It was a tearful world to which we awakened next morning, and all around our tent were ridges, puddles and mud. “The third lumpy campsite in three!” Jack remarked. By the time breakfast had been disposed of, and all packed up, the rain had ceased and a high wind was blowing the clouds away.
We rolled over the Mendips, exposed limestone downland, in the face of the wind which blew away the lingering traces of dampness from our clothing and set the busy housewives in prim villages a-hanging out their wash. At Chewton Mendip we settled down for half an hour with cigarettes and a map, but found that frittering time away on holidays is not half as satisfying and enjoyable as when at work. We joined a narrow lane that clambered uphill for a long way until I was all ‘hot and bothered’. Jack said that he was sweating too, but I reiterated that Jack never sweats behind me on the tandem, and there was a flare-up behind until we found ourselves free-wheeling down a deepening dale for all the world like a main-road Derbyshire Dale. The little crags became taller, the road steeper, winding down, down…… our speed increased…… and almost headlong we plunged into Cheddar Gorge. There, mighty crags rose sheer from the tilted road towards scudding clouds, pinnacles contorted, and shining-grey cliffs, now smooth, now furrowed with age-old cracks and weathered gullies. Down below was quiet and still, and only the chasing clouds in the narrow strip of sky above gave movement to that picture of silent grandeur, Cheddar Gorge.
Nowhere in Britain has limestone such a sight to show to the open sky, and nowhere in Britain’s limestone nether-worlds are such places of lavish splendour as the Cheddar caves, the greatest of which we “saw and entered not” for two main reasons. Wookey Hole Cave in the village of Cheddar at the foot of the Gorge is commercialised, and visitors are tied to the expensive apron-strings of a guide. It is possible to hold an independent exploration, but the cost is prohibitive, and conditions require such things as writing in advance.
The second reason was more important. Cheese. That was the first thing that drew our attention on entering the village. It is advertised lavishly, but nobody ever needs to advertise it. It advertises itself. You can get it in paper wrappers, in boxes, in tins, in barrels, or you can seal it yourself in an iron-bound casket, but however you imprison the body, the soul of it will rise triumphantly. It is sold in little squares and triangles, and it is sold in full-grown cheeses; it is reared up and piled up in every shop window, and in some places it stands by itself unaided. Restraining a natural impulse to fly, we looked around, but Wooky Hole Cave, picture postcards, and bars of Cheddar rock (probably made in Manchester) seemed to be the only things on view – except, of course, the notorious cheese of Cheddar in various stages of decomposition. At the far end of the village, where the influence of the Cheese was not so keen, we bought bread and (Cheddar) butter, cakes, strawberries, and Cheddar cream, and ate the whole lot in the quiet seclusion of a little lane beyond sight and sound of Cheddar cheeses.
The sun came out. A little lane of exquisite beauty just below the Mendips took us to Wells, and to the crowning glory of that old Somerset city, the Cathedral. The magic of stone and stained glass in this work of many years commands the admiration of whomever views it, though again the blatant parade of banners of war and violent suppression aroused my rebellious blood. I enter the wonderful edifices of old England not with Christian spirit, and leave without the dawn of a prayer on my lips or in my heart. I enter for the sheer pleasure of magnificent architecture, and my reverence is for the preservation of stone, not the religion or the superstitious ignorance of priests. I hate them !
We reached King Arthur’s Land. Glastonbury Tor, rising from the plains and crowned by a single tower, could hardly be likened to “Many tower’d Camelot”, but my willing imagination supplied the deficit, and I built it anew – as it used to be and is now in legend-lore. But romance became knocked off by the persistence of the hard headwind that spoiled our combined efforts. A rambling lane, perfectly level, led us through tiny marsh villages that have little changed from Alfred’s days, and at the very village where the much-vaunted barbarian is said to have let the cakes burn we quenched our thirsts with cider shandies, a drink which Jack avows “spoils good cider”. Sedgemoor, where, in 1684 the last battle was fought on English soil, took us to Taunton, where we ‘bought-in’ for tea. In a lane off the highway we polished off a two-pound loaf, a bun loaf, a huge slab of cake, a tin of beans, tomatoes and a whole box of little St Ivel cheeses without turning a hair, and had we possessed more food that would have gone the same way. We were acquiring a holiday appetite. We promised ourselves supper in Devon, for already we had lost a whole day on our ‘dash’ south and had got into a carefree, come what will, attitude. A holiday attitude.
From Wellington we got a move on; the wind had dropped, and we did really well along miles of rolling highway, crossing the border of Devon, which, on that beautiful night, really did look like dreamy Devon at last. At Cullompton we found every shop closed except one, for it was early closing day. That one was a saddler’s , and as dog biscuits and poultry food figured in the window, I suggested that a few dog biscuits for supper might improve Jack’s voice on the principle that a moderate dog-bark is preferable to the hideous croak he calls singing. All the inhabitants turned out to hear the bother that followed, until, having used up all his expletives, Jack opined that we get along quick ere closing time in the next village.
We had just started ‘getting along quick’ when the rear tyre expired with a sigh, shattering our hopes of having cured the trouble. Patching it was a tedious job, for it was now all-over patches, and a new tube was imperative. Once more we got swinging along at a rare pace, but the time grew later and not a village did we see. Closing time passed; we increased the speed; dusk fell, and ‘blinding’ with the fury that only a wild fear of going supper-less and without breakfast can produce, until, only ten miles from Exeter, we reached a shuttered-up village with a shuttered-up shop. At the side door our salvation was assured. For a further five miles we hunted for a campsite, asking a sweet little Devon lass who answered our knock at a wayside cottage door. She directed us to a farm along a private drive, and I found her an interesting and interested acquaintance until Jack soullessly dragged me away. The farm was really a small mansion, and everybody was in bed, so we decided to select a site for ourselves and do the asking on the morrow. Quickly enough were we acquiring that cool cheek that makes the successful hobo.
Without further ado we pitched and had supper – and just restrained ourselves from eating our whole supplies. As had become the rule, the site was stony, but even a few large clinkers in the small of the back obstructed our slumber little.