Good Bye and Good Luck

Thank you to all who have read, commented, contributed and supported this blog. It has closed down before and there were reasons for its resurrection. It can now happily take its place in the past tense and rest easy. This really is the very last post. The blog will be taken down later this year. May yours’ continue and prosper.

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Berkeley (Not California)

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Being the Final Part of A Jaunt into the West Country

Berkeley

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.

DSC_0492Animal 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).

DSC_0487A 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) 

DSC_0483He 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”.

DSC_049390 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.*

DSC_0489Trespassing 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. 

DSC_0505Lovely 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?”

DSC_0511I’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.

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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.

DSC_0504Talking 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.

DSC_0512The 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.

DSC_0509Next 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.

DSC_0529It’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.”

DSC_0524The 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.

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* 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

Bath

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A Jaunt into the West Country : Part 14

Is This Indeed, Our Finest Town?

I never tire of Bath. It’s so upper middle class as to be almost aristocratic. It attracts square chinned rowing and rugby types and is crawling with tourists who come mob-handed and full of strange demands. It was built by Romans to enjoy the miraculous hot springs; surely England doesn’t have such things. And grew again as a place to saunter, strut and be seen; the height of fashion with its own season rivalling London, before being over-taken by grand tours. I should hate it. But no-one can. It is, put simply, and in a word: magnificent.

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Milsom Street

I’ve done it all before. The wander from the abbey along Cheap Street, turn up Union and Burton through to Milsom Street. Toy with shopping but I’m carrying plenty enough. Days are past when I must return with a gift that could only be bought from where I’ve been. Short of bringing a day old Sally Lunn from the original shop, there isn’t much you can buy in Bath that can’t be got in Wakefield Market (or over the internet). The streets are more handsome but its still House of Fraser, Boots, Burger King. The world is getting more like Luton every day. It isn’t shopping that gives me such a pleasing time. It’s the place.

DSC_0407It’s General Election Day and rosettes are out a’plenty. Bath has been consistent. From the fall of Lloyd George to the fall of Thatcher it remained true blue. Then, following the western way they went all Liberal Democrat, and probably would have stayed but for a broken promise on university fees by their leader. If you come from Bath you are likely to be affected, so they play their part this day in a merciless cull of the Liberal Party. Bath returns a Conservative. Its a phenomenon that never ceases to puzzle me. Agreed that the monied few stand to make great gains but the majority who vote for tory, even along the leafy banks of Avon, are voting to be kept in their place. Perhaps more than ever we have a media led election. The glory of a free press has never been more to the fore. If only we had one.

DSC_0410No need to pick out individual buildings here. Bath stone cuts well, wears well and was constructed well. These streets of Bath grow more splendid as the weather wears a parapet here, a balcony there but otherwise they remain almost as new. Statue and monuments reflect the works of those long dead but deeds live long in Bath. Outside my tearoom, a memorial to Arthur Phillip, Admiral of the First Fleet which established Sydney (actually Port Jackson) as a suitable place to house the 772 convicts brought from England of whom 732 survived the voyage.

Of all of the great and awful acts of the British I find the most strange were the decisions that must have been made, by rational thinking men, (after all this was the age of reason) to use the newly discovered southern continent as a place to off-load the unwanted overspill of the courts. “I know,” said one enormous mind in a well-paid, pensioned post. “I’m fed up of seeing poor people on our streets. let us lock them up.” “No.” says his round and portly friend. “Prison’s too good for them. Let them dance at Tyburn Tree.” “My God no,” enjoins a third, the liberal minded one. “We cannot go on hanging folk for being poor. One was hung last week for theft.” “Quite right too. That’ll send the message out that we mean business.” “But, she was a mother of five young girls who stole a biscuit to stop them crying.” “Then what do you suggest?” “Well, you know that three million square mile continent that Captain Cook has just found?” “Oh, yes. Good man Cook. Pity the natives ate him.” “Well how about sending the convicts there?” “It’s twelve thousand miles man. Would cost a  fortune. And how many would survive being locked and shackled in the hold of ships? Far cheaper just to hang the poor. They’ll die anyway.”

DSC_0409DSC_0414The whole episode is one of terrible shame but it went ahead and some honour came from it. And much of the credit for this must go to Arthur Phillip. Not a saint but a good man. He saw the convicts as the same as he but less fortunate in the opportunities that life had offered up. Under his supervision a continent intended as a prison camp was allowed to grow into the State of New South Wales. The unwanted. Those who left their county for their country’s good, though harshly treated, were perhaps better served than had they stayed in the unforgiving country of their birth. This history requires much much more than I can give it here. Read The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes. Go and see Our Country’s Good by Timberlake Wertenbaker. Read The Playmaker by Thomas Keneally or The Lieutenant by Kate Grenville. Read some poignant chapters of In Search of McCarthy by Pete McCarthy. (Read McCarthy anyway; he’s being forgotten too soon.) Study the early history of Australia. It’s a terrible story but one enlightened by moments of greatness, acts of great decency. And much of the credit can be given to Phillip. He retired to Bath and died here in 1814.

