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Kentish charms

Whitstable

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Beach hut, Whitstable

The first time we went to Whitstable for a short break, a few years ago, we stayed in nearby Seasalter and made a couple of day trips into the town. We liked what we saw, and it was frustrating not to be able to easily spend our evenings here. So when we were considering ideas for a coastal staycation during the pandemic, renting a house in the centre of this appealing seaside town was a no-brainer!

The photos on this page were taken on both visits, March 2015 and October 2020.

Oysters

Whitstable is known for its oysters and a short distance west of the harbour you will find the Whitstable Oyster Company. The company claims to be able to trace its origins back to the 1400s. and to be one of the oldest companies in Europe. But the fame of the oysters of Whitstable goes even further back, almost two thousand years, to when the Romans discovered them and shipped them back live to Rome to be enjoyed as a delicacy at the best tables there. At the company’s peak in the 1850s it was sending as many as eighty million oysters a year to Billingsgate fish market. By that time oysters had become so plentiful and cheap that they were regarded as the food of the poor, not the gourmet indulgence of today.

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Oyster shells

However in the twentieth century the industry began to decline due to a number of factors: cold winters, a parasite infection, two World Wars, the great flood of 1953 and changing tastes – notably the rise of the prawn cocktail!

In recent decades there has been a resurgence in the oyster industry. The company is now a family-run business, not only farming oysters but also running a highly-regarded restaurant in the old oyster stores. Walking around outside, the discarded oyster shells crunch under your feet – a sure sign you are in Whitstable.

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The Whitstable Oyster Company

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Sign at the Whitstable Oyster Company

The harbour

The harbour at Whitstable is very much a working one. Fish are landed and processed here, and there is a tarmac production site, with what it must be said is rather an ugly main structure. But I like the fact that it is functional as well as tourist-focused. Fishermen land their catch right next to the informal fish restaurants selling mussels, oysters and fish and chips; old fisherman’s huts are home to small craft shops and art galleries; locals walk their dogs, and tourists stroll, in the shadow of the tarmac factory.

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Whitstable Harbour

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Harbour scenes

In the summer boat trips run from here, out to see the wind farms and the offshore World War II sea forts which are visible on the horizon. These Maunsell Forts (named for their designer, Guy Maunsell) were built in the Thames and Mersey estuaries during the Second World War. They were used for anti-aircraft defence – during World War II, the three forts in the Thames estuary shot down 22 aircraft and about 30 flying bombs. They were decommissioned by the Ministry of Defence in the late 1950s; some were used in the 60s as bases for pirate radio stations.

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Wind turbines and Maunsell Forts

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Birds in flight and Maunsell Forts

The Favourite

One boat not to be found in the harbour is the Favourite. This is a traditional Whitstable oyster yawl and was built by the Whitstable Shipbuilding Company based at Island Wall (west of the harbour and oyster company) in 1890. She was used by the Whitstable Oyster Fishery Company to dredge oysters from the beds off shore until 1939. She was machine-gunned by an enemy aircraft and began to sink, but was beached and dragged up the shore. When the sea wall was built she was moved and spent some time in a cottage garden before being acquired by a charitable trust who raised money for her restoration. Today she sits on display just behind the wall, very near where she was built. As she would have been built directly on the shingle beach the site around her was restored to look like a beach and now has a good display of shingle flora.

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The Favourite

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Flowers by the Favourite

Beach walks and beach-huts

Although Whitstable doesn’t have a traditional seaside promenade (and for me that is one of its charms), it is possible to walk the length of its beaches stretching some distance both east and west of the centre – a walk of about three miles in total. To the east you are walking along the foot of Tankerton Slopes. At first these are green lawns, sloping down to the sea. At their foot are colourful beach huts, one of my favourite subjects for photography in Whitstable.

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Beach huts, Tankerton Slopes

The footpath passes the Street, a naturally formed spit of land that extends into the sea and can be walked on at low tide.

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The Street

A key feature of Whitstable’s beaches are the breakwaters, a favourite perch for visiting gulls.

