Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Wessex - Pretty and Civilized

From France I moved to Salisbury and Thomas Hardy country. To me, this area is truly the heart of England's 'green and pleasant land'. The country lanes are narrow and wind their way through green leafy glades and fields surrounded by hedges. The roads are so narrow that cars had to back up and make way for the bus to pass, and some of the lanes are so deep that the hedges and banks of the road were over the roof of the bus as the roads have slowly sunk over time. The small villages each have a church tower or spire; the gardens are walled and full of flowers; and many of the houses are very old. It is a very pretty, civilized part of the world. The people are more civilized too as they are used to living at very close quarters. Housing is very close together so that even though there is a very large population, there are still green woods and fields with pastures full of sheep and cows. There is a very strong sense of history as well - Salisbury Cathedral is 750 years old while the Abbey in Shaftesbury was started in 888 AD. The Cathedral was built with stones from the church at Old Sarum, and the Abbey, which is now a ruin, built much of Shaftesbury, although the original abbey ramparts are still visible on Gold Hill. Again, it's a form of civility as old and new are combined so that old street facades house very modern stores.

Salisbury is a thriving county market town. It's a popular tourist destination as it's very close to Stonehenge, and the cathedral is very large and very lovely. The Cathedral Close is a green square surrounded by lovely old houses that provided housing for the church priests and bishops. My friends live in Bishopdown which is up the hill from the town centre. You can walk over the paths to Old Sarum with a wonderful view of the downs on all sides. The harvest is nearly over so the rolling hills of the downs are yellow stubble. My favourite walk, however, is across the water meadows to Harnham Mill. This view of Salisbury Cathedral was made famous by Constable. The fields are full of sheep, and tiny water vole sat munching of fresh greenery on a rock in the stream.

I spent a very enjoyable day in Shaftesbury, which is on top of a hill and has preserved a curving, steep streets of old houses - well known from Hovis bread commercials and tourist postcards and calendars. There are wonderful walks around the top of the hill with views of the surrounding countryside. The audio guide for the Abbey provided an interesting take on life in a medieval monastery.

I had a pub lunch (Somerset brie and chutney sandwich with cider on tap) on a hillside terrace. Later we had a pub supper outside of Salisbury at The Black Horse. It was a very doggy pub with photos of the owner's dogs on the wall and customers standing at the bar along with their dogs. I am very accustomed to eating on my own in restaurants, but I still find English pubs somewhat intimidating as you stand at the bar, quickly scan the menu and place your order and pay the bartender. There will be multiple beers and ciders on tap so that calls for a quick decision as well. Then they pour your drink, and you head off to find a table.

I spent another day with a family friend, and we spent a very enjoyable few hours at Kingston Lacey, a stately home and garden run by The National Trust. I am particularly fascinated at the glimpses you can get of life in a different time - the dumbwaiter that brought food up to the dining room, the narrow stairwells so the servants can deliver hot water in the bathrooms, and the rooms decorated like tents for the bachelors who came to visit on the top floor of the house (often used as a nursery wing when there was a family). Wealthy Britons of past centuries enjoyed travelling just as we do, and they brought home souvenirs too. However, their souvenirs are somewhat larger than ours! Kingston Lacey had a baroque ceiling fresco, leather wall panelling, and large paintings from Italy as well as an Egyptian sarcophagus in the garden.

One of the delights of staying with friends is that you get glimpses of their lives. The Walkers shop at Tesco but inform me that Waitrose is more upscale. We watch Coronation Street, Hotel Inspector, and television mysteries and read The Telegraph. They're an older couple so the main meal is at lunchtime with supper at 6 and a snack at 9 (marmite and brown bread with digestive biscuits). They still have a proper roast dinner on Sundays.

The gardens are still lovely - the last of the roses (so many different sizes and varieties) along with hydrangea and whole bushes of fuschia. England at its best - pretty and civilized.

1 comment:

John Bound said...

Your blog makes Wiltshire and Dorset sound delightful which as one who lives there and went with you to Kingston Lacey I believe to be so.

It is a contrast to the many areas of urban squalor, drug dealing and knife crime, or to the miles of suburban crowded housing around cities with weary commuters on crowded roads and trains.

One correction to your Blog. The ramparts at Old Sarum are those of an Iron Age fort built before the Romans came. Although the Cathedral was originally built in this rather isolated hill-top spot there was never a community around it. There was no water supply. It is not surprising therefore that a new Cathedral was built where the City developed in the valley.

History is indeed literally thick on the ground in these parts. Not only are there ancient buildings but prehistoric monuments dot the hills.

I tell people that life in Dorset has been very quiet recently - the last big thing that happened here was the arrival of the Romans in AD 46. Since then it has been very quiet. That is indeed true. History has largely passed us by.

John B.