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Monday, 26 November 2012


Floods. Suddenly everyone’s talking about them; suddenly everyone’s an overnight expert on saturated soil and aquifer recharge. Suddenly everyone’s an amateur geography tutor.
The River Brue on Saturday - obligatory Tor in background photo
La Villa Ramblanista has been spared the worst of the inundations, though the stream that runs past our backyard burst its banks and flooded the public schoolboys’ playing fields causing the wannabe rugger-buggers to go without on Saturday. But neither María Inés de la Cruz nor I like to miss out on the next big thing so we decided to step out into the soggy Somerset landscape and see for ourselves what all the fuss was about.
A bridge over relatively untroubled water
We spent most of Saturday evening preparing ourselves for the encounter, aided by several large gin and tonics. María read from One Hundred Years of Solitude in her mellifluous Salvadorean tones; the chapter where it rains in Macondo for four years, eleven months and two days. I showed her an episode of The Young Ones – Flood: just about sums up the gaping difference in our respective cultural aspirations. I don’t think María really got to grips with The Young Ones but when I said I spent a couple of years living in the suburb of Bristol where it was filmed she bombarded me with personal questions. She has something of an obsession with my youth, keeps asking me whether I really had a picture of Jon Bon Jovi on my bedroom wall and wants a detailed description of the contents of my wardrobe. ‘You’ll just have to wait for the publication of Death by Eyeliner, my shocking autobiography’, I told her and she sulked for the remainder of the evening.
Not for us it ain't! These three words don't feature in the Ramblanista vocabulary
But I digress. By the time we’d got back from mass and argued about whether we’d go north, south, east or west – maps, of course, are for wimps – it had gone noon and the clouds were already rolling in; just as well we got a lift to North Wootton with the landlord and landlady of La Villa Ramblanista. At least we managed to agree on a strategy; it wasn’t a day to be squelching off across the waterlogged fields so we stuck to tracks and roads. Just as well, the rhynes were full and parts of the moor were under fifty centimetres of water.
Geology porn: Yeovil Sands in holloway on Pennard Hill
But the truth is that the reality didn’t really match up to the hype; they had it much worse around Taunton and Langport. Now don’t get me wrong, as an itinerant geography tutor I’m offering accused of getting off on other people’s misery, of having an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of tsunami death tolls but you know what they say about Japan being the best place to be when an earthquake strikes? Well you might say the same thing about the Levels and flooding. It’s almost as if some omnipotent deity created them for that purpose and that purpose alone; the moors lie only a metre or so above mean sea level and the structural geology tilts the strata in such a manner that only the construction of man-made drainage channels such as the Huntspill River and a network of pumping stations keeps the sea and the floodwaters in some form of abeyance. In any case, times change, even in the sexy but staid world of land management and wetlands, once the bane of the drainage engineer, are back in fashion.
Random quaint Westcountry signpost porn

A bit like the nineteen-eighties, I suppose. María listened patiently but her eyes only lit up when I started to talk about clyses. When she found out they had nothing to do with intimate sexual pleasure but were, in fact, sluice gates, we decided it was time to head back to the Cathedral City.
She led, I followed, isn’t it always thus?
María thought this sign read 'Roads liable to grow breasts'. She spends far too much time in my company.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Post-Camino Syndrome

I got it bad, you don't know how bad I got it
You got it easy, you don't know when I've got it good
It's getting harder, just keeping life and soul together
I'm sick of fighting, even though I know I should

