Follow on Twitter

Sunday, 28 October 2012


Autumn's come late to the Summer Country; it seems to have crept up unnoticed, like a pantomime villain who sneaks onto the stage while your back's turned and the audience is screaming 'behind you!'. 

For those of us with a predilection for melancholy this isn't a good time of year but you know what it's like, the foliage starts turning bronze and burnished gold and you've just got to get out there; into the woods for a fix of root, branch and leaf.

There's no point in beating about the bush - no pun intended; I'm an arboreal addict and come spring and autumn I can't get enough of the woods. In April it's the heady scent of ransoms that turns the shady nooks of Cranborne Chase into the deciduous equivalent of a crack den. Come October it's the irresistible lure of the Savernake Forest: a dazzling, hallucinogenic kaleidoscope of russets and copper-browns. 

My close friend and confidante, the intriguingly handsome María Inés de la Cruz, tells me my compulsion's a consequence of living in northern climes. She reaches for her tattered copy of Byron’s Don Juan, locates the well-thumbed pages of Canto the First and reads out loud to me: 

Tis a sad thing, I cannot choose but say,
And all the fault of that indecent sun,
Who cannot leave alone our helpless clay,
But will keep baking, broiling, burning on,
That howsoever people fast and pray,
The flesh is frail, and so the soul undone:
What men call gallantry, and gods adultery,
Is much more common where the climate's sultry.

But then I turn to Canto the Fourth and remind her that those 'whom the gods love die young'. Result! She replaces the book and, giving me a look that would burn a hole in the polar ice cap, storms off to find her boots. We've both been shacked up inside for over thirty-six hours, we need to get out and sniff the heady scent of liberty, otherwise there'll be blood splattered over the walls La Villa Ramblanista.

Looks likes it’s going to be one of those weekends …

Monday, 22 October 2012


Torn between two lovers
Feeling like a fool
Loving both of you is breaking all the rules

You know the feeling. You’re sitting in a cozy pub with your latest squeeze; the night is young and the music’s high. A couple more G ‘n’ Ts then you’ll brave the provincial niteclub, even though you’re at least a decade too old. And then, just as you’re about to get intimate, in walks your old flame and he/she’s looking absolutely gorgeous.
That’s exactly what happened to me last Friday. I passed a couple of particularly pleasant lunchtime hours in the Bishop’s Palace ogling my new love – Wells – as if she were a voluptuous young nymph who’d just wafted in from the Mendip underworld.
Then a quick dash down the Fosse Way to a brief encounter with my first love – Weymouth – who shimmers elegantly under a gossamer midnight sky, jewelled with strings of iridescent lights. Tonight, for some reason, her beauty is almost unbearable; is it any wonder we consummate our desire over and over again until, in the early madrugadal hours, she slips into a dreamy slumber and I enjoy a post-coital cigarette.
It’s been going on for years, this affair. I can still remember the first time we set eyes upon each other, on a dreich and damp Monday morning in October 1983. The ageing train slid out of Bincombe Tunnel and there, moist and misty, lay my resplendent lover.
The intervening years haven’t always been kind; both of us have been under the surgeon’s knife, both of us have fallen in and out of love with life itself. There were several long years when we never set eyes on one another, as if each of us were trying deny the other’s existence.
But you know what Horace says: naturam expelles furcatamen usque recurret - you might drive out nature with a pitchfork but she'll always come back.
I might as well come clean. I’m a serial philanderer. I’ve flirted with the classy, the brazen and the downright cheap and tacky. Edinburgh, Bristol, Mexico City, San Salvador – even Borehamwood, for God’s sake! I’ve had flings with them all yet on each and every occasion I’ve come running back into the arms of my first love.
So why on earth have I committed myself to Wells, Britain’s most beautiful cathedral city when temptation and lie just ninety minutes down the A37? Well, it’s not just the imminent arrival of Waitrose, I’ve had the hots for Wells – no pun intended – for over a decade. We’ve spent the best part of twelve years eyeing each other up, like two slightly inebriated Calistas in an eighties wine bar. We’ve so much in common we might have been joined at the hip since birth: academic, theological and vaguely ecclesial backgrounds; middle-class liberals with a penchant for decadence we aren’t ashamed to admit. But the truth is, of course, that neither of us are getting any younger and neither of us are going to surrender to the ageing process without giving it a good kick in the face.
So we’ve been shacked up together for six weeks and there’s even talk of a civil union, once I’ve completed the first draft of my definitive Wells novel. Make no mistake, there’s still a skip in my step whenever I set foot in the city’s more intimate declivities and I still profess my undying love for her on a daily basis but I might as well tell you here and now, my mistress and I are already making plans for another dirty weekend by the sea – and it’ll be more Punch and Judy than sandcastles and slot machines. 

 Weymouth or Wells? There's only one way to find out .... Fight!

