Bath – an extraordinary city (1)

We’ve just returned from a few days in Bath. It’s a treat that we give ourselves on a regular basis. I’m essentially someone who is happier in the country or on the coast, rather than in the city, but Bath is a city like no other in Britain. It’s compact, easy to navigate on foot, stunningly beautiful, packed with thousands of years of fascinating history – and it’s fun!

IMG_1756Even the buskers and the street theatre are out of the ordinary. ‘Living statues’ are rather old hat these days, but the chap above has an original approach. He sits on an invisible chair, pouring water unceasingly from a bottle into a mug. We also found a rich mix of buskers including folk musicians, a blues guitarist, an operatic soprano, an elderly crooner with a lovely voice and a didgeridoo player who had clearly mastered circular breathing.

A few words of practical advice – traffic jams and parking can be a nightmare. The railway and bus stations are both in the city centre. If you have to arrive by car, use the Park & Ride service. However you get there, head straight for the TIC next to the Abbey and buy a ticket for the two sight-seeing bus tours. National Trust members get a discount. The City Tour stays in the city centre; the Skyline Tour crosses the river and goes up into the hills to the south. Both have commentaries, but they don’t just provide information. Showing your bus ticket gets you a discount off the admission price at ten museums and in various shops and restaurants. Tickets are valid for 24 hours. Buy them at lunchtime and you can catch the buses that afternoon and the following morning.

220px-Pulteney_Bridge,_Bath_2The beauty of the city derives partly from its position in the steep-sided valley of the River Avon and partly from its Georgian buildings of Bath stone. It is the only place in Britain where the entire city has been granted World Heritage status. Florence is the only other city in Europe to achieve this. There’s another link with Florence in that Robert Adams’ Pulteney Bridge over the Avon strongly resembles the Ponte Vecchio, each having shops on both sides of the road crossing the bridge.

Much of the layout of the city’s squares, boulevards and open spaces are the result of the work of Georgian architects John Wood the Elder and his son, John Wood the Younger. Two of their most famous developments are the Royal Crescent and The Circus built in 1754-1770. Even if you’ve never been to Bath you may well be familiar with both as they have been featured on numerous television programmes, but I’ll say something about The Circle as it gives me the chance to drop in a little joke.

The Circus It’s a circular development of three-storey residential houses, divided into three equal terraces, the diameter being the same as the diameter of the largest stone circle of Stonehenge. Three roads lead into The Circus, each entering directly opposite the centre of one of the terraces, so as you enter you should be faced with the striking architecture that includes Doric, Ionic and Corinthian columns on each house, large decorative acorns (ancient Druidic symbol) at roof level and a row of Masonic symbols at first floor level. The Woods wanted the centre to remain an open space so their architecture could be seen, but in the early 19th century it was planted with London plane trees. When the trees are in leaf the view across The Circus is blocked – a classic case of not being able to see the Wood for the trees.

Bath has so much on offer (the Pump Room, the Assemby Rooms, museums, art galleries, river, canal, Thermae Spa, the Abbey, Jane Austen, Prior Park, Ralph Allen, Sally Lunn, Guildhall, shops, restaurants and character-filled pubs) that I can only pick out a few choice morsels in a blog post. Maybe I’ll make this the first of a brief series and just mention one more attraction today.

If you have to choose just one place to visit make it the Roman Bath Museum – and allow plenty of time. We can easily spend three hours in there. The administrators have managed to combine the excavated ancient ruins with modern technology to bring history to life. Their excellent website tells the full story. I’ll content myself with commenting on what has most impact on me. The Victorians built a terrace around the excavations so that the public could look into the site. Standing in one corner of that terrace, looking down into the fully excavated Roman Bath with the Abbey as backdrop is absolutely stunning.

The hot spring that lies at the root of the development of Bath isn’t fairly described by the word ‘spring’. Some 240,000 gallons of water surge to the surface every day at a constant temperature of 46 deg C. It’s the only hot spring in Britain and someone has calculated that the water coming out of the ground today fell as rain on the Mendip Hills 10,000 years ago. People travelled from all over the Roman Empire to visit the bath and temple complex that the Romans built.

IMG_1776There are two things that make me feel in touch with the Roman users of the baths. One is the display cabinet pictured on the left. When the drain from the baths was excavated a large number of precious and semi-precious stones were found. The hot water expanded the metal of jewellery, loosening the stones to the extent that they fell out. The stones only average about 1cm in diameter, but each is exquisitely engraved. I’m guessing that the wearer of the stone with the chariot engraving was a soldier. It’s so easy to put oneself in the position of a bather discovering the loss of a very expensive ring. The language would have been blueius maximus.