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The beach near Tankerton Slopes

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Breakwaters on the beach

Further along, the tamed lawns give way to a nature reserve, a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest, where the largest population in Britain of hog’s fennel can be found. Not being an expert in botany, and with no winter images on the information board, I am only about 80% certain that I photographed the right plant, but in any case I loved the sculptural shapes of its seed-heads.

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Hog's fennel - I think!

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Above Tankerton Slopes

Eventually in this direction you reach Swalecliffe Brook, a small stream running into the sea between Whitstable and the next town, Herne Bay.

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Beyond Tankerton - Swalecliffe Brook

This is the furthest we have walked in this direction, so let’s turn back now and head west.

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Enjoying the sea views

Walking west from the centre you pass the Favourite, mentioned above, and soon after arrive at one of Whitstable’s best-loved pubs, the Old Neptune or ‘Neppy’ as it is affectionately known. It makes the proud claim to be ‘one of only a handful of pubs to be found on the beaches of Britain’. It sits directly on the shingle and while it has a cosy interior, the main attraction for us and for many others is found outside where, even in these times of COVID, there are plenty of wooden tables and benches where you can enjoy a beer and maybe some fish and chips with a sea view. It was just about warm enough during our recent October stay to be able to stop off for drinks here on a couple of occasions.

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The Old Neptune

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View from our table at the Old Neptune

Beyond the Neppy are more beach huts and some attractive and interesting old houses. One of the latter was once home to the actor Peter Cushing, best known for his roles in the Hammer horror films of the 1950s, 60s and 70s. The house is marked with a blue plaque.

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Beach huts and boats

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Beach hut detail

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Colourful houses

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Peter Cushing's former home

There are also more breakwaters, whose rhythmically-spaced lines stretch away into the distance on either side, creating interesting photo opportunities.

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Looking back towards the town centre

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Breakwaters

When it’s time to turn back you can return the way you came or take the quiet road running parallel to the beach, Island Wall, to see more of Whitstable’s quaint houses.

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House detail

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Halloween in Whitstable

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Starling outside a Whitstable house

The town centre

I’ll finish in the centre of town which is in its way as appealing as the shore. There are plenty of independent shops selling upmarket clothing, books, jewellery, antiques and of course souvenirs. The latter include craft items and home decorations, perfect if you want to replicate the beach house look at home, although in our London terrace that is best restricted to the bathroom! The restaurants too are mainly independents, although there are a couple of Italian chains, and likewise the cafés, although again there is one chain coffeeshop. Of the pubs we liked best the atmosphere in the Royal Naval Reserve on the High Street, as the Duke of Cumberland (which we’d had a good lunch in on a previous visit) was rather cold and empty, perhaps because COVID restrictions prevented it from staging its popular live music evenings.

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Pub and antiques shop

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Cheese and gift shop

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Look for the details

Finally, take a look at these fun murals, most of them by an artist called Cat Man, which I spotted around the town.

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Whitstable murals

Posted by ToonSarah 04:57 Archived in England Tagged beaches buildings boats harbour england coast history pubs seaside details street_art Comments (23)

The largest stone circle in Britain

Avebury

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The stone circle, Avebury

I find it a little odd that Avebury is not as well known, nor as visited, as nearby Stonehenge. Personally I find it just as impressive and in some ways more atmospheric. Its henge (circular bank and ditch) encloses the remaining stones of the largest stone circle in Britain, built during the Neolithic period (c. 2850 BC – 2200 BC). The circle is so large that over time people have built their houses around and among the stones, so that today it seems almost as if the somewhat unearthly stones are slowly encroaching on human space.

This aerial photo, from Wikipedia, shows clearly how the henge encircles the village:

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Attribution: Detmar Owen, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

There were originally over 100 stones in the main outer circle. Many have been lost, but about 30 still remain. The position of lost stones is today marked with smaller pyramid-topped concrete posts to give an indication of what the complete circle would have looked like. The missing ones suffered various fates – used as building materials by the villagers, or broken down and buried, perhaps because they were in the way of village development.

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The stone circle
~ you can see the concrete posts marking the location of missing stones

Within that main circle were two inner ones – the north one with 27 stones (of which only four remain) and the south slightly larger with 29 stones (with five remaining).

