Exploring the real world… the ark

October, 2018

I’ve had a cold recently and I haven’t been exploring the real world as much as usual. Just hanging around the house drinking lemon and honey and cough medicine. Colds are boring and doing nothing started me thinking about hobbies.

My parents didn’t have any hobbies. They went to work, came home and watched TV. Dad whistled but I don’t think that counts even though it took up a lot of his spare time. Warble, trill, shrill, vibrato, he liked to do it all, all the time, often at the same time. It was like living with R2-D2. My friends’ parents were the same (not the whistling but the no-hobby thing). I didn’t know anybody who had a hobby. And I was the same and so were all my friends. We went to school, came home and watched TV. The whole town was a slumber zone of non-activity. And that got me thinking even more. The whole town was the same.

Hold that thought.

Have you ever noticed how few chain stores there are in Bradford on Avon? There are some but not many. Most of the shops are independent concerns: cakes, vegetables, cheese, coffee, books, dogs, art, gifts, clothes. And there are loads more. That’s a lot of entrepreneurial juice for one small town, don’t you think? And what about all the special interest clubs? If I wanted to take up knitting with fluff, I bet I’d find a local group that’s already doing it. And then there are all the alternative life-style people wearing homemade shoes and dressed in hummus, and the packs of artists and sculptors and writers who haunt the cafés drinking decaf soy lattes with a caramel drizzle. This is a very creative town.

The whole town is the same.

Where I grew up nothing happened outside of work except a localised pocket of whistling. In Bradford on Avon there is a bubbling cauldron of go-getting vim. And consider this: before I came here I sat around and ate biscuits and stared at the wall, now I’m growing vegetables – not on me, I mean in the garden. Admittedly there’s only one cucumber covered in spots and a miniscule butternut squash, but even so. And I’ve also taken up the ukulele. No-one in the history of my family all the way back to Australopithecus Lucy has ever played a musical instrument (no, whistling doesn’t count).

I’ve given this a lot of thought and I’ve come to a shocking conclusion. It’s the government. They’re putting something in the water. I know, it’s unbelievable. But this is what I think happened: at some point in the past, perhaps during the Thatcher years, it looked like we would have to evacuate the planet. I’m hazy on the details but that’s the shape of it. And what they did was create a series of arks, communities with certain specialities, so that when the time came to get going everybody would be organised in the right compartments.

Bradford on Avon is an entrepreneurial and creative ark. The town I grew up in was a TV watching ark. I’m not clear how that would help in colonising a new planet but you have to trust the authorities because they know best. Anyway, that’s what I’ve been thinking about recently. I told Sally and she said I need more fresh air and to stop drinking all the cough medicine. But I’m thinking of setting up a knitting-with-fluff club. I don’t want to but I can’t help myself. Anyone interested?

Exploring the real world… and preserving it

September, 2018

An English teacher once handed back an essay I’d written by scrunching it into a ball and throwing it at my head. When I unscrunched it (the essay not my head) every page was criss-crossed with creases.

I mention this for two reasons. Firstly, although I didn’t keep the essay (it was rubbish) it still has a role in my life. We’re connected. From that ball of paper came better writing, better stories and who knows, perhaps better Gudgeon articles. Secondly, I’ve noticed my face is starting to look like that essay. Time is marking me in the same eloquent but unsubtle way – with creases.

It was with this cheerful thought that Sally and I went for our daily walk. “What I need,” I said as we approached Barton Grange Farm, “is a James Ellis Preservation Trust. A group of volunteers who are willing to give up their time, restore me and keep me looking great.”

“Or to stuff you,” Sally said. “And put you in a jar.”

“But I’m still alive,” I said. “Anyway, I don’t want to be a museum piece. I’m not talking about conservation. I’m talking about active preservation, of retaining a function, of having an ongoing value and being relevant to the future.”

We looked at the West Barn. Hard to imagine that the grass on which we stood had once been a muddy, puddle-covered car park. Harder still to imagine that this building, which was partially destroyed by fire in 1982, pre-dates the Tithe Barn which itself is about 700 years old. Thank goodness the West Barn was restored and re-opened. It now hosts meetings and private functions and has public open days every week.

“This is what I mean,” I said. “Benefitting from the past by contributing to the collective good.” That’s how I talk sometimes, like a socialist pamphlet. “The key to the future is to keep the past and the present connected,” I droned on. “Did I ever tell you about my scrunched up essay?” But I could see that Sally was still thinking about me being in a glass jar.

Unlike me, Bradford on Avon does have a preservation trust and one of the reasons this town looks so remarkable is because of that trust’s good work. Priory Barn and Priory Barn Cottage, the Pippet Buildings on Market Street, Newtown Sprout, Barton farmyard itself, country park plantings – all these were rescued or created (and in some cases are still run) by the Bradford on Avon Preservation Trust and its volunteers.

Volunteers are the lifeblood of any community. They can’t be praised enough. They pick up litter and look after swans’ eggs and manage historic barns and run fund-raising events and write in The Gudgeon about the climate and sustainability. They get things done and they care. We need that in this world and we also need a regular churn of volunteers to keep that vital link to the future. Their voices with new ideas and different perspectives can answer the existential question that plagues all successful charities: what should we do next?

We walked to the river and watched the water drift by. I said, “You know, it’s not about preserving the past at all, is it? It’s about preserving the future.” But Sally just gazed at me with a faraway look and said, “I might go on a taxidermy course.”

You can read more about the Bradford on Avon Preservation Trust at www.bradfordheritage.co.uk. And if you’re interested in setting up an organisation devoted to my restoration that doesn’t involve glass jars, do let me know.