Saturday, 11 October 2008

Beckford's Tower

This post is co-written with J and tells the story of our adventure.

The story begins on our very first trip to Bath, when we spotted a strange structure on the skyline: we've never managed to find out what it was (we've been on the Bath Skyline Tour, which doesn't mention it, and asked a couple of people Do you know what that strange structure is on the skyline on the Bath Road?, to which they have invariably said No). We've called it 'the wicker man' ever since, because it seemed to have a head and shoulders (and also because of that one time when we were in Wales, in an otter sanctuary, and suddenly saw a giant otter on the horizon, which turned out to be a ten-foot-high wicker otter). And from time to time we idly wondered about borrowing a friend with a car and getting them to drive us to the wicker man, so we could see whether or not there really was a giant wicker man on the Bath horizon.

A month or so ago, we got the train to Bath and realized that we had no need of a friend with a car, for the strange wicker-man-shaped structure was very clearly visible on the horizon from the little station Oldfield Park on the Bath-Bristol branch line.

A fortnight ago, accordingly, we went to Oldfield Park and struck out confidently up a minor road which appeared to lead directly to the wicker man.

Two hours later, after much wandering round the overly manicured and eerily silent Sunday-afternoon outer suburbs of Bath (which have lots and lots of cul-de-sacs), we found ourselves on a road leading into the centre of Bath, not having caught a glimpse of the wicker man for an hour and a half, and thoroughly disorientated. So we gave up, rolled down the hill to Bath, and had vegetarian pub food.

Over the last fortnight, we bought an Ordnance Survey map and some binoculars.

Today we set forth on the bus, and got off at the Newton Looe roundabout where we've always had our most reliable sighting of the wicker man. Here is a picture of the view from the footpath where we started, with the 'man' barely visible on the horizon: probably you will not be able to see where it is, but we know, because we were there.

And furthermore, J is saying, we know because we looked at it through the binoculars, and discovered that it was not, in fact, a wicker man, but a stone tower with fancy carving and another, smaller, tower on the top. With pillars.

Gold pillars.

(Though at this point we thought they were white/marble and only begoldened by the sun.)

So, although obviously it would have been good if it had really been a wicker man, it was still pretty cool (I had started to have a terrible fear that it was a water storage tower).

I checked my Ordnance Survey map carefully (though I couldn't quite tell whether we were heading for 'Kelston Round Hill', 'Triangulation Pillar', or 'Prospect Stile') and we headed off in the direction it said, across a field and under the railway line, finding ourselves in a ploughed field full of people watching a regatta. (Mostly watching a regatta: there were some children aged about four-to-seven who were picking up clods and running about joyfully for unclear reasons.) So we walked along the river, then up some steps to the Bristol & Bath Cycle Path.

We had almost immediately lost sight of the tower (as we shall now call it) and were navigating by a combination of faith (on J's part) and the Ordnance Survey map (on mine). And also the fact that there weren't any other footpaths to take for a while.

The cycle path was lovely and we saw some kind of excellent bird of prey, flying around above us for a while.

Then I found a footpath (or really 'some stairs') taking us up into the hills, so we climbed it and found ourselves near a pub we'd also noted from the bus at one point as 'being in the direction of the wicker man'. Over J's protestations (No down there is only the pub! We must go along the road!) I brilliantly steered us onto a beautiful narrow footpath, overhung with trees and all dappled in the bright autumn sunshine, this time over J's indignant cries about how I had tried to make us go along the road.

Then we climbed up another steep path, past some children camping in the corner of a field, and then past some people making a camp-fire, and just when we really felt we were getting somewhere we found ourselves on a main road opposite a modern school with no view of the tower. I carefully consulted the map and found a brilliant route up the road to the left and then onto a series of way-marked paths which would lead us almost directly to Prospect Stile; J found a road on the right that appealed to her somehow (it had cars on it), so we went that way (pausing only to get the binoculars out to look at some people flying in the sky on, apparently, swings attached to giant kites - and, in my case, to become extremely giddy and have to sit on the pavement holding onto J's leg and refusing to look up for five minutes).

The road with cars on began leading us into what looked disturbingly like the very same suburbs we had spent two hours in last time, but I found a stile which led us into some fields again. It was getting a bit muddy and I had forgotten to put my good hiking boots on (sorry, K) and we hadn't seen the tower in ages and we were in the bloody Bath suburbs, so I trudged along dispiritedly until I heard J shrieking in joy beside me and looked up to see the tower, back on the horizon.

We struck out happily across the field, me confident with my Ordnance Survey knowledge that at any minute we would strike the Cotswolds Way which would lead us to Prospect Stile and/or Kelston Hill; we found a way-mark saying COTSWOLD WAY, with an arrow; we went over the stile in the direction of the arrow; and we found ourselves in a park with no footpath to be seen. (Though we could still see the tower.)

