Friday, October 24, 2014

Salisbury Architecture 1231 - 1981

Cathedrals require a large supporting population of clergy, cleaners, and choristers. Like many English cathedrals, Salisbury Cathedral is surrounded by a close, or enclosure, of walls and houses where bishops and clerics have lived since the cathedral was constructed back in the 13th century. The Bishop of Salisbury still lives there, although he doesn't live in the Bishop's Palace these days, but most of the homes are now rented out to more secular residents. A school of theology has been teaching scripture there since the Middle Ages.

Arched stone gates cut through the walls and connected the sacred inner sanctum to the profanity of costermongers and fishwives on the cobblestone streets leading to the central marketplace. The original gates are still there: High Gate (or North Gate) towards the market square, Queen's Gate and Harnham Gate to the west and south where the River Avon curves around the close, and St. Anne's Gate in the northeast corner, leading to the even older church of St. Martin's parish.

St. Anne's Gate dates back to 1331, and has a small chapel built in above it where Handel gave his first performances in England, according to some reports; others say the concerts were held in the music room at Malmesbury House, built around 1430 and connected to the west side of the gate. Malmesbury House was recently put up for sale - at only 5 million pounds it's a bargain, though the upkeep would be fairly expensive. A 16th-century brick gatehouse huddles in the shadow of the larger mansion, and on the other side an 18th-century Regency townhouse looks down its dormered nose at the passers-by.

St. Anne is the patron saint (or "patroness") of women in labor, miners, cabinet-makers, sailors, mothers, equestrians, childless women, lace-makers, and/or dealers in old clothes. You can celebrate any or all of these on July 26th each year.

Little bits of historical architecture sprout up all over Salisbury, such as the clock tower at the end of one of the bridges over the Avon, in the center of town on Fisherton Street. This was completed in 1893 with funds provided by one Dr. John Roberts, who had come to practice at the nearby Salisbury Infirmary (1767-1993); it's a memorial to his wife Arabella, who died in January 1892.

Just within the eastern edge of the ring road, in the small park called Bourne Hill Gardens, the last remnant of the 14th-century earthen ramparts that once surrounded the city is now a decorative element over the pathway under the trees. The grounds once belonged to St. Edmund's College, established in 1269. The college was converted into a residence called Wyndham House in 1660, which became Bourne House when it was sold again in 1873, and the city now owns the land and house, using the latter for office space.

The River Avon loops through Salisbury on its way to Christchurch Bay, joined by the River Nadder just south of the city. This isn't the Stratford-upon Avon, which is in Warwickshire to the north, although there is a small village at the north edge of the city called Stratford-sub-Castle, which is on the banks of the Avon. It's a bit confusing.

Away from the older structures in the center of town, more modern brick buildings make up most of the architectural landscape of Salisbury. The mix of clay, sand, and gravel that makes up much of the region led to the establishment and tradition of brick-making in the 14th century (if not earlier) in this region, with several brick and tile works providing jobs in the 18th and 19th century. The manor and village at Downton, about 6 miles south of Salisbury along the Avon, have been rebuilt and maintained with local brick. It's not the Downton of Downton Abbey, although the real-life Highclere Castle is less than 50 miles away to the northeast. There is, however, a yearly Cuckoo Fair.

This week in Salisbury they held their Charter Fair, which has been a yearly event since 1227, when Henry III granted the Bishop of Salisbury the right to hold a fair on the third Monday of every October. Since the history of the region goes back to Roman times and before, there have undoubtedly been fairs held for millennia in the area.

Salisbury escaped the destruction of the bombing raids that devastated London in World War II because the German airplane pilots were told to use the cathedral's steeple as a position marker, rather than blasting it off the landscape. What they were aiming for, among other things, was the Spitfire factory in Woolston, about 50 miles away on coast to the southeast. By the time the Germans destroyed the factory, most of the manufacturing and equipment had been moved to satellite locations, including Salisbury. For several years during the war, many of the wing-mounted fuel tanks for these fighter planes were built in the bus station there.

To the north, between Salisbury and the town of Wilton, it was once all farmland. In the 17th century, the fifteen hundred acres of Fugglestone Farm included both the water-meadows along the Avon and Nadder rivers as well as the higher chalk hills. By the end of World War I the farm had been purchased by the British Army and most of the outbuildings converted into barracks. In World War II the main farmhouse was the army headquarters for the southern region, and today most of the former farmland is a series of council housing and suburbs. The 1980s row house where I was housesitting is towards the top of one of the chalk hills, with a nice view of Old Sarum to the east and Salisbury to the south. I spent a quiet three weeks there, taking care of two skittish cats, with the occasional trip into town or out to see the famous landmarks of Old Sarum and Stonehenge, topics of my next two posts.

