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Almost Heaven: True and Almost True Tales about a Cathedral

Almost Heaven: True and Almost True Tales about a Cathedral

by Leslie Thomas

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that surround world famous salisbury Cathedral


that surround world famous salisbury Cathedral

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Almost Heaven

True and Almost True Tales About a Cathedral

By Leslie Thomas

Bene Factum Publishing Ltd

Copyright © 2010 Leslie Thomas
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-903071-69-4


Close Quarters

A few feet below the peak of the tallest cathedral spire in Britain sits a pensive peregrine falcon apparently taking in the view. Sometimes he shows himself although only remotely, but those who have climbed the bracing four hundred feet of tenuous steps have found clues – a rabbit skin, a pair of gutted pigeons, a lost cat never to be found.

A man called Old Halley once sat up there and ate his dinner, every mouthful cheered by the townspeople of Salisbury far below. Halley and the falcon, two early cases of haute cuisine. Halley, not a steeplejack but a plumber, perhaps ate his meal by torchlight, although his picnic of a leg of mutton and "two fowles" cannot have been easily transported. I enjoy thinking of the falcon, dining on a fading summer evening, spread before him not only a decent meal but a view without equal in domestic England.

Salisbury Cathedral Close is a green lagoon with its houses encircling like islands; ancient places of different coloured roofs and walls, haunted by history, famous and often eccentric characters, and any number of ghosts. Eighty three acres, where people lie on the summer grass that lies over a graveyard; children skip, youths play football, although the latter is not allowed. They stop when the watchman of The Close admonishes them but then continue their hoofing once he has returned to his house or his duty cubby hole. It was so back through history, although these days there are more people but fewer murders.

It is a holy place but it lives for every day. You can even get a glass of wine (or several) in the Cathedral Refectory. Some way back they had to demolish the bell tower because of drunkenness, the presence of unsuitable women and hooligans who "jambled the bells".

* * *

Whichever road you take to Salisbury the Cathedral can be seen from far off. The city is built in a saucer and the spire stands upright like a candle in a holder.

Driving down the route that was old before the Romans came, from the direction of Stockbridge and – eighty miles or so beyond that – London, you turn a sudden bend in the countryside and there, in the distance, mixed with mist, dulled with cloud or pinpointed by the sun, but always there, is the spire.

Come from Southampton and the sea, and from the rise of Pepperbox Hill, known to Dickens, it pierces the landscape ahead; from Thomas Hardy's Wessex it rises as the road falls. Hardy himself used to love to cycle from Dorchester to Salisbury for Evensong and in his search for answers.

To the South the way emerges from under the boughs of the New Forest trees and there is the spire like a signpost; it can be seen too as you travel over the hump of Salisbury Plain, where buzzards circle and hares run, often prompted by army gunfire. The switchback road skirts the blancmange shape of the fortress and holy hill of Old Sarum where this story started.

Whichever way we came we, Diana and I, and assorted children, always watched for the first glimpse of the far-off spire and when we saw it we would be singing out in adopted wurzle Wessex voices: "Thur She Be!"

And there she always was, guiding us home. The route fell through the everyday countryside of the Ancient Britons, eventually levelling as we reached the city of Salisbury. It has changed, obviously, but not so much as most places, the old prints and drawings still fit the streets with their quirky names, Pennyfarthing Street, Endless Street and Oatmeal Row. Regrettably Milk Monger Street has been renamed.

Then, under the crouching arch, one side holding up the other and into the fastness of The Close, the duty constable sitting in his box like a bulldog in a kennel. He would recognise the car and give thumbs up for us to proceed, or perhaps indicating that nothing had gone amiss, there were no alarums, that nothing had changed since we had been absent. We were home.

* * *

Over the years Salisbury has had some colourful clergy and something like a tradition of odd organists. One was unseated from his previous organ stool at Gloucester Cathedral because during pauses between the sacred music he would play the pop tunes of the day and ladies in thecongregation would get up from their pews and begin to dance.

Another, William Powell, who held a position as a singing vicar was a drunk, and something of an all-round villain. After a series of fights and misdemeanours he was somehow allowed to take part in an ecclesiastical hare-shoot on Salisbury Plain. He was the worse-for-wear when he arrived, although it was early morning, and had a stand-up fight with one of the beaters. The beater, true to his job description, returned the attack and ended the incident by flooring the cleric with a dead hare.

The clergy often seemed to have their minds elsewhere. One Dean, coming into the Cathedral from the rain, brought up the rear of the procession and paced solemnly to the chancel with his dripping umbrella remaining open over him. Another, struggling with a high note, dropped his teeth in front of the high altar. At a more recent service an amplifier behind the altar was inadvertently left active and a burst of blue language came from there to puncture the Te Deum.

Characters in The Close and the Cathedral were outraged when Anthony Trollope wrote his Barchester Towers and the following novels in which, they protested, some of the figures were based on them; perhaps a case of "if the cap fits". But although Trollope had admitted that the notion to write a churchy story came to him one evening as he wandered in the "purlieus of Salisbury Cathedral" he always maintained that Mrs. Proudie and his other odd characters were based on the denizens of the Close at Winchester. Few Salisbury residents believed him.