Returning to the road, we walked through what was starting to be more of a village than a suburb, anxiously looking up every few steps to make sure that the tower hadn't vanished. (It hadn't.)

The Cotswold Way went along the village streets for a while in a pleasing manner, but then began disconcertingly to lead away from the tower: we nervously went up a road which looked as though it led in the right direction (but this was how we'd been caught out the previous time, as roads in the suburbs tend to end suddenly and, annoyingly, not to give onto footpaths), then all of a sudden we were heading up an outrageously beautiful, steep, tunnel-through-trees, trickling-with-water, lane (helpfully and rather quaintly labelled BLIND LANE. Ominously, it was also labelled with a 'dead-end' sign, which might have only been for cars [which, yeah, wouldn't have made it very far up the lane], but on the other hand, see above re 'how we'd been caught out the previous time').

So we climbed, and we climbed, and we climbed, and we stopped for a rest and drank some water, and then we climbed, and we climbed, and then more water, and then we climbed and we climbed and we climbed and we came out here.

So that was all worth it.

But there was still a climb ahead of us, and so I lay down on the grass in protest, and J sat down beside me and started a long conversation with herself about whether it was possible that there were calves in that field over there, a controversy which was resolved when she got out the binoculars (we love our binoculars) and saw that there were, indeed, four calves in that field over there. That settled, we pushed on up the hill and up the hill and up the hill, past a slightly confusing sign saying PRIVATE PROPERTY STAY ON FOOTPATH which seemed to want us to walk across a field and not on the made gravel path, but when we did so there were COWS.

Lots of cows.

Just sort of wandering-about cows.

Which looked at us.

And then started to move towards us.

En masse.

Stalwartly, we started to scurry quite fast round a circuitous path a little way down the hill from the cows (still massing, looking, and moving towards us), until, to our relief, we saw a farm-hand coming towards us. (He turned out to be a Chinese tourist, but nonetheless at his approach the cows scattered and ran away like cowards, pleasingly.)

(Oh, and I haven't even said! But by this point it was very clear that we were not, in fact, heading towards Kelston Hill or Prospect Stile, but towards a thing on the map called Beckford's Tower. Beckford, J said, There is a guy called William Beckford who wrote a Gothic novel called Vathek, I bet that is his tower.)

By now we were almost always within sight of the tower, which was coming ever closer, and the only excitement left was whether we would make it before night fell (seeing as how we had not left the house until about 2pm, for reasons, and now it was around 5:30, and it was hard to tell whether it was quite a large tower quite close up, or a really large tower quite far away. This is the sort of thing which makes us bad at orienteering.)

But after the cows we came out onto the road, and there was a sign saying Beckford's Tower, and we found a gate into what turned out to be a most beautiful, overgrown and atmospheric cemetery, culminating in

the tower.

(Look! We were really there - here is J at the foot of the tower.

It really was designed and occupied by William Beckford, author of Vathek and England's wealthiest son (who turns out to have been awesome), and he is buried there, in a pink granite sarcophagus on a ditch-encircled mound.

And so, in conclusion, J would like to say:

It was as great as we thought it would be, except in a different way.

PS: After exploring the cemetery a bit - look at this excellent tomb, which is that of Henry Adkins et son epouse Marie-Louise - and deciding to come back when the Beckford Museum is open, we went back to the road to get a bus into Bath, because our legs were tired from all the climbing of all the hills, and discovered that we had been one bus stop away on the same road at the point where we gave up last time. Oh, the irony. We recovered in The Porter again, with veggieburger, veggie shepherd's pie, Bath Barnstormer ale, and quite a lot of chips.


Anna said...

That is a wonderful story about randomly pursuing a dream! I love adventures that come about like that. Me and my mum had an experience a bit like that today, although not quite as full of drama - we'd been told we had to eat 'sugar pie' at this restaurant, and we had no idea what that was, but she was adamant, so we found the restaurant online and drove for hours and hours looking for it, and on the way we found amazing houses covered in Halloween decorations, and a waterfall with a suspension bridge, and an enormous basilica. And the sugar pie was quite nice. The end.

Charlie Butler said...

Great story! It brought back memories of the first time Hallie and I went to Bath together. Leaving in the late afternoon I got confused by the one-way system, and headed out of Bath by the wrong road, only to come across the tower (or did the tower come upon us?) just at dusk, with that fabulous cemetery going all misty and crepuscular. VERY atmospheric - but your adventure sounds even better, because it has a Quest Element and was undertaken on foot.

Una said...


[W]e were navigating by a combination of faith (on J's part) and the Ordnance Survey map (on mine).

Behold the uniquely powerful combination of the INFJ and the INTJ

nixwilliams said...

what a gorgeous story of walking, maps and adventure!