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Memorial to Admiral Arthur Phillip

 I’m always ready for a different place to eat. I’ve been up since six and its now eleven. I haven’t had my breakfast yet. Bea’s Vintage Tea Rooms harp back to the golden age. The golden age they harp to are the days of world war two, of rationing, fear, want and need. These concepts don’t butter crumpets so they’re glossed over in favour of sweet looking land girls and Andrews Sisters’ songs. Proper cups and saucers and tea made with leaves. I order scrambled eggs which come from far enough back in time to be cold before they reach my table. A pity. It’s quite a pleasant place and on towards the Circus which is enough to make you think that, were money no object, you might like to live here, until you see The Crescent then you change your mind. To live anywhere in Bath would be second best if you didn’t live here. I like where I live. The building’s made of soft coloured stone and rooms of ample size. And I can afford it without being grossly rich and don’t have buses of tourist lining up outside. It’s always round about here that I realise that I’m happy to be a visitor. Am happy to be one who gawps and clicks their camera and poses outside your lovely front door.

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To listen to your periwigged guide or stuff your face? Perhaps best to avoid organised tours.

Impossible to capture the 360 degree splendour of The Circus with my camera.

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Back down the flowered roads towards the Pump Room, Roman Baths and an Abbey that is rather squat; a clever trick for a building with a roof so high. It suits the city. Few places have so many superb buildings within such walking range. To the river and that weir, the one where Russell Crowe dies in Les Miserables; about two hours too late for me, and I speak as a fan of the Kiwi actor but not as a fan of the film or show. Beyond the river the rugby ground has grown since first I came to Bath. Professionalism has built bigger stands in this most perfectly situated of sporting venues. It’s also lured some of my sport’s (rugby league) finest. I can see the first team training and can make out Sam Burgess going through set moves with Mike Ford; who I last saw, and chatted with indeed, at Rochdale Hornets.

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Sam Burgess does what many Rugby League fans wish he would and turns his back on his new colleagues at Bath. Arguably the hardest man from the north of England starts a new life in arguably the most refined town in the west.

And on across Pulteney Bridge and down Great Pulteney Street, often cited as the most beautiful street in England. And certainly, if you took out the cars and replaced them with a carriage or two and the London Post Chaise it would look the part. I’m filled full with tea and coffee and only call into the The Victoria Art Gallery to use their smallest room but once relieved I wander through a permanent collection fit to pass an hour or two of anybody’s time. The lady there was lovely. Letting me walk round then taking me back to a painting or two she thought I might have passed too quickly. We spoke for a half hour of Bath and Gloucester and Wells. She sang in a choir and had sung in most of these great churches in the west. She really was delightful company, and knew her paintings as well as her anthems.

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Pulteney Bridge. It’s quite something!

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My perfect city would always have the surrounding hills visible from the centre

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Great Pulteney Street

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In this one small square you have entrances to the famous Pump Rooms, The Roman Baths and the Abbey: even the buskers and street performers are well rehearsed.

My visit ends with a riverside walk. I can only take so many pavements even in cities as fair as Bath. The Park and Ride Bus takes me to where I left my car (as they do) and I hope to escape quickly to motorway. After half an hour of stop and go in traffic, I’m once more passing the end of Great Pulteney Street. I’ll come again. I like Bath much more than I think I should. I’ve missed out far more than I’ve seen but that’s the way to do Bath. It’s far too rich a city to digest all in a single day.

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The Crescent

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You’ll have to queue but it is worth it. Sandwiches, cakes and tea all to the melodious accompaniment of a be-wigged string quartet. The Pump Rooms.

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The Road to Priddy

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A Jaunt into the West Country :  Part 13

A Walk in the Woods and a Village in the Mendip Hills

Pope came to Wookey Hole, chopped a stalactite or two for his Twickenham grotto, and left. I left, unimpressed with stark hotel and not prepared to wait around to divvi up twenty pounds to go down in a hole that’s advertised as “Family Fun”; I stay on solid ground.

DSC_0350And head up a winding narrow road to Priddy

DSC_0357Both the postman’s van and me reverse to let the other through and cars reverse to help us too. It’s Mendip gridlock with full four cars on side of hill. Once we clear our “after you” all is still. I feel I’ve just gone back in time. Would like a walk to start the day but where? It’s guesswork without either map of guide. Then  sign on roadside says Ebbor Gorge. I’m thinking to reverse again, when car park welcomes early morning walkers (and by detritus on the ground, late night lovers too).

DSC_0358I park and walk through bluebells where a board presents map and guide and history of the place. I praise and curse that I have found a walk from very heaven at a time when I’ve got no more than an hour. Who’d stupid plan was it to see the south west in three days? Guilty as charged my Lord, now send me down.

DSC_0360And down railway sleepered steps I go into a wood that takes the world and breath away. Heralded by the birdsong of early May I’m with warblers, blackcaps, ouzel cocks and hensDSC_0367robins and wrens. Great tits and chiff chaffs call, and answer and call again.

As if the treat to ear is not enough the real delight is for my nose. The scent breathes over the banks of the woodland, stealing and giving in full bouquet. The friendly bobbing heads of white wood anemone and mosses padded on north facing bark or strung from tree to tree. My Lords and Ladies and gentian blue bluebells and trees that have fallen unattended till they decay into the ferny forest floor.

