Clifton Wood

IMG_0321.JPGThe other day when I was out taking a turn around my favourite harbourside route, I realised that there is a large chunk of that pleasing vista across the water which I have never, ever explored. Clifton Wood – home to strings of multi-coloured streets clinging resolutely to the cliff edge – is a foreign field to me. It’s a jumble of Georgian and Victorian streets, many fairly modest, all apparently built  on top of one another without much thought to vehicular traffic. That they’re too old and the land is too steep would probably account for it, but whatever the reason the result is a quiet but colourful enclave, criss crossed by a maze of paths and passages.

I started out at a very familiar spot. No one can come to Bristol and not be aware of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Clifton Suspension Bridge. It dominates the city skyline and  visitors come from far and wide to gaze upon its graceful lines. Here it is.IMG_0437 - Copy.JPG I’d like to have taken a better shot of it by moving a little way to the left but then there would be a lamp post slap bang in the way. Yes, well played City Lighting People for ruining every tourist’s photo opportunity. Being charitable perhaps it is not a good idea to have snappers  cluttering up the pavement just there and a viewpoint has been provided down the way, but you just can’t get the whole bridge in from that angle.IMG_0436 - Copy.JPG See what I mean? Anyway, let’s quit the moaning and move on. Imagine if you will what lies across the road – behind me in the first bridge shot above – an elegant terrace of large white stucco Georgian houses. Not so long ago one changed hands and the new owners set about a project of modernisation. Amongst the renovation team was a roofer who told me a lovely tale of how he was working away on the roof one day when a bus pulled up across the road and out rushed a stream of tourists. Who promptly formed an orderly queue, not to take selfies in front of the bridge but instead to avail themselves of the builders’ Portaloo in the front yard…

Not far from here is another Bristol landmark – Royal York Crescent.IMG_0469.JPG Allegedly the longest in Europe if anyone is counting and superior to that one they’ve got in Bath, if you ask me.  Trouble is they’ve taken more care over there, tighter planning restrictions and rather more open space in front and the like, so I have to admit that their’s has the upper hand, lookswise. But this one’s not too shabby, is it?

From here I headed off into uncharted territory, following paths and passageways that looked promising.

Occasionally I found myself somewhere familiar although I have to confess that I have been trying to erase this particular spot from my memory ever since a research interview I conducted in one of these homes went spectacularly pear shaped. You’ll note that I am standing quite a long way away from them. It’s a bit of a long story so feel free to skip on if you prefer.IMG_0496.JPG

Still with me? OK, so my interviewee, an artist I hoped would provide me with some reflections which could be key to my project, is a well known name in the field and I am going to start by saying that it was generous of him to agree to see me at all as he is undoubtedly inundated with students’ requests for his time. He chose the place, date and time: his home, 3pm on a Sunday afternoon. I accepted with alacrity but alarm bells were beginning to ring. I don’t know how it is in your house, but at that time of day we’re either busy doing something which needs doing or sunk in a post lunch torpor, neither state being conducive to receiving a visitor with a list of questions. To add to my unease, he’d picked 23 December – the day which (if you are having guests for Christmas) you probably want to keep clear for last minute preparations. Anyway, I spent a lot of time preparing for the discussion, going over his work in the field, planning the directions I’d like to take the conversation and so on. I was as ready as I could be when I knocked on the door on the dot of 3 o’clock and met a man who clearly wished he’d never agreed to see me. Sunday papers scattered on the floor in front of the armchair by the blazing fire spoke of a nap curtailed, an ironing board piled with crumpled linen and a Christmas cake part iced at the other end of the open plan room told of a wife disturbed in her plans and dispatched out of the way but not before, if her husband’s mood was any indication, sharing her displeasure at this considerable inconvenience. So this wasn’t a great start. But, to give him his due, the interviewee did not show me the door (which would have been understandable) but kindly offered me a cup of tea. Unfortunately, the kettle had barely boiled before it became clear that not only had he moved on from the field in which I was working (and which I had outlined fully in my email), but that he no longer had any interest in it and indeed did not want to talk about it. He was happy to speak of his current work but, as this was not pertinent to my research, I had only the haziest notion of it, an inadequacy he soon discovered and which did not improve the atmosphere. I tried to soldier on, rattling through my carefully prepared enquiries, receiving terser and terser replies, until I could down my still scalding cup of tea and exit as quickly and as graciously as I could and leave him in peace. It was such a gruesome experience that I couldn’t even bring myself to transcribe the tape. Not, that is, until more than a year had passed and I was polishing up my thesis and looking for a killer first line with which to begin.

