(James writes a monthly column for The Gudgeon. Each month, the previous month’s article is archived.)
I am more popular than I used to be. Friends and family who used to wince when they saw me now ask if they can visit for the weekend. They pop in on their way to Wales or Cornwall, or their yurt in Devon or their tepee in the Forest of Dean. I’ve had to buy extra bedding and a blow-up mattress just to keep up with demand. They bring their pets. Their children eat my biscuits. I can change a bed in under a minute.
My partner, Sally, wonders if my new popularity has anything to do with us moving to a town of genuine charm, in one of the most attractive parts of the UK, but I just smile when she says that. Popular people have to put up with these jealousies.
When our guests arrive I like to give them a tour of the town even if they don’t want one. And I always start with the town bridge. I say that three things are likely to strike them when they cross the bridge: (1) the piece of social history that is the old lock-up; (2) the glorious copper-gilt weather vane (aka the Bradford Gudgeon); and (3) the wing-mirror of a passing car.
Let’s face it, it can get a bit tight.
I suppose that’s the nature of old bridges – they’re narrow. Especially a thirteenth-century packhorse bridge that was widened just once in the seventeenth-century to accommodate ‘larger’ traffic. Seriously, what were they thinking back then? Surely they could have foreseen the mirror-to-mirror width of a modern long-wheel-base panel van.
As we cross the bridge I ask my guests to watch out for yellow jackets. Not the wasp variety, nor the cyclists who whizz past, nor even the fluorescent caterpillar of pre-school children who, from a distance, look like the Minions from the Despicable Me films; but the people in high-visibility yellow jackets who work to keep us safe.
The Lorry Watch volunteers.
The bridge has an 18-tonne weight limit. I know this because there are signs that say so on the roads that lead into Bradford on Avon – albeit a few are a bit bent and battered. And the Lorry Watch volunteers keep an eye on the traffic that crosses the bridge, just in case a driver has missed the signs and discovered that he or she are having to squeeze their fully-laden 4-axle articulated truck over a pedestrian-lined bridge that was originally designed for a horse and cart.
This is important work. I used to cycle in South London, along Streatham High Road, between Brixton and Croydon, and I know what it’s like to be up close and personal with a moving vehicle that is three hundred and fifty times heavier than I am. It focuses the mind.
The Lorry Watch volunteers are out in all types of weather reminding drivers of the bridge’s weight limit. I should imagine it’s a job that can be under-appreciated, especially by drivers who are trying to get from one point to another and have inadvertently strayed into their scrutiny. But I appreciate it, and I show my guests the work they do so that they can appreciate it too.
Back on the tour, we cross the bridge safely and I point out the shops, the churches, the parks, the canal, the river, the railway crossings, the restaurants and all the pubs. I talk in a loud, ill-informed, scattergun way that only a newcomer without any training in tourism can. Sally says that I’ll have them wincing again in no time. I say I want a yellow jacket.