Exploring the real world… volunteers

January, 2019

It’s that time of year. Our Christmas tree is lopsided and the fairy’s fallen off. The decorations are pulling paint off the walls, our pots and pans are charred and ruined, black bags are filled with body parts, guests cower in the shadows looking lost and frightened, ravens peck at carcasses, wolves howl, and there are the remains of a bonfire on the dining room table. I will never invite the sewing circle to tea again.

Sally navigated Christmas and New Year’s Eve unscathed but something happened to me. I changed shape. I am now round. A blob. And all my clothes have shrunk. This phenomenon occurs every year so fortunately I know what to do: I clear a space on the sofa and sit down with a pen and paper. It’s time to make my 2019 resolutions. First of all, obviously, I will never drink alcohol again. Right. What else? Oh yes, I will lose two stone, take up lacrosse, read medieval poetry, play the tuba, embrace veganism, run a marathon, learn to speak French and publish a bestselling novel.

Ha.

I screw up the paper and throw it at the Christmas tree. I make the same list every year and nothing changes. I need better resolutions, resolutions that aren’t just about me living somebody else’s life. Let’s face it, I don’t know what lacrosse is and if I tried to run a marathon my skeleton would disintegrate. Thinking about disintegrating skeletons reminds me of the Bradford on Avon Preservation Trust – I wrote about their need for volunteers last year – and in turn that reminds me of something I want to ask you.

You know where the Tithe Barn is, and the Coffee Barn? Well, part of that cluster of impossibly old buildings is the West Barn. I love the West Barn. They say it was once a porch for a much bigger structure. A porch! It’s over 700 years old and looks fabulous, although in fairness, after lying fallow for a while after a fire in 1982, it’s had a bit of a makeover. But even so. It’s a tough little thing, proud and resilient despite starting out as a place for people to wipe their feet and hang up their coats.

These days the West Barn hosts concerts and recitals, exhibitions, weddings and all sorts of other functions. And it’s usually open to the public on Wednesdays and Sundays between spring and autumn. These regular open days are run by volunteers – people who give up a couple of hours of their time to sit in the West Barn and be on hand should a visitor have a question. It’s important work.

And that’s what I want to ask you. Last year I made a resolution that I kept: Make a Choice; Be Involved. Now I’m a volunteer coordinator for the West Barn open days and we need more volunteers. So I’m reaching out from this article to you, to ask if you would join us and give the occasional two hours to sit in that beautiful building on a Wednesday or Sunday, and be part of its living history? If you would, then please email me or the Preservation Trust at jamesauthorellis@outlook.com or hello@bradfordheritage.co.uk.

I suppose I should look for that fairy now. But before I do, may I wish you all a happy and peaceful New Year – and watch out if the sewing circle knock on your door. (Author’s note: any resemblance in this article to the aftermath of tea with an actual sewing circle, existing or otherwise, is purely coincidental.)

Exploring the real world… Goldilocks pubs

February, 2019

According to a recent census there are almost 10,000 people living in the parish of Bradford on Avon (north and south wards). More than 80% are 18-years-old or older which means there are roughly 8,000 adults living in an area of slightly more than five-square-miles. It doesn’t say how many dogs are resident here; probably two or three times that number.

In addition, our town accommodates the weekend and day visitors who come to look at attractions such as the Church of St Laurence (I still marvel at the fragment of fossil tree in the chancel), or to have their photograph taken outside the Bridge Tea Rooms (I don’t know if the census included the ghost), or to push me into the road while they take a selfie on the town bridge.

And on top of that, there are the towpath and riverbank ramblers who pass through every day, and those speedy cyclists who like to ting their bells without an accompanying please or thank you and then spray me with mud (yes, I am a cyclist myself but I am polite and considerate and they are clots).

This adds up to a lot of adults. I mention it because the other day I overheard a person saying that if ever there was a place to run a pub, it is here. Their logic was that in such a compact town where most people walk when they go out, drinks-per-punter must be higher than in communities where people tend to drive more. In short, Bradford on Avon is a Goldilocks town for publicans.

I am not suggesting the average BoA citizen passes out every night in a messy alcoholic heap but I do think that person was on to something. One of the attractions of living in Bradford on Avon is the close proximity of everything to everything else. It is all on our doorstep. There is no need to take the car when we go out – which, when you consider the average Briton spends more than two days a year waiting for traffic lights to turn green, is a good thing.

Clearly, others have seen this opportunity. If we include The Swan, Timbrell’s Yard and The Lock Inn Café, there are, I think, sixteen pubs in Bradford on Avon (I apologise to all local pubologists if I have missed any). Sally and I have been to most of them and I feel quietly confident that we have done our bit to support the town’s drinks-per-punter quotient.

