Fun trips in the motorhome.

I’ve been reminded that I’ve been very slow in posting this next instalment. My excuse is that we’ve been away in the motorhome so much that I’ve struggled to find the time. I’ll post this, and maybe one more, to cover the first twelve months of our motorhoming experiences.
So, there we were with our Compass Avantgarde 100, a bit on the small side, but in perfect working order, albeit with the knowledge that the next problem to develop in a non-watertight gearbox would probably prove terminal. The sun was shining, summer was upon us and we decided to get on with enjoying ourselves.
One of the most interesting places we visited was the Crossways Caravan Club site at Moreton, near Dorchester: a fascinating site of contrasts. It’s very attractive; the one-way site roadway meanders through woodland, passing through lovely glades that each contain a small number of pitches.
Deer live in the woodland and frequently put in an appearance. Campsites are the favoured venue of people who want to holiday with their dog and, as is usually the case, the majority of pitches had one or more dogs in residence. Amazingly, the deer seemed unfazed, unerringly picking out the dog-free units to be hand-fed morsels of salads. One hind was even confident enough to bring her fawn out into the open and ignore all the cameras pointed at them.
Two further advantages of the site are the pub only a couple of minutes walk from the gate, and the railway station opposite the pub. One of the things we look for in a site is easy access to public transport – that station certainly provides it as it is on the main line to Dorchester, only a 10-minute ride away.
The proximity of the railway line has its downside as at one of those glades it forms the boundary to the site. There’s a level crossing next to the station and passing express trains sound their horns as they approach – a very effective alarm at 6.00 a.m.
Another quirk of the site is the dry composting toilet facilities. The toilet seat looks conventional, but beneath it is a large dark hole. Children aren’t allowed to use the toilets unaccompanied, presumably because of the danger of falling in – a possibility too awful to contemplate. The loos worked fine, but they clearly didn’t suit everyone. I saw one chap emerge to be confronted by his wife and teenage daughter who angrily declared them unacceptable and demanded a move to another site. For me, the showers being in a separate block 100 yards away was more of a problem.
We’d strongly recommend a visit to this area – there’s so much to see and do. Dorchester is not to be missed. A lot of redevelopment has taken place around the station. Many top class restaurants and shops have appeared, but the old town is only a few minutes walk away. There we found the Dorset County Museum, the Tutankhamun Exhibition, the Dinosaur Museum, the Terracotta Warriors Exhibition, the Teddy Bear Museum and The Mummies Exhibition – so plenty to do if it rains. When the sun shines guided walk leaflets from the TIC provide a good tour of the town. As this is Thomas Hardy territory you’ll find frequent references to his work.
Dorchester isn’t the only attraction. You can change trains there and head for the seaside delights of Weymouth. Close by, there’s also the Tolpuddle Martyrs museum, Clouds Hill (the cottage of T E Lawrence) and the Tank Museum at Bovington Camp.
We spent a week in the area and could easily have stayed a lot longer.
One minor problem had become apparent with the Compass. We used the overcab bed for storage and slept in the double bed made up each night from the dinette. That bed is put together from six mattresses: the two seats and two backs of the dinette benches and two small mattresses that fit onto the pull-out extension. Having six components means a lot of joins, each of which can open up a little in use. In the interest of comfort we bought two of these, although we went for two-inch thickness, two-feet wide size. Problem solved.
One of our most notable trips in that first year was to the Sidmouth Folk Festival. Attending such events was one of the main reasons for our buying a motorhome. The festival (or Folk Week as it’s now called) was great fun, as usual. Staying on the over-crowded official, temporary campsite was an interesting experience. At the time I wrote a post about both the event and the camping which you can find under the Folk Festivals sections of this blog.
Bath is one of our favourite cities, so it was a treat to discover the Bath Caravan Park. It’s alongside the River Avon about two miles from the city centre, which is easily accessed by walking/cycling along the riverbank or by bus from the adjacent park & ride. The site is open all year and has sixty-four pitches all with hardstanding and ehu. Under the Interesting Places section of this blog you’ll find three posts that will help explain why we like the city so much.

