The Great Millennium Circle
At 2.30am, I was woken in the pitch dark
by an unearthly deep electric humming noise, close to my head.
Needless to say, I jumped to the only possible logical conclusion,
that it was aliens come to take us away into outer space, from
where we lay on their prehistoric launch-pad. I woke myself and
Lewis up with a heartfelt cry of "It's a space ship"
and rather startled the chap who was making the noise on his didgeridoo.
He shuffled off, and I went back to sleep, only half happy not
to have been abducted by aliens. Now that would be a story.
We woke up in the clear dawn, a little stiff and cold but the better for having spent the night out in the fresh air, and the alien kidnapper chap, who turned out to be called Andy, played his didgeridoo while the sun came up. The scene from the top of Silbury Hill has to be witnessed to be understood. From the top of Silbury Hill, the horizon seems to be mostly at the same level, and is for a large part relatively smooth. The sun rose just to the left of a copse of trees when we saw it, but I could imagine that the solstices and mid-winter or mid-summer sun or moon-rises might be marked by appropriately-placed sarsens on that saucer-shaped horizon. Unfortunately, we were up where we shouldn't have been, and had to climb over a fence to get out. The hill is supposed to have a unique suite of vegetation on its flanks, never having been grazed, so the whole thing is fenced off. Personally I would favour putting in some proper steps and charging for entry, since people (like ourselves) doubtless jump over the fence and contribute to the uncontrolled erosion of the hill.
We spoke with Andy, the didgeridoo man. He told us that he had done a lot of drugs in the sixties and seventies, but that he had cleaned himself up, and was now straight as a die. He spoke with real conviction about putting one's roots down into the soil and channelling that earth energy through yourself. He was exceptionally softly-spoken and it was difficult sometimes to make out what he was saying. He had us sit in silence, eyes closed, while he shook a rattle in circles around my head. The effect was rather pleasant, rather calming. I didn't exactly feel as though I had channelled any earth energy, but it was an interesting diversion. He said that we were walking the Great Millennium Circle for everyone on the planet, which was very generously broadminded of him, since I for one thought that I was doing it largely for my own amusement.
Lewis and I left him blowing into his didgeridoo, and wandered off into the lightening gray dawn, back towards Avebury.
"I've been here since 1968,"
said Ben, the more talkative of the two, "and was before
that in Sussex."
I told him that 1968 was the year after I was born.
"Crikey! It only seems like yesterday actually. It hasn't changed much around here since then, but they've got restrictions on the amount of building that you can do. It's still rural, still farmland, there's nice villages. It's quite good." As we were walking along, I saw a small disc on the side of a puddle. I stooped to pick it up. "Is that a coin?" said Ben. We gave it a good rub and got some of the muck off of it. "It's an old penny, a 1930 penny. Some of these old pennies, not that one I shouldna' thought, but some of these old pennies are valuable. That's George the sixth, no, the fifth on the back there. That's lucky that is. Well done, good for you." I wondered how long it had lain in that puddle: probably for fifty years or more. Anyway, Ben went on to mention his war exploits, and Thomas was not to be left out. I asked Thomas where he went when he was in the Navy. "Everywhere! Anywhere the ships could go. I was in battleships when I was a young lad, that was before the war, that was, then I was in destroyers during the war and in small ships ever a'ter. Ben was in the KG Five, the King George the Fifth."
"Aye," says Ben, "I helped to sink the Bismark, chased it around the Atlantic."
Thomas was not to be outdone. "I was in a destroyer at the same time, when the Hood was sunk, it was all a part of the same operation, we wuz escortin' the Hood. But we musn't be tellin' you all this old history."
I told them that I thought the war was probably the most exciting thing that has happened in the last 100 years.
"I dunno about excitin'," chortled Thomas. "I was at Dunkirk, I helped evacuate Dunkirk in the little ships, for a week, backwards and forwards, gettin' the troops off the beach."
"You weren't at D-Day then," I said.
"No," says Tom, "otherwise I might not be here. Mind, we lost one other brother at D-Day, he went down in a ship, sank by the battleship Byram, what they would call 'collateral damage' nowadays, I 'spect."