Another excellence in brick is its perfect air of English respectability. It is utterly impossible for an edifice altogether of brick to look affected or absurd: it may look rude, it may look vulgar, it may look disgusting, in a wrong place; but it cannot look foolish, for it is incapable of pretension.

- John Ruskin, "The Poetry of Architecture" (1838)

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Salisbury Cathedral

September 21st was the Feast of St. Matthew, and I went to the 10am service at Salisbury Cathedral, after enjoying a soy latte and a gluten-free brownie while watching the sun come up above the cloister walls. I didn't spend much time at this cathedral. I think in some ways I am suffering from cathedral overload, and the site itself, like many English cathedrals, was suffering in comparison to the massive open structures I saw in France. Open in many ways: larger central spaces, larger buildings in general, and open to the public without charge. You can go into cathedrals in England without paying the visitor's fee if you're there for a service, but you can't take pictures while the service is going on. Not that this rule stops everyone with their cell phone cameras, but that's the theory, anyway.

I did like the inner courtyard, lined with delicate arches and paved with stones that were laid in place before the country I am increasingly reluctant to return to was officially in existence. I was listening to the BBC last night, a brief radio documentary called "The Red and the Blue" about politics in Texas, and when the narrator said something like "as a British journalist, I am baffled by this fundamental attachment to guns" I thought yep, me too. What the hell, America? I will cast my overseas vote next week, but damn if I don't want to do my best to stay overseas at this point.

Thirty years or so ago, I visited Salisbury Cathedral with my high school Honors English group, and I know we saw the Magna Carta then, but I didn't go to see it this time. I don't think we went to a church service back then, though. I decided to go to this service as it was a choral Eucharist, and all of the mass was to be sung by the choir rather than spoken or chanted by the clergy. They were using the Mozart Missa Brevis K 220, and if I had not started the morning with the coffee and pastry and picture-taking in the cloisters, I might have snagged a seat in the choir stalls, where I could have heard the music more easily. As it was, the voices were relatively faint, and without the glorious shivery echoes I was hoping for, bouncing off the high vaulted ceiling.

The opening hymn was the only one I knew the tune to, "Ye watchers and ye holy ones." By the end of the second verse I was painfully aware of how long it had been since I had sung - my throat was closing to a squeak over the alleluyas that I would have had no problem with two years ago. It felt good to sing, though, and make a joyful noise unto the Lord, my squeaky but heartfelt gratitude for my amazing life at this moment.

The lessons were about Jesus eating with sinners and tax collectors, and the sermon on how we need to show grace and compassion and love to everyone. The priest also worked in the fact of the Scottish independence referendum that had just failed a few days previously, but it wasn't clear if the 'yes' voters were playing the role of the sinners in the priest's eyes, or if it was her subtle dig at the English tax money that goes to pay for Scotland's public services, something that was discussed in many of the interviews I saw with British citizens before and after the day of the vote. I'm all for Scottish independence, and while I have not looked into the facts (not being a Scottish citizen [yet] and also being a lazy journalist) I wonder if that's true, that more tax money flows north than south.

What I do know is true, at least according to the sources in the US that I reference and trust, is that more tax money flows out of Blue states than goes into them, and most of that outflow gets sucked into supporting the Red states where people end up voting against "big government" while falling lower and lower on every social, economic, and humanitarian scale possible. Or into shoveling money into the maws of the war machine, or large multinational corporations, or both, as they are often one and the same. And now surplus war machinery is being turned on American citizens, as well.

The choir sang the Fauré "Ave Verum Corpus" while the priest and her helpers assembled the insubstantial relics of transubstantiation that are such a substantial part of this particular transaction between humanity and our better selves, but I left, leaving behind the communion of saints and the company of my fellow sinners.

O Jesu, O pie Jesu, O Jesu filius Mariae, dona nobis sapientia. Ibimus futui, alioquin.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Staverton Fayre

On Monday, August 25th (a bank holiday), the village of Staverton held their annual Fayre. Sometimes it's called the "Elizabethan Fayre" but I couldn't find any information on its history; although the village (or a village) has been there since the 14th century, there does not appear to be proof that a fair was held there, and of course that was long before bank holidays were invented. Or banks, for that matter, at least in England. I invited Cornelia and Alex to go along with me, but they declined, so I set off by myself in the rain that morning, first taking the bus from Ashburton to the railway station at Buckfastleigh, and then hopping on the South Devon Railway's steam train.

