Cheltenham and the West Country
When we decided to explore Somerset sites in 1991, it was convenient to meet at Cheltenham as Sheila could drive from Mid-Wales and Stella could travel there by train so we met at Cheltenham station, following in the footsteps of the Abbey girls who gathered there at the beginning of the English Folk Dance School in The Abbey Girls Go Back to School. From there it is an easy drive, via the M5, to Glastonbury, Brean Down and Cleeve, all places that EJO knew well and incorporated into her books.
Like the Abbey girls we went along to the buffet to enjoy coffee and a chat but we felt that they would not have approved of this nowadays with its orange plastic seats attached to the tables, and we didn’t linger. We then parked the car at Cheltenham Boys’ College which was where most of the dance classes were held and which looked much as EJO described it, ‘The great grey college, the reddening creeper and yellow roses, the double row of wide perpendicular windows, the great doorway, the tower and little turrets, the beautiful chapel at the side...’ (p.102)
There were still yellow roses but we were too early for the creeper to be reddening and the stone had been cleaned and looked golden in the sun. It was the school holidays but a language school was in progress and there were people around so we decided it was safe to venture into the building. Our luck was in as the school secretary saw us and, when we explained why we were there, she got the keys and showed us round. She was sure the room we wanted was the present refectory and this was indeed the hall with the stained glass, the vaulted roof and the honours tablets on the walls, which made Joan feel she was dancing in the refectory at the Abbey.
Back in the car, we drove down Shurdington Road where Tormy overtook an exhausted Jack running to get help after the accident. We also went along Naunton Park Road and found Naunton Park Council School, both of which have probably changed little since EJO went to dance there in about 1920. The school still faces a wider piece of road with lots of room for the Pixie to put her class through ‘Upon a Summer’s Day’ while waiting for the caretaker to arrive with the key.
As we left Cheltenham we parked the car and climbed up to a vantage point on Cooper’s Hill which Val Mackay suggested as the place where Joan and Cicely go to talk about their young men – looking, we saw the view that they saw, ‘the open green downs behind and Cheltenham and Gloucester at their feet, the green wooded hills of Birdlip and Leckington to the left, the blue Malvern range and the fainter Welsh heights away to the right...’ (p.248)
Cleeve Abbey, which some EJO fans have visited without ever realising that it was the inspiration for the Abbey that EJO moved to Chinnor in Oxfordshire and renamed Grace-Dieu, is at Washford. It is very satisfying to go through the gatehouse, to stand on the cloister sgarth to identify the places so often described in the books – the Refectory with its beautiful roof, the Chapter House, the Sacristy, the Monks Dormitory – and to conjure up scenes that appear in the books – Jen disappearing through the tresaunt, Joan and Joy dancing their minuet, Rachel greeting visitors at the Gatehouse. In reality, of course, there are no secret passages, no old underground church and it’s not possible to go through a little gate to reach the grounds of the Hall.
See other attached articles on and about Cleeve: Links at the bottom of the page
These are situated to the west of Weston-super-Mare, which EJO renamed Sandilands. Once one starts to make comparisons between reality and fiction, there is little doubt that this is the area that EJO first described in Adventure for Two. Weston might seem a rather small provincial town for the Ballet Company, to which Daphne Dale belongs, to start its tour but this is explained by making it the town to which Madame Roskova retired when she married. In the village of Uphill (which becomes Hillside) there are signs pointing to the beach and 1991 we could drive the car down on to the sand where we saw EJO’s ‘...long shining wet sands, stretching for miles, a distant sea, a huge blue arch of sky, a great green hump of an island’. EJO invented Elsa’s bungalow Min-y-Mor at the edge of the sea. It’s clear from the danger signs and the general lie of the land that a bungalow would not survive very long there but one can see why EJO was inspired to create one..
There are still signs of a ferry, which was signposted, but in 1991 it was a pull-ferry on a chain and a notice stated that it only ran on Sundays and Bank Holidays. It is, as EJO said, ‘about eight miles round’ by road to the other side so we drove to Brean Down via the A370. This is a green ridge with white limestone outcrop, stretching out westward into the sea and down to the marshes on the eastern side. We parked the car and followed the path that led to the top of the ridge, from where we had a view that seemed quite familiar – the path to the ferry on this side of the river across the mudflats, the sweep of sand that is described in both Adventure for Two and Elsa Puts Things Right and beyond the sands the hotel and the pier of Weston. We were pretty sure we were standing on Elsa’s island of Caer-Ogo. There was no sign of the caves that Elsa developed into a tourist attraction but Brean Down lies at the end of the ridge, which stretches down to Cheddar where there is the very famous cave of Wookey Hole. This is one of the best EJO sites – ignore the fields of caravans and the modern seaside entertainments and you feel as if you are in the world of EJO.
Glastonbury would appeal to EJO readers even without the Nancybell connection. There is no doubt that Glastonbury is the Priorsbury of Elsa Puts Things Right. She even picks up on the fact that there is a Street Road, which runs from Glastonbury to Street, the nearest small town to the west. Nancybell lives at 113, Road Street, Priorsbury and her address intrigues her new found cousins until she explains that the street leads to a village called Road! EJO made the Abbey a house of nuns rather than the home of Benedictine monks, and some of the action takes place in its ruins. Nancybell describes the abbey and says that she’s heard of an Abbey ‘where you can see how the monks lived’ but that she’d rather have the church. (p. 103). We wandered round the abbey with a copy of Elsa to hand.
We climbed up Glastonbury Tor, the highest of the conical hills, which were islands before the marshes were drained. From the Tower one can view the landscape of which Nancybell takes wonderful photographs, ‘long flat acres of marshland, straight white motor roads, gleaming strips of water in wide ditches, edged with pollard willows and stretching to the horizon’ (p.24),’...cows standing in a rhine, in afternoon sunshine; young leaves on the willow: water gleaming like silver.’ (p.71)
EJO calls the big hotel that dominates the centre of the town ‘The Pilgrim’s Rest’ – in reality it is The George and Pilgrim’s.
This section is based on Island to Abbey by Stella Waring and Sheila Ray (GGBP, 2006 and the article ‘The EJO Trail Continues – into Somerset’, The Abbey Chronicle 10, 1992.
Articles of interest ......
For pictures of Cleeve see the Abbey Picture Gallery