A Jaunt into the South West : Part 6
My visit to Gloucester, like that of the famous Doctor Foster, took place in a shower of rain. His produced puddles of improbable depth, mine was the sort of fine, misty rain that puts tiny pearls in your hair and makes everything feel fresh and clean and full of growing.
A cathedral close can have a collegiate feel. At Salisbury or Exeter there is a sense of former grandeur not unlike a palace. The buildings may have had more than one architect, but there was a single presiding spirit behind the design. Here at Gloucester variety seems to have been the watchword and this gives the close a homely feel. At those more prestigious churches the connected houses seem to provide accommodation for church officials. At Gloucester, they provide homes for people. People who happen to work for the church.
As you walk past the ecclesiastical properties around Salisbury cathedral you imagine that, behind the curtains, high church dignitaries are grappling with complex theological issues or how to get Gordon the blue engine back to the station before the Fat Controller realises he’s late. In Gloucester you imagine dean, and indeed chapter, sitting down with the family to watch Strictly Ballroom.
I know I’m missing a treat in not being able to go inside the cathedral. Nikolaus Pevsner may be dry and critical to a modern reader but he knew his buildings and he loved this church. The nave has the same powerful cylindrical columns as at Tewkesbury but here the roof is higher. The lady who shows me around the picture gallery in Bath extolled the beauty of the vaulted cloisters and says that the choir she sings in have never sounded better than when they sang at Gloucester. I wanted to visit the tomb of Edward II. He’s a king that history has been unkind to but a king who has left a conundrum or two behind; though his behind is the most famous part of his story.
History, it is said, is written by the winning side. We tend to judge our monarchs on battles won and sons sired especially if those battles were against the French or the Scots and the sons go on to glorious monarchy. Edward, though keen on sex, didn’t much go in for siring and his battle honours are summed up in one word: Bannockburn. A word that rings with honour and glory north of the Tweed but with failure and ignominy further south. Edward led 25 thousand men north to face an rag tag army of around 7 thousand. 11 thousand English were left on the battlefield and Edward was lucky to get home.
Historians inevitably use the word “weak” in describing Edward. The normally gentle Eleanor Farjeon captures his legend in verse.
“Edward the Second is commonly reckoned the feeblest of all of our kings”
To Sellar and Yeatman he was “A worthless king” and to many he was the one who came to a terrible end by having a red hot poker shoved up a horn that had been inserted in his backside. Some say it was a fitting punishment for one who practiced buggery, others that Edward was immensely popular with the people and that his death must be made to look like natural causes. There is nothing natural in fireside implements being thrust up posteriors but using the horn meant that there were no external injuries. If those living near Berkeley Castle heard screams in the night it was put down to the proximity of Wales and their endless singing.
The mystery to me lies in those words “immensely popular”. Bannockburn is about the only bit of Scottish history taught in English schools. No mention is made of Otterburn or Stirling Bridge or any of the other battles where the English were sent home defeated. It is almost as though the desire to put down the monarch is stronger than the usual desire to ignore Scottish history. If Edward was such a poor king why was his death so mourned? Why was the probable murder concealed? Why is he buried in one of the most remarkable tombs in the kingdom? Why was he subsequently canonised? and why did his tomb attract as many pilgrims (at one time) as that of Thomas a Beckett at Canterbury?
Shakespeare never included Edward in his history plays but Christopher Marlowe did. His play centres on the homosexual relationship between the king and Piers Gavaston and the apparent mis-use of royal privilege. Derek Jarman made a film which is well worth watching. Edward may or may not have been a good king but Derek Jarman was most definitely a good film maker and Tilda Swinton is magnificent as Queen Isabella.
I leave the last word with Sellar and Yeatman: “Since not even the Barons would confess to having horribly murdered him, it is just possible that Edward had merely been dying of a surfeit in the ordinary way.”
Without Edward the cathedral may well have fallen down years ago. The pilgrims were not only many but were also generous. Donations from those who came to pray at Edward’s tomb paid for much of the church to be re-built.
Out in the streets there are a few couples on their way to dinner and some foreign students. The street patterns quickly reveal a medieval feel. No road is entirely straight. All views have something to take the eye. It’s a grid pattern city but the person who laid out the grid didn’t have a ruler. You can tell where the walls were and if you look beyond the shopfronts there are still some good examples of buildings from different ages. The Romans liked Gloucester, called it Glevum and may have been the first to use the city as a port. An equestrian statue of the Emporor Nerva on Southgate Street made the news in 2003 when the plinth was daubed with the words “Romani ite domum”. Gloucestershire police sought either a Latin scholar or a Monty Python fan.
For a while I thought I was in Chester. Everywhere looked splendid, people looked friendly and signposts pointed to such attractions as the docks or the Beatrix Potter’s House of the Tailor of Gloucester Museum. And then I took a turn towards those docks and discovered in an instant that the council had taken measures against any possibility of their town being considered too lovely. Suddenly I’m among sixties developments that cast a gloom in a way the weather was failing to do. The Police station has got to be a contender for the ugliest building in Britain. The whole area is laid waste in the most rampant bad taste I’d seen since I’d left the north. If I’d come to think of Gloucester as a northern colony in the west country, then this was the proof I needed.
But it passes. Once you’ve resisted the lure of the gentleman’s club you are nearly at the docks and just as the senses dropped on leaving the town centre, they rise again as the nineteenth century warehouses and the open water loom up along a wandering meander of the River Severn.
H V Morton was thrilled by the docks and sees in them a veritable inland Liverpool. Unfortunately they continue to resemble Liverpool in that the docks are largely decorative and residential rather than a proper working port. It was Britain’s most inland port according to Morton though I think the citizens of Bawtry or even Selby might beg to differ. Whatever, it remains a wonderful place to spend an hour or two. The architecture is as delightful as it is unexpected. There are some interesting vessels in the basin to add to the nautical feeling and the old warehouses are perfectly in-keeping with both the land and the water. Almost all have found new uses. It’s useless to bemoan the passing of their heyday, the new uses have kept them alive and preserved an important part of the culture of the town.
There are bars and restaurants aplenty down here and all are well patronised. It’s a lovely place to enjoy a pizza or a pint of West Country beer. Most of the craft at rest here seem to be decorative rather than functional. There’s a paddle steamer that looks as though it may sail and a dredger from a previous age.
It’s been a long day and the rain brings an early twilight and hastens me to my hotel. All is quiet and peaceful. Is this because they attract a particularly respectful type of guest or am I the only person staying? It’s comfortable and soon I’ve got the bath deep and foaming and end my day reading many chapters of Thomas Hardy and quietly planning a route to Exeter that keeps me off the M5.
It’s the first time I’ve been to Gloucester but I’ve seen enough to make me want to go back and have a proper look.