The Avon, Biss, and Frome
‘At hawthorn-time in Wiltshire travelling
In search of something chance would never bring,
An old man’s face, by life and weather cut
And coloured, – rough, brown, sweet as any nut,
A land face, sea-blue-eyed, – hung in my mind
When I had left him many a mile behind.
All he said was: ‘Nobody can’t stop ‘ee. It’s
A footpath, right enough. You see those bits
Of mounds – that’s where they opened up the barrows
Sixty years since, while I was scaring sparrows.
They thought as there was something to find there,
But couldn’t find it, by digging, anywhere.’
(Lob, Edward Thomas)
‘Places are fragmentary and inward-turning histories, pasts that others are not allowed to read, accumulated times that can be unfolded but like stories held in reserve, remaining in an enigmatic state, symbolizations encysted in the pain or pleasure of the body.’
(The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau)
A loop on this lengthy poetic pursuit, only a line previously: awoke by the steady stream of cars beneath the old window, Edward by a thrush singing in a lilac next to his. Kettle began babbling on the floor directly beside the socket, flag fluttering outside in the wind and rain – it was going to be an odd day, having got used to biking miles towards the eventual destination: instead of following a rough route, for a change, it made more sense to actually go and find stuff in the neighbourhood. Avoiding eye-contact with Oxford, tea was drunk staring at the stars and stripes, photographing it obsessively. And the nation, and belonging nowhere attuned itself. Downstairs a Russian lady served me full English with Danish bacon. Drinks from all over the world sat upturned behind the marble bar – it was a bar not a pub. Round about the old dead mills, Edward began to complain about cycling. It is inferior to walking in this weather, because in cycling chiefly ample views are to be seen, and the mist conceals them. You travel too quickly to notice many small things; you see nothing save the troops of elms on the verge of invisibility. Whole places are blurred together – perhaps most boundaries were pretty blurred. We walked, pushing our bikes alongside, just in case walking became tiresome. Edward saw every primrose, and celandine and dandelion, every silvered green leaf of honeysuckle, every patch of brightest moss, every luminous drop on a small tip. These little instances were important. He saw the wonder in oft ignored things, questioning descriptive writing that does not: scale is remembered – his poems do not abstract generally; they are a story of something witnessed or borrowed local stories. We were still in the suburbs. Edward planned to write a book on the suburbs. Along with In Pursuit of Spring; The South Country, The Last Sheath, and The Heart of England either began in The Unofficial Countryside, the suburbs, or had a suburban chapter – an early attempt to write Edgelands. We were finally beyond commuting distance, well beyond Hampshire, over the other side of the Plain. And out of the gigantic burb, the belt, with Bristol and Bath nearby, pulling in people. That did not stop Edward thinking of the city though. He could not escape the suburbs. Neither could I. And again all is Edgelands. The crowd that I dislike the most is the crowd near Clapham Junction on a Saturday afternoon. Though born and bred a Clapham Junction man, I have become indifferently so… It is a crowd of considerable size, consisting of women shopping, of young men and women promenading, mostly apart, though not blind to one another, and of men returning from offices. They take things fairly easily, even these last, and can look about… It is a disintegrated crowd, rather suspicious and shy perhaps, where few know, or could guess much about, the others. When I find myself amongst them, I am more confused and uneasy than in any other crowd… Here, at Clapham Junction, each one asks a separate question. In a quarter of an hour I am bewildered and dejected… How different it is from a London crowd. In London everybody is a Londoner. Once in the Strand or Oxford Street I am as much at home as anyone. If I were to walk up and down continuously for a week I should not be noticed any more than I am now… There are no lookers on: all are lookers on. I look hard at every one as at pictures in a gallery, and no offence is taken. I can lose myself comfortably amongst them, and wake up again only when I find myself alone. Each day, except in the shops, an entirely new set of faces is seen, so far as memory tells me. A burly flower-girl, a white-haired youth, and a broken down, long-haired actor or poet, are the only strangers in London I have seen more than once. Yet the combination is familiar. I am a Londoner, and I am at home. But I am not a Clapham Junction man any more than I am a Trowbridge man.
Inside a fourteenth century tithe barn and looking up: a cross shaped hole in pale stone focused the sun, concentrating light in the narrow long space, and arched wooden beams soared with cathedral like pitch above nonexistent tithes. It was monumentally quiet. A little breeze rubbed at the central gate and knocked a circular handle. All so empty belying the original use: the storage of all sorts of goods. And all so still: any people lifting and carrying for the church long dead. Higgledy-piggledy roof tiles were spotted with plates of lichen. Beyond worn slate, a view back to the Victorian era, a market town, and its lifeless mills. Between the two a river came by, with canal, railway, road, and another river parallel. Not since Manchester has there been a view ahead that layered time such; the natal industrial north looked not dissimilar. In fact towns from then on had a distinctly northern feel about them: Shepton Mallet and Bridgwater could have been Stockport and Burnley had signs been swapped about. It seemed like a good plan to follow the industrial lines out of Bradford-on-Avon. Specifically a towpath, where cycling was prohibited without a permit: wandering first across a two foot wide footbridge, to the middle of the railway and standing between lines. I looked both ways into the distance down dead straight rails, before reaching an elevated canal side. Colourful canal barges were a welcome adjustment, garish for colour blind eyes: everything had appeared greyed in town. Barges would have still carried goods not housed humans, just about, when Edward walked along by, aiming for the confluence of the Frome and the Avon. A solitary rope swing swung, and back down the way a low bridge with three small pointed arches, crossed the river for ages since. Twenty or so barges cheered the stagnant water before the canal turned sharply. Thick trees no longer flanked. An aqueduct bridged: the Avon and railway sharing a valley thirty or forty feet below. The canal had been squeezed in above both and retained, before crossing, solidly channelled by the town stone greened from flash floods. It continued along the opposite river bank, meeting Avoncliff beside a blue train. A weir rumbled and foamed beneath, as did a cowering water mill powering nothing, left in rack and ruin – a corrugated iron structure ready to drop off the side, into the fast flowing water and out to sea; cagouled man, hat, and dog, watching on.
