Abbie and I – From there to here with a horse-drawn caravan – II

Chapter II

Ten thousand flowers in spring
The moon in Autumn
A cool breeze in Summer
Snow in Winter
If your mind isn’t clouded by unnecessary things
This is the best season of your life
– Wu Men Hui K’ai (1183 – 1260)

I was up at crack of dawn next morning; it seemed like I had hardly slept. I wanted to make sure that all was well on Burbage Village Green. I walked down to Portobello Road, a quick stroll from my parents’ house, to buy a few essentials such as brown rice and soy sauce. These were not available outside the big city. My sister Amanda came with me. Once we were well stocked, we met up with Clive and he gave us a lift most of the way. It was still late morning when we reached the village, with plenty of time to carry on. This was just as well. Some of the newcomers to the village were kicking up a stink about the “gypsies” camped out in the middle of their neat and tidy scene. Our ancient friends and helpers were not amused but glad the fuss was more or less over and they were no longer responsible keeping the peace. The old gent was dressed in his Sunday best to see us off. “My son took some photos,” he told us proudly. “I reckon that is a fine sight on our green, so bright and gaily painted and all. with the horse alongside. He’ll be fed and watered and ready for to travel on.”

BURBAGE VILLAGE GREEN (smaller than I remember)

I asked Amanda to pick up the shafts, expecting the usual show of resistance. Not a bit of it. Perhaps he was picking up on her happy confidence in her big brother or glad the competition between Lillian and I was over. Maybe a bit of both. He stepped back into place just as though this was his usual behaviour. And that was that. The game had grown tired and he never tried it on again.Soon we were trotting along and children began to appear from every corner, running along beside us and ignoring the irritated remonstrances of their parents. I felt like a more innocent incarnation of the Pied Piper and I did not want to lead them too far from home. Once we were well out of the village we stopped to let them pet Abbie, offer him a few sweets and turn back. He loved anything sugary and later Iearned that an ice cream was his favourite treat. It was fascinating to see how the old people and the children of the village were excited to see something new, while those in between found us too challenging or frightening to be easily accepted.
That night we found an especially beautiful stopping place near the small town of Pewsey. It was at the end of a disused lane with wide areas of untouched grass. There was enough room for Abbie to graze for days. Amanda and I had no need to keep moving and it was time to rest. Also, I had noticed the collar needed some repair work done and Abbie’s shoes were wearing out.
The next morning saw me hitch-hiking into Marlborough, a larger town seven or eight miles to our north up a fast road. I took the horse collar and the traces to the local saddler. When he heard the story, he agreed to drop what he was doing and to complete the needed stitching to hold the harness together. I had known the saddler would be there because I used to go to school in Marlborough. While the job was being done I went to visit Andrew Davies who taught me English and infused me with his love of English literature. He appeared a little bemused to see me at his door in the middle of the holidays; no longer the well-brushed schoolboy in grey jacket and dark trousers. Now I came to him in well-worn blue jeans, a loose-cut shirt and my favourite walking boots. The boots were much the most expensive item, hand-crafted in Northampton and fantastically comfortable. They were to take me a long way. I must have been a complete surprise, but he recovered quickly with the time-honoured English solution for everything. He invited me in for a cup of tea.
Last time I visited I had been one of a few hand-picked applicants for Oxford or Cambridge scattered on his living room floor, for there were not enough chairs to go round. We were invited in the evenings for university style seminars, to the chagrin of my house-master who vented his displeasure to no avail. The head-master’s daughter was among us and she was the trump card that enabled a change in tradition. These stolen evenings had been a treat and I had greatly admired Andrew Davies for standing against the unwritten laws of the school and bringing us all together. I was more impressed when I arrived in Cambridge and found that none of our tutorials there were a patch on what he gave us. Now you know why I chose to pay him a visit in the couple of hours I had to spare. Besides, I was always hungry and he knew that when a boy came for tea the accompanying snacks and goodies needed to satisfy a healthy appetite. Here was another opportunity to tell the tale of my recent adventures. As you may have gathered, I love to tell this story. There have been a few attempts to write it down over the years but they did not get much farther than this. From now on I rely mostly on memory and what you read will be entirely fresh.
I walked back along Marlborough High Street to the saddler’s shop, relishing my freedom. No longer did I have to dash down to the White Horse bookshop, the local library or the Tuck Shop (my favourite haunts) in the few hours when we were allowed to visit the town. What a luxurious feeling, freedom in time and space. It took me many years to uncover the blessings of those years of imprisonment. Being aware of the joy of freedom was one of them. It was what had initiated this whole enterprise.
The saddler had done a wonderful job on the well-worn harness and knew I would need to do more repairs in future. he gave me needles and thread and most important an awl, a sharp-pointed tool designed to penetrate the leather before you could put in a stitch. He showed me how to use them. That was to come in handy and in the end to set me on the path to learn the saddler’s craft.
On my way back to the caravan I was stopped by the police, who wanted to know why I was lugging a horse collar around. Another reality jump. I had cycled along these roads so often as a schoolboy and the police had never paid me any attention. Add long hair and a beard and I had become a person of interest. Once they knew what I was up to, I was glad to find that I was no longer interesting and one more ride saw me back to our temporary home. It was warm enough to be outside and Amanda had made a fire. It felt very homey and we had another late night under the stars. It was very different to sit in the open. I was glad of so much space and sorry when Amanda told me she was thinking of going back to London. It felt good to spend so much time together.

