Thursday, 20 August 2009

Landscape of Lead

The mineral riches of the Mendip Hills were well known in Europe, and it didn’t take the Romans long to reach Somerset and start mining. As early as 49AD their engineers were digging up lead and smelting it to extract the silver, and their activities over several hundred years have left a lasting impression on the landscape around the village of Charterhouse.

Uphill to the east, Ubley Warren looks as though a giant’s child played with it long ago, before the grass grew over the furrows, pits and nodules. Below the road, a dry, flat-bottomed valley twists between more odd-looking hillocks; the nature lover may wonder why the valley floor is bereft of bracken and other plants. Only grass seems to grow here.

This is Velvet Bottom, a destination to inspire even the most reluctant young walker. Today this odd valley is a nature reserve managed by the Somerset Wildlife Trust, but its formation and character are anything but natural. When the Romans came here lead ore was so plentiful and so close to the surface of the ground that it could be dug out of shallow trenches. Water was diverted from local streams into so-called ‘buddle pits’ in the valley floor, where the ore was separated from other impurities.

There was a Roman mining town in the vicinity of Charterhouse, commemorated in the Townfield nearby. Archaeological investigations by Sir Richard Colt Hoare at the end of the eighteenth century revealed little, but recent aerial photography has shown the distinctive pattern of a town, with a main street and houses laid out on either side. A circular structure in the next field seems to have been an amphitheatre, although it takes quite an effort to imagine this quiet landscape filled with the cries of Romans at sport.

It’s equally hard to picture the traffic that must have been moving constantly to and from this remote outpost of Rome, via the main road that ran south east to join the Fosse Way. In fact the mines were intermittently busy for centuries after the Roman legions departed, with extensive activity in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In 1844 Cornish tin miners arrived, hoping to exploit the lead deposits further by digging deeper; when their efforts proved worthless they turned their attention to the spoil heaps of previous generations, resmelting the slag and leaving the newer mounds we can see today.

So today’s landscape owes its character to Roman mining and a typically Victorian thoroughness in reprocessing. The hillsides above the road are pockmarked with pits and the sealed entrances to mineshafts, the grass tinted yellow by the presence in the soil of lead, cadmium and other metals.

In the valley itself the land is so poisoned that most plants struggle to grow, giving the impression of a river of grass flowing between banks of bracken. On either side are constant reminders of the industrial past, from the general unevenness of rough or ‘gruffy’ ground and worked-out mineral veins known as ‘rakes’ to the heaps of shiny black slag that looks like glassy coal. On these inhospitable mounds you can see plant colonies taking root and spreading, mostly grasses and alpines that have somehow adapted to life with few nutrients and an overabundance of lead and zinc.

Some rare species, such as alpine penny cress, are found only in this kind of metal-rich environment, while others appreciate the lack of competition from less tolerant plants like bracken and willow herb.

Local guide Adrian Boots, an expert in the ecology of the Mendips, admires the varied habitats around Charterhouse. While the rabbit-grazed limestone grassland of Ubley Warren supports numerous reptiles, adders included, and Velvet Bottom provides an unlikely refuge for rare alpines, a short walk leads to the rich ancient woodland of Long Wood.

Adrian leads foraging parties in search of wild food and so perhaps is biased towards the wild garlic and fungi of the woodland. He is understandably wary of lead.

“Velvet Bottom,” he says, “Is definitely one place I wouldn’t take them, but it is amazing. Quite a unique landscape.”

The woods, he adds, are part of the story too. Cut down for fuel by generations of miners, they have now grown back to cover the largest area in two thousand years.

When I first visited with my young children they shared Adrian’s enthusiasm for this enchanted place, playing happily for hours among humps and hollows that could only have been made by fairies. At the time I was happily ignorant of the potential hazards: I would certainly brave the adders again, and potential mine shaft accidents, but it might not be the best place for a picnic.