In the beginning there is no end; or at least the end is so distant you don’t give it any thought. A bit like life and death, I suppose. And then, contrary to logic and reason, when the end does come within reach and the towers of Santiago cathedral emerge from the thick sheets of wet cloud you just want to go on and on and on. You make detours, continue to Finisterre - then Muxia. Anything to not come to an end.
Might as well face it you’re addicted to wanderlust. 
It’s more or less six months since I completed the Camino de Santiago; the Galician rain relented for one whole day allowing my ‘family’ and I to bask in sunshine at the End of the World. Thirty-six days, nine hundred kilometres; just as well the Atlantic Ocean was there to stop me, there was no way to go but home.
The ‘don’t stop walking’ sign that is my avatar was spotted on the difficult second day, when the euphoria from crossing the Pyrenees begins to ebb and the reality – the aches and strains – sets in. I have to be honest, there were times I hated my fellow pilgrims with an irrational intensity and there were several long sections of the Camino Francés – across the Meseta and the long trudges in and out of cities which were so depressingly dull I came that close to quitting. Close to quitting but not to stopping walking; for several days the Picos de Europa loomed tantalisingly on the horizon, only a bus ride away. But I persevered and was rewarded with one solitary day in the mountains north of Villafranco del Bierzo.
A solitary day on the Camino Francés? It can happen, it did happen; but that’s another story.
But there’s more to the Camino than landscape and camaraderie and by the end of day three – Pamplona – I was already hopelessly hooked on the act of putting one foot in front of the other; by the time I got to Astorga the obsession had taken such a hold that the world as you know it had long since ceased to exist. It had become utterly irrelevant and I no longer wanted to be part of it. It’s that liberating aspect of the Camino – of any pilgrimage or long, long walk – that’s intoxicating. At St Jean Pied de Port five long weeks of walking – and only walking – stretch out in front of you. It’s dangerously enticing and I bought into it. Big time.
Do all good things really have to come to an end? The 'family' joked about how we’d cope with reinsertion to the ‘real world’ and I tried hard not to repeat the old mantra about ‘reality’ being nothing more than a construct, a state of mind.
The joke soon wore thin. I caught the train from Santiago to Irun on the Spanish/French border from where I was to catch the midnight bus to Paris. Wandering around the town, still clothed in the classic peregrine uniform of rucksack and boots and taking great care to display classic ramblanista ‘nomad’ chic, two locals asked whether I was looking for the albergue, assuming I was about to set out on the Camino Norte.
You don’t know how hard it was not to seek out that hostel and return to Santiago, this time along the coast. Another eight hundred kilometres. And then what? There’s always another path, another track or road but I’d run out of money.
Did I go home, knuckle down and return to some semblance of normality?
Did I hell. I still haven’t stopped walking; still need my fix on a daily basis. My natural inclination, first thing in the morning, is to slip into my boots and rucksack, not a smart, chic outfit from my increasingly neglected wardrobe. It doesn’t get any easier; in many respects it’s getting worse. Since I responded to a tweet about the Camino last week I’ve been getting flashbacks – and no, I’m not taking the piss, I know what genuine flashbacks are – and I spent most of the weekend planning next year’s journey; it'll be longer and harder, naturally. Like every junkie, with every next fix needs you need to up the dose.
And like every junkie I don’t expect the world outwith my tiny little mind to sympathise or understand; I don’t really want it to. The Camino left me homeless and penniless and played havoc with my hair; it also left me with a hopeless addiction to liberty I’ve no intention of suppressing. If you were to dangle a cure in front of me I’d chuck it back in your face.
Yes, it’s been said before. Not so much a rebel without a cause as a rebel without a clue. 

You must be joking, you don't know a thing about it
You've got no problems, I'd stay right there if I were you
I got it harder, you couldn't dream how hard I got it
Stay out of my shoes if you know what's good for you

Lyrics: 'Wouldn't it be Good' by the awesome Nik Kershaw

Sunday, 4 November 2012

November Snow

Gruffy ground under November snow
Here’s a first! María Inés de la Cruz expressing empathy with the English obsession with weather. It was just after noon, we were sitting atop Pen Hill on the Mendips, surrounded by fields of rapidly-thawing snow. We’d been woken by the sound of driving rain on the windows of Ramblanista Towers, as soon as I heard reports of snow across the West Country I was out of bed and into my rapidly disintegrating boots before you could say ‘Michael Fish’; María didn’t have to follow me but my car’s warmer than our bedroom – when the heater’s working.
By noon the snow was already in full retreat 
‘So now I understand why you English never stop talking about the weather’, she said, gazing out over the Levels to Glastonbury Tor and beyond. Before us all was green and sodden, though in the distance we could make out glistening patches of white on the infamous and ever-so-slightly perilous Somerset/Dorset borderlands, behind us all was white and … I’d like to say crisp and even but it was soggy up here as it was down there. It looked a lot more idyllic than it felt underfoot; within a couple of minutes my boots were saturated. One up to María Inés de la Cruz and her expensive Hunter wellington boots.
Token attempt at 'arty' photo
It was a perfect example of the wrong kind of snow – thick and wet; what else would you expect in early November on our soft southern hills? What we lack in altitude we more than make up for in topographical variety; it might have been raining in Wells but cars were coming down the Bath Road draped in thick layers of snow. Halfway up the hill, at about 200 metres, we encountered our first slush of the day; fifty metres higher and it had settled on the road as well as the fields. Further south, in and around the Yeovil badlands, it was even better (worse?) and the A37 at Shit'n'Smellit resembled an ice rink. Wells little cousin, the aristocratic market town of Sherborne, had copped a good dose of the white stuff and the Radstock road in Holcombe looked as tricky as an alpine pass. But when we drove west out of Priddy the snow petered out to naught in the space of a hundred metres. Up on the western Mendip ridge, from Cheddar Gorge to Crook Peak, it was business as usual. 