And there it was…fullsizerender

Briskly turning out of Anecdote Alley and leaving Memory Lane behind, I meandered on until I came upon the first of the coloured houses.img_0528 Rather subtle this row, but they soon got brighter and brighter.IMG_0599.JPG And they went on and on. Here are a few more

IMG_0640.JPG I think these are my favourite but I wouldn’t rule out changing my mind if the sun was in a different direction.

The place was deserted, apart from builders (natch), and the pub was closed in the middle of the day, but doesn’t this look like a perfect place for a sundowner?img_0614

Definitely somewhere to come back to.


A promising haul

Pretty ghastly weather hereabouts recently, but I’m brewing up a whole list of walks to seize the day when the sun does shine. Or it stops raining. Either. Both. I’m not fussy.

With this in mind, I nipped into my local Oxfam bookshop to browse their selection of second hand OS maps. They had none of the ones I was looking for, but if you’re in the market for an impressive coverage of the Highlands at all scales allow me to point you in the right direction. Did someone just move down from up there or was someone intent on leaving nothing to chance in planning their Scottish holiday?

But I did get lucky when I moved onto the books. First up was this splendid compilation.


Minshull, D. (ed) (2000) The Vintage Book of Walking. London. Random House. (Sorry, I just can’t help myself)

OK, I admit that it was the cover that sold it to me. (That’s my favourite colour. I never said I was deep). Plus it promises to be glorious, funny and indispensable – who could ask for more? Quite how the original owner could have dispensed with it is a question that has been worrying me ever since. I have read no more than the first page so far but I see that it opens with a lengthy quote from the second volume which leapt off the shelf at me. I mean, what are the chances?

Yes, I know we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover but who could resist this one?


Jebb, M. (1986) Walkers. London. Constable.

What is going on here? Hipster 1 appears to be looking down his nose at Hipster 2 who looks crestfallen for reasons which are unclear.  And what about the fellow on the left, he who only appears when the whole dustcover is unfurled? He’s desolate. I’m thinking there may be some stick envy going on, but I cannot decode it myself (although I will confess to having taken a shine to Hipster 1’s old school staff). The only cheerful creature in this little tableau is the dog, carefully pretending he’s not with any of them. It’s not exactly a great advert for the convivial joys of walking so I am eager to see how Mr Jebb moves on from this unpromising start.

Back on the map hunt, I went and plundered my Dad’s cartographic collection. Success. Latterly he has taken to marking up his maps with an enviable collection of highlighters to note his route, the date and even the direction of flow. He’s a civil engineer; one would expect nothing less.


OS Explorer 168

I don’t know quite what’s so special about Luckington but clearly it’s well worth the detour. Think I may have to take a look.



Floating the boats.

I don’t know about you but when it comes to the Winterval – that peaceful time between Christmas and New Year when time stands still and pottering about becomes an engrossing occupation – undemanding is the order of the day. Which is why, when the teeniest twinge of cabin fever struck, I turned to one of my favourite walks, one which I have walked, run, pushed a pushchair round for going on 25 years, rain and shine, solo, with friends and en famille. Were the stakes not quite so high I could probably do it blindfold. But that would be a shame because the whole point of this familiar route is that there is always something new to see.

Enough of the build up, where are we? In a word or three, we’re on Bristol’s Floating Harbour embarking on a turn around the harbourside. Beginning at a swing bridge at the entrance to the harbour, we’ll walk up the north bank to the next bridge, cross over and come back down the south side – about 45 minutes at a push,  considerably longer at a saunter. img_0237Off we go.

Even though it was getting on for mid morning by the time we had got ourselves together, the fog was still clinging to the water as we set off, casting a romantic mistiness over the scene, IMG_0247.JPG lending a noble air to Gromit’s profile on the prow,img_0249 and turning our mighty SS Great Britain into a ghostly apparition.IMG_0257.JPG When I first encountered Bristol docks in the late Seventies, it was a heavily polluted industrial wasteland on which the city had turned its back and where, on my first time at the rowing club, I was warned that if I fell in I would have to have my stomach pumped. (Over exaggeration in the face of an impressionable newbie or not, I never went back to find out). Times change and the water is now clean and much of the old port infrastructure has been cleared away for housing, all of which is pricey, some of which has been carefully thought out to add to the attractiveness of the cityscape. And there’s a waterborne community here too.

