Exploring England 2012 - around Salisbury, Part 3

Thursday, Nov 15, 2012 at 10:07


The weather the following morning was much improved as we set out for yet another mighty cathedral. It was Saturday and the roads were surprisingly quiet so we were soon in the small town of Wells. As we drove into town we could hear bells ringing – they were the cathedral bells, 10 of them, and they rang continuously for the 2 or 3 hours that we were in town.

We parked very close to the Cathedral, adjacent to a field occupied by some highland cattle bearing magnificent horns. This juxtaposition of cattle and cathedral impressed us as being rather unusual.

As we approached the cathedral we came upon Vicars Close. This is a row of medieval houses built for the cathedral choristers. The cottages are still in use and in close to their original condition so that the close is now the only completely medieval street in England. From there we walked past the Cathedral School of Music to the magnificent west front of the Cathedral, richly decorated with statues and topped by a big square tower. Once all the statues would have been painted in bright colours, although we found that hard to visualise.

Admission to the cathedral was free, although a 3pound donation was requested for a photography permit, good value we thought. We spent a couple of hours exploring the cloisters and the interior of the Cathedral that looks fresh and almost new in places. The unusual “scissor arch” in particular looks quite modern despite being built in the mid 1300s to address some very real structural problems.

One fascinating feature is an ancient clock, considered to be the second oldest clock mechanism in Britain, and probably in the world, to survive in original condition and still in use. As well as a large clock face there are jousting knights that gallop around a turret above the clock face, while the figure of Jack strikes bells with his heels at every quarter and with a hammer on the hour. Fascinating to watch, and quite a little crowd gathered as the hour approached.

Inside the Cathedral it was cool and peaceful, but once outside we emerged into a big Saturday market in the town market place. There were buskers trying to compete with the still-pealing bells, jostling crowds and some curious wares on sale – such as “postmans leg”, large baked beef bones for your dog. These cathedrals seem amazing to us, but for the locals they are just part of the furniture it seems

The next place that we wanted to see was Stourhead, a great estate where the extensive gardens date from about the 1750s. The huge carpark was packed with hundreds of cars, testament to the popularity of these grand gardens as a great venue for a day out in the sun.

The house was not open but that gave us time to do the 2km walk around the lake and admire the garden and associated buildings. A magnificent lake is central to the design at Stourhead, with the lakes edge being adorned with Greek inspired classical temples, grottos, spires and arched bridges. There are rare and exotic trees among dense plantings of shrubs and local trees. Given the age of the garden some of the trees are very tall, especially the giant redwoods, one of the many species of conifers in the garden.

A choral festival was in full swing with several choirs performing throughout the garden, the sounds carried out over the expanse of the lake and down the steep sided valley. And there were more bells to celebrate a wedding in the chapel.

All too soon it was time to leave, as Rob had to go back to London. Back in Warminster we dropped him off at the railway station, did a bit of shopping and then slept very soundly after so much sightseeing and excitement.

A fine drizzle the next day suggested some indoor pursuits, so we drove up to Devizes to have a look at a couple of museums there. One is about the Kennett & Avon Canal, the other displays archaeological finds from local sites including Stonehenge and Avebury.

Once again the roads were quiet, but we hadn’t gone far when another horse – a more modern one - carved into the chalk on a hillside caught our attention so we had to stop for photos. Then it was a drive through some very green wooded country, in places the road was a green tunnel beneath the overhanging trees.

At Devizes we drove straight to the wharf, and beside that was the museum. We noticed that a canal boat was offering tours, so we bought tickets for an afternoon tour and planned our day around that.

The volunteers at the canal museum were very friendly, chatty folk and a mine of local information. We spent some time looking around the museum, which details the history of the canals. The Kennet and Avon Canal was constructed between 1794 and 1810 and served to link Devizes with Bristol and London. The canal fell into disuse after the coming of the railway, but has been restored, and is now used for leisure purposes. About 50 years ago the canals were about to be abandoned, until community outcry brought about major restoration work to bring them back to their present delightful state. Hundreds of narrow boats now use the canals – some are used as residences and many are available for hire for a leisurely holiday travelling slowly through the countryside.

