Salisbury, Wiltshire

3 10 2004

02-03 October 2004

Man proposes and God disposes. The plan was to visit the house and gardens of Stourhead followed by an easy walk towards Longleat. As the train pulled into historic Salisbury, the tall spire of the Cathedral came into view. To say that it is beautiful is to say little. All my plans went for a toss. I alighted at Salisbury and made my way straight to the Cathedral.

I have said this before in other contexts and I say it again – beauty in simplicity. No fancy friezes decorate the spire. At the west facade, straight vertical columns yield to the grace of simple arches. Images of saints and bishops invite the visitor for a closer look and into the 13th century building. If the exterior created heightened expectations, the interior far surpassed them. Black Purbeck stone piers, the stones often embedded with fossilised remains from the Jurassic period, extend along the length of the nave. These are equalled by the attractive clerestory and triforium that stretch our vision from the west end all the way to the blue stained-glass windows of the Trinity Chapel at the east end. I am told that this is one of the privileges of this Cathedral, to be able to see from one end to the other without a chancel screen blocking such a view.

There is harmony everywhere. Harmony too is a definition of beauty. Here is the perfect example of the characteristic cathedral architecture of England found nowhere else in the world, aptly called “Early English Gothic”.

The old mechanical clock of Salisbury Cathedral

The old mechanical clock of Salisbury Cathedral

A guided tour of the cathedral brought greater understanding and a deeper appreciation. The 20th century stained-glass at the Trinity Chapel is not abstract art but a powerful dedication to Christ and the Holy Trinity. Symbols associated with these are revealed to the eye only by a closer study. The stained-glass is a brilliant blue like that of Chartres in France. Since I have not seen the latter I must take it in good faith. The Purbeck stones are commonly called “Purbeck marbles” because when polished they acquire a marble-like appearance. The mechanical clock of 1386 is driven by gravity. It has no face but simply strikes the bell on the hour. The scissor arches at the crossing were built much later to support the weight of the spire. One of the copies of the Magna Carta is exhibited in the Chapter House. One must remember that for the early 13th century a copy was not a mass produced print as cheap as we make them today. Every copy was hand-made, a meticulous execution of the original and just as precious. The copy at Salisbury is not just among the greatest in establishing civil rights but also a piece of art in its own right. About 4000 words packed on a single piece of sheep skin with flowing curvaceous strokes of medieval Latin finely scribed in a uniform hand is European calligraphy at its best.

Next was an unplanned visit to the nearby Mompesson House. The collection of glass drinking cups and ceramic art is impressive. The library contains many great and renowned works of English literature. It also contained a copy of R.K. Narayan’s “An Astrologer’s Day”. It is a small house but gives the impression of being larger due to the use of false doors that create the illusion of an enfilade.

The spire of Salisbury Cathedral from the courtyard of Mompesson House

The spire of Salisbury Cathedral from the courtyard of Mompesson House

Eventually I did get to my original destination after missing many connecting buses, forcing me to walk from Gillingham to Stourhead. Nevertheless it was a walk immensely enjoyable, crossing farmlands and manors along the border of Wiltshire and Dorset. The countryside could be seen stretching towards the far horizons without interruption. Exploring Stourhead itself was a fiasco. I arrived at the time of sunset and all that I could manage was a short walk around the grounds owned by the National Trust. The best parts remained unseen. In compensation was a memorable sunset. The varied shades of autumn were bathed in a golden sunset. The sheep grazed the hills in perfect nonchalance. A quiet breeze ruffled the tops of pines. Birds in their little nests twittered to a well-deserved rest.

The rest I had for the night was an experience of a kind. I missed the last bus. There were no vacancies in the nearby village of Zeals. I had no guide books to help me out in my search. Enquiries at the local pub failed to produce any success. Without my sleeping bag it was a night without sleep. To make matters worse it started to rain. The road out of Zeals had no street lights but with the aid of my torch I made my way. Thankfully I found proper shelter from the constant rain. The cold concrete floor under highway A303 became my bed for the night.

Have you ever felt the chillness of a cold autumn night? Have you ever walked the ways of a homeless? Have you put yourself in his shoes for just one night? It is in times like this that one appreciates all things of comfort that are given little thought and taken much for granted.

Behind every cloud is a silver lining. Every dark night has to give way to the rising sun. The coldest hours of the night are just before dawn. Then is not hope put in its rightful place even in the direst of situations? The first rays of the sun are matched by the cheerful songs of birds. Miles of rolling hills still clothed in a thin morning mist wake up to the glow of dawn. Dappled cows graze in the distance. Squirrels start their lively acts, foraging for food. An ordered formation of geese floats across as smoothly as the clouds. All I have to do is to breathe-in the fresh morning air and all good things around me.

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