Monthly Archives: May 2011

Tetbury Woolsack Races

Tetbury Woolsack Races - May 30 2011

Tetbury Woolsack Races

30th May

One of the delights of the Cotswolds in the annual Woolsack Races that take place in the picturesque Wiltshire wool-town of Tetbury. Every year teams of men, women and children carry sacks of British wool (60lb for men’s races and 35lb for women’s) up and down the ridiculously steep Gumstool Hill. The revived races have been taking place for the last 38 years. The custom was said to have started in the 17th Century when young drovers vied with each other to impress a local beauty by running up and down the steep hill in the village with woolsacks on their back – probably the result of a drunken boast. The winner was said to win the right to spend a night with this local Helen (‘was this the face that launched a thousand sacks?’) Since then it has become a more balanced affair – with the women having their own heat, as well as the local children – winning medals for their efforts, and raising money for worthy charities.

Female entrant - Tetbury Woolsack Races 2011

Despite an unpromising start to the day – watching the rain, once so typical of English Bank Holidays – we decided to go for a spin down to Tetbury anyway and were pleasantly surprised by this charming event. Parking up in the local FC sportsfield-cum-carpark, we walked down to the village. Stalls lined the streets and there was a surprisingly good turn out, despite the drizzle. The atmosphere was pleasant – enhanced by the renditions of popular classics by the Gugge 2000 brass band, striking in their black and yellow livery, like a swarm of bees. There was salsa and African drumming too, street entertainers and a fun fair.

Male entrant - Tetbury Woolsack Races 2011

The first attraction we visited was the ATM – where a cross-section of Cotswolders queued up, from old hippies to horsi-culture types in their designer wellies. We then went hunting and gathering for a bite to eat, and were spoiled for choice in the French market along the high street. Next I had to sample a pint of ‘Hill Race’, a local ale brewed especially for the event. This helped ease me into the spirit of the occasion. After some grazing at the local book fair, we made our to Gumstool Hill, squeezing onto the pavement with the crowds congregating there. We waited patiently for the start of the races – launched by Stroud-based author Katie Fforde, who received a round of applause after the MC introduced her (not often does a novelist get such a big clap – perhaps it was out of sympathy!). The various heats commenced – at first we couldn’t get much of a view but the MC conveyed the excitement of the race, making it sound like the Grand National over the tannoy. We moved down the narrow thoroughfare and got to the ‘changeover’ point, where the woolsacks were passed onto the next runner. Each runner got a good round of applause as they puffed up the hill. My partner soon had her ‘fix’ and decamped to a local cafe. I stayed and watched the remaining heats – most memorable being the Mens’ Single, where a pair ran as panto horse. The whole affair had a wonderfully eccentric air, a pleasant way to while away a Bank Holiday Monday. The rain didn’t manage to dampen spirits and it looks like the event is going to ‘run and run’ for many years to come.


Words on Fire

Words on Fire: Book Launch Waterstones 21st May

Words on Fire Tour #1: Ola and I launch our books at Waterstones, Bath 21 May 2011