Later this week I’ll put up another post covering the remainder of our first motorhoming year and the decisions we made at the end of it.

Bath – an extraordinary city (3)

Ralph Allen.  Image displayed with permission of National Portrait Gallery.

Ralph Allen. Image displayed with permission of National Portrait Gallery.

This is my third posting in a series on the delightful city of Bath. In my second post I wrote at some length about that remarkable man, Ralph Allen, who is largely responsible for the way the city looks today.
I am indebted to Harry of Bath who has contacted me to point out that I failed to mention one of Allen’s greatest achievements, so I’m putting that right. I’m also indebted to Brenda Buchanan whose detailed records have helped me rectify my omission.
The River Avon flows through Bath and on to the port of Bristol. It is a big enough river to provide a useful transport link between Bath and the sea and should have facilitated the movement of goods in both directions. By Allen’s time in the early 18th century the river wasn’t navigable, not because of any natural factor (such as silting) but because man-made structures along the river blocked the movement of boats. Numerous landowners had constructed weirs to use the water to power mills of various types.
This situation had developed over some 300 years. During the 17th century the Corporation of Bath twice secured the required Act of Parliament granting it the powers to return the river to being a useful transport link. As early as 1629 land had been set aside in Bath for the construction of a harbour when the Avon was again navigable. However, the weir/mill owners proved to be both intractable and to have an appetite for litigation. The Corporation made little progress and in 1724 it transferred the authority for action to a group of entrepreneurs from Bath and Bristol.
The group met for the first time on 31st December 1724. Allen was appointed one of the treasurers. They met again the following day and the minutes show his position had already been enhanced. He had become Chief Treasurer.
Those minutes give an insight into the way business was conducted. It was agreed that a newly-purchased iron chest should be ‘lodged in ye poste offis or in ye dwelling hous of Mr Ralph Allin as he Shall find moste Convenient’. So it was Allen’s responsibility to collect money from backers and control payments made. During the project thousands of pounds passed through that chest and his name appears on many of the letters and contracts that record progress.
By the end of 1927 the Avon was once again navigable between Bath and Bristol. The weirs were avoided by cuts and locks. Wharves were constructed at numerous points to allow the loading and unloading of goods. In only three years Allen and his fellow entrepreneurs had achieved what the Corporation had failed to achieve in over one hundred years. And he had done it while he was revolutionising the Post Office, expanding the quarrying operations in Bath stone and being heavily involved in the re-building of the City – including the new hospital that he paid for. A truly remarkable man.
When the Kennet & Avon Canal was constructed subsequently it linked the Avon, Kennet and Thames rivers, meaning that it was possible to travel from Bristol across England to London on waterborne transport.
In my posts I’ve concentrated on the buildings and history of Bath, but the city’s parks deserve a mention. There are eight formal parks. The largest is Royal Victoria Park whose 47 acres are close to the Royal Crescent and include the 9-acre Botanical Gardens which is a beautiful area, especially in the spring.
Parade Gardens is probably the best known park because of its prominent location between the Abbey and the river. It provides lovely views of the famous Pulteney Bridge and the weir.
Both of those parks do tend to be busy, but it isn’t hard to escape the crowds. At the end of Great Pulteney Street stands the imposing building of the Holburne Art Museum – free admission. Go straight through the museum, through the gate behind and you will enter Sydney Gardens which offers twelve acres of gently-sloping lawns, ancient trees and attractive cast iron bridges over the Kennet & Avon Canal that runs through the park.

Kennet & Avon Canal in Sydney Gardens

Kennet & Avon Canal in Sydney Gardens

Strangely, in Sydney Gardens you’ll find a copy of the Roman Temple of Minerva that carries a plaque saying it was erected to commemorate the Bath Royal Pageant of 1909, but that Pageant took place in Royal Victoria Gardens which has its own replica of the Temple of Minerva. I’ve not been able to find out anything about the Bath Pageant except that it lasted for six days in July 1909. Maybe Harry can tell me all about it.
I can recommend a delightful walk.

