Friday, 21 September 2012

Dorchester-on-Thames or Bus(co)t

Having visited St Mary's Church in Fairford with its stunning mediaeval glass and Kelmscott Manor back in the summer, yesterday saw Part II of our Oxfordshire jaunt (except Fairford is in Gloucestershire, but only just). 

On the way to pick up Jules, Dru and I stopped off at Uffington to see if we could get a better glimpse of the prehistoric White Horse than last time, which we did.  However, we decided that we still need to get better acquainted with it, so a walk to it and to the neolithic long barrow at nearby Wayland's Smithy looks to be in the offing over the next few months.

Once reunited with Joolz and refreshed with coffee and pies, Dorchester Abbey was our first port of call, and in case you're thinking hang on, Dorchester isn't in Oxfordshire either, it's situated in Dorchester-on-Thames.  So, no Thomas Hardy heritage trails or memorial tea shops, though it was all very picturesque.
 

Dorchester Abbey is the former Abbey Church and is full of beautiful things.  There's the entrance door for a start, with its spectacular hinges.  
And the lead font of 1140, which is carved with images of the apostles (barring Judas) and is apparently the only such font from a monastic Church to have survived the Dissolution of the Monasteries.  
Also surviving are these beautiful raspberry-coloured murals of 1340 in the People's Chapel.  In fact, Dorchester's Abbey Church seems to have emerged from the Reformation remarkably unscathed.  For this we need to be grateful to a local worthy, Sir Richard Bewfforeste, who paid King Henry VIII the value of the lead roof (the huge sum of £140), thus saving the Church for the local community to use. 
I also LOVED the Tree of Jesse window, another survival from 1340 and here seen from the outside because ... it looks like a tree!  Genius!   
Can't possibly describe everything there was to marvel at, although I can't not mention the gravestone of poor Sarah Fletcher who hanged herself in 1799, after turning up at and putting a stop to the bigamous marriage of her husband to a wealthy heiress.  She is buried in the nave, unusually for a suicide, and the cause of her death is given as 'excessive sensibility'.   

(And just look at the beautiful mediaeval tiles next to her. Some solace, surely.)  


On our way to Buscot we detoured to pick some sloes (for sloe gin, naturally) and blackberries - these to add to the crab apples Dru and I had scrabbled after in the road near the White Horse.  Hasn't been a good fruiting year this year, so we have to make the most of what we can get our hands on.


Buscot was exactly how I'd imagined and not my cup of tea at all, but for the Burne Jones murals depicting the Legend of the Briar Rose in the saloon.  (These, of course, are why we'd gone there.)  The rest of the room was horrid - it had the most tasteless chandelier I think I've ever seen, and nasty, uncomfortable-looking furniture - but they were sublime, if poorly lit.  

Had to feel a bit sorry for Burne Jones, and Morris, who penned some poetry to accompany the paintings, who would have had to see their work in such unsympathetic surroundings.



 There was a catholic collection of art, some parts of which I liked a lot, and the walled garden was beautiful although I can't say I'm a fan of landscape gardens.  
The opulence was just overwhelming, which made the following fresco in the swimming pool pavilion all the more surprising.  For it turns out that 2nd Baron Faringdon was a Labour MP.  Known for his 'effeminate demeanour', he once opened a debate in the House of Lords by saying 'my dears' instead of 'my Lords'.  As if that wasn't enough to make you love him, he served in a field hospital in Aragon during the Spanish Civil War, later giving a home to 40 Spanish child-evacuees and other exiles.  A pacifist, he saw service in the London Fire Brigade during the second world war.  

On the way home, Dru and I realised that we'd omitted to visit the Church in the village of Buscot, the east window of which was designed by Burne Jones (yes, him again).  But as it's close to Uffington, we can doubtless pop in on our next jaunt.  


Thanks to Dru and Jules for their company on such a wonderful day out.





