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 mediƦval 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.