Saturday, 5 March 2011

Wordsworth and the chocolate frog

how high the moon

(this was an unfinished account of a journey to Wales. I was in the Co-op yesterday with Deborah, who hadn't heard of the Bill and Dot connection. And then I recalled this...)

Bob Dylan set off from Bristol in a Bentley, on his way to Cardiff on 11 May 1966. He’d played a gig in the Colston Hall the night before and had been booed for playing electric guitar.

And William and Dorothy Wordsworth set off from Shirehampton, just to the north of Bristol, on their way to Wales, on the morning of July 10 1798. They were walking, because they were frugal types, and because walking is what the Wordsworths were good at. One of the things they were good at, anyway.

James and I decided to average it out. We were going to cycle to Wales.

By the afternoon of 29th June, the temperature in Bristol city centre was on the wrong side of 26C, and I had just cycled home from a hospital appointment. Home was three miles away. Uphill. I drank a cold beer while my body decided whether it was going to succumb to heatstroke, and checked my e-mails.

hi Dru,
I just rode into town and back and am half-dead. I think it might be better to postpone til it's cooler - what do you think? I'm not sure I'm capable of riding to Aust and back in this heat!
Dorothy would do it I know, but...

Hugely relieved that James had articulated my own thoughts, I gratefully responded

…though we could always do it by Morris Traveller….

And so we did.

We bowled over the Downs to Shirehampton, and to the Co-op supermarket which stands on the site of the long-demolished Church House, where the Wordsworths had been staying, and whence they departed on that July morning two centuries or so ago. We wondered what they would have taken to sustain them on their journey. We hunted the shelves for Grasmere gingerbread or Kendal mint cake, items which William and Dorothy would certainly have been happy to take with them if only they had been obtainable in seventeenth century Shirehampton. We would have been equally happy to take them with us today; but it was still not an option, so I settled for two Cadbury’s Freddo Frog chocolate bars (15p each), a vague nod in the direction of Wordsworth’s early enthusiasm for the French Revolution;, and a jar of Bonne Maman apricot conserve to spread on the scones which I already had in the car.

James admired the brass plaque, erected at the expense of the Shirehampton Local History Group to commemorate William and Dorothy’s stay here, as I queued at the checkout. The chap behind me in the queue had a bare belly sticking out from his unbuttoned shirt. He was buying a a family-sized packet of crisps and an oven-ready tray of liver, onions and mashed potato. I felt very continental in comparison.

We drove up the hill, past Kings Weston, a very big house with lots of chimneys, designed by Sir John Vanbrugh in 1710 especially for rich people who wanted a very big house with lots of chimneys. It stands on the west flank of a ridge overlooking the Severn, with views across the river to Wales. The view also takes in a great spring tide of motorway junctions, chemical works and vast proletarian housing estates, which lap practically all the way up to the servants' entrance, leaving the house sitting in its wooded corner like an ancient relative who was once looked up to but is now usually ignored and is a bit dotty and insanitary.

We then passed Blaise Hamlet, a little cluster of thatched ‘gingerbread’ cottages where retainers of the adjacent Blaise Castle House would once have been installed in order to look picturesque for the people in the big house. I wondered what William and Dorothy would have made of it; but on that July morning in 1798 as they passed by, the hamlet was still thirteen years in the future, though Humphry Repton was already at work creating a picturesque landscape for the owner of the house. I was struck by the area of common ground in the aesthetic sensibilities of Repton and Wordsworth, although they seem worlds apart in other ways. Here is Repton describing the effect of cutting back the trees on the hill behind the house and installing a cottage:

…this by its form will mark its intention, and the occasional smoke from the chimney will not only produce that cheerful and varying motion which painting cannot express…. It must look like what it is, the habitation of a labourer …but its simplicity should be the effect of Art and not of accident.

Red Book for Blaise Castle

..and here is Wordsworth, on his return from this short expedition to Wales, describing what he saw in the Wye Valley:

…these wild pastoral farms,
Green to the very door; and wreaths of smoke
Sent up, in silence, from among the trees!
With some uncertain notice, as might seem
Of vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods,
Or of some Hermit’s cave, where by his fire
The hermit sits alone.
These beauteous forms,
Through a long absence, have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind
With tranquil restoration….

(Lines composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey)

At least I know what I think of Blaise Hamlet. Pevsner describes it as ‘the nec plus ultra of picturesque layout and design. ….(it) is indeed responsible for some of the worst sentimentalities of England. Its progeny is legion and includes Christmas cards and teapots. Why then are we not irritated but enchanted by it?’

Why indeed, Nikolaus? I am not enchanted but irritated by it. So there. I said as much to James as we drove by, and if he disagreed, he wisely kept his own counsel.

Soon we join Cribbs Causeway, the main road from Bristol to the old ferry at Aust. If I’d been walking, I’d certainly have felt ready to stop for a munch on my Cadbury’s Freddo by now, but I imagine the Wordsworths would be have been too engrossed in conversation to bother themselves with their lack of a chocolate frog. Unfortunately, they did not record the minutiae of their trip, so there is no way of knowing. But look! Round the roundabout, in 1966, comes Bob Dylan in his hired Bentley! Sitting in the back, looking a bit grumpy because it’s been a long tour and he was heckled last night for playing electric guitar. Folkies like their folk music to be properly authentic. An authenticity achieved through Art not accident, presumably. Bob’s Bentley speeds up and glides effortlessly past our Moggy, but perhaps we’ll catch up with him later on at Aust.

We pass beneath the M5 and drop down the long wooded slope into the vale of the Severn. The road runs straight, alongside deep rhynes cloudy with meadowsweet. Then we jink over a bridge which crosses the railway line to Cardiff, already in a deep cutting on its gradual descent to the mouth of the Severn Tunnel, and then presently cross another bridge over the approach to the new Second Severn Crossing. We briefly glimpse lines of lorries rumbling to and then from Wales as we cross over, descend the embankment and park up. We study the map. Somewhere, very near where we stand, there once ran the railway line to the pier of the New Passage ferry.


  1. Absolutely chocolatey (but not chocolate box, you understand!) account of great poets in motion (not as in Andrew).
    Thanks, Dru, I envy your stupendous knowledge of your local area!

  2. I think a Moggy is a better average between walking and a Bentley.

    You really want to see the country try a green like your Moggy 1930's 3 litre open Bentley which I used to sometimes ride in as a child. Pure poetry in motion...

    Caroline xxx

  3. We live in a wonderful country, Dru, and you bring it to life.
    That's rare praise indeed but well deserved.

  4. Bloody hell, Dru, I'm really glad you didn't suggest cycling to Clevedon. I'd never have made it back up Tickenham Hill!

    What grates with Blaise Hamlet is what I imagine would be the dichotomy between the labourers' long, hard working day on the estate and the bizarre quarters they found themselves in. You'd feel like a performing monkey living there. (Ooh, the Twits!)

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  6. Thank you, everyone! Sorry, been preoccupied.
    Apparently the Blaise cottages were for pensioners, Deb; presumably the more senior of the estate's former employees. But even so... Rawlinson's End comes to mind, with Old Scrotum, the wrinkled retainer... I see the great wash of industry and housing at the door of the Big House as the revenge of the proletariat, determined not to be picturesque. But maybe that's too optimistic.

  7. What an absolutely super photograph! I love it, and indeed, your beautiful writing- Graham was completely right in his comment.

    And it is wonderful to find that 'Sir Henry at Rawlinson's End' is not yet forgotten! One of the most joyous forays into the English language ever to make it to celluloid. Thank you, as always.