The wintry wastes of Wessex. Looks a lot colder than it was
But even as morning drew on till noon, the snowline receded and the dazzling white gave way to a  syphilitic light green. Never mind, we'd had our fun. I'd spent a good hour lecturing María on the vagaries of the British climate; going on, ad nauseum, about the summer of '76 (which, alas, I'm old enough to remember) and the winter of '63 (well before my time). She'd finally made her peace with a very British infatuation.
Result! Enough waffle, let's get to the snow porn ...

Thursday, 1 November 2012


I was only eighteen years old when I was first introduced to the palimpsest. I was an immature student of Geography and Landscape Studies at the venerable academic establishment that was the Dorset Institute of Higher Education; she was a trendy new concept in geographical thinking and our lecturers were determined to milk her for all she was worth.
It was 1983, for heaven’s sake. I had better things to do with my life. All geography students should have better things to do with their lives.
But our paths were destined to cross at a later, more venerable age. Some might say it was a chance encounter but both she and I knew that fate had brought us together. Fate, Thomas Samuel Joliffe and Jack and Jill. It’s a long story, I’ll do my best to keep it brief.
This weekend María Inés de la Cruz and I found ourselves not once, but twice in the extensive grounds of Ammerdown House, a few kilometres south of the former coal-mining town of Radstock. In a rare moment of harmony, we both agreed that Radstock and neighbouring Midsomer Norton should be the focus of our next derive, an exploration of the Somerset coalfield. Another day, another palimpsest, as they say.
Ammerdown House and grounds: idyllic landscaped parkland porn
But back to Ammerdown. Our hike began with a spat, as most of our hikes do. María pointed out the obvious dichotomy between our post-feminist anarcho-syndicalist leanings and the subject of our ramble: the stately home and grounds of the Jolliffe family – the current incumbent is the fifth Baron Hylton – since its construction in 1788. There’s no point in me reminding her that she hails from one of las trece – the thirteen richest families in her native El Salvador; I just mention the magic word – postmodernism – and we’re off on our way.
We all love a girt, humungeous G&T but please don't leave your empty bottles in the woods
Does she have a point? Just because the family estate – which covers nearby Kilmersdon and other surrounding villages – is now run by a charitable housing association set up by the current Lord Hylton? Or because the Ammerdown Centre is run as a Christian community dedicated to hospitality, spirituality and growth'? Does that make everything alright? If the house and its grounds are the product of two hundred years of cap-doffing and other forms of feudal deference should we still drool over its aesthetic delights?
It’s an argument that’s as simplistic as it is fatuous; reminds me of the time I taught AS history to a daughter of the Somerset bourgeoisie. She was studying the welfare reforms of the 1906-1914 Liberal government; a slim volume of history plucked from the bookcase without wondering what had gone on before or what might happen after. It’s a bit like reading volume two – and only volume two – of a trilogy.
‘Context is everything’, I said to Maria Ines de la Cruz; she had to agree so we started to peel away the layers. ‘Let’s begin with the rocks’.
Where else? Rocks maketh the man – and the woman. Ammerdown lies in the heart of the Somerset Coalfied: coal measures from the Upper Carboniferous, folded and faulted to give a landscape of deep, riven valleys.
King Coal. In North Somerset its legacy is increasingly difficult to discern, although the last two pits closed only (only?) forty years ago. But as Wet, Wet, Wet sang – apparently interminably – back in 1990, ‘I can feel it in my fingers, I can feel it in my bones’. This landscape is rougher than its agricultural equivalents, dissected by disused railways and the long since abandoned Somerset Coal Canal. You scrape away the upper layers of the palimpsest and there it is, shining like a black diamond; coal didn’t quite breathe life into the landscape but it gave it a raison d’être in the age of industry.
But Ammerdown wasn’t founded on the spoils of coal. It owes its history to the more traditional patronage of aristocracy and parliament. It was built by James Wyatt in 1788 for Thomas Samuel Jolliffe whose CV reads like a couple of pages of feudal porn. Hailing from a wealthy landowning family which produced several members of parliament, he was MP for Petersfleid, Hampshire, from 1780 to 1787; deputy lieutenant (María pronounces it ‘left-tenant’) of Hampshire and Somerset; Lieutenant Colonel in the second Somerset Fencible Cavalry, High Sheriff and Lord of the Manor of Wellow as well as Kilmersdon. But in the age of industry even the aristocratic have to get their hands dirty and Jolliffe was an original shareholder of the Somersetshire Coal Canal. He also played an important part in the passage of the Dorset and Somerset Canal Act through the committee stages of parliament in 1796.
The House that Wyatt built
Jollliffe was the land and his son decided to make sure his presence transcended history, as has always been the wont of the nation’s landowning elite. And how do they go about it? By building a girt humungous phallus in a prominent location; the ultimate symbol of male dominion over mother nature. I can’t help thinking there’s a delicious irony in the Ammerdown Column being commissioned by his bachelor son. A bachelor son in 1853? What was that all about? Where was John Twyford Jolliffe sowing his oats – and with whom?
The sexual landscape: girt, humungeous phallic symbol
‘Enough already!’ cries María Inés de la Cruz, slamming her fingers down hard on the fast forward button. We’re sitting at the base of the Column, the design of which is said to have been based on the Eddystone Lighthouse, reading the inscription:





