Saturday, May 12, 2012

Day 37 - Wells, cheddar Gorge, Somerset Levels, Mark and Highbridge

Wednesday 2nd May 2012
It’s about 3 in the morning and I’m awake. The bed is hard. Harder than I prefer and harder than I’m accustomed to in our various accommodation choices to date. I can’t get back to sleep. I do some journaling and just after six I decide I will head out and visit some of the nature reserves. I am on the road just after 6 am. Morning is misty and as I pass down a hill the vista before me is of cloud tops with trees poking out here and there.  If only I could stop safely to get a photograph, but there is a reasonable amount of traffic on the roads this early and I accept that it is simply a case of enjoy the moment wandering the pretty rural roads in the crisp early morning.
There’s not a car in sight as I pull into Swell wood. As the feeding stations were topped up late yesterday I’m hoping to find lots of cool birds coming in for breakfast. Not so. This is a completely different context. Several of the feeders are empty or are on the ground. Just a couple continue to swing from their branches in the carpark. The culprits are clear. Squirrels. Lots and lots of squirrels.  There has to be at least a dozen or more ferreting about on the ground for seed, swinging on the feeders wrestling the larger nuts through the wire mesh. These aren’t British squirrels. These are American immigrants and they’ve been outcompeting the native squirrels. I don’t know whether to be appalled or thrilled at seeing so many getting a free handout. 
The bandits disperse as I reverse into the parking bay best situated between the two feeders with food remaining.  I use the car as a hide which doubles as a way to keep warm. It doesn’t take too long before a few of the more common birds take advantage of the clear space while the squirrels sus me out and decide whether to risk coming back over.  Most squirrels decide that discretion is the better part of valour and stay away. Three or four must have had less success earlier and are prepared to brave the intruder, much to the undoubted chagrin of the tits and chaffinches.  I do love squirrels. They are very cute with their jaunty little tails, and they are active during daylight. Australia’s cute things are almost entirely nocturnal so you don’t see them about.
After watching and hoping in the carpark for a while I decide that it would be sensible to take a walk down to the hide and check out the herons and egrets. Tick. Tick. I do generally prefer the teeny little bush birds, but without binoculars in the kit you do need to be grateful that some birds are impressively large and loud. Not much other action over by the hide.
I can’t devote the whole day to bird watching … or really today it’s bird squinting..and I do want to visit some of the other reserves so I reluctantly drag myself away and head over to Greylake once the obvious regulars in the car park have made an appearance.  It’s eyes on the road but some tantalizing glimpses are had on the way as I relocate.  A woodpecker lands on the trunk of a tree; a smallish tan coloured bird with a white throat descends onto a small twig. I would have enjoyed a longer look but clearly it was not to be.
At Greylake again I’m the only person here. Plenty of birds around though. Goldfinches are easily observed around the car park. I nose around the voice recordings made by local school children and head over to assess the long snake-like tunnel which I guess constitutes a playground for younger kids with bird inclined parents. 
I check the map on my brochure and decide to walk out to the bird hide and see what’s doing.  Thankfully, given that this is a boggy sort of environment a board walk has been provided.  I creep along the birdwalk.. not quite resembling something out of Spy V Spy.  Reed Buntings are cheerily sitting on top of reed stalks and displaying very prominently.  The kids were talking about reed buntings on the recording.  Good to at least be able to see the easy stuff.  On the lookout for something new I’m entertaining myself trying to get some sort of photo to show mum later.  A warbler sits up bold in the open for long enough for me to get a snap. It’s better than the one of the reed bunting I snap in desperation in poor light.
At the hide I fool around opening a window and sitting for a hopelessly inadequate time. I’m dreaming of spotting a kingfisher. I would dearly love to see an English kingfisher, but I am a lazy birdwatcher and today I am also a guilt ridden birdwatcher, seeing as I’ve left hubby to his own devices.  Unable to settle to it I read over the information about the birds likely to be seen here.  I study the illustrations of warblers.  Hmm.  Perhaps it was a sedge warbler I photographed?? 
With nothing particularly interesting hanging around on the water (just coots and a mute swan) I decide I’d better start heading back.  Another warbler. This time it’s clearly a ceti’s warbler, it’s much darker than the other one I saw earlier.  Just in time too. It seems the local birding folk have finished their brekky and arrived with their scopes and enthusiasm.  I nod as we pass. They nod too.  They have been conversing quietly when trying to see something, but as every birder knows, noise or words are unwelcome near a bird hide or when you’re approaching another birder.
