Wednesday, August 24, 2011
Somerset--Cheddar, Wells and Longleat
I awoke before the sun gilded the rooftops of Bristol. Gazing upon the panorama spread out before me from the picture window in my bedroom, I checked email, made a few calls and got carried away on my computer. By the time I washed, dressed, packed and descended several floors to the kitchen, the rest of the Tweet-Up party were half way through a hearty breakfast of scrambled eggs, smoked salmon, crisp toasted croissants, preserves, OJ and coffee--thanks to the generosity of our hosts Elizabeth and Andrew.
Driving Through Cheddar Gorge:
We had to make a quick start of it but I could not resist a wander through the tiered garden all the way to the Mediterranean section designed and executed by Andrew. The sun was bright and glorious in the skies as we said fond goodbyes and thank-yous and drove out of Bristol, through the Mendip Hills and into Cheddar--the town which gave the world Cheddar cheese from the bottom of a spectacular ravine known as the Cheddar Gorge. It was Barbara's idea that we drive through this picturesque part of Somerset--and what a great idea it was too.
Not half an hour later, we were negotiating the hairpin curves of the gorge whose granite rocks tower on both sides of a narrow roadway. There were caves, caverns and cows--all the requisites for the production of fine cheese. We stopped to take a few pictures and were off along our route, headed this time to the medieval city of Wells.
Wandering Through Wells:
Wells is best known for its magnificent Gothic cathedral that occupies a sizable parcel of real estate right in the heart of the medieval city. A warren of narrow lanes leads to the vast Cathedral Close past crenellated turrets that form attractive gateways. A weekly street market was in progress which allowed us to browse through a few stalls, pick up postcards from the National Trust shop and walk through the Bishop's Gate to their private gardens approached across a narrow moat. Ordinarily ducks feed hungrily from the hands of charmed visitors, but for some reason today they were scarce. The bread, thoughtfully provided by Elizabeth, went uneaten as we proceeded towards the front facade of the Cathedral.
The exterior of Wells Cathedral is closely carved. It sports twin towers and a single spire at the back. Saints are seated all over the entrance. We took one of the side doors into the cathedral. This brought us to a small private garden dotted with a few old gravestones and thence to the cloisters. Inside the cathedral, there are the usual distinctive Gothic elements that make such architecture distinctive--the octagonal Chapter House was special as were the Quire and the Crypt. An astrological clock dating from the 1100s and supposedly the second oldest clock in England was interesting for the fact that knights on horseback joust and knock each other down every quarter hour! Tour guides pointed out interesting carved details that provide a great deal of sociological insight into the lives of the medieval carvers who created this masterpiece.
Longleat House and Gardens:
It was almost 1.oo pm by the time we left Wells to drive along the lovely country lanes of Somerset past pubs and stone villages and what Barbara called "bosky places"--bits of road through which dappled sunshine poked between low trees on both sides. By 2.oo pm, hungry and excited, we arrived at Longleat House near the town of Warminster. The approach to the estate is down a winding road and into a valley where the house, an ancient country pile, awaits the perusal of visitors.
Regular readers of this blog know that nothing thrills me more than the exploration of English country estates--so I was in my element as we made our way through the Cellar for lunch. We were ready for an enormous meal of lasagna with mashed potatoes and baked beans. In ordinary circumstances, I'd have wanted a nap after so gargantuan a lunch; but I couldn't resist exploring the mansion right away.
As in most English country estates, the house and gardens have a long and colorful history. Suffice it to say that it originated in the 1100s through the Viscount of Thynne whose descendants--all 13 of them--added considerably to the family wealth and land holdings and were rewarded with more impressive titles. The current owner and resident is the Marquess of Bath who is in his 80s. His portraits adorn the walls of the house which is so grand that it beggars description.
We went on a self-guided tour through sumptuous rooms decorated in the Italianate style mainly by Crace who imitated the look of Italian pallazos and even the Vatican galleries. Ceilings, walls and floors were ostentatiously adorned in close detail. Paintings--mainly portraits of various family members through the ages--crammed the walls and after a while the eye could take in no more. Cararra marble fireplaces, gorgeous chandeliers, embossed leather wall coverings, Sevres porcelain dining services and superb examples of period furniture lent stature to the rooms. Ironically, despite the presence of many lofty portraits dotting the walls, the one that caught most attention was the worthless "The Fallen Madonna with the Big Boobies" that had featured in the Britcom 'Allo 'Allo, a few years ago, in a series of episodes involving the discovery and hiding of a priceless painting by a certain Van Clomp. The current Marquess was a dedicated fan of the show and when it ended, the producers presented him with the notorious work. It was on display at Longleat to coincide with a special anniversary of the show and a planned revival.
By the time we reached the gardens and made our way to the Orangery, we were already a bit jaded. The rose gardens were quite lovely but obviously past their prime. A few bits and bobs of statuary--some rather odd--caught the eye. At the end of the day, Longleat (often used as the location for period films) was fascinating for the varied styles and eras of decoration and architecture that it reflected--from Elizabethan to contemporary with most of the decor dating from the 18th century.
By 4 pm, we left the vast environs of the estate and hit the motorway for the return drive to London along the Salisbury Plain over which the sun was slowly setting. To my enormous surprise and delight, we passed right by the stones of Stonehenge and then we were close to the M25. That was when we became caught up in serious traffic snarls and inched our way slowly into the city. A quick stop at the Art Deco Hoover Building (now a Tesco) and we were on the road again, arriving in Holborn at about 7. 30 pm. It had been a long day and I was knackered.
On to a Dinner Rendez-Vous:
Tim and Barbara were kind enough to help me load my luggage into their car and drove me to my friends, Bishop Michael and Cynthia, at Amen Court on Ludgate Hill, so close to St. Paul's Cathedral that its tolling bells enchant me every quarter hour. I merely hugged Cynthia, stashed my stuff inside and then Tim was driving me again to Farringdon where I'd made 8 pm dinner plans with yet another friend, Loulou.
I arrived at her loft--one I had occupied for two memorable summer months two years ago--had another fond reunion with her, explored its vast dimensions for old times' sake and then we set off for Carluccio's, my favorite chain of Italian restaurants in London. Over caponata and prosciutto and Peroni beer, we caught up by chatting nineteen to the dozen. Suddenly the months that have gone by since we last saw each other melted to nothingness. After dinner, Loulou hailed a cab to get to Suffolk from Liverpool Station and dropped me off at Amen Court where another lovely reunion awaited me--this time with the rest of the Colcloughs included sons Edward and Aidan.
Of course, we spent the next hour chatting. There was ever so much to talk about. But I was tired and badly needed to unpack and take a shower. Cynthia took me up the Christopher Wren-designed stairway to the room I love so much and it was there that I unpacked, unwound and set my alarm for an early start tomorrow.
White Cliffs of Dover, here I come...