Wednesday, April 13, 2011

On the path of legends

8 April
Lay-by near Barnstaple, Devon

Tintagel, the legendary birthplace of King Arthur, was splendid in the almost heat wave conditions that continued today. Not much of the medieval castle is left and the legend is more of a myth than a legend, but the position of the ruins on the rugged Devon coast gave us views that made the tortuous trip through the Devon hedgerows well worthwhile.

Our other touristy visit was to the privately owned village of Covelly. One hell of a walk down – and then UP - to get to the old fishing village but just so picturesque on such a perfect day.

Technology has made travelling as we do much less fraught. With our GPS (TomTom) and our mobile broadband mini-computer, it is all so simple. For example, to find our free camping spot tonight, we used a downloaded POI file (Points Of Interest) for our GPS, which also feeds into the Google Earth satellite map program running on our computer. Using both together, we are able to identify possible free sites and then 'look' at them in Google Earth, which, in most circumstances, lets us see pictures of what they actually look like 'on the ground'. How did we ever do this before?

10 April
Newton Mill Caravan Park (Bath)

At almost 7:00 pm we are sitting in shorts, bare feet and T-shirts enjoying the last of the warm spring sunshine. Like most of the 60M people of the UK, we have been out and about enjoying this incredible run of unseasonal weather. It was positively hot today! Even for us, after five weeks in the late summer of Africa, it was hot! For the Brits, who have had one of the worst winters on record, this is heaven on a stick. So there they were, in the parks, out on the streets, on the 'lazy-boys' in the camping grounds, lapping it up.

The city centre of Bath was packed by mid-morning, with girls in short shorts, winter-white skin quickly turning pink in the sun and T-shirts and flip-flops everywhere.

This is a beautiful city, even in the dismal weather we have experienced here in previous visits. But today, with the flowering trees, gardens in full bloom and the mellow stone buildings glowing in the bright sunlight, it was just magic!

As usual, we got a bit lost getting into the city on the bus. We walked a couple of kms up what is known locally as Pennyquick Hill, looking for a bus stop that was on a totally different road - one hell of a walk. But it turns out that the steep rise we tramped up is a local fault line, the source of the heated springs that originally drew the Romans to this spot. There is always a silver lining if you look hard enough.

Bath has been an important site since before the first Roman settlements and, as a centre of the Medieval church, it holds an important place in history, paired with nearby Wells. The Bishop of Bath & Wells holds a significant place in the church hierarchy to this day.

Wealthy 17th and 18th century Londoners maintained houses here so they could “take the waters' in the 'season'. The Georgian Royal Crescent and Circus are still home to magnificent, stone, three-storey mansions fronting cobbled streets with enormous green lawns that are now common land to be enjoyed by the good citizens of Bath this sunny weekend, the first week of the school holidays. Woe is us! Others on holidays. Crowds. More kids in the streets and museums.

We have revelled in the weather the past week, but all things must come to an end. A cold front approaches from the west and we expect a 10C drop in temperatures tomorrow.

11 April
Lea, Gloucestershire

The weather didn't turn out as dismal as predicted. A few clouds scudded by, but it was still a very pleasant day to be cruising around the villages of the Cotswolds. One of our long term favourites is Castle Combe. We have seen the village in snow, but today, it was in its spring brilliance.

Those readers who followed our South African blog will remember the ripping tales of the Anglo-Zulu wars and in particular the heroics of the Welsh regiment that defended Rorke's Drift. Today, we followed through on one of the heroes of that battle, so far away in time and space. In the little village of Churcham, just outside Gloucester, we found the grave of Alfred (Henry) Hook (the cook) who won one of the 11 VCs awarded at that battle. He was one of the saviours of the wounded in the hospital, dragging comrades through the rubble of the small outpost in the face of a fierce attack by thousands of Zulus.

Born at Churcham in Gloucestershire in 1850, he first served in the Monmouth Militia and enlisted into the regular army at Monmouth in March 1877, aged 26. After his discharge in 1880, Hook resided at Sydenham Hill and worked at the British Museum. He retired in 1904 and returned to live in Gloucestershire. He died of pulmonary tuberculosis on 12th March 1905 at Osborne Villas, Roseberry Avenue, Gloucester.
Interestingly, there is some mystery about his first marriage. His wife thought he had been killed in South Africa and ran off with someone else. Hook married again, in 1897, in Islington. His second wife, Ada, is buried with him in the peaceful graveyard in Churcham. She died in 1929.
Today, it is a long way from the sunlit fields of early spring in Churcham to the blistering heat and isolation of the site of Rorke's Drift in Kwa-Zulu Natal. Just imagine how far it was in 1879!
12 April,
Most of today we spent again in the foot steps of Henry Hook, VC, of Rorke's Drift fame. Our pursuit of this humble hero of the Zulu Wars has become a bit of an obsession, we must admit. In Monmouth today, we visited the barracks where Hook probably enlisted. He was stationed here before his departure for Africa.
The Welsh town of Brecon was the base for Hook's Regiment of the Welsh Borderers. The 24th had its headquarters here and today, the Regiment's museum is full of memorabilia from the Zulu War campaign. Hook's VC is in the museum along with a bible that he found at Rorke's Drift.
Brecon Cathedral has a chapel dedicated to the Welsh Borderers. Here many of the heroes of Isandhlwana and Rorke's Drift are remembered. One highlight for us was the Queen's Colours that hang in the chapel. Those familiar with the details of the battle will know that two VCs were won by Lieuts. Melvill and Coghill, who died at Fugitive’s Drift defending the flag. Tragically, the colours were lost in the raging stream and the two defenders were slaughtered by the Zulu. The colours were later retrieved and presented to Queen Victoria. In 1933, they were returned to the Regiment and today they hang in Brecon Cathedral, a material link between this quaint Welsh town and a colonial war fought by tough little Welshmen (and they were little in stature) on the other side of the world over a century ago.
All this is a link for us as well, between two places we have recently visited, South Africa and the UK. Two vastly different cultures. Africa and Europe. The third and the first world. And we wonder here in 2011, why men from these Welsh valleys travelled halfway around the world to fight in a war of Empire against an enemy they never knew, for a purpose they probably didn't understand. Perhaps Sergeant Frank Bourne DCM could have explained it? He died on VE day 1945. He was 91 years old. The last surviving defender of Rorke's Drift.

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