In amongst all of this, towards the centre of town, is a corporate headquarters which is also making sterling efforts to add to the gaiety of nations. img_0277Well played, Lloyds Bank, for taking the circular theme and running with it to such pleasing effect.

No surprise to hear that there is an abundance of spots for a coffee or something stronger,


A kid height window into MShed museum. Anyone know what the clanger is doing amidst the ships?

along with several museums, galleries and other places to take a look at.


Bristolian John Cabot (who allegedly beat Columbus in the first European foot on North American soil stakes) surveying the scene halfway around the walk.

All very good in their way and this renovation of a once redundant urban space is hugely popular with visitors for good reason. But that’s not what draws me back. What keeps me returning are the small signs of maritime life, past and present,  that have survived the heritagisation (I just made that word up) of the harbourside. The ferry steps worn by centuries of passing feet,IMG_0254.JPG the cranes and rail lines that, though now museum exhibits, still etch their presence on quayside and skyline,img_0312the old boats being restored in the dry dock or winched up onto the slipway, the new ones taking shape in the boat builders’ workshopsIMG_0329.JPG and the orderly jumble of the marine engineers’ yardsIMG_0325.JPG – all tell of individuals and their lives in this place.


And this is why this view of my home city, which has evolved through the  residents’ bold colour choices, will always be my favourite.img_0326

Come and see for yourself.

And tell me please – where’s your favourite walk? What’s the place that keeps drawing you back?

More of the old ways

The Ridgeway, Barbury Castle, the old groves, the not so old white horse… after my walk on the ridge I was immersed in the ways of the ancients. Next stop? Had to be Neolithic Central, a few miles down the road. If you’ve ever been to Stonehenge you’ll know that, stunning place though it is, it does come with a hefty helping of hoo ha. All the apparatus of enablement – visitors’ centre, interpretation boards, guided tours, shop, café, loos, car park – and all that of preservation – fences, ropes, guardians and the like – are crammed into a small site, into which coach after coach disgorges its load of visitors.

Then there is Avebury. A lesser known spot which is not only bigger but, for my money, a whole lot better too. Take a look.(Thank you, English Heritage, for the aerial photo It’s a huge circular ditch of nearly a mile in diameter (that’s the henge bit), in the centre of which are two circles of rough Sarsen stones. Whereas at Stonehenge English Heritage only allows access to the stones on special occasions, here you can get right up to the stones whenever you want. There is nothing precious about Avebury and EH manage this site with a very light touch.  I saw one woman using the monuments to pace her jogging route, a young family having a lovely game of hide and seek, and a well insulated couple pressing a Sarsen stone into service as a handy coffee table.


They had biscuits in there too

So insouciant are they hereabouts about the history in their midst that not only did a village spring up around the stones but there’s even a road running right through the middle of them. Not a mere quiet country lane either, this is a full fat, copper bottomed main road.


Horsebox used to give an idea of the scale of the stones and the nearness of the traffic. And the size of that picnic basket


It negotiates three dog leg bends in quick succession but on my way in I was tailgated by that rarest of rural creatures, a country bus. A double decker too. On a Sunday. And then we met another one of these mythical beings coming the other way. Rather a nice reminder that Avebury, once a place of importance served by the Ridgeway, is still a spot serviced by the No 49 from Swindon. Old ways, new ways, same ways.


After a peaceful stroll around the perimeter in the pleasingly fading light there was just time for a look around the village before diving inside for a cup of tea. Walking from the car park, the place grated on me. Too gentrified, too twee  (looking at you, Lacock).


The Old Bakery

But I take it back. Alongside The Old Vicarage, The Old Bakery, The Old Teacher’s House – gussied up bijoux every one of them – there was what looked like an old schoolroom turned village hall which was hosting a craft fair, and a row of cottages which appeared to be family homes rather than holiday lets, judging by the kids’ toys scattered around. Plus there was the general store – a community one, run by volunteers, but well stocked, busy and staffed by a charming woman with whom I bonded over our mutual conviction of the utter invincibility of flapjack. On then to the National Trust café (there’s a manor, gardens and museum to see here another day) which was a good one, offering a fine scone and excellent overheard remarks. I hear that Ascot Forest is packed full of resting actors and dancers at this time of year. Confused? Well, that’s what you get for listening in to other people’s conversations.


