In search of… Max Tovey

1898 map ham hill
Ham Hill, 1898

Having posted a couple of ‘photo blog walks’, as I call them, it occurred to me while walking Woody at Ham Hill the other day that I should post some from there, and specifically of the locations I used within my book ‘The Multiverse of Max Tovey’. If you haven’t come across the book yet, in brief it’s about a troubled teenage boy who comes to live at the Prince of Wales Inn, Ham Hill, Somerset (the largest hill fort in the country), only to discover to his equal delight and alarm that most of his troubles stem from him being a time traveller.

Of course, the book takes place in a wet and windy January, and most of these pictures were taken yesterday, when it was sunny. I should have gone today instead, as it’s now pouring with rain – you’ll just have to use your imagination!

Below is South Somerset District Council’s official tourist map of Ham Hill – it will open in a new tab, and it’s about 18mb, so it shouldn’t take too long over a decent connection – on which I have put the two routes as dotted lines, Route 1 in red, and Route 2 in blue.

SSC Ham Hill Map 1

So, we start at the Prince of Wales, of course…

…and the Underwarren, one of the great views from a beer garden of all time.

The fields are so called because, in the 14th century, the field above, behind those tall trees to the right, was used to farm rabbits. Unfortunately, they very quickly escaped, and so the venture was abandoned. Their descendants are no doubt still hopping around the hill today.

Early on in the book, Max’s mysterious grandfather Percy dies. Percy used to run the Inn, but had recently fallen ill, which was why Max and his parents were visiting. Thanks to a family quarrel, Max had never met his grandfather, nor been to Ham Hill, but he knew both intimately thanks to a recurring nightmare in which he fights alongside his grandfather there against 1st century Romans and demons.

     The ceremony over, Max was standing outside the Inn, staring out over the fields below when a double rainbow appeared, the brightest Max had ever seen, the end of one on St Michael’s Hill, and the other on the Under Warren. Sir John laughed as he emerged from the Inn behind Max.

     “We should go and dig up the pot of gold, eh lad?”

     “There’s nothing buried down there but the English dead,” replied Max.

     “English dead…?” said Sir John, unsuccessfully trying to conceal a faint smile.

     “1068,” said Max. “The last battle of the West Saxon Uprising. Against the Normans…” he added, for clarification.

     Sir John looked down at the curious red-haired boy, not trying to conceal his smile any more.

     “Very good, lad,” he said as softly as his military brusqueness would allow. “Upstart Normans, daring to build a castle on our sacred hill! Right – off to The Bubble then!”

Max was right of course – there are thousands of English soldiers buried under those fields. They had rebelled after the Conqueror’s half brother, Robert of Mortain, built a castle on their sacred St Michael’s Hill (for a reason they may have held it sacred, see here), and they had, eventually, been crushed. The double rainbow conversation actually occurred a few years ago between myself, in the role of Max as it were, and Mike, then and now the real landlord of the Inn. This was how I met Michael Zair, who was listening with interest nearby. Michael turned out not only to be the founder of Tinkers Bubble, the eco-community in Norton Woods towards which we’re travelling today, but also an expert on the history of the Hill. Our post-rainbow conversation was one of the defining moments in forcing me to actually stop researching and start writing.


     Myvi and Joseph had tried to take Max to the wake, but he didn’t want to go. He wasn’t good at being sociable at the best of times, but especially not after what had just happened. But eventually Nick persuaded him to go. Max trusted Nick, somehow. He figured that if his grandfather had, then he should too.

Nick, the bar manager (who turns out to be rather more than this), takes Max through the woods towards the Bubble. This would have first meant turning right outside the Inn, then along the narrow wooded path that borders the defensive embankment and the Victorian quarries behind it.

The path is opposite the restaurant.
The beginning of the path
The path along the upper defences
Victorian quarrying and spoil heaps

After a few minutes, they would have come across the ‘Time Stones’, created by sculptor Evelyn Body shortly before the Millennium. On Midsummer’s Day, the rising sun shines through the hole in the Celtic round stone and strikes the axehead – as long as it’s not cloudy of course! The path ahead leads to the high fields, but Max and Nick would have taken the right-hand path, down into the woods again.

The ‘Time Stones’

The path heads downhill a little…
…before heading back up towards the road…
…crossing it…
…and then heading down towards the ruins of the last remaining Lime Kiln
A closer view of the Lime Kiln
Now they would have headed back up again…
…and into the Lime Kiln car park.

Of course, there is another way to get to this point, less direct, but arguably more connected with the hill fort’s ancient past…


Instead of heading along the path along the defences…

…you head down the steps to the path along the lower embankment.

In Max’s nightmare, which all takes place in the first century, there would have been a high wooden palisade just above where this gate now sits, as there would have been around the whole three mile long perimeter. There wouldn’t have been a gate here – the ancient Eastern Gate would have been nearer the War Memorial. Here, in fact…

The Eastern Gate

On the map, this is the kink in the path just below Figure 3 – but I digress. So, you head down the steps and turn right at the bottom. If you turn left, the path takes you along the lower defences, and ultimately out below the War Memorial.

The path along the lower defences

Straight ahead is the path towards East Stoke, which roughly follows the line of where the nettles aren’t. In days gone by this was an actual road, or at least an official track, as can be seen on the 1898 map at the top, which carried on along the path of the, well, path, that we’re about to take. Once yuo’re past the almost magical circular hazel grove…


Straight ahead takes you up into Hedgecock Woods, a wonderful walk in itself, but they’re not what today is about.


