At a farm which hugged close to a beautiful old church I obtained smiling permission to camp in the ‘second field by the river’. Blundering along a footpath, I found myself by the Severn, wide, deep, oily in the dusk, and somewhat hazy as to directions, I chose the nearest field, which was full of ‘bumps’, and soon had the little tent erected. The tandem pair came up with eggs and milk and the news that an old man had just dropped dead on the village green. Such cheerful news was followed by the inevitable arrival of a bevy of small boys who stood around with a look of awe on each face, and whispered to each other of our audacity in camping on “Old Skinflints” field. Enquiries elicited the information that we were in the wrong field, and that “Skinflint” was dead against camping on his ground; he was the small boys bogey, we learned.
Then along came the towing-path keeper, who verified the youngsters’ remarks, and gave us an insight into the character of the fearful old monster whose land we dared to occupy. Apparently he was a power in the land, with fabulous wealth, a tremendous acreage, and a local magistrate to boot; consequently he held the means to crush any villager who dared lift a finger or say a word against him or his – and he never failed to use his power when necessary. All this might appear very terrifying, but it did not the least trouble the town-bred, proletarian minds of Jack and I. We said so, and implied that fifty village tyrants would not shift us that night, where-upon the towing-path keeper beamed on us. He said he had waited years for someone who was not afraid of “Skinflint”, and with embellishments suitable to the occasion, told us what he thought of the tyrant – what he had dared tell no-one before. So he departed, much relieved.
Jack gave me what he called a quiet lecture, stressing my shortcomings as a leader and when left to my own devices, recounting to our amused friend the numerous scrapes we had got into under my direction. Over supper a wordy battle ensued till at last words, “Skinflint”, and everything was forgotten in the soundness of slumber.
Once more I awoke to the pleasant sound of a ‘Primus’ stove, but the early riser was not Jack: Jack lay beside me slumbering lazily, though when our friend handed me Ovaltine and biscuits, he promptly awoke and demanded his share. Life seemed very fine just then ! We went for a swim in the river which was quite warm, but not too clean and very deep, for at that point it is navigated by quite respectably-sized vessels, and when we returned our energetic friend had breakfast ready.
Just as we finished old “Skinflint” came along. We saw his white smock in the distance and prepared a hearty reception, but beneath the smock and smock-hat walked an insignificant specimen (though of sour ill-tempered feature), that we were frankly surprised and disappointed. We had expected a ferocious monster with a whirl-wind of fiery oaths descending upon us, but instead we got what Jack contemptuously called “that” (with emphasis), and a surly request to “clear off”. He went off to count his sheep, and finding all OK, he disappeared. So we packed up, went off to pay our dues at the farm, and to admire the beautiful church and a sweet modern miss who smiled (the girl, not the church) ……. Jack was relentless, and dragged me into a welter of lanes. We followed the map, and for once we reckoned right, by lanes of rare beauty, to the City of Gloucester, and to its old Cathedral, which we explored as best we could whilst a service was being conducted, for it was Sunday morning. The thing that struck me most at Gloucester Cathedral was the organ, which played with a richness and mellowness of tone that I have never yet heard the like.
Then it started to rain. Our chum departed for home, and we picked up a Bristol cyclist who took us to a little place along the broad Bristol road for lunch and shelter. Here he persuaded us to accompany him home, and so, for that day at least, we threw our hopes of ‘fetching’ the South coast to the winds. All along the thirty-five miles the rain poured down, and a strong headwind drove it under our capes till we were drenched. On the tandem we could have made light of the wind and short work of the miles, but our companion was slower, and ere Bristol was reached he was ‘all out’ in cycling terms. Suburbia led us to Clifton Downs, and we rode above the famous Gorge and suspension bridge, and descended on a winding road till the Clifton suspension bridge was far above in slender-threaded grace. Emerging onto wharves, whose main features were large bonded factories for tobacco – for all the world like cotton mills at home, we climbed heavily until the tumbled city streets lay below, and reached our host’s house. There was nobody at home, and after changing our soaked footwear, and having a wash, we laid ourselves a sumptuous tea.
Our Bristol cyclist was no mean host, and it was late when he led us down his garden packed with full-bloomed roses to our tandem, introduced us to the vicar who carried on business in the church next door, and who was on fighting terms with him, and took us to a nearby shop which a delightful girl and her “Mama” opened for our benefit. While “Mama” served Jack, I got along fine with the daughter till Jack began a sermon about the time, and other material urgencies. The Bristol chap gave us explicit directions for the Wells road, but as soon as we bade adieu to him we went wrong and wandered through miles of uncharted suburban deserts. At dusk we found ourselves at Keynsham, five miles along the Bath road, and then a corrective byway ran us slap into the wind, and we got another drenching as we slogged along open-downs country. Darkness came on, and storm clouds gave their worst until a place called Marksbury was reached where we gave in – still forty miles from the Devon border – and sunshine and warm winds………. We pitched our tent during a momentary lull, in a sheltered field, and discovered one or two uncomfortable things such as the loss of a stove valve which rendered the stove just useless cargo for the rest of the tour, and dampness on parts of the sleeping bags. We had another stove however, and nothing worried us for long on that eventful holiday. After the soothing influence of supper we turned in and slept as hardened campers should sleep.