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Published: June 11th 2022
Painting by Churchill
I am not sure it is possible to see everything of interest in London. We skipped the art museums, the Shakespeare and Dickens and Sherlock Holmes sites, and many other worthwhile attractions. But we did feel we had at least picked the low-hanging fruit, and so on Monday morning we went out to Heathrow, rented our car, and drove off to tour southern England. Our first stop was to be Chartwell, Winston Churchill's home for over 40 years, from his purchase of the estate in 1922 until just shortly before his death in 1965.
Churchill is a personal favorite. His History of the English-Speaking Peoples
is masterful. He covers the American Civil War in a single chapter, and it is the best description of the conflict I have ever read. His prose is luminous, and in my view surpassed only by one other non-fiction writer, Edward Gibbon (The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
). Both are long reads, but I can heartily recommend them.
I don't know quite what I expected at Chartwell, but it far exceeded my expectations.The house itself, while large, is not an overwhelming mansion, but more of a livable size. It
is the grounds that command one's attention. Formal and less formal gardens surround the house, giving way to greenspace that falls off in undulating hills into a nearby valley, along the way creating copses of trees, small dells, a few ponds, and copious areas of meadow. It is the kind of space you visualize when you picture the English countryside. From a vantage point on his back patio, Churchill would have been master of just about everything he saw. Much of this is reflected in his paintings. I have long known that he was an ardent artist. What had not come to my notice is that he was actually quite a good one. Not everything he did is a masterpiece, but there are paintings of his that would not look out of place in an impressionist museum such as the Musee d'Orsay, and many that I would love to own. The house contains several of his original paintings.
The house itself concerns itself more with Churchill the husband, father, and grandfather, and much less with his more public activities. Churchill bought the estate in 1922, and it remained his principal place of residence until October 1964, by which time
he had become so frail that he was no longer able to live in an estate so far from the city, and so moved to London. He died in January 1965. The house dates back to 1382, but it is unknown how much of the present structure is very old. Certainly it had grown to a larger mansion by 1848 during the time of one sale, and then Churchill had to have it extensively repaired and strengthened after his purchase. Although Churchill was never impoverished, there were several times in his lifetime that he suffered financial downturns and considered selling the property. In 1946 a group of friends purchased the property for the National Trust with the provision that the Churchills would enjoy life tenancy. In 1965 Clementine Churchill departed the property and turned it over to the Trust. At Churchill's directions, the contents were preserved and mostly date back to the early days of his occupancy. Churchill and his wife occupied the property from 1924 until shortly before his death except when he was in residence at 10 Downing Street or on foreign assignment, and it was here that he wrote most of his great published work, including all
of his World War II volumes. It was also here where he temporarily made his living by dictating newspaper dispatches and columns. He would get in a tub and dictate to a secretary outside the bathroom, who would take it down in shorthand and then transcribe it. He described it as the period when he "was literally living from mouth to hand".
Finding ourselves with some time, we decided to shorten tomorrow's journey by visiting the white cliffs of Cover today. Jim had never seen them before, although the rest of us had. But it was nice to take a fresh look. The cliffs are up to 350 feet high, and are mirrored by the Alabaster Coast of France. These formations consist of soft chalk, which is the compressed calciferous skeletons of coccoliths. These tiny algae, with their surrounding calcium carbonate skeletons, died and drifted to the bottom of the large sea that covered the entire area of the British Isles. It is thought that the sediment built up at about ½ millimeter per day, and the deposits are up to 500 meters thick. A little quick ciphering suggests about 500,000 years to have built that deposit. The chalk
is interspersed with deposits. The formation of flint is not completely understood, but the leading theory is that it represents the filling of holes in the sediment layer resulting from natural processes or more commonly from bottom-dwelling animals such as sponges and worms. Silica-rich compounds filled in and under pressure formed the microcrystalline silica known as flint, a form of chert. The area around the white cliffs is rich with nodules of flint. The cliffs were pushed up from the seabed by the same tectonic forces that formed the Alps, and France and Great Britain were linked by a land bridge. A large glacial lake formed behind this bridge, and two or more glacial lake outflow floods occurring between 450,000 and 180,000 years ago destroyed the land bridge, and any remnants are now submerged under the English Channel and the North Sea. A study of the floor of the English Channel still reveals the scooped out are of seabed cause by the sudden rush of water.
Below the trail along the cliffs is the port of Dover, with constant arrival and departure of ferries destined for, or coming from, France for the most part. Along the trail we came
upon a small herd of hearty horses that have been brought in to keep the vegetation from overgrowing the area, particularly invasive species.
We ended our day in Canterbury. For most of us I think Canterbury is known most as the planned destination for Chaucer's pilgrims and the site of Canterbury Cathedral.For some, painful memories of high school English classes may have caused a death of remembrance of the nature of the Canterbury Tales
. The book, which may have been incomplete at Chaucer's death, is a series of tales told by 30 pilgrims traveling together in a pilgrimage to the shrine for Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral. The pilgrims were to tell two tales on the outward bound leg of the journey, then two more in the return leg. Far less than 120 tales are extant, and it is not currently known whether this due to loss of some or to Chaucer's failure to complete the book before his death. The book is considered important as being one of the works that introduced literary writing in Middle English, rather than French, Latin, or Italian. It was written before the Great Vowel Shift that occurred in about 1400-1700, and therefore
pronunciation seems somewhat strange to us now. For instance, final e's are pronounced, as are initial k's. I retain to this day many of the lines of the lines of the General Prologue of the book (thank you, Miss Katherine, wherever you are):
Whan that Aprille with his shoure
The droghte of March hath perce
d to the roote
d every veyne in swich licóur
Of which vertú engendre
d is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete
d hath in every holt and heeth
s, and the yonge
Hath in the Ram his halfe
s maken melodye
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
So priketh hem Natúre in hir corage
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimage
And palmeres for to seken straunge
s, kowthe in sondry londe
And specially, from every shire
lond, to Caunterbury they wende
The hooly blisful martir for to seke
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke
The tales varied in subject and in tone,
but tended toward the ribald, such as the arse-kissing in the Miller's Tale and the use of a wagon wheel to divide a fart in the Friar's Tale. In general they largely were meant to be critiques of various fictitious representations of real character types. The Wife of Bath's Tale is perhaps the best known, and certainly the most fully developed, and has often been held up as an early salvo into feminism.
