Westward Ho!

As my young friend said she’d never been to the West of England we decided to visit Dorset and Somerset last week.

On the way to Wookey Hole where we were to stay for a couple of nights with my friends Michael and Sharran North we stopped off at Stonehenge

Pity we can’t get really close any more, but nevertheless it’s still a sight worth seeing. This ancient stone circle is a survival from a prehistoric culture and evolved between 3,000 BC and 1,000 BC and is aligned with the midsummer sunrise and midwinter sunset. Its exact purpose remains a mystery

After Stonehenge we travelled south to Stourhead

In the 1740’s Henry the Magnificent began designing Stourhead’s beautifully landscaped garden. It could almost be called a living work of art and it changed the way gardens in England were designed. The whole estate covers nearly 3,000 acres of chalk downland, ancient woodland, prehistoric hill-forts, and a Palladium mansion. The landscape is hilly and undulating, and as we walked over nearly half the estate my fitness level was tested at times. This crenelated gateway takes on a magnificent hue as autumn begins to colour the landscape.

So off to Wookey Hole. Mike North is one of the world’s leading exponents of olive oil and heads the international ‘Olive Trail’ company. (He also appeared on the popular TV series ‘Dragons Den’ last year.) At dinner in their sprawling bungalow that evening my young friend sampled many varieties and some delightful Balsamic vinegars. Sharran explained the technicalities of EBay to me and I used my iPad to register, so in the next week or so I hope to get started and sell a few of my unwanted treasures.

Next day we visited Wells and toured the Cathedral.

On display were twelve Altar Frontals, six for the Quire Altar and six in the Nave. Much admired, they were designed by Jane Lemon and Maurice Strike for the Millennium and were made by the Royal School of Needlework at Hampton Court. This is the Pentecost Frontal in the Nave.

Next stop – Cheddar Gorge and caves. There the limestone cliffs tower 450 feet above the 3-mile long gorge. The gorge is spectacular – ancient and somehow mysterious. We thought the area around the caves a bit tawdry and touristy, but did enjoy going down into the caves.

I wondered why the rustic West Country tones of the woman on my voice-guide sounded a little simplistic, until my young friend informed me that I’d been listening to the children’s version of the commentary! It didn’t really matter as I’m really a big kid at heart anyway.

From Cheddar we travelled on to Axbridge to visit King John’s Hunting Lodge. (He must have travelled around the country a lot as we found another of his lodges later in the week, and there are many more scattered around the Kingdom). It’s a 15th Century wood-framed jetted building. With permission I moved the (extremely heavy) sign outside the lodge so I could take a photograph of the building without it.

With creaking floorboards, very low ceilings, and rickety spiral staircases, we really enjoyed a step into the past. I guess someone got locked in sometime as I noticed this guy lying around in one of the rooms.

Back to Wookey Hole later in the afternoon we took Mike and Sharran out for dinner at a great little restaurant just a few steps away from their bungalow where I had the juiciest steak I can remember. White paper cloths covered every table, and a jar of coloured crayons in the centre encouraged us to draw portraits of each other on the cloth, which we all did - with varying degrees of success.

In the morning we drove ( I say we, but my young friend did all the driving) down to the coast to visit Swanage. I lost 50 pence because I didn’t win the competition as to which of us would see the sea first. Fish and chips and ice cream on the sea front was bracing. Then we walked along the length of the pier to look for the small brass plaque (amongst hundreds of others) we had placed there for Bob, my brother, who died 10 years ago. Bob loved Swanage and with his family spent many happy times there over the years. Borrowing a tin of Brasso and cloths from a little nearby shop Bob’s plaque was soon shining out amongst the others after a vigorous clean.

From Swanage to Corfe Castle, and for a short way beyond, runs the Swanage Railway. The first train ran there in 1875, which makes this year its 125th anniversary. We made the twelve-mile return trip on one of the several steam trains operating the route.

The little stations along the route are delightful. Here’s a shot I took from the train at Corfe Castle

Having booked a B&B in advance we eventually found the house at West Ower, near Corfe Castle. Thank goodness for satnavs, for without ours we’d still be travelling along miles of Dorset countryside looking for our destination. But eventually we found it – after a couple of hazardous backings, especially one caused by a aggressive 4 by 4 taxi driver. In the evening, after getting lost a couple of times, the lights of a welcome pub called the Castle beckoned us so we dined there. If there’s one thing I like about B&B’s in the countryside it’s the sumptuous breakfasts they provide. Ours, the following morning, was no exception and having feasted well we decided to visit the tank museum at Bovington in Dorset. Established on the suggestion of Rudyard Kipling in 1923 this museum holds the world’s finest collection of armoured vehicles. Vast in scope, there must be every type of tank and armoured vehicle ever made, and from every country in the world on display. One of the most interesting exhibits was a scale model of the tank invented by Leonardo da Vinci in 1482.