The other endearing display features a collection of curses! The pool where the spring emerges was sacred, dedicated by the Britons to Sulis and by the Romans to Sulis Minerva. The Romans appealed to the goddess for help by scratching messages on thin squares of lead which were folded and dropped into the pool. Excavation has found a lot of these lead pieces on which the writing is still legible. The messages are often curses directed at a suspected wrong-doer, but with a degree of subtlety. For example, if Antonius had his best toga stolen from the changing room and suspected that Brutus was responsible, he would give his toga to the goddess and urge her to recover it from Brutus punishing him in the process.

It’s a fascinating place in a fascinating city.

The Pale Horseman by Bernard Cornwell

The Pale HorsemanThis is the second book in the series known as The Warrior Chronicles (also called The Saxon Stories) that tell the story of the Saxons’ struggles to resist the Danish invasions and the efforts of Alfred and his descendents to unite the various Saxon kingdoms to form one Christian entity.

The title appears to come from a combination of the Pale Rider (Death) of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and a local legend that the first of the Wiltshire white horses was carved to mark the site of Alfred’s victory in a decisive battle.

The book follows on from The Last Kingdom, telling the ongoing story of Uhtred, the Saxon warrior with divided loyalties, his difficult relationship with Alfred, and the bloody campaign to prevent Wessex falling to the Danes. We hear about Uhtred’s marriage and his relationship with Iseult, a shadow queen (sorceress) of the Britons.

There is very little to like about Uhtred. He’s big, strong, ambitious and a savage fighter. What little humour there is in these first two books derives from Uhtred’s sarcastic response to the Christian beliefs of Alfred and his followers, although Cornwell does include the burning of the cakes incident and deals with it in a humorous way.

The trouble is that any sympathy I may have felt for the Uhtred character was wiped out when he joined his men to a group of Danes to brutally slay a tribe of Britons for a small quantity of silver – Britons who were Christian and pro-Alfred. It seemed a strange incident to create.

I enjoyed the recreation of south-west England as it was in the ninth century, particularly the large area of forested swampland that now forms the Somerset Levels, but overall I found the book rather disappointing. There’s lots of bloodthirsty conflict, so much that it gets rather repetitive. The fictional characters are blended cleverly with those who really existed, but at the end of the book, despite the Saxons having won a major battle, Wessex still remains the last kingdom not to be dominated by the Danes and Uhtred has made no progress towards the recovery of his lands in Northumbria. The series has a long way to go.

The book is available in a wide range of formats from Amazon The Pale Horseman (The Warrior Chronicles, Book 2)


The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell

The Last KingdomThis is the first book in a series known as The Warrior Chronicles that tell the story of the formation of England from the coming together of the separate Saxon kingdoms in the 9th and 10th centuries.

The book is written in the first person, the narrator being Uhtred, a Saxon who is aged ten at the start of the book. He is the son of a Northumbrian nobleman, whose possessions include what is now known as Bamburgh Castle, but Uhtred’s father and older brother are killed by invading Danes and he is taken into the household of a Danish warrior. He learns the Danish ways of fighting, of building and sailing ships, and their relationship with their gods (who are also the gods of those Saxons who have not turned to Christianity). He feels more Dane than Saxon, but he never forgets his Saxon heritage.

Through the next ten years Danes pour across the North Sea and occupy Northumbria, Mercia and East Anglia. Of the major Saxon kingdoms, Wessex alone still resists (the last kingdom of the title), but the Danes are determined to conquer it, and the Britons of Cornwall and Wales are always looking for the chance to re-take their lands that had been taken by the Saxons 500 years before.

Alfred is king of the threatened land and, as the years pass, Uhtred is drawn to his side, although he finds the intellectual Christianity of the king alien.

This is Bernard Cornwell at his brilliant best. As usual, the depth of his historical research shines through and gives the book a totally authentic feel. Uhtred is fictional, but the other leading characters all existed. Cornwell brings history to life and makes it so compelling.

What is really clever is that Uhtred is narrating as an old man, but he is only 20 when this first book ends. So, the author has him narrating from the position of an old man, changed by experience, still capturing the 10-year-old’s freshness and the teenage impetuosity, but also mentioning future events that are only covered several books down the line. Very impressive.

It’s available in various formats from Amazon including as part of a collection. The Last Kingdom (The Warrior Chronicles, Book 1)

Westcountry Folk Festivals 2014

I’m looking forward to getting to a lot of these. July looks a bit thin. I’m sure I’ve missed something. Tell me if you know of a Westcountry festival that I’ve left out.


