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. A 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.
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. Once 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.
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.
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.
(You know the one – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m2KECJv9XrQ) 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. 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.