Temple of Minerva in SAydney Gardens

Temple of Minerva in Sydney Gardens

Sydney Gardens provide access to the towpath of the Kennet & Avon Canal that leaves Bath following the valley of the River Avon. If you walk along the towpath for about three miles you will reach the Canal Visitor Centre at Limpley Stoke. The route takes you through stunning scenery and includes crossing the Dundas Aqueduct that carries the canal over both the railway line and the river. If you don’t fancy walking back you can catch a bus from Limpley Stoke to Bath.
If you’d like a break with a difference in Bath, spend a few days strolling around the city looking at the bridges. As a compact city built on hills and crossed by a river, a canal and railway lines, Bath has an extraordinary number of bridges catering for pedestrians, trains and road traffic. It’s not just the number that is impressive, it’s the variety of design, ranging from the elegant stone arches of Pulteney Bridge and the delicate stonework of the Palladian bridge in Prior Park, to highly ornate cast iron structures that are imposing works of art.
For Barry's blog 2015.01.23 022This photo is taken from Halfpenny Bridge (pedestrian, where a toll of one halfpenny was once charged) and shows the iron rail bridge over the Avon just outside Bath Spa railway station. Behind the railway bridge you may be able to see the top of a building that stands on the river bank. It’s a building with an interesting history.
In Victorian times it housed a sailmaking business, but as steampower became prevalent business dropped off. There used to be a whaling industry based in the Severn Channel. The enterprising sailmakers acquired a large quantity of baleen left from whaling activity, baleen being the hard plates in the whales’ mouths that sift out the krill. It is often incorrectly described as whalebone, but it’s actually made of keratin. So, equipped with baleen and sailcloth the sailmakers switched to making whalebone corsets. Examples of such garments can be seen in the Bath Clothing Museum.
The company traded profitably for many years until whalebone corsets fell out of fashion. They didn’t give up and tried to use their women’s clothing trade connections to move into the manufacture of bras.
This didn’t work so well. Pretty soon, yes you’ve guessed it, the bra firm went bust.

Bath – an extraordinary city (2)

IMG_2100This is the second in a series of blog posts about the city of Bath, a place my wife and I visit several times a year.

In my first post I mentioned that the city provides street entertainment of unusual quality. Here’s another fine example. This chap walks backwards and forwards along a slack wire while playing the fiddle. As you can see from the paucity of spectators, the local citizenry do not appear to be impressed even by such rare skills. I watched him for quite a while, but he didn’t take a break so I never discovered how the hell he gets up onto the wire.

One cannot spend long in Bath before encountering the name of Ralph Allen. He was born in Cornwall in 1693. His grandmother was Postmistress in St Columb. When she was ill the 14-year-old Ralph ran the post office. He caught the eye of a Post Office official and was found a job as a clerk in the postal service in the city of Exeter. In 1710 he moved to Bath, again as a clerk, but in 1712 at the age of only 19 he was appointed Postmaster of the city.

At the time the postal system was hopelessly inefficient. All mail was taken on horseback along one of the six Tudor mail routes into London for sorting and then re-distributed. The Post Office was keen to introduce a new ‘Cross and Bye Posts’ system that would involve regional sorting and distribution centres. Ralph signed a 7-year agreement with the Post Office to set up and run the new system in the Southwest.  The agreement meant him paying £6,000 p.a. – a colossal figure in those times. Over the first seven years he barely broke even, but he had turned it into a money-making machine. For the rest of his life he continued to sign 7-year contracts, gradually extending the area under his control until he was running almost the entire postal service outside London.

Prior Park

Prior Park

The money was pouring in when architect John Wood arrived in Bath and the Georgian reconstruction of the city began. Ralph wisely spent some of his first fortune buying up all of the stone quarries and mines in the area – and made a second fortune when the City Fathers were persuaded that all new development must use Bath stone. That restriction continues to this day. It may have been partly aesthetic, but there was also the economic consideration that it guaranteed work for thousands of local quarrymen and stonemasons.

