I busked in Watchet on the edge of the harbour, looking out over the Severn estuary towards Cardiff and up the Bristol Channel. A small boy of about 5 years of age ran down the quayside and stood right in front of me as I played, staring right at me with a frown on his face and index finger jammed firmly up his right nostril, a pose he held for over a minute. ‘A bright future ahead as a critic for this one.’ I thought to myself. Another child chased a seagull round and round a nearby bench until his mother gave him 20p to drop in my case. The child simply weaponised it and threw the coin at the gull instead, and we all watched as it rolled over the harbour edge into the mud below. I imagined some future archaeologist uncovering it from the sediment, remarking at the placement and declaring it ‘ritual’.
A lady came by with two boxer dogs, one ancient, gnarled, and stoic that calmly lay down near me, and another, barely full grown, nervous and agitated with the music.
“She’s not heard a violin before.” said the owner, encouraging the young dog to calm down. I stopped playing, and it crept out from behind her legs. I plucked a note, and the dog howled.
“She’s got to learn.”
I played a few bars, and the poor animal produced a full-on river of piss. It seemed best to let it on its way before trying again.
Once the dog was suitably clear, I played on. A customer at the bar along the quay arrived with a pint of beer for me. A young lad watched for a while and produced a fiver. It was a good session.
I’d picked a spot quite close to the statue of the Ancient Mariner, the fictional lead in Coleridge’s epic poem, inspired by this very spot. Further along, another statue was seated looking out over the harbour, that of Yankee Jack, a noted mariner who definitely had existed. He was life-size and weathered, blending in with the landscape of the harbour. Another fiver came my way, this time from a lady who introduced herself as Margaret and said I should check out a pub called ‘Pebbles’ as it often had live music on. I said I knew of it, as I was booked to play a concert there this evening.
“Oh.” Said Margaret. “I suppose I’d better go then.”
Pebbles is a cider pub, snug and homely, and I’d been invited to play a few tunes and tell some stories from my trip so far. There was a PA system, but I found I didn’t need it, as the audience comprising a mix of regulars and people who’d come down specially for the concert sat in perfect silence, and we had a great night. Ben, the landlord, insisted on showering me with hospitality, and when he saw I couldn’t drink all the free cider, owing to needing to drive, chose a selection of his favourite bottled ciders for me to take away. It’d been a long day but a great start.
A man at the bar was keen for a word.
“You need to understand when you write about us, this is a town by the sea, not a seaside town. Understand? No fruit machines, no ‘kiss me quick’ hats.”
“Sounds like there’s a gap in the market.” I mused. He was scandalised.
I arrived at Watchet station bright and early the next morning. The bearded volunteer was just unlocking the building, and was concerned to see me parking in the station car-park.
“Are you travelling with us today?” He asked with scepticism.
“Yes, mid morning if that’s ok.”
“You’ll need to buy a ticket.”
Clearly in my heavy metal hoodie, he did not take me in good faith as a real railway enthusiast, so I decided to raise the stakes a little.
“Do you still have the 7F?” This was one of a class of heavy freight locomotives built for the Somerset and Dorset railway, one of which I knew to be owned by the S&D Railway Trust, who are based at Washford, the next station along.
“I’m not sure, I think so.” It was enough and he left me alone. I went for an early morning wander around town before my train. The atmosphere was different with the tide reaching the top. The tidal range is huge here, the second largest in the world, and the sea that had been distant and meek was full and menacing, slurping restlessly at the harbour walls in opaque muddy thrusts.
Along the pier, evenly spaced, was a row of fishermen with long and expensive rods cast out into the brown and chopping water of the estuary. One recognised me.
“Saw you in Pebbles last night. It was good. Sticking around today?”
“Reckon I’ll catch the train to Dunster and then back here late afternoon.”
“Good plan. You’ll do well in Dunster.”
“Fishing any good today?”
“Not really, too choppy. Don’t expect we’ll catch anything.”
“So why bother?”
“Gets you out of the house and near the sea. On a good day you can catch dogfish, conger eels.” His view never left the estuary as we spoke.
Further along, three lads had rave music on loud from a portable speaker, and were working through a crate of Strongbow. They hadn’t caught anything either, but were clearly enjoying the early morning, boogying away, rods set. They hollered at me as I went past with my fiddle case, but I gave them a breezy ‘Good Morning’ and they ignored me as no fun. Each fisherman along the length had a small pile of seaweed that’d been reeled in instead of fish.
