Musings on the Daffodil Way and Stinking Bishop…

23 03 2011

Spring has sprung and all is well with the world – at least within the Shire!   

The open road was calling. Chris and I threw our hiking boots in the boot and set off for an 09.34 (prompt) appointment, out along the winding back roads towards the village of Minsterworth – a pleasant enough spot caught between the busy A48 and the more tranquil banks of the winding river Severn.     

As time and tide wait for no man we arrived suitably early for our rendezvous with Mother Nature, jostling for position with the expectant group of dog walkers and ramblers assembled behind the churchyard – hot drinks available amongst the tombstones!

Despite 27 years working in the county of the elver eaters (incidentally Glawster Rugby’s original nick name pre Cherry & Whites) amazingly we had never seen the Severn Bore – a glaring omission. This would be our first and, as it turned out, probably our last!      

Here comes the geography. Apparently the Severn estuary, which empties into the Brissal Channel, has the second largest tidal range in the world (about 15 metres or 49 feet, in old money). During the highest tides (usually springtime) the rising water is funnelled back upstream creating a shock wave, the bore, travelling against the current.

The local media had been talking this one up, forecasting a 5 star rating. A solitary canoeist was treading water midstream and a group of wet suited surfers fanned out, boards at the ready, in anticipation of riding the swell.  

Sorry to say, this peak-tide wave was running late (by six minutes, actually) and when it did arrive it was a bit of a damp squib. The canoeist fleetingly caught the wave, bobbing up and down for a moment or two, but it completely passed the surfers by. If that was a 5 star I’m not quite sure what a 1 star amounts to; all in all I guess it lived up to its billing – the Severn bore!    

Next stop the pretty market town of Newent, and a belated cup of coffee. Some towns are famous for their history, others for their looks. It could be argued that this North West Gloucestershire town, on the edge of the Forest of Dean, has both, but its main claim to fame is onions!

Each September the town hosts an annual Onion Fayre. This event, dating back to the 13th century (incidentally, something else we’ve never attended) attracts around 12,000 people who between them buy an eye watering six tonnes of this humble vegetable! 

While ambling around the old market square I discovered a second claim to fame – a plaque celebrating the birthplace of Joe Meek (1929-67) the pioneering record producer. Meek is most famously associated with the 1962 instrumental hit Telstar by the Tornadoes, the first record by a British group to hit number 1 in the US charts.

Apparently ‘Joe’ was tone-deaf, unusual for someone in his line of work, but then again he did also produce ‘Cumberland Gap’ for Lonnie Donegan! He worked with a whole lot of largely second string 60s artists but his success was short-lived.

Having sunk deep into debt and depression, he went out with a bang, taking his own life (aged just 37) with a shot-gun he’d borrowed from Heinz Burt (the blonde one in the Tornadoes!) eight years to the day after ‘the music died’ – his hero was Buddy Holly.     

It is but a short hop from Newent to the pretty village of Dymock, with which I once enjoyed a very close acquaintance. It was in September 1989 that I began life, as  a fledgling headteacher, at the local Ann Cam CE Primary School, where I remained for nearly four years. I was young (well, 35!) idealistic and full of enthusiasm. In many ways it was my most enjoyable headship and a source of many fond memories.

Dymock is famed for its wild daffodils which once carpeted the surrounding meadows in such profusion that they were picked and sent to market, by road and rail, as far afield as London’s Covent Garden. 

Itinerant ‘pickers’ immortalised, by Ledbury born Poet Laureate, John Masefield:

“And there the pickers come, picking for town

Those dancing daffodils; all day they pick;

hard-featured women, weather-beaten brown,

Or swarthy-red, the colour of old brick,”

were joined in the fields by truanting children from the local school.

Dymock School dates back to 1825. I have in my possession a copy of a booklet, produced in 1970 by the then headteacher WCJ ‘Jack’ Hobbs, to commemorate the centenary of the 1870 Education Act. In it he draws heavily from old school log books to paint a vivid picture of life in a Gloucestershire village school.

School attendance was a persistent issue, constantly fluctuating in line with the rhythms of the countryside. This is reflected by a log book entry for 8th April 1827: “Poor attendance. Many children absent picking daffodils for sale.” 

I also have a copy of a photograph taken in 1954 outside the old school, a listed building which  finally closed in 1992 following the completion of a new hall with kitchen/dining area on the current school site. It was still being used for school lunches during my early days.

It shows children from the village school, together with Mr Hobbs, loading daffodils into a van for transportation to London hospitals.

Dymock is also renowned for its association, during the months leading up to the 1st World War, with the ‘Georgian Poets’.   For a short time it became the focal point for some of the finest young poets of their generation, scarcely known and struggling at the time, but some of whom would later achieve fame, if not fortune.

Amongst those dubbed ‘the Muse Colony’ (by Keith Clark) were Rupert Brooke, Edward Thomas and the American poet Robert Frost. It was to be a short-lived rural idyll broken by the war, in which Thomas and Brooke would lose their lives.

A couple of miles down the road from Dymock village centre is Greenway Cross. On one side of the crossroads stands the ‘Old Nail Shop’, once home to one of their number, poet, Wilfrid Gibson.  

It was from Gibson’s home that the group planned and published their own magazine, ‘New Numbers’, which was mailed out from the Post Office across the road (long closed but the post box still remains outside what is now a private house).       

It was in ‘Number Five’ that Rupert Brooke first published the sonnet, ‘Soldier’, which earned him his place in history of English Poetry (arguably along with ‘Old Vicarage, Grantchester’ written in 1912; based on Brooke’s Cambridgeshire home – now that of pulp fiction author, former MP and jail-bird, Jeffrey Archer) and on which his popular reputation rests:    

“If I should die, think only this of me:

That there’s some corner of a foreign field

That is forever England…”

So having taken a trip down memory lane, rambling across the fields amongst the wild daffodils (still plentiful along the well sign posted ’Daffodil Way’) it was time to repair to the Beauchamp Arms for a spot of lunch.

This was where the governors and I would sup the odd pint or two after our late night meetings. Apparently threatened with closure in the mid-1990s it was rescued by the parish council. They reckoned if the pub went the village would be less attractive to potential residents and the next thing to go would be the school. It remains the only ‘pc’ pub in Gloucestershire.  How’s that for forward thinking and proactivity?    

I settled on a cheddar and ‘Branston’ baguette (very nice it was too) but I had been hoping for Stinking Bishop – officially the smelliest cheese in the UK and made at ‘Laurel Farm’, Dymock.It ’s been produced there since 1972, from the milk of Gloucestershire cattle; its distinctive odour (and name) taken from a process of immersion in a perry made from the local Stinking Bishop pear, during the maturation process.    

Stinking Bishop was catapulted into the public consciousness by Wallace & Grommit, through a brief but crucial appearance in the 2005 Oscar-winning animation, The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, in which it was used to revive Wallace from the dead.

This unexpected product placement resulted in a 500% increase in demand, all very nice but impossible to meet. You can’t be rushing traditional methods nor Glawstershire folk like that!

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3 responses

24 03 2011
Gerry

Thanks for another bright start to my day, I will leave the Telegraph and the budget ’till much later. G.

1 10 2012
Kieran Mccaffrey

Hey.. nice article! Just wondering though, do you know what brand/type of hiking boots they are in your picture up the top??

10 10 2012
Phil Aldridge

Thanks. Can’t remember the boots – could be Doc Martens or Caterpillar?

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