“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”
This famous quote by writer L.P. Hartley 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.
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.
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!