“Are you one of the Somerset Poles?”

Dundas Aqueduct
Part two of yesterday’s post about the Somerset Coal Canal

I’ve already written about Saturday’s walk along the remains of the SCC which enters the Kennet and Avon via a large pound next to John Rennie’s marvellous Dundas Aqueduct, pictured in the photo. Having got stupidly lyrical about a few rusty nails and some collapsing masonry yesterday I wanted to write something about the Cam Brook, and indeed the several large streams, brooks and rivers that have created a landscape so lovely it puts me in mind of Samuel Palmer’s visionary paintings. I wouldn’t have been surprised if the end of a rainbow wasn’t permanently held there by a flock of Turtle Doves holding it still with golden threads.

Anyway, even a less ecstatic walker would have to agree that it’s a rather magical place notwithstanding the crooks who extracted the wealth of the North Somerset coalfield with levels of neglect and cruelty that this extractive age is only just reinventing.

My father occasionally talked about a motorcycle journey he made to visit a couple of old unmarried great aunts who made cider “somewhere near Wells” – he was never specific apart from the fact that the huge fermenting barrels sounded ‘like a swarm of bees’ – and also that he’d drunk too much of the cider which resulted in his legs becoming paralysed, and left him no alternative but to drive into a hedge bank and wait until he sobered up.

I never knew very much about my dad’s side of the family because he’d had a falling out with his own father and moved into lodgings at the age of fourteen or fifteen. Any contact with his brothers and the older sisters who’d cared for him as a child during the years his father was fighting in Afghanistan (really!) was spasmodic to say the least. So nothing more than hints of a Somerset branch of the family existed in my mind.

I had of course heard of a Pole line in Tudor times when Margaret Pole became a powerful force until she chose the wrong side but apart from the humorous thought that I might be distantly related, I never joined those two bits of information together. Then, one day when I was doing a funeral visit to an elderly lady in my parish she said to me “I think we’re probably related”. She too was a Somerset woman and during a long conversation it became clear that the story about my old cider making relatives rang a bell with her and for a short while we forged a connection which was soon broken by her dementia.

But earlier in my career I’d been asked a strange question which I misunderstood, thinking instantly about the hypothetical Tudor ancestors. “Are you one of the Somerset Poles?” was something I’d never been asked before so I was a bit taken aback when a very smart middle aged woman who looked and sounded as if she might have ridden a horse to church and left it with a groom, approached from out of a large crowd of local dignitaries after a carol service. Of course I had heard of the wealthy and powerful Poles but in the absence of any knowledge of a less lofty branch of the family I think I rather rudely dismissed her with a quip about being one of the Staple Hill Poles.

So our walk on Saturday began in the village of South Stoke and went sharply downhill by a series of footpaths towards the remains of the Somerset Coal Canal and we were completely entranced by the landscape – as I’ve already said. By Sunday we were already planning a return visit and so we were busy researching the area and some of its grand (like £8 million) houses, and went to Toppings Bookshops to buy two of the excellent local guides written by Andrew Swift. But during our mammoth Googlefest Madame stumbled on the PDF of a typewritten manuscript published by the local South Stoke history group. As she read this paragraph out to me it made the hairs on the back of my head stand up.

1794 October 16th Bath Chronicle: Richard Pole at Southstoke has ten hogsheads of last year’s cider for sale at 92 per hogshead.’ (This is an old local name. There were Poles at Monkton Combe and Southstoke before the Reformation).

John Canvin, local historian.

I traced my Mothers side of the family back to the mid eighteenth century without much difficulty – the male line were all carpenters as was my grandfather. But my Dad’s side was much harder partly due to the fact that a Jewish connection had been concealed at some time in the past – I’ve no evidence to suggest why. But this Somerset connection looks and feels absolutely right. I do just remember being taken as a child to a very scary institutional place with green iron railings to see what could have been a great grandmother and I discovered that one of my Dad’s more recent ancestors had died in the Workhouse in Stapleton but details are few and far between.

