Our Travel blog
Wednesday 24 August
Leaving Cambridge early we trundled down to Littlehampton through the bustling rush hour traffic; cars buzzing in and out of lanes eager to get to work in time or just to escape Chris Evans on the car stereo. From this chaos we emerged at the Caravan Club site in Littlehampton in time for lunch, our first return to a site since taking to the road. We were happy to return to Littlehampton, and I suspect that there are not many people who have had cause to say that, as we were using it as a base to visit Brighton to see my eldest and his girlfriend.
Happily lunched we took to our bikes and made the station 30 minutes early for our train. In view of the heat we decided to grab some water from the nearest shop, a Polish supermarket. I still cannot fathom how the cheapest bottled water, at 50p was imported from Poland while the Buxton or Malvern varieties on offer were over 20p a bottle more. Just how do the economics of this work? And while I am on the subject, of all the things to import, all the little things that remind you of home, that bring you a taste of nostalgia, a comforting flavour or favourite delicacy that you can’t get over here outside of a specialist shop, why water? As far as I could tell it tasted of water, no better and no worse than any other flavourless beverage. I suppose the fact that you can import it from Poland and still undercut the local suppliers is quite a good reason. Anyway, the shop was very nice, the service warm and we were able to enjoy our journey adequately hydrated to arrive cheerful and open to the delicious mayhem that is Brighton.
We pottered and shopped for a bit before meeting up with our hosts for a chat over a beer on the beach. In contrast to our convivial little group enjoying the evening sunshine responsibly, a large portion of the beach goers who’d visited earlier had left their rubbish behind, liberally scattered over the beach for the gulls to fight over; as if by some magic the detritus of their pebbly banquet would disappear as soon as they fucked off home. Alison was particularly apoplectic at people’s thoughtlessness. She expressed it in her journal better than I can so here is an extract:
“As we have travelled this summer I have found that there are some people who are either stupid or selfish, maybe both, and who disregard the rules that are put in place for the safety or comfort of others. Take for example the people who enjoyed a lovely day on Brighton beach on Wednesday and then left their bottles, cans, plastic wrappers etc. behind. They obviously don't care about the child who will cut their foot on the broken grass or the sea bird that gets tangled in the wrapper, or indeed for the hero of a man who went behind them in the evening with a litter picker and a bin bag just trying to make a dent in the piles of rubbish to make the beach clear for the very same people who will be back the next day to do it all again…”
We took her to the pub to calm down. Fortunately The King George pub does rather excellent food and drink. Indeed this must rank as one of my favourite pubs. The atmosphere was cosy with snug nooks and crannies, a wide range of good beers, charming staff and a menu that is completely vegetarian. We all tucked in with ill-disguised gusto, the batter on halloumi shattered and liberally sprinkled our plates, salty fries crunched and mushy peas were scooped up with fresh homemade tartar sauce and washed down with good local ales. I was pleased to see that the beers had no-nonsense names like Best Bitter and Pale Ale. There was none of this Wrinkled Bishop or Speckled Goblins Knob craft beer nonsense that men who are built like a barrel with a beard seem to favour.
The train journey home was peaceful, tired revellers and late commuters rattling along, slumped across their seats nodding off with the rhythm of the train. On the trip in I’d been listening to a group of boisterous teenage girls swapping increasing improbable tales about school. For all their gaiety the laughter seemed forced, as if the appearance of enjoyment was more important than actual levity, the facade a smokescreen for their insecurities and anxieties that couldn’t be acknowledged. If you want to understand the worries and lack of confidence that lies within the tender shell of apparently confident, strident young women then I recommend reading Viv Albertines’s autobiography Clothes, Music, Boys. Viv was the guitarist with seminal punk band The Slits and writes with refreshing and at times brutal honesty. Worth checking out here. Viv Albertine
Thursday 25 August
Late morning found us again at Brighton station, this time to pop along to the record shop where my son works to watch Lisa Hannigan do a short in-store performance. Sitting alone on the counter with only her guitar to shield this waif from the crowd she played 3 songs of delicate beauty, sparse lilting melodies under a soft fragile voice, spun together like fine lace into intricate compositions, so much more than the sum of their parts.
Our musical souls satisfied we met my son on his lunch break and at 3pm we sat down for breakfast at Tiffany’s; the breakfast being an all-day spread of carbohydrates and calories, washed down with caffeine; Tiffany’s being the name of this establishment and highly recommended if you find your arteries softening and in need of some grease to harden them.
Returning to Littlehampton we rode back on bikes sagging under the weight gained from breakfast, the tyres upon which we bounced down to the station now flattened and squelching over the tarmac. I think I may have actually sweated lard. Once safely back we sat outside with a cup of tea and our books. I had my bare feet on our little camping table and absentmindedly excavated my ear with a satisfying squeak that I though only I could detect. Alison snorted her tea out over her book, giggling at my uncouthness, all very childish but innocent. In contrast our neighbours were sitting primly at their camping table, travel condiment set positioned between them like a little Tupperware barrier, napkins folded neatly and cutlery polished as they tucked into a carefully constructed salad. He complained to her about the untidy state of the trees on the site, various ailments that afflicted his family and then the infidelities of his work colleagues. Such was his all-consuming dullness he couldn’t even make extra marital rumpy-pumpy sound interesting. She barely said a word. I rather formed the impression she had heard it all before and was possibly longing for some rumpy-pumpy, marital or otherwise, to enliven her time confined in a caravan with Mr Tedious.
We weren’t surprised to see him don an apron over his pastel shorts to wash up and to our delight noticed that he was wearing long white socks with sandals. He was also pale, as in not at all tanned despite the unrelenting sunshine. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing given the risks involved but quite how you keep your face as pallid as your legs in this climate is a mystery. But credit to him, he clearly knows and understands the risks. Around the site are many examples of men who quite clearly believe they are immune to radiation. There are lean, crisp skinned men who look like they’ve been hewn from teak, wobbly tender red blokes whose ample flesh is seared by the sun and forming blisters, sweaty pale men with a glossy sheen upon whose skin the sun’s powers seem wasted and the portly retired sun worshippers who glow with a carroty veneer. These are the full time outdoors caravan enthusiasts. They probably winter in Spain and have been harbouring ambitions to learn the language for the last 5 years since giving up the day job and buying themselves a 4 berth Concorde Raid Laser Starfighter Extreme caravan with their redundancy cash. Their wives or girlfriends seem to come in two types, erect and willowy, with neat hair and a ‘can do’ attitude or plump and glittery with a ‘do this, now’ attitude.
Of course I’m making ridiculous and unfair generalisations. After all some motorhomers eat fish finger sandwiches outside, ooze tomato sauce down their open shirt front, drink beer from the bottle and belch loudly. All of which I’m proud to say I did before bidding our startled neighbours a ketchupy adieu and retiring into Mavis to plan our itinerary for the next few days. An entirely new type of site in The New Forest beckons.
Friday 19 August
We were back in Cambridge for a few nights to sort out domestic arrangements. On Friday Alison’s son had his final interview for college in Twickenham and so the three of us boarded a mid-morning train in a state of concealed nervous tension, polite conversation masking inner worries and anxieties. By happenstance one of my sons lives in Vauxhall, a couple of minutes away from the transfer from the tube to the over-ground for Twickenham so I alighted there and met him for coffee. We then spent a curious afternoon wandering around Vauxhall City Farm. This is a smallholding in a wedge of land that houses small mammals, sheep, goats and birds, a couple of snorting bad tempered pigs, a one eyed cat and some llamas. Or Alpacas, I’m not sure which but they had 1970’s funk band afro hair and malevolent stares that appraised visitors, deemed them unworthy of further consideration and returned to grazing the scrubby grass.
We had a super time, I got to feed goats and sheep, we both admitted to being tempted to give the dozing chinchillas a shove off their perch for looking so unbearably cute, and smug with it, and we discovered the world’s most bizarre donations receptacle. Basically, and there really is no other way to phrase this, it’s a cows arse into which one is encouraged to insert loose change. Now far be it from me to question the wisdom of this but I’m not sure that it’ll end well if we teach young children to shove their pocket money into a bovine’s rectum. I fear that there will be tears before bedtime.
During a satisfying lunch at the farm we got news that the interview was successful and so our respective parties rendezvoused at the station and retired for coffee and congratulations. Later we parted company, three of us heading north to Kings Cross where we had a cheeky curry before passage back to Cambridge. Alison’s father kindly collected us, a much appreciated favour as it appears that more people use Cambridge station at rush hour than live in the entire United Kingdom. I swear most so called commuters just shuffle round the station in a continuous loop like hunched figures in an M. C. Escher lithograph.
Saturday 20 August
We had the pleasure of a family reunion today. Hosted by one of Alison’s brothers and his family he had the idea to gather as many of the descendants of their Great Grandfather together as possible, based upon a family photo taken 30 or so years ago. The age range was from 18 months to 1106 months old. It was great fun, tales were told, family anecdotes exchanged and barbecued food eaten with finger licking relish. We all posed for a family picture and left full in mind, body and spirit.
Sunday 21 August
One of the consequences of Alison’s son getting into college is the necessity to sell her flat in Cambridge that he has been renting. So Sunday morning was spent trailing Alison around Tesco while she slowly loaded me up with tins of paint and other goods. We then spent the day splashing three coats of paint on the walls, a sizeable amount onto the floor and quite a significant amount on me. The other two finished with practically no splashes of paint or drips and clean hands. I on the other hand looked like a snowman with a silky sheen. I don’t even get surprised at these things now.
Back at the in-laws I scrubbed myself with a Brillo pad and bleach until I glowed a radiant pink whence I burst out of the bathroom with a triumphant Ta Dah! Note to self, this is not advisable when your towel is insecure and certainly not in the in-laws house.
