Thursday, 2 August 2012

The South West - Part One

Perhaps he won't thank me for telling you this but Emma's Dad celebrated (if that is the word) his 60th birthday recently. To mark the occasion we spent the weekend in a cottage in a place called Keinton Mandeville near Yeovil. That's Somerset for those of you who get lost once you turn off the East Lancashire Road.

Since Emma and I had the whole of that following week off from work the plan was to spend a few nights in Bath also. As ever when I am involved, what followed was a heady mixture of chaos, farce and shouty Scottish men.

It starts in Bristol. It's quite a long drive to Keinton Mandeville so Emma wants to break it up by staying somewhere along the way. So we check into the Arnos Manor Forestdale Hotel. This isn't a bad little place, but it has to be one of the colder places I have been to in mid-July. An apalling summer isn't helping, but someone somewhere has clearly decided that air conditioning in the restaurant is a good idea. But it's not. It's freezing cold and it feels even colder for the fact that it is all but empty.

There is just one other couple in the restaurant tonight and while I am tucking into my fish and chips I can hear the gentleman complaining to the waiter about immigrants. It's real Daily Mail stuff about how those rotten foreigners have taken all the jobs but the man has managed to miss two superb ironies. Firstly, that the basis of his story centres around a son of his who lives in Australia. Immigration? You bet. Secondly, the waiter unfortunate enough to be listening to the man's archaic ramblings happens to be from South Africa. It's unfathomable how he hasn't realised this since the waiter is chatting away in the kind of accent which makes Kevin Pietersen sound like Boris Johnson. Regardless, the man ploughs on, bemoaning the invasion of foreigners and no doubt the demise of capital punishment. I don't know, I've stopped listening by now.

We return the following morning for breakfast. We are greeted by an incredibly smiley young woman. She looks around the room with a puzzled look on her face as if she doesn't quite know where to place this strange individual who has insisted on bringing a wheelchair to breakfast. Finally she hits upon the brilliant idea of putting us at a table next to the wall, just in behind one that is already occupied by two men. One of the men is decidedly portly, and you can see the crack of his arse from Leeds. He is wearing trousers, but only in the same way that Rihanna wears trousers when she wants to promote a new album. But the man is no Rihanna in visual terms. Not unless Rihanna has put ten stones of weight on and developed a serious problem with body hair since her last performance. Mercifully, I take the seat facing away from butt-crack man, and Emma can't see it either because I am now blocking it out.

There is considerably less meat on a woman sitting just across the room from us. Excess skin puts you off your sausage and egg. The woman is, shall we say, mature, and is as bony as it is possible to be without being in an Indiana Jones or a Sinbad film. I'm finding it hard to look at her, but I'm also finding it hard to look away. I start to feel like Austin Powers looking at Fred Savage's mole. These really are the major issues concerning me from our otherwise uneventful trip to Bristol.

Skipping the journey down to Keinton Mandeville almost completely (we took quite a while to find the cottage itself once we had found the right street because they all look the same) we arrive at the grandly named Coombe Hill Cottage. The path outside is covered entirely in gravel, and the woman we are renting from happens to be at the house and advises us that it will be ready in a couple of hours once they have finished cleaning. She also tells us that the entrance we need to use is around the back of the cottage, which is great news for anyone who thinks pushing a wheelchair on gravel might be fun.

With the car parked and a couple of hours to kill we hobble back down the path out on to the main road and head up the street to find a pub. We stop at a small local shop for local people for reasons I cannot and care not to remember, but I am pleasantly surprised to find that it is only a further minute or two to the pub. The Quarry is a very nice little establishment and it helps that finally, after what seems like three months of solid rain day after day, the sun is beating down. We order a drink and spend a very agreeable hour in the beer garden. The couple of beers I down when we get back to the cottage have an effect, and I'm still asleep when the rest of Emma's family get to there at around tea-time. I had been watching golf also, which might not have been the best way to keep my mind occupied and stave off the lethargy which inevitably results from afternoon drinking. And normally I like golf.

We're not going to elaborate on the evenings in Keinton Mandeville. Principally this is because I find forced fun quite traumatic. I can summarise thus; There were barbecues, quizzes and beer and it was unseasonably cold especially given the warm temperatures in daylight hours. If there was a highlight then for me it was the sight of Emma's one-year-old neice smashing the pinata with a stick and shouting 'whack' with every swing. Then her mother, Emma's sister-in-law, took a turn and knocked the donkey's head clean off with one swing. The head then found it's way around the dinner table and it was all a bit like something out of a Godfather movie. Whack.

So anyway we will stick mostly to the daytime activities because that is when we travelled around and experienced a little of the local south west culture. On Saturday morning, after an interminable wait for everyone to get ready, we venture towards the city of Wells. Test Match Special is on the radio in the car and England are taking a fearful pasting from South Africa. They have been bowled out for 385 and the South Africans are something like 4,384 for no wicket. Or something. Prospects for the team are so bad that the commentators have already started ignoring the action and instead playing word games or making up lists of the best left-handed South Africans and so forth.

Wells is one of the smallest cities in England and is best known for it's cathedral and other religiously associated architecture. Again I must re-iterate my utter disdain for religion, but that doesn't mean I'm not interested. We go into St.Andrew's Cathedral and end up on a short guided tour. The guide is called Elizabeth something or other, and she's informative enough but you get the feeling she wishes she was elsewhere. There are only myself, Emma, her mum and another couple on the tour which, considering it is free, is a pretty poor return. Religion might be crap, but what about history and architecture? It seems that they are not enough to interest the public of Wells today and so we press on in our uncomfortably small group.

Wells Cathedral of St.Andrew is the seat of the Bishop of Bath and Wells who, on the balance of probabilities, does not eat babies. It dates back to the 10th century but now, by far it's most pleasing attribute is it's clock. Alongside the large 24-hour clock face sits a model of a man called Jack. When Jack kicks his legs a series of wooden soldiers on wooden horseback appear from the top of the clock like demented cuckoos. They play out a brief battle in which one soldier is killed, only for him to re-emerge patched up to go through the whole thing again five or six times. It's a kind of mini-purgatory for the poor wooden soldier, but given that he is wooden and therefore devoid of any feelings it is all good, harmless entertainment.

Our guide gives up after around half an hour of shining her torch at the 'monsters' she finds carved into the architecture and speculating on what they may have originally represented. She seems very unsure of herself throughout and is particularly befuddled when one man asks whether Wells Cathedral is the final burial place of King Ethelred or some such. She doesn't seem to know, but she doubts it. Shortly after she is gone, wishing us a nice day and convincing us that half an hour touring Wells Cathedral of St.Andrew is probably enough. To be fair, she might just be right.

We find a cafe by the riverside and meet up with the others who had chosen not to take the cathedral tour. Maisie the cathedral cat is patrolling the area very protectively. Several small children try to pull her tail but she remains unphased by their gropings. She merely trotts off to a grassy area away from the cathedral and takes a nap. While we are enjoying a drink a man dressed like a member of the committee at Lords Cricket Ground strolls by. He is delivering some sort of message to a newlywed couple, and in doing so he is making quite a scene. I have absolutely no recall of what he actually says, but the bride is impossibly polite to him and thanks him for his efforts, calling it 'lovely'. The man turns to Emma's dad and asks;

"Care for a poem?"

"No thanks. I'm trying to give them up." he replies.

A little wounded, the man moves along the river to bother his next victim. We would be seeing him again later in the week.

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