Friday, July 17, 2009

Sauntering in Salisbury! Seeing the Magna Carta and Constable's Iconic View.

Friday, July 17, 2009
Salisbury, Wiltshire

The ancient town of Salisbury is in Wiltshire, west of London, an area filled with renowned tourist attractions such as Stonehenge, Stourhead Gardens, the Georgian city of Bath and Avebury. But somehow, I had simply not managed to get there even though its cathedral is definitely worth a visit.

Awaking on Stephanie's sofa bed in her living room at 7.00, I quickly got ready to leave with her at 7. 30. We grabbed yogurt and cereal to go and were in her Lexus and on our way in a half hour. It was an hour long drive which gave us a chance to gab a bit more. It pleased me to see that though she has a long commute to work daily, at least she has no traffic at all--in fact, the drive can be quite therapeutic past fields and pasture.

Since Stephanie works in an industrial belt at Andover, she dropped me off at Andover train station which is just 18 miles away from Salisbury. I could have taken a bus from the station which would have wound me around the tiniest villages in Wiltshire and reached Salisbury in an hour and a half--or I could take the train which took less than 20 minutes (return fare was 7 pounds but there was some malfunction with the ticket machine and I ended up going on the train without a ticket but having to explain to the guards that there had been a problem).

Roaming Around Salisbury:
Luckily, Salisbury station is not miles away from its city center--which is often the case, as I have discovered. It was only a quick ten minute walk to the Town Center which you reach after following signs. It was about 9. 30 am when I arrived which left me enough time to explore the tangle of streets that lead up to the famous Market Square where medieval life centered. En route, I popped into the Roman Catholic Church of St. Thomas Beckett which also dates from medieval times. It is filled with marvelous mementos of centuries past including a beautiful Doomsday Painting on a wall just above the nave. This was plastered over during the Reformation but was recently stripped and conserved. I realized as I gazed at it how similar is the style of medieval painting with the more contemporary work of the Surrealists such as Hieronymous Bosch as seen in his most famous work The Garden of Earthly Delights. The Tudor Chapel with its dark ebony wood carvings was also quite atmospheric and is supposedly the prettiest part of the church. I deliberately visited this church first as I felt that the famous Salisbury Cathedral ought to be the piece de resistance of my day and would best be saved for last.

I have to say that I quite cherished every single step I took for I was fully conscious of the fact that this is my last day alone in the UK and indeed the last place that I would be discovering on my own. Tomorrow morning, I will awake for the last time alone in my bed for Llew is scheduled to arrive at 8. 30 am and my year of solitude, self-exploration and self-discovery will come to an end. The enormous pleasure I have had in doing exactly as I pleased wherever I pleased will also end and I felt a bittersweet emotion as I sauntered through the streets of Salisbury--delighted to have actually arrived there and met my goal of not leaving the UK without seeing this lovely city but regretting that Llew had not already arrived here to share it with me. Still, I took consolation in the fact that we will be spending the next two weeks together in two of my favorite places in the whole world--London and Paris--and it was on that happy note that I crossed The Mill on the River Avon where a lovely pub seemed like a good place to enjoy lunch later in the day.

Then, I was in the streets that radiate from out of the Cathedral Close, each rather enticing as they offered shops galore in which to browse. I examined all the charity shops (still looking for antique treasures) and was so pleased to find a Victorian cheese container--the sort for which I have searched for a whole year. These ceramic containers are very rare and hard to find--being a two piece item, one or the other piece often broke over the years, so that sets are almost impossible to find and when available cost the earth. I have seen only a few of these items in the many antiques markets I have scoured and most often they were so exorbitantly priced that I had to walk away. Well, imagine my delight when I found this set in perfect condition and for just three pounds! Now you know why I rummage around in the charity shops! They are a better source than any flea market! With my treasure carefully wrapped in bubble wrap, I walked out and then there just across the road, I chanced to come upon the Salisbury Antiques Market--three floors of individual dealers each displaying their treasures in glass vitrines--my idea of heaven!

Lunch at the Tea Room at the Top:
By this time, the irritating drizzle which had been playing all day developed into a full-scale shower, so it was with relief that I escaped into the vast environs of the market and browsed around the show cases. Needless to say, by this time (12. 30), I was tired and hungry; so when I saw a sign that announced a tearoom at the top of the building, I headed straight for it. I spent the next hour in the most delightful situation near a window through which I felt the slight spray of raindrops that splattered the pane. What's more, the charming room was scattered around with a multitude of mismatched chairs and tables--some garden furniture, some living room quality finds. The menu was small but everything was very reasonably priced. I debated whether to get a pot of tea and a toasted hot cross bun (just 1. 50 for the lot) but then I figured that I really ought to have a more substantial lunch and settled for that most old-fashioned of British meals (and it was the very first time I was eating it in this country)--sardines on toast with a pot of Darjeeling. Thank you England for making a tea drinker out of me. On weepy days like this when there is a horrid sudden chill in the air and you wish you had worn a thicker cardigan, there is nothing more soothing that a pot of tea with lemon and honey!

