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, metSeeing 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.
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.”
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.