One of those great train routes, bisecting with parallel lines of rapid iron this dense and crowded island. For me – a regular commuter on the Swindon- Bristol segment – things start to come alive as we enter Somerset.
Somerset is a place unto itself, defined by the draining of hills into marsh. As the train sweeps across the Levels their fringe of flat-topped, whale-backed uplands brings this home; yet there are only hints of the true variety of these dips and sets: the mini-mountains of Mendip are hinted at by the nipple-sharp peak of Sharp Hill; the verdant, maze-like world of the younger limestones are suggested by the odd church tower, peepng to the south; the crumbling red sandstone world of deplanes is barely a hint whispered from somewhere off screen t othe front of the train. Unbidden is the delicious transition zone between highland and Level, a great band encircling what was once an inland sea, never more than a mile or two wide and by turns choppy, dramatic, and almost-flat. This unnamed litoral is one of England’s most intimate and lost places, its greatest monument the great church of St Andrew at Wells, whose rhyming scheming grandeur makes a poetry of its own setting.
And all around us, the place to which all this leads, the great fen of the Levels, still just containing urgent rumours of its prior selves, even today when commuters criss-cross its straight roads. Here is a prehistoric landscape – the extraordinary lake villages – and a medieval one; for here Welsl gave way to Glastonbury, which for centuries effectively ran this wetland as its own private mini-kingdom, making its island-capital a glitteign darkness of religious rumour and faked-up miracles, an Ely of the south west.
These former islands are the defining fixed points of lowland Somerset, and as we shift pass Brent Knoll it seems that here rather than Glastonbury or SXbury is this great drainland’s spiritual heart. Like a true island, it contains a universe of its own, with its cliff-sided moraine-made motte—and-bailey form rising with unnatural geometry from the flat landscape, ringed with springs nad the villages they make, topped by a ragged hill fort, at once destination and blockage to motorway and mainline alike. Good for it.
But perhaps Bridgwater with its abandoned-looking estates and perpetual smell of melting plastic bags, is the real capital of today. For some reason, over many decades, whenever I had cause to come through this town I had a feeling I would bump into Joe Strummer in the bus station. It wasn’t until he died that I learnt he really did live nearby.
The red shades into tussocky deep-valed hills only slowly, and somewhere as it does were move from Devon to Somerset. Indeed Devon is Somerset inside-out, the rocky circlet of hhills draining into the central, sea-edge marsh replaced by a great central knob of granite, drained across steep and dense territory to the water edge. I never fail to be surprised by the quiet dramatic steepness of its green-and-red valleys as they run from sunsplashed faded resorts to frost-shattered brown barrow-filled wastes. The train of course does that one-of-the-best-ever, surely it’ll-be-washed-away sweep along the South Hams coast, deep estuaries and crumbling yet dogged sandstone stacks and towns where human life is fading; and for a brief moment the slatey world of the moor-edge veers up and even the odd top is glimpsed, bare shoulders of bracken-to-be. And then Plymouth, nothing to do with any of this, yet it is the result of the great floods of water that leave that granite knobs, especially as they cleave county from county to create the near-island that is Cornwall. Navy town, like Portsmouth, a place for men and regiments: hard edges, heavily engineered bridges, 1960s bombsites and bouleavars, sheds and flags and stadia.
I’m used to entering Cornwall further north, from Tavi or Okey: there, west Devon and East Cornwall are virtually indistinguishable, a Rorschach in which the Tarmac is a paper’s fold, the old tin consols and stannary towns in their metapmorphic hinterland are little inkspread pattern-gaps, and the high greybrown torlands are the outer limits. But from Plymouth, the change is immediate as one looks down on Saltash: the houses suddenty smaller, sudden modern bungalows in unexpected places.
But in truth from the railway you would never guess that this county was one of England’s great tourism counties: though, as you pass through the grey-faced towns, you might be less surprised to hear about its high scores on most indices of deprivation. There are glimpses of the water-edged treeline and creeky world of its southern landscape of softly flooded estuaries, but no sense of the bare glories and ancient places of the north. Only finally Truro stands out, as if the grand industrial arcades over which the railway bisects the city were designed to make it the wannabe-county town. It’s not only these, and the civic buildings, and the French Gothic cathedral plonked in the middle of a place of proud Methodist councillors and industrialists, that mark it out: even before that it had a Bath-aping elegance that was not matched by its competitors, Bodmin and Lanceston. Part of what makes it so beguiling is the combination of seriousness and size: the attributes of a city crammed into a market town, like Wells and St Davids; but also an unusual coming-together of periods. There are no shortage of industrial-era cities that impress in Britain’s western fringes – from Bradford to Liverpool, Sunderland to Cardiff, these cities are visibly produces of the centuries since 1800; only the footprint of a group of streets, and perhaps the odd over-restored and much-extended parish church, hints that they were once medieval places. This is true of the northern/western industrial-era small town, too, but here the results are rarely beguiling. That’s not the case at Truro: the visual stimulation one is used to from the great Victorian cities, the scale of the small town: a rare combination. And like them, unless one has an eye for burgage plots or the single aisle of St Mary’s church not gobbled up by Pearson’s cathedral, the city’s status as a medieval Cornish town is well-nigh invisible.