My journey home had one more delight in store. Heading west, I found myself driving into the most spectacularly beautiful sunset. It was so astounding that when I spotted a layby I pulled over to stop and watch the sky. I had no idea where I was exactly but by some serendipitous chance, I found myself with glorious views stretching away into the distance. Here’s the sun settingIMG_0141.JPG and here’s the moon risingIMG_0163.JPG and here, in the words of my wise friend K, are some hills that need walking.IMG_0146.JPG

And there, quite by chance,  on the side of the old Great West Road was a milestone, a latter day way marker, just like the glades of trees along the Ridgeway.


Cherhill milestone. Love the way the stonemason couldn’t decide whether to go for upper or lower case letters for Miles

So my day began and ended with these old guiding signs. Long superseded, they quietly mark and celebrate the journeys along their way by long forgotten travellers. It seemed a rather fitting bookending of my trip somehow.



The old ways

I don’t know about you, but all these gloomy mornings and dark afternoons have been giving me cabin fever so when a free day coincided with a hopeful weather forecast I headed for the hills. Well, not the hills exactly – more of a ridge, but even so I reckoned I was on course for a splendid vistas, far horizons and all the rest of it.img_9895

Er, yes.

Where was I? Hard to tell.Turns out I was on the Ridgeway, right down towards its southerly beginnings in Wiltshire, aiming for a gentle stroll from the Hackpen Hill white horse to Barbury Castle and back (and then to a cup of tea at Avebury, but more of that later).The white horse, usually visible for miles, was lost in the mist but at least the weather conditions made for some artsy photo opportunities.img_9900

Back to the Ridgeway –  what it’s all about then? It’s a way for sure, along a ridge at a guess, but how come it’s one of those tracks that sound vaguely familiar? Time for a quick Google of the facts. Looks like it’s been around for 5,000 years, through the Neolithic Age, the Bronze Age and the Iron Age. Then the Romans took to it, followed at a discreet distance by the Saxons, the Vikings and anyone who was anyone ever since. Crikey. It’s route long been used for ceremony, for communication and for commerce and for good reasons it sticks to the high ground where, although exposed to the elements,  it’s dryer underfoot and the open vistas provide ample warning of bandits and bad hats.IMG_9896.JPG

Off I went into the gloom and soon a grove of trees loomed up in a field just off the track. Now I’ve always assumed that a glade of trees on top of a hill has something to do with ancient customs, pagan worship and all the rest, so I took a look at it and kept going. But I hadn’t gone very far before another grove appeared and, now that the mist was lifting, I could see another one a bit further ahead, maybe just a quarter of a mile distant. They couldn’t all be sacred sites, could they? Well maybe, but I’ve got another idea. I think they are early road signs, planted centuries, even millennia, ago to mark the way across this exposed, featureless ridge. Take away the cultivated fields and the fences and it would be easy to go astray up here.


The next grove is just visible to the right


Imagine the drovers herding their beasts along the Ridgeway and plotting their course through rain and (yes) fog from one clump of trees to the next. Even though the path is so well fenced today that accidentally wandering off would take some doing, I too began to search for the next grove to lead me on.


See what I mean about the groves marking the way?


The ridge narrowed as I approached Barbury Castle; to one side the plains of north Wiltshire with Swindon in the distance and the M4, heard but not seen; to the other, rolling hills, bare arable fields and racing stables’ gallops – all silent and empty on a Sunday morning. IMG_9994.JPG Barbury Castle itself was anything but quiet and still. This enormous 6th century BCE earthwork was full of people taking the air, dogs and children racing up and down and round the concentric walls. (OK, so it looks like it was just me and my shadow, but take my word for it, it was busy)


I caught up with this chap later on. He was looking for red kites


I stuck determinedly to the path across the centre – don’t know why as it was clear that I was missing the views –  thinking of what a wonderful refuge from the perils of the journey the earthworks would have provided for the drovers and their herds over the centuries, a motorway service centre of its time (I have a soft spot for drovers, in case you hadn’t noticed). I also fell to wondering why artists’ impressions of life back in the day are always so unlifelike. I speak as one who cannot draw a straight line and make it look realistic, but even so…IMG_9944.JPG

On to the carpark on the far side of the castle in the hope of finding a tea truck there, but nothing doing. Just a gathering of kite flyers who, having got their craft airborne, promptly tied them to a fence, turned their back on them and had a good chat. I liked their style.IMG_9984.JPG

Back then the way I had come, now with a determination to seek out that white horse which had eluded me at the start. The cloud had lifted, the thing was presumably enormous so surely it was just a question of stepping into the field. Turns out 23m long representations of horses cut into the chalk hillside are not as easy to find as you might think.


