May 1-3, 2018 // July 2-4, 1797
After taking a coach from Whitchurch to Salisbury on the afternoon of Sunday July 2 (succumbing to the effects of a “hearty dinner of animal food” which made them too drowsy to walk, but made me feel slightly less guilty about my eating habits and method of transportation), Thelwall and Wimpory spend two full days in the vicinity of Salisbury Plain, then as now an epicentre of English heritage and tourism, though for somewhat different reasons. Unlike millions of global visitors today, Stonehenge was not Thelwall’s priority (though he comments briefly), but he covers a lot of the same ground in other respects, visiting noted landmarks such as Salisbury Cathedral, Old Sarum and Wilton House. He also visits some nearby villages (Quidhampton and Winterton Stoke), commenting as usual on housing, factories, wages, farms, and the availability of milk.
I spent as long in the area as he did, staying at inns that date back to the eighteenth-century (The King’s Head in Salisbury, the George Inn in Amesbury); but since Thelwall does not specify here, it is hard to know how closely I managed to follow in his footsteps. (I wonder whether whatever he did at his inn matched the the full-screen Liverpool-Roma UEFA semi-final that I ended up enjoying in spite of myself, trapped as I was behind a raft of fans as I ate a delicious traditional roast dinner in a packed pub, texting my soccer-fan son the play-by-play). In other ways, too, I disposed of my time somewhat differently: having never visited Stonehenge, I couldn’t help lingering there much longer than Thelwall did, but I spent no time at either Amesbury House (now a nursing home), nor Wilton House (not yet open for the season, though I returned on my way home, and will discuss it in a later entry). I did, however, make Thelwallian enquiries at Amesbury, and had my longest, most satisfying socio-economic conversations with local people, who were genuinely interested in my project, as was I in theirs.
Upon entering Salisbury, I was struck by a random but rather chilling parallel between then and now: long after leaving Salisbury, Thelwall discovered that his visit had been “the town’s talk” and he was being followed by a spy; when I arrived, the talk in Salisbury was the attempted assassination of a spy two month’s before, and my route from parking lot to hotel was blocked by security tape and a heavy police presence. It cast rather a gothic shadow over the rest of the stay.
Leaving espionage behind, first stop for both Thelwall and myself was Salisbury Cathedral, where we both were impressed by its sublime size, heightened by the “confused idea of danger” created by the spectacular spire pressing down and inexorably shifting the structure, founded on a gravel riverbed only a few feet deep, which our guides (his a book, mine a pleasant volunteer) played up: yet still it stands, accounted by some a medieval miracle. The “sombrous gloom” of stained glass added to the effect, although the Resurrection window that Thelwall comments upon (apparently by Sir Joshua Reynolds?) is nowhere to be seen, having been replaced in the 1980s by a modern one dedicated to prisoners of conscience. An apt substitution, I think, of whose subject Thelwall would no doubt approve, although judging from his comments about gaudy daubing here and elsewhere, he would probably find its postmodern style incomprehensible. During my visit I was also given the opportunity to fold an origami dove, which they were preparing to mount for a display intended to bring hope and comfort in the wake of public trauma due to the spy poisoning incident. I had no idea how beautiful they would look (until a friend posted the following on Facebook!)
In Salisbury, as in Basingstoke, Thelwall also spends considerable time looking for bookstores and enquiring into the woeful state of print culture (including newspapers), mourning that in this cathedral town “the demand is principally for novels. Politics are little read, and history still less; works of philosophy and profound inquiry scarcely at all.” I duly browsed a Waterstones near the Cathedral, and purchased a work of profound enquiry that reads like a novel: Zora Neale Hurston’s newly-published Barracoon: the Story of the Last Slave, which I like to think would have pleased Thelwall the abolitionist.
The charge of ignorance that Thelwall levels against Salisbury (implicit in the juxtaposition of bookstore and cathedral) becomes more pointed in several other sites they visit on July 3rd and 4th: the ruins of Old Sarum (the most notorious “rotten borough” in Britain); Salisbury Plain (whose pathless wastes they cross by night), a fashionable convent at Amesbury House (once the estate of the Duke of Queensborough, where the poet Gay allegedly composed the Beggar’s Opera) and finally Stonehenge (where Darwin meets Druids). Together it makes for a complex, multi-layered history and analysis of the conflict between barbarous superstition and civilized enlightenment, as manifested in social, political and religious institutions. This reaches its climax at Amesbury House, whose gothic décor and catholic rituals prompt Thelwall to a strong defense of religious tolerance, freedom of conscience and public education, in a manner that harmonizes with his earlier opposition to child labour and the suppression of women’s voices.