Extracted from an article in The Bristol Magazine

Saturday, 15 August 2009

Cool Camping

It's a subject that divides people pretty clearly - I've noticed it with old friends who now have families. Some can’t wait to chuck the tent in the back of the car and zoom off for the weekend. Others would sooner eat coal than spend a night under canvas. It seems to be the people who camped as children who love it now, perhaps because we enjoy reconnecting with our childish sense of wonder at being grubby and free, outside all day long.

But why do non-campers have such a problem with the roving life? Is it the lack of everyday luxuries – electric light, a bed that isn’t the ground, toast? Or is it the apparent unsuitability of our climate for outdoor living?

We go every summer to a wood in Suffolk to meet up with a load of friends, and whatever weekend the great get-together takes place it always rains. I’m talking stair rods. So reliable is the annual downpour that we should probably tell the Met Office of our plans so they can factor them into the long-range forecast. Last year the wood ended up looking like Glastonbury and every car had to be pushed out of the mire. Of course the kids were deliriously happy, running around covered in mud and doing dangerous things with sticks, but what about the adults?

Can I honestly say that it’s fun to be soggy for three days? Hand on heart… I love it! Yes, a supply of cider or (insert favourite tipple) is absolutely essential, along with a phlegmatic outlook on life in general and mud in particular, but for anyone who lives in the city but loves the countryside nothing beats walking around a wood – even a wet wood - in the middle of the night or waking up with the birds singing all around.

This is my favourite kind of camping, the composting-toilet-and-one-tap experience that makes non-campers shudder with revulsion. Last year, on that glorious August Bank Holiday weekend, we camped in a field with no facilities whatsoever but with a Dorset beach only yards away. Did anyone care about the hike to the nearest public toilet? Well, yes, but with the sun shining by day and owls hooting by night it was worth it.

It sometimes feels as though your options are either this scenario or the big, suburb-style campground with its amazing facilities and total lack of atmosphere, but there is a middle way.

I just got hold of the new edition of Cool Camping, a wonderful guide to the best campsites in England (different books cover Wales and other parts), and when I say ‘best’ I’m talking about fantastic locations, excellent facilities and charm. The book itself does for life under canvas what Nigella Lawson has done for sweating over a hot stove, with gorgeous photography and mouth-watering descriptions.

Jonathan Knight, the book’s author, agrees that location is key to the new wave of camping.

“It’s about finding that remote location and getting back to nature,” he told Folio. “It’s about finding those amazing, really quiet places that are off the camping thoroughfare. The first edition had only forty sites in it, and this one has another thirty-five – people write in and tell us about the places they’ve been visiting for years, sometimes through several generations.”

A typical site is Stowford Manor Farm, which lies on the river Frome not far from Bradford on Avon. This is a working farm with historic buildings of Cotswold stone, some of which are rented to local craftsmen, and a luxurious tea garden. The site itself is small, with access to the river for aquatic pursuits from paddling upwards, although the more adventurous can pop down the road and join the Farleigh Hungerford swimming club – the only river swimming club in the country. Founded in 1933, at a time when river swimming was a popular pastime, it has survived the boom in foreign holidays and is now enjoying a resurgence.

Jonathan Knight thinks this is true of camping too.

“My perception,” he says. “Just kind of talking to people – people you wouldn’t expect to be passionate about camping – is that the glamour of air travel has gone. The kind of people who used to go on weekend city breaks are getting fed up of waiting around at airports and finding cities overrun with people. They’re starting to see the attraction of throwing their tent in the car and going off for the weekend.

“People may not be looking at camping as their main holiday option, but as one of a range of things. Not because it’s cheap, necessarily, but because it’s pleasant.”

Extracted from an article in Folio Magazine, summer 2008

Sunday, 9 August 2009

Walter Raymond and Withypool 1/2

Walter Raymond ought to be Somerset’s favourite literary son. As it is his work is long out of print and obscure with it, so he’s a writer you have to go out and find – much as he sought out the characters he described a hundred years ago. Though Raymond enjoyed a career as a rustic novelist in the 1890s, the books that formed his unique contribution to the literature of the countryside were all written in the tiny Exmoor village of Withypool, in the decade leading up to World War One.

