Friday, 21 August 2009

Land of my fathers (and mothers)

Off to the West Country for a few days to paddle in my gene pool and catch up with friends. After years of exploring the area, we still manage to find oddness. We decided not to queue for hours to see the Banksy exhibition and headed towards Portishead. The picture above is from Oakham Teasures, a vast collection of retail and household memorabilia, mostly from the first half of the twentieth century - and tractors. We did a fair bit of pointing and laughing.

The Gorge was created by two giant brothers, Goram and Vincent, trying to impress a local girl called Avona. Or by millenia of water wearing away rock. I prefer the first version. The bridge was designed by Brunel, and may or may not have impressed local women although there is a story of one who jumped off and was saved when her enormous skirt ballooned out and she drifted gently down - presumably to get stuck in the mud.

The next day, we headed for Wales. Although my roots are almost all in the West Country (I am descended from an enormous bunch of yokels), my great grandfather George The Bigamist moved to South Wales from Bath between wives.

Raglan Castle was begun around 1435 by Sir William ap Thomas. In the Civil War, it was a Royalist stronghold until Sir Thomas Fairfax battered it into submission in 1646. In honour of this event, which took place almost to the day we were there (August 19), we bought some little wooden swords from the gift shop and re-enacted the battle on the tower and across the bridge. Our armour and weaponry were of course wholly authentic, as were our battle cries of 'Ouch' and 'I can't see where I'm going', although we didn't get round to deciding who was a Roundhead, who a Cavalier.

Then to the Brecon Beacons where we tried to find the way up the Sugarloaf but the whole area is very badly signposted, presumably to confuse English invaders. It worked, even though one of us is technically Welsh.

The local sheep are very timid things who ran away as soon as they caught sight of us, unlike the much feistier Quantock sheep who stand their ground and glare.

There is a lot of bracken in the Brecons and I did briefly think about snakes. The wood of rowan trees (pictured) was used for druids' staffs, dowsing rods and magic wands. Rowans also protect against witches and, judging by the number of them, the Brecons must be an entirely witch-free area. In among the bracken were wild bilberries, similar to blueberries. We ate a few, picking them from slopes the sheep were less likely to have peed on. The Raglan Castle gift shop had expensive paper made from recycled sheep poo, which raises questions such as - who came up with that idea, who collected enough of it to make paper and - why?

On Sunday we drove past the queue for Banksy, which was still enormous, and walked around the Bristol Docks.
A reproduction of the Matthew was sailing round. This was the boat on which Cabot (Giovanni Caboto) crossed the Atlantic in 1497 with just 18 crew. It's a dauntingly small boat for such a big ocean but he made it and landed in America by accident as he was looking for the North West Passage to India. In 2008 this epic journey was commemorated when the new shopping centre was named Cabot's Circus. Head into the unknown, risk life and limb, battle with scurvy and high seas and give your name to the home of a huge branch of Primark.

At my parents' house in a village outside Bristol, my mother announced that she had made eighty pounds of jam so far. The local economy revolves around people giving and receiving jam for favours and is a yokel equivalent of primate grooming rituals.

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