The world is at your doorstep. Literally.
Adventures close to home is an occasional series of buildings and places that punch above their weight, revealing a connectedness of the world above and beyond the norm. Sometimes the biggest adventures are to be had just outside your front door.
Here are a few highlights of such uncovered in the course of 2009; some I visited for myself, others were revealed in the course of researching my British Archaeology column.
The Bishop’s Palace, Hereford A comparatively ordinary high-status house, you might think; from the outside, an apparent mish-mash of the C18 and C19. But upstairs in the attic, among the old hoovers and packing cases, one of the most delicious visual thrills its been my pleasure to know: a series of enormous, finely covered and very ancient wooden arches, the bones of a colossal eight-hundred-year-old episcopal hall that must have dwarfed the spaces in the current building.
Crowland Like a great shattered beast in the heart of the Fen, a single nave aisle functioning amid the once-impressive architecture of the monastery. Nowhere I have been is more stuffed with the myth and content of England’s eastern marches: the odd, also faintly shattered-feeling town, provisional, ready to sink beneath the peat at any moment; the three-way bridge beached among the flagstones, marking the meeting place of lost waterways, control of which once drove peasants to blows; the point where the three ways meet, today leading nowhere, and the great battered Christ from the westfront like some proprietary shrine to the waterlogged landscape. And as if all this wasn’t terrifying enough, the wonderful description by Guthlac’s biographer of the terrifying, demon-inhabited waste of this place in Anglo-Saxon times.
An extraordinary Derbyshire sequence: Anglo-Saxon Repton and the Viking cemetery at Ingleby; Breedon on its half-quarried hill; Commonwealth-era Staunton Harold.
The Faulds Hole, Derbyshire; the colossal crater made when an underground munitions store in a gypsum mine exploded during the Second World War; today also a wildlife reserve, and, more soberly, the burial place of the workers from around the world who died in this tragedy
The Dwarfie Stane, Hoy, Orkney: alone on a mountainside, a rock formation or a Neolothic chambered tomb? Mystery enough, but later inscribed by visitors including a C19 spy who wrote some lines of Persian poetry on the walls.
Melsetter House, Hoy, Orkney: Arts-and-Crafts gem built by a Birmingham bicycle magnate in the far north.
Nelson’s monument, Portsmouth Alone in a field next to Fort Nelson; apart from being a very early Nelson monument, this has the distinction of having been an initiative of some of his closest friends and colleagues. And more to the point, its form is inspired not by the columns of Rome or the obelisks of Egypt but by the stele of Ethiopia; recent research even suggests how the idea originated, with an early explorer of that country having shared a ship with one of those in charge of erecting the monument. A little piece of England that is forever Axum.
Penrith, Cumbria where the great twin henges of King Arthur’s Round Table and Mayburgh face each other off by the M6, and a stone’s throw away are castles medievalised by a C17 noblewomen.
The Teaghlach Éinde, Aran The place itself is as distinctive as any of its ilk: sea-edge, two-cell ruined church of fine ashlar in bone-simple detailing, preserved as a monument yet still clearly sacred to some; surrounded by a very active burial ground, sky-punching C19 Celtic crosses and C20 Catholic kitsch among the dunes. But what moved were the words scratched into a stone at the east end: E. B. GILL WALTHAM MASS 1908; and almost adjacent, the tombs of an extended family: Michael Gill, 1883; and then a long list of later names and ‘All died in America’; and Coleman Gill – with plastic flowers and an image of Padre Pio – 2006. A whole history of this coast in a few small slabs and scratchingd one wonders if E B Gill made an exceptional homecoming trip, or even gave up and came back ; or whether his relatives felt compelled to somehow memorialise their absent son.
The Deanery, Wells with its near-insane mannered High Perp detailing and mini-vaults; and more than anything else, its little tower, now an unused space of utter darkness, but once – what? One man’s private eyrie? Or an emblem of his all-seeing, surveilling eye? Or both?
Walsingham with a manor house occupying the former monastic enclosure, the Anglican shrine just outside its walls, and the Catholic church and Eastern orthodox churches marking points progressively further away from the original Holy House, history at Walsingham is turned inside out: post-Reformation, Anglican, Catholic, early Christian; or C18, C16, medieval, early medieval. When a landscape has been upended such that history runs backwards, its not suprising that there is something deeply odd about this place.
Wreay, Cumbria, an amazing church built by Miss Sarah Losh in the1830s as a memorial to her sister.