REPORT on SERVAS TRAVEL, June-July 2012

FRIDAY 29 JUNE: Glastonbury, Somerset, UK.
It It took nearly all day to travel by public transport from London to Glastonbury, on two underground trains (then a third after I missed a connecting bus at Stratford) and three buses: a long coach ride from Victoria Station to Bristol followed by local buses to Wells, then Glastonbury. All the while I hauled around 30 kilograms of baggage – blessing whoever had installed ramps and cursing those who had made do with steps. “Marvellous to be back in this green and pleasant land!” I wrote in my diary, happily quoting Blake and relieved after spending almost a month in wondrous but relentlessly hot Turkey.
I was met by Zoê d’Ay, a SERVAS day host I had met three years earlier holidaying here with my family, who was to be my travelling companion for the next six days. I was to stay with Liz Pearson who is the Warden at Abbey House (pictured), a spiritual retreat that neighbours the famous ruins of Glastonbury Abbey. The Abbey was the centre of English Catholicism until Henry VIII and the split from Rome: I learned later that Abbey House was partly built with materials from the mostly destroyed Abbey. It is a stately, rambling 19th century edifice which originally housed the Austin family – who Australians curse to this day for introducing us to the rabbit, but (less well known) gave us the Austin hospital in Melbourne among a number of other worthwhile legacies.Glastonbury-Abbey

My arrival coincided with a major musical event, and Liz had been invaded at home by a group of young people – her children and their friends, some sleeping on the floor – so she found me a room at her workplace. It was the smallest room in the whole retreat in what I guessed had once been the servants’ quarters, temporarily vacated by a regular guest. It was one of the more unusual SERVAS accommodations I have used, and a privilege to stay in this special place as a non-paying guest – with free access to the Abbey grounds available via the retreat’s private gate. The House was full – inhabited by a flock of nervous candidates who were to be invested as priests or deacons at nearby Wells Cathedral the next day. I talked with Liz over dinner; she was working 12+ hour days, and had her capable hands full managing this very busy place.

SATURDAY 30 JUNE: Glastonbury
I was up early and made my way to the Glastonbury Tor (pictured) around 6:00 am. The Tor is the hill which dominates the local landscape in this part of Somerset, capped by a tower which is all that remains of an ancient church (St Michael’s). I enjoyed the strenuous walk and climb to spend most of an hour at the top braving the chilly wind, revelling in the peace, marvelling at the stunning views in each direction and mimicking a fellow early riser who stood flat against the eastern wall of the ancient tower facing the rising sun with eyes closed: a kind of meditation.St-Michaels

For those who don’t know, Glastonbury is thick with legends: of Jesus visiting as a child, of Joseph of Arimathea fleeing here after the Crucifixion to build a church and plant the magical thorn tree, of King Arthur whose grave is in the Abbey grounds, of Bishop Richard Whiting brutally dragged to the summit of the Tor and executed there on the orders of Henry VIII, even of whispers about a portal to the Underworld. And there is no doubting the power of the architecture and the landscape to assist in suspending one’s disbelief; I have been drawn back here since my first visit almost twenty years ago.
Back at Abbey House for a well-earned breakfast, Liz introduced me to ‘Icon’ John, a painter and bellringer who had returned early and was looking forward to settling back into his regular room – mine! Fortunately the guests who had crowded the place out were leaving, and I was moved to a very spacious room on the first floor directly above the main entry where I had the whole wing to myself.
Zoê and I visited nearby Wells, named for its natural springs, and looked around the Bishop’s Palace, the magnificent cathedral (pictured) and the weekend market.
Glastonbury-Catedral

I then spent the afternoon in Glastonbury – getting my laundry done, strolling down High Street (including some excellent second-hand shops) and buying gifts to take home. Somerset Cream Tea is a version of heaven-on-earth, and the Glastonbury Tearooms do the best in the area. Later I visited the Chalice Well garden to soak up the striking atmosphere of calm and peace it offers. Legend says that Joseph of Arimathea brought the holy grail with him, and that it is secreted somewhere within the grounds of the garden.
I sampled the local Chinese for dinner, and spent the rest of the evening packing for a few days away, grateful that I could leave much of my luggage – including two ‘overflow’ boxes destined for posting home – at Abbey House and in the same room, which would be mine again on returning.

SUNDAY 1 JULY: Somerset to Cornwall
We drove all morning through Somerset and Devon, stopping briefly at Launceston (pronounced “Lawnston” here) and later at the new Arthurian Centre – which claims to be the site of the final battle during which King Arthur and Mordred both died. Now in Cornwall, we took a long break at Tintagel for lunch and to inspect the local sites: the castle where Arthur was born and Merlin’s Cave. This involved some strenuous walking up and down hills, invigorating after spending hours in Zoê’s car. Our final visit was to Port Isaac (pictured), where the TV series ‘Doc Martin’ is filmed.Port-Isaacs

Our home for the night was with SERVAS hosts the Wilshers, in Wadebridge. Mark is a teacher (like me), Lele a midwife from an Italian background and a source of many entertaining stories. I could have spent much longer in their company, but bedtime was necessarily early after a long day, and we were off again straight after breakfast next morning.

MONDAY 2 JULY: Wadebridge to Penzance, Cornwall
June had been the UK’s wettest on record, and July was continuing that way. The morning was cold, damp and overcast with rain coming and going. Mid-morning we stopped at St Ives, and while Zoê hunted down some local art galleries I strolled along the waterfront, enjoying the drizzle and a bag of hot chips. I came to the St Ives Museum, which celebrates the area’s maritime, agricultural and social heritage. The bloke taking my money at the entrance was in no ‘urry. “You’re not from round yaar”, he commented on first hearing my accent, then: “Aw-strail-ya. Oi went to Aw-strail-ya once. Sang at the Sydney Opera ‘ouse”… and so forth.