“My heart was yearning for a simple life,” he begins in The Book of Simple Delights, a collection of sketches published in the Spectator and elsewhere. Dreaming of a pre-industrial Arcadia, he remembers a village he once passed through on an Exmoor ramble, and a particular cottage where an old woman gave him a glass of milk. He rushes off to find it, only to discover the place semi-derelict.

“’Well, you see,’ the owner John Creed explains, ‘They won’t have this sort o’ cottage now. ‘Tis ill-convenient, I do own. I offered to do un up for a man, but he looked roun’, an’ wouldn’ live in un rent vree, zo he said. No. His day’s gone. ‘Tis kingdom-come for un, I do suppose. An’ zo ‘twull vor you an’ I, one o’ these-here days.’”

But Raymond took the cottage, and his landlord became the first of many local people to have their characters drawn over the next ten years. Whether or not the facts are strictly correct is irrelevant, because Raymond was neither historian nor social scientist but an observer in the manner of Thoreau or Gilbert White. His eye for detail and exquisite rendition of dialogue, not to mention his deep immersion in the place he disguised as Hazelgrove-Plucknut, make him an important chronicler of times past.

Though a Somerset native, Raymond was an exotic figure in Withypool. Born the son of a Yeovil glove manufacturer in 1852, Raymond worked in the glove trade himself until he was forty, only then embarking on his literary career. By this time he was married with eight children, and while he lived in solitary splendour in Withypool his wife and family were in London – as were his readers, of course. In his Exmoor cottage, Raymond was a cross between foreign correspondent and anthropologist, describing the last years of an ancient rural culture to a generation raised on Hardy.

Thoreau wrote that you should set out on a walk prepared never to return, and Raymond shared this spirit. He was a wanderer, and his wanderings took him deep into the countryside where he encountered people whose lives are now unimaginable, people subsisting on what they could garner from the land. On one walk he meets an old woman out gathering crab apples.

“’Beautiful weather,’ said I.

‘Zo ‘tis, said she, and stepped aside to pour a stream of little yellow, rosy apples out of her apron into the open mouth of the sack.

‘But what be about then, mother? What good is it to pick up such stuff as that?’

‘Lauk-a-massy, master,’ she laughed, ‘I do often zay to myself this time o’ year I be but like the birds that do pick a liven off the hedges.’”

She picks blackberries at blackberry time, and crabapples, and privet berries, and sloes, using her unique knowledge of place and season and working with a network of buyers. So the crabapples go to London for jelly-making, and the privet berries to a dyer and the sloes to ‘the gentry’ for gin.


Walter Raymond and Withypool 2/2

Like so many of Raymond’s characters – like the old stone-cracker and the snail merchant of The Book of Crafts and Character – this old woman is poor but free, her existence rooted but precarious; she is well aware of how the world is changing. While she has lived her whole life under one roof, her children have all left for the city, and the economic system of the village – exemplified by the local mill - is breaking down.

“’The little grist-mill down to brook,’” she tells Raymond, “’He is but vower walls an’ a hatch-hole now. He valled in years agone. Miller couldn’t make a liven, an’ zo he gi’ed un up. ‘Tis the big mills, zo the tale is, do zell zo low.’”

The feeling of ‘last days’ fills Raymond’s work, and he knew well that he was recording near-extinct crafts and characters. To this end he invited Cecil Sharp to Withypool, and took him to hear the songs of the gypsies who camped periodically on the Common overlooking the village.

Of the whole scene, this moorland is the part that has changed least, though the gypsies are long gone, and on the day I drove down the hill into the village it formed a dark, ominous backdrop to a scene that is otherwise idyllic. Like so many Somerset villages Withypool has emerged from hard times to find a new prosperity in the twenty-first century, and people like Walter Raymond showed the way.