On one of our first Sundays living in our house - a Georgian Canonry – in The Close at Salisbury, however, a figure only Trollope could have imagined came into our garden by the river.

It was a spring day, soft and sunny, and we had enjoyed listening to the choirboy voices coming from the morning service over the grass and the trees. Then he appeared, uninvited, loping around the flank of the house, a beaming, bouncy figure in a clerical coat "It's Barchester!" he exclaimed happily. "It's Barchester!"

Trollope may have argued the point but I agreed it was very like it. His name was Canon John Kerruish, a merry Manxman. He became our first friend. He was convinced that Trollope had made some mistake or was merely shifting geography to get people off his back. He was the happiest of canons and we enjoyed visiting him in his tucked away home. Old maps, Speed, Morden and Ogilby, decorated the passage. John Ogilby had been dancing master to the King and perceived the Waywizer maps, showing the curling English roads that helped to open up the country to travellers after The Civil War. Canon Kerruish showed us a cupboard in which was jammed, just, a bed. "The guest suite," he said.

The delight of his life was his Oxford College – Magdalen. He knew every footnote of its history, who had been there and when. Each week he would make a one day pilgrimage by rail, dining at the high table, and returning by the last train of the day. The Salisbury station staff knew him well and after he had alighted, with a beaming face and sometimes with difficulty, onto the platform they knew they could shut up for the night.

When he became ill I used to see him trying to beat his illness by jogging. I was playing cricket one evening for the Gentlemen of The Close when he puffed chubbily by, thick in an ancient jersey and singing something that might have been a hymn. "Barchester!" he croaked as he saw me at deep square leg. "Barchester."

Dying clergy in the past had sometimes, when they could rise to it, sung for the final time as they passed away but John Kerruish bettered this. When he died in Salisbury Hospital he had the choir from his beloved Magdalen College ranged about his bed, hymning him into Heaven. Whether he joined in I do not know. He would have certainly tried.

* * *

Our house had been occupied by a large (ten children), talented and endearingly eccentric family. Every child was beautiful and every one musical. There was a whole cupboard full of discarded violins and in a basement was an organ which they had somehow overlooked and which remained there during our ten year tenure. The alluring daughters had been known to wade into the river, wearing airy nighties, flinging tidbits to the enchanted swans while singing pretty songs or reciting Shakespeare. When their father, a Peer, returned to Salisbury Station after a hard day debating in the House of Lords, two of the children would take a dinghy upriver and his lordship would clamber over the gunwale to journey home in style.

* * *

Sometimes on a serene evening, Diana and I would walk down the long lawn we had laid to a bench on the bank of the river. The water was the colour of a white wine bottle; it waved into reeds, and there were indolent fish rolling their eyes among the roots of a willow. From the far bank water meadows spread, misty as the sun fell, the territory of various animals and birds and occasional poachers. A prosperous looking fox, auburn coat, showy tail, and proud ears, would often come and sit directly opposite, having a wash, as we drank our gin and tonics. He looked at us and we looked at him. Nobody said anything. Eventually he would up and trot off to find his unsuspecting supper and we would leave too, our fine house standing brick red at the top of the lawn.

Neither of us had been born to this. I had eventually arrived here from a council house in South Wales and my wife was born in a Leicester terrace. It was not difficult to wonder how we had got to The Walton Canonry.

Edward Heath, the most famous man in The Close, was the first to ask us to lunch. He lived two hundred yards down the street. Looking out from his window to the Cathedral I said honestly: "I don't know how I came to live here. I am a working class boy".

Ted said: "So am I".


Once Upon a Hill

Even on a good morning in late spring, with a pale sky reaching visibly from Dorset to Hampshire the hill at Old Sarum is an oddly discomfiting place. All around the meadows of May beam amiably but up there it is a different country, the wind niggles in the shabby grass and it only needs a small travelling cloud to make it wintry. No birds sing although I thought I heard from somewhere far below the chimes of an ice-cream van.

In the Salisbury Cloisters today there is a bold model of Old Sarum as it would have once looked. Sometimes I go for morning tea and a home-baked chocolate brownie in the Cathedral refectory and each time I pause and take in another aspect of the glass-cased model, the Norman keep, sturdy as a drum, the surrounding dwellings, more like hovels I imagine in those days, all within the hoop of the castle wall. Down below, set aside from the castle as if on a shelf, the shape of the original Old Sarum Cathedral stands.

The view today is a stark outline of the ancient church spread out in neat geometric lines, the sort of aspect a pilot gets when taking his plane into an airport. From the toothy battlements of the keep the soldiers could look out for miles until, their watch finished, then find some comfort in their quarters. It was not a bad posting; but no place for a windy church.

But this unpromising site is where Salisbury was conceived and born. Timeless tribes lived on the hill where they could see predators approaching; then the Saxons came and the Romans and eventually William the Conqueror's Normans. It was given a litany of names – Searobyrg, Sorviodunum and eventually the faintly recognisable Sarisberie.