I admired the determination to keep going, even though conditions were all wrong. The activity more important than the prospect of success. I’d had more than a few busking sessions that way. Back on the quay, the fishing rave was carrying clearly across the harbour, so I abandoned any ideas of a warm-up busk and bought my train ticket to Dunster. In the coffee shop I was recognised again.
“Nice gig last night. Took some pictures, let me know where to tag them.”
I was small-town famous.
On the platform, a family were struggling to come down to the Somerset pace of life, still being stuck at London speeds. I overheard their frantic flow of words.
“I wanted the restaurant for 6:30 but they only had 5:30 or 7:30. What shall we do? Shall I try somewhere else or should we go tomorrow instead?”
I realised how I’d already slowed down. There’s no hurry to be anywhere round here, and all times are approximate. If this sounds like I’m accusing the Somerset native of laziness, then you are mistaken. All the work gets done, just steadily and cumulatively, when the time is right, rather than to an arbitrary timetable. The family near me hadn’t found the pace yet, and were still frantically tearing through life.
I was reading Tove Jansson’s ‘The Summer Book’, a semi-fictional account of a little girl and her grandmother spending time together on an island in the Gulf of Finland. The pacing was perfect for my setting and I enjoyed the gentleness of the writing and didn’t care how long it took for the train to arrive.
“They picked out the stones that hadn’t been worn completely round and threw them out into the water to make them rounder.”
Somerset is a good place to find time to read again.
Slowly, the platform came to life with expectation. Small boys still love steam trains. Why? Nostalgia can’t account for it. Even their parents can’t remember when steam trains were in regular use. One hard to reach child was within himself, not responding to anything his mum said to him. When the distant whistle of the train came over the hill, he sat upright and beamed. “A train!” His mum beamed too.
Perhaps it’s just that they are living, breathing things. An event upon arrival, an expression of effort upon departure, the smell of steam oil, nutty and sweet, and the shower of black bits that get in your eyes when you try to look out of the window. A cumulative, society wide belief that they are important and somehow quintessential. I’m smitten, for sure, and have largely resisted the temptation to turn the whole project into a train-spotting session. But this one was going where I needed to go, so why not?
“The funniest thing,” said the station master to me, as the train came into the platform, all shining brasses and action, “is watching people look for the push buttons on the carriage doors.”
Increasingly, station staff have to go up and down the platform, helping people deal with slam door coaches. Nobody knows now how to lift the window up and out of its socket and reach out to the turn handle.
“They’d be stuck on all week if we didn’t help.”
At Dunster, we all dutifully watched the train on its way like good tourists, before starting the walk into the village. At the station, the staff have adopted a robin, and it lives amongst the period suitcases with a bowl of food and a bowl of water, hopping between perches. It looked rough, with bald patches and scars, like a boxer who should have retired ten fights ago. Sometimes other robins come to fight it and the station master chases the invaders away with a broom.
Dunster itself is pretty and it knows it. A broad main street leads up to the castle driveway. I busked outside knick-knack shop that was closed for the day. A concerned shopkeeper from down the road came to see me.
“You can’t do that, you’ll be in awful trouble.”
“Well, it’s not allowed, is it?”
“Busking? Unless there’s a specific bylaw, then surely it’s ok?”
“You could go in there, that’d be ok.” She said, pointing at the Yarn Market, a beautiful covered building, owned by the National Trust, and the one place where I knew I couldn’t legally busk.
“I prefer it here. Seriously, it’ll be ok. Look, if the problem is that you’d rather I wasn’t busking, but you’re too polite to say so, then I’ll just move on. I don’t want to annoy anyone.”
“Oh no, it’s fine, I just don’t want you getting in trouble.”
I assured her that I knew the busking laws pretty well and I continued. Sometimes the street was silent and the sound rang all up and down, and sometimes rows of cars came along and the sound of exhausts and tyre noise dominated instead. A long line of motorbikes came by, parking up at the top of the village. The black-leather clad drivers gathered in front of the yarn market for a team photograph before dispersing into the many tearooms for lunch.
I made £20 in the first hour, but it died right down during the next half hour as the sun reached its zenith and the flow of people stagnated, so I went for lunch. Round the corner of the castle hill is another street with a few shops, a sort of overflow town. Right at the bottom was a rough looking pub, quite out of keeping with the picture postcard loveliness of the rest of it. The landlord had a world weary approach, and lunch was rough-hewn baguettes and catering chips served by an awkward youth. The next table was taken by a family from Birmingham who couldn’t get over how long a drive it had been to get down here for their holiday.