Monday 22 August
Today started with a trip to a DIY store. In this as well as previous visits to these temples of manly delights I’ve wondered at the wisdom of so many sharp and spiky inducements to all manner of ill-judged projects. Apparently there are over 70 fatalities a year from DIY accidents, 50 of which are ladder related and a staggering 40,000 people visit A&E because their use of a ladder wasn’t fatal. Although ladders are clearly the major cause of DIY mishap an additional 60,000 injuries are treated at A&E every year for misadventures at ground level. Even painting, which you’d think is relatively safe if conducted without steps led to 4,000 DIYers visiting casualty, injuring themselves either slipping on paint or tripping over a paint pot. Knives and other pointy stabby implements result in 20,000 sheepish people bleeding over the hospital floor because they’ve tried sawing through a pipe with a Stanley knife or attempted to lay a wooden floor with a chisel and blue tac.
I mention the floor deliberately because the one in the flat was obviously laid by someone to whom the concept of a straight line, or ability, is clearly alien. In light of the mess they’d made just trying to saw two boards to approximately the same length I wasn’t at all surprised to find they hadn’t laid any edging to allow for expansion and contraction and had somehow made the living room floor so much higher than the hallway that the threshold was virtually a step.
Anyway, with plenty of colourful language, not all of which was under my breath, we made the floor as cosmetically pleasing as possible with what we had to work with. Unless, of course, you are in the market for an attractive first floor one bedroomed flat in Longstanton, handily positioned in close proximity to Cambridge via the guided bus, in which case it has a stunning wooden floor and luxuriously finished silky walls.
Tuesday 23 August
With the morning to ourselves and the sun beating down we gave Mavis a really good wash inside and out. The front overhang, the bit that sticks out over the cab like a 1950’s quiff and in which we sleep, was coated with a thin patina of dead insects. While I toiled outside with the hose Alison set to work inside. By midday the inside gleamed like a show home and the outside sparkled in the sunshine. Alison appeared from the doorway to shake out a duster and caught me, hose in hand; clothes drenched, hair glistening with cherry scented car shampoo, feet buried under a foot of foam and the windows of houses half a block away still dripping. I smiled a cheery greeting and waved, narrowly missing the postman with a jet of water. Turning to apologise to him I heard the door of Mavis slam shut a fraction of a second before the full force of the water from the hose in my hand struck it. She knows me so well.
Once I’d been changed, fed and had my nap we went to give the flat a final polish. I left Alison and her son to the estate agent where they agreed on a price beyond our expectations. Meanwhile I walked back, taking advantage of the good weather to cavort with traffic on a road that is supposedly closed to all motor vehicles but that seems to attract them never the less. It seems that everyone using the road believes that they are the only person on it so treat it as their own personal racetrack. Now, I know I go on about Audi drivers, so let the record show that for the most part they are gorgeous examples of the human race, but one Audi was steaming along in the middle of the road coming at me like a bat out of hell, well, more accurately a bat out of Oakington but that wouldn’t have made such a memorable song. I raised my hand to acknowledge his thoughtfulness at giving me such a wide birth and he literally jumped in his seat and swerved. It was clearly the first time he’d seen me. Presumably he just assumed he had the road to himself and would merrily zoom along regardless of pedestrians or other trespassing motorists. In the interests of fairness a Ford Z-Tec came past in similar fashion from the other direction which just goes to show Audi don’t have a monopoly on reckless drivers.
Tomorrow we head off for the deep south for Brighton beckons.
Sunday 14 August
Saltswell cottage in the Staffordshire village of Flash is where we honeymooned last year. Originally part of the Harpur Crewe North Staffordshire Estate it was sold as a cottage with Post Office at auction in 1922 when the estate was broken up. Saltswell then commanded a rent of £7 a year. Since it was built in 1904 it has been the village post office, a parish lending library and reading room, and was subsequently converted into a family cottage. By 2008 though it was little more than a ruin until renovation work started. It was completed this year by the same friends who run Shallowford House, after they purchased it a while ago as a getaway from their residential position.
The main part of the village clings to the hillside just below its brow, clustered around the church and The New Inn pub and acts as a centre for the many isolated farms and tiny hamlets scattered around the hills and moorlands. Most of the land is given over to sheep farming. Local coal mining, first recorded in 1401 finally ceased early in the 20th Century. The village of Flash has the distinction of being the highest in England at 1514 feet above sea level. In winter it is frequently snow-bound. A local saying is that Flash has 9 months of winter followed by 3 months of bad weather. Electricity finally came to the village in 1962 and mains water in March 1984.
In the past Flash was known as a rough place, attracting hawkers and villains who would squat in the desolate moors. Illegal activities such as prize fighting apparently took place nearby and local legend has it that counterfeit ‘flash’ money was pressed here. Undoubtedly the village’s proximity to the boarders of Cheshire, Derbyshire and Staffordshire at nearby Three Shires Head made escape easy for local miscreants, crossing easily into neighbouring counties where the local police couldn’t follow. Cock fighting was another local pastime despite being illegal in the UK since 1849; indeed adjacent to Saltswell there is what appears to be the remains of a cock fighting ring on a level piece of land.
Local Tory politician Sir George Harpur Crewe visited Flash around 1820 and is on record as saying Flash village was 'dirty, and bore marks principally of Poverty, Sloth, and Ignorance'. Mind you, George was a considerable philanthropist, driven by strong Christian principles and was considered "too conscientious for a Member of Parliament" according to The Gentleman’s Magazine (1844). It was his descendant, the strangely aloof and tyrannical Sir Vauncey Harpur Crewe, the 10th Baronet, who broke up and sold part of the estate in 1922 that led to the freehold purchase of Saltswell.
Just outside the village on the A53, are Flash Bar Stores and the Traveller's Rest pub. The pub is mostly given over to food, and decorated throughout in a medieval theme, with suits of armour, shields and swords hanging on the walls and heavy oak tables and chairs of a type that wouldn’t be out of place in a castle. It’s all very quirky but the food is good and the service pleasant. The shop next door hosts a small café, popular with bikers who flock to the area to enjoy the local roads with their infamous bends. Its shelves are stocked with the kind of goods you only find in small out of the way places where the shop is a local lifeline. So sheets of fine leaf gelatine sit alongside damp start for your car, birthday cake candles, sets of spanners and greetings cards for every conceivable occasion.
Happily we were spending a few days holed up in Saltswell in return for continuing with our newly acquired gardening addiction, having promised to clear the weeds from the driveway and ragwort and other intruders from the verges. Like the battle hardened horticultural troopers we are we unpacked Mavis and promptly put the kettle on. After a cheery cuppa we immediately put the kettle back on and settled into an evening of watching lithe Olympic athletes on TV while we sprawled on the sofa shovelling carbohydrates into our faces.
The pictures below show Saltswell in 2008 and 2016.
Monday 15th August
Feeling slightly ashamed at waking up after 9am we pottered about on the driveway and gradually got into our stride, clearing everything not anchored to the bedrock and as our momentum slowly built we found ourselves ferrying bags of weeds and debris up to their final resting place on the hill behind Saltswell, part of its 2 acres of steep land.
Around 3pm we stood back and admired our handy work, before jumping into Mavis for an essential supply run into nearby Buxton. Here we provisioned with goods of the type that require an oven. In Mavis we don’t have an oven so have learnt to ‘top cook’ on the gas rings. Having a range to cook on is a novelty and so we set in motion our plan to survive on a baked and roast diet for our time in Flash.
Tuesday 16th August
Mid-morning we were greeted by Saltswell’s owner armed with a smile, a strimmer and an exciting weed killer spray with a back pack like an astronaut’s. Thus the morning passed for Alison in a blur of whirring vegetation while I pranced about pleased as punch liberally spraying everything vaguely green and pretending at various times to be a space man, deep sea diver and Ghostbuster.
Talking of Ghostbusters my mother had an uncanny resemblance to them. She kept a special Hoover of the old cylinder hover type upstairs whose solitary purpose was to vacuum up spiders. Her phobia of the harmless arachnids went far beyond mere fear to a place of special loathing, as if they’d evolved over millions of years for the express purpose of giving her a bit of a fright. I’d often call in to an apparently empty home to find her on the landing wearing my late father’s beige mackintosh for protection and towing the hoover with its extra-long hose that she’d had engineered specially. She would place a finger to her lips and whisper ‘shush Raymond, I think there’s one under the chair’ and turning on the appliance she would attack the poor beast with all 1300 Watts, sucking up anything in the vicinity, tissues, sheets of wallpaper, the dog for example, along with it. To be fair we did get some large spiders in Suffolk. Occasionally you could hear their footsteps on the kitchen floor. Even the dog avoided them.
If the ‘infestation’ was severe, more than 2 sightings in a month as far as my mother was concerned, she would employ some sort of chemical smoke bomb. Goodness knows where these came from, probably Vietnam via some black market army surplus store. They were certainly effective. The house would rattle to the sound of bugs falling from the beams while she took the dog out ‘for its protection’. Returning to the house she would crunch over twitching creatures of all varieties, a few birds, the odd bat and but for chance me, as I was still in my bedroom coughing away through the cloud of noxious fumes and admiring the purple pixies and dancing unicorns coming out of the wallpaper.
Happily I survived all manner of such attacks long enough to be able to play in the garden at Flash until, with a sad face I realised the weed killer had run out and Alison took me inside before I got over excited. Duly rested we took ourselves off over the hills behind Saltswell for a ramble. The first hurdle was a small stile into a field. Fortunately a local man was busy painting the footpath sign and advised us to take a short diversion as the cows in the field were particularly aggressive and stealthy. Apparently this meant they creep up behind you and deliver a nasty shove. I had visions of them sneaking up on tip-hoof, tapping us on the shoulder and then disappearing behind the nearest rock, sniggering as we looked about for the mystery shoulder tappers. Or maybe I’d just inhaled too much weed killer.
Thus forewarned we moseyed onwards, picked up the path and found some comely rocks to perch on overlooking Knotbury, the hamlet that lies in the valley behind Flash. It was a lovely day, sunny with a cooling breeze; the moors were vivid purple with heather and the fields green and gold. There were no signs of life in the valley save for a few sheep grazing lazily on the hillside below. Apart from occasionally checking over our shoulders for cows creeping up it was a perfect moment. We shared water and wearily stretched our legs for the homeward journey, into the valley and out via the road, past Flash Bar Stores and back to Saltswell in time to stick anything that would survive temperatures over 200oC into the oven for dinner.
