The Finest Stone Town in England

How often, when watching epics on the big screen or television, have you admired the scenery or buildings and wondered where they are or even if they exist in reality?   Those of you that have done this when watching Middlemarch or Pride and Prejudice can be reassured that, indeed, they do for they were filmed in the Lincolnshire town of Stamford, often described as the finest stone town in England.

Stamford has an ancient history.  The Romans constructed Ermine Street which passes through it only to be then pursued by Queen Boudica; almost a thousand years later it was the turn of the Anglo-Saxons against the Danish invaders.  The conquering Normans built a castle (to be demolished four hundred years later) but it was during the Middle Ages that Stamford really flourished due to the wool trade.  However, apart from its five medieval churches, the majority of the town’s buildings date from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  In the late 1960’s, it became Britain’s first conservation area and is now designated an area of outstanding architectural interest.  It is due to this early protection that has earned the town its accolade, seconded by the Sunday Times (national) newspaper describing it as the best place to live in the country.

Close to the bridge which crosses the River Welland  stands the church of St. Martin’s, built around 1150 and completely rebuilt three hundred years later.  It contains some fine memorials to the Cecil family, the earliest dating from 1598, and also medieval stained glass brought from a neighbouring village in the 1700’s.

 

For those interested in church timber, St. Martin’s has finely detailed box pews and a carved lectern.  It also has the more contemporary (1947) carved head of Christ – Consummatum Est by Alberdi – representing the moment of his death; an anti-war protest.


 

William Cecil, the first Lord Burghley, was chief advisor, Secretary of State and Lord High Treasurer to Queen Elizabeth I.  It was he who built Burghley House, considered to be the finest of its age and open to the public.  It is still lived in by descendants of the family and also home to the International Horse Trials held in the Park each September.  I have written of these before and these posts can be found by clicking on the link here.

More of my images of Stamford and Burghley can be found on Flickr by clicking on the link here.

Refs:
http://www.stamford.co.uk/index.shtml
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stamford,_Lincolnshire
http://www.stamfordchurches.co.uk/
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Cecil,_1st_Baron_Burghley
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A Visit to Bath Abbey

There has been a church on the site of Bath Abbey for over a thousand years but the present Abbey Church is relatively new by British ecclesiastical standards.  Building started in 1499 but it was not until the early 1600’s that it was completed.  This was due to Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in 1539 and the Abbey remained as ruins until 1616 when the church was repaired; the last of the great medieval churches to be built. 

 
Tradition states that the Abbey Church was built after the then Bishop of Bath dreamt of angels descending – and ascending – to heaven.  It is this vision that is first seen as you enter the building carved into the stonework either side of the West Front.  The great flying buttresses were added in the mid 1830’s to strengthen the building after cracks appeared in the tower; at the same time the pinnacles were also installed.

In late Victorian times many of Britain’s churches had their interiors radically altered and Bath Abbey was no exception.  Much was removed – the organ and screen were taken away which has created the breath-taking view down the full length of the church to the Great East Window, also fitted at this time.  Many other windows were fitted with stained glass and that of the west window was replaced.
 

 
Perhaps the most striking of all of the church’s features is the stone fan vaulting: that of the nave was also created then to match the earlier ones of the chancel.  It soars to great heights with such delicacy and feeling of light that it is difficult to remember it is of stone – or imagine the many hours of craftsmanship that the stonemason’s must have carried out.
 

 

Carving of an earlier date, 1649, is the tomb of Sir William Waller’s wife, Jane.  Sir William fought against the Royalists in the English Civil War and intended to be buried with her.  He was however buried in London.
 

Much of the information for this post has been gleaned from the Abbey Church’s excellent website and pamphlets.  It is a magnificent building and well worth allowing plenty of time to visit for there is much to see.  It is, of course, in the city centre and adjacent to the ancient Roman Baths and Georgian Pump Rooms; these featured in an earlier post which can be seen by clicking here.

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New Year Resolution: Bath More Often

This is not really a post about washing and personal hygiene although I suppose, in a way, it is.  Where can you sit and watch the steam rising from warm bath water whilst having liveried waiters serve you tea in a highly polished silver tea service along with traditional English afternoon tea of scones and cakes?  Add to this scene, chandeliers and a pianist playing at a grand piano and you could be forgiven that it is fantasy.

But, of course, it isn’t for this is England and is just another example of the crossing of eccentricity, tradition and commercialism to create the Pump Room in the city of Bath.  In the photo below, the Pump Room is in the further building, the nearer one being the entrance to the Roman Baths themselves.