So there it is; walking can be a perilous activity but – just maybe I might soon be able to establish my credentials as a genuine peasant. More than a few people I know probably came to that conclusion many years ago!

Alleluia – proper frost at last

Yesterday gave us sunshine and frost, in fact proper winter weather set to at last for two or three days, so we put on our winter woollies, grabbed the walking sticks and binoculars and set off across the river to pay a return visit to the last field trip walk. It’s been so wet that everywhere we went there was water spurting from each tiny spring and there were times when we were skating almost as much as we were walking. Our first quarry was the heronry we spotted last time, but we were a little later starting off and by the time we got there the birds had – so to speak – flown.  There are plenty of garden ponds in Bath, but I suspect their first port of call would be the lake at Prior Park which is so full of signal crayfish that the dam has been eroded to the point where a £2,200,000 restoration project has begun.  Rumour has it that crayfish cakes have appeared on the menu in the cafe from time to time, as they try desperately to eliminate them.

But quite apart from the more unusual wildlife, I loved the frost encrusted plants, especially where the usually invisible hairs on the leaves had been highlighted by tiny crystals of frost. An absolute visual feast.

IMG_20200119_131236So no herons then, but it was such a lovely day it was good just to be out in it.  Bath lies in the valley of the river Avon and because the river takes a winding course through the southern end of the Cotswolds, it feels as if we’re completely surrounded by hills. This gives us our own microclimate and means that traffic pollution is sometimes trapped in the bowl of the landscape. On the plus side – so long as your knees are up to it – you can climb in almost any direction and enjoy fabulous views.  We contemplated walking up to the highline but decided instead to follow the Twin Tunnels cycle path back into the centre. The two tunnels in question once formed part of the Somerset and Dorset railway line, whose initials S & D were immediately dubbed the ‘slow and dirty’ line by the passengers. In fact the longer of the two tunnels, the Combe Down Tunnel is the longest cycling and walking tunnel in the country at just over a mile long.  It had no proper ventilation and so the train drivers would occasionally become unconscious as the steam trains laboured through, filling the tunnel with smoke and fumes. On one occasion the train ran out of control down the steep incline into Bath, killing the driver.

At the point we joined the route we could have turned left through the long tunnel, over the Midford Viaduct and on down to the Kennet and Avon canal, but yesterday we took the shorter Devonshire tunnel – a ten minute walk – and back down the old line to the city centre.  Quite apart from being a magnet for runners, walkers and cyclists, it’s a long narrow nature reserve as well and we shared the path with hundreds of others on foot and on bikes.  We’re incredibly fortunate to have such marvellous facilities here.

Frost is wonderful, well at least it is to us because we’ve got nothing too tender on the allotment.  Broad beans and garlic positively relish the cold and a quick check showed no serious problems at all.  We’re right at the bottom of a steep slope and so it’s a made to measure frost trap. The higher allotments get more sun and less cold, but we, on the other hand, are protected from the strongest winds and retain more moisture,  The key to gardening is to know your ground and respect its foibles and qualities and after four years we’re beginning to understand what we can and can’t grow. The robins now show up as soon as we appear, whether or not there will be any digging, and they sit no more than a couple of feet away keeping an eye on us.

The old hands always insist that the frost kills off pests, making it a good thing. Certainly it has an effect in breaking up clods of heavy clay but since we gave up digging that’s not really an issue for us,. As for whether it really kills insects I’ve no idea; you’d have thought that if overwintering pupae were all killed by the cold, the species would have become extinct through evolutionary pressures, but it’s just nice to have a change of key in the winter. Our biggest worry is whether the lavenders will survive.  The globe artichokes are still looking fine but they’ll surely die back after this cold spell.

The seasons are wonderful.  There are always intimations of what’s coming, alongside traces of what’s past and so it’s impossible to ignore the never ending flux of season and weather.  My mum – who was given to sunday school soundbites – would say ‘hope springs eternal in the hearts of the faithful’. It’s hard not to feel that some kind of nebulous and inexpressible faith in nature is what motivates gardeners everywhere. IMG_20200119_131945

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