The thick history merry go round

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Roman, medieval, Georgian and modern in one picture

Since Willsbridge Mill (Saturday 25th, ‘Joining the dots’)  – I can’t get settled. I’ve been living on online searches, in books, photographs and maps of the hundred or so square miles in which I’ve lived the greater part of my life and it’s a truly immersive experience. The great thing about a blog is that no-one expects it to be great literature unless it’s a Joycean kind of stroll through the weather of life. Aside from taking out the odd word, turning it in my hand and either discarding it or giving it a bit of a polish and setting it back in the wall, I don’t anguish too much.  It’s obsessive, for sure but only in the sense that it sharpens my collector’s instinct, and so I carry a notebook and a phone camera to record the things that strike me. If there’s any sort of metaphysic behind the Potwell Inn it’s the fact that I believe there’s nothing more extraordinary than the ordinary, the old William Blake poem that urges us:

To see a world in a grain of sand. And a heaven in a wild flower, Hold infinity in the palm of your hand. And eternity in an hour.

That’s just about it.  I call it Muckyannydinny Lane, the place where everything and nothing happens.  Where the ordinary is suddenly but never more than momentarily revealed and sets up its home in the imagination. Not great thoughts but the pocket lint and bus tickets that accumulate on our journey. 

But sometimes, the ordinary of  “today, here, in this place”  is inflected by an intuition of the history.  The thin, linear description of the way things are around here suddenly thickens – as it did when I wrote about the South Gloucestershire Coalfield and mentioned Handel Cossham’s name.  As I typed it I remembered Brandy Bottom, the pit he owned, and which was joined underground to Parkfield, the pithead where I played and sometimes peered down the shaft to see hart’s tongue fern sprouting from the walls into the gathering darkness. Cossham built a hospital and endowed a community hall, but he employed children – small children – to drag the coal trucks to the bottom of the shaft in the confined spaces of the mine. I went looking for Brandy Bottom a few years ago and found the abandoned buildings almost covered with ivy.  It’s being restored now – “The most perfect remains of a Victorian mine in the UK” – they say, but I was haunted by the ghosts of those children. As I stood there, transfixed by the thickening of the air, I knew that in some dimension the old mine was still functioning, the children were still there, pale skinned and blackened with coal dust. Children were even cheaper than ponies in those days. The practice of using them wasn’t ended because it was wicked in itself, but because the Victorian moralists thought they might get up to things, wicked sexual things down there in the darkness. Seems like Victorian thick history was different from mine. 

And so the landscape here has suddenly deepened to include what’s beneath;  the coal measures and the wealth and cruelty they created, the surface farmland which has become the scene of another, later, despoliation under intensive farming, and during which – since my childhood – whole species have disappeared, and then above the fields the atmosphere which has become so polluted by the burning of hydrocarbons that in summer, during prolonged sunny periods, a yellowish photochromic haze forms. 

Here in my imagination today I might easily see a steam train running in to Green Park Station across the river.  I might encounter Mr King, the retired miner, walking back from Parkfield before it closed in the 1930’s, and making for his allotment above the railway tunnel at the end of our garden. I might see lapwing in the fields, or pass a horse and cart taking milk or cream down to the station incline.  And does this inflected, ‘thick’ sense of being human intuit the future as well? What’s going on there beneath the bright surface of the present? It’s like fishing. You have no idea what’s going on beyond the reflections on the water aside from experience of how it was before. You might see the float bob, or sense a tug on the line but it might be caught on a shopping trolley for all you know. 

Last time I fished here, in thick history, I think to myself –  humans were selfish, greedy, unfeeling creatures who found it hard to accept responsibility for their actions.  Is that the future? We were all raised on the idea that the industrial revolution had brought us into a new age of prosperity but it never occurred to us that we would suffocate in the fumes of its success. Handel Cossham lives on, but his mines were sold in 1900 and his money is probably invested in India or some other place where the state doesn’t take much interest in poverty or child labour; and the supreme gold-standard irony is that we came to believe that the industrialisation of the Southern hemisphere was a kind of human right.  That the poor people of India deserved the right to be evicted from their farmland so that more factories could be built, more wealth extracted from the earth – because it was better for them to live in megacities scratching a living on rubbish tips.  

We have seen the enemy – it is us

Author: Dave Pole

I've spent my life doing a lot of things, all of them interesting and many of them great fun. When most people see my CV they probably think I'm making things up because it includes being a rather bad welder and engineering dogsbody, a potter, a groundsman and bus driver. I taught in a prison and in one of those ghastly old mental institutions as an art therapist and I spent ten years as a community artist. I was one of the founding members of Spike Island, which began life as Artspace Bristol. ! wrote a column for Bristol Evening Post (I got sacked three times, in which I take some pride) and I worked in local and network radio and then finally became an Anglican parish priest for 25 years, retiring at 68 when I realised that the institutional church and me were on different paths. What interests me? It would be easier to list what doesn't, but I love cooking and baking with our home grown ingredients. I'm fascinated by botany and wildlife in general, and botanical illustration. We have a camper van that takes us to the wild places, we love walking, especially in the hills, and we take too many photographs. But what really animates me is the question "what does it mean to be human?". I've spent my life exploring it in every possible way and the answer is ..... well, today it's sitting in the van in the rain and looking across Ramsey Sound towards Ramsey Island. But it might as easily be digging potatoes or making pickle, singing or finding an orchid or just sitting. But it sure as hell doesn't mean getting a promotion, beasting your co-workers or being obsequious to power, which ensured that my rise to greatness in the Church of England flatlined 30 years ago after about 2 days. But I'm still here and still searching for that elusive sweet spot, and I don't have to please anyone any more. Over the last 50 or so years we've had a succession of gardens, some more like wildernesses when we were both working full-time, but now we're back in the game with our two allotments in Bath.

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