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The north inner stone circle

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The south inner circle

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Significance

This was clearly a significant site for the people of that period, and the surrounding landscape is dotted with others – avenues of stones leading to other sites, the man-made mound of Silbury Hill, burial mounds such as West Kennet Long Barrow, and more. Together with Stonehenge these form the Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage Site.

The English Heritage website about Avebury concludes that:

‘The impression gained is of a landscape being shaped for rituals that involved inclusion, exclusion and procession.

If this is correct, then the various monuments may have been built as public ‘theatres’ for rites and ceremonies that gave physical expression to the community’s ideas of world order; the place of the people within that order; the relationship between the people and their gods; and the nature and transmission of authority, whether spiritual or political.

The length of time over which the Great Henge and its two avenues were built is so long that it suggests the community’s relationship with its environment may gradually have altered. Changing rituals may have been the driving force for the building of new monuments and for their eventual abandonment around 1800 BC.’

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More images of the outer stone circle

There have been some at times rather bizarre alternative suggestions about the construction of Avebury, especially during Victorian times. These include the idea that both Avebury and Stonehenge were built by the Phoenicians (many Britons of that period believed these ancient seafarers first brought civilisation to our island). It has also been proposed that it was constructed to commemorate the final battle of King Arthur, and that his slain warriors were buried here. Yet another Victorian pseudo-historian argued that it was Native Americans from the Appalachian Mountains who once crossed the Atlantic Ocean to build the great megalithic monuments of southern Britain. All very fanciful, and none of them given any credence today.

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The stone circle, Avebury, and view over the Wiltshire downs

Visiting Avebury

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Lichen on a standing stone

Avebury is free to visit but parking is charged for, in a somewhat odd arrangement that sees the car park owned by the National Trust while the site itself is owned and managed by English Heritage. We stopped here on our way home from Wells and only had time for a slow walk around most of the circle, taking photos as we went. In any case, the onsite museum was closed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

My main aim on this visit was to capture in photographs the slight eeriness of the site, in which I hope I have succeeded, but in future I’d like to visit the museum and also make time for stops at some of those other sights such as Silbury Hill.

Posted by ToonSarah 06:42 Archived in England Tagged landscapes england history archaeology Comments (15)

Where the Mendips meet the sea

Brean Down

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Looking back towards the 'mainland' from Brean Down

On the coast of Somerset between Weston-super-Mare and Burnham-on-Sea, a long finger of land juts out into the Bristol Channel – the Mendips’ last hurrah before disappearing beneath the waves. Brean Down rises high above the beaches on either side, a two-kilometre-long ridge of limestone and an obvious place to build a fort – or several. Certainly Iron Age man thought so, as there is evidence of a fort and field systems from that period. The Romans built a small temple here, and much more recently, between 1864 and 1871, another fort was constructed at the very tip of the promontory.

Today the land is under the protection of the National Trust. As with most of their open countryside there is no charge to walk on the land, but you pay for parking. We visited on a rather dull September morning during the Coronavirus pandemic and found the car park quite busy with dog walkers and with ‘staycationers’ such as ourselves.

A three-mile walk leads you up onto the ridge, along its western edge to the fort, and back along the eastern side. It starts with a steep climb up a long flight of steps. There are small stopping areas at intervals where you can pause to admire the view – surely no one will guess that you’re really stopping to catch your breath?!

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The steps up Brean Down, and old post box at the foot

Once at the top the path is undulating, crossing grassland closely cropped by sheep and goats that live here. Walking out towards the far point you have wonderful views west along the coast and across the Bristol Channel to Wales. Apparently you can see the remains of the Romano-British temple somewhere along this stretch but it eluded us.

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Trees on Brean Down

The coastline here is famous for the wide expanse of sand (some say mud!) revealed at low tide. The Bristol Channel has the second largest tidal movement in the world (second only to the Bay of Fundy in Canada); according to the National Trust website, the distance between high and low water can be as much as 0.75 of a mile (1.2 kilometres). This made for some interesting photo opportunities in today’s changing light, but is a challenge on sunny days for anyone wanting to swim!

