Thursday, 5 March 2015

On Going A Journey

The soul of a journey is liberty, perfect liberty, to think, feel, do just as one pleases. We go a journey chiefly to be free of all impediments and of all inconveniences; to leave ourselves behind, much more to get rid of others.  William Hazlitt, ''On Going A Journey',Table Talk, 1821.


  The light was just dawning when I set out on my journey. Four hours later I'm standing in the nave of Worcester Cathedral, whispering into my mobile, asking my Eldest son to meet me so that I can drive him and his girlfriend home. They have been on a short holiday, riding a canal boat from Birmingham, but now their time is up and I have agreed to drive them back to Essex and home. So here I am, 9 45 in the morning, in a medieval colossus on the other side of England from where I live.

Worcester Cathedral, on the banks of the Severn

The Cathedral is a fascinating building, its life beginning as a Priory back in the Anglo-Saxon period. Nothing remains of that structure, but the present building was constructed between the eleventh and sixteenth centuries, and as such represents every style of architecture that was practiced during those years. I have only been here once before, back in 1998, and recall walking the banks of the Severn to the rear of the Cathedral. Along that bank is a tunnel, and upon the walls of that tunnel is a group of plaques representing the water levels of various floods. The Severn is notorious for bursting its banks and, indeed, it did so again a few weeks after that visit at the end of last century. I have had many occasions to use the Worcester bypass on my way to my Powys bolthole, and more than once have I witnessed the Severn floodplain turning into a colossal lake.

It won't take long for my son to reach me, so I make a quick tourist round of some of the Cathedral's internal features. The ashes of Stanley Baldwin are buried in the nave. He was Prime Minister three times, dominated national politics between the two World Wars and is the only Prime Minister to date who served under three monarchs - George V, Edward VIII and George VI. I linger at the chantry chapel of Arthur Tudor, who died at Ludlow Castle during his mid-teens, freeing his widow Catherine of Aragon to marry her brother-in-law Henry. I wander towards the tomb of King John, who requested burial here before dying of dysentery at Newark in 1216, only to be startled by the sight of a camera crew clustered around the chipped effigy. I wheel around and stride away, affecting a casual air, and that is how I inadvertently ended up in the background of a BBC documentary marking the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta.


Eldest son arrives, and we take a short walk to the boat moored on the Worcester & Birmingham Canal to pick up his girlfriend. One cup of coffee later, we set out on our drive across the country, back home to Essex. But, as usual when we are going a journey, we intend to make the most of it.


A few miles to the south, at the confluence of the Rivers Severn and Avon, lies another town famous for flooding. Its Abbey is the resting place of members of the Despenser family, Marcher Lords infamous in the reigns of the early Edwards, and George Duke of Clarence, brother to Edward IV and Richard III. He was executed for treason in 1478, supposedly choosing his own method of leaving the world by being drowned in a butt of Malmsey wine.

Tewkesbury Abbey

Battle of Tewkesbury, depicted in the Ghent MS

A glass coffin in the crypt supposedly contains the bones of George Duke of Clarence and his wife, Isabel Neville.

The town and its Abbey played an important role during the Wars Of The Roses, as a decisive battle was fought here. In 1471, flush from his recent victory at Barnet where he had defeated the powerful Earl Of Warwick, Edward IV of York engaged the Lancastrian forces headed by Margaret of Anjou, husband of the imprisoned Henry VI. The Yorkists won the day, several Lancastrian leaders sought sanctuary in the Abbey but were dragged out and beheaded, and the heir of Henry - Edward of Westminster - was murdered. Henry VI died shortly afterward, probably bashed on the head while praying in a chapel in the Tower of London. The Yorkists dominated the monarchy for the next fourteen years, until the two Houses were united by the marriage of Henry Tudor to Elizabeth of York.

After visiting the Abbey, we crossed the road and took lunch in a tea shop, a building dating back hundreds of years. Its walls were somewhat cluttered with photographs and other decor, but the cream teas were welcome enough.

Broadway Tower

After lunch, we drive northeast into the Vale of Evesham, reaching the A44 ( my favourite road) and climbing up to the scarp of the Cotswolds. Here, overlooking the Vale and a couple of miles shy of the village Bourton On The Hill, we stop to pay our respects to the best view in Worcestershire.

The Broadway Tower stands 65 feet high upon the second highest point in the Cotswolds. The Earl of Coventry had it built in 1798 as a folly, constructed by the architect James Wyatt to a design by the famed landscape gardener Lancelot 'Capability' Brown. The apparent reason for its construction is a typical example of British aristocratic idiosyncracy - seemingly, the Earl's wife wanted to see if her Cotswolds estates were visible from her home at Croome Court, now a National Trust property. The answer is 'yes'.

The Tower was acquired in 1827 by Sir Thomas Phillips, whose ambition was to own a copy of every book ever printed. Although he never fulfilled this ambition, he did use the Tower to house his printing press and 60,000 manuscripts. Later in the century, it was used as a retreat by artists, particularly those of the Pre-Raphaelite and Arts & Crafts movements. William Morris described it as "The most inconvenient and the most delightful place ever seen... how the clean aromatic wind blew the aches out of our tired bodies, and how good it all was." It inspired him to form the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings in 1877.