A very lovely young girl called Jessica (I asked her her name later) served me--the pot of tea and a salad came free with my meal (all for just a skinny fiver--a true find in super expensive England). To my delight, a copy of The English Home lay near my table and I grabbed it to browse through while my meal was being prepared. I have a subscription to this magazine back home in the States and have dearly missed reading it, so I was thrilled to be able to lay my hands on a copy. There is a section in it called 'Favorite Places' and I definitely intend to write to the editor with a note about this incredible find--The Tea Room at the Top on St. Catherine Street in Salisbury.

Well, I spent the lovliest hour sipping my tea, munching my light lunch, spooning dressing on my salad and reading the magazine as I rested my feet and took a breather. The intermittent rain showers finally stopped and when I stepped out, an hour later, to walk towards the Cathedral Close, there was a lightness to my step.

But just five mintues later, it came down again--a very heavy shower this time which gave me time to dip under the awning of a very pretty chocolate shop where the handmade concoctions called my name. The place also offered a variety of sundaes and ordinarily I would have indugled--but on a day so chilly, ice-cream was furthest from my mind!

To arrive at Salisbury's Cathedral Close, you pass under a medieval stone gateway and enter a place that has forgotten the passage of Time. It is a vast square with a sprawling green lawns in its center, surrounded by elegant buildings that reveal a variety of architectural styles--I recognized Tudor, Georgian and Victorian very easily indeed. In fact, the most striking of the buildings had a grand facade and it turned out to be Mompesson House (and Gardens) which is run by the National Trust. Now, of course, with my membership still valid, there was no way I would pass it by without nipping in for a quick visit--only it happened to be closed on Thursdays and Friday--wouldn't you just know it!!?? So I gazed at the entrance in growing furstration having made the discovery that the 1995 version of Sense and Sensibility (I'm guessing this was the version whose screenplay was by Emma Thompson for which she won an Oscar--the film was directed by Ang Lee of Brokeback Mountain fame) was shot in here. Anyway, there was nothing to be done about it and I turned towards the other buildings instead.

Exploring Salisbury Cathedral:
Salisbury Cathedral has the tallest spire in England--though I have to say I could not have discerned this myself. Much of the side of this splendid building is encased in ugly scaffolding (I simply hate when the facades of major tourist attractions are marred in this fashion) and there was a Festival of sorts going on for a huge white marquee took over the lawn. It was just as well I had found other pursuits to occupy my morning for the cathedral had been closed to visitors until 1 pm. And it was a good thing I had a whole day in the town--imagine my disappointment if I had made the trip all the way from London only to be told that the Cathedral would remain closed all day!!!

Well, once inside the Cathedral, there are many attractions that catch the eye--but interestingly and unexpectedly, the choral groups that were participants in the festival were practicing their routines at the back and filled the massive space with the echoing grandeur of their voices--it was truly superb. A printed layout guide of the cathedral is available for visitors and with it in hand, I was able to see the mechancial clock--it has no face, still works beautifully and is considered the oldest clock in the country. I saw also the very modern baptismal font in the center of the church before I walked past the area right below the spire. In fact, the spire is so heavy that the supporting beams in the church have begun to bend beneath its weight and when Christopher Wren arrived in Salisbury in the early 1700s, he estimated that they were leaning at least 75 cms away from the center!

The Cathedral's choir stalls, all finely carved in oak and the 'Cathedra', the Bishop's seat or 'cathedra' that gives its name to the building were in fine condition near the altar. Follwing the printed guide and a rather nice human guide who was somewhat amusingly named Roger Bacon (!), I arrived at the picturesque Cloisters (which were never actually used as cloisters as the cathedral never had monks living there). However, it was meant to be a place to read and relax in and indeed that it was! I stepped through into the Chapter House which was built at the same time as the Catehdral though it has more modern Victorian stained glass windows that were restored when the original medieval ones broke--by the way, the cathedral was built in the early-1200s!

Up Close and Personal with Magna Carta:
So I suppose I ought not to have been surprised to discover that Salisbury Cathedral has an original copy of one of Great Britain's most precious treasures, the Magna Carta of 1215! Yes, one of the three original 1215 copies is here under glass (the other two being in the British Library at King's Cross in London, one of which has suffered fire damage and is illegible). This one was in pristine condition and together with the Domesday Book which I saw at Kew the other day, it really was one of the highlights of my travels in the UK!

