Where is the West Country?

This blog post has two purposes: first, to introduce this new project of mine; and secondly, to answer a question fundamental to it – where exactly is the West Country?

What I’m hoping to do this year is really focus on the part of the world I’m from, learn more about it, and share what I discover on the way. I’ll be doing that primarily via Twitter (@wildwestward) but with occasional blog posts here when I need more space to stretch out.

It’s weird to admit that I need to learn more about the West Country. I was brought up in Somerset, spent several years in Devon as a child, lived in Cornwall from 2011 to 2017, and have recently moved to Bristol. My ancestry includes pilots on the Bristol Channel, Somerset sheep rustlers and servants at seaside retreats. When I go Home (with all the complexities that word entails) it is to Bridgwater, and I say ‘gurt’ without the slightest irony.

The beach at Burnham on Sea.

The problem is that being from the West Country, I wasn’t interested in the West Country. As a kid I wanted to read books about Los Angeles, New York, Berlin, London, outer space… Places utterly different to Bridgwater or Exeter. I’ve read near-as-dammit every word of Raymond Chandler but not one lick of Laurie Lee; I’ve devoured Dickens but dodged Daphne Du Maurier; I had to read Hardy at school but resisted, perhaps because all that gloomy, doomed, class-crisis bumkpinry seemed too close to home.

I only developed a slight, sneaking interest when I went to university and homesickness kicked in. That’s when I started buying second-hand books with titles like Rambles in Somerset or the Penguin guide to Devon. But still, even now, I’m more confident navigating east London where I lived for eight years than the Somerset Levels where my Dad grew up.

So that’s part of the plan for this year – to read as far as possible only books by people from, or books about, the West Country. (Suggestions are welcome.)

And that brings me to the first big question.

Motorway Bridge at Topsham.

The Shape of the West

One of the reasons I like the concept of the West Country is that it is vague with soft edges but as I suspect I’m going to get asked – indeed, have already been asked – which regions I consider to be within scope, I’ve decided to probe the term.

Maybe it’s “the five south-western counties of England” (Wiltshire, Dorset, Somerset, Devon, Cornwall) as argued by John Payne, who excludes Gloucestershire as mostly “Cotswold country”.

Perhaps it’s just Devon and Cornwall, as many practical guidebooks not prone to navel-gazing over identity seem to suggest?

(I realise this last bothers some Cornish people who see this kind of thing — and, indeed, the whole idea of the West Country — as the first step on the slippery slope to full-blown Devonwall annexation by England.)

In the world of local TV, BBC West covers Bristol,  and parts of Dorset, Gloucestershire, Somerset and Wiltshire; while BBC South West serves another chunk of Dorset, the rest of Somerset, Devon, Cornwall and Scilly. (The remaining bit of of Dorset is covered by BBC South — what a carve up!)

Fisherman on a Cornish windowsill.

Thomas Hardy’s Wessex includes not only Devon, Dorset, Somerset and Wiltshire but also Berkshire, Hampshire and Oxfordshire. It excludes Cornwall. The ancient Kingdom of the West Saxons from which it draws its name shifted its boundaries and influence over time but like Hardy’s Wessex (to simplify grossly) stretches further up and closer to London than most ideas of the West Country might allow.

The South West Region defined by the government includes Bristol, Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Gloucestershire, Somerset and Wiltshire. Another bureaucratic body, the EU, says that a cheese can only be described as ‘West Country Farmhouse Cheddar’ if it is produced in Cornwall, Devon, Dorset or Somerset.

And, finally, I’ve always thought of the Great Western Railway line that runs out of London Paddington all the way to Penzance as a kind of spine for the West Country. As a result, I tend to look up on Swindon and even Reading as far appendages of the West Country. Maybe Paddington counts, too, like our Voyager probe poking into the western side of the capital.

So, for now, here’s my conclusion: the heart of the West Country is Devon and Somerset; neighbouring counties are deeply entangled; but the next counties out again might or might not be in the West Country, depending on the angle from which you view them, or which story is being told.

I hope that doesn’t mortally offend anyone. I suspect my view will change the more I learn and read, or perhaps you want to try to change my mind. To which I say, go for it!

Old Familiar Rooms

Blank window.

Yesterday, I went Home.

When I say Home, I mean Bridgwater in Somerset — a town I haven’t lived in since the 1990s, where I didn’t live for large chunks of my childhood, and where even my parents no longer live. But I was nursed there, went to junior school, secondary school and sixth-form college there, and so it is and always will be Home.

Perhaps I felt more than usually moved by the experience this time because I really had no reason to be there. I was delivering some Christmas presents to a cousin but, honestly, I half engineered that as an excuse to visit. No, this time, I was there because I wanted to be, with the express intention of giving the old place my full attention.

I felt quite overcome at times, standing opposite the house where my uncle died, passing my cousin’s workshop, and then wandering through terraced streets where various members of my family lived at one time or another. I didn’t remember the curve of the road or the beautiful soft-edged red brick. Its Victorian completeness, or complete Victorianness, had never struck me before.

For a full minute I stared at a derelict property, boarded up as long as I remember it, and somehow as faded and poignant in real life as an unlabelled Polaroid from the back of a discarded album. How could something so small, so mean, be so beautiful?

Dead street.

That habit some people have of reflexively dismissing their home towns as ‘dumps’, ‘toilets’, ‘the arse end of nowhere’, has never afflicted me. I’ve always insisted that I am fond of Bridgwater even though I know — of course I do — that there’s nothing much to recommend it to strangers. (Carnival, perhaps?) Hating one’s home-town has always struck me as a bit of a cliche, to be frank, like introducing yourself as ‘A bit of a cynic’, or saying that your band’s music ‘defies classification’. A sort of low-fat alternative to any actual personality.

Still, that contempt for the familiar must have been lurking, even if I didn’t acknowledge it. When I was 17 I was tasked with writing a script for a short film at Bridgwater College and what poured out was a grotesque stream of consciousness full of cracked paving stones, foul sewers, and grim reflections on the town’s sinister history. “Where did this come from?” asked the lecturer when I handed it in, perhaps concerned that I had previously unsuspected psychiatric problems.

On this visit, the same fear and loathing manifested in a strange tug of emotions. Much as I was delighted to be there I could also feel a tightening in my spine — a sort of shudder-in-waiting as my fight-or-flight response came out of sleep mode. It was as if my stranded teenage anxiety met me off the train and was following me around like an insinuating familiar.

I also caught myself trudging at times. Though I knew I should be move to be once again on Monmouth Street, for example, my legs and brain conspired to loop me back in where I left off. For whole stretches I forgot to look at all, as if I had somewhere to be by a certain time (I didn’t) — town is town is town.

Railway cottages.

Perhaps its natural to have that desire-hate, comfort-fear, fascination-boredom relationship with places you truly know.

As it is, this time the balance tipped towards the positive. I saw things for the first time that I’d seen a thousand times — ghost signs, the gorgeousness of the old Edwardian cinema, the sprinkle of classical buildings at Cornhill that speak of a time when the town had pretensions, and even the space-age oddness of the stillborn shopping mall. I looked at — was mesmerised by — the golden reeds on the riverbank backlit by a bone idle winter sun that had barely lifted itself above the bandstand in Blake Gardens.

I suppose my advice might be that if you’re going to wherever you call home for Christmas, and dreading it because it scares or bores you, or some mixture of both, try looking at it as a stranger might. Forget what you know, forget the well-practised routes your muscle memory insists upon, and let yourself love it.