In the 20th century, thanks to its lofty position, Broadway Tower was a natural spot for the Royal Observer Corps to observe the movement of enemy planes, and indeed an enemy bomber crashed on the scarp in 1943, only a couple of hundred metres from the Tower, with the demise of all its crew despite the heroic rescue efforts of the tenant farmer. During the 'Cold War', when the fear of attack from the Soviet Union was paramount, an underground bunker was constructed 50 yards from the Tower, mostly for the purpose of monitoring nuclear fallout. It was mothballed in 1991, but remains fully equipped.

Ascending by spiral staircase the interior of the Tower, one finds each level a small museum, each devoted to aspects of the building's past; thus, you have a room dedicated to the Pre-Raphaelites, another to the second World War and another to the Bunker. Lastly, of course, the staircase opens out onto the crenellated roof, and the visitor is treated to one of the most astonishing and far-reaching views in Britain.

To the East, a view can be seen across the Cotswolds all the way to Buckinghamshire. To the North, the outskirts of the Birmingham conurbation and the rump of the Wenlock Edge hills in Shropshire. A Western view takes you across the Radnor Forest to the spine of the Cambrian mountains in Mid-Wales. Scanning toward the South will reveal the Black Mountains and, beyond, the cloud-shrouded Brecon Beacons. If you visit, make sure you visit on a very clear day!

To quote Hazlitt (again!): 'Distant objects please because, in the first place, they imply an idea of space and magnitude, and because, not being obtruded too close upon the eye, we clothe them with the indistinct and airy eyes of fancy. In looking at the misty mountain-tops that bound the horizon, the mind is as it were conscious of all the conceivable objects and interests that lie between; we imagine all sorts of adventures in the interim; strain our hopes and wishes to reach the air-drawn circle, or to 'descry new lands, rivers, and mountains', stretching far beyond it: our feelings carried out of themselves lose their grossness and their husk, are rarefied, expanded, melt into softness and brighten into beauty, turning to 'ethereal mould, sky-tinctured'. We drink the air before us, and borrow a more refined existence from objects that hover on the brink of nothing. Where the landscape fades from the dull sight, we fill the thin, viewless space with shapes of unknown good, and tinge the hazy prospect with hopes and wishes and more charming fears. 'Why Distant Objects Please', Table Talk, 1821. 

The Rollright Stones

We drive east, cleaving through the Cotswolds. We pass through oolite, pastel villages with eccentric names and charming topography. Bourton On The Hill meanders into Moreton In Marsh. We follow the serpentine route toward Chipping Norton, and take a small diversion to an ancient monument wealthy in local folklore.

The prehistoric complex known as the Rollright Stones straddles a road that provides the border between Oxfordshire and Warwickshire. On the O side lie the King's Men and the Whispering Knights, on the W side stands the King Stone. They first arrive in recorded history during the 14th century, when they were mentioned by the anonymous author of De Mirabilibus Brittaniae (The Wonders of Britain):  "In the neighbourhood of Oxford there are great stones, arranged as it were in some connection by the hand of man. But at what time; or by what people; or for what memorial or significance, is unknown. Though the place is called by the inhabitants Rollendrith."

In fitting with the distinctive architecture of the Cotswolds, the monuments were constructed with the local limestone called oolite. Although forming a complex they were not created at the same time; the Whispering Knights came first, in the Neolithic as a type of burial chamber known as a Portal Dolmen. The stone circle known as the King's Men, and the single standing stone known as the king Stone, came in the early Bronze Age, when the Knights had already been standing for up to 2,000 years. It is usually a popular site, but on this day it was quiet and we mostly had the monuments to ourselves.

The names of the monuments have their roots in local folklore. The standing stone is an ancient King, the circle are his soldiers and the burial chamber is a group of treasonous knights, leaning into each other as they whisper in conspiracy.  This folklore was described by the antiquarian William Camden in 1610. Apparently an ambitious local King, with ideas of ruling the whole of England, was marching his army across Oxfordshire when he was accosted by a witch. The witch told him:

"Seven long strides thou shalt take, says she
And if Long Compton thou canst see,
King of England thou shalt be!"

The soldiers gathered in a circle to discuss the challenge, while the Knights clustered and plotted. The King puffed out his chest and took seven bold strides toward the village... only to find his view blocked by a mound of rising ground. The witch cackled:

"As Long Compton thou canst not see,
King of England thou shalt not be!
Rise up stick and stand still stone,
For King of England thou shalt be none;
Thou and thy men hoar stones shall be,
And I myself an elder tree!"

And so they were petrified, although no hint is given as to why the witch would turn herself into a tree. The tree is long gone, the vista-spoiling mound of earth likewise vanished, but the Rollright Stones and the village of Long Compton remain.

Apart from dinner at a pub in the Vale of Oxford and a stop to admire a view from the Chilterns, this is the last tourist spot to be visited this day. A simple mission to carry my Eldest and his girlfriend across the width of England became a major day-trip investigating points of interest in and around the Cotswolds, and another fascinating exploration into the beauty, history and legend of our remarkable heritage.

Roll on the next adventure. Right?

"I should on this account like well enough to spend the whole of my life in travelling abroad, if I could anywhere borrow another life to spend afterwards at home!"  Hazlitt

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