The farrier at work

Before she left we reached Pewsey and there we found a farrier to attend to Abbie’s shoes. I had assumed that all blacksmiths could shoe a horse and most could at a pinch, but here we had found an expert. The shoes wore out fast on the tarmac roads and he put studs of hardened steel in the back of the shoes to improve the grip and make them last. Our smith had a nose for publicity and a team from the local newspaper turned up to take our photos while he worked. Amanda made sure they sent her copies and kept them for me.

Next morning she left and I was truly alone for the first time in my life. It was during the next few weeks that Abbie and I really got to know each other. Sometimes I enjoyed my aloneness and sometimes I just felt lonely. He was always there. Sitting on the front board, I had a close-up view every time he needed a poo, which was astonishingly often. Something had to happen to all that grass. The odour was almost pleasant, which I appreciated, not at all like that of a cat or a dog or a human. Not designed to repel the nose but in some way reassuring. When I walked at his head I had his breath to keep me company, fragrant with the tang of spring-time meadows. There is not a lot to say about those days, yet they were precious beyond compare. My feet felt they were moving deeper into the earth as I walked. I grew into the land in a way I had never known and was fascinated by the subtle changes in the landscape at every turn of the road.
Slowly we moved out of the lowlands and began moving back into hilly country. This was a little wilder than the Chilterns had been. The hills were full of lapwings and skylarks rose into the air as we passed, letting loose their fantastical song. The further we were from London the more spacious it felt. My lungs opened up to the ever-freshening air. Even the little town of Westbury felt closed in by comparison and when we descended into Warminster I felt it much larger than it was. I stopped for a while in the main street to buy provisions and to give Abbie a drink. While I was there a friendly family came by and we began to chat. I learned that Mum was a teacher, while Dad was working on a small plot of land they had on the outskirts of town. It had not been farmed for some time and he wondered out loud if Abbie would be able to pull a plough. Before long they were inviting me to bring the caravan into their yard and put Abbie in the field. It was a rough bit of land but he found enough grazing to keep him happy.
It was strange that night. In the caravan I was surrounded by street lights. There were not so many stars in the sky as I was used to seeing. Abbie felt a long way away. I had grown accustomed to hearing him in the night. I was happy to drive out with Dad, Matthew I think his name was, in the morning. We soon had Abbie hitched up to an old but functional single horse plough that Matthew had found and figured out a technique that did the job. Abbie hardly seemed to feel the plough behind him and joined in with enthusiasm. In less than two days we had the job done.
Back in the caravan, I decided to create more efficient storage by trimming some cardboard boxes with a Stanley knife. I knew better than to pull it toward me yet somehow I succeeded in plunging the knife into my left arm, just behind the elbow. The scar is still there. I woke up on the floor with Matthew and his wife at the door in a state of alarm. I saw that a pool of blood had gathered on the lino. I must have been out for a while. I did not need stitches but the wound was deep and they concluded their visitor needed cake, concern and many cups of tea. The tea was welcome, the concern less so. They were much older than me and I did not want to become their new baby. However, they did have real children to take care of and lost interest after a while. I helped Matthew a couple more days on his plot and then it was time to travel on. Abbie and I had rested enough. The little girl, the youngest daughter, was sad to see us go. She gave me a teddy bear for my “donkey” and a little piece of chain for his tether. I kept that teddy with us for the longest time. It ended up with one of my children.