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Views of Brean Beach from Brean Down

Brean Fort

Our walk brought us eventually to the remains of the fort built here in the 19th century. This was one of the Palmerston Forts (named for Lord Palmerston, the then Prime Minister), designed to protect Britain from invasion by France – an invasion that never came. As I explained in my post about Spitbank Fort, in the Solent, Napoleon III was strengthening his navy at that time, and the memory of past threats from that quarter were still fresh. But the invasion never came and the forts were never used for their original purpose.

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Looking down on Brean Fort

Although in ruins the walls of many of the fort’s buildings still stand and there are signs to guide you as you explore. I felt it had a slightly haunted atmosphere, despite the presence of other visitors here and there. Maybe I was sensing the ghost of Gunner Harris, who one night in July 1900 inexplicably fired a carbine into the ventilator shaft of a magazine storing gunpowder. The resulting explosion caused huge damage to the fort and killed Harris. There was some speculation that this might have been suicide – Harris was known to be sullen, with a bad temper, and was in trouble because he had left the fort without permission the previous day. At his inquest the jury returned the verdict that, ‘the explosion was caused by the deceased firing a carbine down a ventilator and that at the time he was temporarily insane.’ Whatever the reason, Harris had effectively dealt a fatal blow not only to himself but to the fort. It was closed down soon after, decommissioned and its guns sold for scrap in 1901.

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Brean Fort

However the building has been put to various uses both before and since then. Marconi had used it in 1897 to test his new wireless transmission equipment, setting a new distance record of 8.7 miles (14 kilometres) for wireless transmission over open seas. For a while it was used as a café (what a great spot to stop for a coffee that must have been!) before being rearmed during WW2 with anti-aircraft guns. The site was used to test bouncing bombs and other secret weapons. You can still see the length of rail employed to launch the bombs. A sign at the fort explains that the tests didn’t always go well. On one occasion the bomb, along with the trolley carrying it, flew off into the Channel, did a sharp right turn and came back inland to land in a local farmer’s chicken run!

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Bomb launching rail, with Steep Holm Island beyond

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Bomb launching rail, and window in the barracks

This is a great spot to take a break, sitting on the old walls with a view out to Steep Holm and Flat Holm islands. The former is English while the latter, lying just beyond it, is in Wales (its Welsh name is Ynys Echni). Both islands were also fortified under Palmerston's scheme. Flat Holm has had a lighthouse since the early 18th century (this is a treacherous area for shipping) but the current building dates from the early 19th and is today automated, running almost entirely on solar power.

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Steep Holm Island from Brean Down

The return walk

After exploring the ruins of the fort and enjoying the view out to sea, we retraced our steps but on the eastern side of the headland. The path here is a little lower and more sheltered, but even here trees struggle to grow.

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On Brean Down

There were some pretty wildflowers and views across the wide sands of Weston-super-Mare below.

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Wild flower

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Lichen

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On Weston-super-Mare beach

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Sparrow near the café

At some point this path passes the banks and ditches that mark the site of the Iron Age fort, but this too, like the Roman temple, we managed to miss!

Beyond the top of the steps we had climbed at the start the path curved back on itself and we were able to descend a more gentle slope down to the road, the car park and the café. Here we bought cold drinks and hot pasties to enjoy at a table overlooking the beach – a good reward for our efforts!

Posted by ToonSarah 01:57 Archived in England Tagged landscapes trees coast history ruins views fort seas Comments (6)

And did those feet …?

Glastonbury

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Glastonbury Tor

Long, long before it was home to one of the world’s most famous music festivals, Glastonbury was a place of pilgrimage not for music fans but for those seeking a more mystical experience. The ruined abbey is associated with Joseph of Arimathea, who is said to have arrived in Glastonbury and stuck his staff into the ground, when it flowered miraculously into the Glastonbury Thorn. There are also links to the Holy Grail and King Arthur. On the edge of the town Glastonbury Tor rises above the Somerset Levels, it too associated with Arthurian legend.

All of this has led to the town becoming a magnet not only for tourists but also for New Agers, hippies and followers of various Pagan cults. On its streets, everyday shops rub shoulders with those selling crystals and tarot cards, while tourists in practical anoraks and walking shoes mingle with local farmers in wellies and with more recently arrived and more colourfully dressed residents.

