Of Cookers and Kings

It was a coincidence, that the cooker we want is made in the county that is revealing itself to be the locale of my next novel. It’s not any old cooker but one so eye-wateringly expensive that we felt we must go and see it before buying. A day out on location, then, and fully justified.

I can’t remember how we came across Everhot. I think I was googling for range cookers. Our old – in fact, not so old – Cannon – is the most hated object in the house with an ‘eye-level’ grill so low you can’t stir any pot beneath it. That was one reason; the other was that our savings are turning to dust in the bank and we thought we should turn them to things while we still can, things to make the future a little bit cheaper.

The Everhot is on all the time, like an Aga, but runs off a 13 amp plug and costs £10 a week. That means I can have loaves rising when I want, whistling kettles coming slowly to the boil for the next cup of tea, a casserole simmering all day and a potato baking, and whether or not I do these things, the running cost doesn’t change.

The cooker was invented by the owner of a water mill generating power that needed only to be harnessed. The company is still at the mill. The first cooker is still in use.

The directions to find the place assumed anyone with half a brain would be approaching via the M5. Naturally we came across country via the Bronze and Iron ages. The Cotswolds run from where we live in Oxfordshire to the Vale of Gloucester, ending with a high and dramatic escarpment with stunning views over the Severn valley.

Cam Long Down and site of Battle of Camlan?

It’s been a sacred place from the beginning and all along its length overlooking the Vale are barrows of high-borns, great Bronze and Iron Age chieftans and princesses buried in places that stood out on the skyline for the people living in the valley farms and villages. The mound in the picture is called Cam Long Down. There is a river Cam here, hence a nearby village called Cambridge (!); local legend, though, has it as the Cam, the Cam of Camelot and Camlan. According to the locals, this is where King Arthur fought his last battle with Mordred. I found this out whilst studying the panorama board at Coaley Peak. A man also studying it said, ‘This was the scene of the last battle of wozzisname, that king…’ ‘Alfred?’ ‘No, no,’ he pushed and pulled his right arm like a piston, ‘the one with the stone.’ Arthur!

You come shopping for cookers and bump into Arthur!

We came off the escarpment at Uley and crossed the battlefield to find Coaley Mill. The stream that runs beneath it and turns its wheels is the Cam (did the blood of Arthur’s knights flow past here once?).

Coaley Mill

Very shortly thereafter, we had put our name to a discounted demonstration model of the Everhot 60, the smallest in the series, but enough for us and our little kitchen.

The next stop was Gloucester. We began at the Cathedral and a Pilgrim’s Pie in the coffee shop and then went off to find the city museum where they have some interesting stuff bang in my period (first century AD). I asked several people the way; they all looked at me as if I were mugging them, said ‘Dunno!’ and hurried on. A plaque on the wall of the museum is a dedication by a wife to the memory of her husband, bestowing this grand hall on the people of Gloucester to inspire them with a sense of God, who ‘meditates in beauty and speaks in law’. Dear God, I hope she can’t see from heaven what’s become of her people. Gloucester is a depressed place, its high street thronged with introverts who don’t know where the museum is and don’t care. I was surprised that tumbleweed didn’t tumble past us on that windy street where the shops are beginning to be abandoned.

Reconstructed head of Celtic princess

Back to the Cathedral. You don’t get a visitor’s leaflet here about the history, or an audio guide, just numbers to phone on your mobile at each item and place of interest. Alas, we carry no mobile, so we did our best with what captions there were. And so I came face to face with the tomb of poor old King Edward II (who may not have died with a poker up his bum after all – if only I’d had a mobile, I could have found out) and next to him, Osric, King of the Hwicce (Anglo-Saxon name for  Gloucestershire) who founded the first abbey here in the 7th century. That’s two hundred years before Alfred and contemporary with the birth of Bede.

Alfred’s battles were not only against Vikings but against ignorance. The England he’d inherited was reduced to a bump in the Somerset levels. There were bishops but they were illiterate. The grand age of Bede, Cuthbert and pious kings like Osric was long gone and must have seemed to Alfred to have been an age of sweet but futile optimism, much as the Victorian plaque on the city museum did to me.

We wended our weary way home, back over the Cotswolds along the high ridge above the Windrush Valley, now called the A40. Some years ago, someone began a development of new-builds in old stone next to the road a few miles west of Burford. As we approached, I thought they looked deserted. When we passed them, we saw all windows smashed and roofs robbed of their tiles. As I keep muttering to myself more and more these days, here begins the new Dark Age.

