Back to Blighty #22 – Old Sarum Cathedral

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.





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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.


Back to Blighty #7 – Boscombe Down Aviation Collection

Until my Father-in-Law suggested we pop over there to wile away some hours, I had no idea Boscombe Down Aviation Collection even existed.  None whatsoever.  I have even been to the industrial estate where it is sited – multiple times indeed – and never been aware that it was there.  One has to be almost right on top of it before a banner suddenly appears in view that indicates it really, honestly does exist, right around the corner.

I have absolutely nil interest in aviation.  In fact, I am slightly allergic to aviation museums after my now 9 year old once had a terrifying Richter scale tantrum that took an eon to run out of fuel at the Fleet Air Arm Museum in Somerset.  We survived our family trip to the Air and Space Museum in Washington DC but barely.  I distinctly remember having some palpitations.  I do, however, like quirky little enthusiast run museums and I think they deserve our footfall by way of support.

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The great thing about a more low key museum is that it is often much more accessible than one where everything is treated as fragile and precious.  My problem with aviation museums – transport museums generally – is that they are so distancing that I have no way in which to engage with them.  If I was inherently interested in the subject then I am sure I would find a way but I am just not that interested.  I could enjoy this museum, however, because I loved seeing my boys clamber inside the aeroplanes and helicopters, press buttons and pull levers.  That definitely helped them engage too, turning a bit of learning into play, and that makes my life as a parent so much easier.











I honestly cannot relate much information about this museum because my knowledge of its contents is so limited.  What I can state is that it housed dozens of aircraft, the majority of which could be fully interacted with.  One of my kids even triggered an alarm on one of them but one of the volunteers just shuffled over and switched it off without any tutting or wrist-slapping.  My boys had an absolute blast playing with all of the planes, imagining they were flying top secret missions or were superheroes piloting their super jets.  It is run by very knowledgeable enthusiasts who were available to answer any and all queries.  I am certain aviation geeks would absolutely love it there.



Back to Blighty #6 – Stonehenge

My in-laws only live fifteen minutes away from Stonehenge but incredibly only the oldest one of our children has been.  Having not predicted that we would emigrate until we were caught up in the whirlwind of actually emigrating, we had always assumed that we would have ample time to take the younger kids when the time was right.  Oops.  It was, therefore, on our Absolutely Must Do list for our trip back to Britain.

Since our last visit to Stonehenge, the brand, spanking new visitor centre has been opened.  It has changed the access point to and orientation of the site – which is much better – and means they can have far more engaging displays and information available.  Frankly, the old visitor centre was very minimal and dated.  Given the fact that Stonehenge is one of Britain’s foremost historic sites and one of its most visited tourist attractions, it was quite shambolic.  The new visitor centre is much more impressive, much more fitting.

The exhibition centre incorporates a 360 degree panoramic video that places the visitor in the centre of the standing stones as the seasons pass.  It was an effective introduction since the seasonal aspect of Stonehenge’s useage is one of the few things archaelogists properly understand about its function.  There was also a gallery that housed various explanatory exhibits and items excavated from Stonehenge and the surrounding area.  I was particularly moved by the reconstructed face of one of the men buried at the site and I was very interested by the fact that scientists could detect that livestock were brought to Wiltshire for slaughter all the way from Scotland.  It was fascinating and focused, the perfect amount of information for people visiting with children who were champing at the bit to get outdoors.



The exhibits continued outside with examples of saracen and bluestone – the two types of stone used to construct Stonehenge – and a demonstration of how they might have been moved to and across the site from such a great distance.  There was also a mock up of a neolithic village.  My boys had fun playing house inside each of the huts.




A quick shuttle bus ride then took us to Stonehenge itself.  Viewing the site had always been a frustrating experience.  Unlike standing stones in Scotland, it was always roped off to -understandably – protect it but the rope barrier was so close up to the stones that it was almost always impossible to get an unimpaired view because of all the people crammed around.  Now the rope barrier appears to have been moved back which then pushes the milling, teeming crowds back and allows the whole set of stones to be seen without having to peek between torsos or over heads.  Much better.




Confession:  I don’t really “get” Stonehenge.  I appreciate how iconic it is as a representation of neolithic Britain and its archaeological significance.  However, I don’t find it as engaging and captivating as I feel I ought to.  I think it may be because I find it challenging to engage with something that is still so mystifying, all theorising and conjecture.  It may also be because I have been spoiled by growing up in Scotland where it is possible to get up close to standing stones, simply malingering in farm fields.  I suppose,therefore, that Stonehenge is just physically and academically distancing.  That said, Stonehenge is incredibly cool and I do believe everyone – absolutely everyone – should see it at least once.

Back to Blighty #5 – Wilton House Gardens

One of our favourite places to visit when we are staying with my in-laws in Salisbury is Wilton House – or more specifically the Gardens since I have never once crossed the threshold of the house.  It was, therefore, a “must do” on our return trip to the UK.

Wilton House is the country estate of the Earls of Pembroke going back centuries and, as such, it has been developed and evolved over very many years and epochs of taste.  This is true of the gardens as well as the architecture.  As far as my kids are concerned, however, it is all about the contemporary tree house adventure playground.  There are scramble nets, above ground walkways, ladders galore, tire swings, all manner of slides of different heights, trampolines, a zip-line, and boat swings.  My boys love the place and I love that they can burn off their abundant energy, return at last to their preferred semi-feral state, and roam free within the safe boundaries of the estate’s walls.










Once the kids had had enough of running wild, it was time to explore the gardens.  I absolutely love the gardens at Wilton because there is something interesting to encounter at every turn, the planting and man-made structures are superb, and they offer beautiful vistas across the estate and towards the house.  I take photographs incessantly when wandering around the gardens. Step, head turn, click.  There is an oriental style garden with bright red bridges offsetting the green foliage and flower fringed ponds.  There is a maze path in the middle of a little copse.  There is a fun whispering seat too: someone can sit at one end of the stone semi-circle and whisper into the corner and their words will only be heard by the person sitting at the other edge and not by anyone outside the semi-circle.  There are aromatic lavender lined paths that buzz with bees and butterflies.  There are foliage tunnels.  There is a boat house and statues galore.  There are fountains spouting and bubbling with water.











It was a very hot day indeed – bizarrely hot for Britain – so when we reached the River Nadder, no more than a stream really which bubbles and tumbles its way through the grounds, the boys could not resist the temptation to dip their toes in the water.  Inevitably, once their toes were in, their feet were in; and once their feet were in, they had to start wading through the water.  They were happy as clams and the ducks were unperturbed so we decided to let them have their rebellion and keep wading.  The little river is spanned by a wonderful Palladian bridge, which is one of Wilton’s most famous features.  You might recognise it from the end credits of the second series of ‘Blackadder’.







A bit of history, a smattering of striking architecture, some glorious landscaping and a great outdoor playground makes Wilton a great, relaxing family day out.






Back to Blighty #3 – Magna Carta at Salisbury Cathedral

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.


Back to Blighty #2 – Magna Carta Barons Trail

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.