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!