Time has slipped easily by as I enjoy the reed beds and make futile attempts to capture an image of the pretty stripey little snails that sit bauble like on the reed stalks. A pair of anonymous ducks fly over in silhouette.  A coot flaps and argues with another and then with a beak of nesting material paddles vigorously away.
The time is moving inexorably on and with increasing guilt levels I find my way to Ham Wall after stopping briefly at Shapwick heath and deciding I’d better not. The car park at Ham Wall is completely full.  Well. That decides it. Time to go home.  All is not lost however. I delay my departure long enough to ask Tommie to remember the location of this RSPB reserve.
As it’s coming on for 11 am I head home.  Breakfast goodies have been left out for me. Muesli, yoghurt, toast.  Above and beyond the call of duty.
Jubilee Green, Mark, Somerset
The day’s activities are at least partially set in stone. We need to go to Mark, just down the road and do a little exploring.  This we do. On arrival in Mark we stopped went for a little walk by the Mark Yeo and took some photos, looking for the most flattering angles.  Mark isn’t the most photogenic place but I did my best. We enjoyed reading the information about the village and the Mark Yeo provided at this little park which we discover is called Jubilee Green. 
As we explore the Causeway and the village we come across an outfit called Popham Saddlery.  It was our Popham forebears that originated in this general area.  My mum’s paternal grandfather Jesse Popham was born and raised in Mark before being recruited to work in the timber industry in Queensland, migrating in 1870.  In due course he met and married the daughter of Harry Skinner aka Harry the Housebreaker and went on to have a strapping family, my grandfather being the youngest of them.  I have no expectation that there is actually a family connection with the saddler Pophams living in Mark today, but it is satisfying to see that there are still Pophams in the village.
There’s not a lot to Mark and we continue on to Highbridge very briefly. It can be hard to tell how old the various buildings are, but today at least the area we drive through has a very different tone and style to the smaller villages we’ve been visiting in Somerset so far.  We could drive on further to Huntspill, where Jesse’s father (Joseph Popham, another carpenter) was born, but we’re not really into it and I’m happy to settle for time in Wedmore where Jesse’s grandfather George Popham (a thatcher) was born.  Wedmore’s the pick of them so far that’s clear.
We have not really finished what I wanted to do in Mark so we double back and in the process discover a new section of the Causeway that we had overlooked earlier. Along this section of the Causeway is a very stinky farm.  We’ve passed a couple of places over the last day or so where the farmyard stench was appalling.  This one in Mark takes the prize though. It is one stinky, stinky farm.  Pity the poor neighbours. Farms don’t smell so bad in Australia. At least not anywhere I’ve been. Mind you farming is much less intensive on the whole too and also it’s drier I suppose… when it’s not flooded. It usually seems to be one or the other at home!
Hubby is being his usual easy going self and letting me call the shots.  I’m over it.  I suggest we drive up to Cheddar Gorge and tomtom agrees.  Along the way we enjoyed lovely views of the Mendip Hills before negotiating our way though the congested streets of tourist facilities.  I suggest a stop to tour a cave, but hubby stands resolutely against the idea.
The gorge leaves me a bit cold on the whole in this bright sunny weather we’re having today.  Australia does a very good line in spectacular gorges. Poor old Cheddar Gorge struggles to compete I’m afraid.  Luckily Cheddar Gorge has something up her sleeve.  Feral soay sheep, that having been isolated on some islands somewhere or other were not subjected to selective breeding and therefore are unchanged from the bronze age.  Coool.  These are worth a stop for a photograph.
Sheep appreciation completed we continue up the gorge and the scenery improves the higher we go.  Dry stone walls creep along under mossy blankets and the trees embrace over the road.  It would be a pretty drive in summer.  Up on the Mendip Hills spring is not so far advanced. Trees are still bare. The fields are divided not by hedges but by dry stone walls.
We turn to make a circuit and head for Wells.  Hubby is increasing in assertiveness and unbidden, parks the car in a signposted cathedral car park.  Come on, lets have a look at the Cathedral.  We come to a very large religious building.  It can’t be the cathedral surely, the grass is mown but it’s a mess.  Nope. Signage confirms we need to keep moving.  We resist the urge to stop at the lolly shop and numerous antiques places.  We note the deep gutters flowing with water completely oblivious to their significance.  “Geez, drivers must hate those” comments hubby.  We’re hurrying now because I know there is a tour of the cathedral at 2pm.  We wiz past the market that is running in the town square.  Wells is a lovely little city. As we are about to find out, it is the smallest city in the nation.