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Path of the Day

It's girt and it's lush; who could possibly resist its allure?
Bridleway from Highbury to Upper Vobster, Somerset
Grid ref: 697497
Click here for the music

Monday, 15 October 2012

The Joy of Mud

Yes, filth is fun! If only we’d allow ourselves the indulgence of wallowing in it, literally and metaphorically. I spent much of yesterday afternoon observing my fellow ramblanistas negotiating the sticky paths of east Somerset: a sort of ramblanista anthropology, if you like. It struck me as a little odd – perverse even – that so many of my comrades went to such great lengths to circumnavigate the girt humungous pools of thick, soggy sludge. They were all, to a man and woman, perfectly attired and shod in boots that cost the equivalent of several bottles of Bombay Sapphire gin, so why the avoidant-gymnastics that might have resulted in a twisted ankle? Or even a comedic arse-over-tit tumble into the dirty brown goo?

Head down, plough on through whatever obstacles nature puts in your path; that’s the ramblanista way.

So you think you know your mud? Here's sodden soil from the three counties of Wessex: Somerset, Dorset and Wiltshire, can you guess which mud is from which county? Answers below.

Needles to say your correspondent sought to lead by example, embracing the saturated earth and splish-sploshing through the mires with a laugh and a care-free smile. Not my fault if I was taken for a madwoman! Trouble is, I bought my boots for the dry Spanish Meseta, not the sopping-wet Wessex countryside and, not for the first time, I paid a price for my wilfulness. But who gives a toss? I wore my dirt-splattered leggings like a badge of pride; by the end of a quite wonderful afternoon I was caked in layers of thick Somerset dirt, from head to toe.

Me and mud. We do like to get up-front-and-personal. But then we’ve got form; we go back a long way. It’s a little known fact that in my previous life I was briefly employed as a soil engineer and subsequently spent a fruitless year studying the esoteric delights of geotechnical (i.e. soil) engineering at the august institution that now trades under the rather splendid moniker of Bolton University – how I got from there to Latin American politics is anyone’s guess. And all this despite the fact that at the late and much-lamented Dorset Institute of Higher education I bunked all my soil lectures – well they were first thing Monday morning, I was a geography student, what else did they expect?

Ah well. Aren’t our truest loves the ones we used to hate. The story of my lust for mud is a long and complex narrative which might well be Jungian in its origins. But you know what? Sometimes you’ve got to give the theory a good hard kick in the cojones and send it home with its tail between its legs.

On with action! ¡No pasarán! 

Dorset mud: sophisticated, erudite and perfectly formed; the honest-to-goodness yeoman of Wessex soils. The mud-connoiseur's - and thus the ramblanista's - mud of choice.

Somerset clay is thick and red, very much like the cider. A rustic, buccolic mud; a peasant amongst soils, but none the worse for that!Okay, it's a bit of a give-away! Pilton Festival - that's Glastonbury to you - of course. But did you know  that the festival's location was carefully chose by Glastonbury-based (where else?) soil feng-shui expert, Strobe Chernozem? 

Wiltshire mud. Cloying and insecure, it sticks to your boots and holds on for dear life. A little bit aristocratic and a little bit twee; if Laura Ashley sold soil they'd source it from Wiltshire. 

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Landscape and Madness

 But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedar cover
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e'er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon lover!
Coleridge: Kubla Khan

I’ve just been reminded, by someone in ‘the profession’, that today is World Mental Health Day. It’s a concept the dark forces of convention and orthodoxy – you know, the ones who take great pleasure in telling you to ‘live in the real world’ (whatever that is) – like to belittle. Don’t expect me to join the self-righteous squad, next time someone suggests I ‘wake up and smell the coffee’, they might well get a smack in the chops in return.
But it’s not my intention to offer a treatise on what is and what isn’t madness, suffice to say that normality ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. What I want to draw attention to is the relationship between the landscape and mental health in its various manifestations. Not, perhaps the clichéd landscapes of the troubled gothic or romantic mind – though I’m a sucker for the subliminal landscapes of Keats’ Odes – but the role played by the landscape in maintaining – or undermining – our emotional well-being. Not so much psychogeography as geography as psychoanalysis.
First a confession – I’m very good at those, must be my inner Catholic. Last year I came out as a ‘sufferer’ of Borderline Personality Disorder: I’ll leave it to my boffin friends to argue the toss as to the causes of this condition is but it’s always been my contention that psychotic episodes are triggered, if not caused, by environmental factors. Here are two experiences of my own; I’d be interested to hear whether anyone else has encountered something similar.  
I had my first breakdown back in the heady days of 1986, just as I was approaching my finals at the good old Dorset Institute of Higher Education. My local GP, God bless him, filled me full of Mogadon and I spent a fortnight staring at the World Snooker Championships on TV – though I couldn’t tell you who won. I was plucked away from this … well, I can only describe it as sheer lunacy … by my then partner who accompanied me on a three day trek along the South West Coast Path from Studland to Weymouth. It was spring: the sun shone and swallows swooped in from the sea. I could feel the summer stirring beneath my feet, nature rousing herself, full of fecundity and desire. I went back to college, completed my dissertation on landscape and literature in Wessex.
Remind me to blog about that another day.
Fast forward to the autumn of 2006 and the leafy countryside of North Hertfordshire. I’d got post-traumatic stress disorder and I’d got it real bad: trashed my flat, cut expletives into my arms and existed on a diet of pure gin. The only thing that kept me from teetering over the abyss was my ‘Fuck Walk’; a circuit of ten kilometres or so through the woods that I followed, religiously, every time I had a free afternoon. I think the name’s self-explanatory enough; I’d run through the mud, kick out at the fallen leaves and shout ‘fuck’ into the wind and driving rain. The wood harboured dryads, satyrs and nymphs and they were all out to get me.
Landscape as therapy? I’m not sure therapy is the right word but it must have helped because I managed to get through the subsequent court case, even though the bastard who assaulted* me got off.
Strange thing is that whenever I’m back in that neck of the woods, I’m drawn back to that landscape, like a moth to a flame. I follow exactly the same route, even mumble the occasional ‘fuck’ underneath my breath because the anger has only subsided, will never go away. It’s like deliberately opening a wound to make sure it never heals. Might sound self-indulgent but it’s a coping strategy; if I didn’t walk and shout ‘fuck’ into the wind and driving rain I might be six foot under by now.
Wordsworth's Prelude
Boy steals boat. Boy rows out into lake. Boy gets scared by high mountains.
Boy goes home. Boy gets depressed. End of.
Well, that’s all rather up close and personal. Anyone like to share their own ideas/experiences?