Glastonbury Abbey

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Glastonbury Abbey - the ruins of the Great Church

Glastonbury Abbey was founded in the 7th century on a site previously occupied by both Roman and Saxon settlements. It was enlarged in the 10th century and destroyed by a major fire in 1184, but subsequently rebuilt. By the 14th century it was one of the richest and most powerful monasteries in England, but like other such places in Britain it was dissolved by Henry VIII and fell into ruin.

Those are the basic facts, but many myths have grown up around the abbey. In medieval times a Christian legend claimed that it had been founded by Joseph of Arimathea in the 1st century. Joseph was a follower of Christ who undertook his burial after his crucifixion. The legends tell how Joseph travelled to Britain, bringing with him the Holy Grail – the cup from which Christ drank at the Last Supper. It is said that he pushed his staff into the ground while he lay down to sleep and it miraculously took root and became a leafy, flowering thorn tree.

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The Holy Thorn

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The Holy Thorn and St Patrick's Chapel

The thorn tree that can be seen in the abbey grounds is said to be a cutting from the direct descendent of this tree which grows on nearby Wearyall Hill. The abbey’s website tells the story in more detail:

‘By the 1530s, not long before the Dissolution of the Monasteries, three thorn trees grew on Wearyall Hill (sometimes known as Wirral Hill) about 1km south-west of Glastonbury. The trees were very unusual because they flowered twice - once in the spring around Easter, and a second time at Christmas. Not surprisingly, they were seen as holy thorns. In the Civil Wars of the 17th century Puritan soldiers cut down the only remaining thorn because they saw it as an object of superstition. However, local people had kept cuttings, and it is from these that the thorn now growing in the abbey grounds is believed to descend. It continues to flower around Easter and again at Christmas.

The holy thorn has become part of the legend of Joseph of Arimathea. According to this story, when Joseph arrived in Glastonbury with his twelve companions he climbed Wearyall Hill, whose name derives from his proclaiming 'we are weary all'. He planted his staff in the ground whilst he rested. The following morning the staff had taken root, and it grew into the miraculous thorn tree.’

Some versions of the legend say that the risen Christ accompanied Joseph on his journey to Britain. It is thought that this is what inspired the opening lines of William Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’:

‘And did those feet, in ancient times,
Walk upon England’s mountain green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England's pleasant pastures seen?’

I should add though that some scholars find this an unlikely source for Blake, arguing that the tradition that Jesus accompanied Joseph of Arimathea to Britain only arose in the early 20th century.

Visiting the abbey

Much of the abbey is in ruins although a couple of buildings are still intact. We visited on a cool but bright September morning, great for photographing what remains of the arches, windows and other features.

Near the entrance is St Patrick's Chapel which was founded by Abbot Richard Beere in 1500 and is still used for worship today. One of the many legends associated with Glastonbury is that St Patrick is buried here. This legend recounts that it was from Glastonbury that Patrick set out to convert the Irish and that he returned here at the end of his life to die. Hence the dedication of this chapel to the saint.

The chapel was restored in 2009/2010 and the wall paintings and stained glass, which I loved, date from then despite their traditional appearance. They include two depictions of St Patrick - one in the stained glass behind the altar which shows him standing above a snake (he is popularly held to have banished all snakes from Ireland) and the other a wall painting showing him with a wolfhound.

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Images of St Patrick

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In St Patrick's Chapel

From here we went to explore the ruins of the Great Church. In places these still stand quite tall and it is easy to imagine how impressive the building must once have been. In other places there are simply lines of stone in the grass, marking the foundations.

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The ruins of the Great Church

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Arthur's tomb

In the centre a rectangle is marked out and a sign identifies it as the site of King Arthur’s tomb. It reads:

‘In the year 1191 the bodies of King Arthur and his queen were said to have been found on the south side of the Lady Chapel. On 19th April 1278 their remains were removed in the presence of king Edward I and Queen Eleanor to a black marble tomb on this site. This tomb survived until the dissolution of the abbey in 1539.’

Today the authenticity of this find is disputed, with most historians suggesting that it was a publicity stunt undertaken to raise funds to repair the Abbey, which had been badly damaged by the fire of 1184. Nevertheless, the link with Arthur persists to this day and draws many to visit Glastonbury.

