I go, by way of Dorchester, to Oxford, where a girl once found refuge from a princely lover – I see the plum-blossom at Evesham, visit Worcester, and travel down the Wye Valley – I meet the Romans again at Bath, and find the memory of a cultured monk.
There is a song which April sings. Then it is that there comes the hungry call of the wanderlust to stir the blood and call men to cast off the shackles of the everyday and adventure out into a new-born world. There are visions which leave the mind restless and disturbed: a long road, white with dust, curving across the moors to the open sea, dipping beneath the shade of the sycramore trees, past the grey stones of the farmhouses fringed by hedgerows bright with flowers, the lush, green meadow and the rich, brown earth. There will be the scent of the new-turned sod in the nostril, the call of the mating of the birds in the ear, and, for the eye, the far horizon, with never a man to break the view. Pheasant, curlew and partridge nesting, sound of the plough and song of the lark, crunch of boots and the grey dust rising, and a world astir with the song of birth. Away, away. . .
Perhaps you have never heard the song of the spring nor known the aching of the wander-thirst. But to me it has come every year for so long as I can remember, in March or April, when the sunshine warms the young and tender leaves. And at night there will be moonlight, silvering the ceiling through the uncurtained window, tugging at your heart, troubling you with fantasies, leaving you restless, ill-at-ease.
From up here, says the moon, I can see green fields and valleys, mountains and high-roads and slow-moving rivers, lonely ships becalmed upon a corrugated sea, magic glades in whispering forests and pale roads winding through eternal hills. All these you are missing in your cramped and noisy cities where the hub-bub and dirt must blind and maim the rich, primeval senses. Come away. . . .
I know not where the white raod runs, nor what the blue hills are,
But a man may have the sun for friend, and for his guide a star;
And there`s no end to voyaging when once the voice is heard,
For the rivers call, and the raod calls, and oh! The call of a bird.
and it was Spring when I flung a few necessities into a haversack and set out to explore the old Saxon kingdom of Wessex, travelling across the pleasant midland ranges of the Chilterns, the Cotswolds, and the fern-clad hill of Malvern.
There were ghosts which beckoned to me then – a monk who sang upon a village bridge, a maid who fled a princely lover, a bishop who charmed away snakes from his cathedral, a herdsman who met the Blessed Virgin in a wood. “There is a song of England. . . .” Out of the bygone centuries its earliest melody comes back: Saxon music conjured forth by a people whose lives were mystic poetry.
A van brought me from Maidenhead to Henley, and here a lorry took me into Dorchester, past a beech wood laid with a vast carpet of bluebells, as though a still lake lay under smoke-blue mist. There were lambs in the fields, and as we rose into the Chiltern pasturelands a lark soared up and up, its song growing fainter in an immensity of cloudless sky.
The main street of Dorchester ambles aimlessly between low-roofed shops and huddled cottages behind which stands the great twelfth-century church. Once there was a Roman temple here, and not long ago men found beneath a roman pavement the scorched remnants of bones and wheat, sacrifices offered long ago to old, dead gods, and they dug up, too, ancient weapons, shields and swords, recalling the victory of Cerdic and the conquests of the Saxon Cuffa who won this district from the Britons. Cuffa`s younger brother, Ceawlin, vanquished the Britons at the Battle of Deorham in 577 and isolated them in Cornwall and South Wales, but the saxon invasion was brought to a halt when, seven years later, they defeated him in a second encounter.
In the year 634, when Cuffa`s grandson, Cynegils, ruled in Wessex, and Oswald was battling for the mastery of Northumbria, a Teuton came from Lombardy, a little, dark-skinned, stocky man named Birinus, who had been consecrated bishop at Milan, and at his own suggestion, but with the blessing of the pope, sailed westwards to find a people who had never heard of Christ. He landed on the south coast and came by way of Silchester to Churn Knob above the Thames, where Cynegils had his palace. Here he succeeded in converting the king and his son and fellow-ruler, Cwichelm, and evidently the new Faith gained the approval of the witan, for many people were baptized with their monarch in the wooden church which Birinus erected at Dorchester. Cwichelm, who died shortly after his Baptism, had been the unwitting cause of the conversion of Northumbria, for it was he who sent the thegn Eumer to make the murderous attack upon King Edwin which resulted in the conference at Godmanham.