In fact his type has become the norm. Like him, many modern residents have come from elsewhere – often to retire - and get their income elsewhere. New houses stand on what was once the orchard adjoining the pub, and the older cottages now boast slate roofs and extensions, and have well-tended gardens. One of these, up the lane beside the pub, is ‘Raymond’s Cottage’, recognisable from old pictures but missing the thatch the author predicted would soon be a thing of the past.

But what of life in the village? The schoolhouse, built in 1876 and thriving thirty years later, is now closed, awaiting development, but the Royal Oak does a good trade as a restaurant and inn. In his whimsical way Raymond called it the Rose in June, and he spent many an evening sitting quietly near the fire, not so much listening to as immersed in the local gossip.

I followed his path down from the cottage and walked into the bar of the pub, which had the cosy dimensions of an old village hostelry, and smelled of woodsmoke. The hunting trophies and memorabilia came as a surprise, until I realised that my guide had little interest in horses. He was a pedestrian, the urban flaneur transplanted to an Exmoor lane, and this was why he encountered the last of the old rural poor who at that time dwelt virtually unseen, close to the earth. Did anyone apart from him, in fact, even notice them and record their presence?

A few regulars sat at the bar discussing the fortunes of a horse, then a family came in – grandparents, parents and three tow-headed kids – and took the biggest table. Suddenly the place livened up, as the children asked questions about the hunting pictures and the grandmother tried to stop the youngest boy shaking salt everywhere. Perhaps, like Walter Raymond, the grandparents had found the place years before, and now they had joined a population living a dream.

I walked up the lane again and on up the hill, following a route I’m sure the author travelled a thousand times. I didn’t meet anyone, but on the moor I noticed the same abundance of linnets he observed. And I found myself looking and listening more carefully than usual, aware that every tree, every stream and every rock had once been vitally important to somebody.

This article was first published in Countryman magazine

Saturday, 8 August 2009

Gants Mill: Hydropower Revolution

Water was for centuries Britain’s main source of power, and at Gants Mill in Somerset it is making a remarkable comeback. Looming over a quiet valley a mile downstream from the ancient town of Bruton, the tall stone edifice gives the visitor a first impression of great antiquity and power. But though the walls are old and the foundations medieval, this watermill has a new role – generating electricity.

The first recorded watermills in Britain date from the eighth century, when Saxon invaders brought with them new technology and engineering skills, and by the Norman Conquest there were over five thousand around the country. With bread the universal staple, the watermill revolutionised food production and made the miller’s role vital but not always valued. Aloof from other folk in his castle above the water, the miller was neither churchman nor landowner yet he had power, and this made him a decidedly equivocal figure in medieval society.

Chaucer’s Miller, to take one famous example, is both an outrageous drunkard and one of the most complex and interesting characters portrayed in The Canterbury Tales. His irreverence so offends the Reeve that this stern gentleman retorts with the story of Symkyn, a miller whose type would have been familiar to Chaucer’s readers:

A theef he was for sothe of corn and mele,
And that a sly, and usaunt for to stele.
(A thief he was, in truth, of corn and meal,
And that a sly, accustomed well to steal)

The miller was resented for his monopoly on waterpower, but that power shaped medieval England in a way we tend to overlook.

It is no accident that Gants Mill retains the name it derived from John le Gaunt, who built a fulling mill on land granted to him by Hugh Lovel, Lord of Castle Cary, in about 1290. John’s venture would enjoy success for half a millennium, and it was motivated by a Royal decree that shaped the medieval economy: the imposition, in 1275, of a tax on the export of raw wool.