The path now takes you up to the ‘Time Stones’, and we’re back on track,
unless of course you take a little diversion to the Deep Quarry…

The ‘deep quarry’

One of the more spectacular quarrying leftovers, this fern-covered grove at the foot of sheer hamstone walls that is a frequent destination for climbers and abseilers.

But back to the trail – in the book, we pick up Nick and Max again as they enter Norton Covert proper, just a short walk along the path from the Lime Kiln car park.

The path to the woods. Turn left after the second gate.

     “Let’s take the middle path,” said Nick, pulling the hood of his coat up. “It’ll be more sheltered.”

The middle path down into the deep woods     

     Nick and Max headed down from the top path, the relative visibility of the winter-bare ash, beech and sycamore giving way to the enfolding gloom of the closely packed conifers that populated the lower stretches of Norton Wood. The path was narrower and muddier as rainwater tumbled down the fern-strewn hillside, but at least they had some shelter from the elements now roaring through the tree tops like high waves on a windswept beach.

     Neither of them spoke much, partly because they were concentrating on keeping their footing on the increasingly slippery path, but truth be told, Max didn’t talk much most of the time anyway. It wasn’t that he didn’t have anything to say, just that he found it hard to decide which of the myriad conversations swirling in his head were safe to share out loud.


Our late old boy Buzz, taken a few years ago now, heading down into the deep woods.

The dark depths of Norton woods

     They were in the deepest part of the woods now, the hazy lights of Tinkers Bubble up the slope ahead of them. The rain was crashing down now, penetrating even the thick evergreen canopy above them. But as they rounded a corner, they almost bumped into someone half running the other way. Initial shock turned into apologies as they all recognised each other.

      “Hey, how are you guys doing?”

      It was Jack, one of the pub regulars, on his way back from The Bubble, still dressed in his pseudo Mediaeval finery. He was only in his early twenties, but he’d been coming here with his parents since he was a kid, and didn’t give the strangeness that enveloped the place a second thought.

     “Hey Jack,” said Nick, smiling. “What are you doing going back so early? Have you drunk all the cider already?”

      Max noticed it first. Jack suddenly looked… confused, like he was being forced to do something but didn’t understand why.

     “Jack?” Nick was a little worried now too.

     Jack hung his head, and then slowly raised it, looking right at the two of them. But it was no longer Jack. His face had suddenly lost all its colour, and his now grey eyes were staring a thousand miles away. Before Max and Nick realised what was happening, he picked up a large fallen branch, wheeled around, and whirled it towards Max. But then came a voice, so deep it sounded like the ground itself was talking.

     “Get him away from here, now!”

     The branch that Jack was bringing down on Max now suddenly slowed in the arc that would have ended at his head. As Max turned to see where the voice had come from he saw something much more fearsome than Jack and his branch. But even though the massive White Dog was almost as tall as Max, somehow he wasn’t afraid. For the first time, instinctively he began to trust the memory of his dream, and deep inside knew that this towering, slavering hound was there to help him.

       As Jack’s branch arced ever more slowly towards him, Nick grabbed Max’s arm, and suddenly Max wasn’t on Ham Hill any more.

Of course, Max did eventually make it to his grandfather’s wake at Tinkers Bubble, and when he woke the next morning…

The entrance to Tinkers Bubble

     For the first time in years, Max didn’t wake up in a panic, but instead with a strange, slightly warm feeling inside. For once, his dreams had been like most other people’s, a random, slightly surreal sorting of the previous day’s events, which for Max was dominated by the Wake in the woods that had lasted well into the night, and that to his surprise, he had actually enjoyed. The two dozen or so residents of the odd assortment of home-made wood, stone and canvas dwellings were beginning to realise that they shared a common past with Max, even if his grandfather had changed it to protect them all, and welcomed him into their midst with open arms. It was a new experience for Max, and at first he was a little nervous of it all. His condition had made him very shy, especially in the last four years, and he was now almost pathologically incapable of being sociable. But these people didn’t care about any of that. Max didn’t even notice it happening, but somehow they made him feel at home.

     And then he was watching and listening in wonder and amusement as the Travellers recounted newly-remembered tales of adventures in history with old Percy. He laughed as they continued to Wassail, dancing around the billowing fire, the woods echoing with the tinkling of their bells. He looked on in delight as Myvi played and sang some hauntingly beautiful Celtic folk songs; and in the end, he even eventually allowed her to drag him from his seat to join in the dancing.

  And then it was over, and he walked back to the Inn, alone, but safe in the knowledge that nothing would be allowed to happen to him in these ancient woods on this most magical of nights.

Tinkers Bubble really is the most magical place, as Max found out that night. It was founded in 1994 by my friend Michael Zair, who is still very much at the heart of things there.

Michael Zair, founder of Tinkers Bubble

If you’re in the area, I highly advise getting in touch to ask if you can visit, or even stay and volunteer. Their contact details are here.

The photo below, and the one of Michael above, are from the blog of Kat, one of their members, and I hope she doesn’t mind me borrowing them, but they do rather sum up the whole place.

The folk at Tinkers Bubble having an impromptu post Open Day Ceilidh

So, from Tinkers Bubble you merely follow the path back up the hill for a little while, alongside the slopes of Witcombe Valley, before heading left through the woods again, and then, naturally, back the way you came to the Prince of Wales Inn.

Oh, and by the way, I use the word ‘Travellers’ in the book to denote Time Traveller, not in the Gypsy sense. As far as I know, none of the residents of the real Tinkers’ Bubble are Time Travellers. As far as I know…

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