Glastonbury Tor from Chalice Hill

Now we entered the flat lands of Somerset, the place of the summer people as they were known. In winter it used to be flooded by a marshy sea and the people had to retreat to higher ground. For us the level plain was great. With no hills to climb we were able to cover a lot more ground and soon the familiar sight of Glastonbury Tor came appeared in the distance. It was easily identified by Saint Michael’s Tower on the summit, a recent addition by Christian monks. The Tor had been a sacred site for thousands of years before them, a centre for pilgrimage and a place where the veil between the realms was reputed to be thin, the divine presence easily felt.
A couple more days and we were parked up at the side of a small back road a few miles south of Glastonbury Town. I was shocked to find large piles of treated sewage dumped along the roadsides, making it hard to find a place to stop. In order to find a pleasant spot, I had to stay further from town than I had intended. This puzzled me until I passed some friendly hippies who were living on the grassy verge in their modern trailer caravan. We stopped for a cup of tea and they explained what was going on. So many people wanted to live near the mystical Tor and many of them were short of funds. They could not find a place to live in town and wanted to park their caravans nearby and free of charge. The council had dumped the sewage to discourage them. It did not smell offensive but it served the purpose of blocking the way and being decidedly off-putting. More was to come. When I made it into Glastonbury I was equally amazed to find signs outside every cafe that read – “No Hippies!” I got a little taste of what racism must feel like and I did not stay long. This was not the welcome I wanted.

The path up the Tor

The funny thing is that over the years since then those “hippies” have taken over. They own the cafes now and most of the shops on the High Street. The window displays are full of colour and of crystals, Tibetan prayer flags and other wonders. I have climbed the Tor many times and this time I climbed the long path that leads up from the town along the spine of the hill to the summit. Chalice Hill was on my left and the open fenland to the right. The Tor has a masculine aspect, yang energy, the energy of the sun. Chalice Hill represents the yin feminine aspect, the holy and healing waters flow from the well at its foot. This is a great place to come to feel the union of male and female, sun and moon, the divine marriage that has the potential to heal the planet. At the time I am writing of nuclear war, the power of fire to destroy, was the most obvious threat to life on earth. Climate change was more of a distant rumour than an imminent catastrophe. It may be that the greatest miracle of the twentieth century has been that the expected war of mutual destruction did not happen It seemed so inevitable then. Yet the wisdom of the heart has prevailed, military men have ignored their own protocols and refused to pass on the messages that would have led to an attack. The threats to our mother Earth may seem even more imminent now. Glastonbury is among many places around the world that hold the potential for transformation, for all the forces that are in play to come into unison.
Some of these thoughts were passing through when I reached the highest point. Looking out I saw Abbie far below grazing peacefully by the caravan. What a glorious sight and how ordinary. I felt deliciously happy, full of youthful energy still after the climb, glad to sit for a while and let that energy loose in a silent meditation. High energy activity makes it easy to fall silent in its aftermath. After a while I began to grow cold and descended straight down the south side of the Tor, through an apple orchard and a few fields to the little road that led to my home with Abbie. I gave him a drink, moved his tethering pin and went inside to light the stove. That memory still brings a sense of safety and relaxation, a quiet peaceful space.