Wednesday 17 August
While taking breakfast we became aware of a faint alarm sound. Similar to that of a digital alarm clock, which we assumed belonged to the owners and was upstairs somewhere, probably in a cupboard. Setting off to find it I opened the curtains to a scene of carnage on the busy Leek to Buxton road outside. The accident, a nasty rear end shunt into a stationary car went completely unheard by us inside. The alarm turned out to be from the iPhone of the driver of the car rammed from behind who had it connected via Bluetooth and which somehow realised that the car had been hit and was signalling a warning – having alerted the emergency services remotely.
We opened Saltswell up as a tea and sympathy mission, ministering to the walking wounded and letting the ambulance crew use the living room for examinations while the police sorted out the road. Happily no one was severely injured and by early afternoon the drama was over, we tidied up and decided that we’d halve our original plan of a long circular walk to Buxton and back and just walk into town and get a cab home.
We set out up steep access roads leading to remote cottages and farms and generally more suited to walking than driving. The path led us through a gap in the hedge, over Axe Edge and onto a faint footpath, cutting off at right angles to the track at Dane Head, where the River Dane springs from the gap between Axe Edge Moor and Featherbed Moors. Our route took us through moorland wrapped in heather, the scent wafting over the heavy peat and rich earthy aromas from the watery ground on either side of the path. Deep black trenches appeared, overhung with heather at the top and green moss, bright against the murky soil lower down. In some water ran, trickling to join the many streams that feed The Dane. Others held pools of dark stagnant water, fingers of pale green algae spreading on the surface of dark satanic mirrors.
We crossed Thatch Marsh, a boggy area where the path petered out as previous walkers had picked their way across by whatever route promised the surest, driest crossing. At one point we ‘rafted’ over, hopping across floating beds of moss, springing onto the next before we had a chance to sink into the ooze, until we made firmer ground where we could pause, watching the bog burble and bubble back into shape after our rude traverse. The dry weather made our passage a lot more comfortable than we could otherwise have hoped for and soon we picked up the path and rested at a rocky outcrop for water and a check on the map before descending via an old drovers road to cross the busy A537 and onwards through old coal mining country, now almost clear of the scars of heavy industry save for warning signs around abandoned shafts.
Skirting The Terret, a bare green hill topped with trees in a formation that always reminds me of the head of a punk version of the jolly green giant, we walked down the old Macclesfield to Buxton road. This is a rocky track suitable only for the most extreme 4x4 off road motor vehicles of the sort found extensively in The Peak District, but it was fine for walking. We followed the road winding down the hillside as it gradually became a passable sandy track then uneven tarmac until in Burbage on the outskirts of Buxton it developed into a modest carriageway suitable for cars and buses.
By way of footpaths and pavements we found ourselves in Buxton’s busy formal civic park, several acers of manicured lawns and recreation with the river splashing through over rocks and around the toes of paddling children. It was a bright sunny afternoon and the folk of Buxton were out in force enjoying the park. Elderly visitors wrapped in cardigans sat within sight of their coach, watching children play while they supped tea, lovers wandered arms linked as if their very life depended upon each other’s touch, mums awkwardly kicked footballs for toddlers to chase, children drove baby siblings in pushchairs, sticky with ice cream and other sugary confections and couples sat silently together, wondering what to say to each other while their children amused themselves in the playground. It was a wonderful summer scene, sunshine and shade accompanied by the constant soundtrack of shrill laughter, screams of delight, chattering and the murmurs of diverse accents and languages fading in and out; fragments of conversations, glimpses into others’ lives as they stroll by, dialogue heard and instantly forgotten in the joyful hubbub.
We sought refuge from the sun in the cool oasis of the tea rooms, where genteel folk were finishing afternoon tea before being whisked home on their coaches. We supped as politely as two parched sweaty walkers are able to, a pretence of polite society that we dropped as soon as the After Eight cheesecake arrived and we dived in with gusto. Pausing only to apologise to the cake flecked diners around us we ventured out into Buxton just as it was closing. Signboards were being dragged in, shutters closed and open signs turned to face in. Without any real plans we stocked up at the Aldi stores and got a cab back to Saltswell. Our driver was charming company with an easy going friendliness that seems to come readily to the people around here. We exchanged views on traditional drinking pubs vs their modern dining equivalent, property prices and the quirks and charms of characters local to Flash, an area our driver knew well.
Later, safely ensconced in Saltswell we reflected on how much we like Buxton. It has a good range of shops, many of which are still independent, a railway line into Manchester, good walking into the Peaks, fine civic amenities, cheap housing, a charming park and even an opera house; food for thought.
Thursday 18 August.
Sad to leave Saltswell and Flash (and secretly to leave a comfy bed) we packed slowly and left Flash as the morning fog was lifting and the sun was warming the fields. We were due in Cambridge for a few days, using it as a base to make some necessary domestic arrangements. We broke the journey at the strange Derby South Services, a nether-world that promises to be a busy motorway stop but is actually one almost empty hanger sized space with a few vending machines, a magazine rack and for some reason a single display of high visibility jackets. We didn’t linger, choosing to lunch in Mavis before re-joining the motorway and making our way down the A14, the world’s most boring road. The only relief was counting the stationary cars in the 6 or so mile tailback going the other way.
Friday 12 August
Good friends of ours run Shallowford Christian retreat centre. Operating in the Diocese of Litchfield it’s a rambling old house with semi-formal gardens and sprawling meadows. In a quiet location in rural Staffordshire near the town of Stone, Shallowford is probable best known for hosting Izaak Walton’s cottage. Izaak was an author whose best known work The Complete Angler was first published in 1653. He was born in nearby Stafford and as an adult lived and worked as an ironmonger in London until 1664 when he ‘retired’ to Shallowford in a move prompted by the Royalist defeat in the Civil War, a time when many Royalist English gentlemen sought retreat into less volatile countryside. He thereafter spent his time wandering around the countryside, mostly it seems in a quest to impose himself upon eminent people of the day, clergyman and gentlemen who liked angling, presumably taking copious notes over the brandy as he wrote well received biographies for them, collectively known as Walton’s Lives.
After yesterday’s late night drive we enjoyed a lengthy lay-in and emerged from Mavis to bright sunshine and were whisked off to the local pub for lunch with barely any resistance from us. Later we set to catching up on news and gossip before meeting the other couple staying for the weekend and who were undertaking some serious gardening at the centre. Alison cooked everyone a stupendous meal, her own recipe of Red Thai salmon and rice, before we retired to the lounge for a convivial evening and a game of shuffleboard.
Shuffleboard is apparently a pastime much favoured by the Dutch, somewhere just behind competitive tulip racing and growing windmills and narrowly ahead of recreational pharmaceuticals. Or something… whatever, it was great fun until I started losing. Fortunately Shuffleboard isn’t encumbered by random drugs testing so Alison was able to imbibe the red wine with careless abandon.
Saturday 13 August
We awoke mid-morning with the sun peeking through silvery clouds scurrying overhead and restless trees swaying in the wind. Also swaying and windy was young Alison on her way to the bathroom, a vision of faintly green tinged loveliness. “Morning my precious, how’s the head?” I cheerily announced. I‘m not sure about her reply from behind the rapidly slamming lavatory door, something about a duck I think.
Later, in full ruddy health courtesy of Mavis’s extensive on-board pharmacy, we went over to Ilam near Dove Dale where we met up with more friends of our hosts and accompanied them on a walk to Dove Dale stepping stones and then up the lofty pinnacle of Thorpe Cloud. Well, as lofty as 300 or so feet up is. Not a long walk but steep and the views over the surrounding countryside were magnificent.
From our elevated eerie we could see back to Ilam Hall, a lump of dark gothic sandstone standing proud of the shadowy woodland of Ilam Park, sitting in a broad curve of the River Manifold. Panning left were parched fields of pale green and gold enclosed by dry stone walls tumbling down into the vale below. Where the terrain made arable farming impossible sheep grazed on grassy hillsides cropped short by their constant attention. In the sun burnished fields on the broad valley floor cows lay or wandered sluggishly, picking at the grass here and there and watching walkers pass by with drowsy eyes. We could see where a significant amount of the flat ground has been colonised by visitors; farmers’ fields repurposed to provide for campers or cars, windscreens twinkling below us in the sunlight, reminders that Dove Dale is a tourist heavy area. In many ways it represents the best of the Peaks in one handy place, the tranquil meadows, gurgling river, picturesque stepping stones, broad deep valleys, rock formations to scramble up, caves and the light toil up Thorpe Cloud or nearby Bunster Hill for the more energetic. It was via Bunster Hill that we returned to our hosts and enjoyed a rather splendid al-fresco communal supper of Paella.
Driving back we passed through a cloud of dust from the harvest in a neighbouring field. It reminded me that when we started our adventures in April the crops we walked or drove past were barely showing and now we’re approaching full cycle with the harvest. Our days on the road have mostly been spent outside, as close to the rhythms of nature as we’ve ever been, responsive to the temperature, clouds, wind, sun and our environment in a way we’d never experienced flitting between home, car, office and supermarket. It’s also a reminder that our summer tour is drawing towards a conclusion. We’ve given thought to how and where we winter but so far have reached no solid conclusions beyond wanting to continue the adventure next year. It’s this very lack of planning too far forward that’s been so stimulating for us, but by the same token we realise that winter in Mavis is impractical and the pragmatist within is beginning to rise up and exert some control over our inner bohemian.
Sunday 14 August
Sunday was once observed as the day of rest, but today we agreed to help in the Shallowford garden instead. Fortunately for me this meant real manly gardening – uprooting ancient pampas grass, lopping trees and generally doing butch stuff with absolutely no finesse required. Alison on the other hand delved into path clearance in the style of a painter of fine portraits, diligently removing every last blade of errant grass, spot of moss and decaying leaf with delicate precision. The results were a stiff back for Alison and lacerated arms for me. All in all a fine days’ work we felt.
Jobs done we left in the afternoon after fond goodbyes to friends old and new and made our way to one of our favourite spots in the whole of the UK. But more of that tomorrow.