Picture: Robert & Lewis McCaffrey and Kevin Hannavy at the start of the GMC (70Kb)
In the Fens...
At Kirton End, I came across a singular
A mess of cars were pulled up on the verge and two spotty local youfs were gormlessly lounging in deck chairs. I enquired, and they told me that it was the open day of the Lincolnshire Pet Crematorium: they were organising the parking. I decided to investigate a little further.
I walked in to the reception, to the sound of the "i£ching" of the cash register.
"Hullo, I'm Russel, I'm the manager," said a fit, middle-aged chap, with a strong Midland accent. I introduced myself, told him I was doing some recording, and filled him in about the circle. He suggested that a short tour of the premises was in order, and I agreed, curious.
"We been going ten years, now, this is our tenth anniversary opening. Baysically it's for any sized pet, i.e., any pet you can think of..."
"Not horses, baysically we have another outlet where we have another person where they do that for us, but baysically we do anything ranging up from spiders..."
We bumped into a chap wearing a dog collar. "There's the Vicar," I observed astutely. He was just off after turning up for the afternoon.
"Orlright Harry, thanks very much for comin' mate," said Russel.
"Baysically, we do Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs, goats, anything that someone will keep as a pet, we will do. Anyhow, this is the actual incinerator room. There's nothing morbid or disgustin' about the place, this is baysically where it happens. When an animal comes in, it's no different from an 'uman, it is toe-tagged exactly the same as an 'uman, not round their toe but round their foot, 'an all that, then baysically it's brought over 'ere. There's two different groups of animals that we deal with, or ways they can be cremated. There's one where they have their ashes back, which is called a private crematation, where the animal's done on its own, and there's another way, which is baysically a group cremation, which is baysically where they don't want their ashes back, so the animals are incinerated and then taken into the garden and they are scattered there."
We were in a large brick-built shed with bare concrete floors, with a blackened incinerator in the centre, and a great steel chimney leading up to the roof.
"An individual, depending on the size, goes into trays, which are at the back there, and anything bigger than that goes into the bed, in here, and is swept up afterwards." He lifted the heavy counter-balanced lid of the incinerator. "It's gas fired, still a bit warm 'cos I keep firing it up 'cos people like to see the flames. But baysically, the flame comes in through this side, comes down, hits the back wall and comes back round, so you get a circle of flames. It doesn't blow them all over the place. Baysically, if I put an animal in the middle, it stays there. Baysically, an individual, when they come out of here, it takes two hours to get up to temperature, baysically, you're looking, we burn at 750°C, after two hours, it's enough to actually burn an animal. Placed in, it takes anywhere, depending on size, I mean a spider don't take a second, but a pot-bellied pig would take anywhere up to an hour an' 'alf. After comin' out, it takes anywhere up to three hours for the actual ash to cool down. If it's a smaller animal the tray is removed, there's a nice wind tunnel out 'ere, cools 'em down a bit faster."
"People that want their ashes back, they baysically don't want bones, they want ash. When they are taken out of the incinerator, they are not ash, they are bone. To get it to powder, we 'ave to put it through another machine, which is a cremulator."
He indicated a squat steel machine with a metal swing door at the front, like a washing-machine.
"This is the actual cremulator, and people go, 'What, you smash it all to bits?' but baysically, this cremulator come from the Hooman crematorium in Boston. Baysically, me, you and all our relations, if they're cremated will go through one of these machines. The bone is put in, it's baysically a spin drier, but," and here he started it up with almost deafening effect, "it's full of titanium steel balls."
He switched if off, thankfully. The Chinese say that silence is worth buying. I agree.
"The balls smash together and small the bones, and the little 'oles, the ash goes through and then it comes out in a tray in the bottom. Nice powder, for when you want to scatter them in water or have them blown away in the wind. Bones won't do that.
"Baysically, we've got a certain number of people, that, even though they wanted to do it privately, don't want to take the ash 'ome, so we've got gardens, where they can actually, in their caskets, bury them in our gardens, and have memorials and all the rest of it. I mean, we've got memorials on special offers an' all that. And we've got an 'ome burial service where we come to your house and bury your dog, and do a complete service from start to finish, right through from digging of the 'ole, right through to the coffin, everything."
