Mr Bazalgette visits Weston-super-Mare

I’m going to a series of talks about our town, the history of it and the people who have lived here. In the 1700’s our small village of Uphill, to the south of the town was bigger and more important than Weston, which was little more than a few farms and some fishermen’s cottages. All changed at the turn of the century, and now Weston has a population of about 78,000, and Uphill about 8,000.

There was tremendous growth in Weston throughout the nineteenth century, churches, schools, municipal buildings; great architects designed the buildings; in 1841 Isambard Kingdom Brunel built a railway bridge known as Devil’s Bridge, a single span brick bridge, with ashlar coussoirs.  It is the highest and widest single span brick bridge in the country and has a Grade II listing. One of Brunel’s friends and associates was Joseph Bazalgette; Brunel was born in 1809, Joseph was ten years younger.

I learned this evening that Joseph had been working on some water engineering project in Bristol and he came to Weston and had some input into the project to improve the sanitation system in our town. I learned this tonight at the talk, but I cannot find any corroborative evidence yet, apart from the fact that he wrote a paper with a Mr Whitehead   ‘A Report on the Yeo, Parret and Isle Drainage’in 1869. I was very excited to learn that a hero of civil engineering who saved the lives of tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of people by his sanitation works in London, was in our town… but when?

I shall ask next week at the next lecture… Joseph was born in 1819, married Maria Kough from Kilkenny and had at least eleven children!

In case you are wondering about my featured image, it shows where the sewers used to empty into the sea just near our village – and this was after the sewerage and sanitation system was put in place! All is pure and clean now!


October moochings

It has been a wonderful October day today, shirt-sleeve warm, lovely sunshine a pleasant breeze and blue, blue skies! We didn’t do much, just mooched into town, then dropped down to our county town of Taunton and mooched some more. October really is the beginning of autumn, but it often surprises with a few lovely summery days before settling down into a decline.

Several years ago we went down to Sussex to Winchelsea Beach where my husband and a band he had been playing with for all his adult life – and quite a few teen-age years as well, had a gig in a wonderful pub, the Ship. I’d not been there before, although I think we may have driven through the area many years ago on a miserable wintry day… we hadn’t stopped to site-see, too jolly chilly. However, when we went down to Winchelsea Beach on this occasion the weather was wonderful. We had all travelled from away, most of the band from north Surrey, us from Somerset. We checked into the hotel where we were all staying, and then went to the venue.

The Ship is a great pub, with an interesting style – being so close to the sea it has a nautical theme… and when we were there it had a door into a butcher’s shop… in fact they had a sheep roast, like a hog roast but with a whole sheep. We heard a story at the time that the owners had wanted to have nautical artefacts and bought a job lot which they thought would be a few assorted pictures, maybe a porthole or two, a few knotted ropes, a bit of rigging etc… what turned up was a pantechnicon carrying an extraordinary collection including lifeboats and a funnel… By the time we visited all was beautifully and interestingly arranged.

While we were there we visited Rye, and the town of Winchelsea, and Hastings and the Romney Marshes and  Dungeness… we were on the way home when we stopped there and the mist had come in and it was spooky and a bit creepy with the power station and the lighthouse…

However, the thing I remember most is the band inside the pub rehearsing (and sampling the beer) and us wives and partners sitting outside on some decking, our shorts and shirt sleeves rolled up as far as they could, lounging back basking in the glorious sunshine… we all ended up with sunburned noses… in October!!

Return to the Bone Cave

People often ask why do I blog… well, there are lots of reasons, but the simple one is that I like writing, and blogging is a way of practising, sharing, and having fun with my writing! I often find that things I use here become the basis for something else.

I visited somewhere very interesting which made a big impact on me. I wrote about it a couple of times, and now I have brought those different pieces of writing together and it will form part of something else… Here is the first draft:

The Mendip Hills of Somerset are riddled with caves, potholes, underground streams and lakes, created millions of years ago by the action of water on limestone. … no-one actually knows the extent of the system or systems, but each in its own way is a marvel. Tens of thousands of years ago some of them were inhabited by people; before that animals sought shelter within or came to die or had their bones washed into the caves by torrential rains or melting ice.

