Our Travel blog
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.
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