Traveller's Tale #14
Castles and Kings
Civilised society is being challenged in these early days of 2021. Fortunes are being made and lost, kings are being dethroned, castles assailed.
Divine providence is being invoked and accountability questioned. Plagues, famine and conflicts foment across the globe from the Americas to Africa. It is not a new narrative.
In 1962, when the Cold War was on a hair-trigger, my family had started a tour of the British Isles. My father, Peter, had a brief from the Imperial Relations Trust to commentate on the history, culture, and social profile of the British nation. His diary account is the basis of this column series.
As I begin I take up his account near Cornwall. We had departed London on July 18.
July 26th 1962 Thursday
A goodly night's rest, and we were away by 10. Saw Restormel Castle at Lostwithiel (a circular C 13th century building) then on to Fowey. Another torturous winding village street, like Looe – all one way – and to the Foye forge to see some copper work. Disappointing - semi-mechanised work with sheet brass and vibro tools. On to Truro where we got lost – then by way of St Michaels Mount to Penzance. Crowded with holidaymakers. Saw Mill House fabric printers – lovely designs screen-printed on linen. Then to Mousehole, and Lands End (by 9pm – still daylight ). Camped in moors past St Just.
July 27th 1962 Friday
Late start in the mist, and on through stonewalled lanes and after through farms (farmyards) to Zennor, to see the Folk Museum of Cornish Life – minex's resin-dipped felt hats with candles stuck on brim – millstones, etc. Then to Chysauster Ancient Village - walls, hearths and queries remaining from C2BC. (second century BC).
St Ives, saw Leach Pottery and talked for an hour to Bernard Leach. Down through narrow streets to St Ives. Then to the ivory works. Bought pendant for B (Barbara) and children were given ivory tips. On to Wadebridge – search for campsite ends at 9.15pm.
July 28th 1962 Saturday
Slow start, because we washed Stephanie's hair. Into Wadebridge (Saturday traffic heavy) shopped. Cane carpet beaters for sale. Photographed ancient Cornish roadside cross. Road then Bodmin, then across country to St Neot. Met milkman who told us how to make Cornish cream, lunched (with cream) then explored Saint Neot's Holy Well and his church. Only remaining C14 – C15 (14th – 15th century) glass in England. Escaped destruction in Commonwealth. Lovely church – original altar with Latin inscriptions. Ph. (Photographed) window and statue. On to Dozmary pool in moors (Excaliber drowned here) then on to Tintagel. Quite magnificent coast and ruins. Left at 7, camped at 8, dinner at 9, bed at 10.
July 29th 1962 Sunday
A good start after a good night. Had a bath and on the road by 10. Long drive out of Cornwall (which is getting dull about here) into Devon. A few cottages with sculptures that are interesting, also a pub with thatch and an old mail coach in the garden. Lunch at Westward Ho – a complete disappointment. Seaside resort at its worst. On around Exmoor, where children and I had a gallop on the moors. Down to Exmoor, then to Dunster Village which is perfect. Ph. Yarn Market, Dovecote. Church and Abbey founded with a C14 (14th century) carved screen between nave and choir. Then to Cleve Abbey – C12 (12th century) Cistercian house in which the villagers used the church as a quarry (interesting comment on the rel. [relationship] between the monasteries and the people) and left the abbey standing. Ph. gatehouse, beams in refectory and cloisters. V.(Very) well preserved. On into Quantock Hills, saw Quantock weavers, camped at 8.
July 30th 1962 Monday
Tho' we didn't know it the lovely clear views we had of the Bristol Channel and Wales yesterday (most times the light here is hazy) meant one thing only: rain. Woke up and packed in drizzle and on to Taunton. Woodcarver 13 miles out so went on to Glastonbury instead. Halfway there, visited an osier or willowy weaving shop – basketry hoarded chairs, fascinating technique and speed. Saw whole process from osier beds to finished baskets. Glastonbury, originally Avalon. Lovely! Abbey a magnificent ruin. Saw (and took leaves from) Holy Thorn. Saw place of Joseph of Arimathea's altar and chalice well (Jerron's spring is where Last Supper chalice said to have been buried). Arthur's grave also in Abbey. On to Nunnery castle: deep moted. Bastille of a place: rain starts. On to Bratton, Westbury, to see White Horse. Camped by roadside. Rain stops and we can look over Vale of Avalon (ph.) trees, fields, gun range. Medieval. Have feeling that England died of the Reformation. Knights - Unicorns – maidens.
July 31st 1962 Tuesday
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Uncomfortable night on sloping ground, and consequently a late start. Straight drive to Bristol - only to miss COI (Central Office of Information) man leaving by 5 minutes. Return to look around Bath – the waters, the Abbey, the Adams-designed bridge. Out to camp on Wells Road. Children find children from home to play with.
My father kept a note of mileage figures and claimed expenses. We covered a lot of ground in five days and the regular mention of the man from the Central Office of Information makes the story sound like something out of MI6 and Ian Fleming's James Bond. Civilisations rise and fall. Like Glastonbury, history is suffused with myth and mysticism.
Stonehenge was massive. It probably still is, but I was eight then. I recall climbing on to the altar stone and the sheer size of the grey pillars and capstones was awe-inspiring. The atmospherics spoke of an eerie ancient dawn. The white horse was another marker. I scrambled over the chalk-white chip and pebbles to the horse's eye and sat there surveying the landscape. It was elliptical with long yellowgreen grass, about the size of a Mini Minor. Chysauster village is an iron age Celtic settlement on open farmland where the dwellings' stone foundations and walls still stand, laid out in enclosures. It was a farming community. At Bath, my father mentions the Pulteney Bridge. Designed by Robert Adam, completed in 1774 for William Pulteney, in the Palladian style. Lined with shops it spans the River Avon.
English place names are unique. Mousehole is just that. A tiny harbour shut off from the open sea by a massive sea wall, a traffic lane wide and 40 feet tall when the tide is out, with a slot entrance just wide enough for a small fishing boat to get through. I don't recall us meeting any polygamists at St Ives (with the seven wives if you recall the nursery rhyme). Bernard Leach, known as the father of British studio pottery, was famous for his ceramics. Lands End was rugged, like Slope Point in Southland, tapering off into the ocean. Life was rich. The Cape family travelled on, somewhat oblivious to world events that may have ended humanity in 1962. Ahead lay Bristol and a cheese factory. On which note I'm tempted to comment cynically about idiot politics, stiff cheese, and the state of the world, but that's probably excessive.