Seduced by Salisbury (Part 1)

Salisbury Cathedral Tower Tour
[ If you follow along on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter you may have caught my trip to Salisbury this past weekend — I am reposting it on the MissElaineous Blog to make it easier for everyone to access. ]

I have a confession to make. Narrow, winding stairs are my kryptonite. I don’t know what it is about them, but my eyes and feet begin to argue and I find it difficult to keep putting one foot in front of another. So it may surprise you that I chose to start my day with a climb up the 332 stairs of Salisbury Cathedral to the top of the tower. Quite a few of the stairs were narrow, and there was definitely a lot of winding, but the views it provided were simply out of this world. I have been fortunate to visit cathedrals across the UK, but I have never seen one from this perspective before.

It wasn’t just the incredible views from the top that kept me going, although they were spectacular. The opportunity to see behind-the-scenes of a 13th century cathedral helped me appreciate the time and effort it took to create such a structure, and it made me think far more about the builders who have laboured on it over the centuries so that we can enjoy it today. In particular, volunteer guide John Mangan provided a wonderfully informative narrative throughout the climb about the history, the architecture, and the people who have influenced the cathedral over the years. I could also go on for pages about this fascinating past, from Old Sarum to Wyatt the Destroyer, but I’ll finish up for now by saying that if you have a chance to do the Salisbury Cathedral Tower Tour (and have a head for heights/stairs) – go.

From the cathedral MrElaineous and I headed to Fisherton Mill. This is an oasis in the heart of the city, set in a 19th century grain mill and now composed of a gallery, café, and studio space. The café part of it serves delicious food and cakes; MrElaineous is still raving about how good the proper coffee was, and I wished we lived just a bit closer so I could enjoy their brownies on a regular basis. The artists’ studios on the upper level allow you to see creativity in action, and I really enjoyed seeing the current exhibition (on until 1st September). “Recreate” showcases art made from recycled materials and, wearing my Off the Ground hat, I thought this was a great way to encourage people to look at waste in a new light. MrElaineous and I are already thinking of coming back to do a bit of Christmas shopping later in the year, and I definitely recommend it if you’re interested in giving unique gifts while supporting local artisans.

Salisbury High Street

We returned through the centre of Salisbury, enjoying the colourful umbrellas over the High Street and lovely flower displays, before winding up at the The Salisbury Museum. As a former archaeologist, I’m ashamed to say I have never been here before, but it is a must-see location for the artefacts from Stonehenge and other sites across Wiltshire. The newer Wessex Gallery in particular was a wonderful way to step back in time and, donning my archaeological interpretation hat, the colour-coded timelines were an excellent method to tell the story of the past in a clear way. I especially enjoyed having the chance to “meet” the Amesbury Archer and see the Pitt-Rivers maps, but all of the artefacts are fascinating in their own way. Jumping ahead to the 20th century, the Henry Lamb art exhibition was a real bonus; it’s not often that you can see how an artist’s style has changed over time, and his documentation of both World Wars and the time between make for interesting viewing.

Returning to the beautiful Legacy Rose and Crown in the afternoon, MrElaineous and I had the opportunity to see the river from a different perspective with Salisbury Punting. This was the absolute perfect way to unwind and chill out: although we could still see the spire of Salisbury Cathedral, it felt like we were a million miles from the city centre. Indeed, with sheep watching us from the riverbanks, we could have been in a completely different century! After that spot of relaxation, it was time to watch the sunset over the river during dinner.

And that was only Day 1! Check back later this week for a jam-packed second day, or please consider signing up for the mailing list to have the most recent blog post delivered directly to your inbox (and get a free eBook as a thank you!)

Making the Past Present (Part 2)

Trellech, Wales
[ PART 1 ] [ PART 2 ]

We are all time travellers. We just happen to be moving towards the future at the pace of one day at a time. But the past is all around us and, with the help of the right person, it’s possible to find it. John Swann of the Travelling History Company is one of those people whose enthusiasm for the subject can bring history (and pre-history) to life no matter where you happen to be.