*I say assault, what I really mean is a four-letter word beginning with r that even now I can’t bring myself to repeat. Enough said, I think.

Monday, 8 October 2012


And wet.
Very, very wet. Sodden, like a girt humungous sponge. The Somerset Levels – or moors – are a once submerged pudding-basin of sticky clay and dark peat, 99% water and 1% soil, that stretch inland from the Somerset coast as far as Wells, Glastonbury and Langport. They are cross-crossed by a network of rhynes (pronounced reens – drainage ditches, some dating back to the sixteenth century), slow-moving slug-like rivers and dotted with what were once islands: not only Glastonbury Tor but Burrow Mump and the almost onomatopoeically-named Westonzoyland.
Somerset Levels porn. And if that doesn't get your lovejuices flowing, nothing will
So what? Surely the Levels are small beer in comparison to the mighty fens of East Anglia, the setting for Graham Swift’s superlative work of flatlands fiction, Waterland.
Well, I’m a child of the Wessex landscape so you’d expect me to favour the West Country. The Fens have their own peculiar – and I do mean peculiar in both senses of the word – mythogeography, their own ethereal ambience. The Somerset Levels are the Fens younger sisters, smaller in extent, cuter but more feisty, the riot grrrls of the Wessex landscape.
I have to confess to a love-hate relationship with the Levels, but surely all intense relationships share a similar pattern. On Saturday I cursed the saturated fields and their viscous, flocculating clay and sought refuge on the long, straight roads. Then, up on Ditcheat Hill looking south-west across the moor to the distant Blackdown and Quantock Hills, we were lovers again, inseparable and infatuated.
Until the next time.
Ditcheat Hill: where we kissed and made up ...
No wonder the Levels are squat and juicy, they’re weighed down with myth and legend. They gave the county – Somerset, the Summer Country – its name. The earliest settlers – the Somersetæ – grazed their cattle on the fecund and fertile marshes during the summer, retreating to the higher ground in winter.
And then there’s Our Lady of the Orchards, a romantic, Mariological relation to the ‘Did Christ come to Britain?’ narrative. Here, Jesus and his uncle Joseph of Arimathea are crossing the moor during a storm and become bogged down in the mud and are rescued by a group of Somersetæ returning home with their catch of elvers. In return, the Somersetæ are gifted the orchards which the give country its characteristic landscape. An even more obscure tale – perhaps related to the concept of England as Our Lady’s Dowry (see The Wilson Diptych) – has the Virgin Mary herself appearing to a peasant woman on the Blackdown Hills at the height of the Reformation’s antic-Catholicism.
But that, as they say, is another story…

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

The Dorsetshire Gap

The Dorsetshire Gap
One of Dorset's finest rambles - and as all Dorset's rambles are mind-numbingly 
rambtastic, this must be a bit special
Courtesy of the AA
The Boffins, as I believe the tabloids like to call them, say this is some sort of ancient Spaghetti Junction.

How crude! My close friend and ally, the unfeasibly handsome María Inés de la Cruz, claims that this narrow valley that breaches the Dorset downs  and effectively divides the county into north, east, south and west is some sort of time/space vortex.
Obligatory Dorset landscape porn
I thought she’d been watching too much Dr Who until she took us there one sultry summer afternoon. ‘Everything that Dorset now is, everything it ever has been and always will be flows through this void’ she gushed, as we lay under the shade of an ancient oak. 

Maybe she’s got a point; that balmy night I dreamed a landscape devoid of human presence. A vision of the past or the future? Who knows?
Which way? Past, present or future ...
What's the fourth option? The subjunctive, of course.