Monday 8 August
We left Cambridge Rock around midday and made our way the short distance to visit Alison’s parents and friends. We felt ourselves slowly draining as the afternoon wore on, in spite of the company. The effect of working 9am – midnight 5 days in a row on limited sleep and doing heavy lifting was beginning to take its toll. It got to the stage where every time we stood up we would accompany ourselves with oohs and arrhs, various joints would crack or pop and we’d hold our backs or stiff legs dramatically.
At this point after a festival we’ve found it best to do as little as possible so after fond farewells we took Mavis for a relatively short spin to a Caravan Club site near Royston in Hertfordshire. Caravan Club (CC) sites are all very similar, a bit ‘Stepford’ as Alison puts it. We tend to favour them when we know we want a good shower (in my case good being one that there’s an even chance of being able to operate without outside assistance), a laundry and peace and quiet.
I suppose 2 out of 3 wasn’t bad. Showered and laundry on we sat with tea in hand resting our aching limbs, listening to a party of caravaners guffawing and cackling away as they relayed tales that seemed so inordinately mundane that the normal response would be to make up an excuse and leave. As if listening to ‘the day Roger broke the kettle’ and ‘that time Margery forgot the napkins’ accompanied by their raucous laughter at such thrilling comedy gold wasn’t enough a yappy dog joined in, the icing on our aural cake. It was their good fortune that we were too tired to bother beating them to a pulp with a rolled up copy of the CC magazine, an action sure to attract a stern rebuke from the Warden but still worth trying. In time they drifted back to their vans satisfied with the afternoon’s merriment and the dog went mysteriously quiet.
Occasionally a dour gentleman would amble passed being towed by a small dog of indeterminate breed. It seemed his purpose was to sneer at our laundry drying on the clothes airer. It’s a fact of life for us that laundry needs to be done and it needs to get dry. We have noticed before that some people take a dim view of it flapping away in the breeze. This particular chap brought his dog back for a 2nd and 3rd look. I toyed with the idea of offering a pair of my pants as a souvenir but by then he’d presumably got enough information to retire to his caravan to compose an angry letter to the CC magazine editor.
Tuesday 9 August
On our travels we’ve found that the caravan fraternity are early risers. By the time we emerged from Mavis at around 9am the site was half empty. The cacklers, the yappers and the sneerers had left or were out for the day and we packed up in relative peace and quiet.
We arrived in Burford, Oxfordshire to our site just over the road from the pretty Cotswold village. And what a charming site it was too. The owners were hospitable and kept it immaculate but not too fussy, the pitch generous and screened by hedges and the facilities clean and well thought out. It had personal bathrooms, shower, toilet and wash basin all in one private room.
Having taken the day at a leisurely pace we settled for the evening and having planned the next couple of days adventures we were eating dinner when Alison spotted a face we knew setting up their motorhome nearby. It seems our choice of site is favoured by the rock and roll fraternity as one of the major acts from Cambridge Rock was in town.
Wednesday 10 August
Buses are wonderful. The first proper motorised bus was probably a 1930s steam bus and since then they’ve become an important means of public transport. They are essential for transporting commuters through busy city’s or across rural landscapes, a lifeline for the elderly and a greener option for the socially conscious. I mention this because I’ve been reacquainting myself with the positive side of bus travel after a hair rising journey from Burford to Woodstock.
It started pleasantly enough with our driver pulling up 5 minutes late, and really that’s nothing when you see the traffic he had to contend with in Burford. More about that anon. Once aboard we lurched off and dashed up and down the by-ways of rural Oxfordshire like a fat red rattling bat out of hell. We slid around on the seats as the bus took corners without brakes, probably on two wheels. At least roller coasters have harnesses to keep you in place. We had each other. Alison gripped the seat in front, knuckles white against the vivid blue swirly seat pattern, while I seriously considered getting off at any stop within sight of civilisation and calling a cab to complete the journey.
Somewhere around Brize Norton we slowed to a mere gallop and started taking on passengers. At every stop the bus shuddered alarmingly, a ball of barely harnessed energy eager for our driver to unleash it. And he did, a purr as it went into gear, a modest crawl out into the road and then we’d be forced back in our seats like astronauts returning to earth as it bolted forward in a cloud of gravel and squeal of rubber, free now to hurtle through sedate villages and picturesque market towns. Well, I assume they were pretty, it was hard to tell at the speed we were travelling. Mostly we saw a smear of colourful landscape.
Eventually we arrived at Woodstock, the pretty town that sits on the edge of the Blenheim estate. Now, I know I may, on occasion be prone to exaggerate slightly for comic effect but honestly our first stop was the pharmacy for travel sickness pills to survive the return journey. Second was the Co-Op to get something light for a picnic. I choose only ingredients that would taste as good coming up as going down, just in case the pills didn’t work.
You may recall we stayed near here before and visited Blenheim on 3 May so I won’t repeat myself. Suffice to say once our stomachs had settled we picnicked overlooking the extensive lake and took advantage of a free guided tour of the state rooms which helped fill in some of the detail we’d missed on our previous visit. Satisfied we returned via the bus, this time suitably medicated for the journey.
Arriving surprisingly intact back at Burford we wandered along the main street and decided it was worth a more extensive look tomorrow when there would be less chance of us barfing up our bus churned lunch in one of Burford’s array of touristy shops and high end clothing stores.
Thursday 11 August
During the day Burford appears little more than pleasant background scenery for its constant traffic jam. The medieval bridge spanning the River Windrush at the foot of the hill was thoughtlessly designed without considering our modern requirement to ferry coachloads of tourists and lorries full of expensive fripperies to and from nearby Chipping Norton. Thus beautiful Burford, once ranked sixth in Forbes magazine's list of "Europe's Most Idyllic Places To Live” (April 2009) is choked by traffic snarled up and down the hill and its fine citizenry spend their days poised grimacing over the steering wheels of their 4X4’s, knuckles whitened and teeth clenched as they try and ease out of Burford’s quaint side streets between the caravans and coaches.
Away from the high street St. John the Baptist church is a wonderfully erratic affair, much altered and added to, subtracted from and generally mucked about with over successive generations. Today it’s like an architectural historian’s wet dream. I was particularly interested to find that it was once used as a prison to hold The Banbury mutineers. These were around 400 members of Cromwell’s New Model Army who became sympathetic towards the contemporary Levellers political movement during the English Civil War. The Levellers believed in popular sovereignty, extended suffrage, equality before the law, and religious tolerance, and had spread their message by successful use of leafleting and pamphlets – the social media of the day. Their beliefs were not necessarily views shared by Oliver Cromwell and his “model’ army, whose soldiers generally had deeply held puritan views. Local information suggests that the Levellers were also tired of the brutality that Cromwell’s army was inflicting on the Irish.
Inside Buford church you can see where one of the prisoners carved their name in the lead lining of the font. Apparently the graffiti artist survived but for the three leaders, Cornet James Thompson, Corporal Perkins and John Church it all ended rather dismally and they were executed on 17 May 1649 in Burford. A plaque on the wall of the church commemorates these men and Burford celebrates Levellers Day in May each year.
Although the imprisonment and executions all but brought an end to the Levellers cause some of the other leaders imprisoned in The Tower of London at the time still managed to publish a pamphlet entitled "An Agreement Of The Free People Of England" (written on May 1, 1649) which included reforms that have since been made law in England, such as the right to silence, so maybe it wasn’t an entirely lost cause.
And so after a brief stop at one of Burford’s many cafes we left for nearby Witney. It’s a larger town than Burford with a busy high street, lovely old market square, pleasing greens and some unpleasant new shopping precincts. It probably has loads of interesting history but I think I’ve spoilt you enough today with Burford and anyway we weren’t here to sightsee. We came to see an old friend, country singer/songwriter Ags Connolly, play a gig along with American blues, country and folk impresario Todd Day Wait. Ags has played one of our Queensland Live house concerts and has won over many fans who wouldn’t normally admit to liking country music. Pleasingly, for me anyway, he also supports Spurs (the football team not the jangly horse riding accruement).
We parked Mavis up on an out of town industrial estate as we would embarking on a late night journey to Stafford after the gig finished. Walking into town I was aware of a beeping from a pedestrian crossing to our right and a few paces on realised I was alone. I turned to see Alison stepping onto the pavement opposite where, in a Pavlovian response to hearing the all clear for pedestrians, she had crossed the road and was now stranded on the opposite side. Her look of satisfaction at having traversed the busy carriageway turning slowly to confusion and disbelief at having somehow found herself outside Witney Leisure Centre for no apparent reason. Luckily by deft use of skills learned as a once member of The Tufty Club I escorted her back to the correct route and she managed to make the town centre safely and without me having to fetch her reigns from Mavis.
The gig was at Fat Lils, a Tex Mex restaurant and venue. I’m happy to report the food was excellent, the company of Ags and Todd, two real country gents, engaging and the music as wonderful as expected. It was a great night, so much so that we left rather late and hit the road at 11:30pm, not arriving in Shallowford until around 02.30am as, practically within sight of our destination, we were sent on a long diversion along dark, narrow country roads. Annoyingly the following morning we found out our excursion was unnecessary as the road closed signpost neglected to mention we could have reached our journey's end before the point at which it was closed.
The Cambridge Rock Festival (CRF) is now in its 12th year and in the last few has been held at the Haggis Farm Polo Club just outside Cambridge. This year it was spread over 5 days, the Wednesday being a charity event for Addenbrooke’s hospital before the full-on 3 stage 4 day festival kicked off on Thursday lunchtime.
The whole event is the brainchild of Dave Roberts, who runs the festival alongside a committee who help with the organisation. And it’s no mean feat; over 5 days, on 3 stages, bands play from 11:00am to 11:00 pm with barely 30 minutes turnaround between each set. In addition there are 2 bars and the usual camping facilities, traders, artist liaison and green room, catering, stewards and crew to manage.