Far be it from me to be the advocate of intolerance. Every individual ought to be at liberty to follow, without restraint or disqualification, whatever religion or opinion he thinks fit. Nay, leave but the devotee at liberty to quit her retirement whenever her mind revolts against it, and I see no objection to the building of convents in every district. But it is not liberty, to give to any set of people the means of kidnapping the young, the simple, and inexperienced, into indissoluable bondage. It is not toleration, to suffer designing priests to enchain the consciences of their deluded votaries with oaths that prohibit the progress of inquiry, and institutions that annihilate the free agency of reason …. Let the nation awaken to a sense of duty. Let us recollect, that the children of the people are the posterity of the state; and that civilised society owes instruction, at least, to all its offspring, as a compensation for those natural rights which its necessary institutions have taken away.
For me one of the most interesting aspects of his commentary on Amesbury House was the revelation that this convent had once been a tourist attraction, though by 1797 it was losing its popularity; this is followed by a remarkably modern reflection on the effect of heritage tourism on local economies.
The principal support of the town is the curiosity of travellers; and some little time ago, when the nunnery was first established there, the number of visitors was very considerable, and Amesbury had a transient gleam of reviving prosperity. But the edge of curiosity is now worn off. The nunnery has ceased to be the rage, and the town is again declining. The neighbourhood of Stone Henge is its only prop; which, though inadequate to uphold its prosperity, is sufficient to secure it from dissolution.
From today’s perspective, when Stonehenge brings in over a million people and close to 10 million pounds a year, Thelwall’s prediction might seem wildly off base, but it is ironically true, as I learned during a long morning’s linger in Amesbury. First I stopped at a modest storefront information centre run by volunteers from the town council (taking the place of a tourist information centre that had closed due to government cuts), and then talked to volunteers at the rather inconspicuous local history centre located in the dowdy postwar hall of the parish church that had once been part of a Saxon abbey. In both I was showered with information and conversation, which told me that Amesbury doesn’t see much of the traffic that crams the A303 bypass to Stonehenge; though ideally positioned to be a service centre, they have been sidelined, not only by the bypass but by the operators of Stonehenge (combined National Trust and English Heritage) who, they told me, refuse to post in the snazzy new visitor centre any information about other local collections or attractions, even though these might complement and enhance tourists’ experience of Stonehenge. The little local history collection at Amesbury includes some spectacular archeological finds (including the “Amesbury Archer” and the ancient hot-spring of Blick Mead) that predate Stonehenge by thousands of years, and prove Amesbury to be the longest continuously occupied settlement in Europe! Perhaps a more spacious new local-history centre will make a difference (plans for which they proudly showed me, but with some skepticism, born of long experience, about when the ground might actually be broken).
In the meantime, however, Amesbury remains little different from what it was in 1797, except for new housing estates stretching eastwards, generic testament to a commuter/call-centre/retiree economy that owes much to the military that still occupies much of the Plain, and was at its peak during the First World War, to which current council members seem to look back with some of the same nostalgia that villagers showed towards the days of the Duke in Thelwall’s time. I was struck once again by parallels between ancient and modern feudalism, and the way the multinational industries that now dominate Amesbury (tourism/heritage, nursing/retirement, military and agricultural) have become increasingly consolidated and monopolized, leaving locals struggling for autonomy and agency in the face of the same monstrous market forces that Thelwall perceived in his analysis of American avidity, or his devastating comments, here in Amesbury, on the agricultural “cannibalism” that has “devoured” the population and its former prosperity.
Gothic allusions like that one also pervade the episodes that precede and follow Thelwall’s stay in Amesbury, in which he first visits Old Sarum, then crosses Salisbury Plain, and finally describes Stonehenge. But their tone is quite different. At Old Sarum, icon of government corruption (as a “rotten borough” with two members of parliament but no actual voters), it is, unsurprisingly, the politics of the gothic that he highlights, but with a tongue-in-cheek tone that recalls his radical satires on Burke’s “gothic customary”.
Of the borough itself about half a cartload of stones, in two separate heaps, where the castle once stood, and the old spreading oak under which the representatives of these stones are chosen and returned to parliament, are all that remains.
