Sunday, 18 October 2015

Goat Gulley

A couple of weeks ago when I was in Bristol, I decided to go for a scramble down the Avon Gorge.  In places, the Gorge is sufficiently rocky and vertical to be a worthy challenge to those lunatics, rock-climbers.  There are hundreds of established routes with typically bizarre names -- Atmosfears, The Trembling, Dark Crystal, and The Enchanted Gordon, to pick a few at random --  pegged at every level of difficulty*.  I should say that I have never embarked on a proper rock-climb in my life, except once or twice by mistake.  I like steep rocky places, but try to stick to the paths.  I always have in my mind the example of someone I once worked with who was confined to a wheelchair. A keen climber, he had tried to take a shortcut up an Irish cliff on his way to a wedding.  He never got there.

I decided to go down a steep little gulley which is allegedly populated by wild goats.  There are signs at the top which inform you of this fact, and which warn you not to go to the aid of any goat apparently in distress.  As if I'd fall for that old trick!  It was a lovely, bright, early autumn day, and once I'd dropped into the Gorge on its south-facing side the microclimate kicked in, and it was immediately as if I were somewhere in the Dordogne; dry and sunny, steep limestone and light scrub above, dense trees and a river gorge below.  I had fun negotiating the narrow, descending tracks, and allowed myself the small risk of walking down a scree slope and a 35° bare rock "slide", polished smooth by generations of backsides.

What I hadn't expected was the little tower in the photograph.  As I descended it came into view, dramatically backlit by the afternoon sun.  Being of a literary bent, I immediately thought of Browning's poem, "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came".  It's a great poem, the subject of much psychological speculation, but best understood, I suggest, as the paranoid ravings of a rambler who has overdone the magic mushrooms, and is passing through a perfectly ordinary rural landscape.
There they stood, ranged along the hill-side, met
 To view the last of me, a living frame
 For one more picture! in a sheet of flame

I saw them and I knew them all. And yet

Dauntless the slug-horn to my lips I set,

 And blew “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came.”
Seeing the protective grille on top, however, I realised -- in an un-Rolandish moment of clarity -- that it was one of the ventilation shafts for the Clifton Down railway tunnel, and marked as such on the map.  To add to the bathos, I hadn't seen a single goat, either.  But they could probably tell from my slug-horn that I was wise to their brigandish tricks.

The Gorge from Goat Gulley (aka Walcombe Slade)

* I hadn't realised until writing this that climbing grades vary internationally, and need a conversion table!  Should you care, there's an interesting summary here.


Debra Morris said...

Thanks, Mike, the branch of my family in that neck of the woods has revelled in being close to these kinds of landforms. He is extending his rock climbing skills under the guidance of the excellent folk in the local branch of "Red Ropes". He told me recently of a 4 hour route they had climbed in Goat Gully. Good to see some of the views he enjoyed.

Martyn Cornell said...

Interesting word, slughorn - it appears Chatterton misinterpreted an early spelling of the word 'slogan' (originally Gaelic and meaning 'war cry') thinking it meant 'trumpet' and Browning - who had form misinterpreting words himself - repeated the error. Now, of course, it's best known as the surname of a character in Harry Potter ...

Mike C. said...


Yes, could not understand, when I googled it, why all these pictures of some blimpish bloke came up... In a roundabout way it reminds me of the famous (probably apocryphal?) Bowdlerism, "She played the trumpet in my bed".