Ancient Mercia, a kingdom lost to us over a thousand years ago, survives. As the modern east and west Midlands, historic dioceses of (Coventry &) Lichfield, Worcester and Lincoln. An ancient map of the world it is: Africa the Worcester-corner, deep, complex, red, fecund; Asia the Lincoln-corner: golden, champion, rolling, sunlit even after frost. And the Europe-corner as Lichfield, overrun by its own barbarian Danelaw, dark, sliding into its own violent disinclination. Sadly, this metaphor makes Birmingham into Jerusalem, its boulevards and shopping palaces suitably tinself-bright satanic mills; the mills themselves – of chocolate and cars – owned by Americans or closed, and shall we build?
First, today, to Asia. History has shifted Towcester’s centre several times: seen over a couple of thousand years, the jumps collapse into each other, like Chilean cities after earthquakes: here is a Roman crossroads, Fosse Way and Watling St no less; here a medieval town with big ironstone church next to a newly-landscaped motte; here the grand Easton Neston, hidden in the landscaping, its Russian owner ensuring the gas wells (or in this case fashion arcades) of Siberia are supporting the market towns of rural England. The orangey-red houses and burgage plots; the church with Saxon reused in the C12 and C12 reused in the C14 and Sponle’es cadaver white open and proud beside his aisle: see the churches blog.
Then the low, quietly cared-for valleys that run north into the limestone belt, past Northampton, Higham Ferrers; the grandeur of Earl’s Barton and Brixworth a reminder of two things: firstly, that little has happened here to disrupt the past: no big industry, no major wars; secondly that this is country that has long been rich. Two of the most ambitious Anglo-Saxon buildings in the country, within 10 miles of each other, is not an accident of preservation. Northampton, with two C12 churches of real interest, with Cambridge and Salisbury and Oxford a centre of advanced schools for clerks, only two of which would become universities. From here we move into small villages and into the stone belt, where remarkable churches are two-a-penny in a dense, forgotten champion country.
But somewhere near Kettering we join the modern hinterland of dual carriageway and retail parks, and suddenly history is a dried out husk, a profitable side line, a preserve, a native reservation. With the bleak guilt of the porn user I sheer my way north at at mph:, A14, M1, availing myself of cheap fossil energy at Tesco, cheap artificial high of Starbucks, the cheap comfort at Travelodge, up towards dark Europe, after the rain.
I never liked Nottingham. I lived there briefly in the mid-1980s, and the place in my memory is all silent redbrick terraces, failed attempts at the cosmopolian, second-rate shops and a racial atmosphere of unhappiness and uncertainty: more than a town, but not really a city; wanting to be south, yet not really north, neither divided nor integrated: Friday night outside Yates wine lodge the worst of both. As city, so county: here is where my medieval world divided north from south – at the Trent; where the frontline of the Civil War etched its earthworks across a county, dividing villagers from each other; where in one Miner’s Strike after another the Notts coalworkers had been the Class Traitors.
Well, it’s changed, or perhaps I wasn’t looking. There is no doubting it now, this place has cityness in spades. Students, shops, show-off architecture, density. And now the it split personality that is this county’s theme seems a strength as well as a weakness. It’s there, after all, in the backstory: two towns, the Anglo-Saxon and the French, facing each other off across the sandstone ridge; the market growing up between them; the old town, with its grand-as-grand Perp town church, a C15 rematch of C14 Gloucester, becoming the bijou Georgian focus, the castle fading in significance, the market within it the resulting new centre – and immediately to the east, hemmed in by late-enclosed fields, industry (lace) bringing with it a dense medieval cliff-world of C19 warehouses. All this and a pockholed real cliff, too. Nottingham has its own architects, making commercial palaces in special Waterhouse-collides-with-Wollaton local variety; yet somehow here, in the pride of the Boots building, the finally-a-city statement of the domed city hall with its Milanese galleria behind, a certain wannabe insecurity fuelds, justifies, explains. It has its own geology, too: the local sandstone, which becomes a beach if you want to carve it; the unexpected discovery that is Leicestershire Red Granite, along the older setts; the smoked-out scarlet face of older redder sandstones.
