Chapter 11 – Bridport
In December, 1979 I sold my cottage in Dolgellau for £6500, having bought it in 1970 for £750, and I moved into my parents’ house at Sunlyn, Allington Park, Bridport, Dorset. The increase in price worked out at 25% a year, or about twice the rate of inflation. My father died in May, 1980, and in 1983 we were joined by my brother.
Among the things I liked about Sunlyn were its secluded position, its beautiful garden and its roof patio, which I could get to from my bedroom. Along the side of the garden was a very large beech hedge, and every September I had the job of cutting it, at first with shears and later with an electric hedge-trimmer. I was amazed at the wide variety of spiders I came across, and it did not surprise me when I later read that there are more kinds of spider in Dorset and Hampshire than in other parts of the country.
If ever I found an unfamiliar insect in the garden I would look it up. This way I identified a sand wasp, a mason wasp, a digger wasp, an oil beetle, a cardinal beetle, a wasp beetle, a cockchafer, a hawthorn shield bug, a caddis fly and a scorpion fly. On two separate occasions I counted seven different kinds of butterfly on the buddleia bush within a few minutes of each other. Among the more unusual birds I saw in the garden were a lesser spotted woodpecker, a nuthatch, a tree creeper, a spotted flycatcher, a brambling, a siskin, a whitethroat and a lesser whitethroat. In the surrounding countryside I saw a stag beetle, a glow-worm and a mayfly.
On 14th January, 1981 I bought a Trendtime digital watch at Woolworth’s. It was completely different from any watch I had seen before, but I couldn’t make sense of the instructions. I sent the watch back to the manufacturers, but they couldn’t help, so I took it back to Woolworth’s, who showed me how to use it. I then rewrote the instructions so that anyone reading them would be able to use the watch. I couldn’t persuade the manufacturers to make use of my instructions, but I felt that this was my vocation: I would devote my life to rewriting instruction books so that people could understand them.
To start with, I applied for a course on microprocessors at Brighton Technical College. I was told that before I could start I would have to learn about electronics, so I got a book on the subject out of the library and started to study it. I found it excruciatingly boring, and I was aware of the wonderful, fascinating Dorset countryside all around me waiting to be written about. I decided to abandon the microprocessors and devote my life to Dorset.
Since then I have been unable to get equipment to work on many many occasions. I have never been able to rewrite the instructions, but somebody should do it. There are experts who are employed to help people to use computers and other equipment that they don’t understand. Instead of helping each person individually it would be far more efficient for some of those experts to publish sets of instructions that are constantly improved by discussion with the users until eventually they are so clear that anyone can understand them and every possible situation is dealt with.
My first book on Dorset was A Guide to the Isle of Purbeck, which was in the same style as the Wainwright books. This meant that it would have to include black-and-white sketches. I got out what I thought was a suitable photograph and tried to draw it, but the result was terrible, so I commissioned Mark Richards, who had included sketches in his own Wainwright-style books, to do the illustrations. Then one day I looked at a scene in Swanage and I felt as though I could draw it. I tried to do so and I was happy with the result, which can be seen on page 56 of the Purbeck guide.
In one of my letters to Wainwright I mentioned that I thought that the Isle of Purbeck was one of the most interesting and beautiful places in Britain. He commented that this was a surprising statement from someone who knows Lakeland and North Wales; and yet the first area of British countryside to be designated a World Heritage Site was not the Lake District or Snowdonia, but the coast of Dorset and East Devon. I have also read that more species of plants have been recorded in the ten-kilometre square that includes Wareham and Corfe Castle than in any other square in Britain.
The Purbeck guide was followed by a book of Dorset town trails. I surveyed the Bridport town trail by pacing distances and taking bearings. I laid the result over the Ordnance Survey map and it fitted perfectly, but I based all the other maps on the Ordnance Survey because the cost of the royalties was negligible compared with the time it would have taken to survey them all. The words ‘Crown copyright reserved’ were omitted from the map of Bridport, but I don’t suppose that anybody noticed this.
My next project was A Guide to the West Dorset Countryside, which was similar in layout to my Purbeck guide. Later I read a West Dorset Holiday Guide and noticed that some of it had been copied word-for-word from my book. I took this as a compliment, but I would have liked to be credited.
According to all the books the highest point in Dorset was Pilsdon Pen, but when I was on Lewesdon Hill I noticed that the spot height on the Ordnance Survey map referred to a point considerably lower than the summit, which meant that Lewesdon Hill was the highest hill in Dorset. There were surveyors in the area at the time, so I wrote to the Ordnance Survey, and they said that I was right. Mine was not the first publication to show the new altitude because it first appeared on Ordnance Survey maps while my book was at the printers.
I sent a copy of Dorset Town Trails to various publishers offering to produce a book of English town trails, which I thought would reach a wider readership, but I couldn’t get a publisher. The only encouragement I got was from Robert Hale, who offered to publish a series of regional books covering the whole country, depending on the sales of the first volume. I divided the country up into regions and they decided to start with East Anglia, so the fact that I was born in that area was just a co-incidence. I later learned that someone else produced a book of English town trails at about the same time as me and got it published.
The photograph I took for the cover of East Anglian Town Trails was the best photograph I have taken in my life. It was the right shape, with a space for the title. The sun was in the right direction, and it was crammed full of architectural features. The publishers asked for several photographs so that they could choose one. I said that I only had one; fortunately they accepted this.
While I was researching the Purbeck and West Dorset guides I gathered material for the whole of Dorset, but there was no other part of the county interesting enough to merit its own volume, so I wrote about the other areas in a single volume called Exploring Dorset by Car. This described six circular routes, rather like the car rallies that I organised in the 1960s, and a number of walks. I featured only the best of the best of the walks because there were so many to choose from. If there was anything at all I didn’t like about a walk it would be omitted.
When I produced East Anglian Town Trails I was happy to do my own illustrations, but some of them were not very good. I would have preferred to omit them, but they had to go in because the number of illustration was specified in the contract. In the case of Exploring Dorset by Car I sent the few drawings that I was happy with and said that I was sorry I couldn’t do any more before the publishers had time to ask for more.
I kept my resolution not to dedicate anything I produced to anyone other than Margot, but I gave a copy of Exploring Dorset by Car to Pam and wrote in it ‘To Pam Roberts, who came with me to Hartland Moor, Moreton, Ringmoor, Ashmore, Sutton Poyntz and White Nothe’.
From 1st May until 22nd May, 1985 my mother, my brother and I went to stay in my sister’s chalet in Switzerland. Four days after we got home my mother showed me a competition in the Sunday Times Magazine for a written account of up to 1500 words on a journey abroad taken in 1985, and I entered it. Nine years later I got the Sunday Times Travel Book out of the library. When I got it home I discovered that it consisted of the best fifty entries in the 1985 Sunday Times Travel Writing Competition. Mine was not included.
From 12th July until 14 July, 1986 I explored the Weald in a motor caravan with my nephew James. I was able to justify this to myself by saying that I was doing preliminary research for a book about the Weald, but this was never completed. We spent the first night in Staffhurst Wood, where the famous recording of a nightingale and a cello was made. As soon as it got dark a bird started singing. Whether it was a nightingale or not I don’t know. The second night was spent in a sweet chestnut coppice in Hurst Wood, where we could hear nightjars churring. Then we saw them fluttering about making strange cries and heard their wings flapping like the clapping of hands. We couldn’t want a more perfect spot. Later, we were driving along when a weasel crossed the road in front of us, so we stopped the van and were able to watch it only a few feet away for some time.
The book I planned would have had the same structure as Exploring Dorset by Car. It would have included the North and South Downs, but not the built-up areas beyond the downs. I would have been able to feature Rudyard Kipling, Hilaire Belloc, H.E. Bates and A.A. Milne, all of whose work I admired more than that of Thomas Hardy, who was the author most associated with Dorset.
By February 1988 I had exhausted the money from the sale of my cottage, and I started working as a driver for Abacus Taxis in Bridport. No doubt the name was chosen to secure first place in the classified telephone directory. As I mentioned in Exploring Dorset by Car this was the first time I had done this sort of work in a small town, and I couldn’t believe my good fortune to be driving round the Dorset countryside and getting paid for it.
There was a bus service from Bridport to the neighbouring village of Eype (pronounced ‘Eep’), but so few people used it the bus company found it more economical to employ taxis. The taxi would pull up at the bus stop bearing a sign saying ‘taxi bus’. The passengers paid the bus fare, and the company made up the difference and paid the taxi fare. Only very rarely were there any passengers, and I never heard of any occasion when there were too many passengers for the taxi.
In 1989, 2000 and 2003 I took part in the television quiz Fifteen to One. I only got four questions right in the three programmes, but I had to audition three times, and each time only one in three or one in four of the contestants got enough questions right to appear on the programme.
My brother was an active member of the Bridport Town Twinning Association, and in 1989 he got me a job as chauffeur to the founder and chairman of the association, Peter Allsebrook. Like Peter Crew and Joss Naylor I knew him at his peak. He was the chairman of the road haulage company T.N.T., which had a turnover of a million pounds a day; he was the managing director of the company that ran the ferry from Poole to Cherbourg, and while I was working for him he was appointed High Sheriff of Dorset.
