Sunday, June 15, 2008

My Great Britannic Adventure, Day Seventeen

Sunday, 2 April, 1989
Holford to Taunton to Glastonbury to Wells to Holford again
Day Seventeen

Had breakfast at 8:30, down in the sitting room. The family’s black and white border collie named Roly came in and begged with his big brown eyes, but had no better luck than his predecessors. When Mrs. Ayshford discovered it she hauled him away. Which was too bad, as I liked the company.

Taunton was my first stop today. Took an unclassified one and a half lane road from the A39 south to Crowcombe. Very pleasant, tree-lined, with little traffic. It was actually turning out sunny and there was a place to pull off and shoot pictures, looking towards Bridgwater Bay.

After Crowcombe it was the A358 into Taunton. Devil of a time finding a place to park, till it occurred to me I could put the car on the street, it being Sunday.

First visit, to the church of
St. Mary Magdalene near the center of town. But I'd diddled around too much if I'd expected to attend services there. Church was at 10:15 or so and I got there at nearly 12:00.

I guess there was some advantage to having the building to myself to explore and take pictures of. It's a very nice
15th Century Perp church. The ceiling, recently repainted black with all sorts of green and white shields and gilded angels, is stunning. Lots of fine sculpture in the double aisles. Rather odd terrarium-looking altar, though. Unique is the word.

Also very nice pierced decoration on the tower.

Wandered around town trying to find a phonecard box. Located one near the river and called down to Kent to a B&B there that looked interesting. So I have a place for Thursday night. And I called Phyllis Johnson* in London and asked please could I stay there Wednesday after coming to hear [Hector Berlioz'] Romeo & Juliet that night. Oh, yes.

So, very good-- except that I couldn’t get my card out of the phone. Called the British TeleCom toll-free repair number. All the man could suggest is leaving the card there and having them send me a new one. But I needed it back now! Luckily, it popped back out even as we spoke.

The blue and white bridge over the River Tone looked so pretty in the sunlight that I walked down a ways, past the
castle, to see it better. Watched the ducks on the water and the clouds in the sky. The castle was converted to a high class hotel ages ago [not entirely true, I now find; part of it is the Somerset County Museum], but you can walk along the river in the castle gardens. There were some large bushes growing there, with bright yellow flowers growing all over them like cheerful pompoms. I've never seen a shrub like it before. I wonder what it is? I like it.

Tramped around trying to find something to drink. Settled for a bottle of ersatz raspberry fizz water at 20p at a formica-topped cafe. Definitely an Experience.

I passed through one street down by the church and noticed how packed it was with artsy-craftsy supply shops. All those pipe cleaners and beady glue-on eyes, and for what? And it hit me what a reprehensible waste all that is. How can people have such trash in their homes, and pay good money for it, too, and spend good time and money making such things? I realize most people don’t feel such moral repulsion against it, but it is hard to wonder why something that seems so painfully obvious to you shouldn’t be apparent to everyone else.

Walked north of the river only as fair as the railroad station. After that, I took off for Glastonbury like a good little architectural tourist.

Up the A361, not too many miles from Taunton, I saw something that looked an awful lot like Glastonbury Tor but on closer inspection was not. It was a ruined chapel dedicated to St. Michael on top of a mound called the
Burrow Mump, near Othery. And of course I had to double back, park the car, and climb up.

Other people had the same idea. Families and couples out in the sunshine. Great view of the
Somerset Levels and all the little towns below.

That done, I came down and drove the rest of the way to
Glastonbury. And wondered how I could’ve been mistaken about the Tor, once I’d seen the real thing in the distance.

Found a carpark (free on Sundays) not far from the town center and walked to the Abbey. Could get a little weird there, since not only was Glastonbury a great Benedictine center, but because of the
Arthurian connection, various New Agers and other fringies find it an attractive pilgrimage spot as well. Several shops on the High Street for me to stay out of, though for the most part it seemed pretty laughable.

Judging from the size and compass of the ruins,
Glastonbury Abbey when complete must’ve been a jaw-dropper. Just incredibly huge. Very Norman in feel, even in its Gothic parts. Lots of dogtooth ornament. And some original floor tiles left, in situ. You look at them by lifting up wooden covers. They’re all below existing ground level, which is higher than that of four hundred years ago.

