Exploring England 2012 - around Salisbury, Part 1

Thursday, Nov 08, 2012 at 18:23


After the excitement of the Jubilee weekend, it was time to leave London and go exploring in the southwest. We had booked a cottage at Warminster, just west of Salisbury. Getting there was an adventure in itself. As it was a public holiday we could only collect our hire car from an airport, so our first stop was Southport. We made an early start, catching the Tube to Vauxhall, then on to Clapham Junction from where we caught a train to Southport. That train was practically empty and we had the whole carriage to ourselves for most of the journey.

The hire car office was busy attending to customers coming in by bus, train and plane, but once again our booking was handled efficiently and courteously. Once we located our car in the big parking station we were on our way.

Rob offered to drive and suggested that we should take a short detour to Portsmouth to have a look at the historic ships there – particularly Nelson’s flagship “Victory” from the famous Battle of Trafalgar. Although we drove through showers of rain, Portsmouth was fine but heavily overcast when we found a parking station within a short walk of the big Naval exhibition area. Tickets were quite expensive, but like many other attractions they are designed for a whole day out. They are valid for 12 months for return visits (although only to see exhibits not yet visited).

The first ship we visited was “Warrior” a sail powered, steel hulled gun ship built for the Royal Navy in 1860. She is a mighty ship, with massive guns that never fired a shot in anger. Her career was short however, as rapidly changing technology saw her retired from service in 1883.

We were able to walk through most of the ship, getting a good understanding of how it was constructed and how it operated. There was a short but memorable talk and demonstration of the small arms used on board – muskets, pistols, sabres and bayonets. All these are still stored in racks as they would have been when the ship was in service.

But it was the huge gun deck that dominated the ship, with 2 long rows of big guns resting on their carriages. The ship carries massive armour – the central section around the guns is protected by plates of wrought iron 4.5 inches thick bolted on to teak backing 18 inches thick.

The crew spent their whole time at sea living, eating and sleeping around the guns. Hammocks were slung between the big iron girders that supported the deck overhead, and the crew ate at sturdy wooden benches between the guns. Officers fared somewhat better having cabins and bunks, although some cabins contained a gun. The officers dining room though was a far cry from the spartan conditions on the gun deck.

By the time we had looked around below decks it was raining steadily, so we didn’t see much of the masts and rigging. Instead we found a spot for lunch then set out to find the “Victory”. On this famous ship Admiral Lord Nelson was killed on 21st October 1805 during the Battle of Trafalgar, when fighting against a combined French and Spanish fleet off the SW coast of Spain.

We were surprised by the size of the ship looming up above the pier, her massive high stern covered with windows and ornate carving, her sides literally bristling with guns from 3 decks. Victory was built from the wood of 6000 trees (mostly oaks) between 1759 and 1765 and she is still in commission, although she has been in dry dock since 1922 and extensively repaired since then.

Visitors (of which there were plenty) followed a set walkway around the ship, so we ducked through the rain topside, negotiated our way down steep stairs and tried not to bang our heads between decks. Victory carried about 100 guns of various sizes and the crew lived around the guns, with just 18 inches of space in which to sling their hammock. The officers had slightly better conditions, although often sharing a cabin – sometimes with a gun. Nelson slept in a tiny cot, strangely at odds with the lavish Admiral’s Cabin. But all the cabin furniture and walls could be quickly folded away to literally “clear the decks for action”.

The rain meant that we did not spend much time on the open deck but we did see the small poignant brass plaque that marked the spot where Nelson fell during the battle. His body was placed in a cask of brandy and returned to England for burial in St. Paul’s cathedral.

Finally, with time running out, we had a quick look through the “Mary Rose” museum. “Mary Rose” was Henry VIII’s ship. She capsized near Portsmouth in 1545 and was only rediscovered in 1982. The ship, still undergoing conservation, was not open to visitors but the museum holds many artifacts from the ship, recording aspects of life in Tudor times. One display invited visitors to test their strength by drawing a longbow, that simple but highly effective medieval English weapon – we could barely move it.

So with our heads spinning with nautical images and in steady rain we set out on our drive to Warminster. In Salisbury we stopped for groceries at Tescos, had a quick drive around the old part of the city and glimpsed the magnificent cathedral with its tall spire.

We found our cottage, purpose built for tourists in a big back yard on the edge of town. It had all the necessary creature comforts and suited our needs very well.

The weather forecast for the next few days was for showers then wet weather, so the next day, while there was still a bit of sun, we set out to see as many of the outdoor attractions as we could.

