03/08/17 Day 13, Week 2 not in the tent.
The breeze was somewhat stiff today and I doubted the sacred tent would be open to the hallowed public, or even the humble carvers. Turns out it was. As you, dear-reader, may have deduced, your correspondent didn’t get up there today – one fasted. Or rather, one didn’t, as I made a pilgrimage to The Kings Arms, Langton. Langton Matravers, that is. Movie stars, and so on.
It came with chips and peas (there is a choice but I’m a salad dodger, and peas are green, aren’t they?) which was just what was needed. One cannot live by pasty alone, good as they may be up at the Square. This is a view not shared by my new charge for the next ten days, a pug-nosed mastiff-y-type thing called Baxter. He arrived this morning for ten days of fun-filled wanderings around Purbeck. We’ll be walking back to Worth along Priest’s Way, and ancient, time-worn path that has recently, and thankfully, been properly renovated. Getting too old for twisted ankles; but you never know.
It was a brisk Westerly, sometimes a Southsterly, that blew up a formidable headwind as Baxter and I made our way to the square for the second set of Me and My Friends. The Big Room was heaving, much dancing was done and everyone was smiling. Beyond that I cannot say as I was sat outside, chatting with friends and having a laugh, as one does at the Square. Time, to retire – it’s all ahead of us tomorrow, being the last proper day of carving, Square Fayre on Saturday.
Day 12, week 2 in the tent and it’s raining.
The sounds of tapping and belting ring within the canvass as usual today yet there seems to be a heightened atmosphere of comradery and the old joi de vie among the sculptors, defiantly belying the sodden conditions outside. Fat drops of the wet stuff pound the marquee as it billows in the squall like something trying to break out; the noise of it is cacophonous, to be sure, but the laughing, chattering carvers are louder. Everyone seems to be getting on splendidly. They come from all over the place, places that aren’t in the UK, some of them, but they’re all getting on like true Brits do when they’re supposed to be miserable; the chips aren’t down, they’re flying.
On the other side of the coin, the pub landlord is muttering dark curses in his cider shed, stocktaking and shifting barrels about with grim purpose as the precipitation persists. It’ll be a big weekend, what with Square Fayre and all, whatever the weather, so it won’t go astray. He’s taking some solace in the forecast – it’s looking mostly dry. In the meantime, though, campers are contemplating their options. It can, as they say, be a bit intense in tents. That’s the weather for you; you never know when you’re going to get it. But what better place to be than here? The kids are having a ball, learning from the old hands or just having a go – and they’re making things. Making things is good. Their grown-ups are doing the same, which is also good. Not only do they go away with something to show but with the satisfaction of having worked stone with a chisel and mallet, a process which is of itself deeply satisfying.
Meanwhile, indoors, it’s pasty and pint time. Board games and cards are the order of the day. I’m reflecting on last night’s duet, The Schmoozenbergs. They are usually a four piece, presumably missing a double bass and percussionist at a guess, but I can attest the glass was more than half-full. Cajon, Zydeco, a bit of Western and a touch of country. Their interpretations, or covers as we might call them, were fully original although the accordion player came pretty close to resembling Van Morrison in much more than hat. I was fascinated to see his squeeze boxes were all button accordions, no keys but I didn’t stay around to bother him about their provenance. I will, next time. The singer is a Scottish lass with a voice that slips between hard Celtic and soft Appalachian like she is toying with the forms – because she can. She sang a slow version of Dolly Parton’s Joleen that bought every bit of the author’s angst to the fore, hitting the notes in crushing, tragic tones – just to show off, I reckon! But, no bones, that Zydeco rhythm is the back beat they live and breathe.
To the strains of Junco Shakers, let’s call them a skiffle band with a twist – washboard, double bass, rhythm guitar and your as per, laid-back, grizzled, seen-it-all-done-most-of-it-but-won’t-do-that lead guitarist, the Square and Compass carries on as normal, but also with a twist; it’s Stone-Carving Festival, and the dog is on the roof.
‘Festival’ is, perhaps, too strong a word despite the carnival atmosphere. No flaming dragons; no giant banners in one’s view of the band, merely the odd tall person; frankly, not even a juggler. Yet there is something of the slow burner about it and a dramatic finale is promised. Well, it’s Square Fayre this weekend, after all.
The carvers gathered a week ago, accommodated, marked their territories and got on with the job of jabbing away at bits of rock, stopping only to grunt or, quite often, help the unwary on their way to being carvers themselves. Like most creative pursuits, it is a highly meditative process, drawing the practitioner inward, releasing those happiness endorphins you read about from time to time.
If you have never experienced the joy of cold steel in one hand and a bashing implement in the other, this is both the time and place to do so. Watch this space – you never know, we might persuade an artist to show us the ropes.
Carvers in the Mist
To be read in your head with the voice of Sir David Attenborough.
It’s the 26th day of July, 2017, and something quite wonderful is happening in a tiny corner of Dorset, or, as this patch of limestone and clay is more properly known, Purbeck. A mysterious low-flying cloud has settled upon a curious group of mammals, some of them hairy, some of them very hairy, all engaged in an activity that is quite alien and yet somehow resonate of a distant, primal, human exertion.
As you ascend the hill to this extraordinary place, 400 feet above the English Channel and half a mile from its surface, a feeling of otherness may descend. This is an ancient place; witness to thousands of years of creative endeavour, industry and the sheer grit of its inhabitants. The spirit of Purbeck is alive and well here, perpetuated by the activities of an almost ethereal group known for centuries as ‘The Stone Carvers’. And, so it comes to pass, still are.
They are, usually, solitary creatures, preferring their own company over those of ordinary people or even other Carvers and, though they may sometimes be found working in pairs, they are very seldom seen grouped. Throughout the year they are hunched over their bankers, mallets, scutcheons and bolsters from dawn to dusk in their lonely lairs, covered in dust and the sediment of time-honoured tradition, these strange denizens of stone are sometimes difficult to comprehend. Why, for example, do they risk life and limb, or, at least, repetitive strain injury, for the object of making rocks smaller? What is behind their strange worship of the equally intriguing blacksmithperson, he or she of the secret ironmongery arts?
Perhaps most perplexing of all is their annual migration, from all corners of the globe, to a speck on the map labelled as Worth Matravers but which they call – The Square & Compass.
From the outside, The Square and Compass appears for all the world like a pub, the sort that sells real ales and unreal ciders and doesn’t take credit cards. It’s like that from the inside, too. And yet, take but a few step further through the quaintly named Garden of Beer and you will discover a rudimentary marquise packed with the Stone Carver species, gathered together for their annual migration to this inn in the heart of stone country. And, as if by magic, a transformation takes place.
For you see, they are not merely conglomerated to perform their rituals of old between themselves but, most extraordinarily of all, to share their knowledge and encourage others whom may never have felt the comfort of cold steel in their hands to, as they put it, ‘have a go’. This outward sharing of techniques, of approach to thinking, of knowledge is almost human in it’s capacity to… and so and so forth.
Stone carving continues up till Square Fayre, 1st weekend of August. I will be posting further reports on this channel.