A Winter's Tale on the Miners' Trail
Wednesday 10th February 2010
Millstone wakes early, and draws the curtains. (He always keeps a pencil and sketch pad by the bed). Through the frosted window pane he looks across the fields and up at the downs. They have been lightly dusted with snow during the night, but the ever dependable weather forecast is for bright warm sunshine.
Rosemary and Judith have other work today, Stuart is on his roof, Norman is on the piste, and Robert has been sent to Coventry. Thus the skeleton team of Peter, Martin and John of M, set off from Bedrock in HMLR Dreadnought to drive to Ruth's for a ride along the Miners' trail of East Kent.
Ruth and Robert's faithful hound Darcey remains to guard the house and keep the fire going. Almost immediately, as we pedal down the familiar path to Tilmanstone, we are struck by a vicious combination of gale force headwinds and lead like pellets of hard frozen white stuff being hurled into our eyes and faces as if by some punitive deity.
Fortunately this ordeal is soon over, and we find ourselves in the shelter of Tilmanstone Parish Churchyard. Ruth points out a notice board which Robert had made. Craftsmanship of the highest order. Beside the lych gate there is a set of stocks, into which Martin locks himself. Without warning, an angry mob of villagers appears from behind a hedge hurling out dated pre-packed Waitrose cherry tomatoes at him. We are relieved to learn that this is just part of the Tilmanstone Heritage Experience, and in return for a small donation the peasants disperse.
In the Churchyard, Ruth points out an enormous Yew tree, which was once dated by the naturalist David Bellamy; he would strum his guitar and sing "Yew were made for me", but it didn't last because of the age difference. In fact the tree is said to be one thousand and twelve years old; we know this because Mr Bellamy said it was 1000 years old in 1998. The Church itself dates from the mid-11th century, and is of early English Catholic design.
Next stop Barfrestone. Here we pause at the little Church of St Nicholas. Now regular readers will know that Millstone occasionally allows the free spirit of his imagination to roam 'off road'; well be assured that all that follows concerning St Nicholas is the unembellished truth.
Lying (no pun intended) just off the A2 from Canterbury to Dover, Barfrestone (Barston to the locals) is practically part of the Pilgrims' Way. The Church was built in the late 1100's from a mixture of locally sourced broken flintstone, and blocks of stone from Caen. It has a fine display of mostly original 'corbels' (pieces of stone jutting out from a wall to support a superincumbent weight), examples of which can be seen in the photo album of today's ride, an exceptionally beautiful 'wagon wheel' rose window (complete with "column swallowers"), and possibly the most interesting 1100's display of tympanum and voussoir sculptures in the UK. Given their age and weather exposure, they are in remarkable condition. Scenes such as knights with lances, a wyvern spitting fire at a lion, and a minotaur gazing into the distance are clearly discernable, as is what is thought to be the earliest depiction of St Thomas a Becket.
Of particular interest to Millstone, is the fact that the upper East end of the Church is classified as 'part Puglian and part Poitou/Aquitaine' - the region of South West France frequented by Millstone and his wife. To cap it all, as they say, there is on one wall, a recess containing the statue of a horseman; a feature commonly found in Western France, such as at the namesake Church in Civray(Charente). On another wall is the startling figure of Lucifer himself, portrayed as a bat hurtling towards the ground. An image that may perhaps have inspired the French Architect and restorer of medieval buildings, Viollet Le Duc.
The morning is slipping away like silk from a maiden's……., and as with our Pilgrim forefathers, the miles must be consumed to compensate for the guilty pleasure of a good lunch.
A little way along the road we are sad to see the demise of yet another pub; the Yew Tree stopped trading on January 26th and is a pathetic sight with its boarded up windows and doors. Last time we passed here, it had looked busy and full of life.
We now strike out across wild, barren country towards the ancient capital of Kent's coal fields - Aylesham. All around us there are reminders of how much this area depended on coal for its survival. A statue of a miner with his children stands at the top of the village, beside a further education centre, library, and Sunshine Café. Ruth's efforts to prise a Miners Trail guide from the librarian are in vain, but she does discover a fascinating coal production score board (pictured).
Outside we find one of those information 'plaques' you find in every self respecting village, and which contains all we need to know.
This is a nostalgic journey for Peter. Behind the statue of the Unknown Miner there are three small railway wagons. Peter looks closely and declares wistfully that they contain real coal. This poignant moment sparks an outbreak of reminiscence among the party. Martin recalls how, as a lowly paid young high flyer, he was forced to scavenge among the bins of the fish market for mackerel heads with which to feed his little family.