Our role in all of this was as back stage crew for the main stage. Our friends from another festival were running the back stage and recruited us earlier in the summer. The job basically entailed loading band’s equipment into one of 5 bays behind the main stage, then getting one band off stage, carrying all their equipment, amps, instruments etc. back to their bay, doing the same in reverse to get the next band on in time to sound check and be ready to perform. Meanwhile another band would be turning up to unload and equipment from bands that had completed their set had to be loaded back into their vehicles to head off home. In essence we moved each band’s gear four times. The key to the whole operation was the risers, platforms on wheels that allowed the drum kit to be set up backstage while the preceding band played. Once finished, their riser would be dragged back offstage for the drummer to disassemble and the new one wheeled on. Occasionally a band would have a complicated keyboard set up so a spare riser came into play and all three would be manoeuvred round like one of those children’s games where you have to slide squares around in a frame to make a picture.
Happily we weren’t alone. Under Dave and Trudy’s excellent direction a core team of 9, plus one or two who did odd days, all donned the red tee shirts and passes allowing us to hump and shove backstage. We even had a TV to monitor what was happening on stage and watch the band playing. It was all great fun and soon we settled into the rhythm that was to characterise the next few days, bursts of intense work followed by milling around until a van reversed up and then we’d swarm around like a plague of ants in our red tee shirts grabbing gear and occasionally, in our enthusiasm, spare tyres, the drummer’s lunch and anything else foolishly left within our reach.
The festival site was surprisingly small, set in an oval with traders at each end, the three covered stages, a large outdoor screen for the main stage and a marquee with local arts and crafts along with, I was gratified to see, a large Radio Caroline stall. Some of their DJ’s were compèring and I think they broadcast some of the bands too. I grew up listening to Caroline and some of the other pirate stations of the era, a small act of rebellion at a time when they were illegal and frowned upon by the grim suits at the BBC and in government. My fondness for music blossomed under these stations more than anything the staid old Aunty Beeb could throw at me. Caroline played all sorts of music, album tracks and whatever tickled the DJs fancy, a policy I adored. I might not have liked every track but the chances were high that I would. And the DJs didn’t witter on, it wasn’t ‘personality led’ like the legit stations but music led, surely the correct policy for a radio station whose remit is to play music.
Apart from the people and music the other joy for us at CRF was being paid in beer tokens, a useful currency since the real ale bar stocked 70 or so beers and ciders over the weekend. We limited ourselves though as most artists wouldn’t welcome slurring uncoordinated fools slinging their $5,000 Fender into the loading bay from 20 feet away.
And so to the artists. We saw or at least heard just about every act on the main stage and I have no intention of reviewing each one, instead here are a few highlights.
Wednesday – Addenbrooke’s Rocks
Wednesday was a sort of bonus day for the festival, a charity event for Addenbrooke’s Hospital which served as a handy warm up for the crew as well. Headliner Don Airey (Deep Purple among many others) delivered a stunning set to close a day that had flowed well, with a mixture of folk and classic rock bands, all of whom had a link in one way or another to Addenbrooke’s.
Thursday – Tribute bands
There were tributes to AC/DC, Cream, Ozzy Osborne and Pink Floyd among the line-up today and every act was skilled, impressively like the band they were imitating and had an act to match. For us, these tribute acts are the closest we’ll ever get to watching the real thing and done well they are entertaining and fun. I still harbour mixed feelings about tribute acts though. Technically gifted musicians in their own right I wonder how many are doing it because it’s one of the few ways that being a musician can pay nowadays – lugging your gear around on the modern equivalent of the ‘chicken in a basket’ circuit pretending to be someone else and earning them royalties. On the other hand, the bands were good, the musicians unfailingly pleasant and refreshingly down to earth. Where else would ‘Ozzy Osborne’ hug you for finding his £1 pair of sunglasses?
Opening band DC/73 played mostly Bonn Scott era AC/DC with a polish that belayed their usual pub gig status. A great start to the festival proper and they get a mention here because they sent a charming thank you email to the crew. Yes, I really am that cheap.
Later Pure Floyd headlined, lit up by their elaborate light show. Alison borrowed an illuminated cape from a friend, a sheer translucent material with coloured lights in the arms, giving her the appearance of a luminescent jelly fish. Having wafted about back stage to the pulsating rhythms from the band she was heard to mutter “I’m really quite shy you know” before leading the crew out into the arena to dance about among the audience, a floodlit pied piper cavorting around to the melody and briefly stealing the show before whirling out into the open air, startling the timid, alarming the children and making some serious drinkers look deep into the glass in front of them and wonder just how strong was this pint of ‘Speckled Old Cobblers’ and consider that maybe they should stick to half a mild in future.
Friday – Classic Rock
So, into the rockier stuff today with some original acts. Worthy of a mention, in my humble opinion, are Son of Man, a kind of hybrid tribute-come-spin-off from the original Welsh band Man. I wasn’t familiar with Man but Son of… were on great form with their psychedelically infused heavy rock. A band I’ll be seeking more of.
Later came Remus Down Boulevard. Built around Dennis Stratton, one of the original members of Iron Maiden they played straight forward honest heavy rock with great aplomb. Of note too was their cheery down to earth ego free disposition. They chatted away freely to everyone, mixed with the punters around the bar and if anything dressed down before taking to the stage. Without wishing to appear rude Dennis couldn’t look less like a rock star if he tried and I love him for it.
Headlining was Cregan and Co. Jim Cregan is a long-time collaborator and song writing partner of Rod Stewart and the band play their songs. Ben Mills, an X-Factor finalist, fronts the band on vocals and guitar. Now, normally I’d rather listen to the sound of my own testicles being grated than hear anyone associated with a TV talent show but he was great; perfect voice, poised and professional, permanently grinning and he reminded me of Marti Pellow without the smack.
Towards the end of the set when the crew started to gather behind the curtains, poised to commence clearing the stage once the final applause echoed around the marquee, we all spontaneously started dancing. I posted a brief clip on Facebook of Alison and a couple of our colleagues lost in the music. It was unashamedly feel good sing-a-long fun.
Another classic rock day and by now we were melding into a facsimile of a professional crew. With our roles and places pretty much sorted we’d slouch around backstage, chatting or watching the monitor or just lost in our own private world listening to the music. As the band’s allotted time drew to a close we’d all drift up the ramp onto the stage, drawn by unspoken command to our stations. Cue applause and announcements, then we would draw back the curtain and scurry into action. The technician would shout the all clear and we’d drag the drum riser off. Then a swarm of red shirts would dart to and fro with equipment; amps, guitars, keyboards etc, clear down the rest of the stage, drag the next band’s gear on, push their drum riser into place and then resume slouching. At our best we achieved this in 6 minutes.
Hazel O’Connor was as entertaining and down to earth as ever. Last time we worked with her she had a long conversation with Alison about dog biscuits. Today she turned up with a Sainsbury’s shopping bag containing her tambourine and bodhrán and wondered if it would be alright on stage. Suitably reassured she and her band delivered a storming set.
The headliner tonight was Carl Palmer, formally of ELP and a drummer of extraordinary talent. As impressive as his skills were they were matched by the guitarist and bass player who shared the stage with him. Simon Fitzpatrick on bass played Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody on his 6 string bass and it was stunning. Normally I abhor Queen, Bohemian bloody Rhapsody fills me with revulsion and I consider that any bass player whose solo exceeds 60 seconds should be turfed into the nearest cesspit. (Paul Simon’s You Can Call Me Al has what I think of as the perfect bass solo). Today though I was won over by a masterclass performance. Hearing the crowd hush and then gently sing the words to accompany him was a spine tingling moment. The guitarist, Paul Bielatowicz looked about 12 years old; I swear he hasn’t started shaving yet; nevertheless he was every bit the match for his colleagues, leaning back and staring upwards, eyes tightly closed, lost in the bubble as the music flowed through him. We saw three masters of their respective instruments on stage, I even applauded the drum solos!
Sunday – Prog day
Prog, short for progressive rock, is generally something I avoid. It’s characterised, by me at least and I may not be an expert but at least I’m not neutral, by long rambling tunes with unnecessary changes of time signature, choruses that are heavy on the ‘la la far de la’s’ and in the worst cases 4 or more keyboards. You just know that the set list will contain the word suite and with a sense of dread you realise the singer will whip out a flute at some point.
There’s really no excuse for this nonsense, prog was the reason that punk was necessary. Having said that some exponents’, Pink Floyd for example, convey more political nous than the cartoon anarchy of some of punk’s pioneers, and some of the space-rock we’ve come to enjoy isn’t that far removed from prog. All in all its an area of music I generally find hard to warm to so to escape an afternoon of meandering noodling and self-indulgence we took ourselves off for a brief sojourn to stage 2 to see Gunrunner. A down to earth, no nonsense rock covers band of rare pedigree and talent with a mate of ours, Pete, on vocals. Suitably refreshed we returned to catch Mostly Autumn – Kudos to them for winning Alison’s award for having the most organised van, a multi shelved affair split into compartments and packed like a game of Tetris.
Headliners were Focus, a Dutch band who were the most laid back bunch of blokes of the weekend. Leading them was shambolic frontman Thjis Van Leer who assembled an old wooden Hammond organ, stool and amp on stage, all of which were literally held together by gaffer tape. With all the teak veneer his riser resembled my Nan’s living room circa 1972. Their set was characteristically Focus, mostly instrumental with occasional yodelling from Thjis, punctuated by his unique brand of cheerfully erratic stage patter. They went down well with the audience and were a fitting end to a great 5 days of music.
After their set a few of us linked arms singing “We’ll Meet Again” during the final stage announcements. I turned to the person on my left and said “see, that’s how to have a hit single” to which he replied “ah, I understand now”. Turned out it was the guitarist from Focus, a band notably hit free since the 1970’s. If their next hit is a version of We’ll Meet Again I expect a cut of the proceeds.
When we’d finished loading the van their roadie entertained us with some card tricks, having first explained that 6 pints of larger…”or maybe 7, I’m not so good at counting…” improved his skills. Amazingly he appeared to be correct as he wowed us with some close up card manipulation.
Their van packed, Focus pulled away, stopped at the gates and reversed at speed as they realised they were missing a guitarist. Thjis jumped out and started wandering the site shouting “Hello” and asking if anyone had maybe seen a guitar player. Meanwhile the missing person had found the van and was sitting inside wondering where Thjis was and if he should go and look for him. A farce was avoided by Alison guarding the van to ensure no more band members escaped while I dragged Thjis away from the bar, where his searching had turned into mass appreciation by inebriated punters.