Ralph built a terrace of fine houses (with front gardens!) for his senior managers, another terrace (without front gardens) for more junior managers and rows of cottages for the rest of his workers. He also paid for the building of a new hospital in the city centre. On the hill to the south of the city he built his own house, Prior Park, in a spot where he said, ‘I can see all of the city and all of the city can see me’. It was initially a squarish Palladian house, but he put up another building sixty yards to the east and then a third sixty yards to the west. Finally, he joined them all together to make a house some 300 yards long! He was a sociable, popular man counting among his friends/visitors Henry Fielding, David Garrick, Alexander Pope, Thomas Gainsborough and William Pitt. He probably had room for a few more. That house is now a school, but the gardens running from the house down to the city, complete with a Palladian bridge over a lake, are owned by the National Trust. The bridge is a Grade 1 listed building and a Scheduled Ancient Monument.

IMG_2110The Trust only acquired the gardens 20 years ago when they were totally overgrown. Recovery work is still ongoing, but it is a very pleasant place to visit. There is no car park so you have to walk up from town or catch a bus. It is, of course, quite impossible to visit a National Trust property without eating cake and here the cake is rather wonderful. Even sharing two slices between three of us, we were defeated.

The most spectacular building in Bath is the Abbey, built with the beautiful, honey-coloured Bath stone long before the days of Ralph Allen. From the moment that the hot springs were first discovered by mankind this area must have held mystical significance. According to legend, in 863 BC Prince Bladud of the Ancient Britons returned from Athens with leprosy. He avoided the royal court and became a swineherd in an isolated part of the country. In search of acorns he drove his pigs across the Avon at a spot which became known as Swineford. He discovered that some of his pigs had contracted leprosy from him, but after rolling in the hot mud around the hot springs they were cured. Bladud also rolled in the mud, was cured and went on to become King of the Ancient Britons. He was the father of Shakespeare’s King Lear. Bladud founded a settlement at Bath and ascribed the curative powers of the waters to the Celtic goddess Sul. 1,000 years later the Romans respected the legend and retained the name: Aquae Sulis. The acorn has become the symbol of the whole saga and stone acorns can be seen on many Bath buildings.

IMG_2102The Anglo-Saxons built an Abbey on the site that was so impressive that Edgar had his coronation there in 973. He had actually become the first King of All England fourteen years earlier and the coronation at Bath was more a celebration of his reign than marking its beginning, but it nevertheless established the practice of coronations that continues to this day.

The Normans demolished the Anglo-Saxon Abbey (they’d severely damaged it during the power-struggles between the sons of William the Conqueror) and built a Cathedral. It took 60 years to build. It was completed around 1160 and was much bigger than the current Abbey. It was too big, impossibly expensive to maintain, and gradually fell into disrepair.

Oliver King, the Bishop of Bath and Wells, decided in 1500 that the site should be cleared and a new Abbey built. He reputedly had a vision in which he saw angels ascending to heaven via ladders, a scene that is depicted on the outside of the Abbey. The timing was unfortunate. It was finished just in time to suffer from the afflictions of Henry VIII and it again fell into disrepair. However, Elizabeth I set up a fund to pay for its restoration. In fact, work continued for another 300 years. The flying buttresses were added in the 1830s and the magnificent stone fan-vaulted ceiling installed in late Victorian times.

Angels climbing ladders. I have no idea why they can't fly.

Angels climbing ladders. I have no idea why they can’t fly.

It really is a wonderful building: the Bath stone and many windows make it light, airy and rather overwhelming.

I must confess that when I’m inside gazing up at the roof so far above me, I feel a niggle of unease. No spiritual qualms about the destination of my soul, but the presence in my head of two facts that keep intruding. First, Bath stone did not catch on elsewhere as a building material as it is regarded as too soft. Second, an estimated 6,000 bodies have been buried in the ground beneath the Abbey and subsidence is threatening the structure. Still, I think you should take the chance and look inside – even if you hasten back out and have to nip around the corner for a reviving bun in Sally Lunn’s.


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.