Wiltshire, October 2016
Travel Bureau Destinations was recently invited by VisitWiltshire to see some of the county’s highlights. My personal experience of travelling in the South of England is quite narrow so I had no real expectations of what Wiltshire would be like, I was a completely blank canvas going in and these are the impressions that the county left on me.
After a drizzly Saturday in London I arrived in Salisbury to be greeted by a beautiful blue sky, complete with fluffy white clouds. The picture-perfect sky seemed like a propitious blessing coming as it did on the 2nd October when, coming from up in Newcastle, we’d all but forgotten about Summer.
The first thing I saw in Salisbury (besides the train station) was the Wiltshire town’s famous cathedral. The magnificent building stands at the centre of what is referred to in Salisbury as “the close”, a large grassy square around which the town’s other main attractions are located. These attractions include the Salisbury Museum, Arundells (former home of Prime Minister Ted Heath) and National Trust property, Mompesson house where the 1996 film version of Jane Austen’s Sense & Sensibility, starring Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet and the late, great Alan Rickman, was filmed.
On a beautiful sunny day, such as the one on which we arrived, locals and visitors alike lounge on the grass of the Cathedral Close enjoying the sunshine and beautiful surroundings – it’s idyllic.
The cathedral itself is remarkable, looking up to it from the Close is a dizzying delight. Thomas Hardy describes it in Jude the Obscure as ‘the most graceful architectural pile in England’ and it certainly is stunning. Inside the cathedral is just as impressive. Sometimes churches can feel quite cold and oppressive but there is nothing haughty or austere about Salisbury, it is a place full of beauty, light and art. The people who work at Salisbury Cathedral insist that it is a living church and I would agree with them, it certainly felt alive to me: full of vibrancy and activity. I have always found cathedrals to be very moving places and Salisbury was no different, moving me not through any spiritual experience but an aesthetic one. The beauty of this place is truly incredible, almost overwhelmingly so, and what moved me most was not religious awe but sheer admiration at the human achievement of conceiving, constructing and crafting such a huge and breathtakingly beautiful monument.
Salisbury cathedral has an extra jewel in its already glittering crown as it is the home of the famous Magna Carta. The Great Charter of Liberties, signed by King John of England in 1215, is to this day an important symbol of liberty and the rights of the people. Lord Denning has described the Magna Carta as ‘the greatest constitutional document of all times – the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot.’ Containing statements such as ‘to no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice’, it is no wonder that this extraordinary document is still highly respected in the legal world and oft-quoted by politicians and campaigners alike. It is fitting, then, that the Magna Carta should be housed in a place that befits its grand reputation.
I found so much to enjoy in Salisbury Cathedral, from gazing up at carved figures, to marvelling at a pre-Raphaelite angel in a beautiful window designed by Victorian artist Edward Burne-Jones and peering through the cloisters to an ancient tree bathed in sunlight. Whether you’re passionate about art, architecture, history or religion, if you, like me, are a lover of beauty then a visit to Salisbury Cathedral will make your heart glow.
My next highlight was Longleat House, home of the Marquesses of Bath. The estate is famous now for its safari park and for its lions, in truth no other creatures could match the majesty and grandeur of Longleat House.
From the outside the building is, of course, imposing but it was only upon entering Longleat’s Great Hall that the real power of this place first hit me.
No picture can do justice to the size and splendour of this room; walking into this space makes you feel like the air has been rushed out of your lungs. Walking into the Great Hall at Longleat is like walking through a portal into another world, one of magnificent history and incomprehensible wealth.
Walking through the house you move from room to room, each of which is grander than the last. The walls of the ante-library are covered in luxuriously vibrant turquoise wallpaper, gilt with images of peacocks, cupids and cornucopias. The breakfast room is luxurious in bright gold, hung with portraits of the last seven owners of Longleat and their wives. The dining room is dark, grand and austere, its walls covered with 17th century Spanish leather made of goatskin from Cordoba, golden flowers in the ceiling provide points of light which pierce the gloom. The state rooms contain elaborate marble fireplaces and looking up you see 16th century Italian paintings set amid ornately carved wood designs modelled on the ceilings of the Dowager’s Palace in Venice. The sumptuous red smoking room is lit only by candlelight and contains the doors to the balcony from which King Charles II would have looked out over the Great Hall.
Every single aspect of this extraordinary house speaks of wealth beyond imagination, from the staggeringly valuable art collection to the priceless historical objects belonging to the estate.