Built in the mid-19th century, the railway line was originally supposed to go all the way from Totnes to Ashburton, but they couldn't get the funding, so the line stopped at Buckfastleigh. They ran passenger and freight trains from 1872 to 1962, when the local branch of the National Railways decided it was not profitable. A few years later, a group of local businesspeople reopened a commercial rail service, but by 1989 they decided they weren't making money either. Other volunteer groups took over and registered the business as a charity, and since 1991 the South Devon Railway Trust has kept this bit of English trainspotting history going. It's a popular tourist attraction, and a really fun ride. The carriages are all Harry-Pottery, and every time the steam whistle blew, hooting shrilly over the rumbledy-clack of the wheels on the track, I couldn't help smiling. The line goes through woods and fields, giving glimpses of rural life: cows grazing in the pastures by the river, with sheep dotted on the hills above; pheasants gleaning the last bits of corn and wheat from the stubbled fields; a shaded hollow in the embankment holding a wooden chair next to a tea set on a stump.

It doesn't take long to get to the station at Staverton, and many of the passengers never even made it out of the station, as that was the venue for the Real Ale Festival and the Rails and Ales event, featuring local ciders and ales served from a pub that was built into the station a few years ago. They set up a tent next to the pub to hold the overflow, and I had to push my way through the crowd of large hearty men holding pints in order to get to the road leading to the fairgrounds. According to the fair's website, there was supposed to be a bus shuttling people between the station and the grounds, but it never appeared. Since the weather was crap, it's possible that they decided not enough people were going to show up to justify it. But it was only a half mile away or so, and it wasn't raining too hard.

I never did figure out what the "Elizabethan" part of the fair was supposed to be, though looking through information on fairs of years past it looks like when the weather is good, there are more events and dancing and things that might be more historically relevant. The Punch and Judy show, at least, dates back to the 17th century in Britain, and you'll find it at pretty much every fair. A newer addition is the dog agility event, and this year there were a fair number of people standing out in the rain with their damp dogs, watching the contestants and barking in encouragement. The dogs, I mean.

About half of the small tents were people selling home-baked goods or FIMO jewelry and other handmade items, or offering typical rummage sale wares like old toys and dolls and kitchen equipment. The large rummage sale tent seemed to be mostly full of tea towels, but there was also a long table full of books, and I found some paperbacks for my bus and train trips, including Stephen Fry's autobiography, "Moab is My Washpot." The first volume of his autobiography, that is, just up to his twenties. I will have to look for "The Fry Chronicles" and "More Fool Me" to get the rest of the story, now.

I have gotten completely addicted to the show Fry hosts, "QI" (today's fact of the day: at the enthronement feast of George Neville, Archbishop of York, in September 1465, the guests ate 204 bitterns) and have always enjoyed watching him act, especially in the Jeeves and Wooster series (I missed the earlier show he did with Hugh Laurie, "A Bit of Fry and Laurie"). Like Emma Thompson's character, I fell for him in the movie "Peter's Friends," but as he shares more than a passing resemblance to the title character of another movie he starred in, I wouldn't have had any more luck than Maggie with him.
One should always be a little improbable.
- Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)

There weren't that many booths set up, and not that many people in them either. It had started raining fairly early, and by the time I got to the fairgrounds it was alternating between damp drizzle and gusty squalls. A few of the smaller tents weren't standing up to the wind very well; I watched a face painter decorating the cheeks of a small girl while the posts of her tent leaned over nearly to a 45-degree angle, and a few minutes later after the girl had run off to join her parents the face painter packed up her things and took the tent down.

I was watching this from the safety of the beer and cider tent, which had the advantage of facing away from the wind, with chairs and hay bales to sit on inside, and live music by the group Men Behaving Tradly. In the tea tent, filled with things I couldn't eat, The Old Gaffers were belting out sea shanties. Next to the beer tent, the Riverford BBQ team were carving slices off their roast pig, and if I had thought to bring a few slices of gluten-free bread I would have had a sandwich. The iced lemonade stand was not doing much business on that chilly day, but I saw a lot of people with boxes from the mobile oven-fired pizza van. I had a pint of local cider while I watched the locals stroll around, trying to dry off my socks. I'd worn sandals because I didn't feel like wearing my shoes that day, and my toes were rather damp.

Most people were wearing wellies, and one of the reasons I had gone to this fair in particular was because it promised to have a welly-tossing competition. Unfortunately that had been cancelled along with several of the other booths and games, due to the weather. But there was ferret racing! Terry Moule is a well-known figure in the Devon event circuit; he has been driving his racing ferrets to fairs and such for over 30 years. I talked to him for a bit between races, and he said that he started out raising ferrets as a hobby, but that the fair races became so popular so quickly that he now spends most of his time doing them, at least in the summer. He lives near Exmoor, the other national park in the north (Dartmoor is in the south) and says that he will drive anywhere within a 70-kilometer radius (if I remember correctly) to take his ferrets to the shows. He gets paid for the events, but he also sells tickets so that people can bet on the races, and the proceeds of the betting go to charities, or to the event sponsors.

