Wednesday 28 August 2019

White Horse Hill

It's a long gradual climb to the top of White Horse Hill, but the higher you get the more spectacular and rewarding are the far reaching wide views across several English counties.
Dragon Hill
This extraordinary shaped hillock is a natural outcrop from the main downland escarpment, which was scoured by meltwater during the Ice Age. It was later quarried and the top was levelled by the Dobunni (a Celtic tribe living in Britain before the Roman invasion) making it the shape we see today.
Its striking appearance led to its being forever linked in legend as the site where St. George fought and slew the ferocious fire-breathing dragon. The white mark that can just be seen on the top of Dragon Hill is said to be where the dragon fell down dead, its blood so poisonous that grass has never grown there again. 
A less exciting explanation is that the very high levels of potash found on its summit are as a result of the site having been used by pagans for ceremonies which involved ritual fire and sacrifice. During the 1950s Dragon Hill was also witness to a meeting that took place between atomic physicist Klaus Fuchs and the Russian Secret Service when he passed secrets to them about the hydrogen bomb.
As we near the summit of the hill, the landscape slowly reveals itself in all of its undulating glory, a landscape that for thousands of years has been steeped in mystery, mythology, legend, archaeology and history. 
Having now climbed to the brow of this ancient hilltop we can now see the oldest chalk figure in the country which dates back 3,000 years to the late Bronze Age. Its exquisite linear form dominates the brow of White Horse Hill, and yet no one really knows how it was made. To give some idea of the scale of the horse it measures 110m (360ft) long, and in my photo you can see one large round white circle which represents the horses eye.
via wiki
This unusual octagonal church tower was originally surmounted by a stone spire, which was "beat down by tempest, wind, thunder and lightning on 2nd December 1740".
Should time permit then it is worth paying a visit to Uffington which nestles beneath White Horse Hill - a pretty village with small lanes and pathways lined with chalk stone cottages, thatched roofs and roses round the doors. It is where John Betjeman, English poet, broadcaster, and founding member of the Victorian Society made his first home. He was the churchwarden at St. Mary's church known as the 'church in the vale'. When electricity was first introduced into the church in the 1930s, John Betjeman insisted that the old church oil lamps be preserved and converted to take the new electrical supply. 
Many of the rooftops in the village display straw finials, highlighting the skills of the local roof thatchers.

Thursday 22 August 2019

The Great Barn at Coxwell

image via V&A
John Piper painted this watercolour of Great Coxwell Barn in 1940 as part of a scheme known as 'Recording the changing face of Britain'. The project was the brain child of Sir Kenneth Clark, director of the National Gallery. Clark was inspired by several motives - at the outbreak of war in 1939, there was a concern to document the British landscape in the face of the imminent threat of bomb damage, invasion, and loss caused by the operations of war. This was allied to an anxiety about changes to the landscape already underway, such as the rapid growth of cities, road building and housing developments. The decline of rural ways of life and industries, and new agricultural practices. Together all of these contributed to the idea of a 'vanishing Britain' which Clark saw as an extension to the Official War Artist scheme. By choosing watercolour painting as the medium, Clark hoped that it would also help to preserve this characteristic English art form, and also help British watercolour artists to survive during the uncertain conditions of wartime. Over 1500 works were eventually produced by 97 artists such as John Piper, Sir William Russell Flint and Rowland Hilder.
Sitting down narrow country lanes on the eastern edge of the Cotswolds this great stone monastic barn still looms large in it's Oxfordshire landscape where it stands as a lasting testament to the skills of it's medieval builders.

In 1871 William Morris moved to his Cotswold retreat, Kelmscott Manor, which lies just a few miles north of the barn. It was a building that he greatly admired, and was a place that he would regularly visit with his house guests so that they too could wonder at the structure. He called it "as noble as a cathedral". 
A scientific method called dendrochronology has recently been used to examine the roof timbers which has established that the barn was most likely under construction in 1292 making the barn almost 730 years old.
During its lifetime the barn has remained largely unaltered. The stone and wood pillars and nearly all the roof trusses are original. 
The Great Barn is the sole surviving part of a thriving 13th century grange owned by the Cistercian monks of Beaulieu Abbey. It was built to store crops, and has since been used by generations of farmers. The Cistercian Order built approximately 3,000 monastic barns throughout England. The Great Barn is one of a couple of hundred that still survive today.
Great Coxwall lies in the ancient Manor of Faringdon which King John granted to the Cistercians in 1203. Two years later, he also gave them part of the royal hunting forest in Beaulieu, Hampshire, and it was there that the monks built their abbey. Beaulieu is more than 80 miles away from Great Coxswall. The Grange at Great Coxwall was run by the monks with the help of lay-brothers and people from the local villages. The crops were mainly wheat, oats, barley and rye. Livestock included oxen, sheep and pigs. Wool from their sheep was highly prized throughout Europe and formed the basis of the Cistercians' wealth. In addition they had bees to provide honey and fishponds for fish. That is a fishpond in my first photo which currently is covered in green algae!
The Cistercian Abbeys were eventually all closed down by King Henry V111 during the Reformation in the 16th century.