Last night saw the culmination of two writer’s journeys as Ola (my friend from Germany, now living in Bath) and I launched our books (The Firekeeper’s Daughter; & The Burning Path, respectively) at Waterstones, Bath – the final event of the ‘Awen Spring’ programme, which saw 6 new titles being published over 4 separate events these last 4 months – quite a start to the year! My book began in 2008 – when I wrote the first draft. I worked on the second draft last May, as Writer-in-Residence in El Gouna; and the third in Italy this April. It is the fourth part of my fantasy epic, The Windsmith Elegy, begun in 2002 while a student on the MA in Creative Writing at Cardiff University. With the publication of the final volume next year (touchwood) it’ll be the end of a ten year project – my magnum opus will weigh in at half a million woods. The Burning Path is the slimmest volume of the series, but has taken me the longest to complete – partly due to other commitments (I have written two non-fiction books during 2008-2011: The Way of Awen; & Turning the Wheel, out later this year – as well as a collection of poetry, and contributor to other anthologies). But it has also been a hard book to write because of challenging personal circumstances and a wish to achieve an austere aesthetic inspired in part by a quote from Antoine de St Exupery: ‘Perfection then, is finally achieved, not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.’ This is what I aspired to – it’s harder to write a (good) short book than a long one. Quality, not quantity. Moving from my home of 14 years in Bath late last year was very much a physical manifestation of this ethos – about letting go, and only keeping what you really need. My book’s main theme concerns the idea: what are you prepared to lose for that which you love? Well, I have made several sacrifices in the writing of this book – not least the sheer graft of its composition and production (for little or no reward – or guarantee of one). But yesterday this theme took on a tangible aspect as I rushed back from an OU meeting in Milton Keynes in time for the launch at Waterstones, Bath, that evening – I was going so fast on my motorbike that my panniers blew away! I was twenty miles down the road before I realised – like Edward Lear’s man from Bicester (below) – retraced my steps but couldn’t find them. They contained all my camping gear which I was planning to use that night, staying over at my friend Marko’s birthday bash (a legendary gathering of Irish musicians and characters). But I had to cut my losses, and put the ‘pedal to the metal’ to get to the launch on time, rushing down the M4. The gods were with me and I made it – just in time – arriving bang on 7pm. a crowd had gathered – probably wondering where I was. I quickly got changed and introduced the evening and Ola’s book – she took over and did a great talk and reading, answering some interesting questions from the floor afterwards. Then it was my turn – I summoned some energy, some awen, from somewhere – and introduced my novel. I read an extract: ‘The Sandsweepers of Assekrem’ – and fielded some questions. Afterwards, we toasted the books with some Lindisfarne Mead. We did it! It had been quite a journey for both of us – Ola’s first book, my um fifteenth? It doesn’t seem to get any less stressful – no matter how well it is all planned, it always seems to end up ‘hot water and towels’ in the middle of the night. A book launch can be a somewhat fraught affair – exhausting and exhilarating – as the proud parent brings a new creation into the world! This particular ‘labour’ was relatively smooth – thanks to all the midwives! Bidding a farewell to the fellowship heading in different directions, we decamped to the Circus for some galvanising tea and cake before heading off into the dark wilds of Somerset for Marko’s birthday bash – when we finally found it (The King’s Head in Coleford, a pub lost in its own timewarp) the party was in full swing. There was a lively Irish session in process, taking everyone away with the fairies. I gifted Marko a copy of Ola’s book and he orderd me a jar of the dark stuff. Never had a pint of Guinness tasted so good! We toasted the man himself, and our achievement. It had been quite a day. Words on Fire tour had begun!


*There was an old soldier of Bicester,
Was walking one day with his sister,
A bull, with one poke,
Toss’d her into an oak,
Before the old gentleman miss’d her.

Randwick Wap

7 May

Randwick Wap

So here am I settled into my new life in Stroud, where I moved in December last year – and a sign of this is connecting with local events celebrating the ‘turning of the wheel’. There’s no better way to connect with community than its such shared festivities. With May Day only a week ago there have been a flurry of colourful and quirky celebrations across the country – kicked started by the Royal Wedding of course (which happened to fall, funnily enough, on Oak Apple Day – which is held to remember when Charles the Second hid in an oak tree to escape his pursuers. In my old home town of Northampton (which was a Cromwellian stronghold) they place an oak garland on the statue of the Merry Monarch above the portico of All Saints Church in the centre of town. He became popular, of course, for reinstating the May Day celebrations (a shrewd move – a real people-pleaser – perhaps Clegg should take note, if he wants to claw back some popularity after the recent drubbing the Lib Dems got in the local elections). Jenni and I popped into the charming Hawkwood Open Day on the way back from camping in the Brecons – and got our fix of May-Pole dancing and the like, in the stunning grounds of the holistic education centre. The atmosphere was lovely and it was a curious experience to return as a ‘Stroudie’ – in previous years I’ve just been a day visitor. When the May-pole dancing got under way, initially with adults bearing the ribbons – I saw in the weaving together of the rainbow ribbons a metaphor for the interlacement of community. The adults got into a muddle, attempting a knot called a ‘hyacinth’ but were fortunately able to disentangle themselves (another metaphor – for the ties we make and sometimes wish to unmake!). Yet the ‘World Tree’ of the May-Pole (an English Yggdrasil) holds us all together under its ‘branches’ – like the magnificent horse chestnut that grows over a spring in the grounds of Hawkwood. The children who danced the May-Pole looked like the Victorian image of fairies, skipping on the sward – a bucolic idyll to enjoy in the warm Spring sun.

