the precincts of the abbey unless they had obtained the abbot’s permission, and if the abbot was absent, they must obtain the licence of the prior, and this licence was only to be granted for very good reasons.

Compared with the realities of daily life for most people in the Fourteenth Century, being at Muchelney seems not to have been a bad choice to have made.

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Batten down the hatches

At the end of each summer, my mother would say, “it’s time to batten down the hatches.” Battening down the hatches meant putting away everything that was not needed over the winter months and firmly securing everything that might be shifted by a gale.

None of us was ever sure why we talked as though we were at sea, the nearest port was at least forty miles away, but we understood the need for a very firm battening down. Everything needed to be packed away; doors needed to be securely locked; windows closed against draughts; nothing should be left exposed. The arrival of the season against which we guarded was announced by a mournful whining of the wind through the electricity cables that passed by on the other side of the road.

Once, while my father had been working at the air station at Lossiemouth in northern Scotland, it had been our community in Somerset, six hundred miles south, that had been hit by a severe storm.

Our garage was an asbestos structure set on a concrete foundation, secure on summer days but uncertain in winter. As the storm arrived and the wind built up, the entire garage began to lift from the ground. If it took off, or even turned over, the asbestos walls would be broken and everything inside would be exposed to the elements. I was sent to fetch Mr Croot, a mountain of a man of prodigious streng, who would know what to do. He drove quickly up from his house, bringing with him lengths of webbing and long steel spikes. The spikes were driven into the ground either side of the garage and the webbing was passed backward and forward over the roof. Mr Croot’s rescue equipment remained in place until the following spring, when the garage was much more securely concreted down.

Had we shown any reluctance to participate in the activity of battening down, my mother would say, “do you remember the time the garage took off?” Of course we did, how could we have forgotten it?

Perhaps, if we searched through the meteorological records, we could locate the date of the storm, perhaps it was not as severe as we remembered, but gusted along our road at speed because we lived on an open hillside. Whatever the historical facts regarding the storm, it left a fear of the coming of autumn for years afterwards, a sense of vulnerability.

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Story times

Asked to sit and read quietly, most Year 7 students will take out the same reading book they have had for weeks, or simply sit and stare into nothingness: reading does not seem to capture the imagination. Perhaps there is a need to read to them

The best times at primary school were those when the teacher would tell us to put away our books and to sit quietly and listen. In infant days at Long Sutton Primary School, there would be a rest time after the daily school dinner. Individual jute mats were handed out and the class was expected to lie quietly and listen to the radio. Perhaps it was the BBC Home Service’s “Listen with Mother” programme that provided the daily fare for the silent five and six year olds, perhaps it was one of the BBC schools programmes. Storytelling became associated with quiet attentiveness.

Throughout the primary school years, listening to stories was part of the educational experience. The final term at High Ham Primary School was spent with a new teacher, Mr Britten, the long-serving Miss Rabbage having retired at Easter. Perhaps it was the novelty of a new teacher with his new car and new ways that made the moments memorable, but forty-seven years later it is still possible to remember the book he would read to the class at the end of each school day, a tale of a sheepdog on Dartmoor, “Bran of the Moor.” The final days of hearing a story read came in the first year at Elmhurst Grammar School in Street, Miss Stanley would read pages from “Dr Syn,” Russell Thorndike’s tale of smuggling on Romney Marsh.

In the years that followed, BBC Radio 4 was the only place to which one might turn if one enjoyed stories being read. At least twice a day, there would be a chance to hear someone reading from a book. The BBC managers responsible for programme schedules knew that the spoken story still had a power to hold a listener in the way that no other programme might.

What is it about stories that makes them compelling, even stories with neither introduction nor conclusion? Perhaps the person telling the story is important, but perhaps more important is the story itself. Perhaps stories hold us because we can stand inside them, we can identify with the experience being described; perhaps stories hold us because something of them is inside of us, the feelings felt by the characters are the feelings we would feel ourselves. Perhaps discovering the power of stories would make the students into readers.

