Time for my annual update of Extraordinary Places encountered this year… in the order they come to me:
1) the Red Mount Chapel, King’s Lynn.
In baking sunlight, this relict from an age of pilgrimage; designed to choreograph the approaching peasant: downstairs, a brutalist vision of the Tomb of Christ, hidden in an earthen mound; up (winding) stairs, like a stone-filigree eyrie, the tiny cross-shaped chapel, battered and thick with carved stone
Hagia Sophia, two minutes before it closes. Empty apart from the cats, and the hidden crowd of mice, scurrying in the echoing galleries
Little Hagia Sophia, at late-evening prayer. The quiet, ordered supplication of Islamic prayer, a small gathering of bearded men in the ancient church, the sound of the Call to Prayer echoing off carved fifth-century Biblical quoations
The walk from the Theodesian walls to the First Hill, past collapsing churches, mosques as plain as they are grand, territories third-world/chic-and-Bohemian/Heavily Islamic. How many cities can they get into this place?
3) St Mary Redliffe.
Standing on the roof, surrounded by reverse-icicle pinnacles, on a bright morning during the hardest frost of 2010
4) Smeathe’s Ridge/the old Marlborough Road.
On a bicycle through drifting snow, high above the empty Downs
5) West Kennet Long barrow – at night.
A sleeping bag, a good friend, an empty long barrow, another heavy frost. Suprisingly homely, though the stones above us looked unnervingly heavy
6) Martinsell Hill – at night.
Liekwise, but in the summer; if the open air, with the wide Vale of Pewsey gaping beneath like a quiet yawn, could be cosy — well, this was cosy. And for an hour at 2am the moon revealed its cloudy mysteries, and the stars were bright as pins.
7) Roche Rock.
This masterpiece of Cornish Gothic — a ruined medieval hermitage atop a ridiculous, wouldn’t-believe-it-if-it-was-CGI outcrop of granite — is all the better for being set in a shattered post-industrial wasteland. Landscape as EMO.
8) Salisbury Plain from the air.
Barrows like bubbles of grass; only a ball of glass between me and them
9) Repton crypt.
Whisper it: ‘Offa!’ ‘Mercia!’ ‘Clefts!’. Is any Anglo-Saxon place more spine-tingling than this, nasty, brutish, small and also, somehow, suprisingly clever. Number one Edgy Crypt of the year
More an intellectual encounter than an emotional one, but a wonderfully satisfying series of lost lives and the extraordinary efforts they made to be remembered was unearthed here: http://www.britarch.ac.uk/ba/ba114/feat4.shtml
Another crypt, quietly satisfying; and a church above as open and empty as a swimming pool, with jewel-sharp fourteenth-century kings clinging to the golden limbs of Jesse’s tree in the windows: you can almost touch them.
It doesn’t get better than this: Wittenham Clumps; the slow, wide Thames; Dyke Hills, gravel-robbed henges, and in the middle of the sleepy village, the strangest, empty-yet-fullest lost monastery in England
13) Milton Abbas.
Orange, empty, at once wiped clean by its own history and full of quiet poetry.
14) Selby abbey.
A town that feels as if it’s about to sink (indeed its history suggests it shouldn’t be there at all), featuring a silver-grey abbey of real power. And the bliss of a fast, near-empty train back to King’s Cross
15) Abbey Dore.
Cistercian fragment, elegant as a whisper, given a heartbreaking twist by hyperactive additions of the C17: tempus fugit, so fugit I’m standing still.
Unlovely, but the unfolding story of British Sea Power is here made into stone.
The top end of the Kintyre peninsula, with rocky peninsulas and Celtic stones enough to make it a world apart.
18) La Hougue Bie, Jersey.
Enormous Neolithic passage tomb? Check. Evocative/mysterious medieval chapel? Check. Nazi command bunker? Check. Three-in-one, then.
I know, I know… but it was dawn, and clear and cold (always the best days — you may have noticed). And an hour later I was turning over leaves of C8 parchment.
A top 20 of sorts, then. Some already familiar; the big moments where Red Mount, Hagia Sophia, Abbey Dore, cycling in the snow, sleeping in the open.
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.