Which left us free to return to Mavis, happy and exhausted. CRF was the most coordinated multi-day music festival we’ve worked at, although of course we’ve only seen it from the perspective of working in one place but it’s definitely one we’d return to. The crew were an absolute pleasure to work with, nearly all of the bands were refreshingly ego free and grateful for our help, the committee and organisers of the festival were appreciative and the punters laid back, friendly and polite. We were sad when the last extended chord from Focus signalled the end for this year.
There is some question of whether CRF will happen next year but if it does we will return. Some people don’t understand why we do what we do for no financial reward but after a few days at CRF we’ve learnt new skills, heard some great music and made new friends. There’s talk of a reunion later in the year for the crew and offers of accommodation, driveways for Mavis and help finding paid work. We slunk into bed reflecting that this could be our last music festival of the season, but if it is we agreed we went out on a high.
Monday 1 August – Tuesday 2 August
Monday 1 August
Glastonbury is one of those places you feel you have to visit because it’s so well known, mostly for the festival at nearby Pilton. In truth it’s a small town under an impressive tor. A tor being either a freestanding rock or outcrop that rises abruptly from its surroundings or a nipple of mother nature sitting erect on her beating bosom if you’re the kind of person who feels Glastonbury is the spiritual centre of your tie died incense scented world.
Maybe it was the damp weather or having to circuit the town twice to find somewhere to park Mavis but I couldn’t warm to the place. The Abbey looked impressive but we contented ourselves with a browse in the gift shop rather than pay to wander around the ruins in the rain. As Alison kindly pointed out, if she wanted to see an old wet ruin she always had me. The shops were nearly all rubbish. And I mean that in a kindly constructive way. Apart from a tiny jewellers who fitted a new watch strap for me and the odd bookshop they were either selling nonsense like crystals and healing bath salts for extortionate prices or tee shirts with transfers of wolves howling at the moon or pentagrams surrounded by ‘magic’ symbols . One shop contrived to look like a potions shop from Diagon Alley out of the Harry Potter movies. It had rows of dark shelves populated with mysterious looking concoctions in quasi medical bottles marketed as ‘healing potions’. Now, far be it from me to dispute their effectiveness but as Billy Connolly once pointed out, if you are laying in the road after being struck by a car you don’t want to hear someone shouting “Let me through, I’m an aromatherapist”
We passed a sheltered housing complex on our way into the town centre and wondered if it was a bit like The Chelsea Pensioners Home but for fading hippies. Instead of parade in the morning they have a communal chant and then shuffle off to enjoy a spot of meditation or to polish their chakras until the nurse comes round dispensing the tabs and tokes. Come to think of it, that sounds like a good retirement plan to me.
We grew weary of the shallow spiritual sustenance on offer and took refuge in a quaint café that catered for vegetarians with variety and ingenuity, one of the plus points of Glastonbury I guess. I never expected what followed. Well, I expected the Mediterranean couscous and halloumi since I’d ordered it not 15 minutes beforehand and was heartily tucking into it when, in response to a simple question from Alison, years of supressed feelings about my father’s death 30 years ago bubbled up from goodness knows where and flooded out. I’ve written about him on here previously, I hope with a sense of affection for all my foolishness and teasing but today was different.
We lost him to lung cancer in September 1986, after a year of chronic and at times bitter illness. We lost the man born to accountancy like a duck is to water but who possessed an anarchic sense of humour, revelling in The Goon Show, ITMA and The Navy Lark. These shows were birthed from the Forces entertainment troupes whose off the wall humour melded with the pre-war musical variety shows, a coping mechanism and release valve to the horrors of war. My father served as a Bevin Boy for a brief spell until he was called up to the Navy. He didn’t see active service but visited the devastated ruins of Nagasaki among other Far East adventures. As is so often the case he didn’t talk about it, but I have his photo albums and postcards from his service days. They show a slight, blond Petty Officer, fit (he was a dab hand at the pummel horse), often smiling in a kindly knowing way, a man who seemed to be as much observing as he was participating.
I relived the night he passed away. I had just returned from watching Alan Bleasdale’s play Having a Ball at the theatre. I remembered again the phone call, the sense of helplessness because I didn’t drive and so had to wait to catch the train the next day, the guilt at not being there, the hurt, anger, loss, betrayal and, dominating everything, a sense of numbness; not being able to comfort my mother properly, not knowing what to do, to say or where to turn; being a man, strong, stolid and organised, betraying no feelings. And the numbness, always the numbness.
And 30 years later in a small town café on a wet Monday was the first time I cried for him; the first tears I was able to spill over the man who gave me life, nurtured me and guided me, who never judged me despite me giving him plenty of opportunity. Here were my feelings of guilt at not being there during his illness anything like as much as I should have been, at my countless thoughtless indiscretions and imprudence, my errors and lack of emotional literacy, my fragile ego being more important than his suffering. At not being the son he deserved.
And something lifted. I certainly haven’t atoned for my sins, for my selfishness all those years ago but some of the numbness that’s lived with me lightened. Alison again gave wise council, ever my safe harbour in the storm. We sat watching the rain, quiet and still, not at peace exactly but aware that something was different.
I’m not sure what the Glastonburyites walking passed thought but hopefully the café has some more customers eager to try the Mediterranean couscous for its spiritually restorative powers. We took ourselves back into Glastonbury in a solemn mood, determined to find something of the spirit of the place that draws people here, but our hearts weren’t in it. It was too wet and murky to tackle climbing the Tor so we guided Mavis back to the site, in a reflective frame of mind.
Just after our return the rain started again, this time in earnest and we staggered over to the pub in the kind of windswept rain that lashes at you from every angle; under coats, into socks, down the neck. Even my knees were wet, all from a 10 metre dash from Mavis to the bar.
Still, the food was every bit as good as it was on Saturday, the beer as welcome and the emotional turbulence of earlier had passed from subdued reflection to us feeling slightly giddy as we chatted away like long lost friends even though we’ve lived pretty much shoulder to shoulder since April. Odd that for all our mocking and derisive thoughts about Glastonbury our visit proved to be a cathartic experience.
Tuesday 2 August
After the emotional turmoil of yesterday we woke suitably refreshed, the air was damp, a mist had settled, low cloud laying on the hill cutting us off from the valleys below. Under this veil we packed up and set off for Cambridge, gently rolling through the lifting fog, wispy tendrils rising from the trees and hedges as the morning sun broke through. We passed the hill fort at Cley Hill, a mound like an enormous turtle covered in grass, paler than the surrounding fields with the shadows of ancient earth fortifications scarring its summit.
We re-joined the A303 and back passed Stonehenge, which looked tiny against the vast open space and big sky of Salisbury plane. Bypassing the mystical delights of the stones we headed instead for some local services and thence suitably caffeined up onwards via the M25, which was slightly less horrific than usual and into the services at South Mimms.
We use services for the same reasons as everyone else, toilets and coffee, in that order. Today we fancied a change and gave into our dark sides. Now, I know we try to avoid eating meat and have successfully eschewed red meat for some time but now and then we have chicken and today we both confessed to a yearning for fast fried greasy food of no nutritional value served in a cardboard box. So we went to KFC.
I have a long standing suspicion of KFC. I know their welfare standards aren’t exactly high and I’m sure they aren’t model employers but my antipathy comes from many many years ago when, in a rare treat that involved spending money my parents bought a box of KFC bigger than my head. This rare event occurred after a shopping expedition to Lowestoft. Well, this was like Christmas for me, with the added excitement that it wasn’t cooked by my mother. Locked in the back of the family Mazda with the sweet smell of fried chicken the whole way home I salivated while plotting how I’d attack the awaiting feast. Coleslaw first obviously, after all its just salad in disguise, beans second, tasty but really just a tub of beans and then fries or chicken? And how much chicken would there be? Would I get a leg and breast? Could I surreptitiously gain access to the left over chicken bones because in places they’d still have the coating on?
We unloaded the shopping, a task in which I was for once an eager participant, laid the table (we did have standards – my dad ate crisps with a knife and fork) and I pulled my chair up anxiously, knife and fork poised to dive in, my plan having been refined to a ratio of 3 chips to every bite of chicken. My father ceremoniously placed the bucket in the centre of the table. It was steaming and curiously charred around the edges. Whipping away the lid in the manner of a magician to reveal the delights inside my father’s expression went from pride to curiosity and then to dismay.
Subsequent enquiry led to the revelation that in order to buy time to unpack the car and put the shopping away the bucket of KFC had been deposited in the Aga to ‘keep warm’. Hence my first ever fast food was piping hot coleslaw, beans served from a molten plastic tub and chicken shrivelled onto the bone with the coating disintegrated into fine burnt crumbs. At least the KFC chips tasted the same as they always do; awful.
Happily todays experience was much better, the chicken crisp and the chips as awful as ever. We agreed that the guilt was worth every finger licking bite. And on that note we prepared for the next 5 days at The Cambridge Rock Festival.
Saturday 30 July
We left New Wine late on the Saturday morning amidst a stream of exiting delegates. Around the site tents were being dismantled, caravans packed and patches of bright green dotted the hills where tents were already safely stowed in the back of cars ferrying people back to the real world. We departed with conflicting emotions; happy to be heading to a nearby site to relax, relief that we’d finished working, sad that we were saying goodbye to new friends and spiritually concussed from the week’s events.
Happily our destination, after a short stop to take on supplies in Shepton Mallet, was the rather quaint Wagon and Horses pub which has a compact camp site with hard standing, electric and showers a little north of where we’d been. Sited on a ridge alongside a roman road the pub overlooks Shepton to the south. In the evening as we took ourselves over to the pub to eat the clouds were stained orange against a cobalt blue sky, floating above pale green fields that gently sloped away to the valley below, bordered by straggly hedges and shadowy trees.
