Monday, 21 November 2016

Gwaith 14: Jodrell Bank and Alan Garner (14 Oct 2016)

Helo Pawb

After a rest day, during which I transcribed notes from my research of the last couple of weeks, Grevel and I drive to Macclesfield for what would prove to be one of the highlights of my trip. Grevel had been in contact with Griselda Garner, wife of Alan Garner, whose talk I attended last year (see this post) and whose books I greatly admired. She kindly offered to take us on a tour of The Old Medicine House. We then would have afternoon tea, during which Alan might put in an appearance, if his hectic schedule allowed it. I was thrilled at the possibility of meeting one of my literary heroes, but first Grevel and I were going to visit Jodrell Bank, which is only two fields and a railway line away from where Alan and Griselda live.

The Lovell Telescope
Jodrell Bank is the home of the Lovell Telescope, a huge white radio dish the size of Big Ben. It started listening to the universe in 1957, the same year  Alan Garner started living at Toad Hall, which he restored and which now comprises, along with The Old Medicine House, one half of their current residence.

Scanning the heavens
The telescope scans galaxies, listens to and tracks pulsars and quasars. Grevel and I wandered through the Planet Pavilion, the exhibition room in the nearby visitor complex, and read the latest information about black holes, dark matter and dark energy, our minds boggling at the numbers involved when looking at the mathematics of the space-time continuum and the masses and sizes of the far-flung entities the universe has created.

Another view of the telescope, as tall as Big Ben
After playing with the various experiments into and reconstructions of astronomical insights in another building, the Space Pavilion, we walked around the telescope itself, a magnificent structure, with beautiful curves and a spider-web structure of girders supporting it.  Flights of jackdaws dove off the top lip of the dish and swooped and wheeled using the updraught created inside it.

Jackdaws wheeling above the dish
We continued our own exploration of science by playing with the various exhibits ranged around the telescope. One of them involved rolling balls down an incline and arranging bells so they rang at equal time spans, not as easy as it sounds. Our favourite was using the whispering dishes that feature in Alan Garner’s last novel, Boneland. They are about 100 yards apart, but when you whisper into the focal point of one dish a person standing at the other one can hear you. We were also fortunate to watch the radio dish in action, this enormous achievement of 1950s British engineering (parts of it were made from naval gun turrets) slowly and steadily moving to a new position to explore the heavens.

A school group playing with the whispering dishes
A close up of one of the whispering dishes
Then it was time for lunch at the Planet Pavilion cafe, with its wall-mural timeline of events from the big bang to the present day and a great view of the telescope. After a quick walk through the amazing nearby aboreum (which contains the Sorbus Collection, a display of all the different varieties of rowan and whitebeam trees), we headed off for our visit to The Medicine House.

Display board at the arboreum
A whitebeam tree

A Rowan tree, with unusual pinkish flowers
With much clanking of old locks, Griselda greeted us—‘Welcome to Fort Knox’—and then took us on a two-hour tour of the sixteenth century timber-frame house, once thought to be an apothecary’s abode but now known to have been a factory for making patented medicines (Samuel Johnston/Johnston Brothers). The Old Medicine House, which Alan and Griselda acquired in 1970 and attached to Toad Hall, is the heart of the Blackden Trust, the educational charity Alan and Griselda set up to protect the buildings, the land surrounding them, and the history discovered there. And what an amazing history there is. My favourite exhibit was the display case that contained over 10,000 years of artefacts found on the property itself, from the Mesolithic to the twentieth century, flint blades to musket balls. Another fascinating aspect of the house was the apotropaic marks made in corners of rooms or near chimneys, doors and windows. Such marks, generally double Vs (Virgin of Virgins), were meant to ward off evil. Then there was my delight in seeing the original owl service that served as inspiration for Alan Garner’s famous work, The Owl Service, which used the story of Blodeuwedd in the Fourth Branch of The Mabinogion.

The Old Medicine House
Part way through the tour, while we were in the Blackden office area, Alan Garner pop his head in to discuss some matter and said hello to Grevel and me. Later, when Griselda sat us down for tea and what looked like and tasted like giant Anzac Biscuits, Alan joined us for a wide-ranging discussion about everything from his recent projects (including a wonderful book called The Beauty Things, of which I bought a copy), to his approach to archival research and research in general (‘Always look to the anomaly’), to Griselda’s education approaches at Blackden. Entertaining banter and stimulating insights absorbed us for an hour or two, until it started to get dark and it was time for Grevel and I to leave. I am thankful to Griselda and Alan for being so generous with their time.

Cover of the First Edition (source)
A plate from the Owl Service (source)
On the wayback to Manchester, Grevel stopped off near Wilmslow to show me Lindow Common, which is near Lindow Moss, the site of the famous Lindow Man, a body discovered in the peat bog in 1984. The body belonged to a healthy male in his mid-20's who may have been a victim of a ritual sometime between 2 BC and 119 AD: after a last meal of charred bread, Lindow Man was strangled, hit on the head, and his throat cut. Memorial benches line the trail around the Black Lake in the middle of the common, a tradition that doesn’t seem to occur elsewhere and may have something to do with the area being a ‘thin’ place (a phrase I recently discovered through a friend of mine). Intriguing idea.

We arrived when it was dark, so this photo of the Black Lake might give you a sense of the place (source)
As always, I welcome your comments.

Cofion Cynnes


Nick Engelman said...

What a fantastic day - space exploration and Alan Garner and the Wierdstone landscape. Everything from RedShift to the Owl Service, you are really making the most of your trip.

Anonymous said...

I recall a conversation many years ago which we had in regard to our mutual admiration of Alan Garner's writing, what a marvellous opportunity to speak with him. Love John I,

Lyn Mitchell said...

Makes me want to read what you are talking about. It sounded like a day you will not forget. Fantastic. Fondest Lyn

Earl Livings said...

Thanks, everyone, for your appreciation of the blog.

Nick, It was a fantastic combination of science and mythology. I don't know when I'll ever get back to Britain so, yes, I'm trying to fit in as much as I can. Tiring, but invirogating and inspiring at the same time. Cheers.

John, It was a wonderful chance to talk about a range of things. Actually, I didn't talk much, just listened to Alan, Griselda and Grevel talk on a variety of subjects. Alan did ask about my work, though he said he couldn't help me much, but felt I probably knew what I was doing. An amazing afternoon. Earl x

Lyn, Do read Garner's works, which I think are a type of 'mythic realism'. I won't forget the experience, that's for sure. Cheers.

Catherine Bateson said...

So jealous! Seeing the original owl service! You lucky thing, you!