There’s supposed to be a white horse in this field but all I could see was a black sheep.


This is what I was led to expect.IMG_0036.JPG

This is what I found.


It’s his head. 


And stepping back a bit, here it is again.IMG_0039.JPG

Hm. Artists’ impressions.


Up on Brean Down

You can’t really miss Brean Down. Sticking out into the Bristol Channel just below Weston super Mare, it’s a narrow, steep sided ridge towering above the flat lands to the south. But although it can be seen for miles, strangely this very visible feature is actually very remote.Why? Well, it’s all down to geology – about which I know nothing – so let’s just pin the blame on the River Axe which, instead of taking the easy course to the sea across the barely above sea level land, insists on mulishly kicking a hole through the petering out Mendips.

img_9565All of which means that although it’s barely half a mile as the crow flies from where I’m standing here to Uphill across the way, non-crows must trudge eight miles to get from one to the other if they don’t want to get their feet wet.This makes Brean Down the place at the end of the road. It’s not somewhere you’d ever find yourself passing. You have to make a deliberate decision to seek it out. Which is undoubtedly why I had never been there before.

I got myself onto the long straight road that clings to the coast in the lee of the sea defences and encountered a caravan park. Not a bucolic field in which an assortment of holiday homes nestle in a sylvan setting, this was a bare concrete patch in which serried ranks of mobile homes were lined up, one behind another. No sooner had I driven by this site, but another came into view. There were so many that I lost count. Parks on the coastal side of the road boasted of direct access to the beach, those opposite offered funfairs, shops, bars, pools, playgrounds and all manner of diversions in a bid to compete. All were brashly immaculate and all were eerily deserted. Eventually the sites dwindled to just one and finally a car park. The multiplicity of signs, the double yellow lines, the overflow parking all spoke of a place packed with people in the summer but today there was barely half a dozen cars there.img_9624

Was it worth the detour?  It’s an extraordinary spot so I’d say a resounding Yes (although I think I’d give it a miss in August). Why? Because for such an out of the way, exposed and inhospitable site, it has seen an enormous amount of activity. On top of the unexplained earthworks, field systems and tumuli, the OS map also points to the remnants of Bronze and Iron Age occupation, a Romano-Celtic temple and Anglo Saxon burial site. I confess that I spotted none of these but my eye was caught by the 19th century fort, some splendid reservoir railings and an array of Second World War defensive structures. Like this one, IMG_9585.JPGand these.IMG_9575.JPG

Then there are the goats which are so unbelievably photogenic that I could be persuaded that they are stationed there on purpose by the National Trust, custodians of the land.

Coming back down the steep staircase set into the cliff edge, I had a bird’s eye view of the little settlement at the base. In this lonely place, open to all the elements, several of the homes had an ad hoc look about them, more prefab than bricks and mortar. Close up they spoke of ingenuity and a frontier like determination to outwit whatever was pitched at them.IMG_9666.JPG

I’ll gloss over the rather dismal, and very shut, Bird Garden and move straight on to tea in the immaculate NT café, adjoining the sparkling NT shop into which no one had stepped all day,  as I overheard one of the  delightful young staff tell the other. Do you ever get days when you have no customers in the café at all? I asked. Oh yes, quite often, so we generally give it to 3.30 then we close up early. Happened on Monday actually they replied matter of factly. img_9693

As the light faded there was just time for a quick walk on the endless beach, deserted in the approaching gloaming, but I’ll be back. Back to fill my lungs with more breezy Brean air and back to the café and to the girls who every morning straighten up the boxes of fudge, sweep the floors and put on the kettle even though no one is coming.IMG_9688.JPG


Slices of Cheddar

I rather liked Cheddar, an unassuming little town tucked into the spot where the steep scarp of the Mendips meets the flat watery expanses of the Somerset levels. It’s one of those Rolled Up Sleeves,  Getting On With It places – not particularly smart but not at all scruffy either and with a healthy dose of quiet civic pride. The sort of place where a gardener leaves an array of plants for sale at his gate with a note to put the money through the letter box and where, on Remembrance Sunday, many shopfronts were taken over by displays of poppies. Indeed, as I left, a parade was forming up ready to march to the War Memorial while spectators lined the streets and a policeman, waiting for the order to close the High Street, bantered with a passer by, protectively patting his traditional custodian helmet and declaring ‘It’s mine, I’m keeping it and they’re not taking it off me’.