The split’s not gone. 60s-carved concrete cliffs around the bluff; the passive-aggressive modern way with planning, smearing love over the past one second (Lace Market); leaving it to die the next (large number of local authority-owned buildings at risk); commissioning buildings of jaw-dropping quality one minute (Nottingham Contemporary); blithely ignoring the past the next (Market Square). Anywhere with trams swishing their Viennese way across the Midlands is surely trying too hard. But somehow now the splitness is a virtue: I like this place.
In St Peter’s, a two-minute cross-section of the modern town: young Pole with a face of perfect alabaster, praying earnest and unmoving; local Rasta with an easy smile, confused as to who’s moved his bike; rotund, scruffy local, with a something’s-wrong-with-me shuffle, approaches then sheers away, muttering something about how I always like to show people the painting.
Out again, and east and south, and this borderland of Notts/Derbs/Staff is deepest dark Euro-Mercia, a place where sods overturn glittering warhoards, old buildings are black with history, sudden unexpected estates of industry consume ancient farms. Penda stalks, sword in hand, along the wide, black basin of the Trent; water slices sharp as Danelaw overwinters across the frost-sharpened claws of gypsum, alabaster trapping history everywhere in its soapy-amber clamp, or squeezing from High Peak meltwaters the peaty notes of Burton beer. In the forest, the Horn Dance goes. Traffic pulls outunnerved; black country, spaghetti junction, curry house. Complex, small scale, yet rounded when one expects flat, rising to choppy plains, sinking to flood-washed vales. Somehow everywhere and nowhere, utterly itself and completely overlookable. Somewhere to the north, the Peak whispers it: the North is coming. And here, on a battered sandstone rise hard by the Trent, Repton.
My God, what a place. The school was an Augustinan priory; the earthworks of the Danes are still traceable; the church is arge and likeable, but while I knew about the cypt, no one told me about the chancel above it, Saxon too… or that the crypt is arguably the most complex architectural testament left of pre-Conquest England. Many places bigger, of course; and Deerhurst and Brixworth were both, clearly, serious buildings; while Escomb and Bradford are even more complete. This is tiny compared even to them. But where it trumps everything is in complexity and sophistication; in the forest of bulbous columns wrapped around with Rome-apeing spirals, in the fancy pilasters, nerve-tingling passages and foot-shined floor. You should have told me it would be like this, he said, sniffing back tears. More on the churches blog.
Then up and out, and back to the real England, Breedon another distant siren of the blood and elegance of the Iron Age/C8/C13/C20, the M42 its diesel and tarmac answer; glimpses of real places tumble away in the hurtle of my metal box, the roadworks, signposts and service stations stretching south. Away from the lost, horrible, compelling kingdoms of Watling and Trent.
Mercian Africa is as great as any of the others: anywhere that can fuel the fires of Piers Plowman, A E Housman and Geoffrey Hill gets my vote. Even from the M5 the towers of Worcester and Tewkesbury tempt, while the Mountains of the Moon beckoning at Malvern and Bredon. But its all too fast again, and history cannot keep up, place is a glimpsed furore offstage. The A417 cuts through Cot’s Wold as if he were melted butter: Jurassic; my chalkland home traceable on the horizon, a distant eloquent sentence punctuated with barrow-topped clumps; somewhere in the clay vale Mercia becomes Wessex, and I know I’m nearly home.
Cambridge is split. Split between chalk farmland and barren fen. Split between Roman heart and Saxon new town. Split between town and gown. And somehow crammed-in, too: dense, significant, yet hard to love.
Start with the fen, and of course it made the place: making this the northernmost easy landcrossing from east anglia to the midlands, and a key port to boot. Even today, far from the sea, the watermeadows are a metre deep in black liquid, the Camgranta thick and strong with icy water; ducks swoop towards their own reflections beneath a colossal moon.