Funny thing, though. Durham Cathedral is older than Glastonbury; the building is, at least. But Durham doesn't seem so incredibly remote and ancient as Glastonbury does. Maybe it's because here it's all ruins, so the place is arrested in the past. Up in Durham, the cathedral is used and lived in, as it were, and it's part of the everyday life of the Christian church-- regardless of its current bishop! So Durham belongs to Today, old as it is. There I got a sense of fruitful rootedness and living tradition. But here-- whatever's living is living several centuries back, and it pulls you into a world that is a long time ago and culturally, at least, very far away.

Which would explain the airhead-looking types sitting around soaking up vibes from the stones (what the sensible Benedictines would’ve said, I can’t think). There was one man, Western but with hair, beard, and robes like an Indian guru, sitting meditating in what was once the chancel. I considered taking his picture but decided it’d be a poor idea. If I showed such a thing, my audience might think I approved, which would be bad, or know I was holding the man up to ridicule, which would be worse. As much as I may deplore his creed I have no right to compromise his dignity.

I do have to wonder how much of this New Age business would be going on here if the Abbey were still an intact, functioning church. I mean, how much of this myth and legend stuff is us modern people putting our ideas on the Past, which isn't still around to defend itself?

Wandered around the grassy grounds contemplating the trees and flowering shrubs, including what is supposed to be a scion of the original
Glastonbury Thorn. I used to love that story of Joseph of Arimathea planting his staff in the soil here-- did I ever actually believe it, or just want to, like the story of Santa Claus?

Visited the abbot’s kitchen, the only building really left intact. It was used as a Quaker meeting house for awhile. I was disappointed to see how some idiot had defaced the exhibits with vulgar writings and drawings. Real grown up, turkey.

Drove round to the
Tor, but wasn’t so good at following the signs. But that was all right, since the road where I ended up got me closer to the stile to one of the footpaths than the official parking lot would’ve. Left the car at the side of the street and headed up the hill.

It is a big hill. The best way to climb it is to go round the curve, though I trusted my shoes enough to risk taking sideways steps diagonally up the grass. Wasn’t wet by now, fortunately. The clear, dry weather was holding beautifully.

The ruined chapel here, too, was dedicated to
St. Michael. He seems to get the ones mounted up on pinnacles, doesn’t he? Like the one at Burrow Mump, this place was also thoroughly betouristed, with couples lying or wrestling around on the grass and children running in and out of the remaining tower. You just have to accept it and appreciate it for how it is, even if you’d prefer it quiet and to yourself.

The pagans, literally, had been at the place, scribbling their graffiti over a plaque, claiming the hill as their personal free-love site for some dark celebration . . . I don’t see St. Michael being too thrilled with that-- let alone, God.

From the top you can see all over that part of Somerset-- down to Glastonbury, the black and white cows grazing in the fields, and northeast all the way to Wells, its cathedral readily apparent. The sun was dropping lower, its light becoming more golden, backlighting the grasses of the hillside.

I came down a different way, meaning I continued my original counterclockwise progress all round the tor till I came down again to the stile I’d originally crossed. There were sheep even on this touristed mound, and little lambs ramming and butting one another, or running away behind their mothers if anyone got too close.

Back to the vehicle, then down to the town again, and caught the A39 up to

When I’d parked the care there in Sadler Street, opposite the gate, it was just on 6:00 o’clock and the
cathedral was closing. I went in anyway, just for a minute.

And you know, there’s a
wonderful effect that you get looking squarely down the nave: The line of the foliated capitals of the shafts of the clerestory lead your eye swiftly down the righthand side, swooping down the downward curve of the upper, inverted strainer arch, up its upward counterpart to the left, then flying back towards you along the lefthand row of clerestory capitals. Incredibly dynamic. You feel you can see the forces go. It all works a lot better than I’d thought.

And of course the carving in the capitals, above and below, is worth seeing for itself. So marvellously crisp (I hope it’s not all 19th Century restorations).

