Gloucesterhire, Wiltshire, Somerset, Devon
Trip Start Aug 20, 1997
7Trip End Sep 18, 1997
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We decided to stay overnight in Newnham and booked a room at The Swan. By an amazing coincidence, the only room available just happened to be the very one Christopher and I had occupied two weeks earlier. Margaret told our host that she was anxious to find some Royal Doulton and the helpful lady suggested that we visit Swindon, which contained a large group of factory outlets. Her assurance that Swindon was only forty-five minutes away persuaded us to abandon any plans we may have had to drive to the Royal Doulton factory at Stoke-on-Trent, which several people had described as an industrial nightmare.
Before setting off we called in at the Victoria for a cup of java. Without knowing it we bought our coffee from the local Charitable Old Ladies Association who were holding a secondhand clothes sale in the pub. While we sat sipping in the foyer a very old gentleman hobbled up and exchanged pleasantries with us. He informed us that he was a Christian, and Margaret enthusiastically told him that she, too, was that way inclined. Small world! The warm but dignified octogenarian kissed both our hands before slowly shuffling out the door.
We travelled down the A48 to Chepstow before crossing the extremely long Severn Bridge onto the M4 and making for Swindon. Along the way Margaret astonished me by proclaiming, without prompting, that England was the most beautiful country she had ever seen, including Australia! This was even before she had seen Devon, a county which she found to be the most beautiful area on earth.
As the miles flew by I became obsessed with the possibility that we were heading for the wrong Swindon. The lady at The Swan had estimated that it would take three quarters of an hour to reach our destination but we had travelled for more than an hour already. Were there two Swindons? Needless to say we eventually reached the place and found the factory outlets without much difficulty. The trip was in vain, however, as none of the many shops sold Royal Doulton.
Getting out of Swindon was almost as difficult as getting into Oxford and I became rather tense as the petrol gauge indicator rapidly approached empty. A service station solved both my problems, filling the tank and providing directions to the M4. The return journey was a lot quicker though we were stunned to learn that the Severn Bridge toll was $15 going west.
We carried our bags into The Swan then repaired to the Railway Arms for a pint of the local real ale. Newnham has three pubs, the upmarket Victoria, the middle-of-the-road Railway Arms and a distinctly sleazy establishment for the local roughs which we chose to avoid. While dining at the Victoria we fidgeted in our seats as a local lad expressed his indignation that the pub, like every other place of business in the country, would be closed the next day until 2pm for Princess Diana's funeral. I'm sure that in Australia someone would have told him off, but in England people prefer to say nothing and try and cover their embarrassment.
DAY 18 SAT Ever the risk-taker and adventurer, I asked for black pudding for breakfast. Our hosts immediately became very dramatic, refusing to tell me what was in the fat black sausage until I had eaten it. It tasted quite nice, and when the husband gleefully informed me that it was made of guts I laughed contemptuously and told him that where I came from we ate grubs and yabbies without a second thought.
Margaret decided that she would like to spend 1/28 of her tour of England watching TV. I was shocked; what a waste of precious adventure time! The funeral of Princess Diana was due to run until noon and I left her in our room while I went downstairs to try and bluff our hosts into letting us stay till lunch time. Much to my surprise they invited me into their lounge room where they were watching the event on their giant TV set. Unlike most of the Englishmen we had encountered, these good folk were not Royalists (if I remember correctly, their dog was actually named 'Cromwell'. True!) and they spent much of the funeral sneering at the late Princess, Mr Blair and the remaining members of the Royal Family. I managed to escape immediately after the broadcast and hurried Margaret out to the car so that we could be on our way. Much to my chagrin I later discovered that we were supposed to vacate our room by noon, not 10.30am as is usually the case.
We decided to drive to Bath via the Forest of Dean rather than the more direct route along the Severn. Once again I wondered what Offa's Dyke was (I later learned that it was an ancient earthen wall built by Offa to keep out the Welsh). We crossed the Severn Bridge for the last time and sped towards Bristol where our progress became sluggish as we caught the city traffic. On the other side of the city a car full of young girls tooted us, apparently because we were driving too carefully. I was almost overcome by road rage but restrained myself from running them off the road.
On reaching Bath we parked in a large car park and walked to the Tourist Information Office where we booked a room at The Edgar, way across the other side of town. The Tourist Information Office lady told us that parking would be impossible before 6pm, so we decided to leave the car and walk to the guest house to register and get the lay of the land. Bath was quite a complex town, even more so than Oxford, and we had a great deal of trouble following the town map. We eventually found the place, which was part of a long terrace in Greater Pulteney Street which had been the setting for one of Jane Austen's novels. The young lady in charge told us that the hotel had a non-smoking policy but that she would get us an ashtray anyway. Our room was very classy and the bathroom even boasted a heated towel rack!