Bath developed soon after the Romans had invaded Britain giving it the name of Aquae Sulis about AD60 although the hot spring had been a sacred place even before then. Over the next three hundred years the waters were gradually enclosed and then abandoned two hundred years after that with the fall of the Roman Empire.


photo: view of the Roman baths from the Pump Room tea rooms

During the eighteenth century the Grand Pump Rooms were built where it was possible to ‘take the waters’.  At this time, the dandy Beau Nash became Master of Ceremonies and made Bath the most fashionable resort in Britain – the future of the Pump Rooms was assured.


Photo: Beau Nash (statue) still presides over the social gatherings in the Pump Room

Today the Pump Rooms are the perfect place to relax and just absorb the genteel atmosphere.  It is very easy to imagine  Catherine Morland visiting here in the hope of meeting Mr Tilney in Jane Austen’s novel Northanger Abbey.  Although the rooms are steeped in tradition they are not an intimidating place to  visit and all are welcome – it isn’t necessary to be wearing formal clothes! They are open every day for lunch and tea or, if you really want to be exclusive, you can book them for your private party in the evenings.


Photo: even the stairway to the cloakrooms has style!

In the YouTube video below, the music is performed by the Pump Room Trio, the longest, continuous playing  ensemble in Europe.  The fountain is shown in the clip where you can try the water yourself for which, I believe, there is no charge even if you don’t stay for tea.

Bath is a fascinating city to visit and a World Heritage Site.  This will be one New Year’s Resolution that will be easy to keep: visit Bath more often.


Photo: The Royal Crescent, Bath


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A Year in Review: 2012 July – December


Where does the time go?  Christmas has been and gone, as have the New Year celebrations and here we are already at the end of January’s first week. I’m beginning to understand those lines of William Davies’ “We have no time to stand and stare.  Not that my life has too many cares fortunately and, of course, I’m exceptionally lucky living where I do and working outdoors – I have plenty of time “… to see, when woods we pass

Continuing on from my review of the first six months …

July: we had a rare fine evening in a year filled mostly with rain, an opportunity for the lucky few to go hot air ballooning.  We had a surprise visitor when Charles Teall, who lives a few miles away, dropped unexpectedly into the secret valley.  We joined him and his balloon team for drinks by the river, a lovely way to end a flight.  Some years earlier Charles had flown me across the Cotswolds before landing to a champagne breakfast – but that’s another story.

Another surprise was when I found an abandoned bantam egg and hatched it out, capturing the moment on video, now uploaded to YouTube.  You can watch it by clicking here.

August: You don’t go on holiday to Ireland for the weather, especially the west coast lashed as it is by frequent Atlantic Ocean storms.  To everyone’s great surprise, we had unbroken sunshine and high temperatures day after day.  We even swam in the millpond calm sea.  At night we were treated to the most glorious sunsets, every evening more dramatic than the previous one.

 

September:  Britain has a long and proud history but we tend to forget about the days before the Conquest in 1066.  We had been invaded and settled many times prior to that but the Romans left us with a road system that is still much used today.  Their houses have long since disappeared although there are many excavated ruins that can be visited.  Cirencester was one of the premier cities of the time and the museum there houses many artefacts including some remarkably intact mosaics, the subject of a post.

October:  Their are numerous new diseases affecting our trees and one species that has been hit badly is the Horse Chestnut.  The leaves become infected with leaf miners and cankers weaken the tree further.  This, in time, may kill the tree but short-term affects the quality of their fruit – the conkers of childhood games.

November:  Trees also featured this month along with a visit to my earliest schooldays.  The larch was my introduction to nature cleverly made magical by my school teacher, Miss Vine.  Larch still are my favourite tree: we have a good number of them here in the secret valley where they give me still as much pleasure at all times of the year as they did all those years ago.

December: With the year whizzing by there were no posts this month other than to wish you all a happy holiday and start this review with the first six months of the year.

Every year has its memories but 2012 will be recalled  as the year of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the London Olympics.  2013 looks like being an especially memorable one for me but you will have to wait a little longer before I reveal all!
 

And just in case we are all rushing about far too much let us remember the words of William Davies:

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.

No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.

No time to see, in broad day light,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.

No time to turn at beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.

No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.

