#12 mists, ever increasing circles


We drove from the house late morning. The boot was full of presents and waterproofs. Isabella, Jem and me were listening to the audio-book  How to train your dragon. By the time I’d taken the first instinctive (arguably wrong) turn of the journey, we were far from the efficient motorway journey I’d thought we’d be having and being absorbed into the realm of mists that was South Gloucestershire today.

I stopped the car by a bus-stop on the descent at Old Sodbury and sat in the bus-stop, having a smoke, appreciating the modest view across the road of the side of The Dog Inn.

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In the eight or so minutes I sat there, several cars drew up to the junction that I partially obscured and cast accusing stares at me.

A moderate rain fell and threw ever increasing circles into the puddle by my feet. A girl rode past on a pied horse, leading another horse up the hill.

I got back in the car and drove through Chipping Sodbury, intending to branch off to the M5 at Wickwar.

Floods had shut the road and thus began our detour.

First, through the wonderful, faded Kingswood village and then on to shambolic Cotswoldy Wotton-under-Edge where the more than gentle trickle of traffic had caused a minor tail-back. I felt absolutely no sense of hurry. The Christmas spirit (only instilled by my son’s carolling yesterday morning) would lead me on.

We veered steeply out of the town and up through North Nibley and Stancombe,  through sumptious steep valleys deep with rotting beech leaves and lingering mists; onwards to Dursley, the road began to wend a slow ascent into a picturesque semi-Alpine scene of even deeper plunging valleys, half-hidden country escapes and rows of pre-Victorian cottages.

The brewery atop a natural spring at Uley.

The certainty, the significance of our destination became less and less urgent as the landscape became more dramatic, and yet more veiled within the rains.

The way began to reach its climax of lost-ness. We accelerated skywards through Buckholt and Stanley Woods on a meandering B-road. On either side, ancient,  shadowy oaks were netted in ivy, an army of glistening grey beech trunks marched alongside us. The distant vanishing point now surged forward and we were quickly absorbed within the underbelly of the clouds.  Is and Jem were open-mouthed to hear we were inside clouds.  Zephyrs haunted all the woods at this altitude.

We had left Keynsham an hour ago, we had to be at least an hour from Birmingham; I had only a faint notion of roughly where we might be. What drew the kids from the D.S. and the audio-book, and what no-one could fail to notice was the measureless beauty of what nature was doing with the world. South Glos., particularly around Stroud (particularly since http://wp.me/p2Sd2n-e) is often magical with its lost hamlets, dramatic contour lines and grand vistas. Now, this odd land was made even obscurer and more abstract as it was subsumed within the heavens.

Eventually, after skirting Dark Wood, we helter-skeltered downwards until flattening out onto absolute flatness and blankness. A wide stretch of marshy grazing land on which a deep fog squatted. Limbo. A place to wait for Godot. Several cars were parked on the verge either side of us, their owners embarked on Captain Oates journeys into oblivion.

Selsley Hill is where civilisation met us again. The kids noticed and remarked on the view of the terraced valleys. Selsley Hill became Stroud, then a ring road, a roundabout, and then, finally, a motorway.

#11 Swindon – upside down

It’s my daughter’s birthday in a week. As a treat, we drove to Swindon Oasis to meet her (ex)step-sisters and her brother.  I thought that as today is a Saturday and as we went in just before eleven, it would be heaving. It was virtually deserted.

It has been a stunning early December day- powder-blue skies with ice-edged clouds fringed bronze, an antique sun washing everything gold.

Inside the Oasis, you are presented with what is- essentially- an early prototype of Eden’s bio-spheres. A large geodesic dome hangs above artificial beaches and water-slides, creating semi-tropical humidity in which the surrounding shrubs and tropical foliage seem to flourish.

oasis

The sunshine kept pouring in. The children took on the behaviour of seals, lolling about at the edge of the tidal washes, plunging into waves. I was last here aged twelve- twenty six years ago. From what I could gather, the water slides still deliver the same levels of legendary thrill that they had all that time ago. It’s a simple formula.

The Oasis doesn’t seem to have been updated at all since that time. Underneath the lower stairway to the changing rooms, a fragment of the original, branded carpet is preserved; a sweeping, italic Butlins style font in yellow and orange on a blue background.  A member of staff sits idly in the neon gloom in holiday-camp style uniform behind a formica curve.  Above, an organic growth of sepia-brown is smeared across a small section of the dome itself- no doubt a constant bane for the management. The cafe seems to serve school-dinners, and is staffed by school children, and a school-dinner lady.

We spent around two hours there, then drove towards Pizza Express in the Old Town. As we left the city centre, we drove past an astonishing industrial wall of red brick with cream brick archways that ran alongside the road for about a fifth of a mile. This, clearly, was evidence of Swindon’s steam train heritage.  There was something distinctly noble and well-built here.  I imagined furnaces, great steam train components: the massive boiler cylinders, iron-spoked train wheels, a vast, Vulcan cathedral of smoke and fire.

How has Swindon treated this magisterial architecture?

It is now the Swindon Outlet centre. It houses over ninety stores.

As we drove past, we caught a glimpse of what has happened…

outlet

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It wasn’t right.

We drove on and passed a park. It was touched by the same sun that gilded everything, a large expanse of emerald grass mown in immaculate lines, edged with paths, plane trees and a Victorian wall. It was empty.

Everyone was in the shops.

I mentioned this to my son,

Jem, this town is a strange place, don’t you think? They have a beautiful building which they’ve filled with crappy shops. They have a lovely park which they leave empty- what is with this place?

His answer was simple: It’s upside down.