One of those great train routes, bisecting with parallel lines of rapid iron this dense and crowded island. For me – a regular commuter on the Swindon- Bristol segment – things start to come alive as we enter Somerset.
Somerset is a place unto itself, defined by the draining of hills into marsh. As the train sweeps across the Levels their fringe of flat-topped, whale-backed uplands brings this home; yet there are only hints of the true variety of these dips and sets: the mini-mountains of Mendip are hinted at by the nipple-sharp peak of Sharp Hill; the verdant, maze-like world of the younger limestones are suggested by the odd church tower, peepng to the south; the crumbling red sandstone world of deplanes is barely a hint whispered from somewhere off screen t othe front of the train. Unbidden is the delicious transition zone between highland and Level, a great band encircling what was once an inland sea, never more than a mile or two wide and by turns choppy, dramatic, and almost-flat. This unnamed litoral is one of England’s most intimate and lost places, its greatest monument the great church of St Andrew at Wells, whose rhyming scheming grandeur makes a poetry of its own setting.
And all around us, the place to which all this leads, the great fen of the Levels, still just containing urgent rumours of its prior selves, even today when commuters criss-cross its straight roads. Here is a prehistoric landscape – the extraordinary lake villages – and a medieval one; for here Welsl gave way to Glastonbury, which for centuries effectively ran this wetland as its own private mini-kingdom, making its island-capital a glitteign darkness of religious rumour and faked-up miracles, an Ely of the south west.
These former islands are the defining fixed points of lowland Somerset, and as we shift pass Brent Knoll it seems that here rather than Glastonbury or SXbury is this great drainland’s spiritual heart. Like a true island, it contains a universe of its own, with its cliff-sided moraine-made motte—and-bailey form rising with unnatural geometry from the flat landscape, ringed with springs nad the villages they make, topped by a ragged hill fort, at once destination and blockage to motorway and mainline alike. Good for it.
But perhaps Bridgwater with its abandoned-looking estates and perpetual smell of melting plastic bags, is the real capital of today. For some reason, over many decades, whenever I had cause to come through this town I had a feeling I would bump into Joe Strummer in the bus station. It wasn’t until he died that I learnt he really did live nearby.
The red shades into tussocky deep-valed hills only slowly, and somewhere as it does were move from Devon to Somerset. Indeed Devon is Somerset inside-out, the rocky circlet of hhills draining into the central, sea-edge marsh replaced by a great central knob of granite, drained across steep and dense territory to the water edge. I never fail to be surprised by the quiet dramatic steepness of its green-and-red valleys as they run from sunsplashed faded resorts to frost-shattered brown barrow-filled wastes. The train of course does that one-of-the-best-ever, surely it’ll-be-washed-away sweep along the South Hams coast, deep estuaries and crumbling yet dogged sandstone stacks and towns where human life is fading; and for a brief moment the slatey world of the moor-edge veers up and even the odd top is glimpsed, bare shoulders of bracken-to-be. And then Plymouth, nothing to do with any of this, yet it is the result of the great floods of water that leave that granite knobs, especially as they cleave county from county to create the near-island that is Cornwall. Navy town, like Portsmouth, a place for men and regiments: hard edges, heavily engineered bridges, 1960s bombsites and bouleavars, sheds and flags and stadia.
I’m used to entering Cornwall further north, from Tavi or Okey: there, west Devon and East Cornwall are virtually indistinguishable, a Rorschach in which the Tarmac is a paper’s fold, the old tin consols and stannary towns in their metapmorphic hinterland are little inkspread pattern-gaps, and the high greybrown torlands are the outer limits. But from Plymouth, the change is immediate as one looks down on Saltash: the houses suddenty smaller, sudden modern bungalows in unexpected places.
But in truth from the railway you would never guess that this county was one of England’s great tourism counties: though, as you pass through the grey-faced towns, you might be less surprised to hear about its high scores on most indices of deprivation. There are glimpses of the water-edged treeline and creeky world of its southern landscape of softly flooded estuaries, but no sense of the bare glories and ancient places of the north. Only finally Truro stands out, as if the grand industrial arcades over which the railway bisects the city were designed to make it the wannabe-county town. It’s not only these, and the civic buildings, and the French Gothic cathedral plonked in the middle of a place of proud Methodist councillors and industrialists, that mark it out: even before that it had a Bath-aping elegance that was not matched by its competitors, Bodmin and Lanceston. Part of what makes it so beguiling is the combination of seriousness and size: the attributes of a city crammed into a market town, like Wells and St Davids; but also an unusual coming-together of periods. There are no shortage of industrial-era cities that impress in Britain’s western fringes – from Bradford to Liverpool, Sunderland to Cardiff, these cities are visibly produces of the centuries since 1800; only the footprint of a group of streets, and perhaps the odd over-restored and much-extended parish church, hints that they were once medieval places. This is true of the northern/western industrial-era small town, too, but here the results are rarely beguiling. That’s not the case at Truro: the visual stimulation one is used to from the great Victorian cities, the scale of the small town: a rare combination. And like them, unless one has an eye for burgage plots or the single aisle of St Mary’s church not gobbled up by Pearson’s cathedral, the city’s status as a medieval Cornish town is well-nigh invisible.