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Something special

Between the Bridge and the Bee-loud Glade,
REX HARLEY discovers the
Aust Festival of Mediaeval Music


It's a beautiful Saturday morning in September, and I'm about to cross the border into another country. Beyond the bridge is a piece of ghost motorway, barely used since the opening of the second Severn Crossing, but I turn off it and drive barely a mile before pulling up outside a quiet country pub. It's only when I look back up the road that I see the church, previously concealed by a high bank. As I walk up the hill I join forces with a woman pushing a wheelbarrow. In the barrow are three large, carved mushrooms -- or maybe toadstools -- and it is carrying one of these that I make my entrance into the group of musicians, instrument makers, punters and at least one story-teller, gathered in the grass area next to the graveyard.

A bodhran workshop, led by Gerhard Kress. Photo © 2003 Peter Dobbins
A bodhran workshop, led by Gerhard Kress. Photo © 2003 Peter Dobbins

Surreal? A little, but this is the Aust Festival of Mediaeval Music, the fourth of its kind, and the air is oddly enchanted here. Unlike me, several of the gathering are here for the whole weekend, and that means the chance not only to hear but also to take part in workshops: dance; chant; pilgrim song; percussion, all of which contribute to a thoroughly anachronistic Sunday morning service on the final day. My first event, though is The Beemaster, a one-man show by the Bristol-based veteran and doyen of one-man shows, Chris Harris. It is a performance very much of two halves. The first sees him as Brother Barnabas, beekeeper of St Ambrose Monastery, ruminating on God, nature and the uncertainty of life; the second half ... well, the second half sees him in a different costume altogether. It's black and yellow and, yes, there are wings, and even a detachable sting.

Chris Harris as Barnabus the Beemaster. Photo © 2003 Peter Dobbins
Chris Harris as Barnabus the Beemaster. Photo © 2003 Peter Dobbins

As usual with his shows, it manages to be gentle, funny, poignant, raucous, bawdy and silly, (in all senses of that ancient and venerable word.) And I even get my own five minutes of fame, when, along with a man with a pony-tail and a girl whose cat is called Winston, I am hauled up on stage and shown how to dance like a bee! Fortunately, I came alone and there is no-one around with a video camera.

Emerging into the bright afternoon, I decide there's time for me to drive into Bristol before the evening concert. I get lost on the way, and on the way back, but today it doesn't seem to matter. And what I'm rewarded with, when I've parked my car in Clifton, is a view of the gorge and Brunel's suspension bridge which is quite breath-taking. Its symmetry; its transformation of metal and stone into a monument of grace, poetry and proportion; its perfect marriage of form and function: everything is enhanced by the late afternoon light and the lingering heat. And the view from the middle, back towards the rocky slopes of the gorge is truly what the Eighteenth Century understood by Sublime.

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Copyright © 16 September 2003 Rex Harley, Cardiff, UK


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