A Short Night Walk Amongst the Living and the Dead.
The medieval layout encouraged me to take a meandering route to its boundaries, the streets guiding or following the flow of the four million gallons of water that rise daily from wells of St. Andrew, a cluster of cold water springs, forced to the surface by a large subterranean conduit fed by streams which have splashed and tumbled through caves which, though not exactly measureless to man, are none the less impressive in scale.
The springs have been an irresistible draw to wild animals and humans for millennia. Though the upwell is confined to within the walls of the Bishop’s Palace, the water itself can’t be held against its will for long, and escapes along a number of routes – most famously down either side of High Street, where it runs along gutters chiselled from Blue Lias, transported here from nearby quarries at Glastonbury and Street. These rocks are famous for yielding the fossilised ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs that swam in the aforementioned warm, shallow seas surrounding the Mendips, and are likely to have inspired the wealth of dragon folklore in the county. The springs also fill the stickleback inhabited moat of the Palace, overflowing into an un-named tributary, and increasing the flow to the point whereby it was considered worthy of a title; Keward Brook. And it’s this brook that defines, quite sharply, the Southern edge of the modern settlement. Passing the bottom of Silver Street to the bridge that crosses the brook, bright moonlight glanced off the frost that ornamented the car roofs and house windows. The water whispers and rings under the diminutive span. A cat, crouched on the wall of the bridge caused me to pause. It was sniffing at something on the wall; the remains of a pasty by the look of it. As soon as I stroked the cat’s back it began to scoff the bits of pastry immediately, almost as if it had been waiting for permission, and once it had started tucking in it had no time for humans, so I carried on, heading into Morrison’s car park.
It’s around here, as far as I can tell, somewhere between the supermarket and the Premiere Inn on the other side of the road, that the corpses of the Monmouth rebels would have been displayed in 1685, after being sentenced by ‘Hanging’ Judge Jeffries at his Bloody Assizes held in the market square.
Or parts of them were displayed at any rate. After they’d been hanged, drawn and quartered, their limbs were dipped in bitumen to preserve them, and then sent to outlying towns and villages to be exhibited as a warning against further rebellion. Though knowing the Somerset character, I imagine it would be equally likely to act as an encouragement.
Jeffries was, at the time, equally feared and despised for his actions. Some have attempted to explain his cruel behaviour with the suggestion that he was suffering from pyelonephritis, a debilitating kidney disease, for which his doctors prescribed large quantities of alcohol as a method of pain control. Others are happy to work on the hypothesis that he was simply a colossal arsehole.
The site would have been chosen for its proximity to the Glastonbury road, the main thoroughfare at this end of town during that period, and it’s quite likely that body parts would have been on display on the Bristol and Bath roads too. But this end of town was entirely reconfigured in the 19th and 20th centuries, firstly to accommodate a railway, and then after that had been dismantled, a two-lane A road.
The car park was deserted, and as I neared Morrison’s, I saw myself reflected back from the wall of dark glass that fronts the dimly lit supermarket, a tiny and insignificant figure against the night. As I neared the end of the edifice, I paused at the large glass doors, behind which there were a number of Christmas trees, reams of tinsel and swarms of fairy lights.
The decorations sparked a realisation about the turning of the year. Yesterday was the winter solstice, and as usual, regardless of good intentions, I’d yet again failed to mark this pivotal time of year and, what’s more, had a vague recollection there was something particularly special about this one. I checked my phone for a reminder. In the shop window, my face was illuminated by the bright screen beneath it, lending me the appearance of a pantomime villain, and super-imposing it over the decorations, like a ghost at the feast. The comparison made me smile, which really did nothing to improve the image. I decided to move on – perhaps there was an employee in there hiding behind a Christmas tree, waiting for the weirdo outside to make himself scarce before they emerged. I know if I was them I’d want me to go.
I read as I crossed the car-park, heading away from the shop lights. According to the first source I came to, it was not only the last full moon of the year, but it had risen less than a day after the exact hour of the winter solstice. This last happened about eight years ago, but isn’t scheduled to happen again until 2094. And there it was, beaming away, high in the sky to the south, emitting a stark, led white light that you tend to only see in the winter months.
Given that I’ll be long dead by the time this happened again, I decided to stretch my legs and explore the night further. Leaving the carpark there’s a stretch of pavement that runs parallel to the road, past a new but diminutive estate to the left. The people indoors, asleep and dreaming, were the first to do so on this site. Before the houses were built a few years ago it was a brownfield site next to a chemical company, and before that, during the 1940s, strips of allotments to feed the wartime city. Imagine that – the first community of people to dream in this place on earth.
Passing this settlement, I left the fringe of the city behind, and came to the first bridge of the walk. It’s a stock and footbridge, put in when the road was built in the mid 90s, so the farmers of Palace farm could move livestock between their fields on either side of the road.
It’s not much to look at; a purely utilitarian modern concrete affair, but it’s also a bit of a portal, the frame-like arch delineating a cut-off point between here and there. On this side lay the human world of electric light and sleeping houses, and on the other side, utter darkness and all it sheltered.
On stepping through, the absence of artificial light revealed a high, rippled veil of blue-white water vapour in an otherwise clear and star filled sky. The face of the moon bounced the sun’s used rays down across the landscape. Ahead of me, and three shades darker than the night, the black bore of the railway path gaped. It was quite forbidding, and I almost changed my mind and headed back to the house and bedwards. But instead I flashed the torch down it for a cursory check before continuing. I don’t know what I expected to see, or why I felt reticence; I know the path well by daylight. There have been no brigands in these parts for a few centuries, and no animals large enough to inconvenience me for even longer than that. But I’m merely human, and we have ancient mechanisms to dissuade us from plunging incautiously down night-paths.