Just along the way is Cheddar Gorge – a spectacular cleft in the limestone ridge – and that was my destination for the start of my walk. But first I had to run the gauntlet of the grockle gulch at its base. IMG_9499.JPGA tatty shanty town has sprung up  around the conglomeration of an unusual natural landscape and an accessible cave system, but its heyday is far behind it. Other than a tour of the caverns, there is little to do here but spend money in less than enticing outlets.



Is conforming to regulations really the best thing you can say about your place?


But there was the walk and the National Trust – who own the northern edge of the gorge – have helpfully signposted a Gorge Path heading up the steep valley side and away from the congestion and the noise. Very soon I found my own Cheddar cave, straight out of an Enid Blyton story and with the potential to be really rather cosy. img_9381Once up on the top, an unexpectedly clear  day meant that the views were superb. In one direction the flatlands spilled out towards the Quantocks, into the Severn and on to the Welsh hills, with small islands popping up out of the levels here and there.


That’s Brent Knoll in the distance with the Quantocks behind.

In the other direction, the windswept tops of the Mendips,  an ancient pattern of stone walled fields, were pleasing in the sunshine but are undoubtedly bleak in the harsh weather. So close to Bristol and Bath, this is commuter country, yet this is not a suburban landscape. These are hills with an edge.


The walk followed the north edge of the cleft for a couple of miles, dropped down to the busy road through the gorge for just long enough to have a break from negotiating mud and then climbed back up to the south side of the cliff for the return. It is one of those pleasing routes where you can see where you are going and then see where you have been.


Cheddat Gorge – up this side, down the other

It’s clearly a well used path and there were lots of people around enjoying a walk in the late season sun. Snatches of conversation in an array  of languages drifted about and at one point I found myself in step with a Cardiff based group of overseas students, all politely endeavouring to engage with one another in their common tongue. Two boys had discovered a second shared language – football – and were busily dissecting their national teams, another chap was making strenuous efforts with a charming girl from the French/German border.


All these different accents on the wind, the bright young people,  the sunshine, the views and a mind pleasantly disconnected through the meditative act of walking – there I was in my very own version of that seminal 1970s Coke moment.c6210fae-cfd8-4415-8ab5-9a6f216502cd1

(You know the one – Hate the stuff, but loved that song.


And then I came round a bend to this and to another seminal moment from my Seventies –  a family holiday in Germany and a sight never forgotten.IMG_9466.JPG In another time and place, a woodland, a fence and a watchtower. In the week of That Election, it was a chilling reminder of how it once was.


Unexpected inspiration

In my last post I mentioned that there was unexpectedly much about the Sharpness area that is both inspired and inspiring. I know you’ll shoot me if I mention the Victorians yet again but just before you do, take a look at the wonderfully decorative brickwork, not to mention the tiling on the roof of this dockside schoolroom.img_9045

And then avert your eyes from the hastily bricked up windows and take a look at what is going on in the gothic arch.img_9044

Here’s a view of another window – not a great picture but that end of the building is now a second hand car place and I thought if I went any closer I’d be talked into a second hand Toyota (got one already, thanks). Can you see that someone at some point has added an exuberant Gaudiesque mosaic to brighten up this corner of post industrial space?

And doesn’t this put you in mind of a giant game of PickaSticks?img_9053

Over the years I’ve had a great deal of fun experimenting with textiles without ever becoming remotely skilled myself. But this has brought me into contact with those who are massively talented and produce glorious pieces in fibre, thread, fabric, glass and all the rest. I began to wonder what they would do with the conjunctions of lines and colour above,IMG_9207.JPG

the reflections and the refractions in the waterways,img_9034

or the near monotone textures of the mudflats.IMG_9286.JPG

And just imagine what a fibre artist could do with the seaworn textures of this hulk.IMG_9133.JPG

It turned out that the response of one particular artist to this unusual scenery was close at hand. In St John’s Church, Purton, there are the most wonderful modern stained glass windows inspired by the landscape, its flora and fauna.

What’s more the glass artist, Kim Jarvis (, generously provided an annotated copy of her sketches so that the birds, the grasses, even the tides and the hulks can all be found in the windows.

So delightful, so inspiring and so unexpected.