DSC_0365I could and should stay longer. The board said the walk is  four miles round and takes in woods and gorge – but pulled by a schedule that says Bath and Slimbridge and Tewkesbury in time for full sung evensong at five. They surely cannot beat, or even compete, with this woodland matins. I want to stay in these Wordsworthian woods. I feel I’ve been here before. 

Five years have past; five summers, with the length
Of five long winters! and again I hear
These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
With a soft inland murmur. – Once again
Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,
That on a wild secluded scene impress
Thoughts of more deep seclusion;*

DSC_0384I rode over these Mendip Hills on a storytelling tour in 95; a month after my mother died; pedalling tales to schools in Exeter and Lyme, Midsummer Norton, Bath and Wells. At night, falling in with company that led me astray, to villages where we drank away the last oozings of the cider press hours by hours.

DSC_0377Before driving off, I steal a last long lingering look back across the levels of Somerset. There isn’t a finer place to view them from. A place as full as myths as mists. A place where it is not only wise to keep an open mind on ghosts and dragons but essential once you’ve drained a flagon or two at Aller or Athelney whence came the most famous cakes of all. One last look back at Avalon.

DSC_0376On through DeerLeap and into Pretty Priddy.

DSC_0397They brought the sheep fair here in 1348 when Black Death called a halt in Wells. It’s still held every year. Perhaps the longest temporary arrangement in England. It will remain as long as the thatched shelter of hurdles stays on the green.  Some vandals burnt it down two years ago but locals gathered round and learnt an ancient skill in time for that year’s fair.

DSC_0387I’ve never known a village so spread out. Not cottages but farms. There’s no-one much around. I follow a lane up to the little church and find a school no bigger than penalty area (and that includes the yard). Inside the playground walls, a happy clatter and chatter of play. Outside the meeting place of well-heeled mothers and well shod cars. 

DSC_0391DSC_0395-001I wander round the church but don’t linger round the school. Gardens are all, without exception, well tended and all fit the place. Small lawns and ample borders mixing shrubs with fruit,  bushes with kitchen plots. Beans more advanced than mine up north and they’ll soon be picking peas.

One pub left and one phone box where young people gather. They always gather where there is a light. The village notice board announces plant sale, concert, ceilidh, cricket team and “More Mindless Vandalism Below” where the ripped off door of the once telephone kiosk (now defibrillator) lies with two of its panels kicked in.

DSC_0399There’s a huge moral tutting inherent in this.  I suspect the villain(s) will not be run to ground but I bet the number of suspects can be severely narrowed down.

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*From Tintern Abbey by William Wordsworth

The Smallest City in England

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A Jaunt into the West Country : Part 12

Wells

DSC_0314English place names are great. They go so far back in time, and are, as a collection, proof of out multicultural/multi-racial history. Some are Roman, some Celtic, some Saxon, or Jute or Norse. Many are French, as a result of that little invasion in 1066. And there are even a number of genuinely English names. There are lots of clues in prefixes like ‘man” or suffixes like “wick”, “ham” or “ton”. Adjectival description like “Nether” or “Great”. If you come from Abberwick you live in a dairy farm belonging to a woman called Aluburh. It’s good to know this. This sort of knowledge can pass you by. Residents of Jarrow may like to know that their town means settlement of the fen people. Poet Ted Hughes came from Mytholmroyd. The first puzzle there is working out  how to pronounce it. Actually Mithe-em-royd. It’s an Old English name meaning a clearing at the mouth of more than one river. I bet Ted Hughes knew that. Citizens of Wells have no need of recourse to the Oxford Dictionary of British Place Names. Though it is a cracking read. And it might come in handy to explain away “Grope Lane”.

DSC_0305Wells is what were there before people arrived. Wells are what attracted people and wells are still bubbling water into the city. There are two in the Bishop’s Garden and one under the market place. The springs brought Saxon monks who built a cathedral church along the water course. Unusual as English church-builders are pretty strict about putting the altar in the east. The layout of the modern city still follows this eighth century pattern even though the original church was demolished and completely re-built as the  English Gothic structure that dominates the town today. This edifice is on a strict east west line but the markets and streets of the town still obey the original plan. Wells can therefore claim to be one of the very few Saxon cities remaining in its original state. This town centre was centuries old before anyone thought of using the word medieval.

DSC_0306It’s a wonderful town. It’s handsome, historic. It boasts one of the greatest buildings in England which in turn contains one of the great libraries. The setting is idyllic; being at the edge of the story-rich Somerset Levels and nestling (because that’s what towns do in travel books) at the foot of the Mendip Hills. It argues over whether it is the smallest city with the City of London. But everyone knows that London is huge and only pedants and economic editors understand the geography of “the square mile”. No, Wells is England’s smallest city and it is one of its most beautiful. 

DSC_0307I’ve given nearby Glastonbury a miss. There’s more to see here, the people are friendlier, the shops are better, the grass is greener, the sun warmer. They have ample places to park and don’t charge you to visit the cathedral. It’s a voluntary donation and nobody stands sentinel and obliges you to be obliging. I’m happy to give them the £10 I saved by not re-visiting Glastonbury Abbey. Wells Cathedral is a must see to those who want to wonder at the power of prayer or grumble at the terrible mis-use of wealth and ecclesiastical power down the ages. I’ve had a busy day and like to begin any tour of a church by sitting quietly for ten minutes. It sometimes resembles prayer and sometimes contemplation. Sometimes it is just sitting. I find these building conducive to slowing down the forward movement and going a little deeper spiritually.  I measure out the time on the second oldest working clock in the world.

