Miles Kington: An Arthurian quest for steam trains and spotted dick

Big game was not scared of anything except unknown enemies. A leopard would cower from the snarling ball of fur presented by a small peke
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The Independent Online

My father-in-law, Nick Carter, was mad about rugby and, although he lived in South Africa, remained a fervent England supporter to the end. The end in his case was February 2004, which meant that he lived just long enough to see England become World Cup holders in November 2003 and he would have been overjoyed to see England skate home against South Africa on Saturday.

Actually, I would have been happy to see it too, but there was no chance for that, as all Nick's family were clambering up the sunny heights of Cadbury Castle, at his request, to scatter his ashes over the Arthurian ramparts. There are very few sightseers on ancient hill forts in late November and we had the place more or less to ourselves in order to open the casket which widow Gillian had brought all the way from South Africa.

(Note to future ash scatterers. Make sure, in advance, how the casket opens, and do not find yourself on top of Cadbury Castle lacking a Phillips screwdriver. If you do, however, a small pair of scissors will do the job.)

It was a very different from the first time I had gone into Somerset with Nick, about 20 years ago, when he was on his first visit back to Britain for 40 years. He had announced when he arrived that there were three things he wanted to do on his return to the old country. One was to go on a steam train. The second to eat spotted dick again. And thirdly, to meet Auberon Waugh, whom he read avidly every week in The Spectator.

Puddings and trains I could handle, but I did not know Waugh well. A meeting sounded problematic. I rang him up and put my dilemma to him.

"No problem," said Waugh. "Pop in to Combe Florey one day at tea-time and I would be pleased to meet your father- in-law."

What a gent. Things looked even better when I traced Combe Florey on the map and found that it was next to the longest private steam railway in Britain, the West Somerset Railway. So one day Nick and I set off to West Somerset and did our steam trip, and retired for lunch to the Luttrell Arms in Dunster, a delightfully old-fashioned sort of place where (are you ready for this?) where quite by chance they had spotted dick on the dessert list.

Two down, one to go. We arrived at Combe Florey for tea, and Auberon Waugh emerged, looking rather flustered as he tried to control small squads of Pekinese dogs racing all over the place.

"Sorry about this," said Waugh. "The house is full of pekes. I know some people can't stand them."

"Oh, I love them," said Nick. "I used to train them. As hunting dogs. In the bush, in Kenya. Saved my life."

Waugh sprang into action. He summoned as many of his family as he could find, sat them down and told them they were about to be lectured by a man who had trained pekes to hunt.

And it was true. Nick had discovered that big game was not scared of anything except unknown enemies, and while a leopard would not back away from a man, it would cower from the unfamiliar spitting, snarling ball of fur presented by a small peke.

"When we camped in the bush," said Nick to his rapt listeners, "you only had to let a couple of pekes loose in the camp at night, and nothing came near. By day I would carry a peke in each pocket of my safari jacket, a bit like a cowboy with six-shooters. I remember one time ..."

What a successful tea visit for Nick that was. And what a successful final trip for him to Cadbury Castle last Saturday. I had never seen ashes being scattered before, and did not realise how clean and white they would be, like ground rice, nor how far they would blow, hither and yon down the hillside, to join the spirits of Arthur and his knights, by whom Nick was so fascinated.

An old legend says that on midsummer's day Cadbury Castle turns to glass for one day only, and deep within the hill you can see the shapes of Arthur and his men, ready to ride forth again on doomsday. I guess they have got an extra man now.

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