Once again the tour guiding has been in overdrive for a week with Pam and Paul visiting after their holiday in the Bay of Naples. They needed some cooler weather after blistering heat day after day and this green and pleasant land didn’t disappoint with some nice cool days and showers to match. It wasn’t all wet though and most of the time was merely cloudy and overcast for the authentic English summer experience. That is perhaps a little harsh, we did have some sunny days too but with a gentle warmth from the northern sun. As with our previous antipodean visitor we maintained a relentless schedule of sightseeing. Once again Tetbury and Malmsbury featured on the itinerary but this time Castle Combe – the prettiest village in England – was added.
Spielberg filmed parts of “The Warhorse” here. We seem to have been doing quite a few Cotswold film locations recently. We visited Corsham (“Poldark”) recently, Lacock (“Cranford”, “Harry Potter”) and in Wells film crews were still clearing up the medieval “muck” from the roads after some filming for the sequel to “Snow White and the Huntsman. But I am getting off track here.
Alexandra Park for a visual orientation preceded Sham Castle folly and visits were made to both the Holbourne and the Victoria Museums. This time we enjoyed an interesting if small exhibition of Canaletto paintings from his period in London. Personally I like Canaletto as I am fascinated by photo-realism in art and I like the way his pictures provide us with a view of what places were like in the 18th century. What did the Thames look like in the 1740’s? Canaletto shows us. Yes, he did play around a bit with the position of some buildings but it is the sense of the place that we can see. But in some of the pictures here we see the changes as for example with the buildings around Horse Guards of which he painted two versions at different times. Also, his influence on contemporary and slightly later British artists was demonstrated. At the Victoria there was a new show called “Jane Austen’s Bath” consisting mainly of prints and accompanying quotes from her work and letters. As it happens Bath’s heyday was already past by the time that Austen came to live in Bath and while her characters may have gushed about it she apparently was somewhat bored by it.
As with the Canaletto, much of the interest in the Austen exhibition lay in recognizing the buildings and views of Bath in the prints and seeing how little things had changed or when they had changed exactly how they had changed. For example, there is a glorious tree in the centre of the Circus nowadays but when first built the whole Circus was paved over with cobbles and looed very bare and austere.
I learnt some details about John Wood the architect who designed the Royal Crescent and the Circus. These represented the Moon and the Sun respectively in his architectural philosophy which was based on a fantastical invention of Bladud who apparently was present at the construction of the Temple in Jerusalem and subsequently brought his architectural knowledge to Britain where it was the inspiration for Stonehenge which itself then became Wood’s own inspiration for the Circus. Wood believed that the British architectural tradition stemmed from Bladud and not – somewhat against the fashion – from the Greek and Roman tradition. So, hippies and fantasists in all ages then.
The locks on the canal featured in our walk along the canal side going west and for the first time we took the boat cruise east above the weir which takes about half an hour to reach the much larger weir at Bathampton that was built to ensure a regular supply of energy to the cloth mills. Here we disembarked instead of returning to Bath and had a filling pub lunch at the George before walking it off back to Bath.
The last day before departing by coach for Heathrow saw us whizz around Dyrham Park again with the roof viewed from the scaffolding being the highlight before shooting across country to the village of Lacock which is completely owned by the National Trust. It has a vaguely museum feel, a sense that people don’t really live in it, although they do, and that its raison d’etre is indeed to be visited. Apart from the village itself which features a genuine King John tithe barn (not as spectacular as the tithe barn at Bradford-on-Avon) the main attraction is Lacock Abbey and house which was until acquired by the NT the seat of the Fox Talbots and home of Henry Fox Talbot who invented the photographic negative process before Daguerre.
The Abbey has buildings going back to the Dissolution and survived by being sold to a Tudor gentleman who added outbuildings to the Abbey. Over the years the Abbey fell into ruined but was subsequently restored in the 18th century. The history of the building unfolds as one walks around it with parts of the house updated for twentieth century living such as forties era bathrooms.
The new element of my group’s itinerary was Wells and its splendid medieval cathedral with one of the most spectacular frontages heavily adorned in more than 300 statues and startling scissor arches in the both nave and transepts. Matching the Cathedral were the Vicars Close, the only completely medieval street in England, and the Bishops Palace with its beautiful gardens within which are the pools from which the “wells” upon which the town was originally established spring.
It was not hard to see why the Bishop’s Palace would be chosen as a location for a “generic medieval fantasy” movie as one of the Palace’s staff referred to it as. This is because it looks just like one’s imaginings of a medieval garden and palace. Fantasy is made real by buildings and gardens that look like a fantasy but were and are actually real. The two things become completely confused especially when one sees bits of medieval wall scenery being loaded into the back of a film truck and the earth and manure being shovelled up and the road and pavement being returned to the twenty-first century.
It is a fact that we in the west want to take our pictures of old buildings with no people in them which we feel would ruin the effect of capturing a piece of history looking as close to its original, authentic self as possible. On the other hand we all have seen Asian (Chinese and Japanese) tourists taking pictures of themselves posing in front of the same buildings and scenes to prove to the folks back home that they really were there, presumably anyway. They seems to need to star in the movie of their own holiday. So when we wandered up and down the Vicars Close in Wells it was especially frustrating to have to wait for annoying people to leave the scene of historical veracity and hope that modern vehicles could perhaps be expunged later with some judicious cropping.