DSC_0319Some cathedrals are built to emphasise the great space that is enclosed.  Some draw attention to the structure and the eyeline is interrupted by the bulk, power and sheer magnificence of the building itself. Wells is very much in this category. The church is over 400 feet long but you never get to see that far. The crossing at the centre of the church is dominated by enormous inverted scissor arches. They look extraordinarily modern. They remind me of huge diagonal concrete pillars at the Huddersfield football stadium and that was built in 1994. They serve the same purpose. To hold up a top heavy structure. One of the guides sits down with me and explains with a clarity I can only hope to match.

DSC_0320Medieval churches held great power as well as great wealth. It wasn’t unknown for the Bishop to allow this to go to his head and for the buildings to grow ever bigger, ever more impressive. They would say, ever greater tributes to the glory of God. Others would say to the dangers of vainglory.  William Golding takes up this theme in The Spire. Golding’s cathedral, like Wells, was under the charge of a man called Jocelyn. Both built higher, bigger, greater. In the novel the spire becomes a complex metaphor under which is buried love, pagan faith and truth. In Wells a central tower, designed to make the church stand out even more when viewed from the top of the Mendips, developed cracks as it was being built. Not tiny fissure but huge cracks you could put your fist into; apparently you still can. The weight of the tower was too much for the foundations and it was sinking even as they continued to build.

DSC_0339Many remedies were tried. One that wasn’t was to stop the construction of the tower. Eventually a master mason called William Joy came up with the inverted scissor design. It took ten years to construct the three straining arches that hold up the church. Joy was hailed a hero and a genius and the tower has stood firm ever since.

DSC_0317Recently a party of visiting German structural engineers were shown around the cathedral and made to admire the arches. “You do know,” said one with a reluctance to dampen Wellsian enthusiasm, “that these arches don’t work. They look good but they don’t support weight any better than a normal arch.”

His guides were flabbergasted at the sheer contempt for facts. “But it is still standing 650 years later” they pointed out.

“The ground beneath had obviously settled by the time he started to make his scissors. The tower would have stood up anyway.”

DSC_0340I cannot judge the truth either way but I am with Nikolaus Pevsner in not liking the crossing. It does draw too much attention to itself. It is enormously impressive in so many different ways but it isn’t pleasing to the eye.

What was pleasing was the magnificent vaulting in the chapter house, the simple columns of the undercroft and my favourite of all, the medieval library.

DSC_0330The lady in charge gave off an intimidating air of strictness but, once engaged in conversation, showed herself to be as knowledgable as she was enthusiastic. The public space is fine but, behind a locked gate is a place of study that is truly remarkable. Shelves of ancient manuscripts, including printed books that pre-date Caxton and even Gutenburg. They are arranged on oak shelves with desks and benches where scholars and monks will have sat in study for centuries past. Many of the books are so valuable that they still have ancient chains locking them to the shelves. Chains long enough to allow the book to be placed and read on the desk but preventing them ever going any further. It feels old and new at the same time. I found it one of the most exciting rooms I’ve ever seen. 

DSC_0331I’m too late to visit other buildings in Wells but not too late to wander around the precincts of the town. The great lawn to the west of the cathedral is one of the finest open spaces in the country. One such space would do for any city. Wells has several. The Bishop’s Gardens are the most visited. This is all much more recent. This is a Victorian re-make of medieval splendour, but as a copy of the real thing it is nonetheless wonderful. Croquet on the lawn has finished for the day but I’m in time to enjoy a pot of tea and a slice of lemon cake in the restaurant. It’s busy with visitors and do you know, every one of those visitors was genuinely interested in the surroundings and everyone of us was very happy to be there.

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Glastonbury and Street

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A Jaunt into the West Country

Glastonbury and Wells

You’ve got to be in the mood for Glastonbury. At least I do. And I find being thirty years younger helps. We’re talking about the town and not the festival. I went to a festival once. Knebworth 1978. I’d gone to see Jefferson Airplane; had to make do with Starship and  then Grace Slick wasn’t there. A bit like seeing The Doors without Jim Morrison or the Heartbreakers without Tom Petty. He did turn up and was, as far as I remember, quite good. As were Devo who thoroughly annoyed the lank haired Genesis fans who responded with a volley of bottles.  Rather more punk than prog so, one nil to the boys from Akron. Are we not chuffed? Genesis were buttock-clenchingly tedious and we left early to try to get a train back north. After a day stuck in a field with 100,000 folk, who Joni Mitchell definitely hadn’t written about, we spent the night on a platform at Doncaster station. It was an improvement.

DSC_0298I haven’t been to a festival since. I might have enjoyed the early days at Worthy Farm with a few hundred hairies in a field watching Stackridge (now there’s a West Country band!) and T Rex; though I wasn’t much into Bolan at the time, and even today wish he’d learnt another trick or two on the guitar. A lot of pop music sounds the same because of the four beat bar and formulaic tunes. T Rex songs sounded the same because, well, they are the same. To go to Glastonbury today and sit among the young executives and IT technicians getting back to the land to set their souls free would be my very worst nightmare. The worthies can keep the farm.

