An archipelago in a wetland. An archipelago that holds a church. The church owns the wetland, governs it almost as a seperate statelet. Only two places fit the description: Glastonbury and Ely. England’s twin eastern and western holy archipelagic wetland cities have other comparisons, too: many saints, at Ely female, at Glastonbury ancient. A great monastery. Wealth – holding fourth and fifth place respectively as England’s richest religious corporations, which makes them arguably the fourth and richest corporations of any kind. A location near the southern coast of a wetland that reaches empty to the sea, and around which are positioned many further monastic houses: Peterborough, Bath, Crowland, Muchelney. Causeway access: Soham and Alederney, Somerton and Wells: from nearby urban settlements whose history reveals a tense relationship to the Great Beast on the Island. At Ely the defining relationship is with Cambridge, trading town on the fulcrum of central and eastern England; at Glastonbury it is with Wells.
Here the comparisons begin to include interesting contrasts. The power of bishops has had an edgy relationship with both Glastonbury and Ely. Ely sat between sees — Lincoln and East Anglia — and sought independence of each of them, only to be forced into a cathedral status in the very early twelfth century. Nearby Cambridge then gained in several ways from its proximity to this centre of power, but gained most by not having a single dominating religious corporation of its own: not leasy by becoming a centre of independent learning. Glastonbury is surely one of the reasons why the bishops of Wells, having decamped to Bath after the Conquest, camp back again 150 years later; en route they even tried to take of the great monastery itself. They failed. Wells, meanwhile, becomes a cathedral community of defining wealth and complexity; but the town around it is never of more than regional significance.
Where else is ‘like’ Glastonbury’? Walsingham, another E/W pole, another great focus of miraculous Marian cults; another place to be approached arduously across water, though Walsingham is younger and never became more than a focus for pilgrims. What’s interesting is the post-medieval dimension. With their supernatural claims reduced to a pile of rubble and a series of alluring legends, each became a void; in both cases, the void began to fill several centuries later: at Walsingham with the Anglo-Catholic/Catholic/Orthodox self-reinventions; at Glastonbury with their Theosophical, the New Age, the Druidic, the Pagan. Would either place be what they are today with a collossal functioning church at the heart of them? At Walsingham, this would imply no Reformation: modern Walsingham is in many senses in any senses an argument with the Reformation. At Glastonbury, the story is more interesting. Other places possessed cults of alluring age – St Alban, for example – but no cults where as strange or as spooky as those here, implying the direct and miraculous intervention of contemporaries of Christ himself. Nevertheless, there’s nothing in this story — nothing, nothing, nothing — that suggests the pre-Christian mattered to Patrick, or Dunstan, or whoever: this is a radical and modern reinterpretation, and one that would be impossible to imagine if the place were a great church with, like all great churches, a few towers and wayside shrines and wells in the vicinity. We have to take Glastonbury out of Glastonbury, leaving a void both spiritual and architectural, to result in the Glastonbury of today.
It’s an odd thing, it has to be said. I mean, I applaud any manifestation of spirituality, without quite being able to articulate why I know something so hard to define and easy to abuse to be such a good thing. And a spirituality which takes place and nature as it’s starting point? It should be a no-brainer. I reacted against Walsingham: something dark there, something turned inside out by history and faintly desperate and oppressive in its reinventions, that Holy House made out of chunks of Dissolved nests of monks; the Feudal feeling of entering-by-permission the abbey site itself, the recreations in the wrong places of a structure commanded in dreams which must be in the original location or not be at all; the reversed chronology, time turned backwards, of country house where abbeyt should be, and then of churches, Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox each a step further from the starting point even as the faith represented is more ancient. But at least they are genuined inheritors of the traditions that made the place. The darkness, the strangeness, the uncompletion of the real Glastonbury, of medieval holy places as they were lived, is far more complex and interesting than the vapid, brainless join-the-dots spirituality of this place today: like replacing T.S.Eliot with a Hallmark card.