Saturday, 15 September 2012

Staddle Stones

Off to Priston near Bath today to see me old mucker, Reg Meuross, who was playing this year's festival on the village green.  But first a little diversion to the Church of St Luke and St Andrew ... which was padlocked shut, boo hiss.  Though I suppose it's sensible when the village is flooded with outsiders and attention is focused elsewhere.


I did see the panel above the door which reads 'Priston repent and believe the gospel. Thomas Watts Preacher of the word of God Departed ye world the 20th November 1589 ...
... but not the ancient stone coffin inside, which was found in a nearby field in 1917.  Apparently it housed the body of a woman with bronze bracelets on each of her arms.  Lamentably, some of the hundreds of sightseers at the time threw stones at the coffin, which had already been damaged by a pickaxe during its excavation, and broke the lid.  It is said that they confused 'Roman' for 'Roman Catholic'.  Hmmmm.  Ah well, it's not too far away for a return visit.
After an excellent pint of Bounders Cider and an excellent gig by Reg, we wandered back up towards the church where I'd spotted something extraordinary earlier.  A set of staddle stones not lining the drive of some rich toff but actually doing what staddle stones were designed for and that is holding aloft a granary.  Except, its owner informed us from the other side of the garden wall, it's known as the apple store, and we agreed that it seems odd to go to so much trouble to store apples away from vermin, as opposed to the precious and vulnerable grain harvest.

The store, which dates from the 17th/18th century is in a perilous state of repair, despite the fact that it is a Grade II listed building.  Unfortunately listed status doesn't mean that there are funds forthcoming to preserve it for posterity.  I could only suggest rather lamely that maybe the owner should approach the National Trust, as I'd never seen anything quite like this - a bit of local Somerset vernacular that surely merits intervention.


We were even allowed up the beautiful worn steps to have a poke around inside, where we heard the sad story of a previous owner who used it to store her coal, and who, one night, went outside to collect some for her fire, only for a barrel of cider to roll on top of her.  She died of her injuries shortly afterwards.    
Despite the warning inherent in such a sad fate, I determined that such a place would be an excellent writing space.  If I don't get a narrowboat or a Romani caravan - you know, when my ship comes in - I think I might settle for an apple store on staddle stones in a secluded village in the south-west of England.  
Here's some pictures of Reg to finish off with,  doing what Reg does best ...


... despite an occasionally less than attentive front row audience ... 








Friday, 14 September 2012

A Pile of Old Stones

I had a two hour window of opportunity while Son the Elder was tea partying in Salisbury today, so I bundled him out of the car and belted up the road to Stonehenge.  

The facilities at this World Heritage Site are as down as heel as ever, although work has apparently started on the inordinately long-awaited 'state-of-the-art Visitors' Centre'.

You do have to wonder about the wisdom of the prehistoric people who chose this site, however - I mean, why so close to the A344 AND the A303?
Actually, considering the stones are supposed to have come from the Preseli Hills, 180 miles away, they missed a trick.  They could have just schlepped them down to Saundersfoot, sailed them across the Bristol Channel, then up the Rivers Torridge and Okement and they'd only have been a stone's throw (so to speak) from Dartmoor.  Which already has lots of stone circles and rows of its own.  You can go up there in August and not see a soul all day.  How much more atmospheric would that have been?   :-)  


As it is, you're no longer allowed to touch the stones, or even go within twenty feet of them.  I have a clear memory of climbing on them as a very young child, and being overwhelmed by their size and age.  My kids never got the chance to do that, thanks to the intolerance and spite of the loathsome Margaret Thatcher, although since 1999 there is access at the solstices and equinoxes.

I wonder if Constable or Turner would have included a No Entry sign if they were painting or sketching Stonehenge today?  And where would Hardy have Tess arrested for the murder of Alec d'Urberville?  In the queue for the toilets?
  


U A Fanthorpe ends her brilliant poem about the stone circles at Stanton Drew with the following lines:

Stand inside the circle. Put
Your hand on stone. Listen
To the past's long pulse.