A walk through Devizes past the shambles (market) brought us to the Wiltshire Heritage Museum in time for its midday opening. This seemingly insignificant museum, run by volunteers, has a worldwide reputation for its wonderful archaeology collections. There are many galleries each displaying material from different periods of time. We didn’t have enough time to see all the galleries, so we took lots of photos, only to learn that the collections can all be viewed online. It’s certainly a museum worth a return visit. Surprisingly there were few other visitors, and we had to excuse ourselves from the chatty attendants so that we could get back to the wharf in time for our canal cruise.

When we gathered on the wharf we found that the only other passengers were two Aussie women who had just arrived that morning and were using a house-swap arrangement as a base for their UK holiday. There were 4 crew, all volunteers, so we were well cared for. Once on board we had a safety briefing – canal boats are classed as ocean going vessels and have to be equipped as such (although it seems that if you hire one as a tourist you don’t need any training or licence to drive one).

Then, after turning around in a wider part of the canal we were off for a short but leisurely cruise. Then we turned around and came back to the wharf. Along the way we saw the countryside close-up: we looked at gardens, ducks and swans with young, other narrow boats some with pot plants perched on their roof and a couple of sizeable marinas for narrow boats. We waved at walkers on the tow path and on the bridges that we went under, all the while being given a running commentary and local info by the friendly crew.

One useful tip was to pay a visit to nearby Rowde, and this we did after we left Devizes. There, on the outskirts of the town is the site of the Caen Hill flight of locks on the Kennet and Avon Canal. The canal rises 237 feet up a hill by means of 29 locks, 16 of them in a straight line at Caen Hill. The locks use big holding ponds to help maintain the water levels in the locks, and these ponds with their locks stretching up the hillside, made an amazing sight.

Another bit of local knowledge suggested a trip to Lacock, a National Trust village. The village and the nearby Lacock Abbey have been the setting for a number of movies, including some parts of the Harry Potter movies. We did this trip the following day despite quite heavy rain.We spent the morning looking around Lacock Abbey which was built as a nunnery in the 13th century then later sold to become a private residence. Apparently nunneries were respectable places for daughters to live if they could not be married off successfully. Married women also used them if their husbands were away for extended periods eg fighting a war.

In the 1830s the abbey was home to William Henry Fox Talbot, famous for his contributions to the invention of photography, and there is now a small museum showcasing his work and the cameras that he developed, all very interesting.

There were also numerous outbuildings to see. In a small greenhouse full of unusual plants, grapes and even bananas were growing under the glass, and a vigorous kiwi fruit grew against the sheltered wall of the garden. There were also stables, a brewery and a bakehouse that supported the priory after it became a private home after 1539. We were surprised at the amount of lead everywhere, including huge sheets of it lining the brewery vats. Our forebears must surely have suffered from chronic lead poisoning.

After lunch, and despite steady rain we had a look around the village. Most of the surviving houses there were built in the 18th-century or earlier, and people still live there today. There is a 14th-century tithe barn, a medieval church, and an inn dating from the 15th century as well as an 18th-century lock-up and village school that is still in use today. It was all rather picturesque, but spoilt by the rain, so by mid afternoon when we were cold and wet we called it a day and headed back to our cottage.

The next day we made our farewell to Phillip, our host at Warminster then drove into Salisbury where we dropped off the car, before an uneventful train trip back to London.

Around Salisbury, as with most of the other places we have visited on this trip, we barely scratched the surface as there is so much to see. We came to England to see our son Rob, but, largely through his assured direction, we have discovered a whole new world to be explored. Thank you Rob, you did us proud. Hopefully we will go back before too long for another tour of discovery.
J and V
"Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted."
- Albert Einstein
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