The last time I was here I was cycling from Cornwall to Yorkshire. I put the tent up among latter day hippies and struggled to sleep while someone sang Don’t Leave me High, Don’t Leave me Dry thirty times over. Elsewhere five others sat in the driver’s seats of their respective Renault 4s and practiced the didgeree doo via an open door policy. Rolf Harris has so much to answer for. Having slept badly I got up to clear skies and, making an effort to fit in, I climbed the tor to watch the sunrise. It wasn’t quite June the twenty first but not far off; I wasn’t alone.

DSC_0301It was a pretty spectacular moment when the rising sun broke the horizon and spread golden light across the Somerset Levels. Someone to my right said “Man, it’s a beautiful planet.” and I was very tempted to tell them to f*** Off. I don’t know what went wrong. I started off full of peace and love and remain wedded to the doctrine of kindness, consideration and good music. I don’t know what’s so funny ’bout peace love and understanding.  But I find being a hippy fraught with the same difficulties my father found when he joined the Huddersfield Liberal Democrats. “They’ve got all the right policies Simon, and all the right principles but I’ve never been in a room with so many pricks in my entire life.”

Put simply I was never born to join the tribe. I cannot follow arbitrary rules, be they about wearing a tie or having to agree that cannabis is fabulous. I liked punk but not the costume; like country but wouldn’t be seen dead in a stetson. I’m more the wander lonely as a cloud type. And as such I’m always going to find Glastonbury problematic.

DSC_0302We brought students here on storytelling evenings following in the footsteps of King Arthur. Our students loved a good tale. Jon had told them of the Battle of Camlann on the hill fort at Cadbury. Nothing adds to the atmosphere of a story better than going to the place it happened. On Glastonbury Tor we based our version of the death of Arthur on every source we could find. Thomas Mallory, Geoffrey of Monmouth, Alfred Tennyson, Kevin Crossley-Holland and a fair bit of ourselves. We had Cadbury and Aller and Burrow Mump and Athelney (we were happy to throw in some King Alfred stories too) all to ourselves and the isolation added to the power of the legends. At Glastonbury we attracted a not inconsiderable number of additional listeners as we gathered in the ruined chapel. Many were holding crystals. I’m often amazed at the power of story to draw people in. They were a most appreciative audience and once we’d seen the dying king taken in barges to the Isle of Avalon, they wanted more. We wanted fish and chips.

DSC_0376There’s a park and ride bus to the Tor these days. Though I never worked out where you are meant to park. Official signs warned me against using the supermarket and the one place I found in the town centre required more change than I had in my pocket. There were things I’d like to have seen but they were all places I’d been to before and when the Abbey wouldn’t accept my English Heritage card and demanded £10 to see some stones I didn’t have time to enjoy, I decided to save my return to Glastonbury for another day and move on to Wells. I’d already broken my journey by taking a walk around Street and think, on the day, I made the right choice.

DSC_0288Street is a gentle little town and home of Clarks the shoemakers. There’s a magnificent Victorian factory but its hard to tell whether heritage or manufacture is uppermost. The company (founded by Cyrus and James if you’ve ever wondered what the C & J stood for) is still mostly family owned. Cyrus and James were Quakers. So many nineteenth century industrialists were. You can tell a Quaker owned factory by the quality of housing around the works. Those fellows may not have been keen on intemperance in their workforce but they wanted them to be well-housed and to have the opportunity of putting their leisure time to beneficial use.

DSC_0295My mother, though often coppering up at the end of the week, always insisted we had Clarks shoes. There was something of a doctor’s surgery about a Clarks shoe-shop as attendants carefully measured length and breadth of growing feet and then sold a shoe that exceeded both with the post war wisdom of “He’ll grow into them!”. They also said “Look after your feet and your feet will look after you.” Im 56, have never had any problems and may owe Cyrus and James a bigger debt than I have previously acknowledged.

DSC_0296Clarks were paradoxically always slightly out of fashion while having their finger on the very pulse. Jamaican Rude Boys wouldn’t be seen without a pair of desert wellies and these furnish most of the mod feet in Quadrophenia. It was the footwear of choice on the Paris barricades of 1968. Walter White  went through five seasons of Breaking Bad wearing Clarks Wallabees

DSC_0293Today much of the factory premises have been given over to Clarks Village, an extensive retail outlet that attracts far more visitors than the factory or Quaker Meeting House. It seemed much of a muchness with other such outlets but most of the shoppers carried many bags. From the far end of the shops you get an excellent view of the Tor.

During my transitory visit to Glastonbury I’m delighted to have drawn up next to a van from “Burns the Bread”. In a country dominated by Greggs it is good to see an independent retailer with a sense of humour. And a baker who doesn’t use the word ‘artisan’.

DSC_0297As I drive towards Wells I eject the story tape of Far From the Madding Crowd and replace it Matthews Southern Comfort and sang along lustily.

“We are stardust….We are golden….And we’ve got to find our way…

Back to the garden.”