I could hear a parrot, so pretending to go to the loo, I sought it out in the back yard and taught it a funny noise.
Dunster had used up its appeal to me. All very pretty but not much life to it. If you like a Ye Olde Teashop or buying original oil paintings, then you could get a morning out of it but that’s it. It’s a place that trades on how it looks. Watchet was a place that traded on who it was, and that was more interesting to me. In Dunster, I’d been met by bemusement when I’d busked. It just wasn’t the done thing. It’s always the same with these slightly faux places. There’s nothing wrong with the people who are here, but they’re all so similar, drawn for identical reasons, and the town is consequently lacking the variety of more worldly places. The residents, all alike, forget about the great variety of life, and can’t cope when something different comes by, becoming concerned and agitated at the disturbance in their ideal world. All morning I’d felt like I was winding them all up but that they were too polite to ask me to go away.
As I walked back to the station, a man stopped his car across the road from me and wound down the window.
“Are you heading to Minehead?”
I recognised him as another one of my audience from last night’s gig.
“No, back to Watchet.”
“Want a lift?”
This was a kind offer, but I had a return ticket for the steam train, so I said I’d rather catch that.
“I’ll see you back in Watchet then!”
Back in Watchet, I busked again on the quay. The ancient mariner looked down at me like I was making a bad day worse. My fan arrived. It was a bit odd to find busking turning into a little concert, so I tried to pretend he wasn’t there and just played as normal. After a while he bought me a coffee.
A small ginger girl with freckles and stacks of confidence sat on the wall next to me and told me I was better than her music teacher.
At 5pm, I took my loot to Pebbles and swapped it out for bank notes.
I was staying as a guest of Halsway Manor, National Centre For Folk Arts, who’d invited me down for a few days. Rachel showed me round. I was drawn to the apple tree, a local variety, the Quarrenden, down at the bottom of the lawn. It was speckled with hundreds of ripening red apples.
“It’s probably the most wassailed apple tree in England.” Rachel told me. “No wonder it does so well.”
I helped myself to a windfall, warm from the sun, and looked back at the manor, framed by trees against the sheer sides of the Quantock hills. It’s a place that wears its seasons well, now in the deep greens of late summer. Soon the autumn golds and reds will flush the landscape and garland the manor, before falling to bare branches and exposing the jet black bodies of rooks who lived within.
About two miles down the road is the small village of Crowcombe, and I headed out of the evening to see if I could meet the locals. The footpath was clear and easy in the fading light, and I noted the fallen tree for my journey back. The Carew arms is at the far end of this slender village, the pub long and lanky too, with a skittle ally and a dining room stretching away from the bar. The door to the bar wouldn’t open, so I gave it a beefy shove and sent a young fellow on the other side flying. It was his sister’s birthday and he was barring the door whilst the cake was brought and she was outside, not expecting a strapping lad like me to suddenly stride in from the darkening wilderness, full of determined, thirsty purpose.
The rest of the pub was quiet. It’s the dining trade that keeps the lamps burning these days, and most diners were fed and leaving, so I sat at the empty bar with Rachel’s copy of ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ and read it, trying not to look too much like a twat reading poetry at the bar. Not having much of a classical education, I’m mostly familiar with this work from Iron Maiden’s version on ‘Powerslave’, their fifth studio album. It’s quite a work, full of emptiness and endless misery. I admit I struggled with the meter, which was relentless and unchanging, forcing some pretty desperate rhymes to make it fit. I couldn’t help but feel it would have made a better story than a strict tempo poem. But I hardly know enough about poetry to be a critic. I think I’ll stick with Iron Maiden.
Without a great deal else to do in an emptying pub, the landlord struck up conversation with me, asking me why I was in town. He was from Georgia in the US, having ended up running a rural Somerset pub by a series of events and coincidences. I explained my journey and interest in the English character. A regular, perhaps my age, had joined me along the bar with a pint of lager, and the landlord threw the point over to him, asking;
“What do you think of yourself as an Englishman?”
This was heavy philosophy for a bloke who’d come out for a quiet pint and his eyes bulged in fear at the enormity of the question. Before he could answer, his phone suddenly rang in his hand.
“Thank fuck for that!” He said, answering it.
The landlord had some stories to tell. He’d worked with horses in the states.
