By Michael McCarthy
“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” goes the old saying. Hearing it and witnessing it up close and personal are two different things, as I found during a tour of Salisbury Cathedral. As rock stars and we world class travel writers (cough cough) will all tell you, being followed by a group of admirers is a pain in the butt. Just buy our records and books, folks, and move on. Upon reflection, though, there’s more to the Salisbury story than that.
Salisbury Cathedral is conveniently located in the town of Salisbury, England, which is conveniently served by Britrail, where you are not allowed to store your luggage in a locker because for some reason there are people who may want to blow up the station for reasons that have not yet been listed. If you ask nicely, the BritRail staff will tell you about a decrepit pub not far from the station where you can store your bags for a few quid for a few hours because for some reason nobody wants to blow up decrepit pubs. From there it’s a short walk through the town, festooned with all the usual malarkey of a tourist town because the cathedral is indeed a huge tourist attraction.
How huge? Well, the cathedral has the tallest church spire in the United Kingdom at 404 feet (123 m), and the largest size in Britain at 80 acres. Although the spire is the cathedral’s most impressive feature, it has proved to be “a bit of a bother,” as the Brits would say. It added 6,397 tons to the weight of the original building. Without the subsequent addition of buttresses, bracing arches and anchor irons over the succeeding centuries, it would have fallen down. The addition of reinforcing tie-beams by Christopher Wren in 1668 halted its collapse. In total, 70,000 tons of stone, 3,000 tons of timber and 450 tons of lead were used in the construction. It’s huge.
If you look in the Guinness Book of Records, aside from “tallest churches” you will find my name listed as the “man who has visited more museums and churches than any travel writer in history.” Every press trip to which I have ever been seduced has featured a museum visit of some kind and churches are not far behind. I have visited the Gold Church in Quito, the interior of which is entirely covered in gold leaf. I have been to Hindu temples, Buddhist gompas, Catholic holy places, wats, pagodas, sanctified spots and spiritual destinations, not all of them by choice. But I have to admit that Salisbury Cathedral captured my attention, not because of any spiritual reason, but because of its interior architecture. It’s a stunner.
Sad to say, over the years I have developed a bad habit of shooting photos in strange ways that happen to capture my eye and are appropriate to the location. Inside the cathedral, I was immediately arrested. Not by the authorities but by the images, the stained glass windows, the ceiling and the light. Virtually everyone was taking a photo but they lacked the magic eye. First off, I noticed a pool in the middle of the nave (I think it was the nave) into which water was flowing out in a slow drip to another receptacle below, with one side of a stained glass window appearing to droop over the edge. Magical. Crouching at an angle I was able to shoot a reflection of the stained glass windows reflecting off the water, shimmering upside down. Very spooky, but in several ways the atmosphere in the cathedral was very gothic, so the photo worked. I took a few shots and was quite surprised to find several people standing behind me, watching carefully.
“Wow, that’s clever,” cried one beefy Brit behind me, looking at the LCD screen on my camera. “It’s all backwards, like.” He pulled out a camera that looked like he had found it in the bottom of a box of Crackerjacks as a prize. “I’m going to shoot that.”
In a minute a line formed behind us, tourists lining up to shoot the same shot. I felt like I had invented something, although lots of photographers have been shooting reverses into mirrors, windows and puddles for years. I wandered around looking for more interesting images. With some dismay I noticed several admirers following me, cameras in hand, so I stopped. “You see that clock?” I asked, pointing
“No,” said one. “What clock?”
I admit it did not look like a clock. The metal mechanism looked more like a medieval torture device into which authorities inserted various body parts of the named offender to catch his attention. There was a plaque on the wall, if you knew how to read English. It said the Salisbury cathedral clock dating from about AD 1386 is supposedly the oldest working clock in the world. It went dormant in 1884 but was brought back to life in 1954, perhaps because somebody remembered to grease it. It has “ticked” approximately 4 billion, 400 million clicks, over time, which is a lot of clicks.
“You see this watch?” I said, holding it up in front of my face, taking a photo of the watch with the clock ticking behind it. “That is the oldest clock in the world and this is the cheapest watch ever made. I bought it at WalMart for $14.95. They make a good match for a photo, I think.”
“Brilliant,” he said, as Brits are wont to do. “Martha, come take a picture of my watch.”
We stopped in at Carwardine’s Café on the way back to the train for a spot of traditional cream tea, splitting a large home-made scone, with a pot of Rodda’s Cornish clotted cream to accentuate the process of arteriosclerosis, all for just under five British pounds plus tip. We couldn’t linger, though, otherwise we would miss the train. My, how time flies when you are having fun.
Michael McCarthy’s travel stories can be found in many Canadian newspapers, or on his website www.transformative-travel.ca