The fourth and final day of our tour of sacred England was, on reflection, the most special. It didn’t take in any grand cathedral but it did connect, in one case unexpectedly, with the essential simplicity of our connection with the great unknowable.
We set off early from Bath and headed for Bradford on Avon. Despite having tramped around much of Wiltshire, Somerset and Dorset over the years I’d never visited Bradford before. It’s a picturesque former industrial town set on steep hillsides along a river – an eighteenth century premonition of the industrialisation of the north decades later.
And, perhaps appropriately, the Bridge Tea Rooms reminded me of that Yorkshire institution Betty’s with the waiting staff in frilly aprons and wearing lacy things on their heads. I reflected on English tea rooms when I was in Paris earlier this month. The Parisians have their patisseries and their grand salons but the tea room, rather like the pub, fulfils a function that seems quite alien to our Continental neighbours.
Urban culture has never quite taken hold in Britain. While Paris or Barcelona or Berlin offer the chance to promenade, to see and be seen, to indulge in cultured delights, English cities are either overgrown villages or, like London, dozens of small settlements that have simply grown together.
When the Saxons settled London they eschewed the Roman city and built out to the west from Aldwych (old port) along the Strand (beach) to Westminster. Like the Celts whom they displaced or assimilated they appreciated space.
Around my part of Sussex the South Saxon villages of The Weald are spaced just far enough apart to discourage frivolous ‘dropping by’ without being too remote from one another. Four or five miles apart seemed about right to them – an hour and a half’s walk each way.
Paris owes a great deal to Rome. London owes a great deal to Wadhurst, Ticehurst, Lamberhurst and their ilk. And by the same token while the salons of continental Europe come from the urban tradition, the pubs and tearooms of England come from its villages.
Both are essentially the same place; at best they are like a communal parlour or living room, one with beer and pickled things, the other with tea and cake. It’s akin to being in your own front room but with warmth, company, entertainment and food on tap. Of course the likes of Starbucks have tried to recreate this third space but they seem to be unable to grasp what the best publicans, tearoom owners and Miss Blennerhassett all know; that the place is made by its patrons. They shape it. The landlord or proprietor is merely the custodian. You could visit nowhere in England bar its pubs and tearooms and still have a good grasp of the place and its constituent parts.
So what I think Paris really needs is a proper English tea room. I have a name for it; ‘Let Them Eat Cake.’ I’m convinced it would be a hit.
Bradford’s roots are at least as old as the Roman occupation. We didn’t see the Roman mosaic but we did visit the Saxon church of St Laurence. After the grandeur of Wells, the magisterial might of Winchester, the elegant pomp of Salisbury, St Laurence’s somehow captures what, for me, the spiritual should be about – a quiet, uncluttered, unfiltered relationship with the ‘her’, ‘him’, ‘it’ – however one thinks of the encompassing totality of the universe.
I was at Avebury at the beginning of February, the Celtic festival of Imbolc. The bloody cold Celtic festival of Imbolc. A couple of friends had a handfasting in a stand of trees on the earthworks. It was seven a.m., there was snow on the breeze, I lost all feeling in my fingers as toes. It was beautiful and romantic. Frostbite notwithstanding….
I first visited Avebury with my primary school and have returned periodically. For me Avebury says something about our ancestors’ spiritual relationship with their environment and it still stands, the village at its heart, as a reminder that our relationship with the world around us should never lose sight of that. If the notion of the spiritual doesn’t sit well with you simply think of it as the symbiosis between ourselves and the natural world, our dependency, our impermanence and insignificance against the infinite sweep of time and space. That’s a little of what Avebury means to me.
And having left we popped into The Barge Inn at Honeystreet, which hosts several good beers and the Centre for Crop Circle Research all overlooked by the Westbury White Horse. It’s quite special. I first came here with an old friend twenty odd years ago. It’s barely changed other than to get even more rock n roll with a picture of Frank Zappa over the fireplace and a selection of other great rockers adorning its walls.
Then we made for Uffington stopping off briefly at Aldbourne where the Dr Who story ‘The Daemons’ was filmed, dead scary when you’re about five (I suspect my parents wouldn’t have allowed me to watch) and the source of the immortal exchange:
Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart: Jenkins?
Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart: Chap with wings, there. Five rounds rapid.
Uffington meanwhile is one of my favourite places. It was the first time I’d visited in years but that’s partly because it had such strong memories. It featured in one of my favourite television programmes when I was growing up, The Moon Stallion, and it’s a place I’ve always tried to visit with my favourite people. I finally decided it was time to make some new memories.
Again it’s difficult to describe what it means to me but a lot of it is again about our relationship with the landscape. The Uffington White Horse is the most ancient of our remaining hill figures dating back to the bronze age and making it some three thousand years old, give or take a couple of hundred. It’s one of my favourite pieces of art, ancient or modern – it could be either, its lines are so contemporary. But I like the idea that the Britons of Caractacus would have known it, and Alfred (who fought the battle of Ashdown nearby – the Danes apparently camped at Uffington Castle) and perhaps Arthur (who perhaps triumphed here too at Mount Badon, a subsequent second Battle of Badon in the C7th was also linked by chroniclers to Ashdown, a name apparently liberally applied to the Berkshire Downs).
After the Horse we wandered down to Waylands Smithy and then back to the car for a grinding journey home along the modern successors to the Ridgeway. These four days were, all in all, amongst my best ever, never to be forgotten.