• Down the Garden Path

    National Garden Scheme, Somerset

    Although I have lived in the UK for nearly 15 years, I am still discovering new things on a regular basis. One such recent discovery has been the National Garden Scheme. While I had been vaguely aware of their existence before, I have to admit I had never actually visited one of the participating properties. What a mistake that was!

    After visiting my first open garden earlier this summer, I was hooked: seeing how people had transformed their patch of land into an urban paradise was incredibly inspiring and photogenic—what’s not to like? The NGS website makes it easy to find any open garden in a given location, so after our trip to Somerset Lavender Farm, MrElaineous and I continued onwards to the nearest property.

    The journey along this road is one we make on a regular basis since it was the way back to his hometown. It is, dare I say it, a bit dull. But at a certain stop sign the SatNav advised us to proceed straight ahead instead of turning right along our usual route. We did as instructed and it was like the car had driven through a portal to Narnia or, at the very least, ye olde England.

    The winding road took us through picture-perfect villages, provided lovely vistas across fields, and, as we approached the village of Stratton-on-the-Fosse, we caught glimpses of a large church that seemed to have landed from outer space. I found out later that this was Downside Abbey Church and School, a Catholic boarding school and Benedictine monastery in the middle of the Somerset countryside.

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia Creative Commons

    The Fosse referred to in the village name is not a river, like in Stratford-upon-Avon, but rather the Fosse Way, the path of a Roman road that once cut a fairly straight line from Ilchester to Lincoln, a distance of over 180 miles. Fosse is Latin for ditch, and it’s thought that a defensive ditch once ran here after the Roman invasion of 43 AD to mark the western boundary of the Roman Empire. Today it serves as district or parish boundaries in places, and some modern roads still run along its path, including the one that carried us through Stratton, past Downside, and even deeper into unfamiliar territory.

    The garden that the NGS website was leading us towards was very different from the suburban garden we had explored in Devizes. The Fosse Way gave way to narrow country lanes, and we found arriving at our destination was no less magical than the journey that preceded it. Perched on a hillside with a smattering of houses in either direction, the venue boasted three gardens in one location: a modern garden designed around a period property; a formal garden that looked like it came from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; and a shady woodland walk.

    The modern garden was a labour of love developed by the householder over the past three years, and a photograph album showed the transition from an empty, muddy field to its current state. Large beds of bright flowers, a household vegetable patch, and cosy seating areas had been incorporated around a charming stone house, the combination of antique and modern working well together.

    National Garden Scheme, Somerset

    From there we drifted into the neighbour’s property, which revealed a carpet of green lawn and beautiful formal borders. The Queen of Hearts and her croquet game would not have been out of place – it was easy to imagine the same English garden scene appearing anytime over the past 150 years. A short walk then brought us to a bubbling brook at the bottom of the property, and on such a hot day it was a relief to enjoy a walk in the shade through a small woodland.

    I feel that there is a theme running through much of my writing this year, that of discovering new things practically in my own backyard. While technically further afield than Devizes or Bowood, this trip into Somerset was yet another good reminder that sometimes you need to step away from the established route and see where a new path can take you.

    Seduced by Salisbury (Part 2)

    Mosaic Heart, Salisbury Museum

    “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”

    This famous quote by writer L.P. Harley opens his novel The Go-Between, and I think it gets to the heart of why I enjoy history so much: it’s just like travelling, but in your imagination. There’s the same excitement of learning and discovery, of figuring out how things work, of finding similarities, and of celebrating differences.

    And, as with any foreign travel, it is often useful to have an interpreter to hand. Salisbury City Guides fits the bill admirably, and runs regular walking tours over the summer leaving from the Information Centre. This is where MrElaineous and I headed first thing in the morning to meet up with our guide, Diana. She was able to reveal a different side to the city, from colourful stories that may (or may not) have been true to landmarks that are long since gone. She also took us to visit places that weren’t even on our radar, like the incredible St Thomas’s Church. Throughout the tour we learned that every building in Salisbury comes with a ghost or three, which probably isn’t much of a surprise considering the city’s age!

    Some of the tales called to mind Terry Pratchett’s fictional city of Ankh-Morpork, and it was easy to picture him getting inspired by these vignettes of times gone by. Once a healthy dose of imagination and magic were added to the mix, you could see how a whole new world could develop, perhaps with great tower of Salisbury Cathedral serving as the model for the Unseen University—just with wizards instead of clergy sneaking over the walls!