Perhaps a benefit of this strong pub presence is that it encourages both competition and an element of specialism which gives us, the enthusiastic customer, a diverse range of venues from which to choose – from traditional to modern; from picturesque to characterful.

At least three pubs host first-class live music (check out The Three Horseshoes on a Sunday afternoon) and nearly all are child friendly (10% of people are under nine-years-old in BoA). Most serve great food, have guest beers and welcome dogs with open paws. Some run pub quizzes and three have nailed the ancient art of punning (the sign for The Stumble Inn always makes me happy).

It is interesting how simple numbers and percentages can reflect social opportunities. For example, according to the Office of National Statistics 0.2% of the working population make a living as ‘authors, writers or translators’. That means, theoretically, I have nine comrade-in-pens living in Bradford on Avon. We should get together and go out. I know a good pub – come to think of it, I know sixteen good pubs.

Exploring the real world… a Christmas Carol

December, 2018

Bah! That’s what I used to say to Christmas. Humbug! An annual mugging of my hard-earned moolah. Decorations? Boughs of holly? Spare me the jingly bells and chestnuts roasting on an open fire. I was a writer, jaded by Amazon algorithms. What use was festive cheer to me? But then last Christmas, our first in Bradford on Avon, something… well, something rather odd happened.

It was a cold and frosty Christmas Eve and a chill wind was a-howling and… no, hang on, it was quite mild. Anyway, Sally was out with her friends singing carols and drinking shots, and I was huddled by a candle at the kitchen table going through the royalty payments for my novel, The Wrong Story. How could they be negative numbers?

Then, as the clock struck midnight, the candle went out. I was in utter darkness. I felt a draught on my neck as cold as ice, and an ancient smell of buried bones filled my nostrils. I shuddered with disgust. I’d left the fridge door open. I rose to close it and saw hovering behind me a ghostly face staring into mine. “Oh my God,” I said, backing away and raising my arms in the shape of a cross. “How much have you had to drink?” Sally was home.

There’s no negotiating with her when she’s in a merry mood, and for the next hour she sang karaoke to Christmas Hits Of The Seventies before falling into a deep and untroubled sleep on the sofa.

I wasn’t so lucky. I began to think about all the unwanted presents I’d passed on to other people. All the mince pies I’d taken for free at open evenings, the home-made mulled wine I’d poured into potted plants, the puppies I’d bought just for Christmas, the banning of Slade from the house. I felt a stirring in my hard writerly heart – was it indigestion or guilt? I lit another candle and brooded.

That’s when the odd thing happened. The flame above the candle seemed to reform into a golden fish. I rubbed my eyes and looked again. Yes, there it was, a gudgeon, it’s wide rubbery mouth turned downward, its lidless eyes regarding me with distinct disapproval. It floated away and I felt compelled to follow.

We stepped into a future Bradford on Avon. The year to come in which Sally and I would sing at folk nights in The Swan Hotel, bell ringers would invite me to their practice, Timbrell’s Yard would make a fuss of us, The Stumble Inn would welcome us. The Wrong Story would be on sale in Ex Libris and my new novel, An Other’s Look, would be crowdfunded by Unbound Books. We would walk beside canals and rivers and watch bands play in The Three Horseshoes. And I would write surreal articles like this for the Gudgeon.

I awoke to daylight and the sound of Christmas bells. My dream was fading but the sense of optimism remained. I went into the living room where Sally was still on the sofa. “Merry Christmas,” I shouted. She winced, gave me the thumbs up (at least, I think that’s what she did) and went back to sleep.

Author’s note: no puppies were harmed before or during the writing of this article. The Wrong Story is selling but please do buy one. An Other’s Look is still crowdfunding and you can pre-order a copy at https://unbound.com/books/an-others-look/. And to all the kind people who have made Sally and me so welcome, thank you. See you all next year.

Exploring the real world… the canal

November, 2018

In 1794 the first sod of the Kennet and Avon Canal was cut in Bradford on Avon. What interests me about that moment is the phrase, ‘first sod’. Every description of that inaugural digging uses those words. Not ‘first clod of earth’, not ‘first dollop of mud’, but always ‘first sod’. It’s not how I’d like to be remembered but then again I’m not a lump of turf. The thing is, whoever wrote it that way nailed the moment and now no other words will do. And that got me thinking about canal words and about the canal in general.

The original idea was to join two stretches of river and create a navigable waterway 87 miles long from Bristol to Reading. This proved to be a good idea until the Great Western Railway came along and spoiled everything with its so-called speedy transportation. This is something I cannot understand at all. In my experience, travelling from Bradford on Avon to Bristol at 4mph in a narrowboat is a lot faster than waiting for a GWR train to show up on time.

