Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Minchinhampton Common

Up a Holloway to Minchinhampton Common

A combination of a talk about the Common at the Subscription Rooms and a read of Robert Macfarlane’s book, “Holloway”, led to my cycling over Rodborough and Minchinhampton Commons in late May. There was a fine, soft rain, which the early afternoon light transmuted to misty gauze: perfect conditions for slipping through time on a pyschogeographical bike ride.
Macfarlane uses an etymological trick at the start of his book, with a visual epigraph of linguistic stratigraphy that reminds us of the ancient origins of many of our pathways.
                             Hol weg.
So I decided to reach Minch via the holloway that leads from Stanfields, off Walkley Hill, along Kingscourt Lane. The path is tarmacadamised, but the bank on your right as you climb is particularly steep. Sycamore, holly and ash climb high with their thick, wizened trunks resting on thick, serpentine roots. Wild garlic covered the banks of this shaded, shrouded avenue; the leafy canopy above sheltered me from the heavy rain.  You are deep, deep, down in this Holloway, as you make the steep climb up past Rodborough Tabernacle.
Climbing beyond the manse, you meet the lane that leads on to Little London, just at the lane’s highest point, as it journeys from the main road, contouring beneath Rodborough Common. It’s easy to miss this topographical point at the junction, but it raises some two -pipe questions.  If this isn’t a coincidence, then what led this holloway to this highest point?
If the cause isn’t natural – say, slips of stone and rock, brought on by gravity, or water drifting away from the high ground, making for an easier path – then what human imprint determined this line? If we follow Macfarlane’s  epigraphic stratigraphy and also our imagination, then perhaps we can conjecture something prehistoric. Tumuli and long barrows abound around Avening and Minchinhampton Common – could this be a Neolithic track to that sacred area? The holloway climbs straight up the side of Rodborough Common and then over towards Minch.
As I walked, I thought of the alleyway on the Cainscross Road, opposite the restored lake area by the Cainscross roundabout. It’s resolutely 19th/20th century as it curves between stone and brick … and yet. Could this deep-down alley have served not just handloom weavers but could it also have served medieval packhorses? Could it pre-date even that? We are near an ancient crossing point of the Frome there; we are also on a line that could lead up to the tumuli up at Randwick. How nice to imagine that this holloway and that alleyway once connected Neolithic sites at Randwick and the Minchinhampton Common area. And even if that isn’t so, such pyschogeographical musings travelling way beyond conventional evidence are good for the mind and spirit.
Minch is good for the spirit too: skylarks, rare butterflies, iron age earthworks, burial mounds, pre-Roman and Roman field systems, medieval rabbit warrens, dinosaur remains, charcoal pits (Black Ditch? Burnt Ash?)), coppicing of woodlands, anenomes, cowslips, George Whitfield, turnpike roads, a disused mine – and covering all of this like a baize tablecloth, a golf course.
It’s easy to ignore Minchinhampton Common, seemingly encircled by so many busy roads. But it’s an ancient landscape.  It’s well worth a visit, even in the rain. Bike or walk – but take a map for the naming of parts.
PS One of the speakers at the presentation about Minch pointed out that the common can only be re-imagined by placing it in the context of the surrounding landscape. It is only by observing it from the outside, as it were, that one can understand the inside: the jigsaw is bigger than the common.
So, I took a bike ride the next day along the old railway line to Nailsworth and on to Avening. The track opposite the school in Avening takes you on the outskirts of Gatcombe Park and on to Hampton Fields and Minch. The map indicates a variety of Neolithic remains and getting up on top gives you that ancient feeling of self merging with landscape and time.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

LS Lowry and the Local Landscape

Let’s be honest, Manchester and the Stroud Valleys seem to be about as similar as chalk and cheese, or cotton and wool. When you gaze at a typical Lowry picture, all lean hunched figures and all tall lean factory chimneys, then the green fields and unpolluted rivers of Gloucestershire seem a million miles away. The contrast between the artistic depiction of these landscapes, however, is a connection worth pursuing. Where are the people in the Cotswold landscapes? In particular, where are the ordinary people? Where are the working men and women?

T.J. Clarke, in the Tate publication accompanying the 2013 Lowry Exhibition, points out ‘how little the landscape and social fabric of industrialism’ have appeared in ‘England’s recent culture’. Clarke sees this culture of the last 250 years as: ‘the cult of the countryside, the comedy of upper class manners, the dull decencies and resentments of the new middle classes, the lure of London, the grandeur and ambiguity of Empire’. It is, perhaps, the false dichotomy that has been placed between ‘Beauty’ and ‘Utility’ that has been a fundamental cause of all this snobbery and consequently empty landscapes.

This illusory dichotomy is illustrated by Clarke’s inclusion of a 1928 Jessica Stephens review of Lowry. I choose just one sentence but I could have chosen many: ‘Pictures of struggling little creatures – human – hurrying, working, striving, in surroundings which do not conform to any accepted idea of elegance, sound uncompromising, and are – but may yet be beautiful.’ Wouldn’t it be a grand local tour if we could recreate such scenes? Wouldn’t it be just the thing if we could see people making their historic way to and from our mills?

At the moment, our Stroudwater worker-heritage is pretty well invisible. Industrial archaeology tends to focus on technology and techniques; industrial history tends to emphasise entrepreneurial expertise and lineage; landscape painting leans to the pastoral: where are the artisans? Well, they can be found on an eighteenth century of Wallbridge – there are some figures out by the tenterhooks, far in the distance in Rodborough Fields. But we need to bring them to the forefront.