Off the towpath, sharply down to the riverbank. Into a soggy field too wet to ride – a flood plain. Grass long enough to constitute meadow, the odd wig of dry tough hay. There two rivers converged: the Frome and the Avon. It was possible to walk out into the middle of the confluence almost, down a pointed spit of land, and to stand before a wavy line of water extending out under the railway. Strangely the strip of water looked still. While all around it cascaded. Staying still for a while appealed, over the Frome was a pub with three pointed attic windows, painted in a classic mint green, called simply; The Inn at Freshford. There was a barn attached, its flight of stone steps with cast iron hand rail provided a neat bicycle stand. Immediately inside was a bar, to the left at the far end an open fire, and on the right a man doing some paperwork. In front of the fire sat four people, two couples. At the bar with his back to the door, another man nursing a pint, while the bar maid swilled used glasses. It was a shallow room, the back wall a few feet in front of the entrance – extending widthways like a football stand far from the door either side, to make up for it. A sign for a microbrewery caught the eye, owned by the pub, and brewed in a place called Rode Hill. Having ridden many hills that week a pint of the stuff might help. I sat at the bar and asked for a pint in a generic northern accent. And was instantly asked a few questions both by the bar maid and the regular nursing a half empty pint. What brings you down ere? They were intrigued by a pursuit in the wake of a poet. The local helped to pin point a few things I was unsure of in the landscape, chatting away about the village and the market town, drawing on a napkin a good route to take if I wanted to see all three rivers. He seemed as integral to the structure of the pub as the great wooden beams. The elderly couples could be overheard touting grandchildren studying at Bath University. Clicking the bar maid over with the bill. The Wiltshire man ordered another pint. And we talked some more about the Frome valley. He was the sort of country-man Edward wrote of as having an enviable closeness to the land. The first person to ask me what I was doing, four days in to a solitary cycle, was enviably jolly.
Outside, it took a while to unlock the bike, taking it slowly as there was no real rush. You still ere? A familiar voice, stumbling off, two sheets to the wind, smiling and waving, said. I’m off now was shouted over a shoulder, while struggling up the steep hill to Iford, happier for the kindliness. It was a case of following the napkin around the two valleys walk. The first landmark drawn on the crude but easily understandable map was an old spring. A couple of dirty rags tied to the arched railings behind it further demarcated. The grey brown strips of fabric marked the high point of the lane, along with a church. Before it drifted right and descended down through the Frome valley, to the pleasure of myself and Edward – who had no doubts that he had done well to cycle rather than walk. It was as easy as riding in a cart, and more satisfying to a restless man. At the same time I was a great deal nearer to being a disembodied spirit than I can often be. I was not at all tired, so far as I knew. No people or thoughts embarrassed me. I fed through the senses directly, but very temperately, through the eyes chiefly, and was happier than is explicable or seems reasonable. This pleasure of my disembodied spirit (so to call it) was an inhuman and diffused one, such as may be attained by whatever dregs of this our life survive after death. Feelings mimicked those of Edward. The world round about seemed more apparent than usual; senses distributed and mingled with the trees zooming by. Thoughts of elsewhere flew by the wayside, as the river flowed hither and thither alongside. Wind whipped up and a new sun played with the old puddles. We were born to an enchanting little spot; to a stone soldier guarding over the river, stood always on the centre of a little bridge, in battle dress. Marked on the tissue as Iford Manor, there three roads and a river bond. And a medieval house with Georgian facade sits idyllically at the foot of the steep sided valley, beneath hanging woodland and a stepped terraced garden. The vale had been occupied since Roman times – and it had an Italian air to it, round about the great estate. On the road side, sculptures drew the eye forth – positioned just so to gaze beyond and on to rural land and back in to the topiary garden. Sunlight had basked the scene in an artificial light. So much so it all appeared like a stage; shadows cast. All ready to fall in on itself: the utopian vision. Look too hard and like the warrior turn to stone – a statue since the wool factory shut, resigning the canal alongside it. When the warrior awakes, the spell breaks, the countryside burns, and the grazing purebred cattle cook early. Up Iford Hill, the Westbury White Horse is visible; a mark in the land. The local man lumbers back in to the scene, negotiating the riverbank. Like Lob of the Edward Thomas poem, or the old man of the Dart traced by Alice Oswald. What I love is one foot in front of another. South-south-west and down the contours. I go slipping between Black Ridge and White Horse Hill into a bowl of the moor where echoes can’t get out
and I find you in the reeds, a trickle coming out of a bark, a foal of a river
The Frome continues beneath still visible and within earshot – the river’s mutterings audible
you can hear water
cooped up in moss and moving
slowly uphill through lean-to trees
where every day the sun gets twisted and shut
with the weak sound of the wind
rubbing one indolent twig upon another
Tales from the riverbank to a sleep walk on the Severn, all this spirit of place – and on to the Biss through Trowbridge, with its myth and conjecture, and local knowledge; was there a Fellowship of the waterscape biked? The Severn would be upon me soon and seals
With their grandmother mouths, with their dog-soft eyes, asking
who’s this moving in the dark? Me.
This is me, anonymous, water’s soliloquy,
all names, all voices, Slip-Shape, this is Proteus,
whoever that is, the shepherd of the seals,
driving my many selves from cave to cave . . .
Sat there, who should come up and stare at the chapel on the bridge and its weather-vane of a gilded perch, but the Other Man.