This is a slightly improved photo of Siston Brook on a grey day today, just before it runs into Willsbridge Mill. There’s no reason why anyone except a native would need to know that, but I’m a native and I had the surprise of my life when we visited the community nature reserve here on a field trip with the Bath Natural History Society – there’s a link on the right hand side of this page if you’re interested.
Of course, being observant, if you click on the link you’ll see that we were meant to be three miles away at the Bath Cheese Company for a riverside walk. That’s where Madame and me were until the appointed time when we realized we were alone and one of the cafe staff came out to say “They’ve gone to Willsbridge – they’re meeting in the second car park” These turned out to be a precis of the actual instructions, leaving out the grid reference – which would have been useful because Willsbridge is a big place. However by a mixture of intuition, cunning and good luck we eventually found the party peering into Siston Brook.
Now at this point I had no idea what it was called so I filed it in my mind as ‘brook’ and we walked on. The footpath we took led us up the valley. The party comprised mainly birders and photographers although we were blessed with two snail fanatics and a couple of moth twitchers to leaven the lump, oh and our distinguished President the retired ‘Minister for Bogs’ who turned out to be an impressive birder as well. He could point to a blur in the sky and say ‘lesser spotted woodpecker’, or stand stock still, point to his ear and say – and say ‘marsh tit’ which was, sadly, beyond the competence of my hearing aids and so he gave me a brief demonstration of the call, he’s a great teacher!
Anyway it wasn’t long before we came across a kind of sculpture which lit a lightbulb in my head.”Ohmygoodness”- I thought in a jumbled sort of way- “we’re on the Dramway!”
[There follows a brief excursus on the soft mutation in what we used to know as children as – ‘broad Gloucestershire].
Native speakers, all of them now long dead, often substituted the softer ‘d’ for the hard ‘t’ according to a set of rules that were more complex than rocket science – we just absorbed them as children do, and then had them beaten out of us by our teachers and parents who thought they were common. It was only decades later when I had to learn enough Welsh to catch buses up the Valleys, that I realised that this was technically known as the ‘soft mutation’. We just thought it was the way to say things. All of which is a long winded way of explaining why this particular place is universally known as the Dramway although it appears on the maps as ‘Tramway’ – I hope that’s clear ….
The point of all this excitement on my part (‘though probably not yours), is that the Dramway and Siston Brook were a significant part of my childhood, but I’d only ever seen them from the other end, the northern end which was close to where I was born. The old line had disappeared decades before I was born, as had the mines that it served, bringing coal from Coalpit Heath – there’s a clue in the name – past the Pucklechurch mines and the Warmley ones too and terminating on the river Avon. But the remains were everywhere, and the names too, names like Handel Cossham, one of the principle mine owners and a local benefactor in the way of those days, who built a hospital to serve the victims of his mine accidents as well as the general population.
My childhood is embodied in the locality – we were free to roam and we walked and cycled every inch of our end of the County. If you cast a conservative circle five miles around where I was born next to the end of the railway line that, now disused, passes our flat on the other side of the river, that gives an area of around 75 square miles that we knew inside out. Make that circle 8 miles – a distance my friend Eddy and me regularly travelled to explore the pithead and the brickworks at Shortwood, that gives an area of 200 square miles. We crawled the underground flues at Shortwood brickworks, played dares over the mineshaft and put ourselves in harm’s way so many times. We caught buses to the docks to the West of the city, always inseparable, and cycled to Brean and back. Our bike range was enormous – we never told our parents where we were going – and we rarely told them afterwards,
The Dramway was one of the tracks we would follow across to Siston Common where I fell in love with the sound of the wind in the coarse grasses. My first ever OS map had all our favourite places marked, and I planned a cross country run from the footpath that crossed Siston Brook when it was no more than a ditch, It was there I found the unmarked St Annes Well, but until today I’ve never joined up the dots. The spot, nowadays signposted, is engraved in my memory for two reasons. Firstly, finding the well and researching it, (I was about 12), in the reference library, I discovered its reputation for the healing of eyes and that kindled a lifelong interest in folklore and healing. But secondly, I was once chased by a cow while I was running the path. I’d stopped to examine her calf which I thought was dead but was in fact newly born. I had to leap a barbed wire fence and the brook to escape her enraged charge. I could go on for ever; I’m hefted in this place by the voices and the places, all of them gone and built over.
And then in the midst of this revery we came upon the remains of a huge yew tree, fallen over very recently by the look of it and – someone said – 800 years old. There’s me indulging my memories of the past 70 years and there’s a tree in front of me that saw the Tudor wars, the English revolution, the Reformation, the enclosures, the Napoleonic wars, the early industrial revolution and two world wars. Standing in the corner of the graveyard of St Anne’s church (is there a connection with the spring upstream?) it had rotted through the centre and tumbled down the steep bank, upturning the slabs of some 18th century tombs. Memories almost bursting from the soil like Stanley Spencer’s painting of the resurrection at Cookham.
All this was going on in my head, while I gossiped about this and that and looked for any signs of stirring plantlife at my feet whilst almost everyone else was looking skyward. There was cafe there, but when our party paused to use the loos, the caretaker – schooled in the methods of counter evangelism – told us off loudly for using the cafe’s toilet facilities. You can win people over and please them a hundred times but you’ll only piss them off once. I spent my life trying to teach volunteers that the organisation didn’t exist for them but for the people who didn’t come – yet. Needless to say we didn’t stay there but hurried back to the car park at the end of the walk.
The birdy highlight for almost everyone was the dipper fishing downstream from the mill. Marsh tits, lesser spotted woodpecker -there was a long list being prepared when we parted company, but for me joining up the bits of my childhood would have made it worthwhile if we’d seen nothing.