Saturday, 13 September 2014

The Bath Skyline Tour: a sunset walk of ideas

The National Trust Skyline Walk, to give it its official name, is a walk on the urban/rural fringe of Bath. It is, apparently, their most downloaded walk in the country and I was fortunate enough to be able to take it not with a few sheets of A4 printouts, but instead as part of a sunset walk accompanied by a guide from the National Trust and one of the mayor's honorary guides too.

We gathered in a grassy car park above the city. Our guide was suitably attired and gave us a brief introduction that was to the point and not laboured, as can happen. I generally much prefer it when the introduction to a tour consists of the essentials only (e.g. duration, end point, safety, cost) and other things are revealed as and when they need to be. That means a mixing of some further 'practical' information with the tour's ostensive subject matter at different points in the tour. For example, the guide can reveal their sources half-way through or explain how they came to be giving the tour. What I usually prefer, in any case, is to get some momentum, and that's just what happened here.

Our second guide introduced himself at the next stop and his thing was the history of Bath. Up in this area that meant him telling us about the abbey who owned the land, an old racecourse that was here and that this was a site for duelling. I heard similar information on the City Sightseeing bus tour, which passes this way, however, the bus had to condense everything into 20 seconds as it passed at speed whereas he could take as long as he liked so there was no sense of urgency about rounding off the story before we turned the corner. He went on to tell us that his special interest was in Ralph Allen who was instrumental in shaping the city's history and who owned a large tract of the land in this area.

For quite a distance we walked through fields and then woods with no sweeping vistas before us. I was beginning to wonder if this title the skyline tour was so well chosen.  

But then we seemed to turn a corner and were rewarded with a proper view over the city. 

With the view of the city behind him, we then had the Ralph Allen story in earnest. The emphasis here was not upon a psychological approach to tell the man's biography, his private life was largely absent from this story. Instead, we were told how his deeds shaped the city. I was reminded of how history is often told through the format of great men being the instigators of events and of the passage in War and Peace where Tolstoy argues the converse. 

“In historical events so-called great men are but the labels that serve to give a name to an event, and like labels, they have the least possible connection with the event itself. Every action of theirs, that seems to them an act of their own freewill, is in the historical sense not free at all but is bound up with the whole course of history and predestined from all eternity.”

Both ways have much to be said for them, I perhaps notice this favouring of the great man approach here because pretty much all of the guided tours of Bath seem to focus on three great men to tell the story of how they made the city and then on one great woman for how it was to live inside of it. What was also quite striking, was the difference in the way the two guides used the space. The descriptions of nature were mostly about the areas we were actually standing in whereas the historical material was, more often than not, what we could see some distance in front of us.

There were a couple of dogs on the tour, and this one prompted the following joke. "What did the spaniel say to the parrot? I'm a cockatoo."

We looked at a tree that had allegedly been set on fire by a schoolboy arsonist burning his books. The trust had done quite a lot of work to preserve the tree. I may be embellishing the story with the burning of school books but having physically abused some of my own school books, back in the day, by kicking them around the four walls of my room, I can understand the impulse though I'd never condone the burning of trees.

Rob, the guide, asked more than once whether I could feature the new bench installed along the skyline in the blog, so here it is. Someone said it would make a wonderful place to sit with friends and drink a bottle of wine with the majestic views over the valley below. The cynic in me thought the more likely fate is for it to be a spot to sit on and drink special brew, though now I think about it, it's enough of a walk from the city centre to deter the average  alcoholic. In any case, it's a nice bench and unlike the City Trail, the quotes are more significant and well chosen.

There was not so much spotting of fauna on this walk, it was more about the flora. We did however, spot a deer at the far end of the field. Not having a paparazzi zoom on my camera, this is about the best I could manage. Yes it could be a kangaroo for all I know.

Emerging onto the pavement we walked down a short slope and as we were doing so, I heard a ugly thump behind us. Turning round I saw a cyclist lying in pain on the road. No car seemed to have been involved, except perhaps a parked one on the side of the road. One or two of our group rushed to the scene, those who knew first aid, and people came out of a house opposite to see what was going on. These hills are pretty steep and if on a bike you don't treat them with caution, you can finish this way. What the real cause was, I have no idea. It looked like a more than superficial injury from a distance and when our party returned they confirmed so but also said he was basically OK and had the good fortune to come off his bike in front of the house of a doctor, who was immediately on the scene. 