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The Great Church from the monastery ruins

We walked through the ruins of the monastery, none of the walls rising to a height of more than a foot or two, to reach the much more substantial Abbot’s Kitchen. This is the only surviving part of the Abbot’s house and is a sign of how different the abbot’s life would have been to that of the monks. While they lived a life of abstinence and poverty, he had a magnificent house, as befitted the abbot of the second richest abbey in the country (eclipsed only by Westminster). His kitchen needed to be able to cater to the many great visitors who came to the abbey, including Henry VII for whom a special apartment was added to the house.

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The Abbot's Kitchen

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Gargoyle on the Abbot's Kitchen

This is considered to be one of the best-preserved medieval kitchens in Europe. It has four great fireplaces, one in each corner, and a central chimney to draw out the smoke. Its high ceiling allowed the head chef to stand on a raised gallery to supervise the work of the rest of the cooks and servants as they prepared feasts worthy of their VIP guests.

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In the Abbot's Kitchen

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The ceiling of the Abbot's Kitchen

Between the kitchen and the entrance area lies the Lady Chapel. This is somewhat more intact than the Great Church (most of its walls still stand) and it’s easier to visualise the original structure.

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The Lady Chapel

The walls would once have been painted in ochre, red, blue, green and white, with gold leaf details. Some traces of paint still remain around the carved arches. The abbey website says that the paintwork ‘almost certainly dates to 1184-99 - probably to 1184-89’.

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Carvings on the Lady Chapel

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In the crypt below the chapel is a well known as St Joseph’s Well. This was in existence long before the chapel was built, and may date back to Roman times, but (perhaps because of its age) it became incorporated into the various legends linking Joseph of Arimathea to Glastonbury. It was consequently a place of pilgrimage right through to the 16th century, when many miracles and cures were said to have taken place following offerings made here.

Glastonbury, the town

After leaving the abbey we walked through the town, enjoying the atmosphere and taking a few photos of the more interesting characters on the streets.

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Seen in Glastonbury

In non-COVID times I might have been tempted to browse some of the shops, but as it was I just went into one to buy a pretty birthday card for my sister.

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Sign in a Glastonbury shop

Glastonbury Tor

Our destination was Glastonbury Tor which lies to the east of the abbey. To get there we followed a path past some houses and then up and across the fields, climbing steadily.

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In a garden on the way to Glastonbury Tor

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Seen on the way to Glastonbury Tor

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Seen on the path to Glastonbury Tor

This terraced conical hill has long been associated with tales of King Arthur. It is thought that the Ancient Britons called it Ynys yr Afalon, leading to a belief that this is the fabled Isle of Avalon of Arthurian myth. Certainly it was once an island, rising above the shallow sea that used to cover what are now the Somerset Levels. It was crowned by a church, St Michael’s, built from wood in the 11th or 12th centuries, and some other Saxon buildings, possibly cells for hermit monks. That church was destroyed in an earthquake in 1275 and replaced by a stone one, of which only the tower remains – the remainder of the church was demolished during the dissolution of the monasteries.

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Glastonbury Tor

As to the links with Arthur, some say that this is the likely hiding place of the Holy Grail, making the Tor a place of pilgrimage for centuries. Other stories grew up around the tor too, perhaps because there is something mystical in the way it rises above the plains, especially on a misty day. Some have said it holds the door to the land of the fairies, others the door to the land of the dead.

But for most visitors to Glastonbury the hill represents something much more simple – the challenge to climb it and the reward of great views when you do. I have made the climb several times in the past, when my legs were much younger, but on this occasion I decided it was enough to have climbed halfway and I left Chris, who had never been here before, to finish alone.

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Token hung in a tree, and carved stone near the point where I gave up the climb!

The Somerset Levels

After lunch in the town we drove a little to the east, to a nature reserve on the Levels, and had a rather windswept walk. The hides were closed because of the pandemic so we couldn’t get very close to the birds we saw out on the water. Nevertheless, I got a decent collection of photos, and the dragonflies were far more obliging than the birds!

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At Shapwick Heath National Nature Reserve

Later in our stay in Somerset we had a lovely short walk near Deerleap, on the southern edge of the Mendip Hills, and I took some shots of the wonderful views across the Levels towards Glastonbury Tor, so I will finish this entry with one of those images.

