Wells and Ways

Sorry, everyone, to be trailing my feet so very slowly into September. There were some challenging, and very tiring, obstacles to overcome before I got to this point – and concentration has been scattered to the winds for a while. But I have with me a huge sack-full of stories to unpack and to tell. Memories to fashion into words. Places and books jumbled and jostling. So much gleaned and gathered along the way…

So… which shall I pull out first?

A Memory of May elbows its way to the surface, insisting on chronological order (more recent tales pile up behind, babbling randomly – they’ll spill out of the bag as and when…)

In focus for now is that freedom-moment in May, when my daughter and I followed the low sweep of a buzzard’s wing through a Mendip forest, and discovered a secret path – fox-narrow, moss deep and scattered with late, shy violets.

With an almost ridiculous sense of release, we let its meander draw us in – not caring if it went anywhere, knowing that here, amongst star-green moss, and the hush of badger old-ways, we’d reached the pulse of the place. Along that springy soil, we could follow our thoughts, free from the well-trodden trails where the woodland withdrew, as if wincing.

Root-edged, now spongy, now muddy – my feet found the earth’s ups and downs and squelched through soggy stream-crossings with dizzy delight. But a shadow of guilt fell across my way too. We’d left behind two members of our family. My husband and son were waiting for us at a woodland bench – bound to the hard-surfaced path by a wheelchair.

We’re so used to that feeling of limits, of difficulty of movement around the landscape, of stuck wheels, muscles straining – determined to open up the great outdoors to our son – that when my husband or I get the chance to free-wander, we tend to let rip – deliberately choosing routes up steps, down high kerbs, along uneven cobbles, deep ruts – just for the feeling of light-bodied freedom. Because we can.

But guilt soon follows, because we can only have those moments when our boy is not with us – and without him, it seems a hollow joy. This Forestry Commission Mendip wood is a favourite picnic destination due to its access-for-all wheelchair route; a valued and reliable opportunity for our whole family to share a way into the wild…

Stockhill Wood is mostly conifer plantation, but its edges and corners wear a patina of ancient land-magic – polished by the wing-glance of buzzards, the darting gleams of dragonflies, and by the time-shivered remnants of pioneer plant life. Old lead workings heave the land into strange contortions, and there is something in the wood’s shadows that is like a ghost of past identities; the remains of an old, well-worn garment crumpled at the bottom of the wardrobe. Now, the land wears a cloak which, though lacking the rich weave of ancient broadleaf woodland, provides habitat for nightjars, long-eared owls – and a host of goldcrests, whose pin thin calls are a constant charm above us…

And this was a wood categorised as ‘commercial value only’ during the government’s infamous public forest sell-off proposals last year! Says it all really!

As I told our MP in my letter of protest at the time, such places are becoming ever more important to us now that our son is getting bigger. He’s almost outgrown his all-terrain buggy. Battered and just a little bit mangled, it’s been along cliff paths (some of which, it’s heartening to learn, are becoming more accessible now due to replacement of stiles with gates), across Northumbrian moors, along otherwise inaccessible beaches, in the sea, through woodlands, bouncing over the deep, chalky ruts of Wiltshire’s ancient track-ways, pushed to the top of hills by concerted, family effort, lugged up steps and over stiles (with son carried separately, I hasten to add!) But there’s a limit to our strength – and little ‘un is not so comfy in the buggy’s seat, now that he’s heading towards twelve and his legs are sprouting further than the foot rests. So, until (if) we can manage to find a suitable all-terrain alternative it’s back to the wheelchair for most of the time – and back to the main paths.

Feeling truant, I return from my indulgent wander, and follow the sound of our boy singing (he cannot speak, but his happy spirit bubbles intermittently through song, wordless but note perfect). He’s alongside his dad, surrounded by the flicker of goldcrests, and when his gaze turns towards our approach, we’re greeted by a dazzle of smiles, a song of delight at our return, and hugs all round.

And, falling into step beside his wheelchair, we’re more than happy to hold his hand and walk the wide paths with him… but sometimes those narrow, winding, freedom-ways seem like they’re a million miles away. Sometimes it’s hard to acknowledge that they are there. Not for us. Taunting us with the wishes we have for our boy. It can only take a stile or a too-narrow gateway to lock us out, leaving us looking at the horizon with hungry eyes.

