Last week we made another trek to London. This time we drove, and although three of us went only two came back; because much to our delight (and terror…in equal measures…) Alex had found herself a job in a museum in the big smoke. I think she’s been aiming for this career since childhood when she first became enamoured of the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff; looking back there was a definite sign in the oft-repeated request “Can we go to my favourite museum, please?” I’m crossing my fingers that she’ll be happy and that work in the heritage sector will be all she’s ever hoped it would be. Any move to a new place is full of challenges and London can be particularly tricky, but luckily Lizzie and Katie are already in the city, which sort of helps to calm our nerves a bit.
As Alex is going to be living on her sisters’ sofa for a while we didn’t need to transfer all of her worldly belongings, so she just took a suitcase of her clothes plus laptop etc. Even so we decided to go by car rather than train and, ever on the lookout for a different route to London, this time we decided to travel via Stonehenge – somewhere we’d never been. Which is quite astonishing because it must be near the top of any list of ‘things to see’ in the UK. Added to that, Alex’s degree is in Ancient History so I felt that we’d deprived her somehow! We’ve driven past the site before, with Michael unable to do more than cast a quick glance, and me staring whilst twisting my neck like an owl and muttering that we must go there sometime. So finally we did.
We set off from home at about 9am on what turned out to be one of those glorious, crisp, clear days to which January sometimes treats us. It seemed somehow fitting that to reach Stonehenge we were driving eastwards, towards the rising sun. We had to tolerate the M4 for a little while but then we pointed the car south and drove through Wiltshire in the direction of Salisbury Plain. Satisfyingly from this direction you get to the Visitor Centre from the wrong side – or the right side, really. From there you can’t see the monument at all, as it’s a mile and a half to the east and reached by shuttle bus. It’s almost a surprise when you get your first glimpse of the stones across the open landscape! Of course you can walk this way rather than take the transport provided, and normally I’d have preferred to do just that, but it was sooo cold out there! I’d forgotten my hat and even walking the hundred yards or so from the car park I’d felt as though my ears were going to succumb to frost bite…so it was the bus for us, I’m afraid.Looking across from the carpark
The site wasn’t too crowded due to the time of year and the fact that it was a school day, and we were able to get a real eyeful of the ancient rocks. Experts (plenty of them) still argue about the original reason for the stones having been erected, though they seem to be in agreement about the dates and the various physical alterations that have been made. I suppose it’s entirely possible that the thing fulfilled different purposes at different times – the folk who built it nearly 5,000 years ago no doubt had a specific purpose in mind but the people who made changes to its layout over the next 1,500 years or so may well have used it for something different. And who knows what it’s been through since – there was apparently a local shopkeeper in the sixties who supplemented his income by hiring out hammers to anyone who wanted to go and hack a chunk of one of the monoliths!
Whatever it was meant to be or came to mean, Stonehenge is an awesome sight – and site. In the Visitor Centre one wall displayed the timeline of the henge against various landmarks in world history. It was a good place to be last Friday, 20th January 2017; after all, in comparison to five millenia what’s four years?
Having satisfied our main ambition for the day we decided that as we had time on our hands we’d visit Salisbury. The city was smaller than I expected but the cathedral was everything it was meant to be – large, ornate and overwhelming. It was begun in 1220 and mostly completed by 1258, an astonishing feat for the time. It boasts the tallest spire in the country, the oldest working clock in the world and one of four extant copies of Magna Carta.
As with many other (but not all) cathedrals there also plenty of effigies: the usual stone armour clad knights, dozinging bishops, and some brightly painted couples slumbering through eternity together:
There were also two examples of ‘cadaver tombs’ which show the emaciated figure of the deceased. This was a new one on me – they are quite grotesque and apparently only the most wealthy individuals could afford them. Who knows why? The medieval mindset was very different from ours…Cadaver tomb of Thomas Bennett, one time secretary to Cardinal Wolsey
We wandered from the cathedral into the Chapter House, where the monks would hold their daily meetings, and which now houses King John’s famous charter. Typically, we weren’t able to see Magna Carta because it was having its annual brushup; if we’d come the very next day it would have been back out in its glass case. So instead we peered at the very nice copy that had been displayed and at the carvings around the walls, showing scenes of peasant life from the 13th century:
These remind me of Edith Pargeter’s trilogy The Heaven Tree, about a young mason building a church in the middle ages (my nurdiness coming through again); if you’ve never read it and enjoy old-fashioned writing then I recommend it, but I warn you that it’s one of the saddest stories I’ve ever read and at more than one point I howled uncontrollably. If you’re the type of person who relishes books like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and you watch TV programmes such as The Walking Dead then it’s probably not for you…
We went back out into the sunshine and, after a restorative cup of hot chocolate, meandered back through Salisbury for a while. There are some quaint (I dislike that word, but it does the job) streets and shops in the area around the cathedral and one of them was a shop selling handmade fudge which had a very recognisable shape in the window:
We resisted the fudge and caught the bus back to the Park & Ride, glad we’d taken the time to fit Salisbury into our exhausting schedule. The way to London involved some motorway driving but it was troublefree and we arrived at Lizzie and Katie’s flat whilst they were still at work. We really must get a spare key!
The following morning we woke up to another gorgeous day:Some smog but a pretty good day. The view from the flat on Saturday morning, looking north towards the Thames
We were out and about reasonably early. I had a ticket to an exhibition at the V & A which my entire family thought was stunningly boring – English Medieval Embroidery. You may agree…I though it was fantastic! The others explored some random floors of the museum and I came out of the exhibition in time to meet them at the ‘Great Bed of Ware’.
