Last April we failed dismally in our first attempt to see the Severn Bore. I say ‘we’ but actually it was my fault – mea culpa. I’d misread the times on the website and we arrived at one of the viewing points in time to see surfers peeling off their wetsuits but still wearing satisfied smirks. Next time, I thought, I’ll make sure to get it right.
I did. Today we drove across to the Severn Bore Inn, situated – you’ll never guess – on the banks of the Severn just outside the village of Minsterworth. We’d crawled from our bed at the ungodly hour of 7:30 am (…we’re retired, remember) and left the house at about 8:15. I’m not sure why it took us so long to get ourselves into the car; it’s not as though we had a hearty breakfast, or even an unhearty one. I gulped down a cup of coffee (Michael declined) and dropped a banana and couple of apples into my bag – comprehensive preparation as usual. Google Maps had informed us that the journey would take 1hr and 6 minutes, which would see us arriving at about 9:30 as long as we stuck to the advised route. Sure enough, we reached the Inn a few minutes before that, in plenty of time to see the famous Bore, which was due at 10:01.
They do a roaring trade in coffee and bacon rolls at the pub – for all I know they could do a roaring trade in other things as well, but I doubt it. Clutching half-buckets of steaming coffee, we went out into the riverside garden to join the fifty or so others already there who clearly had got up earlier than we had. The Severn must occasionally behave like a monster here because there’s a man-made dyke all along the banks, certainly as far as we could see. I can’t believe that it was put there to provide a viewing platform, so I’m guessing that there are times when the river reaches such heights that adjacent properties are threatened. It came in very useful though, and we waited on our elevated spot with patience and cold feet for the highlight of the season.
A man a few feet away from us had diligently set up his camera tripod resting on one of the tables, his wife looking on calmly until he decided to climb up onto the bench seat. They were slightly older than us and I crossed my fingers that administering first aid to someone with a fractured hip wasn’t about to become the most exciting event of the day.
Thankfully he didn’t fall, so he was in a great position to capture the magnificence of the phenomenon. I asked a Welsh-speaking mate the other day how I would say ‘Severn Bore’ in Welsh and the best he could come up with was ‘ton mawr y Hafren‘, which means ‘big wave of the Severn‘. All I can say is that the wave wasn’t big; as it turned out it was pretty half-hearted. Two surfers who’d made their way downriver after we’d arrived had disappeared around the bend and never returned. Either a tragedy had occurred that we’ll hear about on the news later or (more likely, judging by the feeble swell of water that passed us) they’d never got going in the first place.Excitement builds as the bore approaches…
…if you look closely you can see the ‘big wave’
Quickly uncrossing my fingers didn’t even give us the thrill of witnessing an old guy falling off a pub table, so we gave up and went back to the car. Never one to squander a day out I decided that we should move on to something better. I hadn’t done any homework though, so we sat in the car whilst I busily googled the English Heritage website. And oh, boy, did it come up with the goods.
This has been an interesting week for those of us who are dorks, as my husband charmingly puts it. The 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings has probably been noticed (please, tell me you did…) by most people in the UK. Well, maybe not Scotland or Ireland so much…and I know there are plenty of folk in Wales who let it pass them by, seeming to think that it was an affair that only affected England. Wrong. The Norman Invasion, whose success was cemented by the battle that took place on 14th October 1066, was a cataclysmic event that affected the entire British Isles, and those effects continue to influence our lives today. There were plenty of commemorative events taking place around Hastings, though experts can’t agree on the site of the hostilities. Maybe we should call it the Battle of Hastings-Or-Thereabouts? There was even a troupe of stalwarts who travelled from York to Hasting by horse and on foot, recreating the epic journey taken by Harold’s army as they travelled from their victory over invading Danes at Stamford Bridge to confront William the Bastard in Sussex. Harold, as we all know, was unsuccessful and was killed by an arrow in the eye (the traditional story), was hacked to pieces (the juicier version) or survived and ran away to live out the rest of his days on the border between England and Wales ( the fairy-tale).The Bayeux Tapestry announcing the death of Harold: et ceciderunt qui erant cum Haroldo. Hic Harold Rex interfectus est (…and those who were with Harold fell. Here King Harold was killed). So is Harold the fellow holding the arrow that’s poking out of his eye? Or the unfortunate soul being trampled beneath a horse’s hooves and about to be chopped up by a Norman sword? Or did he escape, but the Tapestry – which is a piece of propaganda, after all – doesn’t portray the truth?