    Upon leaving Diana in the Cathedral Close, we journeyed to the far more recent past, although still quite a foreign land to me as it involves British politics. Nearly directly across from Salisbury Cathedral sits Arundells, the home of former Prime Minister Sir Edward Heath. The house is more or less as he left it, and being surrounded by his collections of art and memorabilia made it feel like visiting the home of someone who had just popped out for a moment but was anticipated to return soon.

    Bringing the rooms to life even further were incredibly knowledgeable and friendly stewards who were happy to share information about the collection, architecture, and the man himself. There was also an opportunity to literally reach out and touch the past in a way that is seldom experienced when visiting historic properties. For example, I was able to sit in Sir Edward’s “teapot” chair in the library, so called because of its fabric pattern, but I could also easily imagine settling in with a cuppa as it was quite comfortable. MrElaineous was able to play the piano and test out the acoustics in the living room.

    Arundells, home of Sir Edward Heath, Salisbury
    Arundells, home of Sir Edward Heath, Salisbury

    Although the day was rather grey and overcast, the garden of Arundells was still a wonderful place to explore. Consisting of two acres of ground leading down to the river, it has to be one of the most tranquil places in all of Salisbury, with perhaps the best view of the cathedral itself. The back of the house also reveals the six different time periods that make up the property, ranging from the original medieval canonry to the 18th century Queen Anne style that gives the front façade its symmetrical dollhouse appearance.

    After viewing it, I wondered if this mix was perhaps a metaphor for Heath himself, who not only served as Prime Minister (1970-1974), but also put in 50 years as MP, became a world-class yachtsman, AND was a keen musician, conducting orchestras across the globe. And I thought I was juggling a lot of activities!

    Next up was a building literally around the corner, the National Trust’s Mompesson House. Upon our arrival, we saw that the Woodford Ukulele Group was performing in the garden and headed out to investigate. Hearing “Karma Chameleon” in a walled garden played by a band of ukuleles has to rank as one of the more surreal experiences I’ve had while travelling!

    The house itself was built in 1701 for Charles Mompesson, and for much of its history served as a home for a number of families before ending up in the hands of the National Trust in the 1970s, when the property was refurnished as it might have looked at the height of the Georgian period. Reflecting this time period, Mompesson also houses items such as the Turnbull collection, an assemblage of nearly 400 drinking glasses from the 18th century. The intricacy of these vessels is amazing, from fancy twisted stems to engraved images. If you hate washing dishes, spare a thought for the conservators who painstakingly clean each glass.

    The architecture is just as intricate, with beautiful plaster work decorating the stairway and ceilings, and the staircase itself having a lovely carved balustrade. Yet despite this ornateness, Mompesson is much more homely compared to some other National Trust properties, and it is much easier to picture it being lived in as family home … just one with fantastic view of Salisbury Cathedral from the bedrooms.

    Elaborate plasterwork in the 18th century Mompesson House, Salisbury
    Dahlia in the garden at Mompesson House, Salisbury

    We finished the day where we began, at the Rose and Crown for an afternoon tea overlooking the river. With melt-in-your-mouth scones and tasty sandwiches, this was the perfect way to reflect on our visit to Salisbury and refuel for the trip home. The only downside? We didn’t have enough room for the cakes! This was a problem easily solved by a doggie bag, and we bid a fond farewell to the Rose and Crown before returning to Chippenham.

    Over the past few months I have been trying to make more time for Wiltshire and the sights that are on my own doorstep. After all, being close to home—in the same county, let alone the same country—doesn’t mean you can’t approach travelling like a tourist. It doesn’t have to be a foreign country for you to immerse yourself in the people, the past, or the experiences on offer, and being willing to see the familiar from a new perspective is incredibly rewarding … and avoids jet lag!

    Afternoon tea at the Legacy Rose and Crown, Salisbury
    Click here to view PART 1 and check out this week’s daily posts on the MissElaineous Facebook page for a few videos from Salisbury. For even more scenes from Wiltshire, go Off the Beaten Track with my free eBook! ]

    Seduced by Salisbury (Part 1)

    Salisbury Cathedral Tower Tour
    [ PART 1 ] [ PART 2 ][ VISIT WILTSHIRE ][ 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!). 

    [ If you’re looking for even more about Salisbury, please see my Visit Wiltshire article about this stunning and historic city. ][ PART 1 ] [ PART 2 ]


    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.

    MissElaineous Blog: Escape & Explore & Discover & Enjoy