Meantime, Oswald, fresh from his northern victory, travelled to Wessex to ask the hand of Cyncgil`s daughter and arrived just in time to stand godfather to the king. He may have come, too, as overlord of Wessex to confirm the election of Birinus. Generally, the kingdoms of England were divided by their allegiance to two major sovereigns who ruled one north and one south of the Humber, but Oswald seems to have exercised authority over the whole country.
It has been said that our present king can trace his descent from Cynegils, and that the anthem which greeted the coronation of Edward VII, `Be strong and play the man`, was heard thirteen centuries before by Oswald on the eve of Heavenfield when he received a vision of Columba.
But Cynegils` son ans successor, Cenwalch, was not converted with his father, and only, years later, when Penda chased him from his throne in vengeance for his having dared to divorce his wife, who was Penda`s daughter, did he accept the Faith. He fled to East Anglia, where King Sigebert, himself converted by the joint efforts of Oswy and Chad, had elected the Burgundian Felix; later he was restored to his throne. It was Cenwalch who founded the see of Winchester to accommodate Bishop Wini because Agilbert, who followed Birinus at Dorchester irritated him by his inability to speak the native tongue. Agilbert, very angry at the insult, went to Northumbria, where incidentally, he ordained Wilfred before he travelled to the continent to become Bishop of Paris, lter assisting at the Northumbrian`s consecration to the episcopate. Then, Cenwalch grew tired of Wini, too, and deposed him in favour of Algilbert`s nephew, and Wini disgraced his name and office by purchasing the see of London from King Wulfhere.
In Saxon days it was almost invariably the king who claimed the authority to elect the bishops, except when, by royal permission, the power was delegated to the pope. Thus, it was Oswy who appointed Cedd and Diuma to work in Mercia and later recalled Cedd and sent him to Essex. The diocese was co-extensive with the kingdom, an arrangement which Theodore in his planning of new bishoprics was careful not to upset, and the prelate was in practice a royal chaplain. Moreover, the missionary work, of which the Saxon Church may rightly be proud, was as often initiated by kings as by the clergy.
Cenwalch was succeeded by Cadwalla, the ravager of Sussex and friend of Wilfred, and after him came the Christian Ine rebuilt the monastery of Glastonbury at great cost and introduced laws which recognized the rights of sanctuary attached to certain religious houses, enforced the Baptism of all infants before they reached the age of one month and forbade Sunday employment.
One morning, after a night of feasting and entertainment, Ine`s queen put a sow in her husband`s bed and spread the floor of his hall with dung. “For that,” she said, “is the end of all worldly glory.” Ine was so impressed that he abdicated his throne and took the tonsure.
His sister founded a nunnery at Wimborne, where the prioress was so unpopular on account of her stern discipline that after her death the girl-novices were discovered dancing on her grave.
Deusdedit, the first Saxon archbishop and predecessor of Theodore, was a man of Wessex and may have owed his conversion to Birinus, although it remains in doubt whether he was ever actually acknowledged as primate or exercised Episcopal authority outside his own diocese of Kent. Birinus died in 649; he was buried at Dorchester and later translated to Winchester. His icture is, unfortunately, a vague one, for history recalls little of his life. Bede says that on his way to England he left a consecrated Host on the continent and, discovering his loss when out at sea, walked back acroos the waves to retrieve it. It was he who charmed away snakes from his cathedral, and you will never find any at Dorchester. For the rest, he must remain a shadowy figure, his memory hallowed in that of his royal convert and preserved by the great church at Dorchester which rises upon the site of his more humble building.
In the remains of the Norman stained glass windows which you will see there, Birinus is depicted wearing a pall. He is among the twelve Saxon bishops who fill the north transept window of St. Paul`s and both Cynegils and Cenwalch are among the Saxon kings in the south transept window.
