A Short Night Walk Amongst the Living and the Dead.
The homes in this hamlet appeared for the most part ancient, one or two of them sporting ecclesiastical stonework, possibly half-inched from Glastonbury, after the Dissolution turned the Abbey into a decorative quarry for building material. The silence of these homes was of a different quality to that of the woods and railway track. I trod quietly here, and was reminded of something Lewellyn Powys wrote of a small Devon settlement in similar circumstance. As he moved through those silent houses, he asked the question ‘In these small, low ancient chambers of births, love-makings and of deaths, chambers smelling of apples kept in drawers, and stuffy quilts – were there perhaps other beings that breathed, revenants irresistibly drawn back, with finger on lip, to the darker local corners of the house never reached by moonlight?’ Night walks, it seems, have always generated peculiar thoughts and unusual images.
The looming mass of Dulcote Hill hovered over the sturdy stone built chapel on the right. It was once a ridge-backed and rocky promontory, a site to see. A sleeping dinosaur. When quarrying threatened to denude its nature, questions were raised in the House of Commons by a Lieutenant Colonel Bowles, who went so far as to state that ‘it is a picture which is looked at by thousands from all over the world in order to obtain spiritual inspiration. It is admitted by all that this view is the object of visits by Americans and people from far overseas, as well as, of course, the Cathedral of Wells and other objects of interest.’
That was in 1949, but work carried on, with the carboniferous limestone roots of the hill being removed at a rate of over 250,000 tons a year. It’s now quarried hollow, scooped out like the contents of an ice-cream tub and, other than the presence of a high-tech commercial unit dwarfed by the scale of the removal, the haunt of ravens, tawny owls, newts and bats.
A surviving natural feature is the reservoir under the quarry floor, a lightless subterranean chamber somewhere beneath the substantial pond. Rarely empty, this water flows underground to the village in which I was standing, and emerges in the form of a calcifying spring. Over the course of a great number of years the calcite rich water has accreted an amorphous, moss covered stone gherkin of human height. This edifice has a sprinkle of water emerging from its crown, and stands in a pool which supports a moderate amount of plant and animal life, and resembles a John Pertwee-era Doctor Who alien looking for a lift.
Prior to this display the spring breaks cover in the form of a well recessed into the front wall of the chapel. Above this is a memorial plaque listing those of the village who died in the first World War, here recorded as taking place between 1914 and 1919. Most memorials display 1918 as the end date, recording the Armistice on the 11th day of the 11th month of that year, but Dulcote, amongst a few others, recorded instead the signing of the treaty of Versailles in June 1919 as the official close of the war.
I mention this only because, had we been standing by the fountain one afternoon in March 1913, we would have seen a youngish man riding by on a bicycle. He has travelled on two wheels all the way from Balham, in search of the first signs of spring, most recently passing the silk mills of Shepton Mallet, stopping in Croscombe at the George for a spot of lunch.
His name was Edward Thomas; a literary critic, and writer of prose and poetry, and he was destined to die shortly in the conflict marked by the memorial we just passed.
The book generated by this expedition was called ‘In Pursuit of Spring’, and though his powers of description are at times of an exquisitely lucid nature, for the most part of the cycle ride he is somewhat jaded and downcast, even pausing at one point to critique someone’s choice of poem on their gravestone. The first time he really comes alive is when he talks with great enthusiasm and authority about the manufacture and use of clay pipes – a particular obsession of his – but for some reason – perhaps shying away from revealing too much about himself – he balks and puts the words in the mouth of a fictional companion, where he regards them somewhat coolly, from a protected position.
He really only perks up when he reaches Glastonbury, some seven miles from here, when he spots some May blossom in the grounds of the Abbey ruins. It’s the first sign of spring, and it comes as a source of relief both for the writer and the reader. However, given that it comes near the climax of the book, you could be forgiven for parting ways earlier.
For myself, I’m glad I stuck with it though, if only to experience a first-hand account of an era with much less reliance on motorised vehicles, and the differences it made to society and remoter communities. The same journey by bicycle in our times would be a much more hazardous affair, and not one I’d recommended without some form of respiratory equipment, and perhaps light armour.
I really only read his work because seemingly every nature writer on earth is a devotee of Thomas, and they repeatedly encouraged me to do so. As is my peculiar wont, I read a biography of him before I started any of his major works, and quickly gained the impression that although he genuinely suffered for his art, his recalcitrant nature, coupled with a self-centredness that would make a black hole blush, ensured his wife and children suffered for it too.
He had, against their wishes, volunteered for service, and perhaps surprisingly had found something approaching peace amongst the chaos, carnage and military hierarchy of the battlefields of France; a sense of being in the right place at the right time, by his own hand perhaps. His was not a long war, however – he was killed by bullet passing ‘clean through his chest’ at Arras, in 1917. His death was a tragedy in the literal sense – his downfall had been the result of his own decisions – but there is an additional dimension to the last of his days on earth; Thomas was experiencing the effects of a newly developed sense of confidence, a product of his recent success as a late-flowering poet. There was every indication that we’d have seen the best of him had he returned, as a father, a husband, and as a man of letters.
We’ll follow Thomas down this road. Dulcote is spread pretty thin either side of the tarmac. There are six streetlights along its length, and there’s a decent pavement and little danger of coming a cropper. Near the halfway mark at the bottom of the hill there’s another river. The water here was deeper and faster than any we’ve crossed so far, and had a more urgent voice that echoed under the low arch of the bridge. Where the moonlight caught its surface, it looked like freshly knapped flint.
This is the Sheppey, the river that gives Shepton Mallet its name, and which bypasses Wells, flowing through fields, back under our railway line, and onto Coxley, a small village with the Iron Age and Rome in its roots. From there it meanders out onto the Levels and eventually to the Severn Estuary. The bridge has been here for a long time, and was mentioned by another traveller and poet, John Leland, in 1542. Leland spent a great deal of time on the road, commissioned as he was by Henry VIII to examine the libraries of every major religious house in England, after which he took a following commission to conduct an itinerary of England and Wales; a book hunt to end all book hunts.
This is where our poets cross, as Thomas is heading into Wells, and Leland up Dulcote Hill and onto Shepton, after having visited the library at the cathedral, and that of the Abbey at Glastonbury. I didn’t pause for long – the temperature was dropping further, and continued to follow Thomas through the remainder of Dulcote village, where the streetlights and houses soon ran out and were replaced by an avenue of towering lime trees.
Ahead, perched on a hill I couldn’t see, and glowing through the bare trees of Castle Wood and Peace Plantation, was a string of six ruby red navigation lights climbing into the darkness – they’re attached to the Penn Hill mast, which climbs almost a thousand feet into the sky, and is constantly broadcasting on a variety of frequencies. One of the gigantic guy cables that tethers and supports this structure is anchored right next to a long barrow from the Neolithic period. These monuments often contained generations of the dead, watching over generations of the living below. Ancestral CCTV.