Saturday 10 August 2019

Bewitched, Bothered & Bewildered

My eyes have become a mystery to me, they have changed considerably, and suddenly I no longer require glasses to drive. I have asked the opinion of various people that I thought might be able to offer me an explanation, but to date have drawn a complete blank. 
For much of my adult life I have worn glasses to drive, but recently I experienced poor eyesight whilst driving - the world looked 'fluffy'. I felt irritated with my glasses and when the road was quiet, I pulled over to removed them. Suddenly the world became defined and sharp and I realised that I could drive perfectly without them.
My 'new' eyesight has remained, but I have had no spare time to visit the Optician due to various other happenings requiring attention. I did, however, finally manage to make an appointment this week.
As I explained to my optometrist what had happened I observed a flash of scepticism in his eyes. He first checked me out for glaucoma then cataracts, and finally carried out all of the usual reading and light chart checks. He said everything was fine, but acknowledged that my sight ability had dramatically altered. I mentioned that I did understand that the shape of your eyes can change as you get older resulting in some sight improvement, but he immediately retorted by saying not to the extent that yours have.
With the glaucoma and cataract checks being good, he said that he thought I must be diabetic. I was alarmed to learn this, and assured him that I had had a blood check not long ago and that I was normal.
He said he wanted me to go to the doctor immediately and have another one done. By this stage the happiness at my improved eyesight turned to anxiety, but I returned home and immediately visited the doctor's surgery. The nurse at the surgery took my blood and said she had never heard of such a thing, nor had the doctor, diabetes normally tends to have the opposite effect on eyesight.
Four days have gone by, and after several rather sleepless nights I have just been informed by the surgery that my two blood samples have returned from the hospital lab, and that both were completely normal. One blood test was for diabetes and the other for my kidneys.
I am left feeling totally perplexed but at the same time I am very happy with my new eyesight. 
Look - no glasses! 

Sunday 4 August 2019

Holy Innocents, Highnam, Gloucestershire.

The church of Holy Innocents is Grade 1 listed, and was described by John Betjeman as "The most complete and significant Victorian church in the country" 
Holy Innocents was designed and built in less than two years for Thomas Gambier Parry between 1849 and 1851. The Architect was Henry Woodyer, a pupil of William Butterfield and a disciple of A.W.N. Pugin. 
The church of Holy Innocents is Parry's personal memorial to his beloved wife, Isabella, and to three of their children who died in infancy. 
As I entered the church I reflected on a visit made in 2015 to the Taj Mahal, 
where a heartbroken Emperor Shah Jahan also built a profound monument to his much favoured third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, a Persian princess, who had died giving birth to their 14th child.
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Gambier-Parry painted most of Highnam's interior himself, including the high vaulted ceiling. He used a new 'spirit fresco' method that he devised from his study of Italian fresco painters. 
Isabella died 1848
When Highnam church was finished in April 1851, one of Parry's three surviving children, a son, Clinton Charles, wrote "On the eve before the consecration, when all of the guests had gone to bed, and the new church stood in silence under the moon, father made his way there alone. He carried in his arms a marble bust of Isabella which he placed in a niche within the small private chapel". 
Today, the bust of Isabella remains in the same spot where Gambier Parry set it to rest.
Isabella was 32 years old when she died of Tuberculosis. It was just 12 days after having given birth to a son, Charles Hubert, who as an adult became Sir Charles Hubert Parry, the proclaimed English composer, teacher and historian of music. He became head of the Royal College of Music and Professor of Music at Oxford University. He wrote the choral music to accompany Blake's poem Jerusalem..... "And did those feet in ancient time", and also wrote the coronation anthem "I was glad".
No expense was spared at Highnam. Parry even concealed the cost from himself by having all the bills go directly to his bank manager. 

The whole of the South wall depicts the Palm Sunday procession into Jerusalem - this is just a small section.
Dominating the church on the Chancel arch Parry has painted an impressive, even stately Last Judgment. For a Doom Wall it is benign and sympathetic, especially when compared to medieval church Doom Walls, and Last Judgment frescoes carried out during the Italian Renaissance.
The fresco is full of symbolism and great detail. 

The uppermost part is occupied by the heavenly host, sounding trumpets, ushering the day of the Lord; Immediately above Christ's head is a hand holding a book, sealed 'with seven seals', and 'no man was able to open the book', but 'the Lion of the tribe of Judah' Christ, 'the King of Glory'.
In the centre 'Christ in his Majesty'. He is beckoning with his right hand gathering his saints unto him. Beneath his feet is a cross, token of his suffering whereby he was perfected.
Encircling Christ on his throne is a rainbow.
On either side sit the 12 Apostles on 12 thrones, assessors of judgment.
On the extreme right is Moses, holding a
tablet showing The Ten Commandments. His arm is obscuring the face of St. Matthew who cannot be seen, according to convention.
On the extreme left stands St. Paul, recognisable by his symbol of a sword.
The scroll around the arch to the left states "come ye blessed of my father" and to the right "depart ye cursed".The angels for the 'blessed' carry crowns and palms. To them the cry 'behold the bridegroom cometh' is the sound of joy.
On the right the angels carry flaming swords, tokens of self-chosen punishment. It is the fulfilment of his word, 'vengeance is mine'.
Every single wall in the church has been frescoed by Parry apart from the lettering and diaper patterns, as can be seen above. These were designed by him but painted by his Assistants.
The floor tiles, made by Minton, become increasingly more ornate as you near the altar.
This is the organ where the young Sir Charles Hubert Parry learnt to play as a boy. 
The organ was made by the Nicholson company from nearby Worcester, who today are still a thriving business. They are responsible for many fine organs found all across the British Isles and also around the world.