A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

Leisure from Songs of Joy and Others, 1911
  

 

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The Roman Mosaics of Cirencester

The making of mosaic patterns is often associated with the Romans although the earliest known examples pre-date them to 3000BC.  Associated with many cultures, mosaic artists still flourish today, an unbroken tradition of five thousand years.

The Hunting Dogs mosaic: head of Oceanus  2nd century AD

In Britain, one of the finest collections of early mosaics can be found in the Cotswold town of Cirencester, situated 93 miles west of London.  With a population of 18000, it is one of the larger hubs in the Cotswolds yet has maintained a lot of its old charm for there are still many independent shops as well as the usual High Street chain stores.

History oozes from the very fabric of Cirencester: home to the the oldest agricultural college (Royal Agricultural College) in the English speaking world, founded in 1845; it is also home to the oldest polo club in England (Cirencester Park Polo Club) which was founded in 1894.  The charter for the market, still held twice weekly, was first mentioned in the Domesday Book in 1086.

The Hunting Dogs mosaic:  Sea Leopard   3rd century AD

However, when the words Cirencester and history are linked together it is the Romans that predominate for their town, Corinium – now modern day Cirencester – was the second most important city in Britain.  Corinium lay at the centre of their great road network where Akeman Street,  Ermine Street and the Fosse Way all meet, still busy roads today.  There are still the remains of a number of  their villas in the region that are possible to explore.

The great Roman ampitheatre here was also the second largest in the country with tiered wooden seating for eight thousand spectators.  Today, all that remains are a series of banks and ditches, still impressive and well worth visiting.

The Seasons mosaic:  2nd century AD   Actaeon being attacked by his own hunting dogs

If there is not a huge amount to see of the original splendour of the ampitheatre, you will not be disappointed by a trip to the town’s Corinium Museum which has recently been extended and refurbished making it one of the best museums in the country.  The museum holds over one and a half million artefacts but the most impressive of all of their exhibits have to be the Roman mosaics.

The Seasons mosaic: 2nd century AD

The Seasons  is one of the most impressive mosaics in Britain, discovered in Cirencester in 1849, with pictures of goddesses depicting spring, summer and autumn.  Winter is missing.  In the museum the floor has been laid in an area reproducing a room in a Roman villa.

Detail from the Hare mosaic, 4th century AD

The hare is frequently used in Celtic art and fables but was rarely used by the Romans, making this central motif of the mosaic floor unique.  If you click on the photo above to enlarge it, you will see that there have been shards of green glass laid into the hare’s back.

Detail from the Hare mosaic, 4th century AD

The Hare mosaic, 4th century AD

The museum does not just hold Roman aretfacts, it also covers finds from pre-history as well as more recent times such as Saxon brooches and a large hoard of coins dating back to the English civil war, subjects of a later post.  The Cirencester Museum is really worth making the effort to visit – you can find out more details by visiting their website, here.

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"The Most Beautiful English Village"

The tiny village of Bibury has long been recognised as one of the prettiest places in the Cotswolds and is much visited by tourists.  It is everything you might magine an old English village to be; so much so that some visitors, according to local gossip, not realising that it isn’t a theme park creation, walk into people’s homes to have a look around.

Ancient cottages in mellow Cotswold stone, a crystal clear, trout-filled river running alongside the main street, an old mill and a great pub offering food and accomodation all make Bibury “the most beautiful English village” as William Morris, the Arts and Crafts textile designer described it when he visited during the 1800’s.

The old cottages are so perfect and their setting so tranquil that they appear to have created an ethos amongst their owners: each house and garden has to be more well maintained than their neighbours.  The only weeds I saw there were across the river in the marsh and, of course, not only were they growing where they belong – in a wild setting – but there were only the most attractive ones such as Yellow Flags, the bog irises and the flat, white heads of the hogweeds.



No English village is complete without its church and pub and Bibury has both.  The church of St Mary’s dates back to the 12th century and is well worth seeking out for it is tucked away down one of Bibury’s few side streets.

 

If the church tries to remain hidden, no such claim can be made for The Swan, one of the landmark buildings situated on the bend where the road crosses the River Coln.  The creeper covered pub/hotel is a good place to watch the world go by although, rarely does a car go by without its occupants stopping to explore the village.  This is quite a problem for there are so many visitors and cars that to experience the tranquility of the place, or to get photographs such as those on this blog, you either need to stay overnight or to visit the village early in the day.  Looking at the online reviews for the Swan, I was amused to see that the only gripes were complaints about old furniture, no street lighting and no wifi or mobile phone signals – surely, some of the very best reasons for visiting!
 

