Back in Wiltshire just ahead of our flight back to America, we decided to go for a walk and stretch our legs. Old Sarum can be seen from my in-laws’ house so it was an obvious destination. The kids had already been on an excursion to visit the ancient hillfort with their grandfather earlier in our trip so we decided to take a trek to the ruins of the old Cathedral, which are outside the moated walls of Old Sarum.
We decided to take a circular route and it took us past fields, over styles and past an enclosure containing horses. My 8 year old son is a horse fanatic so that was a highlight for him.
The Cathedral dates from the Norman era and was in use until the decision was taken to build the Cathedral in Salisbury in the early 13th Century. The old cathedral was dismantled and stone from it was used in the construction of its replacement. It has, therefore, been a ruin for very many centuries, though the footprint is still very clear to see.
My boys did their usual thing of using the ruins as the setting for some imaginative play and as a climbing frame. They spent a very long time playing in a lower level space. I was able to sit in the sun watching them play and observing the bemusement of other tourists who wandered over and observed my kids performing.
That trek up Old Sarum was the final excursion of our trip back to Britain and it was good to end on a familiar and favourite spot. We managed to cram a great deal into our month in the UK – as I am sure you will agree since this is the 22nd blog post about our trip.
After our meeting and greeting with the Magna Carta Barons, we headed to Salisbury Cathedral. The legend goes that the Bishop of Old Sarum shot an arrow towards where he wanted to build a new cathedral. The arrow struck a deer and Salisbury Cathedral was, therefore, erected where that unfortunate deer died. A most unlikely tale of architectural planning I would think. The Cathedral is a magnificent building, dating from the mid-13th Century and boasting the largest cloister and tallest spire in Britain. The spire is 404 feet high so – given that I hyperventilate at table level – I have never been up it, though my oldest son has.
We immediately headed to the chapter house because it houses Magna Carta and seeing that historic document was the focus of our visit. The Cathedral has essentially had its copy of Magna Carta since it was created in 1215 having been brought back from Runnymede to Old Sarum by Elias of Dereham. A short stint of queuing was required but soon it was our turn to quietly shuffle into the dark tent that houses Magna Carta. There was no time limit to spending time studying the document or asking questions of the docent but obviously there was the pressure of the queue behind us so we tried to keep things brief. The handwriting on the copy is beautiful. Big high five and kudos to the scribe who created it because the calligraphy is so perfectly formed and consistent that it could be from a printing press. I asked about the ink used and was told – if I recollect accurately – that it was a mixture of iron and gall that essentially tattooed the vellum.
I would like to say that my sons were completely engaged and appreciative of the importance of the document they were viewing but that would be a complete and utter fib. Alas they were completely unphased and uninterested. My hope is that in future, when Magna Carta comes up in conversation or in their studies, they will finally value the fact that they saw an original copy of Magna Carta on the 800th anniversary of its creation.
Following our visit to Magna Carta, we had a wander around the rest of the Cathedral. The Cathedral houses the oldest working clock in the world – dating from the 14th Century – so we saw that, admired the stained glass windows from a wide variety of eras, carved stone effigies, the wonderful wooden carvings in the choir and the incredible, flowing, cruciform font which is my favourite feature in the entire cathedral. There was also an art installation in the Morning Chapel that my kids loved. It involved projected words, taken from Magna Carta, moving across the stone walls of the room. It was responsive to movement in order to convey a message about action and consequence but my boys just had fun trying to get certain words or even letters to touch their hands before it twisted, branch like, away from them.
We found another art installation set in the exterior North Porch door of the Cathedral. These were strings of glowing lights which slowly changed colour, working through the spectrum. They were completely enchanting. The kids and I loved moving among the orbs. It was titled “Enlightenment” – which was obviously extremely apt for the setting – and was designed to relate to the way in which the concepts of Magna Carta have rippled out across time and borders. However, what I liked about it was the feeling of swimming through outer space jellyfish.
Hopefully between the tour of the Barons, the art installations and actually seeing the document, my kids will have absorbed something of the historic importance of Magna Carta in its octocentennial year. Or maybe they will just remember playing among luminescent tentacles. But I can hope.
2015 sees a lot of historic anniversaries: It’s part of the World War One centenary; it’s 200 years since Waterloo; it’s 150 years since the conclusion of the American Civil War; 600 years since the Battle of Agincourt; 75 years since Dunkirk and 70 since VE Day; 300 years since the first Jacobite Rebellion; 1000 years since Cnut’s Viking Invasion of Britain; and it is also 800 years since the creation of Magna Carta. Since we were in Salisbury for the bookend weeks of our visit back to the UK, it was this latter anniversary (octocentennial?) that occupied us.
Famously, King John (bad King John of Robin Hood legend) sealed and thereby agreed the terms of Magna Carta at Runnymede in June 1215. The Archbishop of Canterbury had drawn up the Charter in order to broker some sort of peace between the unpopular king and a group of rebel barons. The document enshrined certain legal rights which would be overseen by a council of 25 barons. Of course, almost immediately everyone involved reneged on the agreement, the Pope annulled the charter and a conflict broke out. Regardless of its own success, however, Magna Carta is a deservedly world famous document for its place in the development of democracy, the rights of citizens and the need to protect and preserve certain liberties. It was, for example, used as the scaffolding of the American Constitution. That’s the potted history.
Many copies of Magna Carta had to be drawn up in order to be widely circulated but only four now exist. Salisbury Cathedral is considered to have the best and best preserved example still extant so we determined to take a walk into Salisbury in order to let the boys see it. Or forcefully encourage the boys to see it since they don’t always appreciate the importance (yet) of the things we are getting them to experience.
On our amble into and around Salisbury, however, we took a bit of a detour along the Baron’s Trail. Various artists have decorated 25 Barons – to represent those on the council – which have then been placed around the city. We visited 17 of them. Most connect to some element of local history or the history of Magna Carta while others were a bit more random but fun, interesting and creative all the same. By far and away our favourite was the Discworld Knight Baron, honouring local author Terry Pratchett and covered in artwork by the illustrator of his many novels.
The whole venture is being used to highlight the anniversary, of course, but also to raise money for the Trussel Trust – a food bank charity. We all thoroughly enjoyed tracking down each baron and studying its design and it was a useful way to engage my boys in the point of the excursion.