Brian Spencer takes a look at the towns and monuments of the ancient kingdom of Wessex
During the fine weather in late summer we took a trip into an area I haven’t visited for decades and this is a brief rundown of my impressions. Basically the route we took was by way of Bristol, Bath, Stonehenge and finishing up at Salisbury. The latter two places were probably where I knew best and as a result what I saw of one of them was a bit of a shock, removing the happy memories I had of it.
Partly in Gloucestershire, partly in Somerset, but since 1973 a county in its own right, Bristol has a long history of maritime adventure and commerce. Part of the infamous slave triangle when its prosperity grew on the imports of sugar and tobacco, Bristol’s city centre harbour lies in a basin at the end of a long winding channel from the sea. Nowadays shipping uses the deep water docks of Avonmouth, missing one of the highest rises and fall along the tidal river into Bristol.
As this was a flying visit we made our way down to the old dock area now very much a part of the city’s main attractions. Along the way we passed the front of the Exchange and its four short pillars called nails, where merchants once conducted their business: hence the term ‘paying on the nail’. What we were making for was the restored S.S. Great Britain, the world’s first luxury passenger liner.
Built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel the great marine engineer, the Great Britain was the last word in ocean travel, taking emigrants to the New World and Australia. Way ahead of anything of its time, but the use of steam was not far enough developed and so it ended its days as a cargo ship under sail and then finally as a support vessel for whaling expeditions. Found abandoned and mouldering in a Falkland Islands creek, it was brought back to England on the back of a specially made pontoon. Eventually it found a lasting berth in the centre of the old Bristol docks, from where it had last sailed over a century before. Here it was slowly and carefully restored to as close to its former glory as the ageing ironwork of its hull would allow.
The present day ticket to board the ship is over printed on a passenger ticket dating from 1869 which apparently was a contract to take the holder to Melbourne in Australia. The cost was eighteen guineas, £18.18.00 (£18.90), for which the passenger could expect a comfortable cabin, three cooked meals a day and a wide deck, on which to enjoy the balmy tropical airs. Everything has been lovingly restored right down to the massive engine and paddle-like propeller. Due to the weakness of the ship’s hull it cannot float in deep water, but rather cleverly rests on a hidden frame in just an inch or so of water.
Next door to the Great Britain is the floating replica of the Matthew, the ship that took John Cabot on his expedition of discovery to North America in 1497. One thing I discovered was that Cabot was not an Englishman, but came from Venice, where he was better known as Zuan Cabot and changed his name to the easier (for English tongues at least), John. The Matthew, tiny by modern standards – was a three masted navicular meaning ‘small’, but it still managed to sail across the wild Atlantic and find its way into the arctic. The name ’Matthew’ incidentally, is thought to be a corruption of Mattea, Cabot’s wife.
A spa town since it was the Roman city of Aquae Sulis, in honour of the Celtic goddess whose shrine guarded the constant flow of natural warm water issuing from a spring not far from the River Avon. Its heyday in near modern times, was in the Georgian and Regency period, when the cream of society came to Bath to cure their ills such as gout, as likely caused by over indulgence. High above the town on a south facing level, the elegant Royal Crescent where they took rooms, still evokes the glories of that era.
During the time of Beau Nash, the pop idol of his time, Regency visitors who came to ‘take the waters’ travelled by road, an uncomfortable journey by horse-drawn coach that took several days, but with the building of the Kennet and Avon Canal, the time by fast, or fly boat would have reduced considerably once London and the Thames were linked to the Avon.
Life in Regency Bath at least for the leisured classes, turned around the daily intake of glasses of water, or bathing in the Roman pools. These were on a lower level than the genteel Assembly Rooms, rooms where in the twenty-first century it is still possible to take tea whilst enjoying the strains of a string quartet.
Nowadays modern users of the water provided by the Celtic god Sulis swim in a sheltered outdoor pool on the bath’s rooftop. Most of what the Romans left of their extensive baths are as they were when abandoned, together with statues of their gods. Then like their Regency successors they also used the baths for socialising, but some used them to make scandalous accusations: curses and threats written on pieces of lead were thrown in the holiest of the wells, and it is interesting to read remarks that would possibly come from a neighbourly squabble in this day and age.
During my previous visit many decades ago I tagged on to a guided visit to the Roman baths. Most of the group were American and one of them was horrified to see the hot water coming out of a lead pipe, so the guide proudly pointed out, of Roman origin. ‘Didn’t it give the bathers lead poisoning?’ asked an incredulous female. Obviously a bit startled by the question, but after only a moment’s pause, the guide replied, ‘Well they never complained’.
Bath seemed to be a popular venue for our cousins from across the pond – crocodiles of them were blocking almost every street crossing, so we ended our trip by quietly strolling along the river bank and lunching beneath a shady tree at a pleasant Italian restaurant. This we thought would meet with the approval of the original visitors to this unspoilt place.
As I mentioned earlier, my last visit to Wessex was many years ago. This was when I was stationed as a member of Her Majesty’s armed forces at the School of Artillery on Salisbury Plain. As the school is surrounded by pre-historic monuments, I spent a lot of my spare time exploring this mysterious part of our long history. Stonehenge was less than a mile away and in those days very few people bothered to understand what its purpose was and how it was built and by whom. We had the freedom then to wander round it at will and I have to admit, were able to make several late night climbing expeditions on the massive sarsens stones, but I do not claim responsibility for any of the fallen rocks.
Of course I never saw Stonehenge during the years when it became a popular tourist destination, and understand that visiting arrangements caused problems. But with happy memories of that quiet freedom to enjoy the monument, imagine my horror when we pulled into the massive and I really mean massive, car park. Not only was it bulging to capacity, but there was obviously another under construction nearby. With a huge visitor centre with its ‘this is what it might have looked like’ exhibition, the site now looks as though it is part of a Disneyland resort. Rather than allowing people to commune with the stones, having debouched from a shuttle bus, they are corralled yards away from the circle and instead of using their imagination, have to listen to a recorded commentary that tells them when and where to move on to. In my time the grass was kept short by grazing sheep and as a result wild flowers grew in abundance – now the grass is mown to a lawn-like texture with not a single flower in sight. When I saw people taking selfies with their backs to the stones, I fled the place.
I was pleased to see that my watering hole of happy memories in Salisbury, the Haunch of Venison hadn’t been taken over by Wetherspoons or somesuch multiple. It still looks out on to the Butter Cross in the town centre exactly as it did three or four hundred years ago. Unlike many medieval towns Salisbury is well laid out along lines planned or otherwise by thoughtful developers in times gone by: somehow it manages to be modern and ancient at the same time.
As time was pressing we made for the cathedral close, the true heart of Salisbury. Set amidst water meadows where three chalk streams mingle, the Nadder, Upper Avon and the Bourne, each an angler’s paradise (that is those who can afford the expense). If ever I had the money I would live there, like the ex-Prime Minister, the late Sir Edward Heath, or Leslie Thomas, author of the Virgin Soldiers. Despite throngs of visitors, there is a gentle tranquillity to the place. The Rev William Mompesson who led the courageous people of Eyam through the dark days of the plague, retired exhausted to his family’s house on the north side of the close. Now owned by the National Trust, it couldn’t be a nicer place.