There may well be no greater natural setting for an ancient monument than Stonehenge. I feel like I’ve spent the best part of a Stone Age regularly going past it on the main A303 trunk road that still acts the main conduit from South-East to South-West England, but the combination of monument itself with the uncluttered contours of Salisbury Plain creates a perfectly cinematic vista and always provokes awe in me. Even so, I rather fear Stonehenge unduly hogs the limelight (or limestone light? or, to be utterly specific, foliated rhyolite light?) as a monument in its native county of Wiltshire, never mind mainland Britain itself.
Living on the borders of Wiltshire, I would suggest any domestic or international tourist makes Stonehenge just part of a portfolio of ancient monuments in the county worth visiting. I rather suspect that the nearby Avebury Henge and Stone Circles, although just as much a testament to perpetual physical revision as Stonehenge itself, are a more sprawling and graphic evocation of times long gone. In terms of the physically compact and prehistoric, the (mostly) chalk mound at Silbury Hill is as auspicious as Stonehenge but feels like an ancient open-air palace to boot – perhaps appropriately given folk legend regarding its status as the resting place of one King Sil.
I mention all of this as I feel monuments both ancient and more obviously of the Christian era deserve re-appraisal and a more conspicuous place on the radar as far as UK tourism branding goes. Nothing brought this home more than our recent visit to the Abbey Church of St Mary and St Melor in Amesbury – only a stone’s throw from Stonehenge, but bearing stones and other building materials of equally dense detail and significance.
The whole monument summons up everything it possibly can about English building from the Norman era onwards and thensome, but that’s only part of it. If Stonehenge’s history is a series of conscious attempts to resurrect history itself, then St Mary and St Melor and its immediate surroundings offer a better snapshot of Britain throughout the centuries and some of the isle’s big grandstand historical moments as they have naturally unfolded.
As the above link indicates, upon this modestly-sized estate and site we see the very evolution of the Christian place of worship, the aftermath of Thomas a Becket’s murder, the period of Reformation and the synonymous legacy of Henry VIII and (at least one of) his six wives all thematically jostle for attention, often as part of the legacy of the long-gone abbey itself. It was there, in Lord Alfred Tennyson’s mind at least, that Queen Guinevere also surfaced when she had ‘fled the court’ (see the first two lines of linked poem). Several riffs and discourses for sure, and a very keen sense of history and legend all in one place.
Indeed, you might call the surviving church a very compact and very English form of incremental architectural jazz (and try seeing how convincingly you can say that of Stonehenge). Certainly, like Rochester Cathedral, it feels like a prime example of how English churches and cathedrals have been established, tinkered, re-hashed, improvised, conjoined, extended, reduced, restored, moved onto new tangents and moved off them.
The stand-out facets of the church? Probably the evidence of wall paintings (we love wall paintings) and the fact that some of it looks more like Tudor house than place of worship dating back to 979. But that wouldn’t be obvious at first sight; diverse as this church is, it embraces the eclectic with remarkable discretion and is definitely not gaudy or unwieldy in appearance. That’s the way we like our English churches.
So where’s the Scandinavian link? Something to do with abbey outlines in this instance. I can only guess at what the original abbey at Amesbury looked like; however, Peter Goodhugh, who showed us round the church, has appealed to my natural sleuthing instincts by telling me that he is looking to obtain some information pertaining to a historical ground plan of Vadstena Abbey, situated on the cusp of Lake Vättern in Östergötland county, Sweden.
In terms of its use, Vadstena has remarkably come full circle, with the Pax Mariae monastic order of Bridgettine nuns having resided here since 1963 and as part of a fully independent priory since 1988 – some 642 years after St Bridget herself founded the original abbey. In terms of architectural and draughtsperson’s detail, Worldly Scandifriend would love any interesting information about the specific function of various parts of the historical abbey as appear in this plan by Peter Goodhugh.
By Peter’s admission, this comes from a sketch of ‘dubious provenance’ – so if you feel you can offer a more authoritative plan pertaining to the abbey in its historical capacity as a dual monastery (from its foundation through to 1555) along with some explanations regarding room functions etc. that would be fantastic. Failing that, I might just have to write to the good sisters myself.