I’ve not blogposted from the top deck of a bus before; neither have I even begun blogging fragments relating to my next book. Something of a first, then: whether I can publish this between Shrivenham and Swindon is another question.
I have followed the A420 many times; too many for this impatient driver, as its a road on which one is guaranteed to be struck behind a queue of lorries. But from the top deck of a bus everything changes. It slows down, for a start (!). More to the point, the lie of the land opens out. What had always felt like a low-slung, characterless drive through the clay plains of middle England reveals itself as a tour of the Corallian ridge, a switchback ride along a snaking spine of limestone that is easy to overlook, so undramatically does it slip itself between the higher uplans of Jurassic Cotswolds and Cretaceous chalk Downs.
From up here, the shape of these hills is more beguiling than I’d expected; while low, they have the cool smooth openness that gives all limestones their tang. The knowledge that this was all once coral reef in some warm ocean gives the landscape an extra tang. But so is the significance of the ridge itself. It’s the setting for a cluster of hilltop towns, rare itself in this counrt: Wooton Basset, Swindon, Highworth, Malmesbury. Not far from Brinksworth it forms a watershed which divides Severn-headed Avon from mighty Thames: the rain only has to fall the wrong side of a low hill to end up in the Atlantic or the North Sea. And as was reach the head of he Vale of White Horse, I realise something I’d not noticed before.
Uffington: famously extraordinary. it’s White Horse a work of near-abstraction, surely partly the result of the mind-boggling 3000 years of scouring that have stylised it while keeping it visible. The nearby church is almost as remarkable. But from up here, suddenly the white horse makes sense. From the clay vale of the valley, you can barely see it, let alone read it: but from up here, it, and the curiously visceral Dragon Hill with its bare, dragonsblood-drenched summit, seem to rise just above the eyeline, at once powerfully legible and all-dominant. In other words, these are works of art in compact with nature that are designed to be seen from up, perhaps on horseback. This ridge has been an important route for no little time, then, and the tarmac snake of the A420 must follow natural ways of great age. So here’s to the Corallian, as we crawl through low humid rain towards Swindon bus station.
It was the lucky inheritance of a pile of Victorian and early C20 handbooks which served as my way in to the inexhaustibly rewarding subject of medieval architectural style. Now (ie from this week!) my new Shire handbook makes a very attractive modern equivalent. For more details have a look at the relevant page in the Buy My Books section of this website: https://joncannon.wordpress.com/my-writing/medieval-church-architecture/