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By boat to Ilchester

“Bradshaw’s Canals and Navigable Rivers of England and Wales” handbook was an attempt at reviving the fortunes of canals at a time when they had long been superseded by the railways, even the ownership of many of the canals lay in the hands of railway companies.

Sinking into its pages on an autumn evening , the local and the personal are the things that capture the imagination. Bradshaw’s canal handbook probably describes one or more waterways with which most of its readers would be familiar. The handbook gives substance to family stories of my great grandfather, or perhaps it was a great, great grandfather, transporting goods from Bridgwater to our home town of Langport by barge. What was startling was the discovery that landscapes and villages that were familiar places in childhood days once saw the coming and going of barges.

The River Parrett  was a commercial thoroughfare, albeit one that was in decline. Bradshaw’s notes,

The river commences to be navigable at the bridge which carries the main road between Langport and South Petherton over the river at Thorney Mills, near Langport, and proceeds by Langport, Borough Bridge, Bridgwater, Dunball, Combwich, Stert Point, and Burnham to Bridgwater Bar, where it enters Bridgwater Bay at low water, all in the county of Somersetshire.

Langport enjoyed the services of two railway stations in 1904 and water borne traffic had become rare. According to Bradshaw’s,

Above Bridgwater there is good trade at all times to the various brick works situated within the first two miles of the river beyond the town, but beyond this trade is extremely small. Barges can only navigate to Langport on Spring tides, and between Langport and Thorney Mills when there is a fair amount of land water coming down the river.

The distance table for the Parrett revealed things not even told in family stories. Six furlongs from Thorney Mills was the junction with the Westport Canal, the waters of which we must have crossed many times, though it had closed in the 1870s. Two miles and two furlongs later there was the junction with the River Yeo, a river crossed countless times without there ever being a thought that once it had been navigable. Bradshaw’s describes it,

The navigation of the river may be said to commence at Ilchester, whence it proceeds by Little Load and Pidsbury to a junction with the River Parrett, about three-quarters-of-a-mile above Langport, all in the county of Somersetshire.

There is scarcely any trade done on the river: a barge occasionally navigates from the River Parrett as far as Pidsbury or Little Load, but nothing has been beyond for some years.

Passing through Ilchester last Friday, the road narrows where it crosses the Yeo, but there is nothing that might cause one to imagine that goods had once travelled from there to the sea. A whole realm of industrial archaeology and economic history was on our doorsteps, and we never knew.

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No need for a map

There wasn’t really a need to put the name of the Italian restaurant into Google Maps. It is in Ilchester and it would be possible to drive to Ilchester from here on a dark, foggy night with the headlights turned off: Field Road, Culver Hill, Fir Pits, Tengore, Long Sutton, Catsgore, Red Post, Ilchester. The journey is one that was made many times.

Oddly, before the advent of digital technology, Ilchester might have been reached in a variety of ways. Different routes may have been taken to Long Sutton, or Long Sutton may have been avoided in favour of travelling via Somerton. Routes were learned and remembered and journeys were a matter of inclination.

There was a road atlas in the house, it was some years old, but that presented no problems, towns and villages did not change position; only the arrival of the M5 motorway prompted a the purchase of new maps for Somerset and Devon. There was the annual AA members’ handbook, but its maps lacked the detail required for our rural road network.

It is hard to remember occasions when there was a need to use a road map. The atlas would be taken on family holidays to Devon and Cornwall, not to find the way to the destination, I could still drive to Westward Ho! or to Saint Ives without needing directions, but to be able to visit places on wet days (never a good idea, the entire visitor population of Devon and Cornwall would have had a similar idea).

Looking back forty or fifty years, it is hard to remember a time when routes were learned, they seemed always to be known, as if topographical knowledge was something that could be passed on in the blood.

Perhaps the ways to places were learned by sheer familiarity. A child of seven or eight years of age watching through the window of a slow moving car would have noted every feature of the route because watching out of the window was all there was to do on such journeys. Perhaps the speed of the car made a difference as well, the estimated time of a journey would always be calculated using a speed of thirty miles per hour, and even that was faster than was possible on roads used by agricultural traffic. Moving slowly meant time to take in everything along the way.

Google Maps has the potential to undermine a whole world of experience.


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