At the end of 1989 Wainwright asked me to provide the maps for two of his books because of his failing eyesight. I felt like Stan Laurel in one of his films when Einstein asked him to help with his equations. This meant that I was now a freelance cartographer, which was what I set out to be in 1970. A few months later I was asked to do a small amount of revision to page 6 of Wainwright’s Coast to Coast Walk. Revising the Wainwright books was what I set out to do in 1980, so now both my ambitions were fulfilled, though on a smaller scale than I had envisaged.
It turned out that the 1970s were devoted to the production of panoramas and that the 1980s were devoted to books about Dorset and East Anglia. In the 1990s, as in the 1980s I planned to devote my life to the revision of the Wainwright books. The best way that I can describe my first incursions into this territory is to quote an article that I wrote for the Wainwright Society Newletter (which was later to be renamed Footsteps).
Article published in the Wainwright Society Newsletter in 2003
In 1980 I wrote to AW offering to revise his Lakeland guides and enclosing two pages of revision notes on the Patterdale approaches to the Helvellyn range. He replied that he didn’t want any revision published in his lifetime, but that the Westmorland Gazette might be interested.
In 1988 I sent a further six pages of revision notes to Andrew Nichol of the Westmorland Gazette. He said that he thought that the revision should take the form, not of additional pages, but of alterations to the original artwork. When I called on him the following year I said that he must have had offers from many people to revise the books and that I would quite understand if he gave the work to someone else, but he said that there was no question of that. I then approached A.W. again, and although he still didn’t want the revision published in his lifetime, he said that I could start work if I liked.
This was all the encouragement I needed, as I knew that the work would take many years, and I decided to start in 1990. I was living with my mother in Dorset at the time, and she suggested that we move the family home, but so that she could be independent she wanted to find somewhere that was near the shops, a railway station and a Mountain Goat bus stop. After looking at a number of entirely unsuitable properties we found the house in Windermere that is now called ‘Orrest End’. It appealed to me because it stood at the foot of the path along which Wainwright made his very first ascent in the Lake District. Incredibly, it also stood directly opposite the railway terminus, the Mountain Goat bus terminus and Booth’s supermarket. We put in an offer, but we were unable to sell our house in Dorset, the deal fell through, and on 30th April, 1990 I left for the Lakes in a motor caravan.
Four months later I had checked every feature on the maps and every word of text in the Eastern, Far Eastern and Central Fells. There was not a single path, wall, fence, building, gate or stile that had not been scrutinised. Whenever it rained I would plan the route ahead, but there was so little rain I only got as far as the end of Book Four.
Of the three books I worked on the one I enjoyed most was The Far Eastern Fells, for here I was on the fringes of Lakeland where there weren’t so many people about. I used particularly to enjoy driving along the road to Mardale Head early in the morning in the company of rabbits and big brown owls. Among the other animals I saw were red squirrels, red deer, feral goats, a fox, a ring ouzel, a redstart, lizards, frogs, toads, golden-ringed dragonflies and an emperor moth caterpillar. Among the plants I saw were monkey flowers and starry saxifrage. In Skelghyll Wood near Ambleside I came across a fallen tree trunk. By placing one foot in front of the other and measuring my shoes I was able to work out that it was 146 feet long.
These were the golden days. I was totally dedicated to what I was doing, and I really believed that my work would be published. I studied the books and compared them with the landscape so much that I felt that I could tell exactly what changes the author would have made to the maps and text if he were revising them himself.
By October the following year I had made all the necessary alterations to the artwork of Books One and Two. When I started on the work I thought that it would be impossible to get all the new text exactly the right length to replace the existing text without encroaching on the margins, but I found that I was able to do this. By this time the books had been taken over by Michael Joseph, who decided that they should not be revised. I was later to make alterations to A Coast to Coast Walk and Pennine Way Companion which would be published and for which I would be paid, but I would never again experience the same satisfaction that I found in the Lake District in 1990.
Throughout most of my time in Dorset life was idyllic, but towards the end everything went wrong. It started in November, 1990, when I learned of the death of Pam Roberts, whom I was still seeing regularly. Then my mother started to suffer from the effects of extreme old age and my brother started to suffer from a mental condition that made him very difficult to live with. I told everyone that when my mother died I would go to live in the Lake District, and in October, 1991 that is where I found myself, with no home, no money, no job and not a friend in the world. It came as a surprise to me that I would mind having no friends, for I had always enjoyed my own company, and in later years I would deliberately avoid contact with other people so that I could concentrate on what I was doing. My one consolation was the thought that sooner or later I would be getting a letter to say that my revision of the Wainwright books was going to be published, but I had been waiting for nine months for that letter, and the idea was slowly growing in my mind that if my work was going to be accepted I would have been told about it by then. The Queen once described 1992 as her annus horribilis. For me it was 1991.