Last weekend I set off on a ‘ride-about’, having had enough of all work and no play (‘red rum’ running round my head as I hammered away at the keyboard). I loaded up the bike and set off for the Somerset Levels, visiting some old friends who live above Wookey Hole. I hadn’t seen them since they’d had their child – a lovely brown-eyed girl who was now 2 and a half, and bright as button (like her parents, one a university lecturer, the other a website designer). But it was like old times, catching up with them over a fantastic B-B-Q, Spanish style, in their garden high above the Levels. The mundane and its demands are always there, preventing us from sustaining such special connections – unless we make a real effort. In the summer it’s a lot easier and pleasanter, blatting about – so I’m determined to make the most of it to catch up with old friends.
The next day I rendezvoused with my friend K at Castle Cary, and I took him pillion on a jaunt down to the Dorset coast – the object of our quest was the legendary ‘Stone Age’ pub, the Square and Compass, Worth Matravers, near Swanage, but sixty five million years distant in many ways, secreted in its remote nook of the Dorset ‘Jurassic Coast’. But before we sampled its fine wares, we made a bee-line for Chapmans Pool – essential on a summer’s day, especially after a hot ride.
We parked up the bike and hoofed it down the 400ft to the shingle, the waters awaited. We were soon floating in the cooling brine. There was not a cloud in the sky. It felt good to be away from it all – literally drifting, cut loose from our commitments.
Afterwards, we beat over to the pub, where a long afternoon of ensozzlement awaited – slowly sinking the local ale as the shadows lengthened. Sitting in the ‘Stone Age’ beer garden, tables and benches made of monumental slabs of stone from the nearby quarry like a set from the Flintstones, enjoying the grog, pasties and view over the blue, there is no better watering hole in the south-west. Complete with its own Museum of Fossils (and I don’t mean the sun-weathered regulars) it feels lost in its own time-warp.
Later Elephant Talk performed a hot set in a ridiculously small and stuffy room. The atmosphere was ‘frisky’, although my companion didn’t need much egging on (this whole jaunt could be misread as a ‘bromantic weekend break’ but K was chatting up everything that didn’t have a penis – no waitress or random German cyclist was safe). However, I was flagging and in need of some peace and Dorset starlight. We staggered down to a field and rolled out our mats, and were soon fast asleep – somewhere in the fold of a lynchet, hidden among the gently swaying grasses. We were in the East Man meadow below the pub, but we could have easily have been in a hollow-way somewhere above North Chiddeock – the obscure location of Geoffrey Household’s cult novel, Rogue Male, about a Englishman who fails to assassinate an unnamed European dictator, and has to go on the run – ending up going to ground, quite literally, in the deep ferny clefts of the Dorset countryside. There he survives in a primal fashion, living off his wits, and befriending a feral cat he calls Asmodeus. Household’s novel vividly evokes the landscape – specifically the wild in the liminal; and expresses something instinctual in the male psyche, which loves caves, roughing it, and being ‘outlaw’ and off-the-radar. Men like to feel wild, at least now and then. A subsequent conversation with a male friend confirmed this. Once when hitching with a mate, he was picked up by a solitary woman, finding himself a little disappointed when she commented that she had felt safe in offering him and his friend a lift, ‘because they didn’t look dangerous’. As men, we like to feel a little dangerous sometimes – even if this fantasy rarely breaks the surface. It remains underground – dormant – like a hunted assassin in deep cover. Hence, I suspect, the appeal of Household’s book, which has spawned a sub-cult, with the ‘Wild Places’ author Robert Macfarlane as its high priest.
A bit of wild-camping and Stone Age bingeing is sufficient to scratch that itch for now. The hollow-way, feral cats, and deadly end-games with enemy agents will have to await.
The next morning, we returned to civilisation – well, Swanage, and succumbed to the beach, along with half the population. The soft sand, fish’n’chips, bikinis and surf worked its magic, but eventually we wended our way north, via Dorchester and the Cerne valley – paying our respects to the Cerne Abbas giant. This mysterious sixty foot ithyphallic figure seemed like an apt way to round off our ‘Rogue Male’ weekend – but it was too hot to linger long. We washed our sandy feet in the Mill leat – blissfully cool and cleansing on my poor blistered paws. A cut had grown worryingly deep, but such ‘war wounds’ are all part of a rogue male’s ‘badge of honour’. Unless you have acquired a few cuts and bruises, you haven’t really had a good time, according to its macho code. This is ‘Fight Club’, Dorset-style, with Cerne Abbas as the ultimate logo. A coffee at the Giant’s Inn, then it was on the high road back to Somerset. Dropping my friend off, I made a spontaneous detour to Glastonbury Tor, from the heights of which I savoured the beautiful evening light over the Levels – the Tor, the hub of a great wheel, around which I had come full circle.