A few years ago, I recorded some nonagenarians about their memories of Spillmans, off Rodborough Hill. Now, Spillmans is just the sort of street that gets ignored by the visual arts: a red brick terrace above the mills on the busy Bath Road, betwixt two pubs and with the old Co-op at the end of the street. The voices can be heard on www.rememberingrodborough but here are some of their recollections in words. How great it would be to see them in paint. Let’s start a Stroudwater School of Social-Realism in Art.

Old Tom, the Horse (For Irene Connor)
You knew all the horses,
Pulling the carts with their heavy loads
Over the cobblestones of Rodborough’s roads;
Coal and milk and spuds and beer and bread,
And, of course, the fishmonger,
With his basket on his head,
“What have you got for me today?”
They asked, whilst you watched
The horses and the dray;
But your favourite was good old Tom,
Good old Tom,
Loved by children -
But adults looked in horror,
As Tom, once more,
Lowered his head over fence, hedge or wall,
To munch approvingly on such rich pickings,
As cabbages and lettuces and leeks
And the green tops of turnip, swede and parsnip,
Then the especial delight of a rich, ripe carrot;
All those houses with veg growing in the front garden,
All the way down Spillmans.
Good old Tom,
He thought they were growing it just for him.

The Cobbler in Spillmans
You were the elves,
And he was the shoemaker,
Down there in his hut,
Below the alley-way in Spillmans,
Hammering away, nails into leather,
New soles for Christian souls,
Rat a tat tat, rat a tat tat.
Silver whiskers, bushy brows,
Mutton chops of snow,
You’d creep by,
Peer through the cracked door,
Standing slightly ajar,
Then tap politely, yourselves,
You, the little elves,
“A sprig for my top, Mister Marmot?”
He’d raise his head from his hammering,
Like a little gnome, himself,
Rat a tat tat, rat a tat tat,
This man born before the Crimean War,
Still mending boots between our two wars,
Tapping away as his pocket watch ticked on,
Rat a tat tat, rat a tat tat,
Until, one day,
He was there no more.
And you were no longer elves.
The Cobbler in Spillmans & Old Tom, the horse: I wrote these in the middle of the night after talking with Irene Connor, April 16th 2009. It was moving to think I had just talked to someone who had talked to someone born in the middle of the 19th century – a gap of 159 years.
Spillmans in the 1920s
More LS Lowry
Than rus in urbe:
Steam whistle hooters,
Gas hiss in mantles,
Rain streaks on the window-panes.
Flat caps bob in unison,
Stout boots clatter on the cobbles,
Bread and marg in your pocket,
A small army on the march,
Wife at the washing,
Spillmans Pitch,
Another Monday morning.

In conclusion. Anne. M. Wagner speaks of ‘The social geography of working class experience’ in the Tate publication; she mentions historian Stephen Constantine’s correct perspective on working class life in the majority of the 20th century: life was lived out publicly, in the streets. The recollections above show this. Where is the Stroudwater Lowry?

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Rodborough Fields 9th July 2012

It was just another sultry Tuesday
At the Clothiers Arms on the Bath Road,
Beer and fags and crisps and mobile ‘phones,
When a flash contingent of walkers popped up,
All arrayed in Stroud Scarlet uniform:
T-shirts, frocks, dresses, jackets, tunics, leggings,
Seventy -five people demonstrating
Their commitment to Rodborough Fields,
With a meander through time and space;
William Cobbett and weavers’ riots
(‘I have the sweat of the brow, but no bread’),
Mills, ponds, canals, bridges and viaducts,
Kingfishers, dragonflies and butterflies,
Fronds and ferns by the shaded River Frome;
We ascended side by side through the fields,
To listen by our venerable oak tree,
Stroud scarlet stretched on shared tenterhooks,
Sunlight shimmering through the scarlet flags,
A silent evangelical procession,
Pilgrims’ Progress on the straight and narrow path,
Memories recorded by the gateway,
A pitched camp of symbolic resistance,
Standing sentinel in Rodborough Fields.

Thanks to Mike and Richard and John and everyone for making this such an utterly memorable occasion – and thanks to BBC2, too, for their appearance.

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Stroud Scarlet

                                        Colouring the Globe Stroud Scarlet Red

You can see the strange fruits of slavery
In classical, elegant, Clifton:
All ship-shape and Bristol fashion,
Honey-stone Age of Enlightenment,
Reason, proportion and symmetry –
But not even those straight lines
Can hide the triangles of trafficking,
Empire, expansion and aggrandisement;
And whether trade followed the flag
Or flag followed trade is immaterial
To the story of capital expansion,
In the 18th century’s Grand Tour,
When Britannia Ruled the Waves,
Thanks to press-ganged jolly Jack Tars,
Stroud Scarlet, Uley Blue and Berkeley Yellow.
Watch those explorers canoeing Canada,
Trading Stroud Scarlet with the Iroquois,
When fair exchange was no robbery
For the Hudson Bay Company,
Or for the East India Company too;
See that Stroud Scarlet cloth,
Stretched out on tenterhooks in our fields,
Eventually shipped down to West Africa,
Its folds concealing any human cargo.
Admire General Wolfe and his red coats,
Up there on the steps of Quebec,
A few short years after riding down
Stroud Scarlet weavers in the streets and fields:
“Rule Britannia, Britannia rules the waves,
Britons never, never, never shall be slaves.”