Friday, 11 July 2008

The highs & lows of Merrie England

As I walked out one fine Summer's morning
For to view the fields and to take the air
- Banks of Sweet Primroses (Traditional)

One Summer's day in the month of June
Bonny Bunch of Roses (Traditional)

I was reminded of these lines when, a couple of weeks back, I took a day
out from wage slavery to travel to the Berkshire town of Wantage (contrary
to popular belief, Wantage is not in Oxfordshire - Berkshire's boundaries were set
over a thousand years ago, it will take more than a Whitehall mandarin to change them)

Birthplace of Alfred the Great and boasting a fine Church, Wantage
is bearing up in the face of globalisation. So, it does have it's
multinationals and chains, but it still retains it's independent small
businesses, including the fine Wessex flour mill. The town's splendid
Vale & Downland Museum regularly hold exhibitions outlining the
area's rich social, cultural and rural heritage, and locals seem to
have a healthy sense of identity and place.

Lying at the foot of the Berkshire Downs (recently rebranded, in a rare nod to
authentic regionalism, The North Wessex Downs, by some body of authority or other)
Wantage is the major settlement in a long line of them that grew out of the
spring line at the foot of the escarpment - to it's west are sprinkled,
almost at regular intervals, a line of villages stretching to the Wiltshire
border. On this particular day, I took in the first three.

I don't want to knock the well-travelled - I understand the Wanderlust
many possess even if I don't. But, a day out around Wantageshire reaffirmed
my gut instinct that this England is hard to top. I like to think that
this is a naturally occurring tribalism that can be applied to all peoples,
a feeling of place and belonging. In The Everlasting Man GK Chesterton wrote:

There are two ways of getting home, and one of them is to stay there.
The other is to walk round the whole world till we come back to the same

Old Mont Abbott, the Oxfordshire carter and shepherd at Enstone, said:

I've scratched old England on the back, and her's gived me wealth untold...
Our Enstone, our Oxfordsheer, this England, take a lot of beating

I walked out of Wantage's west end for half an hour before reaching East Challow.
A linear village, it's main road slopes down in a curve, off the high
ground that commanded views that reminded me of Old Mont's observation
above. The village had a pub and, much to my annoyance my watch said it
was noon - another seven hours till opening. This tragedy resolved me
to carry on. A footpath sign saying 'WEST CHALLOW 1' ordered me to follow
the route past the old unused Wiltshire & Berkshire Canal.

Into West Challow, a clustered village with no pub, but an impressive
multiple signpost on a miniature raised Green - surely an English icon.
West Challow's church was quainter than it's sister village's, but I was
thirsty. I passed a low, single-storied building which appeared to have some
communal function, but although obviously a lovely place to live, I
left West Challow with that empty feeling of knowing it had become a
dormitory. A hundred years ago the place would have bussled on a day like this
- not now.

Onwards and (literally) upwards for another mile, and I reached Childrey.
This village got it's name from the Anglo-Saxon for 'Spring Stream' and
seemed in good health. A recently renovated village pond, shop (the PO
closed a few week's previous to my visit) and a fine pub.

A large, rather imposing building, dating from 1830, The Hatchet (a free house)
is a Grade II listed building and has a proper old door, dark slate roof and white washed
walls. It had, to me, the familiar sight of the now defunct Morland Brewery's ceramic built
into the brickwork...You guessed it - the place was shut. I resigned myself to mere
temperate refreshment and called at the shop for exactly that. Luckily for me, the place
was a veritable Offy! I would have preferred to have walked out with a couple of bottles
of Childrey home brew, but I had to content myself with a can of Stella (so much for
Mr 'I hate globalism', eh?). I sank the Stella sat by the pond, which I conceed is a tad
uncouth, but as far as I know I wasn't breaking any by-laws and wasn't hurting anybody.
Fifteen years ago I would have revelled in public drinking, this day I was furtively discreet!

Over the road the Master Thatcher's were just finishing off a job and I
hoped that some young guns would come and fill their boots when the
time came. The Stella gone, I reluctantly thought about the return
journey without gusto. My luck, however, was in: one of those
subsidised/community minibuses came trundling around the corner.

Getting back to the teeming citadel of Wantage, I vowed that I would
see the interior of public house that day and selected The Lamb. Just
down the road from the flour mill, from the outside this pub looked
the ticket: Thatched, low, small windows fromthe days of odd taxes...inside
the place was hideous. They've killed it, ripped out it's guts and soul.
You know the thing: MTV blaring out, mass produced furniture that made the
place look like an IKEA shop floor, G**** K***, general ponciness. A
seventeenth century pub with all its collective memory - WIPED!
I'm not advocating that everything be preserved in aspic, I'm saying
that change should be natural and gradual, over the years. An extension
added, new lick o' paint, no rush. This is fine by me, what I object to
is the wholesale gutting of a place by the big chains to match their vision
of the ideal clientele.
Still at least it kept it's name. I even don't mind pub names changing.
After the Battle of Waterloo a lot of pubs changed their name to the
Duke of Wellington, pubs used to adopt the name of new nobility, or
local occurance - this is living history. What I can't stand is the puerile
'Slug & Lettuce' type, a day of mixed emotions, then. Rant over.


Ol' David Davis's seat, eh! In yesterday's by-election the Greens chalked up their first second place (Shan Oakes received 1,758 votes/7.3%). But what really gratified me was the English Democrats not far behind (ex-UKIPer Joanne Robinson bagged 1,714 votes) After some dismal results of late, I'm really pleased for them. Yes I know they benefitted from the exceptional circumstances, no UKIP candidate etc, but for the EDs keeping their 500 quid must be satisfying as I expect all the mentions on the Today Programme and Radio 2 that they've been getting today is. I would have thought the NF's Tess Culnane would have got more than the 544 votes she did.

Glasgow East by-election
I know the Left like nothing more than to knock lumps out of each other but according to the Daily Record, the Solidarity candidate has been going round saying that the Scottish Socialist Party candidate had been at the same school as her. The Solidarity candidate claims to have been a rebelious Mod while the SSP rep was the authoritarian Prefect. You can't make these up, can you?

England's Parliamentary Party
The EPP's Paul Gilbert claimed 78 votes in Stafford Common ward, Stafford BC yesterday. It's hard to judge if this is respectable or not. Mr Gilbert may be relatively inactive, in which case this is a fair showing. If, however, he is well-known in the area as a community figure and he put a lot of work in for this, then it's not.