Final call for this year’s gauranteed sun-drenched, medieval-immersing, delicious-eating, Jon Cannon-led-by residential tours at Villiers Park, near Cambridge:
— churches of the medieval Fens: everyone a knockout; includes Ely cathedral
— medieval Cambridge: watch the modern city fall away; relive the invention of a university
— cities, town, and villages of East Anglia. Norwich, Stamford, Kings Lynn, Lavenham… need I say more?
A wild man sleeps in a forest; then he is awake; a monkey peeps out from among the trees. A cripple stares in puzzlement at a cat (?) in a tree, while a peasant holds a branch. A naked man rides a rearing lion near a beast-inhabited jungle.
These three scenes have been the source of unending puzzlement to me over the years. They are the sole surviving narrative elements in a richly-sculpted (indeed extraordinary) porch that was designed to hold a miracle-working image of the Virgin Mary. They are plainly illustrative of *something*, but what? Certainly nothing well known; certainly nothing explicitly religious (though probably moralistic). There are many parallels with the world of medieval Romance, especially those (like Alexander) which deal with the exotica of the east; also comparisons can be made with Arthurian traditions, and the Matter of Britain. But they lack the kingly and knightly figures such scenes would need to make them readily identifiable. The three images, of course, may not be from one single narrative. And below them, perhaps caught up in whatever theme they are addressing, three men in varying stages of undress battle with beasts, while a single naked man looks out at us.
It’s just a square car park, a rough extension of tarmac on the rising down. But a hump-sided scar runs from it, like a poorly-healed incision along the very ridge that rises with increasing energy from Beckhampton to Cherhill, and the bike runs clean and clear among the grassy lumps: a road made to be less travelled.
This is the archaeology of the Old Bath Road, the route taken by Stukely, Jane Austen, Samuel Pepys and many others west from London; a route bypassed when the current A4 was turnpiked about two hundred years ago; a route the skeins and intersects in rough sweeps with older way-scars: the Anglo-Saxon herepath; the great Roman road to the west.
Indeed this wrinkling and marking of the landscape is what makes these Downs; extraordinary landforms in the themselves; given their qualities – a kind of depth of experience, a human quality aping emotion, a character – by stratigraphic generations of lumping and bumping caused by the accidents of history, all intersecting in the present in the way that only Places can. And, to boot, kept clean and smooth as the emptiest steppe by centuries of flat-toothed sheep.
Almost as soon as I leave the car park, I enter a copse of ashes, planted as a game-hide by some landowner a century or more ago, and now a grey-walled enclosure of cathedral-like proportions. Trees make mini-places, little local environments, and this one is all the more redolent for the great sweeping lumps left within it, smooth-sided hefts within the earth. It runs on, ever higher, concealing a great scoop-like dry valley to the north that is today used as gallops.
Horses are one of the themes of this landscape: there is something in the collision of antiquarian rediscovery of a ‘noble’ British prehistory, white horse-cutting, copse-planting on barrows as covers for game and to break up the bleakness of the chalk, and the cult of the race embodied in the art of Stubbbs — all events that happened at about the same time — which is an interlinked moment in the cultural history of Wessex upland landscapes. But there’s no one practising now: just a few dog walkers, and two owls shocked from a tree and wheeling confused in the air, and a herd of deer on a distant expanse of grass.
Talking of barrows, here’s one: one of several biggies which line this route, looking over the plain towards Yatesbury and Windmill Hill. Except this, with the magnificent violence and collision of history that is this landscape’s greatness, is also a pillbox. Someone has excavated its cisty innards and inserted corrugation-lined cement and brick, leaving only a tiny gunport from which to peep at the the Panzer divisions as they make their way from Avebury to Chippenham, perfect cover for the local Dad’s Army butcher-turned-sniper. Vive la Resistance! La Lutte Continua! Keep calm and carry on…
I imagine acts of derring-do that never happened, and leave the bones of Bronze Age warlords and the hapless boys of Wiltshire and Wittenburg intermingling in this hollowed-out pilbarrow, forever trapped in a Dr Who timewarp in which 3000BC and 1941 cross breed to horrible effect.
Further on, my way curves north off the road, and climbs through rough sticky chalk-mud up to the whalebacked heights around Oldbury Castle. The dry valley turns behind me, forgotten linears striating its sides, outworks of Woden’s dyke, iron age estate boundaries, medieval sheep enclosures. A bedding line of flints has been dug and pitted along its geological length by hunters of holy tools from the deepest prehistory; the hilltop is massive with the collosal hill-works, almost urban in their pre-Roman might. The great smooth waterless curve and bowl of Upper Chalk underlies all.
And down the other side, through fields of industrial size, across the straight-as-a-die line of a Roman road (and parish boundary, and edge of a parliamentary constituency), past lines of barrows that drip across the backlands of Baltic Farm like frozen UFOs. Below is one of Wiltshire’s weirdest landscapes: a great series of scoops between Cherhill and Morgna’s Hill, as if picked out by the spade of a race of giants, their grass-edged steep sides and flat bottoms enhanced by the hand of man, almost sculptural to behold and move around in. Then up Morgan’s Hillside, though steep edge-lines of woodland, and down onto the Greensand to which those scoops drain.
Here is Calstone, barely a village, yet possessed of a tiny pure dark C15 church, covered in C18 graffiti, that seems to gather the draining forces of the landscape within it like a tiny holy battery. The vestry here hides a delicious secret: a pencilled disk opposite a window, and the words ‘Sunset, 1939’ or somesuch, a glorious sinking orb recorded at the dawn of war. And all around the steep and earthy gorges made by the draining of the downs, as thick and green as the chalk above was thin and open.
Hagia Sophia, the Great Church of Constantinople/Byzantium/Istanbul, is one of the most extraordinary buildings in the world. Dominating the waterway that seperates Europe from Asia, at dusk populated by a Byzantine legion of mice, yet still a struture of collosal beauty and awe — with a reputation that spread to fifteenth-century England, if this contribution by the anonymous author of The Three Kings of Cologne is anything to go by. He’s writing within a few years of its conversion to a mosque…
‘… Saint Sophie … is above all the churches of all the world passingly much and large, so that a passing great ship with her veils spread abroad may easily turn her in her and compass … ‘ [spelling modernised, grammar left untouched]
You can almost see the ocean filling it, lapping up against those echoing marble galleries, and a galleon turning within.
… I guess ‘veils’ means ‘sails’, but isn’t ‘veils’ nice?
… ‘Saint Sophie’, of course, is Hagia Sophia, Greek for ‘Holy Wisdom’, a mystical way of addressing the Virgin Mary … but that’s another story…