Monday 4th September.
So, numerically speaking, we just made it. Andrew Cousins owner of Kings Coaches said he would run the holiday if Paul could get 26 bookings, he collected 27! We gathered in Fairfield Road on an incredibly hot, bright sunny morning, and were delighted to find that our driver was our old friend Marc. He seemed equally pleased to see us! Promptly at 9.15am we started what proved to be a smooth journey, broken only by a forty-five minute break in the prosaic surroundings of South Mimms Service Station. At 12:45 pm we arrived at Sir Harold Hillier Gardens for our afternoon visit, before booking into our hotel in Salisbury.
The Gardens were established by Sir Harold Hillier in 1953 and cover 180 acres of trees, shrubs and borders of mixed plants. With the summer flowering over and autumn yet to burst into its full glory there was not a lot of colour, but the trees were magnificent and majestic, many of them being the biggest, oldest or rarest of their kind.
At 4 pm we left for the hour’s journey to our hotel, where we received a warm welcome and looked forward to a restful night in preparation for tomorrow’s activities.
Tuesday 5th September
Another scorcher, as we set off at 9:15 am for the short journey into Salisbury, where Paul had planned an action-packed day for us.
The morning started with a guided tour of Arundells, the home of Sir Edward Heath, for the final twenty years of his life. The rooms are quite small so we were divided into three groups, going in at half-hour intervals. The displays in two of the rooms reflected Sir Edward’s interest in music and sailing, and the whole house contained many items which had been gifts to Sir Edward from world leaders. A unique feature of the guest bedroom is the wallpaper, with an all-over pattern of small blue and white squares, designed to ensure guests did not outstay their welcome?
Next stop was Mompesson House, about a hundred yards on from Arundell, both houses being in the Cathedral Close. No guided tour here, but a ten-minute introductory talk was given at half-hourly intervals. Originally built for an MP named Thomas Mompesson, it has been 1lived in by several different families, the most long-term resident being a lady named Barbara Townsend, who lived there from the age of three till her death at ninety-seven. She seems to have been a talented amateur artist and many of her paintings are displayed in the house, together with the works of more famous painters. The house also houses a collection of historic drinking glasses and collections of ceramics.
Then it was onto Salisbury Cathedral. What a treasure-house of artistry, old and new. From the breathtaking architecture, the magnificent stained-glass windows and the memorials to Bishops and Knights, to the modern works of art, so much to marvel at. But we had to tear ourselves away and return to our temporary home.
Wednesday 6th September
Yet another day of cloudless sky and brilliant sunshine as we set off at 9:30 am for our first visit of the day, the house and gardens of Stourhead. The most eye-catching feature is the huge lake, with its Palladian bridge at one end. There is so much else to wonder at, grand temples, sweeping lawns, noble trees. The landscape is the vision of Henry Hoare who intended to make Stourhead a living work of art. We are fortunate to be able to enjoy his vision three hundred years after he built a home for his family at Stourhead. Some of us visited the little church adjacent to the garden, St Peter’s, the parish church of Stourton. Dating from the thirteenth century it is the same age as the Cathedral, but obviously less grand, but with a lovely peaceful atmosphere.
At 1:45 pm we all set off for our afternoon visit to Wilton House. The family home of the 18th Earl of Pembroke, the inside is of unexpected grandeur, with a series of state rooms, having painted ceilings and lavishly decorated walls, rivalling those in much grander mansions. A very long and spacious cloister, added in the nineteenth century, contains an amazing collection of busts, all important works of art, though not all strikingly beautiful. The landscaped garden, with mature trees, a lake and a fountain, deserved a leisurely visit, but the heat of the day had us pleading for an earlier than scheduled return to our hotel. So Marc cranked up the air-conditioning and wafted us back to our rooms.
Thursday 7th September
On a day that threatened to be hotter than ever, we left our hotel at 9.30am for the half-hour journey to Stonehenge. The lovely hotel staff told Paul they would be making an unscheduled change of bed sheets, due to the hot, sticky conditions.
At 10 am Marc dropped us off at the Stonehenge Visitor Centre, an interesting feat of engineering, giving the illusion of an unsupported roof. Most of us opted to take the shuttle bus to a point which is still quite a long walk from the stone circles. An information board told us that there is evidence the site was of spiritual significance long before the stones were put in place. There was little evidence of spirituality, mystery or mysticism among the busy crowd of people from many nations, waving extended camera phones at each other and the stones.
Walking back to the pick-up point for the shuttle bus, I paused at a bench opposite a pasture which was being enjoyed by a very healthy-looking flock of sheep, with half grown lambs. An American lady, already sitting there, pointed out a delightful scene. A shepherd on a motor bike, with his dog on his lap, had arrived to round up some of the sheep. The dog soon had the group cut out and scuttling into the next field. You don’t see that at Hatfield Forest!
Under the terms of our itinerary our visit to the stones should have lasted until 2:30 pm but, with everyone flagging, a unanimous decision was made to leave at 1 pm. It had already been decided to cut out the proposed visit to Old Sarum. In my distant school day’s it was quoted as a prime example of a “rotten borough”, all of which lost their status in the Parliamentary reform of 1832. Until that date Old Sarum continued to return a member of Parliament, though no-one actually lived there who could vote or needed to be represented! Apparently, it had once been an important and well-populated place, but we agreed to miss hearing the story of its decline. Instead, we returned to the hotel, where some of us stayed, while Marc drove the more energetic members into Salisbury. They returned at 4pm, having enjoyed a couple of hours of retail therapy, or was it window shopping?
Friday 8th September
At last, a respite from the searing heat, with lower temperature and thin cloud cover over the pitiless sun. We left The Stones Hotel at 9:30 am for our final visit of the holiday, Mottisfont Abbey, where we would spend the morning and early afternoon before continuing our journey to Chelmsford.
This 18th century house is based on a medieval priory and retains an atmosphere of peace, calm and tranquillity. It has no association with any historical event or person, its unpretentious ground floor rooms are furnished with simplicity. The house was purchased in the 1930s by a lady named Maud Russell, who has no claim to fame. She was simply a socialite, holding home parties, like those in the fictional Downton Abbey. Her great interest was in the arts and she would invite artists to the house to relax and, hopefully, be inspired by the beautiful gardens.
The really breathtaking feature of the house is the Whistler Room, named after the artist Rex Whistler, who painted the whole room in trompe l’oeil style, which, incredibly, gives the illusion of looking at a three-dimensional view, though painted on a flat surface. Tragically, Rex Whistler was killed in the first World War.
Today the house continues to be a centre for the arts, with a permanent 20th century art collection and major art exhibitions taking place on the upper floors. The gardens are a joy, with brooks, ancient trees, rolling lawns, old-fashioned roses and colourful flowers for all seasons. The loving legacy of owners over the past three hundred years continues to inspire artists today.
We left Mottisfont at 2 pm and soon encountered the start of the worst journey of the holiday. It was 4:45 pm before we reached South Mimms Services, where we took a forty-five-minute break, before pressing on to reach Chelmsford about 7 pm. Oh well, it gave us that much longer to enjoy each other’s company!
Many thanks to Paul for all his wonderful organisation and well thought out programme - and keeping us all in order!