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View of the Somerset Levels and Glastonbury Tor from the Mendips

Posted by ToonSarah 03:35 Archived in England Tagged landscapes churches england history ruins views abbey legends glastonbury street_photography covid_19 Comments (11)

England’s smallest cathedral city

Wells

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Wells Cathedral and Cathedral Green

We recently spent a few days in the Somerset city of Wells, often described as England’s smallest city. In fact, the City of London is smaller, but doesn’t feel like it, surrounded as it is by all the rest of Greater London!

Wells gets its name from the three wells found here – two in the Bishop’s Palace gardens and one in the market place. Thanks to them the Romans settled here, and after them the Anglo-Saxons. King Ine of Wessex founded a minster church here in 704. Two hundred years later it became the seat of the diocesan bishop, until in 1090 the bishopric was moved to Bath. Arguments ensued between the canons of Wells and the monks of Bath until 1245 when Pope Innocent V resolved the dispute by creating the Diocese of Bath and Wells. The cathedral was built around the same time, cementing Wells’ role as the principal seat of the diocese.

The main sights in the city all centre on its role as the bishop’s seat – the cathedral itself, the cathedral green and nearby Vicars’ Close, and the Bishop’s Palace and Gardens. These all lie within a walled precinct known as the Liberty of St Andrew.

Wells Cathedral

The cathedral is dedicated to St Andrew, as are the city’s three wells. Parts date back to the 10th century but most of it was built during the 13th. As it was never a monastic cathedral it survived the Dissolution of Henry VIII and the Reformation intact. It has been called Europe's first truly Gothic structure.

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The West Front, Wells Cathedral

The west front is broad and is said to have one of the most impressive collections of medieval sculpture in the western world. Almost 300 of the original 400 statues remain. According to the cathedral website, ‘They appear quite differently today to how they looked in the Middle Ages, when much of the Cathedral was painted inside and out in bright colours’. I think I prefer them like this, in the soft yellow local limestone.

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Two of the many statues

Inside, the fan vaulted ceiling is attractively painted, and the central tower supported by striking ‘scissor’ arches. These were added in the mid 14th century to prevent the tower from collapsing. This 1313 addition to the cathedral had been too much for the foundations, causing large cracks to appear in the tower’s structure. This elegant solution to the problem has become one of the building’s most beautiful features.

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The interior, with the famous scissor arches

There is some wonderful stained glass, most famously in the so-called Jesse Window. This dates from 1340-45 and depicts the Tree of Jesse (the family and ancestors of Christ), with the Nativity at its centre. Again from the cathedral website: ‘Dating from about 1340, it is still remarkably intact – it narrowly escaped destruction during the English Civil War and was protected during the Blitz of World War Two – so what we see today is much as the medieval glaziers designed it and as our ancestors viewed it before us.’ Unfortunately, COVID restrictions on access to the smaller areas of the cathedral meant that we were only able to peer at this through a screen at the far end of the choir, but we got some idea from there of its artistry and level of detail.

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The Jesse Window

The Chapter House was also off-limits, but there was plenty to see in the main cathedral building, including the astronomical clock in the north transept - the second oldest surviving clock in England after the one in Salisbury Cathedral. It dates from about 1325 and still has its original medieval face, although the mechanism was replaced in the 19th century with the original being moved to the Science Museum in London, where it still operates. In addition to showing the time on a 24-hour dial, its innermost circle shows the days of the lunar month and the phases of the moon. The astronomical dial presents a pre-Copernican view, with the sun and moon revolving round a central fixed earth.

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Astronomical clock, and one of the Stations of the Cross

I also liked the Stations of the Cross with colours that reminded me of Orthodox icons.

We followed a set route around the building, marked out on the floor to ensure social distancing – a necessary evil at the time of our visit. This led us to explore the tranquil Camery garden, laid out to the east of the cloisters on the site of the 15th century Lady Chapel of which only the foundation stones remain. The rest was dismantled during the 16th century so that timber and lead could be sold to provide much-needed funds to the cathedral. There were some good views of the cathedral tower to be had from here and some pretty late summer flowers to photograph.

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In the Camery Garden

We finished our tour by following the marked route, the ‘Pilgrim’s Footsteps’, around the cloisters. These date mainly from the 15th century and have been quite recently restored. The walls display monuments to illustrious locals, and/or those wealthy enough to afford an ornate cathedral memorial. My eye was caught by one in particular, to a soldier who served under a ‘Great General’ (I assume Wellington) and died in the Battle of Waterloo. Also commemorated is a young boy of the same family who was only five when he died and yet ‘had strong religious impressions’ – not something I feel would be said of today’s five year olds!

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In the cloisters

Vicars’ Close

Just to the north of the cathedral, still within the precinct of the Liberty of St Andrew, is a short street known as Vicars’ Close. Its houses were built in the 14th and early 15th centuries as homes for the group of priests who served in the cathedral, the Vicars Choral. This is said to be the oldest purely residential street in Europe to have its original buildings surviving intact. Unusually it was built with a deliberate narrowing towards the end furthest from the cathedral, to make it look longer than it is (and of course viewed from that far end it looks shorter). There were originally 22 houses on the east side and 20 on the west, but after the Reformation, when clerics were permitted to marry and households consequently became larger, some of the houses were knocked together and there are now 27 in total.

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Vicars' Close

At the north end of the street is the Vicars’ Chapel and Library, while at the south end, as you enter from the cathedral side, is an arched gate cut into the Vicars’ Hall. On the cathedral wall opposite the latter is a second clock face of the cathedral’s famous astronomical clock, driven by the same mechanism.

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Clock on the exterior of the cathedral, and detail on one of the houses in Vicars' Close

The Bishop’s Palace and Gardens

The Bishop’s Palace lies on the south side of the cathedral. It has been the home of the Bishops of the Diocese of Bath and Wells for 800 years and is a Grade I listed building. It is surrounded by a wall and moat intended to provide a defence if needed, although in practice it was never called into use for that purpose. However, the moat also serves to channel the water from the two wells in the grounds (which give the city its name).

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Moat around the Bishop's Palace

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By/in the moat

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The defensive wall from one of the towers

The main part of the palace was built in the 13th century, with additions in the 14th and 15th. Today the great hall is in ruins, and part of the rest of the structure still in use as the bishop’s house, but you can visit some of the rooms in the palace, where displays cover the history of the building and the bishopric. There is also a chapel, but that was closed for restoration when we visited.

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The ruined Great Hall

In any case we were more interested in touring the beautiful gardens, especially as it was a lovely late September afternoon. The area around the great hall is laid out as lawns, including a croquet lawn. Elsewhere there are pretty flower beds surrounding one of the main features, the pools formed by the springs themselves. From here there are lovely views of the cathedral.

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Wells Cathedral from the Bishop's Garden

Nearby is a 15th century well house. A sign explains that in 1451 the then bishop, Bishop Beckynton, granted the town a supply of water from the wells within his garden. A cistern inside the well house collected water which was forced through pipes to the outlet in the marketplace. From here the water ran down gutters at the side of many of the streets, washing away blood and offal from the butchers’ shops. You can still see the water flowing in these gutters as you walk around the city, although I believe today’s butchers are no longer in the habit of using it to dispose of their waste! On the roof of the well house is a statue of the bishop’s favourite hunting dog.

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Dog statue on the well house

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Michaelmas daisies and butterfly

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Seed-head

Gates to the Liberty of St Andrew

There are three ancient entrances to the precinct – the Penniless Porch, The Bishop's Eye and Brown's Gatehouse, which were all built around 1450. The first of these leads to the cathedral green from the market place and is so-called because beggars used to wait there to ask for alms from those attending services.

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The Penniless Porch

The Bishop’s Eye also leads from the market place but towards the Bishop’s Palace. Brown’s Gatehouse lies to the north of these on Sadler Street and has been incorporated into a hotel, The Ancient Gatehouse. We ate dinner in their Italian restaurant one evening and afterwards I took some night shots of the cathedral from just inside the gatehouse.

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Wells Cathedral at night

Posted by ToonSarah 06:19 Archived in England Tagged buildings streets architecture england history houses garden cathedral Comments (13)

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