Cider, Cheese and Cream Teas
“There are places that just ‘feel right’…”
On the way to Cheltenham I diverted a little from the direct route, to visit Cheddar Gorge. This massive gouge in the earth is home to caves, cliffs, rare fauna and flora and if you want all of that detail, wikipedia is probably a good source (article here) but, my fascination with the place dates back to 1989, when, as a young airman with a free weekend from a training course at nearby RAF Locking (alas now a housing estate), I drove into the Gorge’s magnificence and was stopped in my tracks.
The road wound up with sheer cliffs on one side and sloping rises on the other. A river, gentle in its meanderings, flowed softly next to it, while the footpaths were lined with quaint shops and cafes.
It was a little tourist enclave of ‘twee’ and I can’t really tell you why the ice-cream parlours, souvenir outlets and tearooms, the happy-go-lucky proprietors, the friendly staff and the array of tourist gifts made me feel so relaxed all those years ago, but perhaps it was because it was all so ‘genuine’. Yes, touristy, yes the shops and cafes tried their hardest to entice with souvenirs, but they were real. The complete opposite of ‘Disney Culture’ and you knew it had evolved from the original discovery of the caves to be what it was. No marketing plan, no corporate vision, just a bunch of hardworking locals making a living from the opportunity on their doorstep. After I initially found it, I did return a few times as I attended more courses at Locking, but the last time I wandered her winding riverside paths must be twenty-three years ago.
I am sooo glad to be able to say, nothing really has changed. Well, there are probably a few more shops, a few more tearooms, but the feeling remains. I walked to the head of the gorge before turning and retracing my steps. I gave ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ and its 274 steps to the summit a miss this time. I figured I’d seen it at least twice before and it was probably also the same… (My excuse and I’m sticking to it)… Then I indulged in the stable fayre of the gorge. The Cheddar Cheese shop. Selling Cheddar cheese, real Cheddar, made in… Well Cheddar actually. Right here. As authentic as you can get and phenomenally good. Then to next door and the shop selling handmade fudge before popping into the cider shop, with its aroma of mulled (warm, spiced) cider. The smell alone, a rich heady mix of Christmas and summer, combined in a warm breath, drew every passer-by into the small shop with the rotund store keeper. Other shops sold Somerset wines and mead, sloe gin and brandy, souvenirs, ice-cream and old-style lollies and sweets.
I eventually pulled myself away from that version of ‘tweeness’ and went to the Wishing Well Tea Room. A rustic, family run, up and down-floored, chintz-pattern-china-cup eclectic mix of traditional. With scones and jam and cream and tea that tasted as good as it looked and it looked terrific.
I spent an hour in Cheddar Gorge and then returned to my car and the world. On my way I noticed one difference… Squadrons of lycra-clad cyclists were using the steep hill climb to challenge themselves, while others, the challenge met, were hurtling their flimsy machines back down to the levels.
As I watched a peloton wedge sweep past, I heard a goat’s bleat up on the high cliffs. It looked strangely out of place in a tourist spot. Clinging on precariously, its bright patches of white wool flashing past gaps in the trees and shrubs. Its horns, testament to it maleness, as if it needed to show off to be sure in its status. I looked back at the cyclists and wondered…
Armed with Cheddar gifts, I headed off to North Wales and the hospitality of family in the Principality.
Till next time…
Ian Andrew is the author of the alternative history novel A Time To Every Purpose, the detective thrillers Face Value and Flight Path and the Little Book of Silly Rhymes & Odd Verses. All are available in e-book and paperback. Follow him on social media: