Monday, August 15, 2011

Curiouser and Curiouser

Among Europe’s oldest museums, those in university towns are also among the best. University museums can be as quirky and inspiring as national museums can be pompous and dull. They can be provocative in the better sense, of teasing out a response through scholarly presentation rather than through trying to offend and overthrow. Those like Uppsala’s Gustavianum and Oxford’s Ashmolean are still true to their 17th century origins as ‘cabinets of curiosities’, sparking connections as much as reducing knowledge to order.

The Ashmolean Museum started life in London, as the personal collection of the Tradescant family, who opened it to public viewing at their home in Lambeth. Fortunately, it got away when Elias Ashmole acquired the collection and presented it to Oxford University in 1677. Since the 19th century it has been housed in an imposing classical building just off St Giles. The galleries to the rear have recently undergone a massive rebuilding that was long overdue. I remember them as a warren of tiny rooms and twisting stairs loaded with treasures like some great-aunt’s attic, difficult to access and impossible to navigate or comprehend.

Rick Mather Associates have designed a white Modernist shell around an atrium that finally allows the Museum to display its collections as it would wish, in twice the former floorspace. The theme is ‘Crossing Cultures, Crossing Time’. Galleries flow out from introductory displays that emphasise contacts through trade and migration and are stacked above one another through time, like archæological stratigraphy, culminating in a rooftop restaurant with views out over Oxford. The basement floor addresses museology itself, housing displays on the collection’s origins and on cross-cutting themes like conservation and materials. These are not new ideas – the British Museum’s Enlightenment Gallery in the former King’s Library offers a precedent for the basement and the National Museum of Scotland for the stratigraphy – but the overall result is a constantly engaging museum that can be read and understood at a glance.

Can it be criticised? Of course. Where did all the money come from, and why? The atrium is not just an atrium; it is the ‘Zvi and Ofra Meitar Family Atrium’, in big letters. The retreat of the public sector offers immortality to any individual or corporation with enough to allow them the pretence of being cultured. There isn’t yet a Coca-Cola Wing or a McDonalds Gallery but the writing is clearly on the wall.

The Modernist look is just too crisply impartial to be fit for purpose. In the surviving older galleries, artworks appear in the period settings in which they were meant to appear. In the new galleries, clinically white, that sense of immersion is lost. The gallery devoted to the museum’s founders would gain immensely just from plain wood panelling on the walls to restore some of it. All the old favourites are there – Powhatan’s mantle, Guy Fawkes’ lantern – but some are tucked away so obscurely as to defeat the purpose of exhibiting them at all. John Bradshaw’s hat, worn by him at the trial of Charles I and iron-reinforced as a precaution against assassins, is in a case at foot level, with no indication higher up that it would be a good idea to kneel down and look for it. Some of the decisions on lighting too are perverse, with objects flooded and their captions in the shade.

The cross-cultural emphasis starts to verge on political correctness in presenting what is in effect a merchant’s-eye view of human history, in which it is the Silk Road that matters and not the political entities along it. A history of trade is one that conceals the reality for most people throughout most of time, which is that they spent their lives largely in one place. It is a difficult balance to get right. The gallery that presents the post-Roman Mediterranean in terms of the successor civilisations around its rim – Rome, Venice, Constantinople, Jerusalem, Cairo – is thought-provoking but it’s as well that others enable specific blocks of culture to be explored, such as ‘England 400-1600’ or ‘India from AD 600’. A lot of thought has clearly gone into how best to tell the stories the collection’s range allows to be told. Objects remain, thankfully, central. There are no stories told that cannot be illustrated, which would be a misuse of the space. Could it have been arranged better? It may be too early to say but the layout is the very best layout one would expect of 2011.

The trip to Oxford was another enterprise of the Friends of Stroud District Museum and co-incided with an exhibition of grave goods from the Macedonian royal necropolis at Aegae, modern Vergina in northern Greece. I, and others, left puzzled that more was not widely known about these discoveries, made mostly in the late 70’s and at least as important as Tutankhamun’s tomb, which was then all the rage following the 1972 London exhibition. The objects included two intricate gold wreaths to be worn as head ornaments and numerous pieces of jewellery, such as gold discs bearing the distinctive multi-rayed stars or ‘Vergina suns’ that have now become, controversially, a Macedonian national emblem. Intricately carved ivories and some very modern-looking silver vessels recalled the legendary Macedonian banquets. There were reproductions too of the wall-paintings from the tombs. Classical Greek sculpture is renowned but here was a chance to acknowledge classical Greek painting and even suggest the artists’ names. You won’t see better before the Renaissance.

The tombs excavated include those of Alexander the Great’s father and son. Here is Macedonian history that is also the history of much of the world. Alexander’s name, from the word meaning ‘to defend’, survives in various forms right across his empire, from Aléxandros in Greece to Sikander in India. The learned Wessex princess, St Margaret, born in Hungary, took it into renewed exile in Scotland, where three mediæval kings have inspired every Alastair, Alec and Sandy since. From Byzantium, the name became a favourite in Russia. It was another Alexander, the 7th Marquess of Bath, who founded the Wessex Regionalist Party. There is no better place than the Ashmolean to reflect on the ripples of history that radiate from the actions of a single will.

Dramatic Interventions

Last month I joined a trip to Warwickshire organised by the Friends of Stroud District Museum. The first stop was Compton Verney, a country house in a Capability Brown landscape and since mediæval times the ancestral pile of the Lords Willoughby de Broke. Until 1921. Years of emptiness and neglect followed before the estate was rescued by Sir Peter Moores, of the Littlewoods empire. His vision was to create an art gallery, somewhere central, in a rural setting. The result is a good use for the house, albeit with the obligatory Modernist carbuncle added on one side, though the collection inevitably feels thrown together by a quick dash round the auction rooms to pick up whatever good stuff happened to be for sale.

Many of the galleries were shut for an event, so I cannot say whether the idea works or not. One group of galleries that certainly does is devoted to folk art, mostly British, mostly 18th and 19th centuries. There are wonderfully naïve paintings of people, street scenes and prize animals, examples of quilting, and of those three-dimensional painted wooden signs that would hang outside inns and shops in a less literate age to denote the name or the trade carried on.

One of two temporary exhibitions was devoted to Stanley Spencer. The most striking contrast in Spencer’s paintings is always between the landscapes and those who sometimes inhabit them. Buildings and gardens are observed in minute detail, every shadow and reflection captured perfectly. Into these scenes, Spencer’s people and animals intrude like balloons, unbelievably comic characters that also form the inspiration for Beryl Cook’s fat ladies (as she herself acknowledged). Their transience seems magnified by the style: the only question is whether they will burst first or float away.

The second exhibition explored Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown’s work in the area, remodelling the landscape for a galaxy of aristocratic patrons. Or, more precisely, to quote the title, it explored his work in ‘Middle England’. Not quite Mercia but a step up from the Midlands, presumably in an attempt to appeal to the international audience.

With other galleries closed, I was lucky enough largely to have missed what was billed as a series of artistic ‘interventions’, where ‘artists’ dress up or reposition others’ works to create new ones in a bid to be ‘provocative’ and ‘surprising’. It sounds insufferably like a bunch of satirical comedians whose fount of material is drying up, leaving only giggles and sniggers to keep the audience awake until the curtain comes down. Most folk would probably call it stretching a point at best, pointless vandalism at worst, but it does seem to be a coming trend. All the more reason to shut down the arts business altogether and get these narcissistic misfits to try doing a real job.

The other stop on the tour was another intervention, architectural this time. The Royal Shakespeare Theatre at Stratford-on-Avon is an inter-war classic, the work of Elisabeth Scott, cousin of the Scott who designed the red telephone kiosk. During the Second World War, plans were made to evacuate Parliament to Stratford in the event of invasion, the theatre housing debates and nearby Charlecote earmarked as accommodation for Mr Speaker.

The big problem with Scott’s design was that it never worked as a theatre. The acoustics were awful and attempts to cram in extra seating made it more and more uncomfortable. I sat through Coriolanus in 1981 and while I remember little of the play I do remember the experience of sitting with my knees under my chin gazing down at some tiny figures on a stage badly obscured by the proscenium arch.

At last the Scott auditorium has been scooped out and replaced by one that works. It has been done with great respect for the historic building, though patched brickwork is patched brickwork and little can conceal the fact. The new observation tower, like a long neck paying homage to the Swan of Avon, is an inspired touch. The building’s complex history is best viewed from the other side, where neo-Gothic, Art Deco, Postmodernism or the latest dash of Brick Expressionism all vie for attention. It would have been simpler to demolish and start again. Much simpler. But instead Stratford has created a textbook example of conservation in practice, showing how to ‘preserve the best and improve the rest’. Look and learn.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Common Ground

In the late 19th century, England’s growing industrial cities began to cast about for clean water in the uplands. Birmingham Corporation and the infant London County Council both coveted the resources of the Elan valley in Radnorshire and in 1892 it was Birmingham that succeeded in obtaining the powers to acquire it and build the first of what are now seven dams on the Elan and its neighbour, the Claerwen. By 1904, water was flowing, entirely by gravity, 73 miles to the Frankley reservoir on the city’s edge. The mountains of Radnorshire drain swiftly into Mercia. Beyond the county’s eastern limit at Hergest Ridge, no higher ground intervenes this side of the Urals.

Though London lost, its ambition can only be admired. From the Cambrian Mountains to the capital is twice as far as to Birmingham. Today, it still seeks additional sources of supply from the Severn and Wye. Bristol too, despite its network of local reservoirs to collect the waters of Mendip, takes half its supply from the Severn via the Gloucester & Sharpness Canal.

Other losers included the communities of the old Elan valley, some 100 inhabitants displaced by the rising waters. The landowners were compensated; the tenant farmers were not. Among the buildings drowned were two small country houses, shown in evocative photographs in the Elan Valley Visitor Centre. One was Cwm Elan, where the poet Shelley stayed after being sent down from Oxford for writing The Necessity of Atheism.

Birmingham became the owner of 45,000 acres of water gathering-grounds in Radnorshire and its three Welsh neighbours, upon which were constructed the dams, control towers, roads, bridges, workshops and all the paraphernalia the project demanded. Including a new settlement, Elan Village. Beginning as an encampment of wooden huts, it had by the First World War become a tiny garden suburb with homes that would not look out of place in Bournville. Birmingham’s most distant council housing came complete with a school (below), the city’s arms carved on the bell-tower and its motto, ‘Forward’, underneath.

All passed to Welsh control with local government reorganisation in 1974 and then in 1989 into private ownership. A group of councils, led by Birmingham, challenged the arrangements for water privatisation, pointing out that they had never been compensated for the loss of their assets because the original transfer had been made within the public sector. They ended up the victims of a very artful conjuring trick. The regional water authorities that were to be sold had first been constituted as bodies made up of councillors from across their areas, then slimmed down in 1983 to bodies with a tighter executive focus, appointed by the Secretary of State, until finally they were described by the Minister responsible as “Companies Act companies in all but name”. An astonishing description of what at that time were not just businesses but public bodies with most of the extensive regulatory powers over water that today are held by the Environment Agency. The judiciary, naturally, ruled that Parliament could do as it pleased and the councils went away empty-handed.

Birmingham ratepayers saw more than their investment in water wiped out. When the electricity and gas departments were nationalised in the 1940’s, the outstanding capital debt was bought out too but not the value of the assets. When the Birmingham Municipal Bank merged with the Trustee Savings Bank of the Midlands in 1976, Birmingham councillors continued to sit on the board of the merged bank. But regional TSBs then combined into one national bank which ultimately floated itself on the Stock Exchange to raise capital for expansion, and to resolve the so-called “problem” that technically no-one actually owned it. Like most privatisations and demutualisations, it was free money, built up over generations, given away in one. On top of all this, the sale of council housing at outrageous discounts created the expectation of political payback and tied millions into debt-based finance.

In contrast, private owners of capital have always been treated with grovelling respect. Almost all of the Attlee nationalisations were funded by issuing Government stock, the interest on which was to be paid from the profits of the industries acquired. Coal was the great exception. The pits were paid for in cash because the mineworkers refused to go on working, even at one remove, for those whose greed had cost so many lives. Elsewhere, the deal was a very good one for investors. The financial decline of British Railways that led to the Beeching report in 1963 was partly precipitated by the need to pay interest on British Transport 3% Stock even in years when losses were made. Shareholders would have had to go without a dividend. Stockholders benefited from a brave new world of ‘heads I win, tails you lose’.

Under Thatcher, a policy arose of attacking every safeguard that prevented nationally, municipally and mutually owned wealth being shovelled into the pockets of the regime’s best friends. As a despotic Parliament repeatedly told equally elected bodies how to organise their affairs, respect for property rights became shamelessly one-sided. The point is taken. Fairness dictates that, when the wheel of political fortune has turned full circle and the common wealth is taken back into common ownership, not a penny in compensation need be paid. Not one penny. It would be unforgivably rude even to think of asking.

Holy Men, Holy Books

Minehead has three fine churches. St Peter, on the quay, was converted from a 17th century former salt store in 1910. St Andrew, in the lower town, is an elegant Victorian design by G.E. Street (left). St Michael, on the hillside (where else?), is 14th century with an elaborate 15th century tower and serves the thatched village that crawls up to meet it. One of its treasures is an oak hutch-chest, carved with heraldry and a quaint calvary, given to the church by one of its vicars, Richard Fitzjames (1440-1522). Another is the 14th century illuminated Sarum rite missal he owned. This, after many wanderings, was presented in 1949 to the church and is now displayed in an illuminable wall-safe, right next to the oak chest that still serves as a piece of furniture.

Richard Fytz Jamys – as the board of former incumbents on the wall spells it – was a remarkable churchman. His father was from Redlynch in Somerset, his mother from East Lulworth in Dorset. He and his brother founded the Free School at Bruton. He became Prebendary of Taunton, Warden of Merton College, Oxford, Rector of Aller and Vicar of Minehead, and then like other Wessex folk before him (Dunstan springs to mind) went east. He was successively bishop of Rochester, Chichester and finally London and was buried in Old St Paul’s. As Bishop of Rochester, he helped welcome Catherine of Aragon to England in 1501 for her marriage to Prince Arthur.

The Fitzjames Missal was bequeathed to his successor at St Paul’s, Cuthbert Tunstall (1474-1559), whose handwriting is probably that to be found on the last page. Here was a man whose roots lay at the opposite end of the kingdom. Tunstall is a village in north Lancashire, Cuthbert the name of Northumbria’s greatest saint, whose shrine is nothing less than Durham Cathedral. (It is recorded that St Cuthbert appeared to King Alfred in a dream, a legend recalled at Wells, where the main parish church and a paper mill both take his name.) Cuthbert Tunstall was born in Yorkshire of a Lancashire family and travelled widely before taking up his London see. Not long afterwards, he exchanged it for the more important see of Durham, also becoming the first President of the revived Council of the North.

At Durham were preserved the treasures of St Cuthbert, a unique collection of items associated with the saint, who died in 687. It is difficult to think of any other figure from so early a date who can be understood through so many personal objects. Still to be seen at Durham are his portable altar and his pectoral cross, set with garnets, and an ivory comb that may also have been Cuddy’s own. His corporax, a linen cloth used in celebrating the Eucharist, was long cherished as the Holy Banner of St Cuthbert, carried into battle against the Scots and by those pilgrims of grace in 1536 who by querying the dissolution of the northern abbeys so incurred King Henry’s wrath. A framed account in St Cuthbert’s at Wells tells of the banner’s end when Dean Whittingham’s wife, the sister of Calvin, “did most despitefully burn the robe in the fire”.

One other item survives, not in Durham but in London. What may well be St Cuthbert’s own copy of the Gospel of St John. It is a small item, pocket-sized, and not to be confused with the great Lindisfarne Gospels, made after Cuthbert’s death and in his honour, which have also found their way to the wen. The book is still in its original 7th century decorated red goatskin binding, making it the oldest intact book of European origin. And now it’s for sale.

The sellers are the Jesuits, based at Stonyhurst College in Lancashire, who have owned the book since 1769. Since 1979 it has been on loan to the British Library, who are now trying to find the £9 million asking price. To raise interest among the Northumbrians, they have even conceded that they will lend the book to Durham for six months in the year. Not an ideal solution. A 1,300-year-old book deserves some rest if it’s not to deteriorate. Rest in Durham, with the rest of the treasures.

Just what does it have to do with London? And how did it get separated in the first place? Legally, or illegally? Now that digital copies can be made of all the great manuscripts, the case for gathering them together in one place has gone. It’s time to think again about context, about where such things fit as historical objects that tell a stirring tale. And that way, we may hope, subject to the right conditions for conservation and security, many, many communities will get the chance to provide their greatest past with a greater future.


The West Somerset Railway is England’s longest heritage line, linking the busy resort of Minehead to the big trains at Taunton. Or almost. The track is intact to Taunton, which is how rail vehicles join and leave the WSR. But passengers have to find some other way to get to the start of the service at Bishops Lydeard (left), 6 miles north of Taunton by road. Daft. Absolutely. The WSR carries many more passengers today as a heritage line than it did under British Rail. But it could so easily be making a contribution to the real transport needs of the area. Who is responsible for this colossal lack of vision and why are they still in a job?

Back at the start of the month, I travelled on the line to Minehead, admiring the vast amount of work put in by the volunteers since the last train under BR auspices ran in 1971. Stations are themed to represent various GWR and BR period styles and a number house small museums. There’s even a Southern station at Washford – reactions from Paddington unprintable – accounted for by the presence of the Somerset & Dorset Railway Trust. There’ll be an opportunity for them to relocate to the real S&D in due course, naturally. Minehead was in a world of its own – the island of Sodor – as it played host to a ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’ day. I could have filled in my Junior Engineer’s Certificate and had it signed by the Fat Controller himself (above). But I can’t really spare the wall space.

Friday, July 1, 2011

The Devil’s Fire

“Not to know what happened before you were born is to be a child forever. For what is the time of a man, except it be interwoven with that memory of ancient things of a superior age?”
Marcus Tullius Cicero, 46 B.C.

Le Mont St Michel is indeed the wonder of the western world. Only the transept crossing of its great abbey church sits on the rock itself. The rest is built up on strongly pillared crypts. And more crypts. All rising up to the gilded St Michael atop the spire, brandishing the archangelic sword that acts as the abbey’s lightning conductor. Many times down the ages the abbey has been licked by ‘the devil’s fire’, as the monks named those conflagrations that tore through libraries and living quarters.

Attached to the north side of the church is a group of buildings known, rightly, as the Marvel. It rises up the side of the rock in three tiers of vast rooms one piled upon another. The Mont has all the features of a conventional monastery but here they have to be arranged vertically, not laterally.

The ascending rooms reflect the mediæval social order, with stores and an almonry for the poor at the bottom, guest accommodation for visiting aristocrats in the middle and the monks’ own refectory (left) and cloister at the top. The same three classes of ‘working men’, ‘fighting men’ and ‘praying men’ who appear in King Alfred’s commentaries four centuries earlier. The cloister (below) is a remarkable creation, the original roof garden, leading out from the side of the church with sweeping views across the blur of sea and sand from which the Mont erupts.

The Couesnon river, which formed the boundary between Brittany and Normandy, runs just to the west, or does today, and so the abbey’s history has been predominantly Norman rather than Breton. Come the Revolution and the abbey’s suppression, power passed to the authorities of the département of La Manche. The abbey’s illuminated manuscripts were carted off to the municipal library at Avranches, where those that survived further pilfering are now displayed in a spectacular new setting. The abbey’s more mundane records fared worse, burnt to ashes when the 3,000 files of the archives départementales at St Lô fell victim to Allied bombing in 1944.

Libraries and archives are always vulnerable to accidents but when conflict calls they can rarely be assured of complete safety. In the 20th century alone there were grievous losses in Louvain, Dublin, Naples, Warsaw, Dubrovnik and Sarajevo, all the result of bombing, shelling or simply inter-communal rage. In 1943 the Germans systematically destroyed the State archive of southern Italy – Europe’s second richest after the Vatican’s – as revenge for the Italians switching sides. Those they most disadvantaged included their own scholars, for whom the Naples record office was the first port of call for research on Friedrich von Hohenstaufen, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Sicily, who held cosmopolitan court at Palermo in the 13th century. Just how cosmopolitan can be seen from his coronation mantle, used at every imperial coronation thereafter and now displayed among the Habsburg treasures in Vienna. It is made of silk from Byzantium or Thebes and embroidered around the hem in Kufic script by a Mahometan craftsman in the royal workshop. The strangest of all the symbols of German unity.

At Naples, the royal archivist, Count Riccardo Filangieri, spent the post-war years reconstructing whatever he could, tracking down books, journals, unpublished notes, contemporary copies in other archives, and then publishing the results to minimise the risk of future loss. But mostly the essence of archives is that they house unique documents. The more that is destroyed, the bigger the holes in history become. A fresh start, a new dawn, liberation from the past, is often the rallying cry of revolutionaries, but their true motivation is always that to be found embedded in Cicero’s warning.


St Malo was from Wales, and supposedly a disciple of the Irish saint Brendan. But he ended up in Brittany, where a whole town is named after him. (So too are the Falkland Islands, las islas Malvinas.) During troubled times in the 1590’s, the town of St Malo declared itself independent of Brittany, though as the arms over the gate (above) show, it did return to the fold, four years later. The saying goes that a malouin is a man of St Malo first, a Breton, maybe, and a Frenchman if there’s anything left.

At the end of August 1944, there was little left of St Malo within the old walled town. The man in charge had planned another Stalingrad, insisting, “I am a German soldier and a German soldier does not surrender.” Eventually he did, after two weeks’ pounding that pulverised the mediæval cathedral and the elegant sea-captains’ houses that nestled within the ramparts.

The rebuilding deserves to win every award going. Guide books tell us that we have to look closely to spot what is new. Not quite so. There is restoration, there is reconstruction and there is replacement. The finesse goes down as the hierarchy proceeds. But the concern for honesty is matched by a concern for context and even the replacements respect the rules on height and massing and are finished in traditional materials. The cathedral spire is the one structure allowed to pierce the skyline. To wander the still-narrow lanes crammed with slate-roofed granite buildings is to forget, and certainly to forgive, their sleek post-war lines. Would that Exeter or Plymouth had shared the vision.

St Vincent’s Cathedral (left) is the high point of the rebuilding, a dark Gothic cavern lit by way of astonishing glass in reds and yellows and blues, set in patterns that seem to flicker like flames. In side chapels are the plain tombs of two famous malouins – Jacques Cartier, the explorer of Canada, and René Duguay-Trouin, the greatest of Louis XIV’s admirals. Nameless black slabs (below) set in the floor mark the graves of the unknown. Small incised crosses in the top left corner identify those known, presumably by their grave goods, to have been clerics. French conservation practice has a remarkably elegant ability to convey the absence of things – of information, of certainty, of what once was. Perhaps it began at the Restoration in 1814 when the Bourbons tried to piece together again the royal necropolis at St Denis, without trying to deny the comprehensive nature of the vandalism that had befallen it. (The very word ‘vandalism’ was first used in 1793.) Actions can often be reversed; history cannot. To undo without losing sight of what was done is a supremely subtle art.

In one bookshop I was able to find some histories of St Malo with photographs showing the devastation of war. In Britain, such books would be shelved beneath the title ‘Local Interest’. Here the shelves were labelled ‘Regionalism’, even though books on St Malo dominated the selection. There could hardly be a better example of the value to be placed on the region as the perceived protector of the particular. In Wessex, the term has been abused to mean an arm of central government, created to dismantle the particular. We should fight for it not only because it is ours by right but because it is a language we share with so many in our position throughout the continent of Europe.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Beginnings and Endings

Coming from Caen, Dol is one of the very first towns in Brittany. It was also where the independent Breton state really got started, where Nominoë was acclaimed ruler of Brittany in 848 after throwing off the Carolingian yoke. There is a rather pathetic statue of the man (left) on the green outside the cathedral, about 4’ tall, as tall as a Breton is allowed to stand under French rule. Maybe Nominoë really was a midget, but somehow I doubt it.

On the Grande Rue des Stuarts, the town hall flies the Breton flag, along with those of France, Europe and Dol-de-Bretagne itself. Most mairies I passed flanked France with Brittany and Europe, something unimaginable not so long ago. It is a fact that Europe, for all the anti-centralist criticisms that can be and are made, is also the chisel with which to break apart the unitary state. France and Brittany? A public assault on the constitution. France and Europe? A public sign of sound diplomacy. France, Europe and Brittany? Well, alright then. Next time I change the car, I’ll be having a Wessex flag sticker and a European one. The British and the English can forget it unless they grow some manners. Is there a wyvern in the picture? The van is advertising some Arthurian eatery and Arthur appears to be wearing the Wessex wyvern. On closer examination it turns out to be a very badly drawn lion but it was worth taking the snap to find out.

The cathedral at Dol is a sacred site of special importance to Bretons. It was founded by a Welshman, St Samson, in the 6th century and its bishop was raised to the status of archbishop by Nominoë. Three hundred years later, in 1199, Pope Innocent III, pressed by Tours, nullified the decree. In the 7th century a Church Council held at Tours had excommunicated the Breton clergy for holding Mass in the home and travelling with their women. No wonder they weren’t to be trusted with self-government. Bishop Thomas James, who died in 1504, has a magnificent Renaissance tomb in the cathedral, one of the few monuments to survive the Revolution. It was the work of two Florentine brothers, one of whom went on to design the tomb of Louis XII and Anne of Brittany at St Denis. The two virile satyrs (above) are a rather unusual motif for a bishop’s memorial but this is Brittany.

If Dol represents independent Brittany’s beginnings, then its endings are to be found in Dinan. With its nearly-complete mediæval walls, its streets packed with half-timbered shops, this is one city that has stepped straight out of dungeons-and-dragons. St Saviour’s, the older of its two main churches, was founded by a returning crusader and offers an eclectic mix of styles, including Byzantine and Persian influences. Not to mention a couple of camels (above).

The newer church, St Malo’s, was begun in 1490 under the patronage of the Duchess Anne and completed in the 19th century. Anne makes an appearance in brightly coloured glass on the north wall, depicting her entry into the city in 1505 (left). As a Queen of France, Anne of Brittany may be the one Breton ruler of whom French people have heard. Named after Brittany’s patron saint, she was also, for 25 years, its last truly independent ruler. It is traditional to refer to her as ‘La Bonne Duchesse’, who worked tirelessly to maximise concessions to Brittany ahead of an inevitable annexation. She died at the same age as Princess Diana, a sure way to saintliness. A less sympathetic modern assessment has her as a sentimental teenager whose vanity cost Brittany its independence.

The truth may be somewhere in between. Along with the trail of French gold that led to her advisers. The French records are unreliable and the Breton ones were conveniently confiscated. Strange to relate, it may be that Breton history will be more easily tracked down in the archives of England, Spain or Austria. They are as good a place to begin as any.

Democracy in Chains

“The French identity swings between euphoria linked with contemplation of its own wealth and diversity, and anguish that this very diversity can be the cause of dismemberment. In the end, it is simpler to be Breton than French.”
Jean-Pierre Le Mat, History of Brittany (2006)

Strictly speaking, it is no longer a crime to advocate Breton nationalism. But the French penal code continues to give special protection to ‘the fundamental interests of the nation’ – its own – and defines these to include its territorial integrity. That of Brittany gets no protection whatsoever, regardless of what the residents of Nantes may think. France claims to be the fount of all universal values, yet upholds them only when expressed in its own preening image. Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights specifically allows for free speech to be curtailed where it touches upon territorial integrity. Such stubborn resistance to the will of the oppressed is a significant cause of conflict worldwide. Why do states still find it so hard to ‘let my people go’?

The illustrations I have chosen were captured in St Malo (1 & 2), Rennes (3 & 4) and Dinan. Each in its own way suggests that the Breton identity is alive and kicking. But these are the kinds of thing to be found in any Cornish tourist town too and the Cornish identity can be a shrinking shadow at times. (Not even Cornwall’s MPs make it their job to defend Cornwall.) Is the Breton identity something put on for the tourists, something ‘folklorique’ that makes a nice tea-towel? Something that melts away into the mist if politics is mentioned? Undoubtedly there’s an element of that but also much that will be invisible to the short-term visitor, apart from occasional graffiti demanding Brittany's freedom. The Internet is one place where folk can be themselves that lies largely beyond the homogenisers’ grasp. French law defines the Breton language as an anachronism left over from the ancien régime but in cyberspace it is possible that the tables will be turned.

Rennes, seat of the regional council, appears much less Breton than Cardiff appears Welsh. In Edinburgh, the tartan shortbread shops run the length of Princes Street but there is no Rennes equivalent. If a tourist comes to Rennes, looking for Brittany, what do they find? Rennes has been looking east for centuries. Gargantuan civil engineering and town planning schemes during the 19th and 20th have transformed it into a miniature Paris. (One impressive benefit is that Rennes has a metro system, for an urban area comparable in size to Bristol.) Yet to compare the Michelin town centre map of today with one from 20 years ago does reveal important changes. The House of Culture is now the National Theatre of Brittany. The Museum of Brittany has a purpose-built new home (though all the best items will still be in Paris). And the Palais de Justice is now marked by its old name of Palais du Parlement.

In 1994, fire devastated the 17th century parlement building, originally paid for by the province levying a tax on wine and cider. All has been carefully reconstructed (left) and today it houses the regional appeal court, its jurisdiction happily coterminous in area with that of the former parlement. The royal arms on the ceiling in one of the main rooms show three lilies of France alongside the ermine field of Brittany: a reminder that it was as Duke, not as King, that power was exercised. It was here during the 18th century that La Chalotais first made explicit the cause of Breton nationalism. Here too, in 1764, the magistrates ‘went on strike’, refusing to register the law for a new tax, a last act of defiance before the Revolution made dissent unthinkable.

I travelled both ways with Brittany Ferries, outward from Plymouth to Roscoff, homeward from St Malo to Portsmouth. To look at the map of routes is to see how the western Channel is becoming a community of interest, distinct from the eastern Channel with its focus on the Tunnel and the three capitals which that serves. One more reason for Wessex to make its own way in the world and not be imprisoned by a mindset that always has to prioritise English or British unity, even at our own expense. Regional councils in France are now responsible for many of their ports and airports: they’ll soon be buying up ours in Wessex too if we’re not quick to adapt to new realities.

Coming into Roscoff, I was awoken through the speakers by music, Celtic music with pipes and a harp. Brittany Ferries then is clearly Breton, but it tries equally hard to be French. I have to ask why France needs any help. To see what a grip it has is to confirm that for the sake of liberty, of equality, of fraternity, the French State, like Prussia before it, must disappear. At the very least in Brittany. The first steps have been taken. Brittany Regional Council has four autonomist councillors out of 83, following an electoral breakthrough in 2004. What Brittany needs now is its own Alex Salmond. And he or she cannot come soon enough.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Castles That Never Were

Last weekend I was in Wiltshire with the Glastonbury Antiquarian Society, visiting the two Wardour Castles, neither of which is a castle in the true sense of the word.

Old Wardour Castle (left) is an English Heritage property. It was built in the late 14th century as a showy fortified house rather than a fortress with real military potential; later additional comforts like larger windows made it less defensible still. Despite this it was besieged and captured in the Civil War. The owner then besieged it again in an attempt to get it back but the gunpowder went off at the wrong moment. He got his home back. Or rather, what was left of it.

The master mason at Wardour was William Wynford, who also worked on Windsor Castle and the cathedrals at Wells and Winchester. (We do do ‘W’s in Wessex.) In this case inspiration was drawn from contemporary French hexagonal castles, a fashion import that resulted from the Hundred Years War and which in this precise form is unique in Britain. The Elizabethan alterations appear to have been the work of Robert Smythson, designer of Longleat for the neighbouring Thynne family.

The owners of Wardour from the 16th century until modern times were an old Cornish family, the intensely Catholic Arundells. (Sir Humphrey Arundell was the leader of the Cornish forces in the Prayer Book Rebellion of 1549; Anne Arundell was the wife of Lord Baltimore, the founder of Maryland.) Their other estates were at Lanherne in Cornwall; my great-great-grandparents were married there in 1833, theirs being the only Catholic marriage among my recent ancestors. Wardour, like Lanherne, was an estate populated by Catholics, following the example of the squire. On a small scale, cuius regio, eius religio. By the late 18th century, this part of Wiltshire was reported to have the largest Catholic population outside London.

