Joining up the dots

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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!

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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.

IMG_20200125_115558And 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.




My life in a landscape


This photograph embraces the landscape I’ve spent much of my life working in, walking in, cycling around and variously exploring. It looks looks across to the Forest of Dean and in the flesh, as it were,  you can just see the pillars of the old Severn bridge so all my old parishes are there. To the left is the place where I was born, and the whole of East Bristol towards Clifton where we also lived and all our children were born. The depression on the horizon contains the Avon Gorge through which the River Avon (which flows past our flat in Bath) enters the River Severn and the Bristol Channel. Our flat lies on the cycle path that traces the abandoned railway line between Bristol and Bath and if I follow it I can pass the house I was born in. I first went into Dyrham Park when I was about 11 years old and was allowed to go cycling on my own. I explored all of this landscape and often climbed over the wall of Dyrham Park and rested there.  In fact I still feel as if I’m trespassing although the house was virtually derelict at the time.

Whenever we go to Dyrham Park we ignore the bypass and the motorway, which I loathe for having gutted and broken up the landscape of my childhood. There is, or rather was a powerful sense of place that came from the style of buildings and the stone many of them were made from. There were old connecting routes like the dram road – even the name “dram” is, I think a soft mutation of “tram” which is very characteristic of the dialect of my childhood. The road which has almost disappeared now, was the tramway that brought coal from the South Gloucestershire Coalfield – Parkfield Colliery, Coalpit Heath and so on, to the river Avon for onward transportation. I think I’ve written about the sense of rootedness I had from just talking to an assistant at Bendrey’s Sawmill who spoke with exactly my own dialect and which placed us both within a few square miles. The dialect is gradually ebbing away and the explosion of housing estates and their infrastructure of roads and services has eroded what sense of belonging once existed except for a few eccentrics and die-hards who, like me, are apt to be taken for idiots because we refuse to jettison our accents. As I’ve often had to remind people ‘the fact that I speak with an accent doesn’t mean I’m stupid’, but such is the power of the stereotype. To get back to the point, though, we sometimes take the route I might well have cycled as a child; through Keynsham and then past Fry’s old factory now renamed “The Chocolate Quarter” and converted into attractive flats too expensive for the people who lost their jobs at Frys to buy. Progress my ass! North Common, Bridgeyate, Siston Common , Wick, and Dyrham were, I suppose, just about the catchment area for Rodway School. One of my first girl friends used to catch the train from Yate to Mangotsfield along with maybe twenty others. It was a human sized patch of territory within which many remained and I’ve returned from living only twenty miles but a whole civilisation away. I remember saying when I retired from parish ministry – I think it was my last service at Elberton – that I was afraid I had become hefted in Severnside. Well, if it was ever true, the territory of my childhood has proved the stronger force. Each place is embedded and enchanted by memories. The brickworks at Shortwood where Eddy and I would play in the old flues, crawling through the underground passages to gaze up at the sky through the chimneys. The capped mineshaft at Parkfield where you could still peer down the mineshaft and see the harts tongue fern marking the boundary between the known and the terrifying depth of the shaft.  All this in a landscape.

And so today we took a break from the allotment and went for a walk in Dyrham Park and by the strangest coincidence we met a couple of Rangers one of whom was the daughter of the Deputy Head of my primary school, so we’re talking sixty years ago. It’s always the voice, you see. Between us we remembered not only all the teachers, but their idiosyncracies and the colour of their hair. A whole cast of characters came back to life.IMG_4946Then as we zig-zagged down the Terrace to the formal gardens we were admiring this pruning on the espalier pears in front of the main house, when one of the gardeners came along and he then called over the full-timer who had actually pruned them so beautifully. As soon as he knew that Madame had once worked at Long Ashton Research Station they were away, talking about growing virus-free budwood and grafting and, of course, pruning. So then we had a marvellous impromptu seminar on the Modified Lorette pruning system, and he’d actually visited the gardens at Versailles to see the method being used.  Apparently they are quite happy to allow nine years for the lower branches to reach full length before they allowed any rising shoots to establish a second tier. So back home and a glass of perry from the orchard while we reflected on the day. As we were checking out at the shop I had a jokey exchange with the woman on the till.  I asked her if I’d live longer if I collected enough of their ‘bags for life’ she instantly swtitched into metaphysical mode and asked me intently “would you really like to live for ever?” No, absolutely not” I said – but I thought to myself “can I have a few more more days like this first?” 


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