"This lady 'ere, she comes three times a year, and spends a couple of hours, she cleans the memorial." The simple plaque said 'Sadly missed, never forgotten.'
"Over 'ere we've got a new garden, baysically they will be buried there, and there will be memorials with 'em."
The garden had an eclectic collection of far-eastern symbols, from a bridge, geisha, budda and dragon to a griffin. I thought griffins were Welsh?
"We was 'opin to have a Chinese sign down there, but to find a person, even a Chinese, who can even write Chinese seems impossible now. We've got the waterfall here." Another little plaque said 'Gemma, 1983-1988.'
"We are going to be extending the garden next year. We've got a charity event on tonight. Well, baysically, we couldn't do it today because, really, it's out of taste. We didn't want to make it a too sombre affair and everything. But we can't make it too jolly, because it is a crematorium. But tonight, we've got about 45 to 50 people coming, sort of for a barbecue, and we've got a chef comin' down, and we're going to have moosic and a disco and all the rest of it, and then there's me, Steve who owns the place and one of the brothers, we're having our chests waxed. And I'm a very hairy person."
"And then, I don't know if you've ever seen it on Sky, the Endurance thing they've got on there, we've got one of them that we're doing tonight. With baked beans and gravy and custard and that sort of thing, just in here," he gestured towards the Garden of Remembrance, "but that's after the public's gone. All the people who's comin' tonight are friends and relatives. We're a local business, so we're doing it from the local community centre. It just puts a little back into the community that you take out, like." Quite.
Picture: Silbury Hill, site of some very strange happenings...
Near Ellesmere Port...
Lew and I decided to let the owner know
that he was illegally blocking the footpath. I think that we must
have been rather hungry and tired, and I think that we were becoming
a little bit more belligerent than normal. We knocked on the door.
A dog barked from inside. We knocked again: the door opened.
"Hello," I said.
"Hello," said the young man in the doorway, who I guessed was in his early twenties, and who was taller than Lew or I. He spoke with a strong Merseyside accent.
"I just thought I'd let you know that you are illegally blocking the footpath just here."
"Yeah, I know."
"Do you know about that?"
""That's breaking the law," said Lew.
"That's illegal," I said. "Why would you do that?"
"'Cos we are."
"Why would you do that then?"
"'Cos we are. 'Cos we had some knob'eds go through there."
"What did they do?"
"Kicked shit out the dog. So that why it's all shut up."
"But it would be illegal to have a dangerous dog in there anyway." (I said it, but I don't know for sure that it is true).
"Well it's our garden."
"But it's a public footpath as well."
"Yeah but we've been told that it's our garden, we're allowed to let people through who we wanter let through."
"You've got to let everybody through."
"Don't care. Fuck off."
Hmmm. This was not going according to plan.
"You know we're recording this?" Lew helpfully chipped in. The lad saw red.
"I don't give a shit what you record. Get off me drive now."
Now, my understanding of the law of trespass is that if you are on someone else's property, (and we were off the footpath and on his drive at that moment) if you are asked to leave, then you must leave, although the route that you must take is not prescribed. Anyway, we started to comply with his request.
"Get off me drive now." He came along and started to push Lewis along with his chest, like a couple of stags fighting over territory.
"Oh, I say, you can't do that," I said, with curiously little effect.
"Get off me drive, Get off me drive."
"If you touch me you'll be guilty of an offence," said Lew, standing rather too much upon the letter of the law.
"Get off me drive. Go on, get off me drive now," he pushed Lewis some more.
"We're going to get off your drive," I shrieked. All of our voices had risen a few notches in pitch.
"Go on, get off me drive now. And you."
"We are just going." He started pushing me now, and made a grab for the microphone, which was sticking out of the recording bag at my side.
"Now. You'd better watch it," I said, "because you cannot do this. We are just about, we are going. We are going."
"Get off or I'll break your nose."
"I'm afraid that you'd better watch it," said Lew, as we reached the safety of the end of his tarmac drive.
"Okay, we're off your drive now."
"We could take you to court for that. Yeah? Understood?" Lewie's blood was up a little.