The food was lovely, proper sensibly priced home cooked pub-grub, not the mass produced cook-chill nonsense that’s frequently passed off as fresh because it’s been heated up and had some dried herbs sprinkled on before the salad is added to the piping hot plate and served in a flurry of indifference by a bored underpaid waiter. This had homemade stamped all over it and was much better for it. The ales were local and went down a treat and the bar staff were friendly and eager to help, giving us a list of local, and not so local, attractions that would fill a month rather than our couple of days. All their help was delivered in a broad Somerset drawl, so we became used to the charming ‘alright me lovelies?’ when we walked into the bar or went to order. With her ear for sounds and keen listening skills Alison often finds herself subconsciously mimicking these local linguistic habits, and she does it well, rapidly assimilating them into her every day conversation. On the other hand every accent I’ve ever tried comes out as a sort of Dr. Who villain who has been living in Pakistan with a Yorkshire wife. I even struggle with my own accent sometimes.
Anyway even more of a pleasure than the views, food, beer and locals was our bed and the promise of a Sunday morning with no alarm clock.
Sunday 31 July
We awoke fresh and keen with the lark. Well not the lark but one that’s decided ‘sod it, just for once I’ll let the lazy sparrows or those smug bloody robins rouse people today, I deserve a lay in and I’m blooming well having one’. Following directions carefully given to us by the landlady we walked along the back roads downhill into Shepton Mallet. Which was sad and underwhelming on a late Sunday morning. The town was drab, shops looked uncared for and the detritus of whatever passed for Saturday night gaiety in these parts littered the streets; mostly fast food and Costa coffee as far as we could tell by the wrappers and paper cups in shop doorways and spilling out of the bins.
Even more sadly the gleaming glass and steel shopping netherworld on the edge of town was doing a thriving business. Anchored around a Tesco’s it also houses a Costa and those strange stores that always seem to be busy but no one appears to actually buy anything. There was a bedding shop that also sold toys, presumably so that little Todd or Betty can pester mum or dad to buy them a Corgi bus painted purple to commemorate the queens 90th birthday or a union jack model tube train to appease them while they mull over which of the 25 or so slightly different pillows to buy. Next door was an Edinburgh Woollen Mill shop. A bit like an Ann Summers store for people of a certain age who favour man-made fabrics and who furtively stock up on pastel trousers, nylon blouses and cardigans with lacy cuffs while pretending that they only popped in to stock up on shortbread. Maybe they get a thrill out of the static charge they get when they scurry home to parade around in secret behind chintzy curtains closed over starched nets.
As nowhere seemed to be open in the town we trudged around Tesco’s and armed with enough supplies to get us through a few long winters took a taxi back to Mavis. Once unpacked we settled in for an afternoon of doing as little as possible… and I’m happy to report that we succeeded.
“…God didn’t build himself that throne,
God doesn’t live in Israel or Rome”*
I am writing this while tired. I have had a busy week filled with hard work and some emotional moments. I want to capture my feelings whilst recognising that at present they are raw and may change with time. Apart from the usual corrections to spelling, punctuation and grammar where it is important for clarity, I don’t intend to revise it. I may though consider an addendum or companion piece if my views change with the benefit of further experience or hindsight. These are my views and mine alone. If you choose to be offended by them then I’m fine with that. I’m sure that it will resonate with people in different ways. If we had the pleasure of working with you at New Wine then please understand this is a strictly personal account and no criticism is intended. I hope these words help to explain how I found the spiritual aspect of New Wine and as such may be of benefit.
I’ve never really got the whole faith business. I’ve been to church, sang the hymns, dozed during the sermons and can recite The Lord’s Prayer. Beyond that nothing’s really touched me. I’ve never felt any stirring of my soul, whatever that is. In short I have never really believed that God exists.
But when I met Alison I started to question that. Her faith shone, radiant and immovable in the face of my cynicism. Even my youngest son, a man schooled in the fine arts of the cynic from an early age, a boy who was rapidly acquiring grand master sceptic level by the time he left primary school, confided that he found her faith charismatic and that ‘she lived it.’ When conversation flagged I’d fire arguments and questions at her. You know the type of questions, those oh so clever ones atheists reserve for people of faith that are supposed to catch them out. And she took it all in good spirit. Every time I thought I’d served an ace she returned with a compassionate lob or loving volley. I came to realise that I wasn’t trying to change her mind but to have mine changed.
Most of my adult exposure to faith was as a sneering outsider. I’d pick up on the contradictions, on the schisms, on the tanned TV evangelists living in mansions, on the ridiculous God Hates Fags memes on social media and the neo-fascist Britain First, hiding their hate fuelled agenda under the cloak of Christianity. But living with Alison was a revelation. She lives compassion, tolerance (she does live with me after all) and love, and not only on Sunday mornings so that she can feel righteous for the rest of the week; she doesn’t seek confession to cleanse herself to make way for new and exciting ways to sin next time (which is a shame as I have an interesting and stimulating list for her to try). She just lives as a normal human being; a selfless, charming and flawed human being. Yes, flawed, as we all are. We all make mistakes, and we all wish we’d made different decisions sometimes.
And so, on my quest to establish my atheist credentials, to further cement them as a part of my identity I started questioning my views. Maybe there was something in faith. Maybe, just maybe I was wrong. I agreed, with practically no objection, to getting married in church with the whole Christian marriage service. The two ministers who led the service and preached understood my values and feelings, and my doubts too. In a sunlit church on a September afternoon I felt as close to God as I ever had; an inexplicable feeling of warmth, of stillness, of peace and of oneness.
Since then I’ve been to a few services, although in the spirit of a full and frank confession one of those was mostly to gain free entry into Canterbury Cathedral. As it happened it wasn’t free. The price was further doubts, further discussions with Alison’s wise counsel, and further exploration.
And so, on our 6 month sabbatical I readily agreed to accompany Alison to New Wine. New Wine is an international umbrella organisation for what I think of as charismatic ‘happy clappy’ churches. The festival is spread over two weeks, with most delegates attending one week or the other. There were around 10,800 delegates in the week we attended plus around 1,200 crew and volunteers. We attended as volunteer stewards.
In the course of our time at New Wine I witnessed some interesting things that have helped my journey, although not necessarily in the way that they were intended to. It’s hard to reduce the complexity of faith into handy bite size paragraphs, so for simplicity’s sake I have picked up on four topics that piqued my curiosity during the week. These are: worship, healing, prayer and testimony (personal stories of God in action or sometimes, in what I thought of as the faintly ridiculous idiom of some, ‘God-incidence’, not ‘co-incidence’). I’ll consider each one in a little detail below.
Worship: In the spirit of polite enquiry I attended the full-on communal worship on Friday evening. I struggled with some of it. Every song was about how wonderful God is, every talk about his magnificent love, his grace, his mercy. So I asked myself, what sort of insecure deity requires constant affirmation? How low is His self-esteem? I got the feeling that God is seen as some loving but insecure father figure, a bit like a dysfunctional family patriarch who will fly into a rage with the slightest provocation and has to be appeased with constant approval and attention. Where were the songs about injustice in the world? Where were the pleas to God, or to the fellow congregation to stand up and fight for peace and justice?
The previous evening I had stewarded a gig by Andy Flannagan. Andy is an acoustic singer songwriter who happens to be a Christian and he sings songs about injustice and of hope. I connected with him immediately. Here perhaps was the gentler meditative approach I feel comfortable with, delivering real lessons and inspiration, a direct line to my conscience. What a shame that only a handful heard his message while the main arena was standing room only the following night to tell God how great He is.
The worship was certainly done well. After some testimonies of miraculous interventions we listened to a short speech from a senior figure then launched into five songs from an upbeat rock band. They were good. Very good actually but as they delivered songs of praise, with words on the big screens so we could all sing along I saw a performance. A slick, well presented, well delivered performance. By chance I sat next to another introverted person who was a committed Christian. We shared our stories and watched as most of the room were whipped up into fervour. The devout here sometimes receive the holy spirit in extreme (to our eyes anyway) ways. There are people whose whole body will shake, some fall dramatically backwards, others are head nodders and some spoke in tongues. I know at least five sensible, down to earth people who have experienced inexplicable feelings, shaking and similar. I’ve heard and discussed their personal stories about it. I cannot explain any of this. The atmosphere was charged and mass hysteria may be an explanation. God may be another.
The final speaker was a polished entertainer and great communicator; charismatic, witty and engaging. In the end the message was affirming for the converted and in that I recognise that it serves a purpose. He did challenge the audience in an interesting way by politely pointing out that all the shaking, head nodding and speaking in tongues happens in church and it’s funny how it’s never when you are sitting at your desk at work; an interesting thought.
What I would say here though is that the whole New Wine worship and seminar experience gives practicing Christians a chance to reflect and ‘recharge’ amongst likeminded people. To do so is clearly important and to see people actually enjoying their faith was inspiring. Plenty of the seminars and speakers are a challenge to the faithful. You can preach to the converted and still make them think.
Healing: There’s plenty of this going on, with prayer for recovery or relief. A lot of people gave witness to God’s intervention and for God healing their bad back or whatever. I suspect they have found relief and that’s great. It may be placebo effect; it could be divine intervention, although I wonder why it always seems to be successful for things you cannot really evidence in a scrupulous scientific way. To my knowledge God’s never rearranged someone’s chromosomes or healed cerebral palsy. He hasn’t done anything that would meet a standard of proof that would withstand challenge.
There is video footage of a lady at a previous New Wine meeting who was born with one leg shorter than the other receiving healing, and her leg grew by one and half inches. Miraculously so does the leg of her jeans. Maybe it’s genuine healing, if so where is the supporting evidence? Where is the follow up testimony, medical evidence of the before and after? A miracle occurred that might convert hundreds, thousands, millions maybe and it’s not on national TV? My father used to do a ‘trick’ where he’d appear to have one arm shorter than the other and then it wasn’t. (It was a laugh a minute growing up with him let me tell you). I think the video shows an illusion – albeit done sincerely and without intention. Pardon my doubts but I’m not convinced. The video is here.
Prayer: I can find this quite revealing, sometimes in positive ways. What I didn’t connect with was the type of prayer requesting that everyone follow correct procedure. It’s not so much a prayer as a reminder of the steward’s guide. During one medical emergency I assisted at, a couple actually interrupted the medical team to ask if anyone had prayed for the lady involved. To be fair though most people were concerned but understood she was in good hands and moved on.
