St Patrick’s Day
St Patrick’s Day has become a global phenomenon – Ireland’s day of national celebration becoming a celebration of all things Irish. On one level it seems nothing more than a promotional campaign by Guiness – ‘turning the wheel’ honoured by downing as many pints of the black stuff as possible: seldom has getting pissed been so patriotic. Yet fortunately, there’s more to it than mass appeal alcoholism. There’s the legendary elusive ‘craic’, as seen in the countless ‘sessions’ going on in pubs around the world, and of course the Cheltenham Races (on Monday at the Bath Storytelling Circle, in front of BBC cameras, I had told the story of Macha and the horse race). In Bath, I was running the Bath Writers’ Workshop until nine. Afterwards, feeling very thirsty I took a couple of mates to one of the two Irish pubs in town. The first one – Flann O’briens was so packed out you couldn’t physically get in the doors. Besides which, it looks rather boirish – lots of yobs in silly hats – and so we went up the street to O’Neils, less trendy perhaps but more civilised. There was still a merry atmosphere, without it being like a rugby scrum. Nevertheless, it took about 30 minutes to get served – in which time I had got talking to a lass from Galway. The ambience was pleasant. The Guiness was even pleasanter. But my mates left and I went home – wiped out from my class. I wasn’t disappointed, because the next day I was going to another Paddy’s Day celebration with my friend Marko, a man you don’t meet everyday, at the Weston.
I was teaching another evening class, but blatted over there from Trowbridge afterwards. Got there at ten and luckily hadn’t missed any of the entertainment. Not only was there an Irish band playing (Yon Canny) but a whole troupe of Irish dancers were up from Dorset – The Yetminster Irish Dancers. When I entered (still in my biker leathers) their lads team was dancing. Then the girls came on. Then, finally, the mixed dance. I hailed my friend Marko across the bar and ordered him a jar of the dark stuff. A table became available and we ensconced ourselves, imbibing the lovely atmosphere. The Weston had been recently taken over by new management – no longer the dodgy dive it used to be – it felt like a really nice family pub, a community pub. Whole generations were present for that special night. The staff wore plastic bowler hats. Green crepe bunting decked the ceilings. Shamrocks and cardboard leprechauns festooned the walls, but there was still something authentic about it all.
When Yon Canny went into a rendition of ‘black velvet hat’ Marko got up and jigged about. Always well-turned out, he looked particularly splendid that night, in a smart black jacket with all his silver bling. He struck up the bones at another reel. Normally, he’d be playing along – as he was with them on New Years’ Eve – but with a bass player in the band, he couldn’t compete. But he acted like the unofficial ‘fifth’ member, in fine spirits. I didn’t overdo it, since it was a school night, and I was riding, but still enjoyed myself. My friend Richard was over in Dublin, seeing The Waterboys perform Yeats poems set to music at the Abbey Theatre – I tried not to be envious, but I’m sure that was magical. Instead, this was a fair substitute, on a schoolnight in the middle of term. Elsewhere in town, there was an evening of poetry readings, The Harp and the Unicorn, at the BRLSI, and an evening of Romantic poetry at the Chapel Arts Centre – but tonight, having had my quota of words, it was nice just simply to listen to merry music and watch the dancing. To be sure!
Sun and Steel
Cobwebs blown away, I have just returned from a 200 mile ‘blat’ to the coast and back with a bunch of bikers – a great way to see in the Spring, on what the RAT group Swindon called the Mad March Hare run. This named proved to be prophetic. Though I set off in good time, with everything prepared after a (much-needed) quiet night in, I managed to miss the rendezvous at the Little Chef on the edge of Chippenham – finding it trickier to find than I’d anticipated (no luxury of Sat Nav for me, just a leisure map of ‘Wessex’). I missed the group by about five minutes. Determined to catch up, I set off anyway – following the backroad route south along the B3092.
It was a beautiful Spring morning on the day of the Vernal Equinox and it felt good to be alive, roaring along the country lanes. Although at first I was somewhat annoyed with myself and a little anxious to catch up, I decided to enjoy the journey – they’ll be at Compton Abbas airfield (the destination), and I could connect with them there, and ride back with them. When I realised what was happening was entirely appropriate – half of the day riding alone/half with a group – I relaxed. This seemed to symbolise something uncannily equinoctial: the balance in my life – which seems to veer from industrious solitude to being in the public domain. The day was one of beautiful contrasts – from the land to the sea; from the flat to the rounded; the bare to the wooded; from going at my own pace to following the pack; from enjoying the scenery to concentrating on the road.