This was made clear during our stop at the 16th-century Lion Inn in Trellech (or Trelleck or Trelech or Treleck … take your pick on the spelling), where we enjoyed a cold drink and pored over some of the artefacts John brought with him. Whether as part of his educational programmes at schools or on field-based excursions like this one, John said he is a believer in the power of authentic artefacts. And I have to say I agree: there is just something about handling a genuine piece of the past. Whether a coin from the time of Claudius or a bronze axe head, it always piques my curiosity to imagine the long journey it’s been on to get to the present.

Upon leaving the Lion, we crossed the street to investigate the church of St. Nicholas. The first thing you notice about the church is its size: it seems inordinately large for what appears to be a rather small village. The majority of the construction dates to around 1300 when Trellech was one of the largest towns in Wales, and today the church is considered a well-preserved example of medieval architecture. This historic preservation extends to the churchyard itself, where it’s possible to see the medieval preaching cross—a meeting place and suitable platform for delivering sermons—and an earlier Saxon altar stone.

One interesting item moved inside for safekeeping is a 17th-century sundial that displays Trellech’s ancient landmarks: the mound of the Tump Terret, the enclosure of the Virtuous Well, and Harold’s Stones, a trio of standing stones that give the village its name (tri = three; llech = flat stone). It was these monuments that we set out to explore next.

 

Tump Terret, Trellech Castle, Wales

The first of which, Tump Terret, is also known as Trellech Castle. Although it may not look like much today, it was once a motte-and-bailey castle constructed by the Normans sometime before 1231. The motte is the mound, on top of which would have been constructed a wooden or stone fortification known as the keep. The bailey was an enclosed courtyard adjacent to the motte and would contain the buildings necessary to service the keep, such as kitchens, stables, and forges. The Normans brought castle building to England with their invasion of 1066, and it’s strange to think that an architectural style that is practically synonymous with Britain was actually a European import.

Next up was Harold’s Stones, three large rocks aligned in a field. They take their name from King Harold, the last Saxon king of the 11th-century, and legend says they mark the spot where three Celtic chieftains were buried after he slayed them in battle. Another tale attributes them to the mythical giant Jack of Kent, who threw them from a nearby mountain to their present location after a contest with the devil.

Harold's Stones, Trellech, Wales

The reality is far more interesting—if murkier—than either of these stories. The stones are dated to the Bronze Age and predate Harold by a good few thousand years. They are made of a local stone called puddingstone, which takes its name from its resemblance to Christmas pudding. But instead of raisins and cakey goodness, it is composed of rounded pebbles set in sandy sediment that has hardened like cement. John pointed out how these particular stones had quartz inclusions that made the stones sparkle and shine when the light hit them just right. Could this have been one of the reasons they were chosen by the residents of Trellech nearly 3,500 years ago?

The ultimate reason behind their construction, however, is lost in the mists of time. Many monuments of this type are supposed to be a calendar, aligning with the summer or winter solstice, but that’s not very clear at Trellech. John suggested a few other theories, such as they were used to bring communities together—after all, the amount of work that goes into moving and raising monoliths could certainly trigger community unity in the same way military boot camps foster team cohesiveness today. But I have to admit that I also liked one of the slightly more abstract possibilities, that they were used to serve as a distinguishing landmark and give the place an identity.* And, of course, there is no reason that there couldn’t be multiple reasons for their creation.

Virtuous Well, Trellech, Wales

We finished off the day at the Virtuous Well, which is dedicated to St. Anne and has been used since antiquity to seek miracle cures. This summer’s drought conditions meant the water that usually bubbles up and flows from the well was no more than a trickle, and so we could enter the enclosure and settle in on the low seat to cool off and enjoy the surrounding landscape. Studies have shown that the water is high in iron, so it is probably no surprise that the people who drank from it felt better!

As for us, it was a great place to rest for a moment and reflect on the day. While our starting point of Chepstow Castle was the stereotypical view of the medieval past, it is sites like Lancaut that provide a real glimpse at how the majority of people lived and worked. In turn, Trellech shows the ebbs and flows of time, how large towns can be transformed into small villages, with ancient monuments serving as the constant upon which everything else revolves. Ultimately, I found this journey through the past a useful reminder that history is constantly around us—no time machine required.