There’s just no substitute for a tour at any cathedral.  Each Cathedral has it’s own particular symbolism incorporated into the design.  They each represent a particular form of architecture and many have some unique aspects within a particular style.  Wells Cathedral is no exception of course.  It was the first in England to be completed entirely in the gothic style: the pointed arches and ribbed ceiling are diagnostic features.  You get the feeling that the architect didn’t quite trust this new style. The pillars and walls are much thicker than they need to be.
The great scissor arches and the triforium arches are another of the special features here. The triforium arches run in a horizontal band above the pointed arches, leading your eye to the great scissor arches at the end. This horizontal emphasis is a design element that is particular to western England.  The scissor arches were not part of the original design. About a hundred years after the cathedral was built, the foundations began to sink under the tower.  The experts were called (master masons) and a solution was devised. A very beautiful solution. These scissor arches are a form of bracing and are best observed from the area near the Saxon font.
The painted ceiling retains the original medieval designs.  Covered over for centuries a refurbishment revealed the original decoration under layers of whitewash and the original pattern was restored.
Still considering the nave of the cathedral we look at the two chantries where prayers were said for the benefit of the soul of the deceased.  Later and at different times you can see the development of the architectural style, the latter construction being more elaborate. Along the way to understanding the chantries we hear about some particular personalities and political changes over the centuries.
Around the exterior walls of the nave is a bank of stone for seating.  When cathedrals were built there were no chairs in them. The congregation stood to hear the sermons, sometimes for lengthy periods.  The elderly or infirm could sit on these seats around the walls, giving rise to the saying still in use today that someone has “gone to the wall.”
One particularly entertaining feature at Wells are the stone capitals. These are carvings at the tops of the pillars and they illustrate scenes of medieval life. In the course of the work it appears that the skill of the masons increased. On one pillar the four carvings tell the story of some grape stealers and their capture and punishment.
The saxon font pre-dates the Cathedral itself and is about 1000 years old.  Similarly it has recently been revealed that the cope chest at Wells also predates the Cathedral and is singular in that it is so old and still in use, though it contains other things these days, not copes.
We have seen some beautiful features in quires of various cathedrals. It is hard to compete with the magnificent set of misericords at Norwich for example. Here at wells the quire reflects the ongoing life of the church community.  At each stall in the quire a beautiful tapestry has been placed.  These tapestries were a project that was undertaken during WWII and if memory serves, something like 100 people worked on the project.  They are certainly a striking and colourful element.
The ceiling above the quire is beautifully decorative.  At the moment the glass window which would normally be a major feature in this area is covered in preparation for cleaning. Nearby part of a panel is there to see close up.  The pollution in the air is pitting the glass so the project that is being undertaken will lightly clean the glass and then a layer of protective glass will be installed to protect the historic stained glass from the elements.
There is some remarkable stained window effects at Wells also.  If they are not maintained, the stained windows, made up as they are of many hundreds of individual pieces held together by leading, bow out and eventually collapse.  This occurred to some of the windows here and at some point down the centuries the little pieces of broken glass were collected and assembled like a crazy kaleidoscope of colour.
Continuing with the recent theme of adding to the treasures of the cathedral through beautiful textile works for the millennium the cathedral commissioned a set of works for use across the religious seasons.  Theatre designers were tasked with the job and they came up with some very striking decorative panels which are changed at the appropriate time creating spectacular effects.  The Christmas set is said to be particularly impressive.  One shouldn’t judge them by my photographs, they are not only better in person, they are better under particular lighting set ups which were not operating during our tour.  I guess they provide an initial incentive for people to attend an actual service!
One of the most incredible features of the Cathedral, must surely be the two story sarcophagus.  There are two representations of the deceased.  On the upper level is the usual sort of thing, but underneath is a sculpture of a thin, wasted, corpse, somewhat reminiscent of a wraith.  It is thought that the idea was to incite pity on the part of the passer by so that they said a prayer for the soul of the person.  The chantry and multiple people to pray in it wasn’t enough. The mind boggles what that bloke had been up to that he was so obsessed with having help out of purgatory.
Through to the lady chapel, where the kaleidoscope glass is located we here some more about the windows. One artisan was so thrilled to actually get paid that he threw in the painting of the ceiling as a thankyou!
We move to the chapter house via an imposing and well worn stair case.  Along the side of the stairway are seats where tenants or others with business before the powers that be would sit and wait. Royal palaces have aspects designed to impress and intimidate. The same was true of the Cathedrals and the administrative areas attached to them. It must have been very intimidating for the average joe to be hauled in here to answer to the council.