I may not have seen anything of the museum at all had not a local drama (a car parked where it shouldn’t be) required his attention. It was here also where I learned that the prefix ‘Tre-‘ (which seemed to attach itself to every second place name in Cornwall) means ‘homestead’ in the old language. Britain is peppered with small museums like this one; it serves to remind the visitor of the astonishing diversity of regional cultures that make up this united kingdom. Back on the road and driving through persistent mist when it wasn’t outright precipitation, we came to the tiny village of Zennor, named for Saint Senora (Zoê explained that the Cornish traditionally pronounce ‘S’ as ‘Z’) and its mighty impressive church (pictured). Of great interest here was a mermaid carved into an ancient pew, and I was very taken with the handmade kneeling pads which reflected local/historic/cultural/religious themes. Zennor-ChurchMen-An-TolMen-An-Tol2

Our next two stops took us farther back in time. A slushy walking track off the road brought us to Men-An-Tol (pictured), an unusual Neolithic site which features a doughnut-shaped stone between two uprights. Other stones scattered about the site suggest it was originally more complex, but standing stones don’t always remain standing – and it’s not unknown for fence-building farmers to take advantage of Stone Age leftovers. It is said that crawling through the doughnut hole brings good fortune but, after considering the mud involved, I passed. A little farther on, Lanyon Quoit (pictured) was more the classical Neolithic tomb with three uprights and a slab top, around two metres high. We paid a very quick visit to the historic Levant Mine before proceeding on to Penzance, and spent a couple of hours strolling around the streets and down to the docks. Like Glastonbury, the town boasts some excellent second-hand shops.
Finally we made our way to the home of Colleen Lewis, our next SERVAS host. Colleen is a genuine lady in the English tradition – a widow in her early 70s, very active, a marvellous cook, an excellent listener and conversationalist. Over a tasty dinner she asked Zoê and I what we valued most about Australia, which prompted some serious reflection. Listening to her, it was clear that she lives for her family – her children and grandchildren. Later she quizzed me about whether Australia’s self-deprecating sense of humour (which had been part of my response to her earlier question) worked in other cultures. She also got me talking at length about wine, which led to a request that I inspect her husband’s collection and advise her about what to do with it.

TUESDAY 3 JULY: a day in Penzance
Penzance
Zoê was not well this morning, so took a well-earned rest day. Colleen was working and left after breakfast. I spent a pleasantly solitary day walking for miles along the sea front and around the town, getting quite damp but not wet. I began by strolling in the opposite direction from Penzance central, past shops, cafes, pubs and fish markets, browsing and occasionally shopping. As I returned the drizzle became serious rain; I took shelter at a bus stop and hopped the first bus into town. First stop was the Mounts Bay Pasty Co. where I sampled Cornwall’s most famous food. I was surrounded by faces of striking character: individual, quirky, some attractive – supremely comfortable in their own skin. And that delightful accent: I could just sit and eavesdrop on their conversations for hours. Continuing to fill my shopping bags, I backtracked and ended up where I had been earlier in the morning, at a pub which had caught my attention advertising home-cooked seafood meals, the Red Lion’. Here I tried a pint of Sharp’s – a local brew – and their crab soup. Making my way back and feeling (naturally) quite full, I nevertheless decided I should not pass up the Scotch eggs on offer at ‘Auntie May’s Proper Good Food’. A nap was then in order before another of Colleen’s excellent dinners and an episode of Poirot on TV that, fittingly, was set in Cornwall. A topic of conversation tonight was health care. Colleen and Zoê were puzzled by the vicious opposition to ‘Obamacare’ in the US, when (as we saw soon afterwards at the London Olympics opening ceremony) their NHS is not just accepted but held in great esteem and affection as a part of British life. It reminded me of an American friend some years ago who jokingly labelled Australians as “Communists” when I explained our own Medicare system. Travel is always a magnificent opportunity to observe and learn from the viewpoint of others. I find the British very insular at times – and I can’t share their almost-religious regard for royalty – but it is a charming and courteous society of marvellous resourcefulness that has had an extraordinary influence on the modern world.

WEDNESDAY 4 JULY: Penzance to Glastonbury
We drove back to Glastonbury and made good time with brief stops only at Exeter and Street, so I had a final afternoon in Glastonbury before returning to London the next day. Having arranged postage of some parcels back to Australia and seen to my laundry, I was free and clear; the reward of a Somerset Cream Tea seemed an appropriately indulgent way to say goodbye.
My host Liz had invited me to dine with her that night. Over dinner I met another SERVAS traveller also staying at Abbey House, Jeffrey – an architect and designer of peace gardens from Devon – who greeted me with the traditional Indian prayer gesture rather than a Western handshake. My old pal Icon John joined us too. The colossal amount of rain in June had set a new UK record for that month, and John noted that satellite pictures showed the island as a strikingly green blob. The Olympics organisers were starting to panic, but we reckoned it would turn out all right in the end.
That was the end of my brief trip with SERVAS hosts. As usual I found the people I met through our organisation welcoming, hospitable, interesting, progressive and sometimes quirky or eccentric. There is no better, maybe no other, way to so quickly meet local people in a place one is generally just passing through – and so gain an insight into what it is like to live there. The fact that SERVAS tends to attract like-minded people makes that process warm and comfortable from the outset.

Michael Smythe