And I'm tempted to say, how can you get a feel of a place when you can't touch it?  And yet ... there they were, crowds of people wandering; chatting in at least a dozen different languages; listening, rapt, to their audio guides and, less attentively, to their teachers; and posing for countless photos.  Everyone, it seemed, wanted proof that they'd been there, and surely they wouldn't if they had no sense of the exceptional nature of this place.

And me?  Well, I was totally beguiled, even though I've been there more than a few times.  It doesn't seem to matter how much you are herded and monitored, Stonehenge still works its magic.  Standing before those stones in their varying configurations is like jemmying open the door to the past and realising that you are standing on the edge of a precipice.  Whooooaaaa!  What's this about then?








Thursday, 13 September 2012

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Scratchy Brown Blankets and the Case of the Missing No 1

On the way to London on the weekend, Cathy and I diverted to drop a carload of Daughter Number 2's  belongings off  in her new abode and take her out to lunch.  We eventually settled on Hughenden in High Wycombe as a suitable destination, but before we hit the National Trust café, we stopped off in the Church of St Michael and all Angels, otherwise known as 'the Church in the Park', which is just inside the Manor gates.    

I felt a bit disappointed when I saw that it was almost entirely a Victorian rebuild, with the only parts of the original church still standing having been extensively 'restored' by the Victorians, but actually it was very lovely inside, being richly but tastefully decorated in the Gothic style. 




There were various items of interest in the church, including a rather finely sculpted memento mori, presumably of a priest as it is heavily graffitied with consecration crosses.  In a hollow in its chest there is a tiny figure of a man, supposed to symbolise the immortality of the soul.   And like the Delphic Charioteer before him and Peter Finch after, he has very beautiful feet.  




I suspect the casual visitor is supposed to marvel at what is billed as the only memorial in Britain set up by a reigning monarch to one of her subjects - ie Victoria to Benjamin Disraeli, for whom she apparently had the hots - but I was more interested in this beautiful and simple Early English font.  



Best of all, I liked the original church key, which is on display at the back of the church.  The purpose of the small iron ring incorporated in the design?  Well, it was for use during the wedding services of impoverished villagers who couldn't afford to buy one.  

Then, after a cursory glance at the Disraeli family grave in the churchyard and a wholesome and very reasonable lunch in the cafe, we went into the Manor. 


I didn't like the house at all, finding it very ugly and oppressive.  I also felt increasingly uneasy about Disraeli as we went around and he revealed himself to be a philandering and manipulative man of ambition who referred to women as possessions, idolised Byron and filled his rooms with portraits and busts of himself.  Ugh.  


I did like these light switches, though.
Far more fascinating to me was the basement, which houses a museum dedicated to the time during the Second Word War when Hughenden served as a secret intelligence base.  

I'm always taken aback by how nostalgic I feel for an era which ended 16 years before I was born.  I suppose it's testament to how deeply it affected my parents and grandmother; also to their relative impoverishment, since so many of the artefacts on display were so familiar.  It was all utility furniture and make do and mend in my 60s childhood, not swivel chairs and Habitat chicken bricks.
 

I remember these godawful camp beds; Cathy claims she still has two in her attic.  And those horrible scratchy brown blankets!


At least this one has the decency to be in the dog basket.


'Have you 2 or more children in your family? If so, remind your wife to ask at the Post Office for a claim form for family allowances'
This poster reminds me of my sojourn in the Soviet Union.  All very Socialist Realist.


No escape from government propaganda ... 


My mum still has knitting needles like these in her extensive collection.  



... and we had a very similar gramophone in a cabinet, though my parents' lifestyle wasn't racy enough for a whisky decanter.  
There was a Singer sewing machine, obviously ...


... and I learnt to touch-type on a typewriter like this.  (Daughter No 2 wanted to know why there was no number 1. Answer is because you used the lower case letter l.)  




Outside we had a wander around the grounds and a nice sit down and admired the scarecrow in the walled garden before adjourning for another pot of tea.






A bit of a patchy visit then, but no matter we were off to see Leonard Cohen at Wembley ... but that's another blog.