And today Jenni and I cycled to Randwick to experience their annual ‘Wap’, a quirky seasonal celebration which celebrates its fortieth year this year – although it dates back to the Middle Ages originally. The unusual name comes from a Saxon word – ‘Wappenschaw’, a ‘periodical gathering of people within an area for the purpose of seeing that each man was armed in accordance with his rank, and ready to take to the field when required’ – so, a showing of arms – and perhaps a precursor of the phrase ‘wap it out’. The celebration seems to have had a more peaceful origin though – apparently connected to the building of the church, nestled in the curve of the valley with stunning views of Stroud and the Five Valleys. Randwick is a very pretty Cotswold village so its hard to imagine it being the scene of ‘rowdiness’ which got the Wap banned in 1892. It was revived in 1971 by the Rev. Niall Morrison and grew in popularity – often making national news – until it was decided it was getting a victim of its own success and to down-size again, back to a village event. And a charming one it is too.

The Wap starts in February with nominations for the Wap Mayor and Queen – an election is held from all those who have signed the Wap Poll Book. Then there follows Cheese Rolling Sunday, the first in May, which this year happened to fall on May Day. Three local cheeses (made by a local dairy farmer, Jonathan Crump) are blessed and then rolled widdershins arounds the church by the Mayor, Queen and Vicar. Then a week later the Randwick Wap itself takes place. Jenni and I locked our bikes and walked up to the war memorial where the ‘personalities’ were gathering (all the official members of the procession including the Wap Mayor, Queen, High Sheriff, Mop Man, flag bearers, ladies-in-waiting, cheese bearers, May Maids, flowers girls and so on. The Mayor and the Queen were processed down the lane, led by the Mop Man (whose job it is to clear a way through the throng with his wet mop) and the Medieval minstrels known as the Bubonic Wind Band – to be dunked in the ‘Mayor’s Pool’ with all due ceremony. There follows the singing of the Mayor’s Song, accompanied by the Nailsworth Silver Band, with the fine chorus of: ‘Let love and friendship still agree/To hold the Banns of Amity’. When everyone had received a ‘spraying’ from the Wap VIPs, we made our way through the churchyard to a steep lane called Well Leaze where the Mayor and Queen competed at cheese- rolling. The crowds lined the walls and I thought how only in Britain you’d get such a turnout for such a ridiculous activity (although maybe I’m wrong and people are as silly all over the world). But eccentricity is something we do so well as a nation (there must be something in the water). Carrying on to the playing fields, where a village fete had been set up we enjoyed our repast and watch the various displays of falconry, morris dancing, and armouring a knight (the last appropriate, considering the Wap’s etymological roots). The provincial delights of a tug of war, raffle and welly wanging awaited, but we had been well and truly ‘wapped’ and decided to head back down the leafy lanes, happy to be living in such a beautiful and colourful neck of the woods. Long live the Wap!

PS if you want to know more about such colourful events then you might be interested in my forthcoming book, ‘Turning the Wheel: seasonal Britain on two wheels’, to be published by O Books later this year. Watch this space for more details…