At the Dissolution, Sir Thomas Arundell obtained several of the estates of Shaftesbury Abbey, possibly to hold in trust for a restoration of the old order that never came. In 1873, the family owned about 182 acres (plus manorial rights) in Cornwall and 6,037 in Wiltshire. After the destruction of Old Wardour Castle they had settled nearby at Breamore in Hampshire, before returning in the 18th century to build the ‘new’ Wardour Castle, a severe Palladian mansion with grounds by ‘Capability’ Brown. In fact, a most unlikely building to which to give the name of ‘Wardour Castle’. The choice reveals a traditionalism that runs very deep.

The house is now flats but its chapel in the west wing survives in all its finery. It was designed by James Paine and extended by the young John (later Sir John) Soane (after whom the extraordinary London museum is named). The multi-marbled altar (left) was designed by Giacomo Quarenghi, who later worked on St Petersburg for Catherine the Great. The sarcophagus enclosed by the altar contains bones from the Roman catacombs. These were a gift to the Arundells from Pope Alexander VII, rather unconvincingly identified as those of the martyrs Primus and Secundus. The whole edifice is a reminder that while Catholicism was frowned upon in 18th century Britain, and its adherents subjected to a wide range of disabilities, it was far from being actively persecuted. Indeed, in 1780 the Gordon Riots occurred in London in protest against increased leniency. The date falls between Paine’s work at Wardour and Soane’s.

The chapel possesses an exceptional collection of vestments, including the so-called Westminster Chasuble (left), parts of which are 15th century Flemish work and bear the arms of Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy (encircled with the collar of the Golden Fleece) and those of his wife, Margaret of York. The couple were married at Westminster Abbey in 1468 by Richard Beauchamp, Bishop of Salisbury and the original chasuble is thought to have been their gift to the Abbey.

Other features are later ornamentation – the lily of France, the Tudor rose, the portcullis of the Beauforts and, giving the date away, the pomegranate, the badge of Catherine of Aragon. The word ‘pomegranate’ comes from the Latin for ‘seeded apple’ but the fruit was also used as a heraldic pun, the ‘apple of Granada’ and appears today in the royal arms of Spain. In Greek myth, the pomegranate is a symbol of the indissolubility of marriage. With that precedent held in mind, that Catherine was never going to leave quietly.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Glastonbury Rediscovered

Post-excavation reporting is the Achilles’ heel of archæology. While the data recovered remain in private hands, or inside the diggers’ brains, the risk of loss is such that you might wish it had all been left in the ground for later. When Dr C.A. Ralegh Radford excavated Tintagel in the 1930's, he made careful notes but most were destroyed, still unpublished, in the Exeter blitz. After the war, he led several seasons of digging at Glastonbury Abbey but was still writing-up his findings in his nineties and died in 1999 with the work unfinished.

Fortunately, the papers were rescued for the National Monuments Record in Swindon and are now the subject of a trans-Wessex research project led by Reading University that will see the report published at last and placed on-line for all to view. Last week, the Abbey trustees hosted a symposium to report on progress. Experts gave guided tours of the ruins before those attending – several hundred people – crammed in to the Town Hall to be treated to presentations both scholarly and entertaining.

Sorting out the mess left by the 20th century diggers is only one part of the project. Complementary studies are also underway that will enable future excavations to be far more focused in their objectives. A surprising amount can be learnt from the stones themselves, both standing and fallen. Geology reveals economic relations with specific quarries, sculptural style links with other areas, while unexpected changes of pattern in the masonry can enable distinct campaigns of building to be highlighted. The pottery finds – tens of thousands of fragments – have been analysed and dated, some to the Roman/Saxon transition and earlier. Where the products of known kilns across the region can be identified, it is possible to reconstruct and map Glastonbury’s bulk-buying policies through the centuries leading up to dissolution.

Glastonbury is a geophysicist’s nightmare, with layer upon layer of building and rebuilding, punctuated with inaccessible areas where trees get in the way or ferrous objects like the visitor information plaques cast magnetic ‘shadows’ up to 7 metres wide. The best results from the recent survey are therefore obtainable away from the abbey church and among the domestic quarters. Some clearly indicate the ghostly outlines of features previously unsuspected and which will give plenty of food for thought for generations to come.

It is to be hoped that this project will mark the beginning and not the end of research into this precious and complex site. If so, then Glastonbury may acquire a reputation for serious scholarship to match its more dubious association with ‘New Age’ fantasy.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Aldhelm in South Dorset

This year’s Wessex Society tour, led by Jim Gunter, was of sites on the Isle of Purbeck and took place on 22nd May, the Sunday before St Aldhelm’s Day. It began at Wareham, a burial place of Wessex kings and one of the towns fortified by Alfred against the Danes. The earthen ramparts (left) remain spectacular, even after a thousand years of erosion. An 1897 guide to the town described them as “a relic unique in the kingdom, and of which the town is justly proud”. The same booklet says of Wareham that “lately it is becoming more appreciated by those who have retired from business and are looking for a healthy spot with good communication to London in which to settle down”. Nothing new there then.

Two churches claim to be the one founded here by Aldhelm. Lady St Mary is the town’s largest church, with some surviving features of Saxon date within, but it was closed for repairs. The ‘Lady’ prefix is thought to be unique. St Martin-on-the-Wall (left) dates from about 1020. Today, perhaps rather incongruously, it is most famous for housing Eric Kennington’s stone effigy of Lawrence of Arabia, who is buried at Moreton. The effigy ended up here after St Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey and Salisbury Cathedral had all rejected it. It had to go somewhere.

Lunch was at the Bankes Arms at Corfe Castle, named after the family who defended the castle against Parliament in 1646. Defeated, Lady Bankes got to keep the castle keys, which are preserved to this day at the family’s later home, Kingston Lacy, near Wimborne, where they are hung on the wall in the library.

Corfe Castle itself was not on the programme, though the beer garden provided an excellent view of the ruins (above) and of the steam traction on the Swanage Railway. The village has an unusual memorial (below) to King Edward the Martyr, murdered here in 978 by his step-mother. (And so the throne passed to her son, Ethelred, ready or not, and things were never so good again.)

Thence to the idyllic village of Worth Matravers, from where we walked to St Aldhelm’s Head. The chapel here (below) is Norman and may have replaced an earlier building. Oddly for a chapel, it is the angles, not the walls, that are oriented to the cardinal points. The walls are 7.77 metres long. Now I know that Aldhelm was very keen on the number seven, but to get the figures right in the metric system a thousand years before its invention is a pretty clever trick.