Gloucester was a frontier post for the Roman Empire. Artist's reconstruction, Gloucester City Museum.

By the time we got home, my imagination was so stimulated that I was itching to write, only too tired for it. And now, faced with the prospect of completely revamping the kitchen to accommodate the Everhot, and doing it quickly, I’m wondering when I’ll ever get the time to write in the foreseeable future. Lots of early rising on dark mornings ahead, if there’s any chance in getting the current book finished and off to press.

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Where on Earth…?

At school I never quite ‘got’ geography. What possible use could it be to an aspiring adult to know the capitals and flags of all the world’s countries, the age of a river or where tea grows? It’s the stuff of quizz buffs and of no use other than providing a lot of hard info one has to memorise.  What on earth is a geographer, anyway? According to the dictionary, geography is the study of the physical features of the earth and human activities related to these. So there we have it. My problem with geography is that it is hardcore reality. Ethnography or anthropology, which include study of myth and folklore,  have their appeal: geography none. But then I grew up.

It was when I began writing fiction that I got into maps. Historical fiction has the value of being based in reality, using people who lived in places that exist. I had to find those places and discover how long it took to get from one to another, by foot, by boat, on horseback. I had to know the mountain ranges and the valleys, and how life and people were different depending on where they were.

Today we have satnav to tell us where we are; before that we had maps, if we were lucky. In the UK we are thoroughly spoiled by having institutions such as the Royal Geographical Society and Ordnance Survey and take accurate mapping completely for granted. It was only when I was in Greece once and found that the local maps didn’t ‘work’ that I realised how lucky we are. Before maps there were itineraries – a list of directions, often written on a roll that you would unravel as you go, a verbal map, as it were, of one road. Before those, before roads – what did they do?

It’s my current quest to find out and suddenly I’m finding the subject of surveying completely sexy. Give me a man with a groma. Even better, give me one without a groma, some native Briton sniffing out a track like an Indian guide, following the spoor of animals who always head for water. You see, I’m getting into pregeography (I just coined that – nifty, huh?), the time when men found their way by being in touch with nature; a time when instinct still operated in us before information-knowledge drowned it out.

How was it then, to stand in a strange landscape and get from A to B without any clue as to where or even what B was? There must always have been scouts, those who lived on the periphery of the clan, solitaries who liked to wander and to find out things and gain knowledge of the land. They would have led all migrations.

And of course, wayfinders used waymarkers and built cairns of rocks. Ways became tracks became roads.

To my amazement I am enjoying a book called The Road by Hillaire Belloc (as rare as dragon’s teeth these days) full of enthusiastic observation and speculation on the origin of the British road. I’m also revisiting John Michell’s The View Over Atlantis, which has a lot to say about geomancy (the siting of settlements and temples). There’s nothing feminine in this, getting excited about metalling and routes, looking at the road I live on and realising that it began as a causeway. I’m becoming a bloke. Or at least, I’m understanding their enthusiasms better. (Thought: how many lady geographers have there been? Do travel writers count?)

(And a further aside: my bloke spotted a bucket in a skip yesterday and positively trilled. A man can never have too many buckets, have you noticed? And they mock our insatiable need for bags!)

The other book I’m reading is Tristram Gooley’s Natural Navigation. It’s become the basis for a TV programme where three celebrities have to find their way from A to B. The book, of course, is far, far better than the programme. It puts you back into pregeography and finding your way using nature as your guide.

I have a friend who is a geographer. I still have no idea what he means by that, but understand it involves attending meetings at the RGS and sometimes going off and doing something necessary for the sake of all mankind in Outer Mongolia. But recently, when we were in Wiltshire, he told me that the phrase, ‘as different as chalk and cheese’ originated in that county, which is divided between high chalk downland and  fertile clay pasture where cows graze.

When he showed me this on a map, for a moment, just a moment, I saw the world through a geographer’s eyes, and it was a very broad view. Belloc, for example, shows with a few lines how Salisbury Plain (and therefore Stonehenge and Avebury) is a natural hub for six major ridgeways: Cotswolds, Chilterns, North Downs, South Downs, Dorset Down and Mendips. These ranges of hills form a whorl emanating from Britain’s most sacred landscape.

So geography can lead us to a better understanding of the past. If only I’d known that at school, where they made me do geography instead of history for the sole reason that I was insisting on doing art.