Previously wool had gone more or less straight from the sheep’s back to Flanders, but now it had to be made into cloth. In a long and elaborate process, the raw wool was first spun and woven, then the rough cloth was taken to a fulling mill to be scoured and felted. Before the invention of the fulling mill, people had no option but to remove dirt and grease by stomping the cloth in buckets of water mixed with pig’s urine, so the introduction of wooden hammers driven by waterpower constituted a genuine industrial revolution. The addition of fuller’s earth – a limey kind of clay – improved the cleansing process further. Nevertheless, it still took twelve hours to process a batch of cloth, after which it was hung up on racks to dry.

Merchants continued to export finished wool from Somerset for more than four hundred years, and for most of that time Gants Mill was owned by the Westons of Stalbridge, Dorset, who leased the mill to a succession of wool merchants. A still-extant document of 1619 describes a lease to William Yerdburie, including “all those two water milles commonlie called and knowne by the name of Gauntes Milles”, along with various parcels of land. Amazingly, the annual rent of forty shillings and four pence was exactly the same as it had been back in 1360.

But the end was not far off for the Somerset wool industry, which could not compete with the factories of Yorkshire and Lancashire as the Industrial Revolution took hold. In a few short decades, techniques and methods that had changed little since Chaucer’s time were rendered obsolete, and lacking the concentration of resources and modern communications to compete, industrial Somerset began its long decline.

It remains a fully functioning mill, however, and I took advantage of one of the regular open days to take a guided tour with Brian Shingler, the current owner, whose parents bought Gants Mill in 1949.

In tune with changing times, the mill now relies on tourism for most of its revenue, but Brian introduces himself as ‘the miller’ and he does indeed continue to grind barley for animal feed. The interior of the building is crooked and dusty, and when the miller turns the giant wheel that opens a valve below us and sends water rushing to drive the Victorian turbine the whole place begins to rumble and shake. Dust fills the air as the belts and shafts connecting the turbine to the millstones on the floor above us grumble into life, followed by the millstones themselves. After a minute or two, in a wonderful display of simple but effective mechanical engineering, coarse ground barley begins to flow down the antique wooden chutes above us, to fall into hessian sacks.

But the demonstration is not over yet. After closing the valve, Brian goes over to a hi-tech control panel on the wall and flicks a switch. Now the water is forced along a different pipe and a second turbine comes into play, only this one, installed as recently as 2003, is connected to a generator. On the control panel, revolving numbers tell us that electricity is flowing into the National Grid.

Once again Gants Mill has responded to a new government policy, in this case a commitment to producing 10% of Britain’s energy by renewable means by 2010. The resulting grants and tax breaks encouraged a flowering of technological invention that may one day be seen as the start of an Energy Revolution, and when Brian Shingler brought together a dozen Somerset mill owners to study the feasibility of installing hydropower equipment, the results were positive. Now Gants Mill generates 30,000 kWh per year, enough to power about ten households.

This is just the beginning. Around Britain there are more than twenty thousand functioning or salvageable watermills, and word is gradually spreading among their owners. In Somerset alone, work is progressing at more than a dozen sites, each one, like Gants, rich both in history and potential and possessed of a unique sense of place.

Hinton Mill is supplied with water from the River Yeo via a tunnel 1500 feet long, dug out of the rock in the eighteenth century, while Carey’s Mill near Martock functioned as a snuff mill before becoming part of the well-known Parrett Works. At Tellisford Mill on the fast-flowing Mendip river Frome, the twenty-first century miller has installed generating equipment powerful enough to supply the whole village. Tellisford has a history dating back to the Roman occupation, when a road crossed the river at a point later chosen by Saxon engineers as the site of a corn mill.

When the new machinery was being installed at Gants Mill a stone was found in the medieval foundations with the letters ‘R En’ carved into it: the mark, possibly, of Robert Edwyne, the miller before John Le Gaunt. Now, as it did then, the watermill faces a long and productive future.

Extracted from an article in British Heritage, autumn 2007

Friday, 7 August 2009

To Portishead on Two Wheels

Let’s start from the Arnolfini. Cross the Prince Street bridge and head along the far side of the floating harbour, under the old cranes, following the railway track away from the water and under the bridge to the south. From here the old railway path leads along the New Cut to the Create Centre, where the aged but still serviceable bridge takes you across to the meadows on the far bank.

