Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Old Sarum

As one half of Past-Imagined Historical Tale Tellers I was telling at Old Sarum in Whiltshire.

Ariel view of Old Sarum Hill Fort

I was telling with Stewart Alexander from Monday to Friday, the 24th-28th August and each day we were telling different tales from different periods of English history, from Viking and Saxon through to Tudor. It was an attempt to try and get across the vast history and mans continued involvement with the place, although in truth it goes back much further than the Saxons to at least 500 BC when an Iron age tribe raised the massive outer ditch and bank.

The sites continued history is of course its main selling point for even the toilets built into the iron age bank are actually the remnants of a second world war gun emplacement! But for all its history, its internal structures are ruinous and so it takes a lot of imagination on the part of visitors to get a feel for how it would have looked at any given time. Although they are ably helped by some excellent interpretation panels that go beyond the straightforward, literal description of various features about the place. The panel next to the well for example talks about it be a meeting point for 'gossips's; a place that linked together the various buildings in need of water and more importantly the servants who worked in them. I thought that was a great bit of imaginative interpretation that brought the people from the past to life, for they too loved to hear the latest news and perhaps have a laugh at another's expense as much as we still do today!

Unfortunately there is not that much to see beyond the mainly medieval remains in the center of the early iron age fort and I don't think that most visitors (other than the dog walkers) get to explore the early ramparts. Perhaps the site needs more to encourage the casual visitor beyond the remains of the Keep and Cathedral. I of course was lucky for working there a full five days I had plenty of time to explore and walk the ancient bank and ditch that defines Old Sarum hill fort. And I'm glad I did, because as you ca see for the selection of photos I took, it gives a great view of the surrounding countryside and a much greater feeling of the dominance of the site over the surrounding area than you get from looking up from the outside. For on driving up to the fort it looks to be an unimpressive hill, but standing on the outer bank you do get a sense of the massive scale of the original enclosure and just how safe and dominant it would have made its Iron Age builders feel. It also helps explain why the site would have continued being important to the Romans, Saxons and medieval peoples to come!

Various views looking out from Iron age bank at Old Sarum
Click on any image to make larger

Telling at Old Sarum all week meant that we had plenty of time to explore the locality and started by looking at Salisbury Cathedral. Although both Stewart and I were nearly locked in the Cathedral Close, because we were so taken at looking at all the different houses, medieval through to eighteenth century and of course the cathedral itself. I really liked the exterior of Salisbury. For one thing apart from the west front which is covered with carvings of Saints and is very ornate; the rest is unusually plain. According to a local man who worked at Old Sarum this is because it was built a lot quicker than most cathedrals; "In one go" (Foundation stone laid in 1220 and consecrated in 1258) and so there is not the jumble of styles you usually associate with medieval ecclesiastical buildings.

The Prisoner of Conscience Window, the east end of Salisbury Cathedral

As to the interior, I wouldn't know where to start, for there was so much going on, from one of the original copies of Magna Carta and also some great examples of early documents now displayed in the Chapter House. It includes a very early 12th century indulgence sold to a wealthy patron to lessen their time in purgatory whilst boosting the Cathedral's coffers! But of particular appeal to me was the Prisoner of Conscience window, which the photo above can not do justice too. It was designed by Gabriel Loire in 1980 and from the West end is the deepest blue, but up close it is a mass of detail; of faces, which I think represent men and women imprisoned all over the world for having stood up to corrupt regimes.

Sixteenth century tomb in Salisbury Cathedral

There was also the tomb of Gorge Sydenham above who was a chaplain to both Henry VII and Henry VIII. It is one of two that is very unusual in that it shows Sydenham as a wasted corpse. I have seen many 'transi' tombs that show the dead person in both a likeness from life with a corrupted version hidden below, but never one that shows them only in decay. Perhaps it has something to do with the times; with the reformation and heightened Protestant feelings, or it could just be a local fashion?

The Tisbury Tithe Barn

We also took a trip to a very old pub near by where we were staying. But we got lost and happily happened upon a medieval tithe barn at Tisbury which turned out to have the largest thatched roof in all England. It was whilst googling this on his I Phone that Stewart also discovered that Tisbury was famous for the ancient Yew growing in its churchyard that is said to be over 4000 years old! It has been filled with concrete which looks ugly, but its still wearing well for something so old. It was still bearing fruit; bright red berries on the night we went to see it.

As the photo says, the concrete filled Tisbury Yew,
Tisbury Churchyard

So there you go, lots to see, including a happy accident with the tithe barn, but also an ancient Yew, which proved Stewart's devotion to his I Phone was well justified!

Thanks to all Naomi and all the other staff at Old Sarum who made Stewart and I feel very welcome.

And also a very special thanks to Helen and Paul of Discover History who kept us company all week and supplied us with lots of treats courtesy of the Premier Inn!

1 comment:

  1. Thank yew for taking us with you on your journey...