I mean, just imagine having the opportunity tot gaze upon the original Magna Carta! And I mean you can get really close to it for it is merely preserved under glass. While most people expect the Magna Carta to be a heavy tome, I knew it would be a single rather large sheet--and indeed that is exactly what it is! In lay men's terms, the Magna Carta (Latin for 'Great Charter') is simply a statement of legal demands that were thrust upon King John in 1215 by the barons to ensure that their rights would be protected and that the king would not overstep his powers. It was presented to King John at Runnymede between Windsor and Staines, a fact that is declared at the bottom of the document. It came into the possesion of the Cathedral as John's half-brother William was associated with the Catehdral. He received an original copy of the document which he then passed on to the church. Somehow--don't ask me how--it was placed for about 90 years during the Victorian Age in a cabinet and forgotten about, so that when it was rediscovered, it was found to be in such a great state of preservation! Unbelievable!

Written in Latin upon vellum (calf skin parchment), it is very easily read if one knows Latin! Various copies of it were produced throughout the 1200s with the 1297 version having become the cornerstone of the British legal system and having influenced the greatest charters such as the Declaration of Independence of the USA and the constitutions of so many Commonwelath countries (including India's). So, for all these reaons, I was deeply moved to be in the presence of so important a document--like I felt when I gazed upon the Declaration of Independence in the Capitol building in Washington DC so many years ago--only that document was dated 1776, this 1215!!!--a difference of only half a millennium!

Well, back in the Cathedral, I took in its colossal proportions that dwarfed me as I gazed upon it and wondered as I have done in every cathedral I have seen (such as Winchester and Chichester, York and Canterbury) how it was at all possible for the laborers to create the sort of buildings they did in that time given the almost primitive nature of construction! Certainly they did not lack craftsmanship for the fine quality of the stone carvings is just breathtaking.

In Search of Constable's Masterpiece:
I spent the next few minutes buying post cards from the shop as there was one more thing I wanted to do before I set out for the station to get my train back to Andover.

I wanted to discover the exact spot from which Constable painted his famous view of Salisbury Cathedral. As I got out of the cathedral, luck favored me right away for I caught hold of what looked like a 'Salisbury Local' and asked him if he could direct me to the spot "across the river" which is seen in so many postcards. It turned out that this man was not only a local but a knowledgeable one at that (don't you just love it when people know their local history and enjoy sharing it with visitors?) and went on to tell me that there were various views and he wondered which one I meant. Well, I said, somewhat hesitantly, knowing that not a lot of people share my obsession with Art--"I'm really interested in the spot from where Constable painted his famous view of Salisbury Cathedral that is in the National Gallery in London!"

"Ah", he said, delighted at my inquiry. "Of course. For that you need to walk straight ahead past the Close, go under the gateway, make a left at the pizza place, then go over a bridge on the river, follow the road as it bends past the Meadows which will be on your left. You will see a road leading to the railway station and on its left a foot path leading to another wooden bridge. Cross that bridge and you will see the Cathedral on your left in the exact angle in which Constable painted it". My God! I could have hugged him! I mean imagine asking someone for something as esoteric as this and finding a person who not only knew what I was talking about but happened to know how to get me to the exact spot!

So off I went. His directions were crystal clear. While I was crossing the first bridge, I spoke to Llew on his last day at work. We are simply so excited to see each other again and we simply can't believe that the one year that stretched out at us seemingly endlessly has come to an end! I told him I had spent the night at Steph's and was at Salisbury and couldn't wait to see him tomorrow in London. Then, I resumed my goal, passing by some of the most charming parts of the city and neat roads lined with lovely terraced houses and blooming gardens. Truly, there is nothing more beautiful that a summer's day in England--even a rather cloudy one on which the sun is reluctant to show its face!

And then I was there. Across the meadow filled with black and white cows and a scattering of sheep and the River Avon on whose banks grew tall bulrushes that almost obscured the sight, there it was!!! I was so moved, so thrilled, so delighted to be there! The rain had stopped, thankfully, and I could gaze upon the sight that Cosntable so immortalized in his work. Yes, the trees have grown more lushly since his time and much of the Cathedral's front facade is obscured by the luxuriant foliage...but it is still timeless, this scene, still filling the passerby with a rare serenity that made me feel so happy to be alive.

Leaving Salisbury:
Then, I was hurrying off to Salisbury station along another pleasant walk and arrived well in time to take my 4. 24 train to Andover. I waited there for about 20 minutes while Stephanie finished up at work and when she arrived to pick me up, I told her all about my lovely day. She was surprized that I had made such a great and full day of it for when she had visited Salisbury she found nothing much to grip her attention but the Cathedral and she told me that she wondered what I would possibly find to do there for a whole day!!! Well, I have to say that I could easily have spent another two hours in the town for there was so much to see and do.

Back on the Tube from Richmond, I reached home at 7. 30 which left me time to eat my dinner, check my email, make a few more last-minute calls to Llew and get to bed--as I said, alone for the last time. When I awake tomorrow, my life of solitude and contemplation in England would have ended and I know it will not take long for this entire incredible year to seem like nothing more than a dream--which is why I am so glad I have maintained this blog, for it will remain a constant reminder to me of all that I made of this year that was gifted to me from above and how much I appreciated this opportunity of a lifetime!

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