Abbie on the road

The following morning I awoke to the sound of Abbie’s hooves clattering down the road. It was very early and I was not amused. I jumped out of bed, pulled on some clothes and followed him back along the way we had come. I wished I had a bicycle, but it was not long before I saw him. Head down in the middle of a field full of oats. He must have spotted them as we passed by and decided to investigate. He could always break his tether when he really wanted to and I preferred it that way. It meant there was no chance his halter could harm or even strangle him. I walked into the field in his footsteps, dismayed to see that he had trampled many more oat stalks than he was able to eat. By the time I reached him he had satisfied even an Abbie size hunger and came along peacefully. I jumped on his back and within the hour we were back at the caravan. I tied Abbie up as securely as I knew how, had a quick breakfast and set off as fast as I could. We had not really done significant damage. Still, I had no interest in an encounter with an angry farmer in this already unfriendly area. I loved Glastonbury. About the current crop of locals I was not so sure.
I could hardly believe it when I was woken again by the sound of hooves the following day. Many more hooves this time. I was camped right by the side of the road and a troop of heifers came charging past. By the time I looked out the window they had mostly passed by, a whole herd of young cows on the loose, a vision in black and white. Abbie looked on with interest, the incident did not faze him at all. I was wide awake and by the time they had disappeared in the distance I was starting on another early breakfast. I did not travel far that day before I found another wonderful stopping place near the tiny village of Nythe, more of a hamlet really. I wanted to visit Bridgewater, a town twelve miles away or so, to visit an old friend. Here was my opportunity.
I locked the front door of the caravan, jumped on Abbie’s back and set off. I had ridden him a few times before but this was the first time for a long ride. He had a strong back and a wide one – riding without a saddle was comfortable for us both and he moved a lot faster without a heavy load to pull. I found a small canal to follow, the ‘King’s Sedgemoor Drain’ that led most of the way in a straight line. A lot faster than following the winding back roads of Somerset. It was these drains and ditches that kept the sea at bay.

On the road again

Bridgewater was busy and there were plenty of people around happy to give me directions and to chat with this wacky guy who had ridden into the centre of town. My friend was not there but all her family were. We enjoyed meeting again and before I knew it evening was coming on. They gave me an early dinner and then it was time to return. Abbie had been cropping their lawn and was ready to return. We made it along the main road out of town and across the fields to the canal before the long summer evening came to an end. It was hard to pick out a route in the dark and I did not want Abbie to stumble, so I ended up sleeping under a hedge through the short night, while Abbie had a vast field to himself. At crack of dawn we were on our way. He was easy to catch – he never made my life difficult when it really mattered. By the time we were home, I was saddle sore and ready for a long nap. Abbie looked as though he could have done it all over again.
I was almost out of money by now and needed a top up before Abbie needed a new set of shoes. They wore out quickly and were my biggest expense. I had heard from my friends in Bridgewater that there was strawberry picking in Draycott, not far to the North. So we prepared to leave the Glastonbury area and were to go on travelling North for much longer than I anticipated then.
Before that, I climbed the Tor one last time. In the time of Henry VIII, my distant relative Richard Whiting was the Abbot of Glastonbury. He was also the last abbot. Henry was not a friend to the monks and Richard was apparently a stubborn man. He resisted the destruction of the monastery and was therefore dragged to the Tor, where he was hung, drawn and quartered. I felt a strong connection with this man and a horror at the manner of his death. My uncle was also named Richard Whiting and that made him feel even closer. Since arriving in Glastonbury, I had a strong sense that Richard’s spirit had never let go, trapped in the shock of dying, and was still hanging around in the area. I felt him especially in the evenings. I had a sense of what to do and, making it up as I went along, I lit a candle and performed a ceremony there to encourage the spirit to leave forever and finally move on. It was not dramatic. No one watching would have seen anything out of the ordinary. For me it was profound. When we left Glastonbury behind us the following day, I felt Richard leaving too and a sense of gratitude.
Our route to Draycott took us through Wedmore, a beautiful winding village set above the surrounding moorland and above the flood-line. It was a safe refuge in winter and often called the Isle of Wedmore. We stopped there for lunch and arrived at the farm we were looking for, a little south of Draycott, in the late afternoon. There was a field set aside where the strawberry pickers could camp or stay in one of the farm huts, if any were still empty. I turned in at the gate and there in front of me stood a gipsy caravan, with two horses tethered nearby. There are no words to describe the impact. I was beyond amazed. I did not know anyone else was travelling like this in the south of England. The caravan was of a different style than mine, with a curved wooden roof. Still such a familiar sight, with the stove pipe sticking through the rood and woodsmoke curling into the air in the gentle breeze. The owners were sitting outside and as surprised to see me as I was to see them. They came over to help me find a level spot to park. Their names were Ray and Carol.

Burbage to Draycott

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