After booking in we set off to explore the centre of Bath. Bath Cathedral was edged in floral tributes to the late princess and Margaret read the label on each and every wreath before we slipped into the dim interior of the temple for a close examination of its tombs and stained glass. We indulged in a late lunch at a little outside restaurant, Monks, which allowed us to examine the facades of the cathedral, the Pump House and the Roman Baths while being entertained by a busker playing classical music on a saw. After this short break we set about the real purpose of our visit to Bath, namely finding Royal Doulton figurines. We struck gold in an upmarket shop by the name of Jolly's where a very helpful assistant devoted half an hour of her time to helping Margaret choose the best piece.
As the office workers of Bath began to quit for the day parking spaces began to appear in front of The Edgar and we agreed that I should walk back to the car park and retrieve the car while Margaret rested. This proved to be a lot easier in theory than in practice as the car park seemed to have been moved to a different part of the map. Once behind the wheel I drove through town and out the other side, repeatedly missing our street. There was nowhere where I could stop and examine the map so I had to drive and read at the same time, which is probably why I kept missing the turn off.
In the evening we decided to take a break from pub fare and find a nice restaurant in which to eat. Our first choice, a Thai establishment called 'The Bangcock', had a novel approach to seating its guests. The maitre d'hotel sat us in the lobby and handed us menus. The idea was that we would be led to our table only after we had made our selections. We (and when I say 'we' I mean Margaret) didn't like that concept and left to find a more conventional eatery. What we eventually found was a restaurant near the river that we assumed was Indian but which, once the main course arrived, proved to be Turkish.
After dinner we ambled across Pulteney Bridge (famous for the fact that it has shops on it), down some steps and along the riverbank. The view of the floodlit cathedral across the water was mesmerising and I took several reasonably successful photos. On the walk back we were dismayed to see a couple of young louts relieving themselves against a wall in full view, obviously inebriated drinkers from the pub garden nearby.
DAY 19 SUN We spent most of the morning continuing our exploration of Bath. The Roman Baths proved to be very interesting and the powers-that-be had done a very good restoration job. We were most impressed by the ancient heating system which consisted of small pillars of brick heated by the hot springs whose warmth was distributed by natural breezes to the various rooms within the complex. The Pump Room was a Victorian era tearoom rather than the room full of pumps I had expected. We paid 30p for a cup of sulphurous water which Margaret found revolting but which I quite enjoyed.
Early in the afternoon we left Bath on the A39, arriving in Wells a short time later. According to the guidebooks, Wells is the smallest city in England to have its own cathedral, and a fine cathedral it is. What looked to be the most interesting part of the building was closed off for Evensong and we decided not to wait an hour for the evensingers to finish their singing, setting off instead for Glastonbury.
The Tourist Information Office in the centre of the tiny town of Glastonbury found us a bed and breakfast just outside the town proper. The Little Orchard, at the foot of Glastonbury Tor, was a small terrace house on a hill with splendid views of the rolling hills and dales of Somerset. The owner recommended that we dine at The Mitre and we decided to take his advice. He also told us that there was to be a Son et Lumiere show in the ruins of the abbey later in the evening and kindly loaned us two folding chairs to take with us.
With a few hours to kill we strolled down the main street examining the numerous souvenir and gift shops. Glastonbury is said to lay on the intersection of several ley lines and is therefore a place of great mystical and supernatural power. Not surprisingly the town has always attracted people fascinated with the mystical and we found lots of New Age shops, a few of which were run by people purporting to be witches. It was on the main street that we encountered the only dirty people we were to see in England. These would-be hippies sprawled with their meagre belongings along the footpath, exuding a heavy odour of unwashedness and marijuana.
Our pub dinner was as enjoyable as usual and I was so relaxed that I drank an extra half-pint of ale, an indulgence which was to have dire consequences as the night progressed. We paid our money at the gates of the abbey, having spent ten minutes trying without success to find a parking attendant to accept our parking fee. It was now 8pm and rapidly growing dark as we made our way across the unlit grounds to the viewing area in front of the ruins.
The show began forty long minutes later as a rather dramatic narrator described the history of the abbey from the time of Joseph of Arimathea, the reputed founder. "Careful, Joseph, the ground is marshy" warned a concerned actor friend of Joseph. A good touch, I thought, would have been to have a different voice exclaim "O sh*t!" The drama of the narrative booming over the loudspeakers was accompanied by an equally wondrous lightshow originating from a battery of floodlights located at strategic points within and without the ruins. The colours glowing on the walls varied according to the storyline; a brilliant gold for the laying of the final stone by Joseph and a harsh red for the destruction of the abbey by fire in the fourteenth century.