Then to the Roman heart: it’s been ripped out. Or has it? The suburb north of the river, the original Grantchester, on its steep chalk hill. Small strips of houses running from the bridge, a real medieval suburb; Magdalen to one side. Almost inaccessible on the other (just make like a lecturer), School of Pythagoras, a rich merchant’s house of c1200: I have a pee beside a C12 attached column. To go to Oxbridge (or Durham) is to know architectural privelige. St Peter’s a heartbreaking country church, Samuel Palmer primitive, by the busy road. And then the proof of the pudding, the castle, on its Roman site, dominating the great wide bowl, almost an entire county. Here comes Norman. And he’s still here: the county council offices occupy the bailey.
The bridge is tiny. Into the Anglo-Saxon town. The two roads, Roman and later, come to join. The infilled markets between them. The half-blocked lanes and houses of yellow-grey brick. The density of churches. Great St Marys the classic Perp town church, grand and vapid. Holy Sepulchre the most intriguing thing: by the Jewry, by a hospital, at the joining point of the two roads, show-off cosmopolitan.
There may have been clerks, and advanced schools, developing here in the C12, as there were at Oxford and Northampton. But there is nothing certain before 1209; some kind of corporacy by the 1230s; yet no architecture existed until the late C13. The Old Schools are the centre of power. In the area between the A-S road and the river, concentrated in one area. Why here? Floodplain comparatively undeveloped still? Just happened to be land available? In any case it’s a fateful decision. The first academic colleges come in the late C13, and at first they circle the edge of the city, where there is land. But then they too start to take up sites along Trumpington. Peterhouse, suburban; Corpus Christi, less so. As they march up the W side of the town they gobble up parish churches: St Mary the Less is lost, its chancel rebuilt as a grand sober-Dec college chapel. St Bene’t with its Saxon tower is later appropriated, too. St Michael’s another exercise in the Dec college-chapelisation of (part of) someone’s parish church. In general Cambridge colleges suck up parish churches or construct small chapels: again, Oxford tends to greater grandeur early on; more senior patrons, too: those at Cambridge are much more varied. Anyway by the Black Death the area around the Old Schools must have already obviously been the centre of operations. The seventy years silence, and then comes the great C15 wave. Christ’s. Jesus, dissolving and appropriating the C12 St Radegund’s nunnery. Then Henry VI comes along, and a step-change occurs. King’s will plonk its footprint down right in the middle of this, next to the Old Schools, but to the S on top of some existing college and oh yes a city parish too and arterial road too. This area was presumably built up in a way that the area to the Old Schools ‘patch’ had not been in the late C13. Half of this is shunted to St Edward’s, creating a peculiar that would sow the seeds of Reformation. It will have a chapel that couldn’t be further than a new aisle on an old parish church; a chapel that’s virtually a cathedral. A chapel that still dominates and which until the C19 was by far the most ambitious building in town. A chapel that remains a unique amalgam of college chapel and Great Church. A chapel that, in spite of three master masons and various changes of mind is (mostly thanks to Henry VII) among the greatest buildings in Europe. And the Tudor court follow: St John’s, Trinity, and further out Christ’s, Magdalene; additions to several existing colleges. Everywhere copying King’s without matching it for sophistication (or in chapel terms, ambition). So King’s is not only the first monumentally-scaled fan vault (or that’s what the guide says; but surely Bath and Henry VII chapel where on the stocks by 1512. Sherborne of course is not a true fan vault), or the most vainglorious statement of academic-college architecture, in a city for which there was little precedent; it is also a turning point in the university as a place for top-rank architecture, an institution that *is* the whole western strip of the town serious: a kind of campus. I don’t think even Oxford was quite so emphatically zoned until the C17; was there any University building before the Divinity School, etc, there?. And the Old Schools still the centre of power today, private and unmarked right next to King’s gate.
A series of churches, a series of sketches of Cambridge people: the Locals, manning the bookshop in Great St Mary’s, chatting cynically about the world, suspicious, going out of their way to mask their helpfulness and kindness. These people are everywhere, keeping the university running, given petty power and glory-by-association; unlearning how to smile as they do so. Perhaps it’s the Fenland air, or too many Fellows. The Retired Academic, lonely in St Edward’s, starting up intriguing lines of conversation I don’t have time to follow through. The Junkies, huddled in a corner of St Bene’t, disintegrating in quiet chaos. The Fellow, leading the choir in St Radegund’s, his easy authority turning a bunch of 20-year olds in tight jeans into a spine chilling evocation of Gregorian bliss. It’s hard to disaggregate the reverse-snobbery and reaction against privilege; what’s left is, for all its failings, a combination of excellence and tradition cannot be copied unless one has a few centuries to spare in development; it is surely one of the high points – at both Ox and Bridge – of our culture.
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.