"Do you want to meet me dad?" he tossed over his shoulder as he returned into the house, after having pushed us from his property, "Go on, go and walk somewhere else."
"We are allowed to walk through there," I said, the confrontation rapidly descending into farce. However, his Pathian shot was his best.
"Have you got nothing better to do that go for a walk?" He slammed the door behind him, the dog still barking.
Lew and I walked off, a bit surprised at what had happened. "Shall we have him?" said Lew.
Ken and Robert, former miners at Dearne.
In deep Wales...
Along the plateau and
down to Coed-Llifoss Farm, we happened to meet a young lady who
looked rather out of sorts. She had long dark hair, but only on
one side of her head. The other half had about two month's worth
of stubble on it. She asked where we were going, and we said that
we were going down towards Glyn. She very kindly offered to show
us the way. I am always nervous of letting anybody know where
I am going to be bivouacking for the night, and we were very close
to our bivvy site, but the girl insisted, so we acquiesced. She
started to walk along next to us with a very stiff legged gait,
and she had a slightly-slurred voice. She was very friendly, and
it was obvious that she didn't get very many visitors in that
part of the world. Her name was Bronwen Davies.
"Okay, I'll take you down to the brook. You don't mind my dog, do you? It's my parents' farm, a dairy farm. I'll have to warn you, I am an epileptic: I am an uncontrolled epileptic. Don't worry. It happens."
As we were passing through the yard, we bumped into a rosy-cheeked and bucolic chap, Bronwen's father. "Ramblin' are you? Bit late in the afternoon to go ramblin', en't it?" He obviously had a keen eye. We showed him where we were off to, without specifying where we were going to stop. He took the dog, Shep, in with him. We started off again.
"So, how often would you have a fit then?"
"Once a day"
"That must be exhausting," said Liz.
"Oh no, far from it." We went into a big field through a gate, which Bronwen shut behind us. " I was havin' them four times a day. I'm very happy about havin' it only once a day. I had a tumour that was makin' it worse. They took that out in January. That's why my walkin' is now a bit.offish. The tumour was makin' my fits worse, apparently, for twenty years and I didn't even know it was there. It was in my brain, on the top, that's where they took it out. Luckily it was not malignant. Before, my leg was kickin' out, and it wouldn't stand straight. I couldn't hold a cup of tea with my arm. I was sort of half paralysed down my right side. Now I can do a lot better. Mind, I'm a forceful person, I'll get on with things. I've just fed the calves. We've just had a calf yesterday. Sometimes they are frightened and they run away from you. They can be the worst: the most impossible. It can take you half an hour to get them to suck anything, for their own good food."
"We don't get many people goin' through the farm. What we don't like sometimes is when you start claimin' all the land for your own."
I didn't quite know what she was getting at, so I changed the subject slightly: "It must be quite, er, tough to have a tumour and some other problems and to be all the way out here."
"It is, it's quite isolated. Five miles from nowhere. Chepstow is the nearest town. I didn't used to think much of walkin' at all. But when I once stood out and looked at it all, and really looked at it, especially in nineteen ninety-, I think it was seven, and in autumn, and it was one of the most beautiful autumns we ever had. The beech trees just shone like nothin' on earth. And I thought, is it me changin' or is it just everythin's gone more beautiful? And I think it was a bit of both. The years afterwards, I didn't find it half as beautiful as that time. You get different summers, you get different winters, sometimes leaves will drop off before, and this time it just hang on, and it really did shine. I'll never forget it. The colours of the leaves were so magnificent in my eyes then. I started thinkin' about the land, and I started thinkin' perhaps I'm takin' everythin' for granted. Be careful where you're steppin' now."
We had come down to a brook in a wood, and with a great deal of thrashing around in various bushes, throwing our packs across and then jumping across ourselves with the aid of the wellington-booted Bronwen, we eventually got across. Bronwen said her goodbyes to us. "Don't be like the others who come here, and think that this land is your own. And that you can do anything with it, mind."
"We are just, guests," I said, "just visitors."
"Then you're welcome. Goodbye." We watched her limp back out of the wood and up the field.