14th Cheltenham Folk Festival (OK – I know that for those of us living in Devon and Cornwall describing Cheltenham as ‘Westcountry’ is pushing it)


17th – 20th  Scilly Folk Festival


9th – 10th Crediton Folk Weekend

23rd – 26th Bude Folk Fest

23rd – 26th Cheltenham Folk Festival (you see, they do more than one so they deserve a mention)

23rd – 26th Dulverton Folk Festival

30th May – 1st June Wessex Folk Festival (Weymouth)


13th – 15th Falmouth Sea Shanty Festival

13th – 15th Wimborne Minster Folk Festival (a new name for this longstanding festival)

14th Behind the Castle (Sherborne – a new one-dayer on three stages in the castle grounds)

20th – 22nd Teignmouth Folk Festival

20th – 22nd Ukelele Festival of Great Britain (In Cheltenham – they’re at it again!)

27th Tivvy Fest (Tiverton – 31 days of folkie events!!!)

27th – 29th  West Somerset Folk Festival (Carhampton)


4th – 13th Frome Festival 10 days of events, some folky

11th – 13th South Brent Folk Festival


1st – 8th Sidmouth Folk Week

8th – 10th Dartmoor Folk Festival (South Zeal)

9th – 17th Bath Folk Festival (Nine days of concerts and workshops)

22nd – 25th Cornwall Folk Festival (Wadebridge)

29th – 31st Lyme Folk Weekend (Lyme Regis)


13th Fishstock (Brixham’s seafood and music festival. Two stages, one for folkies.)


24th – 26th Baring-Gould Folk Weekend (Okehampton)

25th North Dorset Folk Festival (Marnhull)

Phil Beer: Brixham Theatre 10th January

Phil BeerPhil Beer must be about 60. For as long as I can remember he has been a leading figure in the British folk scene. These days I suppose he is best known for being half of Show of Hands (the other half being Steve Knightley), a duo with THREE sell-out concerts at the Royal Albert Hall in their track record, but there is much more to this incredibly talented musician who plays seven or eight instruments and has a strong singing voice.

Thirty years ago he was a member of the hugely popular Albion Band and he has demonstrated his versatility by recording with the Rolling Stones and Steve Harley, and touring with Mike Oldfield. When not touring with Show of Hands he tours with Feast of Fiddles, his own Phil Beer Band and as a solo performer. He’s a busy man, but he somehow finds time to help other musicians by recording their work in his own studio.

So, given all that I was delighted to find that one of the dates on his solo tour was an appearance at our local Brixham Theatre. The place was packed – and what a good night we had!

Local folkies Maggie Duffy and Mike Weed started us off with a set entirely made up of songs written by Maggie. Her voice sounds so like Joan Baez it’s uncanny. She writes beautiful songs, nearly all with a Westcountry theme. Tonight’s set included a new composition, ‘Song for Plymouth’ which celebrates the history of that maritime city, and old favourite, ‘Squeezee Belly Alley’, which is hilarious and always gets the crowd going.

Mike has played with a number of bands over the years. When he’s with Maggie he plays bass guitar and provides hauntingly beautiful accompaniment to her singing on a variety of whistles.

Phil Beer was excellent. He is such a complete performer. At times his instrument playing borders on the unbelievable. He gave us a rich and varied programme, pausing along the way to recount funny stories of how he and Steve pass the many hours travelling between gigs, such as phoning M& S customer services to pose tricky questions – ‘I’ve just bought a pack of your boxer shorts, but the instructions seem to be missing.’ We had tales of his days as a student at Teignmouth Grammar School and some gently humorous exploits of his elderly father. I particularly enjoyed his jokey dissertation on the history of the ukelele and how it was the forerunner of all stringed instruments; the harp, for instance, being invented when someone stuck two ukeleles together back-to-back.

If he’s playing at a venue anywhere near you, treat yourself to a great night out.

New Year’s Eve: Bellowhead

This year our children conspired to ensure that their Christmas presents for us would guarantee that their ancient parents were not tucked up in bed when the old year slipped away – not that there was ever much chance of that. John bought us tickets for the Bellowhead New Year’s Eve party at Colston Hall in Bristol; Claire booked us into the Bristol Thistle Grand, just a short walk from the venue. So, unusually for us, we were playing away from home on NYE – and what fun we had!

Colston Hall2Colston Hall is huge. The main concert auditorium has a capacity of over 2,000. The original Victorian theatre is called The Lantern and has a capacity of 600. Those two venues are linked by a vast galleried space that houses two bars and an open foyer performance area. All of which makes it a perfect location for an enormous NYE party with a range of entertainment on offer.

This NYE The Lantern operated as a nightclub providing cabaret entertainment throughout the evening; two bands (Spiro and Brass Roots) played in the foyer area and Bellowhead played two sets in the main concert hall.

Spiro is a group of very talented instrumental musicians based in the Bristol area. They’ve been playing together for 20 years and got our evening off to an excellent start.

Brass Roots are a ska band from London and really had the place jumping.

