Sunday, 8 May 2011

Mozart and Roast Beef

I have only ever once lived in the countryside during the time I have lived around Bath, and it was in this little cottage, at the bottom of an extremely steep hill just outside Bradford on Avon - albeit about 80 years after this photo was taken.

The place was called 'The Old Tea Gardens' and you can see why from this picture. I wasn't there for long - under 2 years - but I had the most wonderful time and every season had something different to offer. It was (and probably still is) a very tight-knit community but neighbors left each other alone except for the annual drinks parties in summer and winter, with the odd dinner invitation in between. I cooked sunday lunch for friends in town almost every week, and each weekend a handful of people would turn up expecting to eat at around 1.00 pm, but invariably we would sit down at around tea-time, somewhat worse the wear for wine on an empty stomach. I never did quite get the hang of cooking on a Rayburn. For the six hours or so that it took to prepare and eat the lunch, Mozart's Clarinet Concerto would be played over and over again, and now I cannot hear that music without being transported back to that time and that hamlet.

My neighbors were an interesting bunch who included Chris Patten, the Chairman of the Conservative Party and our Bath M.P., immediately adjacent - he who later became the last Governor of Hong Kong - and he was both a useful person to have around at weekends and a liability. His post as Junior Minister for Northern Ireland meant that there was always a police presence in the narrow lanes which - although being reassuring - was sometimes disconcerting, especially when driving home slightly over the limit from an early visit to the Paragon Wine Bar in town.

Pretty much every other weekend, my most treasured guest would be a massive, shaggy and grey, Deerhound/Greyhound lurcher called 'Bill'. Bill was a gentle soul, unless you happened to be a rabbit, or any other creature with four legs and fur which displayed any sign of aggression at all. Chris Patten had a small, blind mutt which staggered around bumping into walls every weekend, making incessant growling noises as a result - I guess - of it's frustration at still being alive. One day, Chris's dog made the mistake of bumping into Bill and telling him to be more careful in the future. I looked over the wall to see what all the fuss was about, and I was just in time to stop Bill from tearing out the throat of the other dog. The neighbor directly above witnessed the event, and - being a staunch Socialist - shouted, "You should have let your dog kill the little bastard, Tom! It should have died years ago!"

There were a couple of lesbians who lived a little further up the slope, and being with them for a Christmas drinks party was like being an extra in the film, 'The Killing of Sister George' - one was much younger than the other, and they were always bickering.

Cromwell stayed in this little hamlet during the English Civil War (reputedly in Lord Patten's house - how ironic!), so the small, fresh spring which still gushes from the foot of the hill was the only one in the area not to be poisoned at the time. This spring has been known as 'The Green Man' since medieval times, and you still get tourists today, wandering around the houses trying to find a pub of the same name.

In a wood of Scot's Pine at the top of the lane, there are the remnants of a massive pre-historic stone circle which bisects the road leading down to the hamlet, and in the nearby deciduous wood there is a series of pits and mounds known locally as 'Jugg's Grave'.

Walking past The Old Tea Gardens, a narrow foot-path takes you into another wood wherein lie moss-covered boulders which are the only clue that this place - ages ago - was a stone quarry. It was no ordinary quarry though, because the stone pulled out of the ground here was riddled with varying sized holes and tunnels making it useless as ordinary building stone. It was known as 'Grott-Stone', and used exclusively to line the rustic walls of the caves which were created in the early 18th century to make the Grottoes which were so fashionable at the time.

Down the hill in an open field is the site where - sometime in the 19th century - a whole garrison of soldiers made camp, and beneath a great boulder which sits in a spring of fresh water (a later manifestation of 'The Green Man') that still feeds the cows today, you can find dozens of huge and misshapen, lead bullets that they fired at the rock for target practice.

Carry on down past the impromptu firing-range and you will arrive at the fringes of a copse which grows either side of the main road to Bradford-on-Avon, known as 'Sally-in-the-Wood'. There are various stories about how it got it's name - including ghost-stories - but the truth is that, many hundreds of years ago, there lived an old hermit called 'Sally', and she is forever associated with this area - even by the Highways Authority today.

I really do miss living there - especially on spring sundays such as this - but I have tried to go back and capture the magic once or twice, to no avail. In any event, the three most frequent visitors to the Tea Gardens have been dead for some years, just as the old woman in the photo is. They have built a small extension to the cottage, and the wooden porch is no longer there (it was not when I was), but the 'stable' half-door remains. I can still smell roast beef and hear Mozart when I walk past it.


  1. I always thought that when Patten returned from Hong Kong, he would take up the reins of the Conservative party, and become Prime Minister. Alas (for him).

    Your sunday lunches remind me of S Fletcher's home 'Broomsquires Cottage', where we would do something similar... with Julie at the stove, and mostly Van Morrison on the Dansette Major.

  2. Hello Tom:
    A walk, indeed, down memory lane!!

    We lived for over 25 years in the wilds of Herefordshire in the tiniest of hamlets where, in two acres, we created a garden which, much to our surprise, gained a national reputation.
    We left in 2004 and have never been back. A mistake to do so, in our view.

  3. Arrow Cottage by any chance?

  4. Hello Tom [again]:
    Forgive this, a communication to Cro Magnon on your post.

    As it happens, yes!

  5. Hang on - do you two and Cro know each other? I think I should be told.

  6. Oh and by the way - yes, Cro - kicking Chris Patten out in favour of a woolly liberal was one of the many, VERY stupid things that the wise folk of Bath have done over the last 40 odd years. (see my next post...)

  7. Ok - I've just Googled the Hattatts, and I now know why Peto has been referred to as 'darling'. Carry on.