If you’re looking for a fascinating day out—or would like to get your students or children out of textbooks to experience a hands-on approach to history—do check out the Travelling History Company website for more information. For those not based in the UK, you can follow along with John’s activities on Facebook. ]

Brand new research indicates that the people who used Stonehenge were from west Wales. Maybe the Welsh just had a thing for leaving standing stones at their settlements?

Trellech Location

 

It was suggested that I include a map to share the location of where I’m blogging about. If there is something else you think would improve the weekly blog posts, drop me a line and I’ll see what can be done. 

Making the Past Present (Part 1)

Chepstow Castle, Wales
PART 1 ] [ PART 2 ]

Car parks are not exactly known for having great views. Indeed, that is one of their defining characteristics: whether situated underground, in a multi-storey tower, or sandwiched between shops, they tend to prioritise function over form and practicality over aesthetics. So pulling into Chepstow’s Castle Dell car park was unexpected: as the view of a medieval castle fills up the windscreen, the past and the present begin to merge.

This made it the perfect launch point: MrElaineous and I were here to begin our own journey back in time, meeting up with John Swann of the Travelling History Company. We hopped into his History Machine, a converted camper van that served as our TARDIS for the day, with John as capable a guide as anyone who has ever piloted the famous blue box.

We started off in Lancaut, a deserted medieval village (DMV) along the banks of the River Wye. England has approximately 3,000 of these DMVs scattered across the landscape, and the reason for their abandonment varies. Many likely fell victim to the Black Death of the 1340s, when it’s estimated that 30-40% of the population were killed by plague.* If you ever have the opportunity to jump aboard a real time machine, this is a good period to avoid visiting. Other villages were likely turfed out by landlords who found it more profitable to convert ploughed fields to sheep pasture.

Lancaut sits on a peninsula of land in the Wye Valley, and it’s easy to see how this forested location surrounded by the River Wye has attracted people for millennia. John’s experienced eyes could read the landscape, and he pointed out the remains of an Iron Age fort that was over 2,000 years old. This fort was then recycled to form part of Offa’s Dyke, an 8th century construction attributed to King Offa and built to separate his kingdom of Mercia from the Welsh; the modern border of Wales and England still follows close to this ancient barrier. If you’re up for a long-distance walking challenge, you can follow the Offa’s Dyke Path for 177 miles through the Welsh Marches, a picturesque and historic borderland.

Iron Age Hill Fort, Wye Valley, Wales

Although we didn’t cover that distance with regards to mileage, we began to clock up the centuries. From the Iron Age to the age of Offa, we moved forward in time as we approached the village, stopping to investigate a lime kiln that sits along the path. Lime is made by heating up limestone, and it was used by people in the past for a variety of purposes: it was the primary binding ingredient in the mortars, renders, and plasters vital to the construction process; it could be turned into limewash to both decorate and protect buildings; it could even be applied to agricultural fields and pastures to reduce the acidity of the soil and provide plants and animals with important minerals. This particular kiln sat against a stone promontory, and it was easy to imagine the former residents of Lancaut chipping away at the limestone and adding it directly to the kiln to convert it into a necessary building material.

Yet today the buildings are long gone, and the only part of Lancaut village that remains is St. James’s Church. Although a 7th century monastery is believed to have been built on the site, the current church dates to the 12th century. John reported that there is some debate about its origins. It may have been founded by monks from the nearby Tintern Abbey. Or, according to botanical evidence, it may have been the site of a leper colony as a number of medicinal herbs were found here, including relevant non-native species. While I personally believe the former explanation is more likely, it does make you wonder what secrets might be lurking in DMVs across the country.

The tombstones in the church date to the 17th and 18th century, and we spent some time trying to decipher them. While much of the text was faded, heart shapes and spiral designs stood out. The spirals were likely supposed to represent an urn, a common motif of the time period, and hearts can represent love, the sacred heart, or love of God. Whatever the reason they were chosen, there is something special about connecting with the past through genuine artefacts and in the very landscape they were created. This is something the Travelling History Company specialises in and which we explored further over a pint at our next stop—a 16th century pub.

St. James Church, Wye Valley, Wales
Stay tuned for the next part of my time travel adventure to read about our journey to Trellech. It will be posted next Thursday, or consider signing up for the mailing list to have the most recent MissElaineous post emailed directly to you each week (and you’ll get a free eBook as a bonus!). If you’re already on the mailing list, thank you for your interest!  ]

Recent research has shown that rats have been unfairly blamed for centuries; instead, it was likely human lice and fleas that caused the quick spread of the bubonic plague at this time.

Life in Lavender

It is twenty-five miles between our house and MrElaineous’ hometown. Due to the “you-can’t-get-there-from-here” phenomenon, it takes us about an hour to drive there on winding country roads, which allows us to avoid the often grid-locked city of Bath, and instead takes us through picturesque towns like Bradford-on-Avon and small villages such as Faulkland.

I hadn’t paid much attention to Faulkland before, and there were only a few things that stuck in my mind when thinking about it. The first was architectural: one of the first buildings you drive past is the Faulkland Wesleyan Chapel. Although now converted into a private house, the unusual architecture of it is due to its origins as a Nonconformist (i.e. non-Church of England) church. Then there was the small village green, with two signs that I had read but not necessarily registered. One pointed to a lavender farm, the other was hand-written and cautioned drivers to mind their speed: “SLOW DUCKLINGS!!!!!”

It wasn’t until my Instagram feed began to fill up with shots of gorgeous lavender from across the south of France that it dawned on me that a local lavender farm would be an ideal place to explore. And so this was how I recently found myself standing at the edge of a sea of purple, listening to the deep hum of bees and watching butterflies flit from flower to flower – too fast for me to photograph well, but too beautiful not to at least attempt it.

The place whose sign I had neglected for too long was Somerset Lavender and it made for a perfect morning out. There are two large lavender fields to circumnavigate, a flower garden that, during my visit at least, was absolutely bursting with colour, and a café and gift shop where you could sample culinary treats and purchase great smelling souvenirs. One of my favourite bits, however, was the lavender garden. Twenty species of lavender are planted side by side, allowing you to easily see the difference in colour and shape … and perhaps pick out a favourite for your own garden.

What surprised me most was that the lavender fields themselves didn’t have much of a scent. It wasn’t until the flowers were crushed between your fingers to release some of the oil that the classic fragrance wafted out. Despite this, the lavender plants were absolutely mobbed by bees, and if you’re interested in providing food for pollinators, any of the lavender varieties are a good choice.

At one point MrElaineous and I took an unexpected detour during our visit, accidently ending up outside of the farm at a small pond with adorable ducklings that couldn’t have been more than a few days old. The second sign now made sense and I completely understood the sign-maker’s fondness for exclamation marks. The cuteness of these ducklings was enough to reduce me to a quivering pile of “Awwwww”, and I do hope all drivers in Faulkland take it easy near the pond. [And, in a separate public service announcement, bread is bad for ducks.]

Duckling, Faulkland, England

While on our diversion, Tuppence Cottage also caught my eye. I am a collector of fun house names, but have to admit it was the sabre-toothed tigers guarding the gate that were more noticeable than the name itself. I’ve seen statues of lions and dogs, but these were a first for me!

My view of Faulkland changed over the few hours we spent there, fleshed out by experiencing it as living village rather than a simply a place to drive through while going from A to B. It was a useful reminder about giving places a chance to show you their colourful side and their quirkiness—and how you should stop to smell the lavender whenever you have the chance.

If you’re interested in stopping to smell the lavender yourself, please check out Somerset Lavender’s website for opening information. And it’s not just lavender … keep scrolling to see the lovely flower garden! ]
Dahlia, Somerset Lavender Farm

Delightful Devizes

Edwardian building in Devizes, Wiltshire (1912)

Sometimes travel planning can be a hassle: searching for the best price for flights, trying to find accommodation that meets all your criteria, or ensuring that what you want to see is actually open while you’re there. At other times, outings can fall into place at the touch of a button. In this particular case, that button was the Facebook refresh on MrElaineous’ mobile phone—it revealed that a friend was hosting an open garden event in the nearby town of Devizes that afternoon. We could easily squeeze it in after our Community Clean Up and before the England-Sweden match.