This very famous bed was made for an inn at Ware, Hertfordshire, at the end of the 16th century. It’s a huge four-poster – almost twelve feet square – and above the base of rush and hemp there are three separate mattresses. It was a celebrity even in its own time. A German prince, Ludwig of Anholt-Kohten, wrote in 1596: “At Ware was a bed of dimensions so wide, Four Couples might cosily lie side by side, and thus without touching each other abide“. Well, Ludwig didn’t know the half of it; The Bed soon began to attract people of a more – shall we say, mischievous nature, and groups would book a night in The Bed for a wager or a lark. It was probably a bit like the Tudor equivalent of student pranks today – or one of those things on a to-do list, like a hike up Pen-y-Fan or a trip on the London Eye.
The impressive Great Bed of Ware
Shakespeare gives The Bed a name-check in Twelfth Night and it’s mentioned in plenty of other popular and bawdy tales through the 17th century. Surely its most memorable night was in 1689, when according to a story in The London Chronicle written in 1765, a party of 26 butchers and their wives spent a night in The Bed for a wager. This has to be a joke, surely? Unless all 52 of them were sitting upright, wedged in against each other?
One way or another, The Bed has seen plenty of activity and many of its occupants have left graffiti on the headboard and posts. I have to say, it looked extremely comfortable! We eventually dragged ourselves away from it and went across to the Natural History Museum. A piece of advice here – do not go to the National History Museum or the Science Museum on a Saturday lunchtime. Walk as quickly as you can in the opposite direction. I think someone had scooped up every child in London and delivered them there last Saturday and we lasted ten minutes before we dug ourselves out.The Natural History Museum, South Kensington
We weren’t able to go back to the flat until later because Katie had organised afternoon tea for us all at Muriel’s Kitchen, partly to celebrate Alex’s new job but also her birthday which is at the end of next week. This was meant to be a surprise so we dawdled along the streets to the Kyoto Gardens at Holland Park. Lizzie told us that this is Joanna Lumley’s favourite park in London and who am I to argue?Kyoto Gardens, Holland Park
The tea was a great success and a very reasonably priced treat for you if you’re ever in that part of the capital. The tube station was crowded, as usual, and after an evening which included a trip to the pub and then far too long playing board games, we were glad to fall into bed. The next day the weather wasn’t quite so kind and London, like the rest of the south of England, was in the grip of freezing fog. We hauled ourselves across to The RAF Museum in north London, which was fascinating, before going home to Brixton. Lizzie had stayed home and was more than a little bit cross when she found out that we’d all eaten a snack on the train; there she was with the table laid and a roasted chicken and vegetables all ready to go. She was absolutely right to be mad at us, of course. Unforgivable. The view from the flat – not so sunny on Sunday morning
On Monday Michael and I left at about 8am, leaving as the girls were getting ready for work – including of course, Alex, who was about to start the first day at her new job. It took us ten minutes to scrape the ice from the car windscreen and the fog was so thick that we didn’t realise we were out of London for a while. This time we were heading for Winchester, figuring that as we’d done one cathedral city on the outward journey we should match that on the way back.Clapham Common in the fog
Winchester was delightful – without wishing to cause offence to anyone from Salisbury, I much preferred it, both the city and the cathedral. Although the weather was cold and grey, we decided straight away that we’d like to go back sometime for a longer visit. We even paid to go into the cathedral, which is very unusual for a couple of skinflints like us. But my goodness, it was worth it. St Swithun’s Cathedral doesn’t just take your money but throws in a guided tour by a very well-informed volunteer. The nave had also been emptied of chairs for its annual cleaning and so we were able to have an unimpeded view of the area – though it was very noisy due to the 200 school children who were sprawled at the western end, drawing and filling out work-sheets. The collective chatter of hundreds of primary school children echoing through an empty gothic nave is a unique sound, and one to be avoided if at all possible.The nave, looking towards the Quire
There are so many treasures at St Swithun’s – including the early Norman transept and the most stunning expanse of 13th century floor tiles I’ve ever seen. Jane Austen’s tomb is here (in the north aisle of the nave) as well as that of the Saint himself, but this wasn’t his first resting place. Originally buried in the grounds, he was brought indoors to the Old Minster (which was then standing on this site) on 15th July 971. He’d left instructions on his deathbed that his body should be buried out of doors…where it might be subject to the feet of passers-by and to the raindrops pouring from on high… but as is often the case, some other person at some other time decided differently. Swithun’s remains were taken apart (his head went to Canterbury cathedral and other bits went to various other shrines) and most of his bones were interred in the new cathedral in 1093. There are plenty of ideas here for the source of the legend of St Swithun – that if it rains on his feast day then it’ll continue to rain for forty days and nights – so take your pick but disappointingly there are other European saints who cause similar downpours.
There are various caskets of medieval bones hanging around, including those of the despised William II of England – William Rufus,son of William the Conqueror, who was allegedly assassinated in the New Forest whilst out hunting.The Norman transept, the oldest part of the cathedral
The 13th century floor tiles
The font dates from 1150 and shows a carving of the legend of St Nicholas and the Three Daughters, said to be the origin of the custom of Santa Claus leaving gifts on Christmas Eve
Carvings in the Quire – a Green Man
In all, I have to say that St Swithun’s in Winchester has taken its place at the top of my list of cathedrals. It is absolutely glorious and even if you don’t share my obsession with these great buildings, it’s worth making an exception for this one if you’re ever in the area.
We resisted the temptation to stay longer and paid a brief visit to the Great Hall with its mock round table before walking to the Park & Ride bus stop opposite the statue of Alfred the Great. Still determined to avoid motorways wherever possible, we found our way to the A303 and – guess what? We drove past Stonehenge again! So after managing to miss out for our entire lives until now, we eventually saw it twice in a matter of days.
Try not to have a good time – this is supposed to be educational