Imagining places

The normal road to work is closed; the M5 motorway must be reached by way of a diversion. If the official signs were followed, it would mean driving three miles in the opposite direction before turning on a road that would lead towards the motorway. Google maps takes me along roads I have walked many times on summer evenings before following a steep, narrow and winding lane to the A372 road below.

It is a diverting diversion. The view from parts of the descent is one that takes in many square miles of moorland. On a misty morning, there is a magical feel. The blue sky and bright sunshine lie above a blanket of whiteness that resembles some sea that has reclaimed territory that was once its own.

Descending into the mist, the seasons change; from a brightness worthy of a summer’s day into a thick greyness that could be in deep midwinter. The temperature drops and progress is slowed on a road that snakes its way towards Othery, a place that was once an island in the wetlands of the Somerset Levels.

Two A-roads cross each other at acute angles and in reduced visibility, there is a feeling of a need for caution lest someone bound for Glastonbury or Taunton come looming out of the gloom.

The mist comes now in pockets: greyness and brightness alternating. Weston Zoyland lies ahead. Here there is an opportunity for imagining things far more substantial than anything in the mists.

A sign announces, “The Battle of Sedgemoor – the last battle fought on English soil.” It wasn’t much of a battle, more a massacre. Among the Royal army, there were 200 killed. The rebels under the command of the Duke of Monmouth, local peasants seemed with pitchforks, suffered 1,300 deaths. After the battle, 320 were executed following the Bloody Assizes held by Judge Jeffreys; a further 750 were transported. Passing Weston Zoyland Church, where many prisoners were held, there is a chill moment in thinking about the fate that awaited them; some were hung, drawn and quartered.

Beyond Weston Zoyland, the road crosses the old wartime aerodrome. Stretches of the runway are still intact; airfield buildings stand in ruins. Both the RAF and United States Air Force flew from here, now nothing bigger than a microlight takes off.

It is odd how it is the places of violence stick most in the mind, battlefields, military installations. Those miles of road must have many happy tales to tell, but who puts happy moments into history books?

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Annoying diversions

Of course, they had given plenty of notice. For the past three weeks, at least, there has been a yellow sign beside the road that crosses the moor announcing that on 25th March the road would be closed for three weeks. Driving the road this morning at 6.30, I made a mental note that the road would probably be closed for the return journey and that I would need to drive home via Bridgwater.

Of course, I forgot. Driving home, I dropped down from the A39 road from Bridgwater to the A361 road from Taunton and went to turn onto Nythe Road, the road that crosses the moor – it was very firmly closed. The prescribed diversion added seven or eight miles to the journey.  Taking a shortcut meant following the narrow single track road, with steep banks on either side, that takes adventurous drivers up Turn Hill, each one hoping that they meet no traffic coming down, because the steep ascent includes a one hundred and eighty degree bend, from which the hill presumably derives its name.

Even if I hadn’t forgotten, I might have tried the moor road. Local road signs would not necessarily constitute the sort of evidence that would pass muster in a court of law – they might be true and they might not be true. Road signs announced the road was closed last year, even Google Maps insisted the road was closed, telling me to turn back when it was obvious that traffic was moving freely – the road had not closed.

Even if I hadn’t forgotten, I might have recalled journeys from the early-1970s when the bridges over the River Cary and the Eighteen Foot Rhyne were replaced. Everyone knew the road was closed and everyone told everyone else that the road was closed and everyone carried on travelling across the moor, driving over the temporary bridges that had been put in place to accommodate farmers who needed to reach livestock. Everyone knew that everyone continued to use the road, and no-one said anything. If someone has ventured down to the road works, word will undoubtedly spread as to the possibilities of ignoring the signs.

The road works are a piece of hubris. It is a bog road and the subsidence of one edge into the adjoining ditch is what happens on bog roads; millions could be spent, and the road would still sink. For months, barriers have kept traffic safely away from the subsidence, they have meant giving way to oncoming traffic, but traffic is infrequent on the road and slowing down was no inconvenience. In fact, the uneven nature of the road made it much safer. The diversion will probably simply cause problems somewhere else.


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Canada in Somerset

My first memory of Auntie Diane was perhaps at the beginning of 1967; much earlier, and the moment would have been beyond memory; much later, and the occasion would not have have assumed the aura it still possesses. My aunt, her husband and my cousins were coming home on a visit – from Canada. In 1967, air travel was expensive, return visits by emigrants were rare. The occasion was such that it was deemed appropriate that we would all travel to London Airport to welcome them on their arrival. Trips to London Airport were almost as rare as flights across the Atlantic and the occasion was one approached with great excitement.

One moment remains vivid, standing at a barrier in the bright light of the terminal building, watching people appear from a corridor. My aunt and her family appeared, my aunt with styled dark hair and a brown fur coat with which she withstood the chill of Ontario snows; my cousins in check shirts and patterned sweaters, smart North American winter attire. To a six year old boy from the country, their arrival was like that of film stars.

In Somerset of the 1960s there were still people living in the pre-fabricated houses that provided homes to many people after the Second World War. The gap in wealth between North America and the England was wide, families across the Atlantic possessed wealth the likes of which we could only try to imagine.

Old photographs reveal that Canadian affluence had reached the life of a small boy four years prior to the 1967 visit. Among pictures from the severe winter at the beginning of 1963 are ones of a child pulling along a toy bear on wheels.

