It’s a golden Tuesday in September and I’m the only person in my carriage on the 9:15 train from Paddington, going west. The inspector comes by after a quiet three-quarters of an hour, and I hand him my ticket. “You’ve been there before?” he says. It isn’t really a question; it’s to a tiny station in Gloucestershire, where there’s no good reason to go unless you know what you’re doing.
“Oh – no,” I say.
“Someone picking you up? It’s out in the sticks, mind.”
“I’m going for a walk in the country,” I say.
He clips my ticket and hands it back. “Lovely.”
Cam and Dursley station has a small car park, a bus stop sign, blackberry brambles and nothing else. On the other side of the tracks is a golden field of hay rolls. Also getting out are a mother and two girls carrying instrument cases. They look at the bus stop sign and try to work out the schedule; I look at the map on my phone and start walking towards Berkeley, about four miles away.
When I lose sight of the station, it only takes a few minutes to feel like I’ve stepped into the place where folk song things happen. Through a gap in a hedge, I catch sight of a tall man in black walking slowly through a long wide field. Around the bend, a mare is nudging her foal to stand up. There are blackberries everywhere. A raven perches in an oak tree, and looks at me like it’s going to croak something about where the squire hid my sister’s body under the hawthorn green-o.
After forty minutes or so, the road leads into a small village, with a pavement and houses. I hear hooves clopping and, turning a curve, come across a posh, blandly handsome young man on a horse. Both of them have glossy brown hair though only the horse is sweating. I don’t usually encounter people on horseback outside Jilly Cooper novels, and it is really striking what a division it makes in the worlds we’re moving in: the top of my head is the same height as his thigh. He is wearing brown leather riding boots. I’m wearing a dark blue cotton A-line Marks & Spencer dress, ie in English class terms I might as well have cowslips in my hair and my kirtle tied above my knee to go a-Maying. We nod and pass each other without quite making eye contact, which is for the best as it’s usually bad news when the classes mix in folk songs.
All kinds of fruits are growing by the side of the road, red, yellow and purple, very ripe and bright. Cherries, small apples, yet more blackberries, a plum-coloured fruit that looks like giant Oregon grapes (I think this was damson). The air is wonderfully gold and insects and cars are buzzing far off. The road signs are all for pleasingly named places: Breadstone, Coaley, Sharpcross Docks. After walking for a lovely slow hour and a half, I realise I’m getting sunburnt. In England. In autumn. I pass a Cadbury’s factory, an intrusive bit of industrialisation, then turn down a narrow road lined with broad trees towards medieval Berkeley.
First concern is obviously lunch and beer, so I walk through the small town centre, over a little river and past a former royal kennel to the Salutation pub, where I have a pint of Oliver’s and an absolutely gorgeous Scotch egg.
The “Sally” won Best Pub in Britain last week, and in my opinion as someone who spends a lot of time in pubs this is extremely well deserved. The wooden picnic tables are solid. The egg came from the pub’s chickens, and all vegetables from their garden. A few yards away on the lawn, a couple and their grown-up son are having a semi-serious conversation about what to do about their daughter/sister’s new young man, who seems lovely but unintentionally slighted Aunt Deb’s roulade last week. It’s the best possible kind of family drama to be eavesdropping on. I consider leaving a “TEAM AUNT DEB” note.
The next tour isn’t for twenty minutes, so after paying my £15 I step into the butterfly house to wait. There are indeed lots of butterflies fluttering softly around, and a lapping koi pond, and gently blossoming flowers, and the air is humid and still, and it’s all very genteel.
“Oh, look!” a woman says behind me. I turn around. She’s pointing something out to her husband. “They’re, you know.”
I look up and see two butterflies having furious sex two feet in front of my face. They are really, seriously well into it. They are not butterfly kissing or making butterfly love. They are butterfly fucking. One of them is fully more than an inch into the other, which is rhythmically pulsating around it, and the air is so still that you can almost hear very tiny moans of butterfly ecstasy.
“Uh,” I say.
The three of us stand staring at this extremely un-English display for a full minute, before coming back to ourselves and muttering about the weather and dispersing towards the castle. Ah, nature.
Our tour guide is named Bev and she is amazing. Like all the best tour guides she’s both incredibly enthusiastic and cheerfully blasé about the place she works, and I am incredibly envious of her job.
We jump straight into it with the most famous part of Berkeley Castle’s history, Edward II’s probable murder. He’s the one with the delightfully trainwrecky personal life, who was ousted by his wife Isabella (the first French queen of England to be called ‘she-wolf of France’) and her boyfriend Mortimer, and imprisoned in Berkeley Castle. After one too many attempts to break him out, Edward was secretly killed, allegedly (= probably not really, but what a story) via a hot poker up the bum, and then Marlowe wrote a play about him with some quite good poetry and a great creepy murder scene.
The cell where Edward was imprisoned and killed is closed off, but we stop and look in the window. Some curator I’d really like to meet has set a poker on the desk.
Bev is a bit breathless throughout the tour, mostly because every painting, curtain and plate that catches her eye has a story, and they’re all interesting: I think this may be the building with the most history in England. The Berkeley family has lived here for 850 years. The current resident, who we meet briefly, is Mr. Charles Berkeley (not Earl; the title died out when the line went through a woman. The people on my tour let out a disappointed “Aww” when Bev mentioned this, but in my opinion this is fine. If you’re going to set up your entrenched system of inherited wealth and power in a sexist way, don’t come crying when it backfires). His name is pronounced the same way as the basketball player, though no one else seems to find this funny.
