It is a strange place… all square, military angles, stark on the green spit of land that reaches out into the Bristol Channel. It is one of the Palmerston Forts, built to defend the channel in Victorian times and remaining in service as such for forty years until 1901, after a soldier fired into a ventilator shaft for the magazine and caused an explosion that sent debris flying 200 yards, killing him in the process.
For some years afterwards it was a pleasant café, a place to stroll on a summer day like today until war came again to the land and it reverted to a weapons testing station. The rails that were put in place to test launch one of Barnes Wallis’ bouncing bombs still remain; the same eventually carried by the Lancaster bombers on the Dambusters mission.
The fort sits right on the very tip of the promontory with a moated entrance. To the landward side it looks just as it should, but once through the gates the place is overlaid with layers of imagination and memory.
In the courtyard there are the ghosts of elegant people sipping tea and strolling in the sun. In the barracks rooms soldiers talk in the firelight beneath the roofless skies, or wait in the shadows for the air raid siren to quiet. In the gun embrasures the reader of the Sea Priestess sees old Bindling carving fantastic creatures in stone to soften the harsh, military lines… and on the point Vivian herself looks out into the moonlit sea…
Yet today as we wander down to the point there is a child allowed to play, his feet in treacherous waters, parents unconcerned. We exchange a glance that remembers the mooncalf of the books, but in a moment or two the boy has rejoined his parents and we have the place to ourselves.
There is silence save for the deep booming of bells in the ocean. I have never heard it before. Not this sound, yet I had read about it here. I can imagine Dion Fortune sitting in this spot and hearing it too as she wrote. Across the water where we can see the Welsh hills on the horizon the sky turns yellow as the weather begins to turn and soon it is time to leave. Here too perhaps we will return.
As we climb towards the summit of the Down we see a hawk hovering over the heath… watch it dive and tussle with a magpie then fly back to the fort, hovering… the camera cannot follow its speed but some shots I get… not good ones, but enough for memory.
Then down the steps once more and back to the car as the first spots of rain begin. The traffic is heavy with holidaymakers, queuing back miles from the motorway. We decide to go cross country and are soon heading along the high road to Glastonbury once more, passing the Tor and out into the apple orchards of Avalon. A magical two days drew to a close but, unexpectedly, we are still taking our usual way home. The rain batters the car as we pull into Avebury… we always stop here on the way back from Glastonbury and the pub serves good food. It will be late by the time we get back. We sit in the window watching the stones and marvelling at this land we live in… and how much of its history, beauty and diversity we have glimpsed in just two days.