But… small gifts can go towards healing thwarted wishes. Stealing close, they can tap us on the shoulder and remind us that we don’t have to follow far horizons to find magic. It can be right by our feet, right here…

…In an enchanted May corner of this forest where wood-sorrel grows each year, snuggled up against tree roots, pink blushed, heads inclined in elegant humility…

Wood-sorrel, Oxalis acetosella

Or in ancient elders draped in cloaks of moss, creating mystery and story…

And then it’s on into Wells – and tea and cake on the sunny street, the bells of the cathedral stirring the air into glorious, cacophonous collide. We discover that the Mendip vintage car rally is on today and my husband’s eyes light up at the sight of car upon classic car (don’t ask me which types!) lined up in front of the cathedral.

Whilst our daughter wilts in mystification at this spectacle of four-wheel devotion, a member of the clergy has taken an “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” attitude, giving up on manning a tourist-abandoned cathedral to chat happily with the throngs of car-gazers (and sun-seekers) on the green.

This rare day of May sunshine has cast smiles on everyone’s lips. People wander and linger, stretch their wings in the inviting open air. There is something adrift in the atmosphere which seems to have settled the cathedral into a different role today; people seek it out – not so much as an enfolding sanctuary, but as a glorying backdrop – an embrace – to the ebullience of the day.

I’m all eyes and ears for that wondrous building, which sits rooted like an organic thing, grown and worn in to its space, corners slumped like scraped butter, crumbling into the earthy vibrations which heave and release magnificently through its walls. Nesting birds come and go in the gaps between the medieval statue figures, intent wings brushing stony faces. A flurry of feathers prompts imaginings of dignified mirth – or irritation – concealed beneath serene, unruffled beards.

But all those rather weary and philosophical eyes remain unblinking as they watch us walk through time…

…clockwise around the cathedral…

…where we pause to admire melting statues…

and griffins poised for flight…

…before we wander on, past the cosy-gothic of Vicars’ Close…

…to the Bishop’s Palace.

“Why would a bishop need a palace?” our daughter puzzles.

You might well ask…

We sit on a bench overlooking the moat and discuss a little history – the interplay of power, the contradictions…

And are ignored by pigeons, sleepy above our heads.

Then it’s out across the Palace Fields, along the surfaced path which is such a godsend. All the way – (a good long stretch without any barring obstacle – hooray!) through accessible gates to the village of Dulcote,* spreading our wings in unison with the buzzard high above us

as we revel in the enchanting views of Park Wood, the cathedral and mystical Glastonbury Tor…

Which is so beautiful, so affecting, it’s worth digging out an old photo of an April moment from 2007 to show you another view – across the watery world of the Somerset Levels, from the RSPB Ham Wall reserve…

A wonderful place with wheelchair access to this magical land of Avalon, where our son can watch Great Crested Grebes dance…

…and where (if he can pause in his singing for long enough!) he may just spot an otter one day…

* Note – at the end of the surfaced footpath across Palace Fields (after the final gate) there is a short but steep slope down to the lane leading to Dulcote village. Strong muscles are required for wheelchair access at this point if intending to go beyond the fields (we retraced our steps here, so I’m not sure how easy wheelchair access would be along the road to the village. There was a pavement opposite, though we didn’t see how far along the road it continued. We did, however, manage to push our (slightly-built) 11 year old son down, and back up, the slope after the last gate – but it took a burst of effort!)

Useful Links:

Stockhill Wood, Mendip Hills

RSPB Ham Wall Reserve (with details of RADAR key disabled access)

Shapwick Heath National Nature Reserve (close to Ham Wall reserve, also with some disabled access)

Accessible Countryside for Everyone (ACE) website – South West England page (lots of information regarding disabled access to various countryside sites and details of easy access trails)

Wells Cathedral

Tourist Information for Wells and North Somerset

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15 thoughts on “Wells and Ways

  1. You have been busy! So many adventures and things to think about. I would love to visit these areas. I’m just going to state it here: someday I will return to England and spend very little time in London and a good long while in the countryside.

    • I hope lots of opportunities to further explore England come your way, Emily – there are so many beautiful and diverse corners of the countryside to explore. And I’m sure that, like me, you would love the bookish landscape that so often unfolds on travels around England, with so many rich literary associations woven into the spirit of place – Wordsworth and the Lakes, the Brontes and Haworth, Daphne du Maurier and Cornwall, Laurie Lee and the Cotswolds, Dickens and my native county of Kent, to name but a few!

      Thanks for reading my word-ramblings around Somerset!

      Melanie

  2. Wells looks wonderful – I’ve never been, but a few years ago did investigate online to see if it might be somewhere to live!

    ‘Fox deep, moss narrow’ – perfect! Took me deep into the atmosphere of BB’s ‘Brendon Chase’… (and ‘badger old-ways’). BookishNature’s on sparkling form, and those feet aren’t trailing, they’re brewing!

    “…but sometimes those narrow, winding, freedom-ways seem like they’re a million miles away. Sometimes it’s hard to acknowledge that they are there. Not for us. Taunting us with the wishes we have for our boy. It can only take a stile or a too-narrow gateway to lock us out, leaving us looking at the horizon with hungry eyes.

    “But… small gifts can go towards healing thwarted wishes. Stealing close, they can tap us on the shoulder and remind us that we don’t have to follow far horizons to find magic. It can be right by our feet, right here…”

    As ever, just really enjoyed this post. It’s moving, loving and the kind of writing you’re lucky to find in the weekend or family sections of the weekend papers, and surely they’d be grateful for something like this? But that feels a tawdry thought when we can all share the writing here, free from all that machinery…

    • With your trademark Whistlesinthewind perception and insight, you always pick up on the very heart of an idea and help reveal it back to me anew… It’s a real uplift to read your kind and understanding response… Thank you.

      So glad you enjoyed the atmosphere of this piece. BB is one of those writers and illustrators whose work I think I must have come across as a child – by osmosis, without ever really identifying or connecting him as the source of various stuff nudging at my consciousness. It’s lovely to think echoes of those badger old-ways made you think of him.

      I think that, with the thoughtful and insightful readers I’m so lucky to have visiting this blog, I’m more than happy to keep my free-wandering musings to this little corner of the net – but I’m really flattered by your words! There was a time when I was on a driven quest to submit my writing to various markets (nothing so grand as weekend papers though!) – but, at the moment, this blog is such a wing-stretching kind of place, it’s lovely to flex them here and go on a wander, following the surprises and discoveries!

      Wells is a really lovely place. The two most recent times we visited, we had beautiful weather, and didn’t want to drag ourselves away when evening came. You know that feeling when you sit on a park bench in golden evening light, everyone around you is caught too by a quietly contented mood and by the serene, beautiful surroundings – and you know you’ve got to break the spell and leave? Both times were like that, and we so wished we lived there, and could have lingered as an integral part of it all. It would be a lovely place to live. There really is a magical, mystical feel to the whole area.

      • ‘Wing-stretching and wandering’ – that’s what’s great about blogging. Will put Wells on the list, sounds like a great place to store up bottles of Wordsworthy recollections for use when the car tyre gets punctured by an Excalibur-like hawthorn (guess what I’ve been up to all morning!).

        • Our car tyres managed to pick a fight twice in just a few weeks with Excalibur-like nails dropped on the road by Mordred & Co. builders near where my husband works, so I totally sympathise! ‘Wordsworthy recollections’ definitely help in that Holy Grail quest to keep calm and carry on!

  3. It seems that against all challenges you are determined to help your son connect with nature – possibly the most important gift we can give to our children. Lovely and inspiring words.

    • Thanks so much for your kind words, Selina – and welcome to the blog! I so agree – nurturing that closeness to nature in children’s lives is so vitally the stuff of Life – and of growing in so many ways, I think. I’ve just managed to steal some moments to take a look at your lovely blog, which looks such an oasis of things dear to my heart, I’m really looking forward to returning to explore your posts in a more leisurely way once the clock’s not ticking so insistently against me! Thanks again for dropping by and for taking the time to comment.

      Melanie

  4. Ah, that made me smile and giggle at the image of tales spilling out of the bag and insisting on chronological order! Fantastic… And the melting statues, as ever described with a perfectly plucked word… And the so real ups and downs of an ever so real life. I do not want to do your son or your family any injustice by commenting on the challenges and the beauties of your life, but I do just so appreciate how your writing fills in all the grey, uneasy, difficult areas, that some people would not manage to touch, with honesty, detail and heartfulness. It is very humbling and emotive to read. Thank you. Amanda

    • Thanks so much for your, as ever, kind and sensitive words, Amanda… I really appreciate your feedback and how your reactions – and your perceptive insights (both here and on your blog) – highlight for me, with such clarity, some things that can get tangled in all the knotted up threads of my own thoughts.