And yet, and yet… for Glastonbury is unique, and they are responding, reinterpeting, reinventing, rehallowing, making myths anew and untelling stories in new ways. Such is how such places are made. New holy places: temples and wells where non were before. Unique-to-medieval, too: the wealth comparisons with Ely come only by aggregating the income of the bishop with that of the convent: as a convent alone, Glastonbury is matched only by Westminster. This focus of wealth and power and holiness puts it as a case apart. Only the cathedrals of Winchester, Canterbury and Durham outstrip it: the latter two matching it in power and sanctity, the latter one matching it too for its remarkable site.
But underling them all is Place, raw in tooth and clue. and truly, Glastonbury’s combination of site, power and sanctity put it in a close alone. Durham’s site, cliff edge above a curling river, is defensive, the power over its haliwerfolk political. Ely makes a lot architecturally out of a little geomorphically: a lowish largish island, made dramatic by its collossal church. At Walsingham there is a real magic, a subtle and unexpected change to a lush Norfolk-hilly country, but it is a quite impact. At Glastonbury, the preceding Mendip is a true bleak highland; the islands steep-sided with quiet drama, Wearyall and Tor hill great arms above the flood. And the church sits there, in the palm-lap of the dryland above the eel-clogged waters, hidden from many directions, the journey there a preparation of expectations choreographed by landscape itself.
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.
It’s not been a year of major transformative life events. There have been many good times, no major crises and a lot of very hard work. Yet as I look back over it, four very specific moments keep repeating on me.
Snow in February. Climbing high above the village with a local sheep-farmer to help her establish if any have been lost after a week of white-out. Crossing the high down in a blizzard, trying to count the white lumps as they shake themselves from the landscape and form an orderly line moving away from us. Our heads seemingly brushing the low snow-clouds. The spacious, curving form of the valley below suddenly made vivid, its emptiness and limits defined cup-like by a billion falling points of white.
Beijing in March. Cycling back from the Starbucks in the Golden Resources Shopping Centre, where I had enjoyed putting together a talk about medieval Ripon surrounded by the comings-and-goings of twenty-first century China. The ride home should have taken 20 minutes, but with every turn of the gearless pedals, Fighting a Cold matured more certainly into Having a Cold, and the low particulate haze of a Beijing Spring revealed itself to be a serious rainstorm in disguise. And where I was meant to cross the Fourth Ring Road I got lost, and instead of being home in ten minutes I found myself in a time warp, a seemingly endless suburb of potholes and mud and decaying one-storey brick shacks and people living their lives in public: China 1985, just a kilometre away from China 2025. And I had no idea where I was, was damp from head to feet, and well on the way to being ill. Yet somehow I loved it.
The Indiana/Michigan borders. No place-shock has ever been more deep or more profound than my first experience of America. Never have I known a more bewildering, compelling and almost-terrifying combination of factors: the apparently virgin landscape, ancient woodland with lakes and clearings, as if the Saxons had just started clearing the primeval forest. The school-less, shop-less villages and hamlets with their little clapboard houses and handsome red-painted identikit barns. The radio dial, which revealed a world without News as I recognise it; in which the only music is country or country rock or Christian rock, and the only spoken opinions – rare in themselves - assert without hesitation a world view that makes the Taliban sound progressive. The reality and recentness of creation. The human landscape: Amish villages, the grid suddenly petering out into dirt roads, an Indian reservation, Vietnam vets proclaiming their identity from the verandah. All this 3 hours from Chicago, cosmopolitan, connected: nowehere in my country can a three-hour drive render you into a world so shockingly strange and beguiling.
Walsingham realisation Three days in Walsingham, which I found to be a very, very odd place. Somehow coming up for the first time against a brick wall in my dilettante spirituality: uncertainty is not provisional; it is fundamental. I will never believe these things. Driving to Binham and on to the coast with Van Morrison singing of ‘tales of mystery and imagination’ as if the tale-telling, unknowing and imagining were themselves the deepest and bestest we can expect. And then a drive home that felt like a drive to heaven: Walpole St Peter, West Walton: luminous barn-churches in the strong summer light. The glorious broken poetry of Crowland baking in the sun in the middle of the fen; then west an hour, to Wing as the light fell, silent and bathing. Like poems whispered by a cracked angel.