North Americans would immediately recognise Smokey Bear, the figure used to educate the public about the danger of forest fires, a figure who made his first appearance in the United States in 1944. In later childhood, there was a sense of disappointment that the plastic orange figure on black wheels was not the much more famous Yogi Bear. Only when visiting Canada for the first time in the late-1990s did an awareness come of how significant Smokey and his campaigns had been and how widely he was recognised on both sides of the 49th Parallel.

It isn’t just the plastic bear that points to the arrival of Canadian purchases, though. Looking at the picture, there came the realisation this evening, for the first time, that the two year old in the photograph is wearing a snowsuit. Such attire might be commonplace now, certainly among those who take children on package holidays skiing; in rural England of 1963, they would hardly have been plentiful.

Photographs from the time show a child oblivious to the winter chill. It is not that he was ever a particularly cheerful child, it is that he is dressed for the minus thirty degree chill of Ontario. Auntie Diane’s presents still hold a place dear in his memory.

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A magical mistiness

The mist was rolling in as I drove home from work, it would not have been hard to have imagined magical stories. When I was young, there were always magical stories. Somerset was  place for knights in shining armour who would ride back from the dead in the moment of need and, in Devon, a navy waited the hour when it would again put to sea.

The English teacher in the little Dartmoor secondary school I attended belonged to a conservative Christian church, but loved to teach us poems rooted in legend, even if they meant heroes rising from the dead (something strictly forbidden in the conservative Christian worldview). The rhythms of Drake’s Drum still conjure memories of her reading:

DRAKE he’s in his hammock an’ a thousand mile away,
(Capten, art tha sleepin’ there below?)
Slung atween the round shot in Nombre Dios Bay,
An’ dreamin’ arl the time o’ Plymouth Hoe.
Yarnder lumes the island, yarnder lie the ships,
Wi’ sailor lads a-dancin’ heel-an’-toe,
An’ the shore-lights flashin’, an’ the night-tide dashin’
He sees et arl so plainly as he saw et long ago.

Drake he was a Devon man, an’ ruled the Devon seas,
(Capten, art tha sleepin’ there below?),
Rovin’ tho’ his death fell, he went wi’ heart at ease,
An’ dreamin’ arl the time o’ Plymouth Hoe,
“Take my drum to England, hang et by the shore,
Strike et when your powder’s runnin’ low;
If the Dons sight Devon, I’ll quit the port o’ Heaven,
An’ drum them up the Channel as we drummed them long ago.”

Drake he’s in his hammock till the great Armadas come,
(Capten, art tha sleepin’ there below?),
Slung atween the round shot, listenin’ for the drum,
An’ dreamin’ arl the time o’ Plymouth Hoe.
Call him on the deep sea, call him up the Sound,
Call him when ye sail to meet the foe;
Where the old trade’s plyin’ an’ the old flag flyin’,
They shall find him, ware an’ wakin’, as they found him long ago.

It was the same English teacher who lent pupils her copy of Frederick Forsyth’s The Shepherd, a wonderful story about a de Havilland Vampire jet in thick fog over the North Sea at Christmas Eve 1957 when all its instruments failed. An old Mosquito bomber appears out of the mists and leads the jet to safety before disappearing. The Mosquito had disappeared without trace on Christmas Eve some fourteen years previously; its ghost continued in active service.

Magical heroes felt no pain. They rode into a story for a brief time and went on their way as quickly as they had appeared. There were no “helloes” and no “goodbyes”; no tears and no regrets. Sometimes to be a ghostly figure, appearing and disappearing when the task is accomplished seemed attractive.

Glastonbury Tor

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A stick of rock

Do they have Weston-Super-Mare seaside rock? I must go down to the seafront some day and find out. It would be the proper stuff that I would want.  The tube shaped stuff with a pink coating and white inner with the name of the town in red lettering down the length of the inner, so that wherever you were in eating the stick of rock, you still knew that it had come from Weston.

Seaside rock always seemed odd. Why was it seaside rock?  Why couldn’t inland towns have had sticks of rock with their names inset in red candy?

Maybe the rock that tasted so good in childhood days wasn’t even that nice, maybe it was the association with being on holiday that gave it a special flavour, like those bottles of wine that taste well when you are away, but seem to have lost something when you bring them home.

There was good rock and bad rock – good rock was dense and became chewy if it was left in the back window of the car on a hot summer’s day; bad rock was brittle and tasted as bad as the Eastern European chocolate with which cheap Easter eggs were made, or those foil wrapped Christmas decorations that were fine when adorning the Christmas tree, but tasted horrible when eaten.

Rock came wrapped in cellopane that enabled you to eat it without it adhering to your hands.  Halfway down the length of the stick of rock, inside the cellophane, there would be a photograph of the resort; a slip of paper maybe two inches long and an inch wide.  It was always a black and white photograph; in an age when postcards were all in colour, seaside rock pictures were monochrome – why?  What would have been wrong in having a colour picture?  Was there some seaside rock system of quality control that ruled out polychrome images?

Perhaps it was the uniformity of seaside rock that secures its place in the memory.  You knew it was seaside rock because it looked like seaside rock.  It was always a similar shade of pink; always wrapped in transparent cellophane; always having the name of its town printed through it.

Who determines these things? The colour, the shape, the wrapping, the taste – is there a standards authority that overseas these things?  Is it like the French appellation system for wine?  Is there some body that ensures consumers get bona fide rock?

Is there a reason in principle why I could not buy a stick of rock anywhere in the country that I wanted?  Just imagine how much people’s morale would be raised by imagining they were once more on childhood holidays at the seaside.  Seaside rock would probably be more beneficial than much of the health system. I must find a stick of Weston rock.

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