I can understand prayer as a form of meditation. We all require ‘me’ space; time to be alone with our thoughts. I use music, some walk the dog, some pray. What I’ve discovered at New Wine is that people pray openly and ‘actively’. Towards the end of the week I consented to being prayed for twice. In the past I’d have politely declined. Actually probably not that politely. Here I thought, meh, what’s to lose. On one occasion it was with Alison in the crew room where our fellow team stewards gathered around and prayed for us. I don’t know if God was involved but the feeling of warmth, of love and concern from fellow humans with whom we’ve no more than a passing acquaintance was wonderful and genuinely moving.
On the very last day I popped into the ‘Just Looking’ seminar. This runs every day for people like me who are curious but not convinced. I’d been once before and one woman managed the unusual feat of being more cynical than me. She was challenging and direct in her questions. At the end of Friday’s session the ministers leading the discussions offered to pray for us in turn on a subject of our choosing. She agreed, but with the caveat that he listen to God and provide the subject or message He wanted. He did. I won’t invade her privacy on here but it reduced her to tears. I don’t believe it was ‘cold reading’ or a trick. I don’t think she was a ‘plant’. It could have been luck but it was certainly uncanny. I witnessed something I cannot explain.
Testimonies: We’ve heard testimonies of finding lost keys, operations at exactly the right time, bad shoulders improving and suchlike. I’m not in any position to claim that they weren’t the work of God. I did though find myself thinking that a lot were uniquely first world problems. At approximately the same time that I was listening to the story of a car being miraculously refilled with oil an elderly priest was being murdered by two knife wielding assailants in the French city of Rouen in the name of religion. I think he was much more deserving of divine intervention than a minor automobile inconvenience, but who am I to judge?
I came to New Wine as a non-believer with an open mind. I met people from all walks of life, including a tattooed and pierced sound engineer, policemen, angry teenagers looking for a cause to rebel against, gentle pensioners, a lad who has Down Syndrome and couples in matching Hunter wellies and Waitrose shopping bags; I encountered many lovely people; the delegates were almost without fail charming, gracious and friendly. These are not traits unique to people of faith. I could say the same about most festival crowds. I found tribalism hidden under a veil of religion. The New Wine tribe is of course one of many spin offs from the greater Christian tribe, which in turn is one of three Abrahamic tribes. Like tribes everywhere, like the biker club we camped with at the Sonic Rock festival for example, they have badges (the crucifix and the fish) they have mottos, (not ashamed, WWJD etc), they have initiation ceremonies (baptism) and they indoctrinate their young. And like all humans there is a tendency to be selfish, flawed and self-absorbed. Praying to find your lost keys is all very well but people are being slaughtered around the world, people are starving, living in poverty, sick, struggling with mental health and suffering in countless ways and you’re praying to the almighty, miraculous all seeing God full of love, grace and mercy for your fucking keys?
I feel angry and frustrated by this. Supposing the 10,800 people on site this week, plus the 12,000 expected next week, started something momentous? Imagine if the great work being done in the name of faith for refugees, for Syria, for people in Africa, for the homeless were coordinated and harnessed, freed from bureaucracy and ego. During my week at New Wine I was reminded of sheep standing around in flocks being minded by the sheep dogs. Suppose a shepherd came amongst them and led them? What a wonderful, powerful army that would be, how simple it would it be to overthrow the wolves. Jesus didn’t ask the money changers in the temple if they’d maybe consider moving along please, if it’s okay by them, when they get a chance, no rush. He was angry at corruption and injustice and He showed it.
Change can come with directed righteous anger; without the politics, without the endless bloody church meetings to decide what colour bunting to buy this year, without the administration and hierarchies, without egos and tribes, without schisms, without the bullshit and without the evangelism, uniting people of faith and of no faith. People who are already trying, working hard, selflessly giving of themselves to bring change, who are saving lives as I sit in comfort sipping coffee whilst typing this. As Alison wisely pointed out, thousands are already striving for political and social justice under the banner of faith, attempting to build a better world from the rubble of our fractured, selfish, tribal planet. So just visualise a world where all the people of faith are a blazing comet sweeping millions along in its tail. Genuine change would drive people to follow. No need to evangelise because the power, the true spirit of human kindness, the genuine love people have for their fellow humans would do that for them.
Supposing our prayer is in the action we take, that genuine worldwide equality is our worship, that we deliver the means to help people heal and then maybe, just maybe, everyone will proclaim that as testimony.
Am I closer to finding God?
Yes. I’ve witnessed things I don’t understand, I’ve felt ‘different’, and I have a much more open mind – but I cannot shake the over-riding feeling that the path to God would be a whole lot simpler if he didn’t put human beings in the way.
“…God will remind us what we already know,
That the human race is about to reap what it’s sown,
It’s forgotten the message and worships the creeds…”*
*Lyrics quoted from Armageddon Days by The The.
We awoke in good time to get to New Wine, a few miles away near Shepton Mallet and after a leisurely breakfast checked the details and discovered that we should have been there Friday afternoon for a full stewards briefing. As it happened the horrendous traffic would have prevented us getting there in time but nevertheless we rather felt we’d started on the wrong foot.
Our fears though were unfounded as the crew, stewards and staff were unfailingly polite, helpful and gently dismissive of our apologies. The warmth we felt continued as we set up camp with friends in our little encampment high up over-looking the site. We started work that afternoon and settled in to meet our fellow stewards under the amiable leadership of Tony, our Blue Team leader.
New Wine is a Christian festival of talks, seminars, children’s activities, worship and some music spread over 2 weeks, with most delegates attending one of the two weeks. I’ve written some personal reflections on my experiences of the spiritual aspects separately so this entry is a summary of our more down to earth nitty gritty stewarding experiences, as per the other festivals we’ve worked at.
New Wine is well organised, as befits the largest festival we’ve worked at, aside from Hay perhaps but that was not residential. Stewards were divided into teams and worked a five day rota with Tuesday – the delegates ‘day off’ organised differently.
During the week we took on a variety of tasks which included:
Patrols were mostly fun. We’d wander around in our purple stewards’ tee shirts with a high vis jacket and a radio with an ear piece to keep us in touch and to report in. Apart from the occasional misplaced child this was mostly a customer service job. On patrol we developed the Policeman’s ‘Plod’. This is a slow walk where you swing each foot in turn, letting the downward momentum carry your boot on the upswing, pendulum like and thus proceed in an orderly fashion, slow and steady and alert for miscreants or anything amiss, like fire buckets being used as goal posts or BBQ’s raging out of control.
It’s a strange festival to work at, the hours were long at the beginning of the week and because of the split shift pattern it felt like you didn’t get a break, all your time between shifts was spent eating or relaxing. This was fine except that we wanted to go into some of the seminars and festivities but felt too exhausted to do so. Nevertheless we had the good fortune to be camping with friends who revived our spirits when they flagged and the fact that we turned up with a bottle of Fire Cracker cinnamon whiskey and a keg of Old Speckled Hen helped!
On the Tuesday the delegates had a day off from their itinerary and most made for the local delights of Wookey Hole, Cheddar Gorge or whatever other diversions this part of the world holds. Most decided to descend upon the main gate en-mass and based upon their experiences of previous years the organisers had a plan to cope with so many cars moving on site. Our part in this plan was to be marshals directing traffic. I ended up as a kind of human roundabout at a major intersection in front of the main gate. Alison was doing a similar job on the opposite side of the site. 99% of drivers were patient and cheerful in spite of the volume of cars and Somerset Council’s decision to deploy rolling roadworks on the same day that 10,000 people want to look at a Wookey’s hole or a valley of cheese.
The mathematicians among you will of course realise that 1% are unaccounted for. These are the people who either drive Audi's (except Ro and Jade of course) or should go out and buy an Audi so the rest of us have fair warning. People drove against the direction of traffic and insisted that they were correct despite all available evidence, like signs every 10 meters, marshals at every junction and there clearly being no space on the road for two lanes. Still, like I said the vast majority were gracious and charming, swapping smiles, jokes and encouragement. In fact a characteristic of this festival was the pervading family atmosphere and friendliness of delegates, many of whom went out of their way to thank the stewards for what they were doing.
Anyone working at the festival was fed three times a day. The catering was a remarkable venture, feeding up to 1200 people three times a day in a huge marquee. The first day the option was ham or cheese salad and we feared for a week of this but from the next day on there was ample breakfast, good lunch with a hot veggie option and rather lacklustre dinner – which we skipped for the most part because it was, well, lacklustre and early for us too. But overall, it was a great feat and delivered with good humour and charm despite the early hours and long queues.
One duty I had was stewarding The Bible Society marquee during an afternoon showing of The Peanuts Movie. If a room full of sticky pre-teens wasn’t enough the film was diabolically bad, although I guess a 50+ year old bloke in a neon vest wasn’t the filmmaker’s core demographic. Scanning the audience I could see that most children looked attentive, their parents less so. Generally fathers were asleep, stooping forward on their chairs, occasionally their head would nod violently, they’d snort and jerk upright with wide eyes, trying to recall where and when they were. A faint glimmer would cross their face, relief that little Peter and Jane were still beside them watching the film, then realisation that it was The Peanuts Movie and they’d gently drift off again. Others went for the full legs out head back approach to napping, propped across the chair like a warped plank, arms flaccid by their sides and head dangling over the back of the chair. Occasionally I’d see one with a bulb of dribble hanging from the side of their mouth, as if their head was leaking while they slept, the children nearest staring at them rather than the film in gruesome fascination as a puddle formed beside them.
The women present were more resilient in the ways of childcare, they’ve sat through many films of dubious quality and seemed to use the time more effectively, chatting, knitting, rearranging changing bags, eating and some actually watched the film. I wondered if these were just veteran nappers, wise women who could catnap and recharge while appearing to be awake and alert. This is a formidable skill and means their offspring are always wary and on their best behaviour. Meanwhile they could always use the fathers as trampolines without fear of waking them.
The week got easier as we went along, the hours less demanding and we became familiar with the duties. All in all it was a worthwhile and enjoyable festival to work, the crew were fun, you always felt like your contribution was appreciated and like most festivals we’ve worked we came away with new friends, which is a positive bonus of our lifestyle.
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