Following in the footsteps of Harley documents our research and travels in writing my latest book, The Adventures of a Black Edwardian Intellectual, The Story of James Arthur Harley. It is a wry look at our experiences, including the sublime, funny, unbelievable, poignant moments in realizing what Harley had undertaken and achieved.
So, who are we? I am Pamela, the author, as my mother calls me, and my mother, Enid, my fellow researcher and traveller in arms. We, tongue in cheek, refer to ourselves as the dilapidated duo, half-dead and bruk up. Why? I have a hereditary blood condition, sickle cell anaemia. The condition has taken its toll on my body, which I describe as the Taj Mahal - crumbling slowly. Most noticeably, I walk with a very pronounced limp. My mother suffered a heart attack in 2013 and, as a result, lost a tremendous amount of weight. We pride ourselves that we're still going and will get there in the end.
BEND MOTHER BEND
Wookey Hole Caves, Somerset, was the start of our research journey. At the beginning of 2014, I had emergency gall bladder surgery. The visit to Wookey Hole was a combination of research and recovery. I was intrigued why a black man in 1909 had visited Wookey Hole Caves.
Motoring down the M4 on a bright July day, we pondered how Harley would have travelled to Somerset. Train to Bristol Temple Meads station and then a horse and buggy to Wookey Hole?
Our hotel for the duration of our stay was the very kitsch Wookey Hole, complete with the Wookey Witch, a mythical witch who haunts the caves, in reality, a tourist gimmick.
A long steep walkway provided access to the caves. Walking is not my forte. We were told the walk would take five minutes. Thirty minutes later, puffing and gasping, we finally reached the top, only to be informed that there were 230 steps to go through the caves, and once we had started, we could not turn around and go back. We got this far, paid for the tickets, let's do it. As we made our way into the caves, there was a sudden drop in temperature, which was not suitable for my condition.
Gingerly, we proceeded down the slippery steps with the rest of the group. The air became thinner as we descended, and I struggled to breathe. I was not the only one struggling. Thankfully, we stopped at one of the first points of interest, a lagoon; the colours were remarkable. Fluorescent blues, greens, and oranges; an awe-inspiring sight. The guide explained that Henry Bach had discovered the caves in 1912, and local guides used to throw petrol onto the walls and lit it to provide a source of lighting. The caves are now professionally lit. I kept thinking Harley was here in 1909, three years before Bach.
The guide told us that we would be approaching a low cave, but once inside, we could stand. We bent double, and I kept repeating bend, mother, bend. We made our way through and emerged into another cave. We stood upright, and the sight that greeted us was a waterfall with a bridge over the fall. We would have to climb up a ladder to access the walkway. Clinging onto the rail, we made our way up the steps. As I walked across, I kept calling out, 'isn't it brilliant. 'Yes, yes.’ I looked back only to see my mother's eyes tightly closed. 'You're not even looking. 'Open your eyes and look.’ 'I can see,' she retorted. Looking down, I could see the fantastic icicle-like stalagmites emerging from the ground. We finally made it across the bridge. I stopped and looked back. A sight to behold. Harley excavated flint scrapes at the Hyena Den caves as part of his anthropology diploma's archaeology component. The flint scrapers are on display at the Pitt Rivers Museum.