The Romans used well-worn tracks as the hard-core of their roads and these converged on a place where there was a ford across the Wessex Avon. It is called Stratford-sub-Castle and it remains there today, occasionally sought out by uncareful tourists who in error put two and two together – Stratford and Avon – and then search diligently for Shakespeare's house. It is a working village however; our local builder has his yard there.

When the Danes, with their usual savage workmanship, began pillaging the surrounding countryside, the people from Wilton and small Wessex villages prudently headed for the sanctuary of the Old Sarum fortress and, in the end, perhaps thinking, with the frequency of the raids, that it was scarcely worth going home, some of them stayed.

Bishop Osmund, who later became Saint Osmund, although he had to wait 350 years for that distinction, built the original Cathedral. He was a truly saintly man, and clever too, widely travelled and educated. But on this bleak and unpopular location he seems to have made one of the few mistakes of his life. The monks moaned almost as much as the wind. Cold and comfortless they complained, and so exposed to the wind that they could scarcely hear themselves chant. Their prayers were carried away by the weather, they suffered rheumatics and pneumonia. There was a groan for every season; even in summer the stark limestone of the hill damaged their eyes. No skylarks sang. They did not like the place.

Nor did the occupying soldiers like them being there. They spitefully fixed the lid on the castle well so that the monks had to carry their water in pots and goatskins up the rough hill; when the soldiers came in drunk from the nighttime taverns they made sure their oaths carried to the monks who were trying to get to sleep before getting up at three o'clock to pray. And the monks made sure they sang lustily while facing the direction of the sleeping troops.

Frequently even the bishop found the castle gate locked against him. There were what one scribe noted as "brawls and saddle-blowes", the unarmed but disgruntled monks often giving as good as they got.

The catalyst to this glum situation occurred when a religious procession at Rogation-tide, the three holy days before Ascension, was mumbling up the slope to the main gate and had to halt because the commander of the guard refused to unbolt the door. For several hours apparently. It was a state of things that could not go on.

As it happened, Bishop Poore, a little further along the ecclesiastical succession, belied his name by owning a wonderfully verdant stretch of land, held in the bend of a curling river, and less than an hour's walk away. The Pope had to give his consent for the monks to move and, since he did not live at Old Sarum and Rome was half-way around the world, he took some years. But eventually the message came. The freezing friars could move lodgings. What rejoicings there must have been. The monks sang their thanks so loudly that even the early summer wind could not carry the sounds away. The soldiers had to put up with it and count the days.

* * *

Few things help to embellish a legend like the passing of eight hundred years. And there is more than one tale told about how the Cathedral came to be built by the river at Salisbury.

So glad were the Norman soldiers to see the backs of the monks at Old Sarum that, according to one story, they provided their strongest bowman, bending his most pliable bow, and firing his swiftest arrow into the distance from the hilltop fort. Where the arrow fell, there the new Cathedral would be built. At that distance, however, the story would have had to stretch more than the bow. To give it more logic another account says that the arrow struck a deer who galloped to the bank of the Avon before dropping dead. In another version the deer becomes a cow.

Centuries later a poet, Walter Pope, wrote his "Salisbury Ballad" in which the soldier tells the bishop that he has fired his bow:

"As far as that cow in Merry-field
Which grazes under the thorn."
The bishop asks "Where is Merry-field?"
And the soldier replies "By the riverside.
"Where you see that Brindle cow."

It seems odd that the bishop did not know Merry-field because he owned it. Perhaps he did not recognise its nickname. He knew it as Mary-field and the Cathedral today is dedicated to St. Mary the Virgin.

There are variant versions of the tale, one of which suggests that the monks of Old Sarum were thrown off their hill because of spending nights of excitement with nuns at the convenient convent at Wilton. It would be interesting to know how they got back. The vision of bleary friars, three to a mule perhaps, turning up at daylight at the portcullis and asking to be let in is an enticing one.

Whatever the truth, Merry-field, Myrie-field, or Mary's Field, was the chosen place for the new Cathedral. It was close on a hundred acres of fine grass, running down to a poetic river bank. What today would be called a choice piece of real estate.

* * *

A cathedral is not built in a day. Some have taken a thousand years, some are never finished. Salisbury took 38 years and was assembled by 300 men. The meadows were boggy but, miraculously, there was one strong area where the ground was pure gravel. They began delving there and they needed to go down less than six feet. The 2,500 tons of the spire, added over the next fifty-seven years, was almost confidently supported by the same depth of grit. Almost, because it has slipped two feet six inches and the interior columns are visibly bent. When we lived in The Walton Canonry we used to calculate that it would not miss us by much; the roof of our present house, just outside the Harnham Gate to the Cathedral Close is about the same distance. The spire remains resolute.


Excerpted from Almost Heaven by Leslie Thomas. Copyright © 2010 Leslie Thomas. Excerpted by permission of Bene Factum Publishing Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Leslie Thomas is the author of Dover Beach, Soldiers and Lovers, and many more.

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