The minerals within the hills have been exploited for thousands of years, and in the Banwell area there are seams of yellow and red ochre; the yellow is a hydrated iron hydroxide known as limonite, the red is from iron. It was used as a dye and colouring agent going back to the earliest human activity when people decorated their caves and no doubt themselves with the brilliant colours.

In Banwell, near the end of the Mendip chain, there is a cave open periodically to the public, which is called the Bone Cave. The Bone Cave was called the Bone Cave because of the vast quantity of bones found inside it when it was discovered in 1824; it was an accidental discovery because a nearby cave full of stalactites which had been found fifty years before, was a popular tourist attraction; a charity dig was mounted to open it up into another part of the system, to raise money for the village school; a tunnel was dug and this broke into the Bone Cave.

The stalactite cave still exists but no-one can visit without proper caving. However the Bone Cave can be visited, and as you enter you will see it is just a big, roundish cave, but stacked neatly along the walls are piles of bones from the creatures which had died there. The eighteenth and nineteenth explorers working for the Bishop of Bath and Wells who owned the land, tidied it up for visitors to the caves. Outside there were gardens and buildings, grottoes, an osteoicon (bone house – museum) and tower, were all part of what might be called a Victorian ‘theme park’.

In the cave was found a wondrous mixture of skeletal remains of wolves, wolverines, bison, reindeer, other deer, and a bear; these had arrived quite naturally, washed in nearly a hundred thousand years ago during the Ice Age. Many of them had, as I mentioned, been gathered and neatly stacked to form exhibits for the nineteenth century tourists; however, many thousand upon thousand remain beneath the floor of the cave. The Bishop of Bath and Wells, George Henry Law, had a residence built there and he believed that the bones were evidence of the Biblical flood which had engulfed the world.

When I visited, I was led down into the darkness, treading carefully on roughly hewn steps. The cave is extraordinary, and extraordinarily atmospheric. Some of the bones had been left in a heap and the guide picked some up and I was able to handle and hold them. They were mostly bison and reindeer, but I also saw mountain hares, red foxes, otters and wolverines. These bones give an interesting picture of life then; wolves for example were less hunters as we think of them, and were scavengers; the predominant predator species then was the bear.

The guide handed me a huge, yellowing hip bone; a gigantic bear thought by scientists to be a not a cave bear but a species related to polar bears, and one of gigantic proportions. These creatures could be up to twelve feet tall… imagine that… a twelve-foot tall carnivorous bear…

As I stood in the flickering candlelight, holding this massive hip bone, I had a really curious, almost overwhelming sensation… which I can’t really explain. It was only a momentary sense of something, but I can really understand how people feel that objects contain power. Holding the bear bone in that cave was an unforgettable experience.

© Los Elsden 2017

And did those feet…

I have started a local history course in our town of Weston-super-Mare; the leader/lecturer is historian John Crockford-Hawley, one of our local councillors. It was the first evening and as a start Mr Crockford-Hawley went back 35,00 years to the earliest inhabitants of our little Somerset village of Uphill… Obviously there wasn’t a village here that long ago, well not a village as we know it. However people lived here, and no doubt had successful lives in their terms – an area with fresh water, plenty of birds and animals and fish, plenty of land and sea plants, relatively safe as it is by a hill, and with plenty of stone to use as tools and weapons. We travelled through the millennia up to about 1841, when railways arrived here in Weston. At first the people in charge insisted that the actual engines remained out of town and the carriages were pulled to the station by horses!

Uphill was the first part of the area which was inhabited, and although other areas soon had early peoples and then the Romans, Uphill is the place which can claim to be the oldest.  Although we have a hill, Uphill Hill, the village isn’t called after it; a pill or pyle is the local name of a small navigable channel – the pill here probably belonged to Oppa or Opo, hence Oppa/Opo’s Pill – Uphill!

There are many legends as well as true stories attached to our village  – my favourite I think is that St Patrick was snatched from the hill here when he was a boy tending his father’s flocks. He was taken to Ireland as a slave, and became a saint in due course, the patron saint of Ireland but maybe he was actually a Somerset lad! I also knew the legend that Jesus is supposed to have travelled to Glastonbury with his uncle, Joseph of Arimathea. However, I didn’t know that they were supposed to have arrived at the wharf in Uphill, and maybe travelled up our River Axe into the Mendip hills to the lead mines where Joseph, Uncle Joe who was a metalworker purchased some fine Somerset ore.