By the time the show was into its first rape and pillaging, the pint and a half of real ale I had imbibed at The Mitre had worked its way through my system and was demanding release. I began to wriggle with discomfort and chew my windcheater as the pressure mounted. My interest in the history of Glastonbury Abbey waned as my discomfort grew, causing Margaret to suggest rather scathingly that I cease my writhing and find a convenience before I completely spoiled the show for her. Apart from the lights dancing on the ruins, the abbey grounds were in complete darkness and there was absolutely no sign of the gentleman's toilets to be seen. Eventually I spotted a grove of trees in the distance and stumbled across the uneven ground towards heavenly relief. I was acutely aware of being the centre of attention for several minutes as the golden glow of one of the abbey's more glorious moments bathed the grounds in radiant light, however I was soon behind the trees and sighing with the pleasure that only the sudden alleviation of pain can bring. With my mission accomplished I was forced to spend the rest of Glastonbury's history huddled behind the screen of trees. Any attempt to return to my seat would have revealed to the assembled audience the purpose of my rapid departure. With the conclusion of the show the abbey grounds were plunged into utter darkness and I had the devil's own time locating my more continent spouse who, with the diplomacy for which she is renowned, refrained from making any comments about my misadventure.
DAY 20 MON After breakfast we climbed the hill behind The Little Orchard to Glastonbury Tor. At the top of the hill stood a tower, all that remained of what had once been a church. The Tor has been endowed with mystical properties long before Christianity invaded England and the almost-vanished spiral path which winds to the top is believed to have been cut by pagans long before Joseph of Arimathea planed his thorn tree just outside the abbey gift shop. At the base of the tower we encountered several nouveau hippies slumbering in their sleeping bags, oblivious to the icy winds which cut through our windcheaters. Inside the tower several New Agers droned their mantras amidst the remains of last night's Big Macs and purple puddles of candle wax. It was from this ancient tower that the last abbot of Glastonbury was hanged and his troubled spirit condemned to an eternity of aural torture at the hands of the spiritually trendy youths of Liverpool and Stoke-on-Trent.
From the sundial outside the building we gazed upon a panorama of the Somerset countryside which stretched for twenty five miles in all directions. At the bottom of the hill we could see the tents of the young pilgrims who had spent the night recharging their spiritual batteries in the structure under which is said to be buried the cup used at the Last Supper.
Some time later we paid $10 each to re-enter the grounds of the abbey. Neither of us was spiritually moved by the ruins, though we spied upon an exotic religious ceremony performed by an elaborately costumed priest in what had once been the crypt of the main building. After an obligatory browse through the very modern and comprehensive souvenir shop we left Glastonbury and its abbey forever, our minds already racing ahead to our next adventure.
On the road again. Not just any road but the A39, which was to take us right around the lap of England, over her knees and down her lower leg to Tintagel. Our final resting place for the day was to be Barnstaple, though we were not to know it until late in the afternoon. During most of our journey we travelled through Exmoor National Park, which Margaret described as the most beautiful part of England she had seen so far. I had to agree, though my eyes were glued to the sometimes frighteningly narrow road which zig zagged around blind corners and across single lane bridges. As with many country roads in England, the A39 was bordered by tall green hedges that sometimes evolved into shaded tree-tunnels through which we sped with "oohs" and "aahs" of delight. The villages in Exmoor were particularly pretty, especially Lynmouth, and Margaret spent much of the trip begging me to pull over so that she could take pictures of sheep in distant fields.
The village of Dunster is famous for its hilltop castle, known unsurprisingly as Dunster Castle. We were fortunate in finding a parking spot along the main street and repaired to a small cafe for a rather disappointing ploughman's lunch. At one end of the street was a round open building where the ladies of Dunster had once sold their knitting. Behind it on a hill stood a folly, said to be the inspiration of the famous Beatle song .
The castle itself seemed pretty recent to me, though it was a lot older than I first thought. We explored the wood panelled rooms and strolled around the grounds, marvelling at the luxury in which people of my class lived hundreds of years ago. Margaret was most impressed by the place, though I thought it inferior in extravagance to Blenheim Palace and less historically evocative than Ludlow Castle.
We stopped in the beach city of Minehead to book the night's accommodation and quench our thirst with a cup of coffee. The Tourist Information ladies were extremely helpful as usual and arranged for us to stay in a bed and breakfast on a farm just outside of Barnstaple. The instructions they gave us were quite detailed but, possibly due to the fact that they had been relayed from the office at Barnstaple, wrong. After some uncharacteristic mis-navigation from my assistant which saw us drive around and around Barnstaple several times I pulled into a service station for guidance. We had been looking for the suburb of Oveton and were embarrassed to learn that Oveton was the name of the bed and breakfast and Bishop's Stortford the suburb. By an amazing coincidence Oveton was located a short way up a narrow track which started across the road from the service station.
The owner of the fifteenth century farmhouse, a florid man with a cane-assisted mode of ambulation, was waiting for us at the front gates. In what was to become an almost unceasing and one-sided conversation he informed us that the gates were radio controlled, our rooms converted stables and the pool available for our enjoyment at any time, day or night. The rooms were pretty darn impressive, including as they did a sauna (though not the instructions on how to operate it). After a splendid dinner at the five hundred-year-old Chichester Arms I attempted to fire up the sauna. Although the temperature reached 60o there was absolutely no steam and intense boredom caused us to give up and stagger into an icy bath (which is supposed to be healthy, though I feared a heart attack).