I found the whole museum really interesting as apart from tanks, both world wars, and other later ones were depicted in tableaux and much memorabila.

One of the attractions (for me anyway) was a heavy gun with a screen on the far end of the table showing a variety of combat situations. The object is to score hits on moving vehicles as they traverse the landscape. I didn’t score the maximum, but had a lot of fun.

After a couple of hours or so at the tank museum we drove down to Poole harbour and on to Sandbanks (reputed to have the most expensive properties in England) to visit my friend, and fellow miniaturist, Pauline Gyles. I lost another 50 pence on the way, as I was sure we’d approach Sandbanks by ferry, but we didn’t. (We would have if we’d come from the other direction.)  Pauline greeted us in her charming little cottage, and I was amused to see about 7 pairs of spectacles laid out on a table – it seems Pauline chooses whichever one she needs for whatever she is about to do at the time as they are all of different strengths.

Her cottage is one of a row of old coastguard cottages - just a hop, skip and jump away from the Sandbanks Motor Yacht Club. There we had a happy lunch looking out to sea, where hundreds of yachts were bobbing away at anchor in the harbour.

Later in the afternoon we drove up to the Royal Signals Museum which contains, amongst much else, an insight into the workings of the SOE (Special Operations Executive) during World War Two. There’s an original German Enigma code machine on view as well as a suitcase spy radio from the SOE, together with lots more ‘tools of the trade’. Set up by Winston Churchill in July 1940 it was a tough anti-Nazi British fighting organisation, and was formed in deadly secrecy.

Placed controversially by Churchill under the Ministry of Economic Warfare, he regarded it as his ‘Ministry of Ungentlemanly Conduct’.

As the museum is housed right inside the Royal Signals Camp at Blandford in Dorset, we were subjected to quite a long wait at the guardroom while we were given identification tags and a large placard for the car. Being a working outfit, with elements of the SAS training there, the need for rigorous checking is understandable.
Next morning we left West Ower to pay a visit to Corfe Castle itself. Making good use of Greville, the dear departed second husband of Katie Boyle, who is, I am reliably informed, in charge of parking from his vantage point in heaven, we immediately found the one remaining space just outside the entrance to the castle grounds. (Greville really earns his keep as over many years, and on very many occasions, he’s performed miracles when I need a parking space!)

The ruinous state of Corfe Castle is not due to the ravages of time, but to Cromwell’s soldiers who were ordered to destroy it in 1646 after the Royalist garrison had surrendered following a lengthy siege. There was a Royal Castle at Corfe in William the Conquerer’s time, although most of what we can see today is due to later Kings: Henry I, who built the keep, John, who was responsible for the courtyard and most of the defences, and Henry III, who built both gatehouses.

As my young friend had joined the National Trust while we were visiting Stourhead, we looked for another interesting place as our final destination before we made our way home. We thought that Lacock sounded good. It’s quite near Bath and was only a couple of hours drive from Corfe Castle. When we arrived I was quite overwhelmed by this wonderful little town,

It remains today much as it looked in the eighteenth century, and we could easily imagine its crowded marketplace thronged with pedlars and sideshows, animals and poultry, all competing with the more sedate everyday shops and businesses. Having recently watched the TV series Cranford’ - filmed last year, we instantly recognised Lacock as the location. (The town was also used as the location for the filming of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ in 1995). We had a nice lunch in the Red Lion, then walked across the street to the Fox Talbot Museum which is housed in a 16th century barn at the Abbey gates. Lacock is widely known as the home of photography as the Abbey was the home of William Henry Fox Talbot – the inventor of the negative-positive process. His earliest surviving negative – taken in 1835 – is of an oriel window in the South Gallery.

Next we walked through lovely, tranquil grounds, sparkling in the afternoon sunshine, to the Abbey itself. This is a view of the peaceful and mellow Chapter House.

The Abbey was built in the early 13th Century with stone from the quarry at Hazelbury, and with timber from the Royal Forest. (In 1248 King Henry III made a grant of four oaks from the forest of Chippenham, and fifteen from the Royal Forests. Later King Edward I made a grant of ten oaks from Melksham Forest.) So much to see at the Abbey. Here’s a picture I took inside the 16th Century brewery.

And finally, another part of the Abbey, which was used for the filming of some of the scenes in two of the Harry Potter films.

What a lovely afternoon we had at Lacock – it’s a place I’ll definitely return to, and probably spend more time there, as there’s so much more to see. A fast drive along the M4 Motorway, with a short pit-stop for tea with cousin Paul and Josephine at their farm at Great Shefford, and then we were home.