“It costs a lot to dispose of a dead horse. We knew a man with a ranch who’d allow you to bury them on his land for half what the professionals charged. You turned up with the dead horse, took the mechanical excavator into the land and picked a spot. He’d got so many buried you usually had to dig four or five holes before you found a spot without one in already. There were thousands buried out the back there. Imagine the trouble if they develop the land one day.”
He was a passionate supporter of gun rights.
“Hey, I carry in the states. It’s saved my life. Ran out of gas in a bad part of town. I was filling up, and this man was walking round my truck, saying ‘So you’re pretty rich then?’ I was like, ‘no, not me.’ and he pulled a knife on me anyway. Well I had my gun and I held him there till the police came. He’s in jail now and I’m alive. Problem is they just want to take the guns off people without involving us in the decision.”
“The thing we see though,” I asked, seeing if there were limits to his position. “Are those really big guns, the semi-automatic stuff. Do you really need to have all those?”
“Aw yeah, I don’t see why anybody needs to carry more than say 12 rounds. But they need to talk to the NRA and groups like that. If they just try to take the guns, there’ll be violence. You can’t do it by just banning them. Everyone needs to be involved”
If anything summed up my journey around England, it was perhaps this scene. You think you’re going for a pint of cider with West Country folk, and you end up in a discussion about the second amendment with an American. Everything is so jumbled up, people from all over searching for the spot in England that suits them best. Quintessence can be bought into for a little while. England still the same hills, villages, towns, as a complex river of life flows through. Every time you think you’re within reach of the ‘real’ England, something totally left-field happens that reminds you of how cosmopolitan and international we are. And yet, England bubbles along beneath, quite unreadable and aloof.
I made my way home in darkness, leaving the last house of the village behind and along the footpath in the trees. Truly dark now, I enjoyed letting my eyes find the rough shapes of the land round me. We forget how good we are at the dark, and how even a sliver of moon becomes enough to paint the world anew when we’ve truly let our eyes adjust. My frame cast a broad shadow on the hedges. Crickets sang, and the night became friendly and welcoming, a new space to share.
As I carefully made my way up the track, I startled a horse at a gate, who had clearly not been expecting anyone at this time. It humphed and reared and circled the field in protest, before standing in front of a distant gate on the brow of a small mound, staring back at me, silhouetted and impossible to scale against the star filled sky and between two walls of foliage. I said hello, hoping to reassure it I was friendly. It watched me, and I watched the horse, a colossus against a secret sky, and time passed without measure. A shooting star came through, right above the mound and the moment was complete, watchful horse and skyline just shapes, but more powerful for being reduced so.
The thing about shooting stars is how common they are. But we forget to look, smearing the urban skies with the marmalade orange of sodium and staying indoors. The night has become a place avoided and reduced, where the imaginary bad things happen. Those few moments when we see the shooting stars, lain on our backs among the vines and turf with someone we love, or on a solo adventure through the night, it proves it’s not the stars that are rare, but our taking of time to see them. It’s the most beautiful show of all, almost unwatched.
The moment lingered, and I became aware of the warm and physical presence of second horse much nearer me, and lost to my eyes in a hollow that kept the darkness rich. It had its arse to me and was untroubled by my arrival. It let off small farts from time to time. The moment had lost its magic and I finished the walk back to the manor, cursing the security light that ruined my night vision, robbing me of the safety and connection to the land it had brought.
In the morning, I’d planned to walk the Quantock Hills, where Coleridge and Wordsworth had walked as they overdosed their way to the birth of romantic poetry. Rachel, as ever my guide for the area, had sorted me a map and drove me to Nether Stowey, across the hills, as a starting point. As we arrived, she had a moment of concern, and double checked that I knew how to read a map. Clearly she had suddenly had visions of me wandering off into the woods, falling into the fairy kingdom and passing into legend, before bursting from the leafy verges decades later, entirely covered in hair and shouting something almost unintelligible about pastry.
I assured her I’d be alright, and piled off into the countryside, round the castle mound and into the woods. Wordsworth and Coleridge had been full of opium on their wanderings. I was full of sausages. I’d have to do my best. The gentle hills came and went and added to something greater. The thick summer air balanced dragonflies on the wing, common darters, southern hawkers, common hawkers. Lambs came to gates and pressed their faces through in expectation of remembered bottles. Higher up, the trees rose and met above and the world became mottled light falling on a pick and mix ground of twigs and decomposition. A tractor stormed through, towing a grain holder, and I had to step back from the track.