When William Blake came to write his well known poem ‘And did those feet in ancient time’, he was thinking of that legend – some think as I mentioned, that Jesus and his Uncle Joe went to Glastonbury, but why would they, there’s no metal there, no lead to be bought!

  And did those feet in ancient time,
Walk upon England’s mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England’s pleasant pastures seen!

And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green and pleasant Land.

Settings… too close to home?

I know I’m mentioned this before, rambled on about it most likely, but I’m puzzling over the feasibility (for me) of writing something set in a location which is not only real, but somewhere I know very well… for example the place where I live now. Most of my novels are set in an imaginary town, on an imaginary coastline, with an imaginary big city with an airport and motorway connections nearby, with imaginary villages all around, moors, hills, marl pits, post-industrial landscapes… all completely fictitious, all existing only in my own mind and that of my readers.

I have only set one of my novels, ‘Flipside’ in a real place, the town of Oldham where I lived for many years. I did set another novel, ‘Loving Judah’ in two real areas of the country, Yorkshire and Cornwall, but the actual locations were just invented.

Why have I done this? Well, for me it gave a freedom to be totally creative in terms of plot… I needed a run-down, shabby town… so here is Castair; I needed a rather posh village, the ‘locals’ pushed out by townie incomers who bought up local homes and pushed up the prices, so her is Bethel; I needed marl pits – here they are on the far side of Castair… I need an old disused factory, a Methodist chapel turned into a posh restaurant, a network of little ‘lanes’ filled with expensive jewellery and knick-knack shops, fancy ice-cream parlours, ethnic delis, over-priced footwear boutiques… All can be done with an imaginary place. I am very careful to make my places ‘work’ and to be consistent with directions, connections and distances.

Having an imaginary setting can help to ensure that the reader understands my characters are totally fictional, completely products of my mind, and that any accidental similarities to anyone is just a complete coincidence.

I have mentioned all this before, but it is playing on my mind a little as I have written a series of scenes based on where I live now, a small village right next to the sea, on the estuary of a river which was once navigable deep into Somerset, but now is a sleepy remnant of itself for many of its miles. My characters go into ‘my’ pub, drink the beer I drink, go for meals in ‘the other’ pub, go into ‘our’ paper-shop, walk past the village school, the castle the bluebell field, Rose Cottage, the old school cottage…  My dilemma is whether I should rework these scenes into another imaginary location, changing, omitting, adding features and places. Might people I know think I’m writing about them if my story is here in our village? Might I inadvertently have a story-line which parallels a real situation of a real person – a person who might think I have stolen the story from them?

Recently I have been reading a series of books set not far from here, in and around Bridgwater, Burnham, Brean Down and the coastline all along here, a coast I know very well. The series is by Damien Boyd, they are police procedurals ‘starring’ Nick Dixon a maverick police officer.  As a reader it’s been quite exciting -‘ooh, I know that golf club/church/street/motorway services!’  I have even been into a couple of the pubs he mentions (no surprise there!) One of the novels is set when we had terrible floods down here in 2014 where a lot of our county was under water for months. Of course, in the novel, the crime scene was also under water!

Reading Boyd’s novels has really set me thinking yet again about location… our little village has so much to offer as a setting for novels – ruined church built on the site of a much older Anglo-Saxon chapel, a Neolithic hill fort, an ancient wharf where Phoenicians, Romans and Vikings shipped stuff out and brought stuff in, brickworks, claypits, quarries and lime kilns, ancient caves, water meadows, dangerous mud and quicksand, dunes, floods and a tsunami, golf course, wonderful pubs, restaurant, tearoom, picturesque and quaint old buildings, stylish new buildings, mysterious wooded areas with strange earthworks, nearby motorway connecting to London, the north, the south… anywhere in the country really! – legends of pirates and smugglers, local characters, real celebrities (John Cleese, William Lisle Bowles, Hannah Moore) sea frets and sea fog (the fog horn now defunct)…

Hmmm, I must ponder some more…

Meanwile, a link to my books:

“Loving Judah”:


Damien Boyd:

…and an interesting article from some time ago about Uphill:

Three mills.. the House Mill, the Clock Mill… and another…

It’s strange how you discover places… Recently I wrote about how I discovered a friend I had been at school with many years ago.  When she let me know she was coming over to England to put her paintings into an exhibition in London with her brother and sister, I was very excited and we arranged to meet. She visited our home and we had a lovely day together, and then yesterday my daughter an I visited her exhibition.

