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.
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|
IS ERECTED TO COMMEMORATE
THE GENIUS, ENERGY AND ACCOMPLISHMENTS OF
THOMAS SAMUEL JOLIFFE ESQUIRE
LORD OF THE ADJACENT HUNDREDS OF KILMERSDON AND WELLOW
WHO – IN EVERY RELATION OF LIFE – IN THE SENATE – AND ON THE SEAT OF JUSTICE
IN EXERCISING THE PECULIAR RIGHTS
AND DISCHARGING THE VARIOUS DUTIES
OF AN EXTENSIVE LANDHOLDER
CONCILIATED THE REGARD AND ESTEEM
OF AN AFFLUENT AND INTELLIGENT DISTRICT
WHO RECLAIMED THE SURROUNDING LANDS
FROM THEIR ORIGINAL AND STERILE CONDITION
WHO CLOTHED THEM WITH FERTILITY AND VERDURE
AND EMBELLISHED THEM WITH TASTEFUL AND ORNAMENTAL DECORATIONS
WITH FEELINGS OF PROFOUND AND GRATEFUL AFFECTION
DEDICATE THIS COLUMN
VI JUNE MDCCCLIII
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|
|Early 1970s conference centre chic|
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!|