Being the Final Part of A Jaunt into the West Country
I was brought up in a era when children’s television was a mixture of storytelling, American cartoons, cliffhanger drama and upright young men in canvas shorts and heavy spectacles talking about the outdoor life. I retain an affection for all four. A Boys’ Own programme called Tom Tom taught us how to make tent pegs, how to knock a pitong into a rock face and, somewhat improbably, how to build and paddle our own canoe. There were two presenters: suit and tie wearing, Bond villain type, Jeremy Carrad tried to appeal (it was an uphill battle for a man completely devoid of charm) to boys’ supposed love of anything with an motor. John Earle, who I later met while attending an outdoor pursuits course at a centre he ran on Dartmoor, was more to my liking. He walked, climbed rocks and knew where to find a pipit’s nest.
Animal Magic had the wonderful, relaxed, avuncular Johnny Morris providing an insight into “wild animals” as we still called them. He was the amiable uncle and delighted a generation by lip-synching voices and personalities onto short films of animals. This anthropomorphism upset some academics and Morris was eventually shunted into retirement (actually onto Radio 4 where he became a wonderful travel broadcaster).
A diffident guest on many of these programmes was Peter Scott. Portly, slightly balding and given to rumpled casualness in dress, he wasn’t outwardly an heroic figure. In reality he was one of the greatest men of the century. Invariably modest but could have used any of several major claims to fame. He was the son of doomed polar explorer and national hero Robert Falcon Scott. A world renowned artist in his own right, bronze medallist for sailing at the Berlin Olympics, war hero. He raised awareness of the threat to wildlife across the planet and became perhaps the greatest conservationist of all time. His lasting glory is Slimbridge. In the 1940s a refuge for waterbirds. Today a major centre for the preservation of wetlands and for study of threatened species. “He was one of the first people who saw the dangers, and more than that, he was one of the first who did something about it.” (David Attenborough)
He was central to me becoming a birdwatcher and remains an inspiration. Too much of an inspiration to rush a long anticipated visit to the wetland centre. At most I’ve got an hour and a half. I haven’t brought binoculars, or sketch pad or field guide. It isn’t the entrance fee. £12.70 isn’t much and I’d happily donate that to the Trust. It is time and preparedness that are in short supply.
A sign on a leafy corner says Slimbridge to the right and Berkeley to the left. A four day tour is always going to involve sacrifices. The art is to make the most of this. Berkeley is more than adequate compensation. And its nearer.
This is the home of one of the more famous cockney rhymes, the birthplace of vaccination and the place where Edward II met his end (in the words of Ranulf Higden) “with a hot spit put thro’ the secret place posterial”.
90 minutes should allow a wander through the corridors of Berkeley Castle and to see if any bloodstains remain. Unlikely as the form of death was chosen so as to leave no outward evidence of murder, and then there’s the little matter of the passage (sic) of 800 years.
I pull into the castle gates to be met with a poster on the wall extolling me to Vote Neil Carmichael, Conservative and a sign by the gate saying “Castle Closed on Thursdays”. I’m a shy trespasser but a practiced trespasser nonetheless. I leave the car and see if I can at least get a shot of the castle from the public car park. Suddenly I’m in the heart of rural Gloucestershire.
And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.
And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.*
Trespassing requires confidence. Even closed castles have deliveries so someone walking purposely arouses less suspicion than a furtive approach. Best to keep the camera out of sight. The man from Hermes or DHL rarely has time to frame a landscape or two. Actually I click away merrily at the glorious vista and the fine trees that adorn the parkland. This is landed gentry territory and they’ll settle for an “Oh sorry, didn’t realise and all that. Won’t do it again.” A couple of hundred years ago there may well have been man traps and a gamekeeper with a blunderbuss.
Lovely views of growing things but barely a turret or battlement. This was a well set-back, out-of-the-way place to muffle the screams of an impaled monarch. They must get really fed up of this story as tourists all ask the same thing. “Look!” they will say, “The place has other points of historic interest. But no. You lot don’t want to hear all the good things that went on here. But we ram a red hot poker up the backside of a king and you just won’t let it go. We only did it once you know! Just once! And will you let us forget it?”
I’m on the verge of turning back but think “No, I ought to have at least a brief look at the town.”
And I’m glad I did.