In our time of global, instant communication and awareness it’s impossible to appreciate the mindset of the ordinary Anglo-Saxon in 11th century England. The influx of powerful, violent strangers speaking an incomprehensible tongue and bringing a horde of new customs would have been terrifying. One of the least troublesome consequences (less so than the annilhilation of Saxon nobility, the persecution of English culture, the change in language, the upheaval in the legal system, the different practice of the common religion, the dread of the new, omnipotent overlords…) of the regime was the architecture that they introduced. Thanks to the invaders we have, dotted around the countryside, existing examples of this revolutionary change. It almost makes me warm to them.
All of which means that this morning we were able to visit what is probably the most stunning church I’ve ever seen. That may seem a doozy of a statement – my previous favourite was the Pantheon in Rome, and I’ve wandered open-mouthed around cathedrals in a dozen or so European countries, as well as our own. But not one of them had the impact of the Church of St Mary in Kempley, Gloucestershire. I say in Kempley, but actually it’s a fair step out of the village, languishing in a lane surrounded by farmland.
Built by one of the de Lacy family in the early part of the 11th century, the likelihood is that it stands on the site of an earlier Saxon building – demonstrating once again the Norman penchant for taking over – and sticks to the simple Saxon floorplan with a rectangular nave and no aisle. Everywhere there’s evidence of Norman decorative stonework, with carved doorways and windows. And then there’s the icing-on-the-cake-and-cherry-on-the-top in the form of 12th century frescoes painted on the walls. I can honestly say that when I first went inside the sight and feel of the place took my breath away.Looking up the nave to the chancel, through the carved stone arch
The painted walls and ceiling of the chancel
The Wheel of Life, a 15th century fresco on the north wall of the nave
Looking back down the nave to the tower, a 13th century addition
Honestly, I could have stayed inside for hours if someone had brought me a sandwich and cup of tea. As it was, we left the Church of St Mary to its peace and quiet and went off to reaffirm our dislike of the nasty Normans by visiting Goodrich Castle, just south of Ross-on-Wye.
Originally called Godric’s Castle (because it was built by Godric Mappestone) it began as a simple wooden fort on top of a motte in the 1090s. The earliest part of the stone ruins is the keep, probably built in 1160-70; the rest of the extensive buildings were added over the next three hundred years by various owners, one of whom was the infamous William de Valence in the 13th century.Goodrich Castle sitting on its rocky outcrop, with the central 12th century keep surrounded by de Valence’s costly aditions, the height of military fashion at the time of construction
The view from just outside the gatehouse
The 12th century keep
Anyone even slightly interested in medieval history will know that in a bunch of ruthless, violent, treacherous men he was up there with the worst. He was uncle to Edward I (who I heard described the other day as a psychopath and I have to agree with that!) and was almost universally hated for his greed and general unpleasantness. He’s buried in Westminster Abbey and their website somewhat hilariously describes him as ‘soldier and philanthropist‘.
We took about an hour to explore the castle, accompanied by an audio-guide which was useful and free. It’s much better than wandering aimlessly around these sites where, to be fair, everything looks the same. By the time we got back to the gatehouse after the circular tour my phone battery had died which meant that I couldn’t take any more pictures. To everyone’s relief, I’m sure.
Instead we went off to the café for hot chocolate and cakes.
Victorious Normans chasing fleeing Saxons from the battlefield
“I have persecuted its native inhabitants beyond all reason. Whether gentle or simple, I have cruelly oppressed them; many I unjustly inherited; innumerable multitudes, especially in the county of York, perished through me by famine or the sword”
William the Conqueror, talking about his treatment of the English people shortly before his death in 1087