When the race is ready to begin, he brings his ferrets out and talks about them a bit, and explains the race rules, such as they are. He puts each of the six ferrets in a cage at the start of the pipes that form the racecourse, and gets six children from the audience to serve as the gatekeepers. When the whistle blows, the children lift the gates, and each ferret runs into the pipe and down to the exit at the other end. The winning ferret is the one who exits the pipe entirely, tail and all, before the others. He stresses this point, because often a ferret will race down to the opening at the end, stick its head out, and then snake its body back into the pipe and disappear, presumably in search of rabbits, which is what they are traditionally trained to hunt. I was standing in front of the pink pipe with one of the white ferrets, and that's exactly what it did - it was the first to pop its head out, but the last to actually come all the way out of the pipe.

"I'm here! I'm gone again! Hey, where's everyone going? I'm still competing in this race, damn it!"

The weather was clearing up just a bit as I walked back to the train station, and I saw more families heading towards the fairgrounds, but even in the time I was there three or four of the tents had been taken down, so I am not sure how much entertainment was left. Terry Moule had told me that if the weather didn't stay clear, he wasn't going to stay to the end of the event, but Zoe, the clarinetist with the band in the beer tent, said that they were there for the duration. There were even more people at the beer tent at Staverton station when I got there, spilling out onto the platform and taking advantage of the brief patches of sun. I took my books and my damp toes back onto the steam train, and leaned out the window all the way back, inhaling the green woodland smells and the occasional whiff of coal smoke from the engine boilers.

"What a feeble thing intelligence is, with its short steps, its waverings, its pacings back and forth, its disastrous retreats! Intelligence is a mere instrument of circumstances. There are people who say that intelligence must have built the universe — why, intelligence never built a steam engine! Circumstances built a steam engine. Intelligence is little more than a short foot-rule by which we measure the infinite achievements of Circumstances."
     - F. Scott Fitzgerald, "The Beautiful and the Damned" (1922)

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Erinaceus Europaeus

The fox knows many things; the hedgehog one great thing.
     - Archilochus (c. 680 BC – c. 645 BC), as quoted in Plutarch's Moralia

If you start throwing hedgehogs under me, I shall throw a couple of porcupines under you.
     - Nikita Khrushchev, as quoted in The New York Times in November 1963

CALIBAN: All the infections that the sun sucks up
From bogs, fens, flats, on Prosper fall and make him
By inch-meal a disease! His spirits hear me
And yet I needs must curse. But they'll nor pinch,
Fright me with urchin--shows, pitch me i' the mire,
Nor lead me, like a firebrand, in the dark
Out of my way, unless he bid 'em; but
For every trifle are they set upon me;
Sometime like apes that mow and chatter at me
And after bite me, then like hedgehogs which
Lie tumbling in my barefoot way and mount
Their pricks at my footfall; sometime am I
All wound with adders who with cloven tongues
Do hiss me into madness.
     - William Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act 2 Scene 2

Interviewer: Was there anything unusual about Dinsdale?
Woman: Certainly not! He was perfectly normal in every way! Except... inasmuch as he thought he was being followed by a giant hedgehog named Spiny Norman.
     - Monty Python's Flying Circus

And oh ! when the blessed diurnal light
Is quench'd by the providential night,
To render our slumber more certain,
Pity, pity the wretches that weep,
For they must be wretched who cannot sleep
When God himself draws the curtain !

The careful Betty the pillow beats.
And airs the blankets, and smooths the sheets.
And gives the mattress a shaking —
But vainly Betty performs her part,
If a ruffled head and a rumpled heart
As well as the couch want making.

There's Morbid, all bile, and verjuice, and nerves,
Where other people would make preserves.
He turns his fruits into pickles :
Jealous, envious, and fretful by day,
At night, to his own sharp fancies a prey,
He lies like a hedgehog roll'd up the wrong way,
Tormenting himself with his prickles.

But a child that bids the world good-night.
In downright earnest and cuts it quite —
A Cherub no Art can copy, —
'Tis a perfect picture to see him lie
As if he had supp'd on a dormouse pie,
(An ancient classical dish by-the-bye)
With a sauce of syrup of poppy.

Oh, bed ! bed ! bed ! delicious bed !
That heaven upon earth to the weary head,
Whether lofty or low its condition!
But instead of putting our plagues on shelves.
In our blankets how often we toss ourselves.
Or are toss'd by such allegorical elves
As Pride, Hate, Greed, and Ambition!
     - Thomas Hood "Miss Kilmansegg and her Precious Leg" (1870)