Sunday, 5 August 2012

Sir Edward Heath, K.G., M.B.E., R.I.P.

Ok, brace yourself - this is going to be a long one.

It has been a while since I read William Golding's book, 'The Spire', but I walked out of our residence in Salisbury Close to see the house where he wrote it, and I knew this to be the place because of the big, blue plaque on the wall which told me.

We had been up to the tower once before some years ago, but this time was the first officially guided one, and I learned quite a lot about it from the well-informed but refreshingly un-opinionated woman who gave it.

For instance, she told us that - thanks to a recently developed scientific process of analysis called (I think) 'dendrochronology' - they have been able to not only date the oak roof-beams of the cathedral extremely accurately, but also pinpoint where the trees grew to within about 10 miles.

The truly surprising fact was that this oak forest was in Ireland, not - as you might expect - in what must have been the heavily wooded estates that would have surrounded the area at the time.  She surmised that it was possible that the medieval Clerk of the Works had fallen out with the local forester, and had taken his custom elsewhere - quite a long way elsewhere - but concluded that we would never know for sure why a local source of timber had not been used.

The site of the second cathedral of Salisbury (the present one is the third) was on the Iron Age hill-fort of Old Sarum, and permission was given by Rome in the 12th century to build a new one, sited on the spot where an arrow landed when shot from the bow of an archer standing on the site of the old one.

The Bishop of the time was asked to explain how it was that his archer was so inhumanly skilful that the arrow managed to land about three miles away to where the present cathedral is sited, and he explained that the arrow had hit a deer which staggered to the spot before expiring on what would become the foundations of the magnificent building we see today.

Two things:  It was a capital offence for anyone other than royalty to hunt deer in medieval times, but the owner of the land between - and including - Old Sarum and present-day Salisbury was the Bishop himself, which was the next best thing to royalty before Henry the Eighth split from Rome.  Dodgy land-deals are not a modern invention, it seems.

That arrow landed - also miraculously - on the only piece of marshland in the area which (unbeknownst to the builders of the time) had a deep bed of gravel lying about 25 feet below the surface, and it is - in part - due to this gravel that the spire still stands now, about 700 years after it was built.

They waited about 50 years before they built the spire on top of the tower, just to let the foundations settle a little, then they added the extra 6500 tons of masonry, which explains why you can see the enormous bends and kinks in the four clusters of Purbeck stone pillars which hold it up (see above photo).  They actually stopped the congregation from singing at one point, for fear the vibrations would bring the whole lot down - Jericho-style - before they added a few extra raking-shore buttresses around the place to make sure ('just raking shore' - Gedditt?!).

All this information was gleaned from the charming lady guide during breathing spaces on the 200 foot climb of 395 steps on the way up.

By the time you get to the base of the spire itself, the above picture is what you see when you look up to where the tower turns from a four-sided structure to the eight-sided one of the spire itself.  All that wooden scaffold is medieval, and it is hard to believe - from the inside - that there is still another 220 feet of of masonry above you which (sadly) members of the public are not allowed to climb on the rickety ladders.

Before they allowed visitors up the tight, spiral staircases to this height, they had to convince the authorities that - in case of dire emergency - it was physically possible for one human being to carry another down the steps to the bottom, and in order to prove this, a fireman carried a conscious but impassive volunteer down without mishap.  I would not have wanted to be either.

At the very top of the tower is this huge 'windlass' tread-wheel, used to haul tons of stone and woodwork halfway up the whole structure, and although it looks only about 100 years old, it is the original wheel (albeit with some light restoration) that they used in the 14th century, when building it.

Two men would stand either side of the spokes and walk for 35 minutes per session, just to get the stuff up to that level, and there is no gearing on it.  There is no obvious locking mechanism either.  Masons these days have it so easy.


  1. Arundells, I believe, overlooks the cathedral. I wonder what happened to all the 'nasty' that Heath left to keep it open to the public. Wasn't there a scandal in there somewhere?

    1. I don't understand what you mean by 'nasty'? I think it is now used for seminars and conferences, etc.

    2. Money, dosh, filthy luchre. I believe he left several millions for its upkeep, then the trustees tried (or maybe did) flog it off.

    3. Oh, I was unaware of all that. Those houses must be worth a fortune - even by Bath standards.

  2. I would have braced myself even more had I known that you were staying around the corner from me in Salisbury. Your photo shows the first part of my morning run across the green.

    I find the cathedral interesting if strangely unattractive. So I'm quite OK that it was stolen from us in the Reformation. But the most interesting fact about its construction is not the gravel bed ( amazing enough) but that it was built relatively quickly so it is all of one era and not a mish-mash of various architectural styles. And of course William Golding was a teacher at Bishop Wordsworth School in the Close. Did you see his blue plaque by the headmaster's office near St Ann's Gate?

    As for Heath - there is some controversy about his house Arundells, that he left as a museum to his achievements but sadly not endowed with enough money to keep it viable. Whatever anyone may think of his political or sailing career (glorious) he used his musical interests and contacts to take over from Prince Charles's pathetic efforts to mastermind a gloriously successful Appeal to secure funding for the much needed restoration of the cathedral. Many years ago, before I moved to Salisbury I met him at an unassociated London PR event and went over to thank him on behalf of my mother who loved the cathedral and was so admiring of his work. He chatted happily to me for ages to the astonishment of onlookers who remarked that he didn't like talking to women. But he did love talking about his enthusiasms.

    And maybe you should have crossed the road to look at the RC Pugin church of St Osmund. Not so interesting to you as a stone mason perhaps but rarer than pre-Reformation(stolen) cathedrals.

    1. I would have braced myself by expecting an attack by your husband, Elegance, who - I seem to remember - once threatened to stove me in for a cruel attack about his elasticated trousers, and his unflattering habit of tucking his shirt into the waist of them - we could have made an evening of it, especially as I was somewhat the worse for drink as I staggered back into your gated village at only around 11.00 p.m.

      Yes, I did see the blue plaque for Golding - I even mentioned it in the above text. You were obviously not reading my fine contribution to literature very carefully.

      Since my tower tour took about two hours and I had other pressing matters to attend to, I did not have the time to look at Pugin's church, and - I have to admit - I might not have bothered even if I had been on holiday. Pugin - to me - is a bore.

      I waved at Heath in the Close once, but that is as far as I ever got at communication with him - let alone excommunication. "Hello Sailor!" I shouted, as he pruned his roses.