That’s the hard bit done, navigation-wise. From here you’re following both the river and the route markers put up by Sustrans so you have to try quite hard to get lost.

The meadows opposite Cumberland Lock seem a rather featureless stretch of municipal grassland these days, dominated by the road system overhead, but there’s rich history here. At low tide the ramps used by passengers on the old Rownham Ferry can be seen in the glistening mud, while the footbridge over the railway track to the west is a remnant of the railway station that used to stand where the police now keep dogs and horses.

Railway tracks still follow the route of the river and are used to bring freight in from Royal Portbury Dock, but anyone hoping to catch the train home from Portishead will have to wait decades at least. The Beeching Axe cut Portishead off from the railway network in the 1960s and to reconnect this rapidly growing town seems a political impossibility.

Our path long predates Beeching and even the original building of the railways. As you ride along, under the Suspension Bridge with the water on your right, you’re following a towpath used for centuries to pull ships up and down the river. Until steam tugs ended their monopoly in the nineteenth century it was the Pill Hobblers who controlled this lucrative business. Men or horses dragged boats laden with cargo up a tidal river even the best sailors struggled to navigate.

If you ride often along this stretch of river, with the gorge rising on either side, you get a powerful sense of the Avon’s shifting beauty and treacherous character. At the still point of high tide you can be looking across a calm and silvery expanse of water but a couple of hours later the scene is transformed and the river is rushing headlong towards the sea. At low tide it seems impossible that any ship ever came up this way, as the silvery water is replaced by steep banks of silvery mud.

The path too has its moments. Sometimes you find yourself high above the river and in the absence of guard rails some caution is necessary, particularly at busy times. The next minute you’re hurtling downhill towards a huge mud puddle. For a mile or so after the Suspension Bridge you’re riding along the bottom end of Leigh Woods, with paths leading up from the bank into the trees. Some of these are easily passable, but one or two are steep and rocky; to get into the woods the best access point is the turn-off marked with a Sustrans sign, heading towards Paradise Bottom.

Now we leave the gorge and the overhanging trees and ride in a long curve through open country. This is the notorious Horseshoe Bend, scene of numerous shipwrecks. Here the current swirls unpredictably and a vessel only has to lose its position a fraction to be turned sideways and stranded, as happened most infamously to the Demerara in the 1850s. For the cyclist, however, this is a peaceful, rural section of the ride. Herons nesting in the woods on the far bank can often be seen fishing at low tide along with other waterbirds such as oystercatchers and tufted ducks.

Also on the far bank is the Powder House, once an essential feature of Bristol’s maritime life. Here all incoming vessels were obliged to moor and offload their (explosive) powder, although many would have stopped here anyway, taking advantage of the secure anchorage at Hung Road, just downstream of Horseshoe Bend, to unload or await the tide.

From here the path leaves the river bank, taking you along back lanes to Pill. This is an odd region, with an ancient pond followed by modern landscaping and some bizarre public art that includes an artificial mound you have to ride around. What the point of it is one can only guess, but now the path goes gently downhill into Pill proper, around the tiny but historically important harbour and on through the backstreets.

Thanks to Sustrans the route is clearly marked as you negotiate street and path, taking care to follow the path under the motorway bridge rather than onto it. From here the last few miles are a study in contrast. First, a series of giant warehouses and car parks, in which rows and rows of new cars and vans wait for their useful lives to begin. Then, just as you begin to think the car parks must stretch all the way to Portishead, you emerge into the old, genteel village of Portbury. Beyond it lies the last patch of undeveloped land in this area. Known as Sheepway, this fragment of ancient countryside is the true destination of this ride; if you stop on the bridge you can look down on the abandoned railway and over to Portishead, which seems a little closer each time I come.

Excerpted from an article in The Bristol Magazine