Stonehenge was top of the list of places to see, and Rob had a plan to show us not just that famous landmark, but to set it in its wider landscape and cultural context. Our first stop was at a small wood that brought us face to face with a couple of barrows (burial mounds) – then beyond that dark wood we emerged onto open grazing land bordering the Cursus or processional avenue that led up to the circle of stones. It was quite a broad avenue with a shallow ditch on either side still visible. In the distance and beside the Cursus more burial mounds could be seen.

Thus prepared we went on to Stonehenge, already busy with a steady stream of tour buses. Visitors are not able to walk among the stones but we were able to walk right around them, marvelling at how they were built, and wondering what their purpose might have been. The huge standing stones, surrounded by a ditch are thought to have been transported over large distances (from Wales). They were then erected using mortice-and-tennon joints to lock the horizontal slabs in place. The site was progressively built between about 3 and 2 thousand years BC using simple tools of rock, bone, antler and wood, something for our modern minds to wonder at.

Two or three hundred barrows surround the henge. The most noteworthy of these is a cluster called the King Barrow, up on a ridge overlooking Stonehenge and now surrounded by some beautiful old trees. This was our next place to visit, away from the crowds, but still within sight of the standing stones.

Then we were off to Woodhenge, a structure of similar age to Stonehenge but built from many vertical wooden poles. These are long gone, their position now marked by shorter concrete posts. Nearby is Durrington Walls, a huge open space surrounded by high earthen walls, and now thought to be the “campground” where people stayed when they came to visit Stonehenge.

From there we headed for Avebury, going via the very scenic Vale of Pewsey and Marlborough, a very attractive market town where we did some shopping and admired the beautiful old tile-clad buildings in the town centre. Market stalls were set up along the main street selling bread, cheese, garden plants, and miscellaneous wares.

Driving through this green and peaceful countryside, our attention was caught by some unusual roadside signs, advising of “tanks crossing”, a reminder that the military does use Salisbury Plain as a training area.

On the way to Avebury we stopped at Silbury Hill, a huge man-made structure that dates back about 4 thousand years. It seems to have been made up of soil carried in from many different places. It was probably not a burial mound, but it was big enough for the Romans to build a fort on top.

Nearby were the remains of the big processional avenue leading to the Avebury stone circle although that was still out of sight. There are 2 lines of big standing stones leading over a low rise, and wide enough for maybe 20 people to walk abreast making an impressive avenue.

The Avebury stone circle, when we at last reached it, is huge in every respect, some 300 metres across and made of huge irregular shaped standing stones. The stones are surrounded by a very deep ditch and a high earthen wall – and all built by hand using possibly nothing more than wicker baskets to move that vast quantity of soil. The ditch and walls would originally have been white (the soil is a thin layer over chalk) but are now grassed over and grazed by sheep. Numerous barrows are present on the ridges.

A village dating from Saxon times ( about 1000AD) occupies some of the centre of the circle, with a manor house, barn, stables, a church and numerous other buildings. After we walked around the circle we had a closer look at some of the buildings, including the huge thatched barn and circular dove-cote. The rings of ditches and banks would have made this an attractive place to build, with good defences already in place.

Rob wasn’t going to let a minute of daylight be wasted so we pressed on to our next destination, the Uffington White Horse. This is the outline of an enormous stylised horse cut into the chalk so that it stands out from the surrounding green meadow. The Uffington horse dates from about 300BC and has been maintained by the local community ever since, removing grass every few years to reveal the white chalk. It sits high on a hillside giving wonderful views over the surrounding countryside, although up close, the horse itself proved rather difficult to see. Nearby is an Iron Age hill-fort (Uffington Castle) that was also used by the Romans, and its 2 lines of earth ramparts were easily seen.

It was time to head for home, but along the way we came upon the very pretty village of Ashbury so we just had to stop for photos of some particularly attractive thatched cottages, complete with roses climbing over the walls – beautiful. We wondered what it would be like to live in such a cottage.

There was one last stop, to see The Sanctuary, another ceremonial site dating back about 4,500 years, and connected to the Avebury stone circle by a processional way. It was originally a complex of circles made from stone and wooden poles, but now there are just concrete markers to mark the circles.

By now our heads were swirling with circles, avenues and barrows and wonderment about our early history. What efforts our distant ancestors went to, although for what exact purpose remains shrouded by time.

It was raining steadily when we arrived home at about 7.00pm, and we counted ourselves lucky that the weather had been kind to us on this day. But we did wonder if we would be able to maintain this pace for even another day.

J and V
"Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted."
- Albert Einstein
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