Sometimes the English can be a bit stand-offish but if, as a stranger, you want to be warmly met and greeted in an English town I suggest you go on General Election day. Candidates, each with a team of canvasses, are abroad and emitting more bonhomie than you’ll get from them over the next five years together. Within minutes I’ve been smiled at ten times and had my hand firmly shaken five times. Three times by the same Conservative candidate. Presumably the postered Mr Carmichael. I’m afraid he was barking up the wrong tree if he thought he’d appeal to my forelock tugging sense of deference.
The town is lovely. There are shops and tearooms and lots of contented people. The sun shines brightly from a blue sky dotted with fluffy clouds. Everything looks smart and handsome and everybody wears their sunniest disposition. I didn’t see an single ugly building. The landlord of the fifteenth century Mariners’ Arms might like to consider whether the tasteless Two for a Tenner canvas sign out front was entirely in keeping with good inn-keeping. These canvas signs are becoming a dreadful eyesore in ugly towns and should be banned outright in otherwise pretty ones.
The side wall of The Mariners’ Arms shows the true beauty of the building
The Berkeley Hotel is a classic eighteenth century coaching inn. No ill-thought-out posters to try to make the real thing look like a fake here. If I was going to have a pint of beer then this is the hostelry I’d choose. On either side are the sort of terraced houses that you’d move into tomorrow. Every age from fifteenth to twentieth century features and all have been put up by builders who know how to lay a brick.
Talking of bricklaying: the walkway through to the church, and the house where Edward Jenner lived, takes me past an unusual feature that could have philosophers debating. There’s a section of “eighteenth century wall” that has been so proudly restored that they have celebrated it with a plaque. Now, when is an eighteenth century wall not an eighteenth century wall? Correct. When it’s been rebuilt. Like Trigger’s broom in Only Fools and Horses** it has remained original through being completely replaced. They have kindly left a little of the crumbly old wall to show just what a neat job they have made of the new. Berkeley has an extraordinarily high proportion of first rate buildings. I humbly suggest that they allow them to speak for themselves without need of signs and plaques and banners.
The Chantry is an elegant double fronted house in well maintained grounds (everything in Berkeley is well-maintained). It was here that Edward Jenner carried out his pioneering work on vaccines and laying the basis for future generations to be able to claim that Jenner saved more lives than any other human in the entire history of the world. He certainly had a nice house.
Next door is the church. Or, rather, the churches. At one end of the ancient churchyard is a delightful barn-like church that seems to have had its tower or steeple stolen. At the other end is that tower. The burial ground itself contains some of the grandest graves I’ve seen. The Berkeley family have fine monuments inside the church and everyone else has sought to outdo each other in grander and grander memorials to their dead. This, being Berkeley, is commemorated with a plaque.
It’s a burial ground to linger in. Thomas Gray settled for Stoke Poges for his famous Elergy. Anyone trying to emulate him could do a lot worse than this country churchyard. I’m certainly tempted to linger. I’m also tempted by the rustic gate that leads into a hidden lane. I’m sitting quietly when a man in the livery of Berkeley Castle walks by. “Any chance of me just taking a couple of snaps of the castle?” I ask. “Can’t see as it’d do any harm. Just don’t go too far past the gatehouse or you’ll have security after you.”
The rich man earns his castle, you said.
The poor deserve the gate.***
And there it was. Looking more like a country house but handsome in its Gloucestershire stone. The views are exceptional. For four days I’d been following the story of Edward II and had finally arrived at where he died. I linger a while and soak in this most English of locations and then give one of the tearooms some trade. The scones are very good.
Despite being a delightful town with everything a delightful town requires, including significant historical event and a former resident of the very first order, Berkeley’s lasting legacy may well be etymological. The town has bequeathed the word “berk” into the language. Though often regarded as a only mildly offensive (as in “you stupid berk!) it derives from the cockney rhyming slang “Berkeley Hunt” and in this “c-word” form is considered grossly offensive. So much so that in successful sit-com ‘Porridge’, writers, Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, had to re-write the dialogue so that main character, Fletcher, referred to people who annoyed him as “nerks”. And that too has entered the language.
It’s been a wonderful journey. It’s time to move on.
* From Adlestrop by Edward Thomas (the only poem I know that uses the word Gloucestershire)
** British TV Sitcom. Trigger’s broom had had 17 new heads and 14 new handles. “How the hell can it be the same bloody broom then?” “Well here’s a picture of it. What more bloody proof do you need?”
*** From Charlotte O’Neil’s Song by Fiona Farrell