There are paintings on every possible wall. We whiz through the dining room: “There’s Cupid on a rock, he’s looking pretty fed up,” Bev says. Someone asks the artist of a beautifully balanced blue-and-gold work. “Um, possibly Botticelli – they’ve got loads of lovely paintings here.” A whocking big silver plate the size of my torso is propped up in the corner. “Oh, that was a gift from King George V, celebrating the millenium of the office of high sheriff.”
In the kitchen, there’s an original portrait of Dr. Edward Jenner, who invented vaccinations and was born in Berkeley, and several other semifamous doctors. Why are they in the kitchen? “Well, they’ve got to go somewhere,” Bev explains. In the larder, we spend a moment looking at a medieval apocalypse painting: “It’s sometimes hard to tell where art ends and wacky begins.”
We go upstairs to a small sitting room. “This was a chapel, but the Eighth Earl didn’t really believe in God, so he made it into a living room.” My estimation of the eighth earl of Berkeley shoots up, especially after I look him up when I get home and find he got himself kicked out of the Royal Navy so he could spend more time doing science experiments. There’s a 14th-century Norman French translation of the Bible sitting around, and a ‘unicorn horn’, which Bev explains is actually a “slightly less magical” narwhal horn.
“I think narwhals are quite magical, actually,” one of my fellow tourists says. Because he is English, it is impossible for me to tell whether he is joking.
One of the great legends of the Berkeleys, which comes up several times in the castle’s educational and publicity material, is how one of the earls married a butcher’s daughter, Mary Cole. “Gosh, how did that happen?” someone asks. “Well, he quite fancied her, I think,” Bev says. I suspect the castle brings this up so much because they know it’s basically as close as the Berkeleys get to the common people. Their concerns are not our concerns. The Telegraph frets briefly about the spectre of “heir rage” – “the stress levels are enough to make one impotent” – but reassures us that “Fortunately, John and Gina Berkeley have two responsible and interested sons – which adds up to a stately home each.” Phew! (I know it’s not like there’s a shortage of things wrong with the Telegraph’s reporting, but honestly.)
There’s a small bar in front of the Great Hall, with taps of Becks beer and Broadoaks cider. Bev ushers us past this up into another sitting room full of priceless historical artefacts: “And as we move on, there’s a fifteenth-century Madonna and Child here – oop, mind your head. Oh, there’s Nell Gwynn.” She points to a portrait hanging off to the side of the stairs. “Not sure why she’s here, to be honest. She probably stayed here.”
Upstairs, she hands around a posed, smiling picture of Charles Berkeley, his wife Violet and their son Wulf, then Charles and Violet’s wedding album. It’s taken as read that we’ll be interested in looking through these strangers’ family photographs, because they are rich and own the place we are visiting. We walk down to the Great Hall. We briefly pass and greet Charles Berkeley, who is showing some real (ie non-paying) guests around. I do not ask him to show us his jump shot.
We’re nearly out when Bev stops us in front of a panel of woven silk wallpaper. It was bright red, but is now quite faded. “This is interesting, this is made out of Henry VIII’s tent from the Field of the Cloth of Gold.”
“Um,” I say. “What.”
“Yes, one of the earls was there – Sir Maurice, I think – and the king was really pleased with his service so he gave him a bit of his tent afterwards.”
“What,” I say.
“Well, you know, the family’s always picking up knick-knacks and things,” Bev says. “Oh, goodness, it’s nearly five. I’ve got to start locking up, but you all can stay and look around for a bit in the courtyard, until we’ve got to shut the gates.”
I’d love to look around for a bit but to be honest I’m too dazed. What the hell kind of world is this, where your great-great-etc-grandparents just get handed bits of kings’ tents, and you’ve stapled it to the wall because you don’t have anywhere else to put it? Where not only do you have a bar in your house, but the actual English standard from the battle of Flodden is hanging above it? Where you use 18th-century candlesticks at dinner, because that’s the new set? Where you know total strangers are flicking through your wedding album and you meet them on the stairs and some of them surreptitiously take a picture of your back (yes I saw you do that, Guy On My Tour, and it was weird)? I’m too astounded to even be snotty about social reform, I’m just hoping no one notices me quietly petting the wall.
Back to the pub
I need a drink. I walk back to the Salutation, where three older men who look like they’re named Silence, Shallow and Falstaff are propping up the bar and chatting about the Scottish referendum. I ask the barman a pint of cider and the number of a local cab company.
“There’s Mike, but he’s useless,” one of the oldies says. “Where are you headed? I’ll take you. We’re about to head off.”
The other two turn to look at me, a young woman with an American accent who appeared at this small local pub in the middle of the countryside with no way to get back.
“I’m here for the history,” I explain. This is accepted.
The next twenty minutes is a complicated attempt to explain their nearly 40-year-old friendships – one used to take another’s father-in-law shooting, one’s a brewer from Dumfries who got married on the same day as one of the others, I follow about 20% of what’s going on – and we pile into the car. The driver nods as we pass the castle. “Good one, that.” A pause. “Lot of history here for a place that’s stayed the same.”