Longleat’s library collection is the most important private library in the UK containing 44,000 books, some predating the house which was completed in 1580. The collection includes many important volumes, including a Shakespeare first folio which was on display in an exhibition celebrating the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death when we visited. Also displayed was the Peachman drawing or Longleat Manuscript – a drawing by Henry Peachman dating from 1594/5 which depicts a scene from Titus Andronicus accompanied by the words form the script below – the only surviving contemporary picture of a Shakespeare play in performance. As if this were not enough historical significance for one house, Longleat also contains the shirt in which Charles II was executed.
From the first breath-taking view of the Great Hall, through each room dripping in riches, to every tale of royalty that accompanies this house through the ages, Longleat is a stately home like no other I’ve visited before – truly a cut above.
The next visit on our itinerary also stood out for me as being a very special place and a special experience. Great Chalfield Manor is a National Trust property. I love the National Trust, I have visited many of their properties and grounds around the UK and have enjoyed each and every one, so I hope no one will take it the wrong way when I say that this is not just another National Trust property. There are so many National Trust properties in Great Britain that they can, at a glance, all seem to meld into one another making it difficult to decide which of the hundreds of properties are worth spending your time and money to visit. Great Chalfield makes this decision exceptionally easy.
The house itself is charmingly evocative, hence its having been used as a set for various period dramas including Wolf Hall and Poldark. From the roses climbing up the old stone walls to the picturesque gables and gothic windows, the whole house is wonderfully characterful, radiating a sense of romantic nostalgia.
Then there is the garden, which is simply magical, full of colour and beauty at every turn. Over the past 20 years the garden has been tended by the lady of the manor, Patsy, who, with the help of long-serving gardener Neil, has created a truly joyful place whose vivacious jollity excites the senses whilst also maintaining an atmosphere of peaceful calm.
What really made Great Chalfield stand out, even more than the sheer aesthetic enjoyment of such a beautiful environment, was the personal touch. The manor is still a family home and its partnership with the National Trust means that the family is able to maintain this extraordinary estate to the high standards that it deserves. However, we were not greeted at the Chalfield by a National Trust ticket office but by a sleepy and slightly grumpy old dog wandering around the courtyard, finding the sunniest spot to flop down in. We weren’t shown around the house and garden by an enthusiastic volunteer but by the lady of the manor herself. Patsy’s knowledge of Great Chalfield’s past and present combined with her clear love for the place and her strong wish to protect its autonomy made for a truly engaging and enchanting tour that I will always remember with great fondness.
At the beginning of this piece I said that I would record the impressions made upon me by Wiltshire as upon a blank canvas. However, I must confess that while I had never visited our final destination, my mind had already been subject to many impressions of it and thus I did not go towards it without some expectation and trepidation.
Salisbury Cathedral was the first monument I saw in Wiltshire and as that had recalled to my mind a passage from Hardy so did this, the last I would see, remind me of a scene from another of his most famous novels. As we journeyed towards our final destination I brought to mind his words:
“What monstrous place is this?” said Angel.
“It hums,” said she. “Hearken!”
He listened. The wind, playing upon the edifice, produced a booming tune, like the note of some gigantic one-stringed harp. No other sound came from it, and lifting his hand and advancing a step or two, Clare felt the vertical surface of the structure. It seemed to be of solid stone, without joint or moulding. Carrying his fingers onward he found that what he had come in contact with was a colossal rectangular pillar; by stretching out his left hand he could feel a similar one adjoining. At an indefinite height overhead, something made the black sky blacker, which had the semblance of a vast architrave uniting the pillars horizontally. They carefully entered beneath and between; the surfaces echoed their soft rustle; but they seemed to be still out of doors. The place was roofless. Tess drew her breath fearfully and Angel, perplexed, said----
“What can it be?”
Feeling sideways they encountered another tower-like pillar, square and uncompromising as the first; beyond it another and another. The place was all doors and pillars, some connected above by continuous architraves.
“A very Temple of the Winds,” he said.
The next pillar was isolated; others composed a trilithon; others were prostrate, their flanks forming a causeway wide enough for a carriage and it was soon obvious that they made up a forest of monoliths grouped upon the grassy expanse of the plain.
Stonehenge. One of the most iconic monuments in all of England, steeped in history and shrouded in mystery, a place of legend and folklore.
My only concern before visiting Stonehenge was that the experience might be marred by the very fact that it is now a visitor attraction, and an incredibly popular one. I needn’t have worried. English Heritage have, in my opinion, done an excellent job of managing the site. The distance maintained around the stones means that your view of the henge is never obstructed by other visitors. However, while I wholeheartedly praise English Heritage’s handling of the attraction, I believe it would be difficult not to be impressed by this site, regardless of the conditions under which you might see it. The sight of these huge stones, centuries old and towering above the land, standing like sentries overlooking the wide Wiltshire countryside, is truly awe-inspiring.