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Sunday, 16 March 2014


The Mendips rise quickly and steeply out of Wells, the limestone from which the city is built manifests itself in every single corner of the surrounding countryside so that even on the brightest of summer days the underlying rock lends a degree of drabness to the scene. Thin grey walls partition the land into tiny symmetrical empires populated by flocks of newly shorn sheep. On the lower slopes a tractor makes its way through the meadows in monotonous passages: up and down, up and down, up and down the field. Further up small crags appear; valleys open out to give access to the plateau, bone dry and river-less. The thirsty landscape quickly gulps down every drop of fallen rain into the depths of its subterranean body; the hills are a girt, humongous sponge, sucking the lifeblood from the land before excreting it into the low, flat Levels. The waterless plateau undulates imperceptibly, barely a hedge or tree in sight, just a stunted hawthorn struggling to retain its blossom, or a battered rowan clinging to the lee of a derelict building.
Simone Lacey: Our Lady of the Orchards

Simone Lacey’s controversial coming-of-age novel about a young woman’s struggle with faith and sexuality begins with her protagonist’s visit to the village of Priddy high up on the Mendip Hills. She’s become fixated with the legend of Jesus Christ coming to Britain as a child but up on the bleak plateau she encounters nothing but the ‘the cold wind on my pampered face; the frozen touch of nature, isolated and withdrawn’.
Priddy is, indeed, a curious little village but although there exists in Somerset folklore the saying ‘as sure as Christ came to Priddy’ it’s better known for its August sheep fair and the extensive cave system that lies beneath its grey limestone walls.

What comes down must have an up
I’m no troglodyte. I like the idea of underground exploration but the reality would be too much for my inner claustrophobe. But I’m not going to let a persistent fear of enclosed spaces prevent me from exploring subterranean landscapes; whatever’s been excavated beneath the earth generally has a presence on the surface. On the Mendips this presence manifests itself in shafts, pits and spoilheaps that stretch back to Roman times but, upon, above and within this landscape exists another; one that speaks with a different language - of swallets and sinkholes and all the parapahenalia that comes with below-ground activity.

Priddy caves: geology and features (

Entrance to Swildon's Hole Cavern, Priddy

Entrance to Eastwater cavern?

Caving club hut
Wessex Caving Club - luxury accommodation
Potholer humour (ish)

Pothole entrance?
Caving Club wit
We are of the going water and the gone. We are of water in the holy land of water
I’m hoping Dr Lacey’s descption of the Mendips as ‘bone dry and waterless’ is a case of poetic licence rather than a lack of geographical knowledge. It might be a limestone plateau but there's pools, ponds and streams - even a Bristol Water reservoir. You just have to know where to look ...

Priddy Pool

Entrance to Eastwater Cavern - swallow hole
The Eastwater - you can (just about) make out the route of this short but wonderful watercourse by the winding green line. I took great pride from following its entire course, as if it were the Nile or Uscamacinta
Fair Lady Well

Source of the Eastwater - some 700m up from entrance to cavern

Straight to Hell?
According to the BGS (British Geological Society), mining activity on the western Mendips ceased in the early twentieth century which is why we're inclined to think that this curious and very deep hole, about 1.25 kn south-east of Priddy at grid reference ST537494 is something out of Dante's Inferno. There's no sign as to what it's function is and even though we did just a little bit of trespassing and had a good nosey around, we couldn't see the bottom. Like we said, it's very, very deep.
The 1:25000 OS map shows a disused iron pit just to the south-east, but this isn't it. And we don't think it's disused. If anyone has any ideas, please let us know.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

The best laid plans ...