The chapel is St Aldhelm’s, and so, locally, is the headland. There is a St Aldhelm’s Quarry along the way. The coastal lookout thinks itself to be at “St Alban’s Head”, the name which Admiralty charts and those ignorant of Aldhelm have used for centuries, substituting for the truth a better-known Roman legionary martyred in 304. We look forward to the maritime authorities correcting this error, one that is now widespread but an error nonetheless. Some simple leadership from the top would get it sorted. (And then we might think about spelling it ‘St Ealdhelm’, as they do in Sherborne.)

The chapel, the coastal lookout and one-time coastguard cottages stand in a remote and very windswept spot about 3 miles from the village. Having followed a signpost that said it was 1½ miles, we eventually came to another telling us it was still 1½ miles. It does seem we can be imprecise about these things in Wessex. At other times, precision matters; the headland is home to a monument recording its pioneering role in radar research early in the Second World War. All trace of that presence has now gone, leaving the headland to nature and to history.

Purbeck is not in fact an island but a peninsula, crossed by a ridge with one broad gap in which stands the rocky stopper on which Corfe Castle is built. Returning from the coast the view of Corfe is one of the most dramatic in Wessex, but dangerous to photograph if you happen to be at the wheel. You’ll just have to experience it for yourself.

Landscapes of Power

In Wales’ 1000 Best Heritage Sites, Terry Breverton records that, in the 1980’s, the so-called ‘Roman Well’ at Barry Island was built over without proper excavation and then, in the 1990’s, the site of St Baruc’s Holy Well also disappeared under a modern housing estate. Wales has more castles per square mile than anywhere else in the world, he tells us. In the 19th century it also had the largest number of places of worship in the world, per head of population. And on the basis of Barry and Newport, I think Wales today can claim the highest proportion of philistines too.

It was rather different in the years around the First World War. Major Edgar Jones, the headmaster of Barry County School from 1899 to 1933, was an enthusiastic antiquarian with a special interest in the Tinkinswood Burial Chamber, which stands at the top of a field to the north of Barry and west of Cardiff. Excavated in 1914, Tinkinswood is a Neolithic burial chamber of the ‘Cotswold-Severn’ type, surrounded by other features of the period. The excavators found the remains of at least 50 people within. The massive capstone weighs around 40 tons and may be the largest in Europe. And it pre-dates Stonehenge by 1,000 years.

Major Jones passed on his enthusiasm for Tinkinswood to my father, one of his pupils. (Professor Glyn Daniel was another; so too was Plaid Cymru’s Gwynfor Evans.) As a youngster I was taken to see the site and this month I was back for a second glance. My mother could never remember the name and would refer to it as ‘Tinkerbell’s Tomb’. (The real origin of the name appears to be ‘Tinker’s Wood’, which is how it was known until the 1940’s.)

Graffiti show that the site is popular with ‘pagans’. Or, to put it bluntly, silly children who sit around making up stories about the prehistoric and getting angry with those who prefer a less lazy approach, like looking logically at the data. I can’t forget the picture I once saw, done in psychedelic colours, of a flying saucer arriving at the Rollright Stones. At least the ‘pagans’ can learn. Others appear incapable. Officialdom could maybe win more friends by not placing a pylon in the very next field. Is it meant to be a dramatic contrast? Post-modern irony? Or just sheer incompetence?

On down the road is Duffryn House, built in the 1890’s for the Cory family (coal and shipping, when such things were at their height). Vale of Glamorgan Council owns it now, and prefers to spell it ‘Dyffryn’. The house features a vast entrance hall with a stained glass window showing Queen Elizabeth at Tilbury. It is also famous for its gigantic chimneypieces, antiques that maybe came from the continent. First impressions demand a caption. Something like ‘Trains for Budapest depart from Platform…’? The gardens are open to the public but the house is used for conferences and there is no other way inside. The gardens are magnificent, but Hamlet without the prince.

The gardens were more magnificent still but maintenance has been neglected and lottery money is only now restoring their former glory. Dyffryn Gardens have a little of everything: an arboretum, a rockery, a croquet lawn, fountains, and a series of outdoor ‘rooms’, which pre-date the better-known examples at Hidcote and Sissinghurst. It all cost money and it all costs money. So what to do about that?

The Right will tell you not to bother yourself over the destruction of heritage; the next generation of robber barons will always produce something better. Or fool itself that that is what it’s doing, as long as the architect says so. The Left will defend heritage only if it is drained of authentic meaning and smothered in politically correct goo instead, and will also insist on adding to it, pointless palaces of culture and the like that create work for work’s sake. The East of England Regional Development Agency provided us with a prime example of such architectural exhibitionism in its completely freeform competition to find “a visionary plan for a landmark, or series of landmarks”, “an icon that will foster a sense of identity for the region as a whole”, which would be “a fantastic opportunity for us to come together as a region and decide how to present ourselves to the rest of the world”. Ozymandias no doubt thought the same. How’s that £2 million giant horse in Kent coming along? Maybe some giant droppings could be included?

A resource-constrained future will have to make choices. My guess is that it will continue to make the wrong ones. It will be keeping the tepid bathwater and throwing out the treasured baby, because nothing gives greater offence to the untalented than the persistent evidence of unapproachable genius. What is really needed is a moratorium on the new, or more especially on the outrageously, expensively new, on gesture art. ‘Progress’ was meant to rid us of spoilt egos casting their power and wealth in all directions in a riot of supremely detached uselessness. The conservation world has more than enough to be getting on with, without the 21st century adding its own grands projets to the burden. Tread lightly on the earth, and think responsibly, not least of the grandchildren’s fast-emptying pockets.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Mercia’s Mansion of Marvels

Charlecote Park, near Stratford, its front garden tumbling down to the Avon, tries hard not to be the average National Trust house. The deer park is marked by a wooden fence built to a mediæval design (left). The varying verticals make it impossible for deer to judge the true height of the fence and so whether it is safe to jump. Simple but effective. The deer have a special place in Charlecote’s history; young Will Shakespeare is alleged to have been caught poaching one and to have been tried on the premises by the unsympathetic owner, Sir Thomas Lucy, J.P. It's a plausible tale. Who else could be the inspiration for Justice Shallow in The Merry Wives of Windsor? And for the words of King Lear, ‘change places; and, handy-dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief?’

The Lucy ancestry marches round the ground floor windows in heraldic stained glass, tracing the family’s descent from the Royal House of Wessex. The glass is 19th century, as is much of the Tudor-looking house. Yes, it’s a fake but it looks great. Rather better in fact than today’s warmed-up neo-Modernism, pretending to be a 1960’s copy of a 1920’s idea but still somehow ‘contemporary’. The best fakers are honest about it. Charlecote does indeed have its Victorian date stones set in the mellow red brickwork. Stables and coach houses (below) have the look of engine sheds on the railways. And which inspired which?