Having plenty of time in this part of England, I didn’t push things here today. But one thing was important, that I felt called to do. I passed up to the front of the nave, just before the Communion rail, and asked God that if-- no, when I come to forgive Lukas* for his behaviour at Iona (for he must be forgiven, else I’ll suppress this and it will only add to my general sickness of soul), I will truly forgive him, honestly and completely, and not keep pulling his offense out again, to his hurt or to my own. The thing must be made right between us, it

There was a young clergyman locking up, so I just verified that the Chapter House would be open tomorrow, and allowed myself to be shepherded out with some other stragglers.

I did not leave the cathedral grounds then, not a bit of it. The sun was striking full on the
west facade and also illumining the north flank. And you know me-- I like anything with the sun on it. I think I killed a whole roll of film just on the Wells exterior. They’ve been cleaning the masonry and it all looked golden and lovely. I had good fun shooting the high-up statuary with the telephoto. They’re what that facade is all about. The doors themselves are ridiculously insignificant.

I was still there to see the
funny clock on the north side mark 6:45. Then I got an ice cream (loosely-speaking) from a vending lorry and wandered out and back in to see the grounds of the Bishop’s Palace.

It was closed, but the moat and walls with the swans and ducks gliding by below could all be seen in the most welcome and fortuitous light. The mallards are wonderful, the way the color of their shimmering neck feathers changes from royal blue to grass green to velvet black and back to teal again, depending on the angle of refraction.

You can go in the gateway of the palace and look into the inner court, but no farther except for one or two days a week, when there are tours. The Bishop still lives there. I tried to imagine one of the Coverdale* guys rising to this estate. Somehow I can’t picture any of them feeling comfortable in such splendour.

It was proper time to head back to Holford by now, being well past 7:30. Trouble was, my petrol gauge was riding on empty and here it was Sunday evening. I’d seen an Amoco station selling 4-star at £1.76 a gallon (miracle!) on the road above Bridgwater last night, but now I had no idea exactly where it was or if it was even open. Just what I needed, to run out of petrol. I didn’t help myself by getting onto the wrong road out of Wells and wasting fuel going all the way to Wookey Hole before I realized my error. Back and got onto the A3139 as planned, west towards Highbridge. Coasted as much as I could. I don’t know how much reserve this car has when the needle’s on empty, but I wasn’t taking chances.

Came out onto the A38 and after a bit came to a British Petroleum garage that was open. Damn, £1.87/gallon-- but read the old one about beggars and choosers as said. How nice then to pull away from there with a full tank and spot the Amoco a few miles closer to Bridgwater-- and open.

Proper good sunset this evening, but it was quite dark as I again drove the curving road towards Holford. All sorts of fun with the brights, trying to see how long I could keep them on before having to dim them for an oncoming driver. It’s near impossible to negotiate that road on the low lamps, especially if you’re trying to go as fast as local expectations would have it.

Decided since, except for the ice cream and that raspberry fizz, I hadn’t eaten since breakfast, I’d pop over to the pub and have a meal and a glass of
Somerset cider. The barbecued chicken was the least expensive, and came with a jacket potato, mushrooms, and peas, for about £3.45. Glass of medium-sweet (but hard) cider for 52p. Brought Walter Scott [Heart of Mid-Lothian] along to keep me company, though the cover of that Everyman Edition doesn’t take kindly to being propped up on tables.

There were several other people in the Plough, including a group of people in their 20s. The guys were making some rather rude suggestions to the girls, which struck the young ladies as more funny and provocative than repulsive . . . It made me think about cultural differences-- not national, but class-related. But maybe it has more to do with religion. I couldn’t imagine any of the guys in the young adult class at my home church or in Coverdale* making personal comments about a female friend’s private anatomy to her face. I couldn't imagine them making such comments at all! Here and now over supper, I decided that as long as these people didn’t attempt to draw me in, I was going to ignore it and not let it make me nervous.

Returned next door to my room at around 10:00 and vegetated with the book until turning in.


Sandy said...

I especially liked the link to the Tor.

St. Blogwen said...

I just clicked back on it myself, and then to the link to the Glastonbury Tor panorama. Hey, you can see Coxley from there! That's the first church I ever preached in, Leap Year Day, 1993!

Of course, in 1989, I had No Idea.