We spent the night in Canterbury, and before leaving the following morning we visited the Cathedral and the ruins of the St. Augustine's Abbey, named for the founder of the cathedral, not the better known St. Augustine of theological fame. The Cathedral reeks of old age. I don't mean that in an osmic sense, but more in terms of the fact that from the moment you enter you sense great age. In the basement there are old columns from the 6th century (although they were moved here from elsewhere).There is reliable historical evidence of a church on this site as early as 238 CE, but the present structure dates to 1070, after a fire destroyed the earlier building in 1067. The most important function of the
church today is that it is the cathedral church of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the religious head of the worldwide Anglican Church (although the reigning British monarch is the Supreme Governor of the Church of England). But for many if not most of the visiting tourists, the attraction is the fact that this is the site of the murder of Thomas Becket.
Becket was born in 1119 or 1120 in Cheapside (London) to parents with property and some degree of wealth. He studied the seven disciplines of the classical tradition (rhetoric, logic, grammar, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music), but apparently was an indifferent student and never achieved any real skill in Latin. When his father suffered financial reverses, Becket was forced to take a job as a clerk, and eventually was taken under the tutelage of Theobald of Bek. He was sent to study canon law, and was entrusted with several foreign missions on behalf of Theobald. When he proved himself successful in these duties, he was appointed Lord Chancellor of England upon Theobald's recommendation to the king. In that office he enforced collection of the king's sources of revenue from landowners, the church, and others. Following the death
of Theobald, he became Archbishop of Canterbury. In view of what was to come, there were two unfortunate circumstances surrounding this. The first is that Henry II came to rule after what became as known as The Anarchy. Without belaboring the details, suffice it to say that English governance was a (and the term is used advisedly) bloody mess from about 1138 -1153. As Gibbons pointed out repeatedly in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, heritable dynasties have one Achilles heel - there must be suitable heirs to carry one the line. When this failed because of the drowning death of the only son of Henry I, multiple throne claimants came forward and a civil war brought ruin and devastation. The Church took advantage of this and claimed numerous rights for itself. Henry II tried to reclaim of these for the crown, in particular the right to try clerics for crimes, ostensibly because the church was constrained in the punishments it could mete out, including a proscription of the death penalty. Becket objected, and was forced into exile. After a few years a compromise allowed his return, but when three other bishops crowned the heir
apparent to Henry II, Becket excommunicated them for usurping the coronation power that resided in Canterbury. Exasperated, Henry Ii made some utterance, usually quoted along the lines of "Can no one rid me of this turbulent priest?", which was taken as an order. Four knights rushed to Canterbury. Finding Becket in the cathedral, they killed him. Their expertise as swordsmen must be questioned since it took four blows to Becket's head for him to be killed, the last being delivered by a nearby cleric. One of the knights was wounded - by one of fellow assassins. About two years later Becket was made a saint, and the Canterbury Cathedral became a place of pilgrimage. This brought great fame and money. In 1538, during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, Becket suffered one more royal affront. His remains had been placed in a wooden coffin covered in gold and silver and precious jewels. Henry VIII accused him posthumously of treason, and when he failed to show up for his trial he was found guilty. His coffee was broken up and his remains scattered. The Cathedral temporarily became a "college of secular canons".
The murder of Becket became a cause célèbre, and
multiple dramatic accounts have been written, including Tennyson's Becket
and T.S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral
The St. Augustine Abbey was desolated in the destruction of abbeys throughout England and Wales by Henry VIII, following the 1534 Act of Supremacy, which made Henry the head of the church in England and thus separated England from the papacy. The monasteries were dissolved, the abbey churches damaged or abandoned, and the property sold off to go to Henry, largely to support war efforts. We were destined to see several such abbeys during our journey, but this was the first. We were somewhat surprised to see a school occupying part of the property, but it turned out to be The King's School which is the oldest public school in England, and arguably the oldest continually operating school in the world, since instruction has been carried on there in a continuous manner since 597 CE. The Abbey itself consists only of mostly low ruins, although one higher section of wall remains of the St. Peter and St. Paul Church. The foundation of that church was started in 598 CE. You can still see low foundation walls of the monastery, kitchens, and other structures,
conveniently denoted by signage.
Before leaving Canterbury we made one further stop at the third part of the Canterbury UNESCO World Heritage Site. This was St. Martin church. There is controversy about whether the church was built partly to contain an existing Roman construction, or was just constructed in the same Roman style, but it is reliably known to have been there since 580 CE, making it the oldest parish church in the English-speaking world and the oldest church building in England that is still in use as a church. It is still used for weekly services. We wandered around the churchyard. There was one fairly large tomb housing the remains of Baskervilles. There is not mention as to whether they are human or canine.
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Home and Away
Thanks for providing so much detail...
from geology to history.
Be very careful
about what you think me for :) !!!