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.Then 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?”