Today the overgrown historic site that Thelwall saw is considerably neater, having been excavated and interpreted thoroughly, with outlines and functions of castle rooms easy to trace, along with the original cathedral below. But in all the interpretive materials that I saw, its significance as a rotten borough is barely mentioned, and some might consider this another aspect of continuing idealization of the feudal within the British heritage industry and the tourists it serves, and the relative lack of interest in popular and radical history.
Thelwall’s slightly cheeky gothic continues in the rest of the paragraph, which “toys with the dangers” of their nighttime walk across Salisbury Plain, gently mocking the melodrama of other contemporary accounts, especially Wordsworth’s Salisbury Plain poems, to whose relentless details of lost landmarks and guideposts he alludes.
We had heard dismal tales of people being lost and famished on Salisbury plain; the moon promised us but little light; and we had not proceeded above a mile before the road appeared to be lost in inextricable labyrinths. The directing-posts were broken off or defaced; and if we deviated from the track, house or human being to set us right was no where to be expected: yet our animal spirits were uncommonly high; and the merriest part of our journey was certainly the walk from Old Sarum to Amesbury. In the language of superstition, the omen was fair; and the event was equally propitious.
Thelwall goes out of his way to explode all superstition at Stonehenge as well, where he maintains an air of rational skepticism, waxing analytical about public curiosity rather than indulging his own as he introduces the latest theories as to its origins from Darwin.
On the date and materials of this gigantic and venerable ruin, I am not antiquary enough to enter into any dispute … Perhaps, however, it may be worth observing, that, while I was in Derby, I understood, from Dr. Darwin, that we are about to be favoured with another hypothesis upon the subject … A young man devoted to the study of natural philosophy … thinks he can demonstrate Stone-Henge to have been a sort of astronomical temple, or architectural orrery; designating the position and revolutions of the planets, and connected with some system of religion, which must, of course, have prevailed in this country at the time when it was founded … at least, as far back as the time of Druidical superstition;–if not to a date even more remote than the earliest of our authentic records. But perhaps I injure an ingenious discovery by inaccurate representation; and on a subject so curious, I would sharpen, not blunt, the edge of public curiosity.
Of course with the latest carbon dating and other scientific tools, we like to think of our records as more advanced and accurate. But theories still proliferate, and Stonehenge still mystifies. Then as now it stands on, and is one of the world’s great monuments to, the uneasy border between history, science and mythology. The increasingly scrupulous, methodical management and study of the site, its results on display in an excellent visitor centre, is still challenged, not only by new discoveries (like those at Amesbury), but by increasingly active, assertive and varied cultures of alternate knowledge and belief, whose proponents cluster around the monument in their minivans, their costumes and banners, demanding public access, promoting new-age ideologies, or simply waiting for the druidical second-coming. I suppose I should have entered into conversation with these colourful folks, but I was too busy enjoying the breezy sunshine at the time, walking barefoot in the lovely turf to and from the monument, glad that the parking lot is now two miles away, and wishing that the perpetual traffic jam on the nearby A303 might magically be obliviated (as a new highway tunnel soon may do, though I gather those plans too are being protested by a curious alliance of “druids, archeologists and conservation experts”). Even if/when this happens, one way or another, for me the crowds will always obstruct the sense of wonder that I seek. Nevertheless Stonehenge still has the capacity to take us out of ourselves and marvel at our insignificance, which will always be a good thing.
And ultimately I think it was for Thelwall too. For all his apparent disdain of superstition and inexorable rationalism, he shows signs of a susceptibility to romance on Salisbury Plain, at least judging by his comments on a painting of St. Theresa he saw at Amesbury House, which is “in a considerable degree allegorical” and “very interesting, even to such heretical feelings as hours.” He pays particular attention to symbols of metamorphosis , and this opens into a lengthy digression on portraiture and sublimity with references to the enchantments and necromancers in Spenser’s Faerie Queene, which remind us that Thelwall’s own “ethical romance” The Rock of Modrec, published only five years before the “Pedestrian Excursion,” was full of magical transformations and gruesome violence as any gothic fiction.
I shall have more to say about portraiture, physiognomy, history and landscape interpretation in a later entry. This one is long enough. Next time, as we forge off the beaten track on rural routes from Wylye to Fonthill, Tisbury, East and West Knoyle, and Mere, I will gather some thoughts on mapping and methods of transportation.