 
It can almost be guaranteed that every calander of the Cotswolds will have a photograph of Arlington Row – probably on it’s front cover.  Set back away from the road, it is reached by a footbridge: a terrace of former 16th century weavers cottages which, in turn, were converted from a 13th century wool store.  The importance of wool in creating the wealth of the Cotswolds and its churches, including the development of the Cotswold breed of sheep, now endangered, has been described in earlier posts on this blog (click here).  For more on the Cotswold sheep and the work of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust to preserve them, click here.
Arlington Row’s importance in history of vernacular architecture was recognised by the Royal Society of Arts in 1929 when they purchased and restored it.  A plaque, commemorating this is set into a nearby wall.

Exploring Arlington Row gives visitors an opportunity to see just how higgledy-piggledy the construction of old house are.  The old stone walls and mismatched rooflines and windows are juxtaposed seemingly at random – a modern planning departments nightmare.

Despite, the large numbers of tourists (for we all like to believe that we fall out of that category and will be the only persons there), Bibury is well worth making the effort to visit.  It is situated close to Cirencester, one of the most important Roman towns in the UK, with its wealth of history and it is also within easy reach of Oxford.  If I had to choose only one place to take a visitor to see, I think that Bibury would be highly placed on the list. 

Let me know – especially overseas readers, please – which would be the one place that epitomises old rural living in your country.

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A Roman Villa in the Cotswolds

These days the Cotswolds, with its rolling landscape, dry stone walls and picture postcard villages, give the impression of being sleepy and sparsely populated, basking (or some may say smug) in its glory of being one of the jewels of the British countryside. But this is not so. For it is a working landscape with its people going about their daily business, admittedly often in an unhurried way – for our narrow lanes and lack of motorways limit the speed that one can travel. And often our straightest and, therefore, easiest routes have not been made in recent years but by Roman settlers, attracted to this region some two thousand years ago, for much the same reasons as we are now.
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Ryknild Street, Fosse Way, Akeman Street, Ermin Way – just their very names conjure up images of Roman legions marching long distances through the country – linked their towns and cities with Corinium, now our modern Cirencester, the centre of both their commerce and entertainment (it still has the remains of a Roman ampitheatre that held over 8000 people). And, as time passed, they settled in more remote parts of the Cotswolds too: one such place is the villa built at North Leigh, near Witney. The track that leads you to the remains is as straight as any other Roman road but was used solely by servants and traders, the owners and visitors arriving by a more grand approach no longer visible.

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Now cared for the nation by English Heritage, admission is free and the site is open all year. Strategically placed notice boards explain the layout of the 60+ rooms and of its history but nothing quite prepares you for the sheer size of area which seems at odds with its present day position – somehow, you expect a small cottage sized building. In fact, the first thing I noticed was the irrepressible She-dog who had run on ahead, in order I imagine, to steal the limelight, as usual!
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One of the greatest pleasures of exploring the remains is that they are relatively unknown and so are rarely visited. I explored for over an hour and saw no-one – just perfect! The photos below show the north west range and also the south east range. Beneath the floor of the latter even earlier remains of a hearth were found , dating back to the Iron Age, circa BC100.
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Although the site was known as early as 1783 it was not until the early 1800’s that the ruins were excavated, the first plan published in 1823. Further excavations took place in 1908.
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The remains of the under floor heating can be clearly seen in the photographs below. It is strange how such an ‘advanced’ civilisation could then be plunged into the relatively primitive period of the Dark Ages after the Romans left.
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In amongst the stonework of the walls pieces of tile protrude. No matter how carefully I looked I saw no signs of pottery.
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The’jewel in the crown’ of the villa at North Leigh are the mosaic floors. Several were discovered and lifted, presumably to a museum although I do not know which. However, the floor of the dining room, discovered in 1816, in the south west wing has been preserved in situ and is protected from the elements by a modern building. The mosaics were laid by craftsmen from Corinium in the fashionable geometric style of the time.
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The dining room, again with underfloor heating, had a vaulted roof supported by columns, parts of which can be seen against the back wall of the shelter.
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Who were the people that lived here and why was the villa suddenly deserted in the fifth century when it was so obviously thriving a century earlier? It is probable that they were farming here so perhaps there was a change in climatic conditions or with the water supply. Whatever the reason, it is now the most perfect spot to sit and ponder in total peace and quiet.
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