I tried to keep them out but like tenacious, tinnitusistic earworm Burns' verses edge their way deeper into my psyche. They remind me of John Steinbeck's interminably dull novella which I seem to have been teaching to indifferent sixteen year-olds since the creation of GCSEs in a time that land forgot. They remind me of faux Scottishness; of - many years ago - traversing Edinburgh's Princes Street with a discordant bagpipe player on every corner, sounding like they're trying to squeeze the life out of a particularly atonal cat. 
But it's a truism. Last Saturday I set out on my very first spiral walk, during which I intended to explore the environs of Dorset's most refined town: Sherborne. From the Abbey I headed south, towards the railway station (please, anyone who calls it train station ought to be locked in the stocks and shamed at will) and up the wooded scarp of Gainsborough Hill past Rayleigh Grove, home to Sherborne Town FC (Toolstation Western League; some of you might be surprised that the sport of oiks and the unwashed is permitted in a town where egg-chasers rule the roost. Well it is, but right on the periphery.) 
Within fifteen minutes I was out in the fields but I'd been cooped up too long; the intention had been to circuit Sherborne along rural tracks and roads and take stock of its privileged presence from a distance, free from its corrupting charm. I followed my nose, indulged myself with a bit of wilful trespassing and found myself in Milborne Port.
The borough of Milborne Port lies on the improbably-named River Gascoigne. In not naming this weir 'Gascoigne's Tears' can't help thinking the tourist industry missed a trick here.
Some of you might know the place. For those of you who, like me, prefer the kitsch nooks and crannies of the A30 (the old road from London to Penzance) to the caravan-choked functionalism of the A303 (aka 'The Highway to the Sun' and the subject of Tom Fort's excellent book and BBC4 travelogue), Milborne Port might well ring a bell. Heading west, its High Street of honeycombed-stone buildings provides the perfect hors d'oeuvres for the main dish - Sherborne. Shame about the pudding - next stop along the A30 is Yeovil (although, stretching that metaphor to its absolute limits, we might consider the much-underrated Crewkerne the port, cheese and biscuits).
I've driven through Milborne Port dozens of times but never stopped to find out what lies behind the quaint veneer of its main street; to ask the crucial questions - why and how, as well as where and when. For all I know it could be like one of those North Korean villages that can be seen from the border with the South: not a line of houses but just a facade behind which there is nothing but scorched earth or, in the case of North Dorset, verdant pastures. North Korea - North Dorset? There's an interesting dialectic to be explored at a later date.
Or, worse than that, a bland, sterile spread of toy-town nonsense a la Mr Charles Windsor's Poundbury (perhaps a better analogy with North Korea) - give me a Stevenage any day of the week.
Talk about fortune favouring the fickle! Turns out Milborne Port is a right little gem; not in the twee, olde wordle Englande sense so beloved by the heritage industry - and a big pantomime boo-hiss to them. Sure, there's plenty of nooks and crannies but there's layers, too. A palimpsest of the flux in which the 21st century English settlement finds itself. Milborne Port doesn't know whether it's a small town or large village so settles on being a borough - a fine decision that also alludes to its history as a rotten borough (it lost its seat in the 1832 Reform Act - a more thorough, truly 'nuts and bolts' history of Milborne Port can be found on the splendid British History Online website.
Take the church, for example: late Anglo-Saxon with a 'sumptuous hybrid style'. It's easy on the eye - most village churches are - but have a look at the list of services and you'll find, at nine o'clock of a Sunday morning, the Anglican church of St John the Evangelist hosts a Roman Catholic mass, has done since 1973. Isn't that a bit like Rangers and Celtic sharing the same stadium?
There are Catholics in the countryside, of course; Methodists too but like the Baptists and United Reform Church they seem to be in terminal decline. At the former chapel in Cold Harbour (that place name has always intrigued me), 'the adult congregation on Census Sunday [1851] was 110 in the morning and 136 in the evening with Sunday school children numbering 44 in the morning, 66 in the afternoon, and 25 in the evening' (1), The chapel was closed in 1988 and, inevitably, turned into flats. Perhaps that's an unfortunate metaphor; in any case if there's a spiritual void in the countryside it's being filled by the non-denominational, evangelical movement, represented in Milborne Port by the Steps Community Church. I kid you not, that's Steps; am I the only one who for whom that conjures up a congregation enacting the bizarre dance style of putting both hands parallel to the sides of the head whilst massacring the Bee Gees' Tragedy
'Nuff said!
Some people - maybe most people - like their country towns and villages to conform to an architectural orthodoxy in which rural essentialism holds sway; to be infused with and in hock to nostalgia - an England that never existed. They rail against post-war development and demand - nay, campaign vociferously - against infill and new build. I'm not one of them.
Look, I'm a bit of a fogey, what with my extensive collection of KISS, Bon Jovi and Europe 'long players', but I've got one of my spandex-clad legs planted firmly in 2014. Bring on the newcomers, say I. Let's have new housing but please let's not do neo-Trumpton chic. Build it bold and build it funky so that, in 200 years time, future generations of Ramblanistas (none of whom will be the spawn of my loins, incidentally) will have something about which to blog. 
Take Manor Road, for example. Many of you will be familiar with the 'picture-postcard' Dorset of Milton Abbas, a village relocated to its current settlement in 1780 at the whim of local landowner, Lord Milton. That traumatic displacement has given us an icon of the English village, a gently sloping street lined with 36, virtually identical thatched, cottages. Looks cute? Not in the Ramblanista Guide to Landscape Cuteness (2) it doesn't. It might be a classic case of Dorsetismo but it's a complete and utter sham. But because it's a sham with thatched roofs and preened, green lawns the tourists flock in.
I wonder whether, in the year 2525 (if man is still alive, if woman can survive) future grockles might be wandering up this gently-sloping street of virtually identical, red-brick, semi-detached housing because, at the end of the day, it's one and the same thing.
Or will they be queuing to take photos of the squat bungalows of Plover Road; the reasonably tasteful developments that commemorate artisans of times gone by. Will anyone, then, even know what a tannery was? It's old already.

It's a mish-mash, right enough. But Milborne Port's best-kept secret is not the magnificently arrogant Venn House that lies on the eastern edge of town - that's hardly a secret, more like explicit, hard-core, posh-pile porn. No, the borough's hidden treasure lies off Gainsborough (that's the road, not the artist); a little barrio called New Town, a thoroughfare that manages to be contradictory and eponymous at the same time. 
Venn House: explicit, hard-core, posh-pile porn (apparently)
As much as I like to portray myself as a daughter of the West Country (it's part of the performance), the truth is that I spent many of my formative years in Letchworth, and - for better or worse, New Town immediately reminds me of the world's first Garden City in its eclectic, disjointed reverie.  And in the Ramblanista Guide to Landscape Cuteness it rates higher then Milton Abbas, not least because it feels authentic - whatever that might mean.
Having spent a good couple of hours spiralling my way through Milborne Port, I took a long, roundabout route back to Sherborne and my hotel of fluffy towels and fresh milk instead of UHT cartons. It was as though, like a wine-connoisseur, I had to allow the more bucolic fragrance of Milborne Port to ebb from my palate before sampling the fine vintage that is Sherborne. And here's where many of you would like me to admit that, after much consideration, I prefer the come-and-go-as-you-please eccentricities of Milborne Port to the feudal formalism of Sherborne.
You'd like me to say that but I won't. Sherborne's a guilty pleasure and staying in my hotel of fluffy towels and fresh milk instead of UHT cartons is like sleeping with the enemy.
No. It is sleeping with the enemy. But it's also like doing a midnight bunk to your long-term lover; you couldn't fornicate with the forbidden every night of the week.


(2) Sian Lacey-Taylder, Simone Lacey, Samantha Lefebvre & María Inés de la Cruz: The Ramblanista Guide to Landscape Cuteness (forthcoming - one day!)