At the foot of the stairs, a case displays the summons of Richard Lucy to Barebone's Parliament in 1653. It is signed by Oliver Cromwell. Of anything so vulgar and unnecessary as an election there is no mention. In the antlered Great Hall, one of the genuinely Tudor rooms, stands the vast pietre dure table that once graced King Edward’s Gallery in Fonthill Abbey, William Beckford’s jerry-built jewel box in Wiltshire. Beckford commissioned the wooden base for the table top, which he acquired in France, brought there from the Borghese Palace in Rome by Napoleon Bonaparte. Other furniture and objets d’art from Beckford’s collection are to be found in other rooms. Whose taste today, I wonder, will set the standard for houses that come to the Trust in 200 years time? The ageing rock star, or the footballer’s wife? Obviously not the business tycoon, not in the first generation. Too busy making the money to buy any posh tat.

Almost the only purchase I made was in the second-hand bookshop. Here I could pick up a copy of The Birmingham Post Year Book and Who’s Who 1958-59. I have been collecting almanacks of various kinds for over 30 years, with back issues reaching into Queen Vic’s reign. Each is a treasure trove of information on how things really were. Not the smooth generalisations of journalists and agenda-pushing historians. Just the unself-conscious nuts and bolts of who did what and what was essential to know.

A year book like Birmingham’s reveals a world poised to leap from 50’s austerity into the environmental exterminism of the 60’s. In a special article, Sir Herbert Manzoni, City Engineer & Surveyor, enthuses over plans for comprehensive redevelopment of 2½ square miles of property as the inner and middle ring roads are rolled-out. His authority, Birmingham Corporation, proudly listing in detail its civic plate, is organised into over 30 committees of aldermen and councillors, managing everything from its smallholdings in Staffordshire to its waterworks in Wales. Birmingham was the only municipality to run its own savings bank. About the only thing it didn’t run was the telephone network. Hull Corporation even managed that, with cream-coloured kiosks in place of Post Office red.

It may have been a world still grinding along in the grooves of war, unquestioning in its obedience, armed to the teeth for Armageddon. And as predictable as clockwork, with big cogs and little cogs allotted their turns. But a dip into how it used to be done, this interlocking, self-supporting sense of community, rooted in local identity, can reveal just how far we have allowed our collective mainspring to unwind.

Friday, April 1, 2011

The Pearl of Flanders

St Pancras (left) was built for trains to Mercia and Northumbria, not for those going the other way. Sandwiched between Euston and King’s Cross, it offers continentals easy connections to the most parts, though Wessex understandably comes off worse. Barlow’s red bricks, white mortar and sky blue roof provide a thrilling front door to modern Britain.

The Gare de Lille-Europe is another story, a steel and concrete cave of desolation that could double as a film-set for 1984. Only the rats are missing. The cult of maniacal ugliness that began with Le Corbusier is thriving in France. It is propelled into the future through being taught as dogma in schools of architecture worldwide. But what of its past? Where does it come from, this notion that humanity has ‘done’ beauty and cannot be allowed to return to it?

The best antidote is a weekend in Bruges, where horrors do exist but are mercifully few. Belgium is as British as it can be without ceasing to be Belgian. It has pubs. And chips. Red pillar boxes. Quirky eccentricities. Tintin. Considering how many times the map of Europe has been redrawn, we in Britain may think that our institutions of State provide us with an unequalled continuity. In fact, in many parts of the continent, that continuity is provided by other, local traditions that we have neglected. Bruges, with its almshouses and ancient fraternities, can be reminiscent of Salisbury or Winchester, though like both it faces a constant battle against developers and modernisers. I suspect that its guilds and processions do have more life in them than ours and are not maintained just for the tourists.

One of the fraternities is the Noble Brotherhood of the Holy Blood, formed to protect and promote a relic, supposedly of the blood of Jesus, brought back from the Crusades. The relic rests in a rock crystal container, inside a gold and glass one dated 1388, inside an ornate shrine, in an upstairs chapel next to the Town Hall. There are very few places in England where it is possible to get as close to the Middle Ages as this, even if the gilded bronze statues outside (above) were made in 1893. The relic has been well-guarded, surviving the Calvinists, the Jacobins and two world wars.

Wessex had its own such relic, the Holy Blood of Hayles, a gift to Hayles Abbey near Winchcombe from Edmund, the son of its founder, Richard, Earl of Cornwall and King of the Romans. Edmund had bought it from the Count of Holland, complete with certificate of authenticity. Come the Reformation, the relic did not even outlast the abbey. It was suspected that the blood was actually that of a duck, regularly renewed. The offending piece of quackery was taken to London in 1539 and examination concluded that it was “honey clarified and coloured with saffron”. It was then burnt at Paul’s Cross after a suitably fiery sermon against idolatry.

On BBC4 in 2008, Jonathan Meades presented ‘Magnetic North’, a brilliant evocation of that seaboard region stretching from the northern tip of France to wrap around the shores of the Baltic, taking in all those cities so influenced by the trading links of the Hansa. Look at the stepped gables, the canalside warehouses, the market squares and pinnacled public buildings, towering above all the Gothic in soaring brick and try to guess the country. Not a chance. This is generic northern European, as ubiquitous as the herring.

The wealth of Flanders came from woollen cloth, a fact not lost on Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, who founded the Order of the Golden Fleece at Bruges in 1430. Two of the city’s many churches – mostly the size of small cathedrals – were venues for later meetings of the knights during that century. In both cases the event was marked by placing above the choir stalls painted boards bearing their coats of arms. Those of King Edward IV – France’s lilies quartered with England’s lions – are included. Edward’s host at his installation was Louis de Gruuthuse, known as Lewis de Bruges, whom the king made Earl of Winchester for his troubles.

More ancestral heraldry is to be found on the tombs of Charles the Bold, the last of the Dukes, and his daughter Mary of Burgundy, in the Church of Our Lady (left). Mary’s step-mother was Margaret of York, sister of that Edward IV. William Caxton was Margaret’s secretary. Burgundian trade depended on good relations with England, relations that King Louis XI of France did all he could to poison, including undermining Edward's credit with the international bankers in a bid to render him unable to fund Margaret's dowry. Clearly, Edward could have done with that treasure chest from Passport to Pimlico.

Our Lady’s Church was founded to house relics of St Boniface, one of the most successful of Wessex exports, whose silver reliquary is displayed in the choir. Others with Wessex connections followed him to Bruges, including his niece St Walburga (745); Emma, the widow of King Cnut (1037-40); Gunhilda, the sister of King Harold (1067-87); John Wycliffe (1374); the exiled King Charles II (1656-59); and the Bristolian poet Robert Southey (1816). And so should everyone who wishes to see Europe at its best.