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The Swamps of Somerset

Britain is a nation preoccupied with personal ablutions. At least one study claims that the average Brit has five showers and three baths weekly. Our proclivity for washing is way more than the prescribed rule of thumb of the two or three times per week touted by dermatologists. It’s a good thing it rains a lot!

Somerset is the county that espouses our national obsession far more than any other.

Bath, named after the springs which sprung the bathing epicentre of the British Roman empire, is Somerset’s principal city. Wells, England’s smallest city, is built on an agitating aquifer and Simonsbath is so called because a parent finally persuaded their manky teenager to tidy their room and clean behind their ears. Possibly.

I had been exceptionally lucky selecting 2022 as my starting year of vanlife as it was working its way up to becoming the UK’s warmest year on record. This stroke of fortune goes against my personal grain: I once moved to Siberia and that particular winter saw Russia endure its coldest year on record. It required me to buy a very expensive, arctic

So it was just unfortunate timing that I arrived in Somerset, England’s most freshet-inclined county just as there was a dramatic change in climatic conditions. Britain shuddered into its first cold snap of winter, causing outdoor types and dog walkers alike to shiver their way through minus figures. A dumping of snow turned the landscape into a magical winter wonderland two weeks prior to it being the optimal Christmas decoration, and roads became suitable for a jolly game of curling.

The first evidence of the coldwave occurred when my washing up water failed to drain. I had assumed it was a consequence of either the drain pipe into the grey water tank clogging up, or a build up within the pipe directing the grey water to pour out right under the left rear wheel. Naturally, I hold the cat responsible. Unlike dogs, cats do not polish off their food. Instead, they lick the jelly off the cardboard pieces, chasing them out the bowl, over the rim and across the floor causing much washing up detritus, that might as well be called…

The second observation I made on the morning after the night of the big freeze was Nelson’s drinking water solidifying. Situated by the side door, it was nothing but a frozen lump with a few dusty specks in it. I am clueless as to why I provide Nelson with a bowl of water, no one has ever witnessed him sampling it. I guess we both like the risk of slippage it causes on a daily basis.

But with timing being the main ingredient of luck, I am glad of being tremendously menopausal, causing me to slow-cook away at a balmy forty-one degrees for prolonged periods of time. There’s the occasional hot snap too. Nelson has fur, and for all other times, we make use of the wonderfully clicking diesel-run air blower. We can only use it for an hour at most or we’d both expire from heat exhaustion and irritation.

In another moment of fortuity, I had replaced my acid battery bank with a single one hundred amp-hour lithium battery. This means that, firstly, the van has stonking new, longer-lasting battery life, and, secondly, I can now fire up the diesel heater without actually vacating the bed first thing in the morning. Until this point, awakenings had been spent dashing out from under the duvet, hauling open the side door, tip-toeing around to the driver’s cab, turning on the ignition, darting back to the rear of the van, firing up the heater, scuttling back to the cab, turning off the ignition, sprinting back to the insides, slamming the side door and diving back under the duvet. A series of manoeuvres accompanied by a continuous thought of…

The new batteries have me firing the heating up without even leaving my bed. Four days later, my entire electric circuit cut out for reasons of a no longer working charging unit.

Thankfully, this coincided with the Great Big Freeze thawing and temperatures swinging up to ten decrees!

The holy trinity of volts, amps and batteries back in harmony, the Shitron, Nelson and I resumed our grand tour of what was not the waterlogged lands of Somerset.The Shitron in particular benefitted from a thorough dowsing. It had long been the case of “single white van seeking single yellow sponge for some dirty fun!”

Our wading into Somerset showed me why it tops the list of English counties prone to river-flooding. The joy of smashing through swollen fords, burst lakes and oversized puddles had me a little too exuberant at times. Thankfully a random woman warned me that should I continue, we’d probably float off just past the church. Reversing in flood water is slightly less fun…and I preferred not to introduce Nelson to wild swimming.

I was fascinated to learn that some twenty-two percent of Somerset’s properties acquire an unintended swimming pool in any given two-hundred year time frame. And to think less than a hundred years ago, a bathroom was considered a luxury. In fact, by 1967 just 75% of homes reported having an indoor WC, bath or shower. Back in the 1800s, only the wealthy bathed a few times a month, and the poor probably just once a year.

By the 1900s, the Saturday night family bath had become a thing for those in possession of a tin tub. Bathing was undertaken in a strict rotation starting with the Father. Mother and children three after. One can only assume that by the time the youngest child was ready for a thorough dunking, the bathwater looked not unlike my used washing up liquid.

In fact, in modern times, surveys reveal men wash more frequently than women, and actually wash more body parts than women, including thoroughly scrubbing ears and legs. Amazingly, men take less time in the shower despite the activity.

Women, on the other hand, spend more time mentally rehearsing their to-do lists and pondering on the meaning of life, including, presumably, matters such as to how Hinton ended up in such a mess.

Or perhaps something even more deep and meaningful, like whether indeed “Cleanliness is next to Godliness”. It was a phrase that took hold in the 18th century. Alas, cleanliness in that instance referred to one’s morals, and not one’s moping about in the bath.

Right up until the nineteenth century, the medical professional advised against bathing believing it would increase infections. There was also, and still remains in many countries, a puritanical belief that women are unclean for one week a month. Consequently bathing in rivers and streams was forbidden and that practice continues even with the invention of the bathroom.

English relied on the Romans to teach us about bathing. It promptly went out of fashion upon the collapse of the empire until the twentieth century. Little wonder that a large number of Somerset’s towns sound like ominous Victorian skin diseases:

Naturally, after a bath or shower, one must dedicate time to rearranging whatever it is that needs to be rearranged.

Even Mrs Claus has Santa in on the gig

But I shall be alarmed if I ever ever encounter one of these…

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