The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Apr 16, 2008

Gloster Weekend

Last weekend, we visited our old friends V & A. They live near Gloucester, up on a hillock overlooking plains running towards the Cathedral. On a bright day, you can see all the way across to the Malvern Hills, and the Severn gleaming in the distance. Closer is the now unused Brockworth aerodrome and hangars where Frank Whittle developed one of the first ever jet engines. Even nearer, on V & A's large lawn, a peacock dances every time he catches sight of his mates. The weekend was sunny and lambs gambolled, and the boy tore around the house on a tractor like Jim Clark.

The house itself, large and spacious and lovely, has a bit of a history. It used to be the stablekeeper's (or was it the gardener's?) house decades ago, when the gentry occupied the bigger mansion lower down the hill. Clearly, the master held the stablekeeper (or gardener) in high regard, for he built up the old quarters, expanding it as the gardener's (or stablekeeper's) family grew. After the stablekeeper moved on to the Stables in the Sky, the lord of the manor decided to split his lands; the freehold for the mansion remained with him, and he sold off the stablekeeper's house. Later additions grew the house to four bedrooms and several lounges and a massive kitchen with an Aga. A conservatory was tacked on behind the kitchen, and that became the warmest part of the house.

Although built with solid walls, the house is in a constant state of thermodynamic disequilibrium. It loses heat rapidly in the winter, and heats up quickly in the summer. The Aga, fired by paraffin, needs to run constantly. With the price of fuel creeping ever closer to the stars, V & A find their heating bills rise at an eye-watering rate.

V & A's weekends are eventful. The lawns and hedges and flower-beds need regular attention. In the summer, when the greengages are in fruit, and the other plums and apples ripen, they are busy harvesting. In this, they are assisted by their enthusiastic little son J. In the spring, moles pig out on earthworms, and dig away under the lawns, creating unsightly mounds. V laid traps last week and was pleased to find that one little critter had been caught. He showed it to us, pointing out its large hands and weak legs. A veritable digging machine, he said admiringly. The girls squealed in disgust and ordered him to get rid of it. He admired it a bit more before taking it out of the house.

The most fantastic rainbow arced across the firmament above the house on Saturday evening. It was so high up that it had begun to curve inwards towards the horizon. The sun shone fiercely, and wind howled up and down the hill, and rain whipped the windows. We sat around, consuming large portions of sticky toffee and English tea.

V & A are doctors, but have not advertised this fact locally. The reason for their reticence is the Annual Cheese Rolling festival on Cooper's Hill, their hill, just a bend of the road away from their house. Every May, hundreds of nutters trudge up Cooper's Hill, knock on their door to ask for the nearest pub, get drunk on fine ale, and chase large wheels of cheese down an almost vertical slope, breaking legs and necks in the process. The Festival is hundreds of years old, and the number of madmen desperate to catch the cheese has not decreased in all this time. Were the organisers to twig that V & A are medics, they'd be coopted for the lunacy. So our friends keep mum and prefer to travel abroad during the days of craziness.

Not too far from the cheesy incline are the remains of a Roman villa. We haven't visited it, but it's widely known and displayed prominently on local maps. Witcomb villa was discovered in 1818, sheltered by beech woods and having an abundant supply of pure water. When the men in togas dwelt here, it was located very well - close both to Ermin Street (that ran between Gloucester and Cirencester) and the Sarn Way. The Welsh would find the latter name very droll: Way Way, they'd say, giggling. There is even an abbey just around the area. Prinknash is inhabited by a Benedictine order of monks, and has been associated with the Benedictines for close on 900 years. A large part of the present building dates from 1520; nineteen years later, when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, he used it as a hunting lodge. It became an abbey again only in 1928, occupied by Benedictines after a hiatus of almost four centuries.

It is heartening, indeed, that one can breathe the lovely local air and admire the beauties of the countryside, chase hysterically after cheese and break one's legs, and then be conveyed in a state of healthful bliss to the abbey to be prayed on by Benedictines. What is less heartening, of course, is that I can't always be there to witness it all.


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