OK, I didn’t.

 

 

Exe Directory

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A Jaunt into the West Country   :   Part 10

Exeter Continued

The journey has a proper purpose. The visits to towns along the way are merely the peregrinations of a chancer. The real reason I’m jaunting into the West Country is to deliver bags and boxes to David’s flat. Like me, he came to Exeter for the university. And like me he found himself wanting to stay in a city of culture, of standards and one with a better climate than we get up north. He’s the youngest and the last to leave home. So I drove down with a car full of someone else’s life and would drive home to a spare room to let.

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The River Exe and the Chain Ferry at dawn

I’ve just got back to the hotel when he texts. It’s half past four. The girl on reception calls me over: “Will you be dining with us?” David and Melissa are both working and I cannot expect them to provide dinner and, as Michael Caines is in charge of the kitchens at the Royal Clarence, I’m tempted. I’m not keen on the pre-prepared stuff you get at the glamour chains but Caines is the real deal.  For hotel residents the prices are tempting too.

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Exeter was a walled city and like Chester and York you used to be able to walk round the medieval walls

The text says he’ll be home at six so I don’t bother with chefs or chefferie. Another shower and a drive around brings me to County Hall where I struggle to find anywhere to park. Moving a car in Exeter is invariably a mistake. As I’m currently in the removals business, I have no choice.

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Parliament Street. The narrowest street in the world.

County Hall is one place where the planners got it right in 1950s Exeter. Designed by someone who’d been looking at a great deal of Italian renaissance art, it combines the grandeur and shape of a Roman villa with the towers and campaniles of sixteenth century Florence. It’s the sort of modern building that gives brick a good name. All set in several acres of mown grass and well chosen trees. A cricket pitch has its boundaries marked with evergreen oaks and the best place to watch a game is from the terrace of the Coaver Club.

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My old busking pitch. This back route into Marks and Spencer may not look much but the acoustics were tremendous.

By the time I do find a place to park, I’m more than half a mile away. Instead of wandering round the county grounds I wander into the Mount Radford pub. This was my local back along*. There’s a back room for pool players and young groovers, where natural light is at a premium, and a smart front room where ex-majors and members of the WI get competitive over quizzes and the Telegraph crossword. My old bunch used to prop the bar in the games room, holding forth about football, beer and photography. Every Saturday night we’d move next door and beat the intellectuals in the quiz.  The prize was free beer and  grudging admiration.

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The Barnfield Theatre. The murals (of which there are many in the city) suggest that the Exeter Arts budget is in the wrong hands. (It’s nice inside)

I’m not expecting to see any old friends.  My visit is to satisfy curiosity. The fellow at the bar, making jokes about the cricket, is much older than my erstwhile cronies, but has exactly the same voice as one of them. “Blimey.” he says on recognition. “Haven’t seen you for ages. Been away?” And I’m brought up to date with who has disappeared off the map, who is no longer with us, who is on their third wife and who has been made redundant from where. There is something unchanging that is both weird and wonderful. I miss the place and am delighted to pass a half hour in friendly conversation that transcends time. I haven’t been in a pub for over a year and it’s the first time I’ve been in this one since 1993. As someone who let beer go, I’m pleased to catch them on pint number two. As I leave they look set for quite a few more.

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Many Exonians are unaware of the Bishop’s palace behind the cathedral. (You’ve got to be able to miss a couple of private signs to get this view)

It’s delightful to see David and Melissa. Their flat is welcoming and the rich aromas coming from the kitchen make me forget the Clarence. Once we’ve hauled the bags upstairs we sit down to delicious fillets of hot smoked salmon with a julienne of vegetables and new potatoes.  Pudding is home-baked scones with jam and real Devon clotted cream. They’ve done one course each and I’m as happy as a puppy in a ball pool.

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Leaning on the altar table in the church where I was baptised.

Through the evening we talk of plays they’ve been doing. After five busy years of student productions and appearing professionally around Devon they have set up their own company. Rehearsals are well advanced on their first play: The Sun and The Moon. I’ll miss this but will get to see them in Stratford where they have been invited (for the fifth successive year) to perform as part of the summer festival of open air Shakespeare. This year they’re doing the Tempest. It’s become a major event on the family calendar and one that gives us a chance to enjoy fast-moving, witty productions while getting together with members of the extended family to enjoy a big picnic by the river.

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Lots of places adopted the same solution when having to name an iron bridge. This one is called The Ironbridge!

Twilight welcomes me back to town. The streets are lively with strollers and drinkers. Among those out for the evening are many homeless people and a couple of buskers. People go on Radio 4 to tell us not to give to beggars. If I ever suffer the misfortune of ending up on the streets, I would hope people would give to me. I busked my way through university and without this wouldn’t have been able to complete my courses. I owe my current lifestyle to the generosity of the people of Manchester and Exeter when I needed it. I’m happy to give back in return. I helped in soup kitchens and day centres when I lived here. Things seem to have got worse. It makes me feel ashamed to live in a country where the rich vote to get even richer while the best many can hope for is a dry shop doorway to sleep in.

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St Michael’s and All Angels Church dominates the northern skyline.