Bellowhead, of course, are perfect for a NYE party. Their 11-piece, high-energy line-up produces a great atmosphere. Their second set ran over midnight. They appeared in fancy dress, were hugely entertaining and orchestrated the loudest rendering of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ I’ve ever heard.

It was a delightful way to see in the New Year and, miraculously, I never queued for more than a couple of minutes to get a drink!

birds eye view of Brass Roots in action

birds eye view of Brass Roots in action

Lisey’s Story by Stephen King

Lisey's StoryIt’s been a while since I’ve read a Stephen King novel. He’s such a prolific author that I’m now a lot of books behind with little likelihood of catching up. I picked out Lisey’s Story because it sounded different.

Well, it’s certainly different. Unfortunately, it’s the worst Stephen King book I’ve ever read. The structure is chaotic, jumping backwards and forwards through time and from place to place so often that I’m sure the author himself was confused. The constant repetition of made-up words (‘smucking’ for example) became infuriating, as did the trotting out of homespun philosophy that was at best trite, but more usually meaningless nonsense.

There’s at least one significant plot flaw and, on top of all that, I didn’t find any of the characters even remotely likeable, so I didn’t care what happened to them.

I felt sure that my views must put me in a tiny minority, but when I looked on Amazon I found that there are more 1* reviews than 5*. Lisey’s Story

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

American GodsI’m just back from a two-week holiday where the weather washed away all the planned long walks and I spent much of the time in front of a log fire, glass in hand, making serious inroads into my tbr list.

I began with ‘American Gods’. It’s a big book (650+ pages) and I’d had a couple of false starts with it, reading enough to realise that to do the book justice I needed to set aside a big slice of time. I was right: given that time I found the book truly remarkable.

One of the things I like about Gaiman’s work is that, as an Englishman who has lived in the States for years, he can set books in America in a way that I find convincingly authentic while remaining accessible – unlike many American writers whose work I’m finding increasingly impenetrable as American-English moves relentlessly away from British-English.

The basic idea behind this book is that gods exist as long as someone believes in them and that while they exist they will do anything to maintain their power. The book is fairly slow paced, but I found that the succession of strange events drew me in until I was desperate for an explanation. The occasional diversion into the history of migration into North America was interesting, building understanding of the diversity of gods. I found it an ambitious, intriguing and challenging book.

What I found particularly interesting is that the later edition I read contained additional passages that the author had persuaded the publishers to insert. It says a lot for the author’s conviction in his theme that he wanted to return to an already highly-successful book and make what he considered to be enhancements. This edition is the one with the cover image shown. You may have to shop around to find it. At the time of writing, this edition wasn’t listed on Amazon, but other editions are. American Gods

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

The Ocean at the End of the LaneI read the hardback edition and the first thing that struck me when I’d finished it is that it’s short – much shorter than a glance at the hardback might suggest. There are 248 numbered pages, but 4 carry the acknowledgements and, by starting each new chapter on a recto, 11 blank pages are introduced. The space between lines is abnormally large, as are the margins all around the text. New chapters start one-third of the way down a page. I have no objection to reading novellas, but I’m not happy when a publisher uses every trick in the book to make a novella look like a novel in an attempt to justify a £16.99 hardback cover price.

None of which is anything to do with the author and does him no favours; which is unfortunate as he seems to me to have done his job very well. Initially the narrator is an adult who slips away from a family funeral to seek out the scene of half-remembered strange happenings in his childhood. Narration then switches to the seven-year-old boy that he once was. The prose flows beautifully. Locations are described vividly and characterisation is sharp. Sibling and parent-child relationships are captured with painful accuracy.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, although afterwards I couldn’t have told anyone the basic message. Is Gaiman just saying that children have powerful imaginations and are capable of escaping into wonderful imaginary worlds; or, as in other books, is he telling us of different worlds that exist below the surface of this one? I’ve no idea what the answer is, but it was a fun read and, at the time of writing, the Kindle edition is available on Amazon for only 99p. At that price it is unmissable. The Ocean at the End of the Lane

The Devine Legacy by Jennifer Hanning

The Devine LegacyAny book described as a ‘romantic novella’ would normally have me running in the opposite direction, but every now and again I like to challenge my own prejudices. In reading this book I didn’t really think I was taking too much of a chance as I’ve read several of Jennifer Hanning’s books and enjoyed them all.

This proved to be no exception. It’s a warm, insightful, nicely-crafted examination of personal relationships within and across the generations with some thought-provoking consideration of how those relationships may be affected by changes in attitudes and ambitions brought about by the unexpected arrival of money and the re-emergence of people from our past lives.

It’s a satisfying read with a last-minute twist.

Available for Kindle from Amazon <a href=”″>The Devine Legacy</a><img src=”” width=”1″ height=”1″ border=”0″ alt=”” style=”border:none !important; margin:0px !important;” />