Time for my annual update of Extraordinary Places encountered this year… in the order they come to me:
1) the Red Mount Chapel, King’s Lynn.
In baking sunlight, this relict from an age of pilgrimage; designed to choreograph the approaching peasant: downstairs, a brutalist vision of the Tomb of Christ, hidden in an earthen mound; up (winding) stairs, like a stone-filigree eyrie, the tiny cross-shaped chapel, battered and thick with carved stone
Hagia Sophia, two minutes before it closes. Empty apart from the cats, and the hidden crowd of mice, scurrying in the echoing galleries
Little Hagia Sophia, at late-evening prayer. The quiet, ordered supplication of Islamic prayer, a small gathering of bearded men in the ancient church, the sound of the Call to Prayer echoing off carved fifth-century Biblical quoations
The walk from the Theodesian walls to the First Hill, past collapsing churches, mosques as plain as they are grand, territories third-world/chic-and-Bohemian/Heavily Islamic. How many cities can they get into this place?
3) St Mary Redliffe.
Standing on the roof, surrounded by reverse-icicle pinnacles, on a bright morning during the hardest frost of 2010
4) Smeathe’s Ridge/the old Marlborough Road.
On a bicycle through drifting snow, high above the empty Downs
5) West Kennet Long barrow – at night.
A sleeping bag, a good friend, an empty long barrow, another heavy frost. Suprisingly homely, though the stones above us looked unnervingly heavy
6) Martinsell Hill – at night.
Liekwise, but in the summer; if the open air, with the wide Vale of Pewsey gaping beneath like a quiet yawn, could be cosy — well, this was cosy. And for an hour at 2am the moon revealed its cloudy mysteries, and the stars were bright as pins.
7) Roche Rock.
This masterpiece of Cornish Gothic — a ruined medieval hermitage atop a ridiculous, wouldn’t-believe-it-if-it-was-CGI outcrop of granite — is all the better for being set in a shattered post-industrial wasteland. Landscape as EMO.
8) Salisbury Plain from the air.
Barrows like bubbles of grass; only a ball of glass between me and them
9) Repton crypt.
Whisper it: ‘Offa!’ ‘Mercia!’ ‘Clefts!’. Is any Anglo-Saxon place more spine-tingling than this, nasty, brutish, small and also, somehow, suprisingly clever. Number one Edgy Crypt of the year
More an intellectual encounter than an emotional one, but a wonderfully satisfying series of lost lives and the extraordinary efforts they made to be remembered was unearthed here: http://www.britarch.ac.uk/ba/ba114/feat4.shtml
Another crypt, quietly satisfying; and a church above as open and empty as a swimming pool, with jewel-sharp fourteenth-century kings clinging to the golden limbs of Jesse’s tree in the windows: you can almost touch them.
It doesn’t get better than this: Wittenham Clumps; the slow, wide Thames; Dyke Hills, gravel-robbed henges, and in the middle of the sleepy village, the strangest, empty-yet-fullest lost monastery in England
13) Milton Abbas.
Orange, empty, at once wiped clean by its own history and full of quiet poetry.
14) Selby abbey.
A town that feels as if it’s about to sink (indeed its history suggests it shouldn’t be there at all), featuring a silver-grey abbey of real power. And the bliss of a fast, near-empty train back to King’s Cross
15) Abbey Dore.
Cistercian fragment, elegant as a whisper, given a heartbreaking twist by hyperactive additions of the C17: tempus fugit, so fugit I’m standing still.
Unlovely, but the unfolding story of British Sea Power is here made into stone.
The top end of the Kintyre peninsula, with rocky peninsulas and Celtic stones enough to make it a world apart.
18) La Hougue Bie, Jersey.
Enormous Neolithic passage tomb? Check. Evocative/mysterious medieval chapel? Check. Nazi command bunker? Check. Three-in-one, then.
I know, I know… but it was dawn, and clear and cold (always the best days — you may have noticed). And an hour later I was turning over leaves of C8 parchment.
A top 20 of sorts, then. Some already familiar; the big moments where Red Mount, Hagia Sophia, Abbey Dore, cycling in the snow, sleeping in the open.
A black-and-brown day, the horizon of spindly trees and washed-out green only visible when the rain is not dropping. A subtle change of tempo as we push into Dorset: a faint feudalism in the air, huge tracts of villages untroubled by ‘A’ roads; empty fields lined with barrows like flying saucers of the blasted heath, low chalk scarps directing winding lanes.
There is a clean violence about Milton Abbas; the story in which an abbey and then its town were swept away in the C18 itself bleached out of the landscape, leaving the great orangey church – a Saxon minster that became an abbey that became a parish churh – effectively a private chapel; the gothicizing country house white and pristine beside it; the great tree-lined bowl in which they sit more suggestive of Cistercian deserts than Benedictine city-making. The town, of course, was moved by the nouveau riche eighteenth-century lord, and rebuilt, architecturally downgrading it to a village, safely out of site in a dry valley to the east. And then there’s the abbey, naveless, but otherwise in unusually good nick. More on the churches blog: joncannonschurches.wordpress.com.
On to Dorchester, which is as it should be for the town of a county like this, without the council offices and prison this would be no more than a market town, stretched along the slow chalk curve of a hill, yet with thrilling continuities of focus, the centres jumping from the extraordinary rewoked Neolithics of Maumbry and Maiden, then to the round barrows, then to Maiden II, then to the Chester and from it on to Casterbridge, still somehow feeling slightly temporary, as if it knows it could so easily be superseded. One parish church left of three: more on the churches blog: joncannonschurches.wordpress.com.
Back along winding black strips of tarmac, stuck between dark hedgerows, crashing through invisible pools of inky water; until it feels like half the curvature of the earth has been traversed.