The route passed through beautiful towns and villages: Corsham; Bradford-on-Avon; Beckington; Frome; Maiden Bradley; Mere; Gillingham; culminating in Shaftesbury – the hill-top town sitting like a giant Hovis loaf on the verdant platter of the land (I pulled up next to a model one, donated in honour of the restoration of Gold Hill, immortalised by before-he-was-famous film director Ridley Scott in the classic Hovis ad of the 70s – one could almost here the brass band. At least I didn’t have to push my bike up the hill like the baker’s lad! Ee, by ‘eck!)
Snaking down the steep serpentines lanes on the south flanks of the town, I made it in good time to Compton Abbas, but could not find the airfield (no signs). I tried calling the pack leader, Iain, to no avail. I returned to Shaftesbury to ask at Tourist Info … but it was closed. Then I passed a bunch of bikers at the garage – I pulled in. There was a guy on a Triumph … but he was the only one. It turns out they were just off down to Weymouth. Could I join them, I asked? Sure. The pack leader – Steve – filled me in on their system: the riders are topped and tailed by a blue bike (his) and an orange one (a KTM). If you are behind the leader and he turns at a junction, you must stop until the tail-man catches up. Simple. I quickly filled up and grabbed a Mars bar – no time for coffee – and off we went at a brisk pace! It was like keeping up with the White Rabbit as Steve whizzed down the backlanes. He had picked a cross-country route. What had I let myself in for…? But I loved the serendipity and spontaneity of it – they were going to end up at … Compton Abbas airfield. Since I hadn’t met the other group yet one lot of bikers was as good as another. Once we all have our helmets – some with tinted visors – on we become pretty anonymous. It was a thrill to ride with a group of thirty bikers, all in a line behind you (I spent alot of time at the front with the leader). The ride was pretty but hairy – lots of gravel and tight bends so had to focus. It wasn’t as relaxing as riding at my own pace, and we past some places I would have loved to have stopped (eg Maiden Castle). But this was a butch biker blat – no time for such ‘feminine’ distraction! Following on from Shaftes-bury, we passed ‘masculine’ places like King’s Stag and Cerne Abbas – appropriate it seemed for this petrolhead machismo, although there was a mixture of riders, and they all were pretty sensible (it turns out they were an Advanced Motorcycle club – WaBAM: Wiltshire and Bath Advanced Motorcyclists!). In a line of headlights, we roared on, passing the best of England – timeless, heavy-eaved thatched fastnesses; golden stone and wooded dells; the deep winding lanes of Dorset; bristled barrows on the rounded Downs, with rude giants gazing on.
The quality of light brightened as we neared the coast. The hills softened. And suddenly – there was the sea! We made it to Weymouth – having lunch at the Cafe Oasis. I tucked into a veggie breakie, sitting on the beach, gazing at the sea. Hadn’t expected to see that today! It was a great feeling – made me feel anything was possible. The Triumph Legend has grunt and eats up the miles. Feels like I could go anywhere on it. Lunch over, we headed north – to Compton Abbas airfield. A scenic cross-country route thru Lawrence of Arabia country (images of Peter O’Toole roaring along…) took us there in an hour. Before we knew it we were sitting having a cuppa looking at the light aircraft take off.
Stunning views over the Dorset countryside, towards golden topped Shaftesbury. The sun beamed down, warm on my skin. It was good to be alive. Started chatted to a couple – a pilot and an older woman biker – but it was soon time to go. These guys don’t stop! I bid adieu, deciding to head back the more direct route home. It was a relief to ride at my own pace again – but I was certainly going faster and feeling more confident. Some of those advanced biking skills have hopefully rubbed off on me! It was a lovely ride home in the late sun and I truly felt I had blown away the cobwebs of the week. After lots of mental work it was good to do something so ‘in the body’ and ‘in the moment’. The wheel turned – and the brighter days have returned!