Anyway, the canal fell into decline for a hundred years until some lovely people, mostly volunteers, restored it. And here’s where I discovered another fabulous canal word: re-puddling. Isn’t that wonderful? Not just puddling, but re-puddling. The section at Limpley Stoke had dried out and as we all know, canals work best when they’re wet. So it was made watertight again by re-puddling it with puddling clay. I only wish I had more opportunities to use that word.

You might be thinking at this point what’s going on with this article? It’s full of facts. James doesn’t do facts. Well, the canal has become important to me and I thought some backstory might be useful. You see, every day Sally and I walk along the river, up to the swing bridge and back along the towpath. We’ve been doing this for over a year through snow, mud, dust, midges and bell-tinging cyclists. And my favourite part of our walk is always the canal. There is something very inclusive, very human about the canal.

Perhaps it’s because like people, its energy and pulse are constrained within artificial, societal boundaries. Or perhaps it’s because the canal is a symbol of connecting human endeavours. Or perhaps it is simply that like us all, it needs a helping hand every now and then. I often think the rhythm of the canal ripples into the wider town – not literally of course, or we’d be soaked – but in a mindful, thoughtful, 4mph kind of way.

Originally designed to sew together two stretches of river, I see the canal now as a common thread that is stitched into our community. It makes time for everyone, sharing itself amongst the walkers and cyclists who use its towpaths; the liveaboard boating community who make it their home; the bream, tench and gudgeon (yay) that swim in its waters; the heron and kingfishers that sit on its banks; and people like me who are happy to know that just because something has been puddled, it doesn’t mean it can’t be re-puddled.

On our walks I’ve noticed that ‘respect’, ‘politeness’ and ‘tolerance’ are also appropriate canal words – along with a generous dollop of the phrase ‘community spirit’. And talking of dollops, I wonder whatever happened to that first sod? Perhaps our excellent local museum has it in a jar somewhere. If so, I hope it’s been labelled correctly. No other words will do.

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.

Exploring the real world… divine inspiration

August, 2018

As I sit down in my garden preparing to write this month’s article for The Gudgeon, I can hear a Sunday morning church congregation. Their collective larynx rises in adoration and prayer, and I’m reminded that the human voice is the greatest of all musical instruments – apart from mine which sounds like a rusty hinge.

Listening to their hymns floating in the air causes me to ponder on the extent to which, in Bradford on Avon, religious life is all around us and for many, within.

At article-writing-school there was a sign that read: ‘Beware Writing About Religion’. The gnarled old hacks who tutored us would wag their nicotine-stained fingers and wheeze: “Find another subject unless you know what you’re talking about.” And they taught us to write about bridges and dogs and railway stations instead.

But it’s hard not to touch on the subject of religion when you live here. Especially for an inquisitive agnostic like me. Take bell-ringing. I stand in my garden watering my cucumber on a Monday morning and I hear the distant peal of church bells. Sally and I go for a late walk on a Wednesday night and we hear another distant peal. Why are bells ringing at all these random times?

Of course, I’m sure they’re not random. I just have no idea what’s going on (which, to be fair, is the natural state of an agnostic). I sometimes wonder if the bells are talking to each other and then I wonder if anyone is pulling their ropes. And then I lock all the doors.

But I do find the peal of bells comforting. Perhaps because I associate the word ‘peal’ with a positive, joyous mood – as in, ‘peals of laughter’. Interestingly, we have a friend coming to stay who has a phobia of bells – Kampanaphobia (that’s the fear, not his name). He’s going to have a great time especially when we show him around all the churches.

That will be quite a task. During my daily walks I’ve counted fourteen places of worship and I’m sure there must be more. They’re part of the fabric of the town. Part of its shape, its sound, its substance.

Some are more famous than others. The Anglo-Saxon church of St Laurence is the ecclesiastical town celebrity, appearing in both Simon Jenkins’s Great English Churches and Betjeman’s Best British Churches. St Laurence was a tough cookie. He was martyred on a gridiron with hot coals but allegedly called out, “I’m well done on this side. Turn me over.” He’s now the patron saint of chefs and comedians.

What also blows my mind is that this church contains a piece of fossilised tree thought to have been shaped 150 million years ago. That’s insane. Whenever I see that piece of ancient tree my brain stops working and I have to be taken outside and sat down.

My favourite place is the Chapel of St Mary Tory. Perhaps because it was once a hermitage and a pilgrim chapel on the route between Glastonbury and Malmesbury, it fosters in me a sense of quiet contemplation. I could sit there for hours, still and silent, and think of nothing and anything. Which, coincidentally, is how I write articles.

And that reminds me: I have a deadline to meet. I should stop pondering and start writing. The old hacks at article-writing-school were very firm on that. They had another sign that read: ‘Always Hit Your Deadline’. I suppose if I’ve ignored one diktat then the least I can do is follow the other. The question is, what shall I write about?