Devizes is a charming Wiltshire market town, one of many that we are fortunate to have in our neck of the woods. One of its claims to fame is being on the Kennet and Avon Canal. Which doesn’t seem to require that much fame, until you realise that the canal has to climb over 230 feet to take it to Devizes. As I’m sure you’re aware, water doesn’t flow uphill and a series of 29 locks were required to allow boats to climb to the appropriate level. At Caen Hill, this was taken to extremes and 16 locks can be found in a row.

Caen Hill Locks by Adrian Pingstone Photo credit: Caen Hill Locks by Adrian Pingstone (Public Domain)

The railways put an end to industrial canal transportation and this incredible feat of engineering fell into disuse for over a century. It took three decades of restoration to get it running again, but it is now possible to travel the Kennet and Avon Canal in a narrowboat. However, if you wish to do so to get to Devizes, consider yourself duly warned: it can take up to six hours to travel all 29 locks. [And, while I was in the middle of writing this post, someone had a little accident with the lock gates.]

We skipped the boat and went by car. While our initial plan was to have a walk along the canalside, we got slightly distracted in our exploration around the town centre. MrElaineous is quite familiar with Devizes since he performs there on a regular basis, but even he was stunned when we stumbled across the oldest part of the town, a row of 15th century buildings just off the main road. We intentionally drove to Ledbury in the Malverns to soak up history like this, and it was a pleasant surprise to find it in the very heart of our local patch.

This led to catching sight of a sign advertising an art trail, which in turn led us into one of the 15th century buildings and up to an incredible display of local photography by Stephen Davis. While some of the places featured in the artwork were familiar from my own Wiltshire wanderings, like the bluebells of West Wood or Japanese maples in Westonbirt, Stephen uses early morning light to turn Wiltshire into a wonderland. I admit that I felt equal parts admiration for his photographs and jealous of the incredible scenes he managed to capture.

From there we visited a second venue on the arts trail, one that happened to be run by a friend of MrElaineous. This is the multi-talented Bryony Cox, who not only treads the boards with White Horse Opera, but also paints stunning images from her travels around the world (as well as the ever-changing Wiltshire weather!). Her Unguarded Moment series in particular was a lovely look at people as they went about their day-to-day lives. Although the activities she depicts take place a world away from what we are familiar with, she captures the subject’s emotions and shared humanity in a touching way.

Bryony Cox Artist

Then it was on to the garden that kicked off this whole excursion, a participant in the National Garden Scheme.  This programme raises money for nursing charities through private gardens opening their gates to the public. People pay a donation, but get two things in return: the chance to experience lovely gardens that are otherwise hidden away and, potentially, to be inspired to do a bit of gardening themselves.

In many ways the National Garden Scheme is a prime example of peer-to-peer learning. National Trust gardens are beautiful to look at and explore, but can feel out of reach of the ordinary gardener. Open gardens, however, can belong to friends, neighbours, and otherwise regular people with a passion for plants. It’s easy to see their work and think, “If they can do that, so can I!”

National Garden Scheme Devizes

This particular back garden has been turned into a paradise for humans and wildlife alike. It’s the type of place you walk into and find yourself saying “Wow!” – not just because of the sheer riot of flowers, but because you feel like you’ve stepped from an ordinary suburban street into another world. During our visit everything was set off beautifully by the cloudless blue sky, and several types of butterflies made themselves at home flitting between the plants. One of my favourite spots was the pond with its pale yellow waterlilies and dainty blue forget-me-nots, where I caught sight of my first frog of the year as it quite sensibly retreated into the cool water. The trickling of a stream completed the picture and I didn’t want to leave.

But it was nearing kick-off time and so we headed back the way we came, leaving the canal to explore another time. The day that had started off with rubbish ended with an English victory … and was filled with some pretty remarkable sights in between.

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