Those of us who knew Peter and Rosemary in the early days, remember how they often resorted to sucking a par-boiled gloco nut for warmth. For his part, Millstone was apprenticed by his parents at the age of ten to a Dartmoor sheep rustler. A traumatic enough experience for any child, but made much worse by his father's deafness, and consequent mistaking of the word rustler for 'wrestler'.
Back on the bikes. It is unanimously decided in view of the rapidly accumulating mass of ominous grey cloud forming above us, that we should make straight for Eastry in search of shelter and victuals, rather than the more distant prospect of Wingham.
Millstone feels the onset of an ever more pressing call of nature, and warns the others that he will soon disappear behind the first available hedge. An opportunity soon arises in the form of a wood, accessed by a large metal gate which is secured by a spring loaded bolt with the resistance of a 747 front wheel shock absorber.
Even with warm supple digits, the removal of several layers of protective clothing can be time consuming. When they are stiff and frozen, it is the stuff of nightmares. Desperation is a wonderful motivator though, and the job is completed, but not before a swirling blizzard engulfs him and his little friend.
This incident leads to the discovery of a new variation on Avogrado's hypothesis which (inter alia) postulates that it is relatively straightforward to enter a wood by slipping diagonally past a large heavy metal gate. We can now show, however, that it is impossible to exit via the same gate with a with a bicycle in one hand, without opening it to virtually its fullest extent, and without a subsequent struggle to prevent the base of the gate from crashing into the left ankle, while at the same time dragging the bicycle sideways and backwards without damaging the other ankle with the protruding pedal.
Attempting to form his mouth into the shape of a visual apology, Millstone eventually catches up with his comrades who are cowering under a large tree in a futile effort to protect themselves from the merciless onslaught of white hell from above.
Heads down, the Ragstones battle on through the arctic blizzard with grim determination to reach the pub, any pub, a corner shop, a barn….before nightfall and escape the certainty of discovering at first hand how the after lunch symptoms of slurred speech and drowsiness might differ from those of hypothermia.
Peter and Martin are specks on a blank canvas. Eventually we enter a place with houses. Ruth's chain comes off. Millstone helps to replace it, and is rewarded by Ruth with the information that the houses are part of Eastry!
Across the square is a well camouflaged white building called the Five Bells; one would be more than enough! It looks and feels good. Ragstones have evolved antennae and odour receptors to a degree of sensitivity that can distinguish a good from a bad pub from distances as far as six feet. The clincher is the sign saying "Two Course Lunch £5".We are through the door faster than Lance Armstrong down the Cresta Run.
The lady behind the bar greets the four snow people with a lovely smile and leads us to a table. The locals are friendly and josh with us about bikes and skis (outside, the white stuff is now being dumped with renewed ferocity). We may be here for days! [If the landlord of the Griffins Head at Chillenden is reading this, it's never too late to learn what makes a really great pub, but you do have a mountain to climb!]
The table is laid, wine and glasses are brought. The choice is made. Home made mushroom soup, steak pie, apple and blackberry tart with custard. ALL HOME MADE BY THE LANDLADY HERSELF! (Roasts on Sunday).
We agree that the Five Bells in Eastry is a "five star plus distinction" Pub with which the residents of Eastry are extremely lucky to have been blessed.
After a jolly conversation with our hostess, and settlement of the account with the warm feeling that it has been serious value for the money, we return to Ruth's for tea, delicious cakes, puns about logs, a fire that needs attention, and reflections on the scandal of a wasted generation in the First World War.
Incidentally, the "High and Dry" pub near Robert and Ruth's home takes its name from the higher mine shafts which were understandably higher and dryer and thus more comfortable to work, than those further down, out and under the sea. (Martin had once been taken down one of the collieries by a group of colleagues, but they were dismayed to find him back at his desk the following day.)
As we head home in HMLR Dreadnought with Captain Peter at the helm, we soon discover that the little white flakes have not finished with us yet. Traffic is chaotic in all directions, but by good judgment of the crew, the least worst route is selected, and apart from a few lunatics hurtling past with suicidal zeal in the snow lane, we arrive unscathed, stirred but not shaken.
Thanks to Peter and Ruth for an unforgettable ride!
Finally, we address a serious matter. We were deeply moved by Martin's account of the handicap which prevents him sharing with the rest of us the pleasure of writing these blogs. We will do our utmost on future rides to help Martin overcome his disability, and meanwhile we accept, albeit reluctantly, his most generous offer to pay for all the wine at future lunches; whether or not he is able to be present. Remember two things Martin; we are all here to help you, and bring enough cash for the Merlot.
PS Millstone apologisesfor confusing the names of Ruth and Judith in a recent photo album. This is due to a rare disorder which results in the letters U, T and H becoming discombobulated. Sometimes Janet is also affected.