I’m up so early next morning that the night porter has to let me out of the hotel. “Enjoy your morning walk sir. If the door is locked, when you get back, just press the buzzer and we’ll be pleased to let you in.” He’s got a true Devon accent. One of the few I’ve heard while I’ve been in the city. (David was born in Huddersfield and Melissa has a gentle Irish voice.) Exeter has three separate accents. A strong Devon brogue is more prevalent among the over thirties, especially those who work in overalls. Young people consider the west country vowels to be yokel and uncool and practice a variety of Estuary English learnt originally from watching Grange Hill and Eastenders**. In amongst these are the superior tones used by the many publicly school educated students at the university.

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The Exe Estuary at Topsham

It is a superb university but was one of the first in Britain to realise that putting on courses for the very rich was a good way of subsidising the proper work of the institution. Received wisdom was that if you had brains and money you went to Oxbridge. If you merely had brains you would go to Bristol, Manchester or Edinburgh. Those who boasted the cognitive powers of a pound of beef suet but the wealth of a Rockefeller ended up at Exeter. During my time there it was known as the University of Pimm’s and Green Wellingtons.

Like many myths it contains a grain of truth but Exeter has a heart as well. I’m here on the day before a general election. Along with Southampton, Exeter is one of the few red dots on the very blue map of the south of England.***

At breakfast I get to enjoy the dining room at the Royal Clarence and its views over cathedral green.  Fine ingredients, well presented on the buffet. The cooked breakfast was by far the best of the journey.

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The Castle. Home of the Crown Courts.

It sets me up for a busy morning. First I am able to take Communion among the stones of the cathedral. Prayers in the Lady Chapel and then next door for bread and wine! After packing my bags, it’s off down to Topsham for an hour. This was the old port for the city. The two were joined commercially by England’s oldest canal. The town was a quiet dormitory but seems to have woken up. We used to take the Topsham challenge, which was a pub-crawl of a dozen very good pubs. Today you could probably visit the same number of decent restaurants. There are some original shops in amongst the little streets and a proper quayside. A television newsreader and a Coronation Street actor were the local celebrities in the late eighties. A fair number have joined them since.

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Topsham

I conclude my stay in Exeter with a visit to my wife’s Auntie Mary. She’s getting older and prefers to stay at home. But the home has a balcony overlooking the Exe and we enjoy a couple of hours of family news over biscuits and coffee while swans float elegantly by and cormorants dry their wings. In her time she’s been a cornerstone of the family, a senior nurse and the woman who organised and made gallons of soup and thousands  of sandwiches for the local homeless. It’s always more than a treat to see her and an honour, though not an actual relative, to be able to call her auntie.

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Topsham

It’s easier to drive out of the city than in. Once past Countess Weir I’m presented with a choice between motorway or scenic route. What’s the point in sprinting when you’ve got all the time in the world?

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Topsham Harbour. Once a major port

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Sun and Moon Theatre

 

 

* back along – Devon dialect for some time ago

** Television soaps set in London

*** Red = Labour Party, Blue = Conservative

Shakespeare, He’s in the Abbey

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A Jaunt into the West Country  :  Part 9

Exeter Continued

Back in 1990 the cathedral served as both meeting place for our classes and for the openings of our plays. We considered the towers for scene one of Hamlet. It would have afforded a brilliant stage, complete with battlements and astonishing views of the city, but the cathedral authorities made arguments on logistical grounds and when we batted these back at them, turned to that good old source of spoil-sportery; the Health and Safety at Work Act. So, Hamlet began with scene two and I found myself, as Claudius, sitting on the bishop’s throne, with Jon as Hamlet, Gertrude and Polonius, and the students as the rest of the royal court disported among the magnificent choir stalls. It was genuinely innovative in both theatrical and pedagogic terms. Jon was a true teaching genius and I have always been clever enough to know who to steal my ideas from. Supplementing the cast were various visitors, deacons and vergers who had come to wander amongst the ancient stones and found a play withal.

Exeter, Cathedral, interior, 12-001Both of us could act and direct a bit. Like all good teachers in my experience, we had spent a number of years knocking about in the real world before entering the profession, gaining the sort of knowledge and understanding that isn’t required on the job specification, but without which you are in danger of knowing everything about nothing and vice versa. Among proper jobs we had both found ourselves co-opted into performance troupes and served our time in front of audiences who had paid to see things done well.

I opened with the King’s state of the nation address.

Though yet of Hamlet our dear brother’s death
The memory be green, and that it us befitted
To bear our hearts in grief and our whole kingdom
To be contracted in one brow of woe,
Yet so far hath discretion fought with nature
That we with wisest sorrow think on him
Together with remembrance of ourselves.

The setting, absolutely perfect for the formal solemnity of a nation in mourning for their old king, in joyful celebration of a royal wedding and in preparation for warlike footing in case of attack by sledded Polacks. This was a two man production to familiarise students with the play and the different staging opportunities it afforded. It was funny in parts; indeed clownish; but it was a serious venture. We spent some time in preparation and were determined to give them a true insight into one of the world’s masterpieces and to guarantee a splendid time for all.