The next part of the walk was over meadows that were perched overlooking the city centre. What very particular architecture and town planning Bath has. These meadows, we were told, are extremely rich in wildflowers, though we were too late in the year to properly appreciate them. 

The route we were following was signposted and it would probably have been possible to have taken it without a map or guide, though I'd not recommend it. There were also notice boards scattered along the walk some of which advertised the sunset walk we were taking. That and the generally high level of maintenance of the route gave the impression that it was carefully managed. We were told that a small team of paid staff and larger number of volunteers work year round on the Bath Skyline.

The walk took us along another short section of pavement but even here it was beside a quiet, leafy road. The route seemed to have been made with the intention of weaving us through a variety of natural habitats, of which there were plenty, and at the same time reminding us that all this is right next to and indeed sometimes inside of the Bath urban area.

By now it was getting later in the day and the colours in the sky started a delicate dance.

Our guide explained the principles of succession by which the countryside evolves with different plants, bushes and trees colonising the land one after another with the final result, in this part of the UK, of oak forests. It is an ecological process I had not heard about previously and it got me looking at the areas we passed through in a new way. He also pointed out that there were meadow ants in the area and their anthills could grow large and be over 100 years old, though the ones we saw were younger. It was interesting to see how there is a history to nature if you know how to read it. This also made me think about the difference between the two guides' approaches: one about the man and the other about the process. They were coming at things in very different ways, finally.

He mentioned a book that looks like it should be a great read, The History of The Countryside by Oliver Rackham (1986). I have always sensed something mannered about the countryside in the UK, as if it bears the traces of many people's usage of it. This book, if I understand rightly, is the classic work that sets out and tests a history of our use of the countryside and is the reference point for subsequent research. That's another item to add to the birthday list then.

We arrived at Sham Castle, the folly perched high upon the downs, in the golden light of the setting sun. This was to be the place where we would watch it set. During a sensual moment like this most of the group fell back into the couples they arrived in. This question of how people mix within a group is one I have been asking myself increasingly, having noticed that some tours encourage it more than others. Personally, I quite like it when there is some exchange between people who started the walk as strangers but become acquainted along the way. A good part of it is how and why the people come together to take the walk in the first place and whether they have a strong, shared interest or not. Beyond that I have also noticed that tours which leave space for the people to ask questions and contribute their thoughts are the ones where the conversation more naturally spills over into the spaces between the stops.

There were then a few minutes of looking out over the city. There was talk of how the land was managed with the golf course below but that seemed like a question from another part of the walk.

We got some further history, much of it about Sham Castle itself, a folly constructed by our old friend Ralph Allen. This mix of nature and history was complimentary in the case of Bath as that does accurately reflect the walk and its views. The two guides were not at cross purposes at all, as they were most notably on the now classic reference point of mine the Dalston Conservation Tour where the two guides were pulling the walk in different directions.

With the sun almost down we were treated to a rising moon on the other side of Sham Castle. What immaculate timing. It was now time to cover some distance to get back to the starting point where the cars were parked. This, quite definitely had to be a circular walk.

For a second time on one of these tours we had a view over Solsbury Hill, which was the cue for the Peter Gabriel story all over again. From a distance, it does not look like much of a hill, more like a plateaux. Those who had been up it, however, were very enthusiastic about it and said Solsbury genuinely was a special place.

This brought us to a great last section of the walk through woods in rapidly descending darkness. We had been advised to bring torches, and with good reason. The ground was uneven and slippery in places but basically walkable. I had to really concentrate on the path ahead of me in order to make progress, this was no place for idle chat. We emerged into fields where a dim, late dusk glow aided our way and let the eyes soak in the landscape in this evocative gloom. I realised that it is rare that I have the opportunity to walk in nature in these conditions and it is something I should really try to do more, as it awakens the all the senses. Returning us to the car park, we made our goodbyes and I and two others were lucky enough to be offered a lift back down into the city. With the legs heavy from four hours of walking, the lift was very welcome. There's another sunset walk along the Skyline 28th September, or indeed you can do it anytime you please, though in company like this I'd say it's a richer experience.

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