I left the track and took the path up further, surrounded by a gentle wildness. A single and momentary ray of light, permitted by the movement of a single leaf far above, picked out a floating jewel before me. It was a glimpse of a web, strung from two trees ten feet apart, and built by a spider the size of my little finger nail. How this creature had conceived such a magnificent plan I couldn’t work out, let alone the logistics. I tried to photograph this spider, hung across my path and so far from the solidity of the land and the trees, but it wouldn’t focus, only seeing the distance. A gentle reminder that a special moment shouldn’t be carried home like some cheap trinket. Alerted to the net across my way, and being prey too big to stick, I crashed my way around the outside on the rough ground instead and wished the spider well with its day. The web told me I must be the first through.
Every day the world is born anew, and each traveller will find their own unique story to share, if they look carefully enough. The glittering citrines of woodland predators, disguised in dappled shade. I caught the stench of a stinkhorn mushroom and found it, dishevelled and declining behind a mound, phallic and foul. Ground dwelling spiders dug into a bank, lining nests with cones of silk, funnelling lunch inwards for minimum effort.
The top of the hill was still under tree and sky, and the banks of the ancient hill-fort were harder to spot, smoothed by the loam of millennia. But the shapes do resolve , the walls taking the logical rim of the summit. It’s a strange slice of life, between the earth and under the canopy, where the twisted and narrow trunks reach up from poor soil to grab what light they can, the lower part of the tree barren and wasted, and each view a spaghetti of greying wood, where the modern mind, grown in cities and used to regular shapes and good order tries to find a symmetry that cannot ever quite resolve.
Clouds of flies rose from puddles as I came through, and unsure what to do next, they sank down again to wait for the next disturbance. I crossed through the valley to the next ridge. Here, cars were parked, and people of all sorts were making brief excursions from the safety of the vehicle to the worrisome edge of the wild.
One family were on bikes and I heard the father speak with that voice that tries to exude control of the situation but manages instead to sound petulant;
“I’m simply trying to resolve the issue.”
Another family, Asian, had gone far enough.
“I’m not walking another step away from the car. The ground is no good and I’m tired.” said the frustrated patriarch, sitting down.
Clearly the ridgeway was not the calming outdoor space it might have been. It’s only the great escape if you don’t bring your problems right along with you for the ride. Up here, beyond the rounded tops of the Quantocks was the nuclear power station at Hinkley Point, an inexhaustible outcropping of jumbled cranes and grey concrete, as hard to scale as the horse had been in the blackness of the night. I wondered what the great poets might have made. Perhaps Wordsworth would have turned his back and drawn inspiration instead from Exmoor, still mostly untouched, whilst Coleridge would have said nothing of it, but let it return as a nightmarish visitation, feeding off the discord.
Wild horses stood in groups of two or three, and I was able to walk right up to them. Clouds of flies thrived on their juices, rushing for the eyes, stacking up over each other to drink where the liquid pools up in the corner. The horse has no defence and must suffer them in thousands every midsummer, wretched and countless.
The ridgeway continued, and at Halsway post it splits. I ate my lunch beneath a kestrel. It’s a landscape that encourages an interest in smallest details, where you get on your hands and knees to look a spider in the eye inside a burrow, and the widest vistas, from nuclear seaside to Exmoor tops, where you yourself are the little detail being boggled at by buzzards and kites. The Lake District is only about the big. The small is gone, industrially farmed out of existence. It is a big, beautiful, broken landscape. The Quantocks marry the infinite with the microscopic and everything between. A painter with a giant canvass couldn’t catch it all, and the finest magnifying glass would always leave some passionate and essential detail undiscovered. It is a world of infinite perspective, where each can find their own moment.
I scrambled down the steep bank to Halsway and returned the map, before visiting the lucky Quarrenden tree for supplies for my route north. In Watchet, I tried one more busk with it being market day. The town crier recognised me, having, almost inevitably been to my gig at Pebbles, and announced me with gusto to a public who didn’t care. It failed as a spot, too busy, the melancholy magic of the quiet harbour gone, the anonymity shattered. Yankee Jack was marooned between a fudge stall and a wood carver, oddly decontextualised and clearly bemused with his situation. I left Watchet and the Quantocks for the long drive home.
Thanks for taking the time to read this. My travels round so far have been entirely funded by what I make as I go. If you’ve enjoyed it, and would like to support me as I do this, please consider making a paypal tip to firstname.lastname@example.org or through the button in the archive – link here.
Treat it as you would a busker — a few coins in the hat all add up. Everything I get from this will be put back into the project. Ta!