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This tiny church is right in the middle of the Guildhall shopping precinct

We had no way of anticipating the success or failure of the venture. We got tremendous support from a headteacher who held us in high regard and the rest of an English department that was, quite simply, one of the best in the country. Students loved the subject and had grown accustomed to innovative and exciting lessons. The fact that so many of these students have surpassed their preceptors, is testament to a wonderful place to learn. In contrast with institutions, run by lesser lights, that I worked at in later years, the question asked most often was not “why?” but “why not?” It was an exciting time and place to learn. It was a state school and we received close support from senior university staff such as Ted Wragg, Steve Cockett and Nick Jones (county advisor) but we also got their sons and daughters in our classes. There were plenty of private options in the city but these educationalists knew that the best teaching was being provided courtesy of the British tax payer.

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St Bartholomew’s Cemetery staged the death scenes from Romeo and Juliet. It has been tidied up considerably since 1991.

We’d created a scheme of work based on Shakepeare’s plays and poems and the performance was one of several highlights of this. Others included workshops by professional actors, students delivering lectures, creating contemporary dance from significant scenes with local choreographers, a Shakespeare challenge where English staff and students set each other tasks to fulfil in a given time and a graffiti wall given over to  scrawling favourite quotations. It worked so well that we did it again the following year with even greater success. That year our two man show was Romeo and Juliet.

DSC_0211A quarter of a century on; during which time I’ve enjoyed watching some of the very same students, who made up our audience, perform in some of our more prestigious  theatres; I cannot exactly remember which locations were used for which plays. Standing in the cathedral I decide on a stroll that takes in both.

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Exeter Cathedral

Covering over the Roman Baths in 1971

There is half an acre of Exeter in front of the west door of the cathedral that contains as much history as many a complete town. Archeologists already knew there was a Saxon church there and were in the process of uncovering this, in 1971, when they found the substantial remains of a Roman bath-house. Funds didn’t run to a full excavation so the whole thing was carefully re-buried in the hope that money would eventually arrive to bring Roman Exeter back to life. It was still under several feet of Devon sand in 1991 and remains so today, but the cobbles and steps made a perfect market place for civil blood to make civil hands unclean. Previous workshops in stage fighting allowed us to stage a mass brawl there that satisfied the strict discipline of fight choreography while attracting the worried and fascinated attention of morning shoppers and office workers.

I’m sure others have done it but I am unaware of a production of Shakespeare, or any other dramatist for that matter, that used the audience in such an inclusive manner. At times they watched the play, at others they were part of it; at no time were they passive. Even during the promenade for one location to another they were given ideas to discuss or, more often, set up discussion themselves. Trust your students. They all have an insatiable desire to know stuff. Make sure, as a teacher you are not damming a great river in order to allow a tiny stream to flow.

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The location of our balcony scene

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A perfect amphitheatre

The Rougement Gardens contain a natural amphitheatre that has been used to stage entire plays in its time. This gave us a green space for Romeo to have his love for Rosalind challenged by Benvolio, for Hamlet to approach Ophelia reading while Polonius concealed himself. Above the natural stage is a path along the old castle walls and a little railing that supplied a perfect balcony. The council chamber in the Guildhall staged the Capulet’s party, in Romeo and Juliet, and the Mousetrap – the play within a play – in Hamlet, designed to uncover the conscience of a king.

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Exeter Guildhall

The interior scenes had required special permission from the authorities. On this visit to Exeter I barely had time to get round the open-air venues and didn’t even try to gain access to the Guildhall. I did attempt to get inside the ancient Priory of St Nicholas, hidden away between Fore Street and Bartholomew Street West but this was closed for unspecified reasons. I cannot remember which section of Romeo and Juliet we performed here but I do recall kicking up quite a shower of dust as I, as Polonius, met a snoopers end. In fact we used the rarely visited (at that time) rooms of this fabulous building for the entire denouement of the great tragedy. For the lovers’ deaths we moved on to the catacombs in St Bartholomew’s cemetery. The worst thing that can happen, so I am told, when you take students out of school is to lose one. We began the plays with just short of sixty students and a member of support staff. We were joined by our wives each with a baby in a buggy and I think each of them was joined by a friend, each of whom also had a buggy. It was a time when the literate population of the city was on the increase. By the time we reached  the final scenes we had collected many more. No students had disappeared but a number of mums and dads ensured a stakeholder’s educational experience a decade before it became popular elsewhere.

This wasn’t a couple of teachers pretending to enact plays. We were good performers and writers who happened to be teachers and were deadly serious about all of our aims. Those plays had a big impact on a lot of those children and they made a big difference.

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Why closed? Why has someone furnished a fourteenth century priory as an Elizabethan town house?

I see Jon every couple of years and we remain dedicated to the development of young people’s learning. He stayed in the same school and brought his many skills to the benefit of the next generation as well. He became head of department and had Ofsted inspectors seeking a level above outstanding. I moved up north where I enjoyed much success and much frustration. Good schools need good head teachers. There aren’t enough to go round and Exeter has got more than its fair share, while the north manages less than one to every five schools. I’ve worked for too many who talk of thinking outside the box while not even knowing what colour the box is.

My stroll around the city centre brings back memories of when we got education right.

Bliss was it that dawn to be alive, 

But to be young was very heaven!*

 

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St Nicholas’s Priory

 

 

*William Wordsworth   French Revolution

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