Inside the chapter house itself we find an extraordinarily lovely space in very good condition. The guide book claims that it is one of the most striking and perfectly formed chapter houses in Europe and that’s not at all hard to believe.
The acoustics are an extraordinary feature. Our guide explains that if you put a group of chairs in the chapter house for a meeting when people speak the acoustics of the space create an unintelligible noise.  However if you sit around the outside you can speak without raising your voice and everyone in the room can hear you clearly.  Witnesses to enquiries held here were kept in the room seated on the benches around the centre pillar so that they could not go out and tip off other’s soon to be called.
Time approaches for the real party piece of this cathedral.  Here at Wells is a very very impressive very ancient clock.  It dates from the 14th century and is similar in it’s working to a clock at Salisbury Cathedral but the clock at Wells has a face. The clock is amazing.  Perhaps best to quote from the guidebook:
First it is a full twenty four hour clock: the hour hand (a golden sun) moves from twelve noon at the top through midnight at the bottom back to the twelve noon again. A second circle tells minute in similar fashion. The third inner dial indicates the number of days since the last new moon.  Close to the centre a painted disc changes to show the waxing and waning of the moon.
The attention grabbing performance piece though is that every quarter hour, the knights above the clock gallop around as a figure known as Jack Blandiver (no one knows why) rings the bells.  It is absolutely delightful to see and incredible that this whole thing is so old. 
The follow up to the clock is a prayer, which is said to take advantage of having everyone in the church here assembled together to see the clock perform.  Pretty clever really.
Hubby heads back to the car to extend our time on the parking as I admire the front of the Cathedral and the extraordinary collection of carvings which are such a striking feature. 
We’ve left our lunch very late, but we duck into a bakery in the town square and hubby picks up a chicken pasty and a custard slice.  The custard slice is similar to such things in Aussie but it has a layer of jam which really dominates the flavour.  They’re better without the jam.  The pasty is pretty good. Just like a pie in Australia but the pasty shape and handle makes them much easier to eat.  I sample hubby’s food and it’s pretty good and I’m feeling pretty reasonable so we get another one that is pork with apple and stuffing.  The pork one was OK but the chicken was better.
Now that hubby’s not hungry any more we head to the Bishops Palace which has been recommended to us.  The gardens are beautifully kept and make artful use of the ruins of around the site as well as a series of lovely sculptures.
My favourite of the sculptures was “The Pilgrim”, but the Somerset Willow dragon is pretty special too.  Oh.. I guess I should mention that at the Bishops Palace you also see the springs that are the source of the vast flow of ancient water that has filtered down through the Mendip Hills… meh. 
As we wander the grounds of the Bishops Palace we can hear the choir in the Cathedral, preparing for a service and apparently rehearsing. As we near the end of our wanderings they burst into  Zadock the Priest.  It was worth being in Wells this afternoon just for that! Oh how I would love to be in the Cathedral to hear that performed. One Day.
We decide to skip the interior sections of the palace and make our way to the car and home.  Most things are closing so we’ve missed our chance for the lolly shop. Never mind. It’s not as though we don’t eat enough as it is.
We pass by the City Arms which is impressively old and was once the gaol here. It seems quite a large complex given that it only had one cell.
We set off just after 5pm and Tomtom is diligently leading us home when it occurs to me that we will be passing very close to Ham Wall RSPB Reserve.  Hmm. Do it now or do it tomorrow?  How about now?  I change tommies instructions and in no time we’re pulling up in the still busy carpark for the reserve.  It is a 400 metre walk to the entrance of the reserve but it’s not without entertainment as I spot a linnet singing happily on a branch.  It’s a very popular pathway for people riding bikes and walking dogs through the levels.
As we reach Ham Wall the bitterns are booming consistently and our effort in coming here is amply rewarded.  We stop at the hides for a while and then take a very slow and fairly short walk around the recycled tyre boardwalk.  We don’t see much on the walk, but when we come back to the hides a grebe is displaying nicely and I am quite pleased to see a pochard diving and later climbing up onto the pontoon. You know that Australians are quite prone to understatement don’t you.
 We wander about in the evening light until about 7pm then it’s off home.  We’re not the last to leave the car park. Ham Wall has excellent infrastructure and there’s things for the kids to do too.  Even an area that is tailor made for pond dipping.
I’m doing OK well-being wise so long as I avoid eating. We skip dinner given that lunch was taken rather late in the afternoon.  It’s nice to just chill out and have an early night. 

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