Thursday, 6 March 2008

Sand Point and Woodspring Priory

On our last full day in the West Country before returning home I was anxious to go somewhere very different to our life back in London. I wanted to go somewhere quiet, clean and lonely. The weather was windy and sharp so I knew that my best chance was by the sea. So, it was to a finger of land jutting into the Bristol Channel, Sand Point, that we headed on Monday. My parents drove us, and it gave T his first experience of the geography of his paternal heritage. Not that he paid much attention, spending most of the time wrapped up tightly and sleeping in spite of the chill March winds.

To the best of my recollections, I'd not been here before. Yet, it is just this sort of landscape that I consider emblematic of home. Like the Levels to the south, the land has been reclaimed over centuries from sea and marsh and is cris-crossed by rhynes, ditches and rivers flowing slowly to the Bristol Channel under broad and often stormy skies. Although, particularly near some main commuter routes, the villages are becoming less tatty with their desirable houses and new estates, the closer you get to the sea the more lonely and separate the land becomes, the keener the winds and the sharper the sense of solitude.

The other motivation for coming here was Woodspring Priory. I wanted to see this place, and it didn't disappoint. My first impressions were of small site, huddled against the eastern end of Sand Point, but, on the southern and seaward side, exposed to harsh storms from the Bristol Channel. As we parked the car my mind's eye could see the monks, battered by winter storms, living a tough existence at what must have felt the edge of the land. A punishing life befitting an institution set up to atone for the murder of Thomas a Beckett.

This may have been how it was at its 1210 founding, but as I wandered around the site it was obvious that communion with nature and solitude were not the only things to inspire its former inhabitants. Now surrounded by a disused cider orchard and some unperturbed sheep, it was clear that this was not necessarily the last resort of the ascetic or penitent seeking hardship. This was reflected in the structures they put up. Agricultural use after the Dissolution obviously saved much of the priory's fabric. In the small museum there is enough archaeological evidence in the form of delicate carved faces and colourful floor tiles to show that there was more than bare stone walls to keep out the cold. The impressive vaulted ceiling in the tower was a particular delight.

Leaving the Priory, we drove to Sand Point. My parents, my wife and T remained in the car while I braved the elements. I wanted to be outside and breath good air, and I wanted to be close to the sea for the first time in months.

I climbed the hill from the car park, and to my surprise found myself alone. I followed the footpath along the ridge. To my left, a steep slope led down to Sand Bay, and in the sky above me a kestrel used the upward draft of the sea wind hitting the ridge to stay aloft. Rabbits hurtled across my path and took refuge in the brambles. To my right I could look up the Severn Estuary, to the Severn Bridges and the towns and industry of South Wales. Yet where I was felt as far as it could be from dirty air, traffic and people. The further I went along the ridge, the more steep slopes gave way to rocky cliffs battered by waves. The path now dropped dramatically with the decline in the ridge and soon the sea met the land. On three sides of me was water. To the north, the calmer estuary leading to Bristol and the Severn. Ahead of me clouds scudded across the sky and the sun broke through and illuminated the sea between the islands of Flat Holm and Steep Holm. I looked down the Bristol Channel and I could see that the sky to the west was clearing. The hills of Exmoor rolled down to the sea in the far distance, and glancing across to the extremities of Wales I ascertained the mouth of the Channel and the open ocean beyond.

I remained there for a few moments, breathing in the salty air and feeling the spray on my face, then turned back the way I had come.

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