      It’s so interesting, and heartening, to read people’s reactions to pieces like this. And it’s a really lovely surprise to realise that, out of all my brain muddle, some coherent patterns of thought might be rising to the surface – and taking on some sort of meaningful shape for other people. In day to day life, I’m often left staying quiet about the problems and smiling through the difficulties – as a kind of protection to the self and others; but, in the end, there’s so much – relevant to everyone – that needs to be faced and tackled, otherwise it could all just become silent screaming into the fear of the future – much better to bring on board things which should be faced, then it’s all the more manageable to live in the moment, where things keep us going, one step at a time…

      Thank you again for your understanding, and for your company here…

      Melanie

  5. I have long had a love of the great Gothic Cathedrals of England, and Wells is one of the finest. The scissor arches are rightly famous, but I particularly love the steps leading to the chapter house, branching off in different directions.

    Your photos & writing really can be inspirational – and that’s not a word I use too often. (Mainly, I think, because I have a mental block when I come to spell it! 🙂 )

    • Thank you, Himadri! 🙂 I’m inspired that you’re inspired! It’s always surprising in the most lovely of ways – (and so encouraging as well) – to know that others have found something uplifting here and there amongst my ramblings!

      Wells Cathedral really is something very special, isn’t it… So beautiful and awe inspiring. My most deeply felt emotional soft spot, where Gothic Cathedrals are concerned, is for Canterbury Cathedral, mainly because it’s the first one I ever visited, and because I lived near it for several years… The atmosphere in Canterbury is so bound up with stories woven through literature and life, it just zings with so much resonance wherever my footsteps lead when I’m there…

  6. We’ve been without a car for the last month & unable to go to the mountains – so you’ve just put my selfish feelings of being a little hemmed in right back in their place!
    Many years ago I fell down some steps & I have memories of thinking how maybe I was never going to be able to walk or run again properly & I got myself into quite a depressed state for a few months imagining all sorts of things.
    You seem so positive with your ways of dealing with your situation – although of course you’ve been living & adjusting for the last 12 years & it doesn’t sound easy at all. I suppose some people are not interested in experiencing the wild, so that aspect of having a member of their family in a wheelchair would be at least be not quite so limiting. In fact I sometimes think how unfair life can be when there are people you know with disabilities who just love to be out in nature & yet can’t be – whereas other people who have everything physically fine just spend their time in front of the T.V;

    The lesson from that I think is to just make the most of life whenever you can, in however small a way, to actually make it something wonderful – that’s what I see you doing when I read your writing.

    • Sonya – thank you for your perceptive and really supportive message, which is very much appreciated. Sorry for taking a while to reply; I’ve been catching up with comments etc in snatched moments (between lots of interruptions!)

      Oh – don’t feel bad about your own feelings of being hemmed in! We all need to kick against these sorts of things from time to time. Especially when it’s to do with something that feels so vital to our own peace of mind. I hope you’ll be back in the mountains soon – finding more inpsiration for your beautiful paintings.

      Despite the conclusions which I steer myself towards as much as I can in order to remain sane – i.e. that conclusion that I need to relax into what is and make the small and reachable as wonderful as possible – I still often feel all those frustrations. I have my moments kicking against them. You’re right, it’s taken a lot of time and difficult adjustment – and weariness at having to keep determined, but when I feel myself slipping, the place I end up in is so horrible, I know I’ve got to make myself stop looking too far and readjust my focus to nearer things. It’s a coping thing, but I’ve discovered it can go beyond just coping – and end up being in itself something really special. I suppose contentment always comes from within doesn’t it – not really from what we try to run after…

      Things that remain so frustrating are the places where we could go, if only very small access changes were made. There are often lots of understandable and complex problems around countryside access, to do with protection of landscape etc – but some places we’ve been have provided wonderful facilities, so there are things that can make a real difference in locations where it can work. Attitudes of some people have also been a barrier sometimes. And there have also been people who have been super-helpful. If only all our towns and cities were half as accessible as the London 2012 Olympic Park! I heard many a Paralympian comment on how it was like entering a place of “how it could be”, especially after struggling to get there across all the barriers of how things still are!

      Thanks again for your really kind and thoughtful message…

      Melanie

  7. Pingback: Rough Winds, Ramblings & Badgers – (and Prometheans bound and unbound) | Bookish Nature

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