I have to confess I rather like the idea of clothing the land with ‘fertility and verdure’. My dreams are full of pastoral, Arcadian paradises but María doesn’t think the park has been ‘embellished’, nor does she consider the decorations ‘tasteful’ or ‘ornamental’.
We head downhill to join the Collier’s Way, or rather, and less prosaically, National Cycle Route 24 which runs from the Dundas Aqueduct, near Bath, to Frome and here follows the trackbed of former Frome to Radstock railway which saw its last train in 1988.
It’s a curious, somewhat conflated, homage to slow travel, old and new. The rails are still in place, overgrown and undermined; the asphalt cycle path runs adjacent and in parallel. The line is severed, rather cruelly, as if it were a limb hacked from an ageing torso, from the national network at Great Elm but, this being England, there are those who wish to restore it. María thinks this is symptomatic of what she likes to call the ‘Grand National Ailment’: Here’s something on the cusp of being consigned to history – let’s preserve it; here’s something archaic and obsolete – let’s bring it back to life as if time and technology had passed us by. Steam trains and cream teas: the image stays with me for the remainder of our ramble.
The disused Frome to Radstock railway with adjacent cycle path on the right. Not a photo to show to your railway-enthusiast uncle
Back at Ammerdown House we make a brief excursion around the grounds. Even María has to admit that the house and gardens have a certain aesthetic appeal, a sort of landscape kitsch. But neither of us are impressed by the annex, the Ammerdown Conference and Retreat Centre. It was built in 1973 and it shows; you don’t need to be an expert on architecture to work that one out.
Early 1970s conference centre chic
Does it matter? Form versus function. Both Maria and myself are students of liberation theology, we should really approve of its vision ‘for an adult education centre that would translate the aspirations of Vatican II into practice … help the ecumenical movement grow, promote dialogue between the Church and the wider world, and bring people from different backgrounds and faiths together so that they could learn from each other.’ It was founded in the seventies by Lord Hylton (the current head of the Jolliffe family), John Todd (a publisher), Father Ralph Russell (a monk from nearby Downside Abbey) and the Reverend Reginald Trevett (a school master).  
We should really approve but neither of us can get our heads around that recurring dichotomy. Maria repeats Aude Lorde’s words about the master’s tools never dismantling the master’s house. Her politics are more tenacious and less romantic than mine; I’m easily seduced by the intoxicating cocktail of high culture and religion; it’s one of the reasons I moved to Wells. That which should repel me is sometimes a fatal attraction and I’m drawn to it, like a moth to a flame.
Back at the village of Kilmersdon, a feudal gem whose inn – the Jolliffe Arms – is named after the local landowning family, we seal up our palimpsest. In 2000 a plaque was erected at the entrance to the village welcoming visitors to ‘home’ of the Jack and Jill nursery rhyme. We scratch our heads and wonder what to make of this claim to fame though when we learn that the fabled hill was restored as part of a local Millenium scheme we start to suspect the workings of corporate mythography. We opt to believe Katherine Elwes’ 1930 theory in which Jack represents Cardinal Wolsey and Jill was Bishop Tarbes who negotiated the marriage of Mary Tudor to Louis XXII of France in 1514 rather than the   local version in which a spinster became pregnant, the child's father died in a roack fall and the woman died in childbirth soon after. 
If the local authority says it's true ... it must be true! 
But you know what they say. You pays yer money and you takes yer pick. At least one of life's truths is eternal.