Shipshape in Sharpness

Ever heard of Sharpness? No, me neither, but friends who had visited the area told me it would be worth a look, so out came the map. From what I could see, Sharpness is an old port on the eastern bank of the River Severn, between Berkeley and Gloucester (but rather closer to the former), well upstream of  the Severn Bridges. img_9076When the tide’s in, the Severn is a very broad expanse of water, well over a mile wide in places; when it’s out, a pattern of vast sandbanks emerges. And what a tide – I am told that the Severn Estuary has the second highest tidal range in the world. This strikes me a particularly British boast – we’re rather good, without being anything so showy as the best. (Pole position goes to the Bay of Fundy in Canada).

Here’s a visual – an hour after high tideimg_9033

and four hours later.img_9325

Just above Sharpness, the Severn carves out a series of broad meanders and what with these, the tidal range and the sandbanks, it is not surprising that some enterprising, not to mention creative, Victorian engineers hit upon the idea of building a canal from Sharpness right up to the docks at Gloucester to make life easier for all concerned. Around 16 miles as the seagull flies. But they didn’t just make a Kennet & Avon size waterway for narrow boats, just a hop, skip and a jump wide. Oh no, they went for a full blown, ocean going vessel size canal – a proper ship canal.img_9184

It’s enormous. And very deep. Apparently.

So it’ll be no surprise to hear that Sharpness at the start of this canal is anything but a quaint old harbour. Not a bijou cottage, fishermen’s inn or shop selling wooden seagulls in sight. Gloucester’s merchant marine past may be far behind it but down here there are all the indicators of a working port –  big trucks dashing about, constant noise and lots of signs saying Keep Out. img_9041

The high tide had just brought in the Groningen-registered Ijselldijk from Santander, laden with cement, according to a helpful notice and the Westewind from Riga and the Beaumare from Ravenna are expected in the next couple of weeks (animal feed, both). Everything about the place was on a giant scale, making for a rather surreal sight in the middle of Gloucestershire.img_9298

To the walk. For the first couple of miles the Gloucester and Sharpness canal sticks pretty close to the Severn, meaning that there’s not much dry land between the two – just room for a towpath and then, over the wall, the saltmarshes. I was soon out of earshot of Sharpness and the only noises were the birds, the rippling of the falling tide out in the river and, across the Severn the whining of a chainsaw and the occasional hoots of a passing train bizarrely loud given the distance and the distorting effects of sound passing over water.

Round the corner and then there was this.img_9088

Turns out it’s the remnants of a railway bridge that once crossed the Severn at this point.

Here it is back in the day


Photo shamelessly filched from the Canals and Rivers Trust information board at Sharpness which shows the bridge as it was before it had to be demolished and also the proximity of canal and river. (The waterway going up from the bottom left is the canal). Wouldn’t it have made for a spectacular rail journey?


and here’s the vista today.


Only the canalside towers and a few traces of the pillars remain in the mudflats today.


I’m going to refer you to if you want to know more about the series of worst case scenarios which built up and up and led to its inevitable destruction, because I want to focus – yet again – on the creativity of the Victorian engineers who so often made things both useful and beautiful.

Doesn’t this remnant of the bridge remind you of Rapunzel’s tower?img_9260

Creativity – actual or inspired – turned out to be quite a theme of this walk, to the extent that I’ll come back to much more of what I saw in another post. But here’s some more engineering ingenuity to end with…



Purton – where hardy souls take canoe lessons in November.


Hidden away on the river side of the unassuming village of Purton is a graveyard. A ships’ graveyard to be precise. It turns out that back in 1909 the extreme closeness of canal and river was causing concern. The sliver of land which separated the two – and thus kept the canal operational – was in danger of being eroded away. In an elegantly imaginative bit of repurposing, old vessels were towed up river, run aground where required, then scuttled and left to fill with silt and form part of the palimpsest of the riverbank. The resulting array of hulks features wartime concrete barges somehow piled up on each other, img_9175

the bare ribs of nineteenth century schooners,img_9131-copy

the remnants of something more workaday,img_9150

and even the carefully recorded fragment of a ship reclaimed by the sea.img_9145

The Purton Hulks are an extraordinary sight, fascinating on a sunny day and undoubtedly gloriously atmospheric on a foggy one. Well worth another visit – but maybe I’ll wait until the pub’s open next time.img_9246

Over to you – do you enjoy poking around industrial relics when you’re out and about? Or do you prefer to keep it strictly rural?