Memories of Cerne.

Scaryduck posts about his adopted homeland of Dorset, and sends me spinning off into a nostalgic reverie.

My late grandparents lived in Cerne Abbas, a picture-postcard-perfect village which nestles under Giant’s Hill, home of that famously priapic ancient chalk carving, the Cerne Giant. Every Easter and every August, my mother, my sister and I would travel down from North Nottinghamshire to visit them; an epic journey, which would take us most of the day. Down the Fosse Way, through the Cotswolds (where we would turn off the road, stop the car, spread out our checkered blanket and eat our cheese or meat paste sandwiches), and over Salisbury Plain towards Sherborne. With no car radio to distract us, my sister and I would sing, play I-Spy, or maybe score points for the numbers of legs contained in pub names on our respective sides of the road. (I can still remember the surge of joy I felt as we passed – on MY SIDE! – a pub called The Horse & Hounds.)

Until around 1973, when the level of chalk erosion forced the National Trust to fence it off, anyone was free to clamber up the Cerne Giant. It was, of course, our favourite walk. But oh, my poor mother…

cernegiant

“Here’s his foot! And here’s his other foot! And here’s his leg … and here’s his other leg. OK: you take the left leg, I’ll take the right leg, and I’ll see you when we reach his … what is this bit, Mummy? I can’t work it out.”

“That’s his tummy, darling.”

“But it’s got all funny lines on it…”

“No darling, that really is his tummy. Come on, quickly now…”

“I know! I know! Why don’t we stop and have our picnic here for a change?”

“No darling, I don’t think so. Let’s climb up a bit further and sit on his face like we normally do, shall we?”

It was YEARS before I realised that the giant was sporting a big fat stiffy. YEARS! I had something of a sheltered childhood, shall we say.

The best place to view the giant from a distance is from a wide lay-by, just outside the village. Driving past this spot one lunchtime in the late 1980s, my mother noticed a large group of people, formally dressed, having a full sit-down banquet in the middle of the lay-by. They had erected a long dining table, covered it with a white linen tablecloth, and laid it with china plates, silver cutlery, wine glasses, the full works. Mystified, my mother made enquiries in the village. It turned out that this banquet was an annual event, which was well known to the locals.

Because of its manifestly priapic nature bloody great enormous penis, the Cerne Giant has always been known as a fertility symbol. As such, certain magical powers have been ascribed to it over the centuries. Indeed, legend has it that any couple who have been unable to conceive should make their way, at dead of night, to those very same funny lines on the giant’s tummy – where they should commit the sacred act of conception have a shag. On the side of a hill. In the open air. Lawks! Nine months later, they will be then rewarded with a beautiful bouncing baby, courtesy of the big fella himself.

Which is precisely what the son of the Duke of Something-Or-Other (or was it the Marquis of Thingummy?) and his wife had done, a few years earlier, in a final act of desperation, having previously been told that they were unable to bear children. Ever since then, on the exact anniversary of the shag act of conception, the couple would bring their friends to this lay-by, all togged up, best china in the boot, and they would have this celebratory thanksgiving banquet together.

A few miles away in Dorchester, my grandfather presided over the Quarter Sessions in the local court house – these being the criminal trials which were eventually replaced by the County Court system. Unlike his notorious predecessor, the dreaded (and dreadful) Judge Jeffries (known in the C17th as the “hanging judge”), my grandfather never got to hand out any death sentences – much to his chagrin, I suspect. (I can just picture him with a black handkerchief on his head, banging his gavel, and snarling “Take him down!” in his iciest tones.) A man of robustly traditional views, was my grandfather. After all, this is someone who once opined over dinner that society had been sliding downhill ever since the working classes had been granted paid holidays. Someone who refused to have a television in his house (“the dread goggle-box“), and who witheringly referred to TV quiz shows as “The Glorification of the Common Man“. (On the other hand: he did have a finely tuned sly wit, and was not above affecting a provocative stance for the sake of effect. Not unlike his grandson, in that case.)

As Scaryduck reports, the name of Judge Jeffries lives on in – of all things – a rather stuffily old-school restaurant and tea-room, just opposite the Dorset county museum . On shopping trips to Dorchester, we would collect my grandfather from the members’ room at the museum – where he would be sitting in an ancient leather armchair, reading The Times – and we would take luncheon together at Judge Jeffries. For me, this always felt like a major treat. For my first course, I would be solemnly presented with a glass tumbler of tomato juice, sitting on a paper doily, in the middle of a china plate. The waitress would then always ask me whether I wanted a drop of Worcester Sauce in my tomato juice. To me, this was the very height of sophistication. The main course would be plaice, chips and carrots (I didn’t like peas), and for pudding – oh, joy upon joy! – I could choose a slice of gateau from the sweet trolley. For me, there was nothing quite so awesomely splendid as the Judge Jeffries sweet trolley, where everything was garnished with glacé cherries, “hundreds and thousands”, or tiny little green chunks of angelica. Heaven!

Just beyond the Cerne Abbas graveyard, with the ruins of the old Norman abbey to the left, and the wooded foothills of Giant’s Hill down at the far end, lies the field known as Belvoir. For reasons which I can’t quite explain, but which probably have a lot to do with deeply embedded happy childhood memories, there is something magical, almost sacred, about this ground. It’s where my ashes are to be scattered. The details are in my will. Bury my heart at Giant’s foot!

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