I’ve seen lots of photos of her fabulous paintings, but photos and the real thing are no comparison! Her work, landscapes, domestic interiors, still lifes (or is it lives?) are just wonderful, and i very much enjoyed seeing her sister’s photos and her brother’s ceramics. It was a wonderful day, and a picnic lunch in the garden at the back of the gallery made the whole thing perfect.

Discovering places… the exhibition was held in a most interesting gallery in a two hundred and forty-year-old mill… not just a mill but a huge industrial mill for producing flour on a huge scale. Built in 1776, the House Mill is the world’s largest surviving tidal mill. It was built on the site of a much older mill, with foundations dating back to between 1380 and 1420.. It was called the House Mill because it was sited between two other houses… simple! There was a windmill also on the site, but it vanished halfway through the nineteenth century. Forty years after the House Mill, another mill was built opposite with a clock tower which gave the mill its name – and the fact there were three mills ensued fr obvious reason the place was called ‘Three Mills’;  the site was ideal for such operations with the River Thames giving reliable free power!

The Clock Mill


I didn’t realise until I looked it up, that the House Mill lies on an island in the River Lea, a tributary of the Thames, although I should have realised as we went there, that there was water at the front and at the back. Obviously milling grain for flour was the chief task – except when England’s security was at risk with the threatened invasion by the Spanish Armada in 1588, when a gunpowder mill was established. Another interesting part of its history was when it was used as  a gin distillery – with the popularity of gin again these days, the fashionable drink, maybe that’s another future plan! Milling stopped in 1941 at the House Mill, but continued at the Clock Mill  until 1952.

You may be too late for my friend’s exhibition, but the House Mill and Clock Mill will remain her for centuries to come… so plenty of time to visit!

Across the muddy estuary

Here’s something I wrote a while ago, about what we can see from our beach:

From our beach we look across the muddy estuary of the River Axe to the promontory of Brean Down… it look so near, it looks so easy to get to! Foolish holiday-makers, and even local people sometimes, think they can walk across the river bed to the other side… I wonder how many have been rescued over the years, either by the coast guards, the beach wardens or a helicopter scrambled from somewhere. The mud is deep and holds and sucks you down… very dangerous!

Brean Down sticks out into the Bristol Channel for about 1½ miles and it is the last lumpy bit of the Mendip Hills, but you only really appreciate that when you are on the Down and looking back inland. It looks quite high, but in fact it is only 320 feet at its tallest point. It is carboniferous limestone and has been a significant part of local history going back thousands and thousands of years. Now it is deserted apart from rabbits and other small mammals, butterflies and many, many other insects, and as you might imagine, many birds, some quite rare. There is only shrubby vegetation growing on its bare sides, but there are lots of wild flowers at certain times of the year.

Although humans have lived on and near the Down for thousands of years, the remains of their activities only really date back to 300 BC when a hill fort was constructed. The Romans arrived and thought it would be an ideal place to build a temple, looking down on the wharves at Uphill and Bleadon from where they sent out the minerals they had mined in the hills and the grain they harvested on the Somerset uplands. I think they my well have used the south-facing slopes for wine-making!

In more recent times there has been other activity on the Down, including a Napoleonic fort – to defend us from the French Emperor, not to welcome him! There have been various schemes to build harbours and breakwaters, but none were realistic and none succeeded. Apart from having soldiers stationed in the fort, there has been no active use of it as a defence… then tragically a man was killed when the munitions exploded in 1900… he had fired into the magazine so it wasn’t really surprising that the whole thing blew up.

A café was built in the ruins of the fort before the second World War; now there are a couple of cafés at the bottom of the Down, but none actually on it. However it is still a wonderful walk to the end to see the ruins, and to look out across the channel to Wales, and south to Devon.