In the thirteenth century Dorchester reclaimed the body of its founder, but there are no traces of his shrine today; it was probably destroyed by Cromwell when he robbed the church in 1539. Only the fragments of glass and the old inscriptions on the bells recall the saint who came to Wessex to be its first apostle. “Protege, Birine, quos convoco tu sine fine,” says the bells, and in reply the mighty tenor sings.
Within the sound of this great bell
Nor snake nor adder e`er shall dwell.
That is an improvement, at any rate, upon the doggerel which defaces one of the bells of Bath Abbey:
All you of Bathe who heare me sound
Thank Lady Hopton`s hundred pounds.
In the afternoon a sixty-foot/21.6 aircraft-carrier tok me to Oxford, where the tall grey tower of Magdalen stands sentry over the ancient city. Here, in the eighth century, came Frideswide, a girl nurtured by Christian parents, whose father had built a little church in Oxford in memory of his wife. Frideswide desired earnestly to take the vail of a nun, but there was a noble prince who loved her and pursued her, as King Egfrid once pursued his queen. The girl, terrified lest she should be forced into marriage, fled into the woods and even slept in a pig-sty to avoid his discovery. But when the prince reached Oxford he was struck blind, and only regained his sight when he went away, content to surrender her to her vocation.
Frideswide died at Oxford in 700 and years later Cardinal Wolsey converted her monastery into Christchurch College. But no king ever dared to sleep in the city, for fear of the wrath with which her spirit would greet him recalling the memory of her princely and persistent lover. I was told that at least until Victorian times no king had defied the legend; (King Charles I? Oxford was his headquarters for when he opened up the English Civil War, did he sleep in Oxford?). I do not know if later monarchs have proved less sperstitious.
In the Lady Chapel of Oxford Cathedral, which was once the priory of St. Fridswide`s nunnery, the thirteenth-century shrine of the saint has been reconstructed from fragments which have been recovered, for it was shattered by godless hands at the Reformation and the bones of the saint mixed with those of an unveiled nun. Beyond the sculptured watching-chamber, at the east end, are three Saxon arches which have been formed a portion of the church which Didan, her father, built im memory of her mother.
A gentleman took me in his car through Woodstock and across the calm beauty of the Cotswold Hills to Evesham, and the hedges were young and gay against the creaminess of local stone. Past Morton-on-the-Marsh, famous for wonderful pork pies, we rose steeply up Fish Hill to Broadway, with its wide, pleasant street and charm of timbered houses. On the other side of Evesham the road descended again to Alcester and Birmingham, and there was a great, frozen sea of cream-white-plum blossom, as though a foaming wave had been arrested in the act of crashing on the hillside.
There was once a bishop came to Alcester, Egwin of Worcester, who found the people of Wessex given to idolatry and heathenism, and who was so stern and outspoken in his rebukes that he earned the displeasure of the king. At Alcester the smiths who worked there organized a demonstration against him and crashed their hammers on their anvils, drowning his words whenever he attempted to speak.
At Evesham he found the ruins of an old British church, and his swineherd, wandering in the woods, beheld a vision of three maidens of surpassing beauty, one of whom told him that she was Mary, the Blessed Virgin, and that she desired Egwin to build a monastery in that place. The swineherd, whose revelation Egwin eagerly obeyed, was named Eoves, and from him was derived the name of the monastery around which grew the present town, Eovesham.
At last the king, unable to bear the harshness of his preaching, deprived Egwin of his bishopric, and the bishop occupied his exile by making a pilgrimage to Rome. As a penance for his sins he locked around his waist a heavy belt of iron, flinging the key into the Avon, but on his arrival at Rome the key was found in the stomach of a fish which had been caught there. The pope demanded that Egwin should be reinstated, and returing to Worcester, he remained there until his death in 717.
Latterly, to the monks of Evesham was given the charge of the monastery of Crwoland, near Peterborough. Crowland was famous originally as the abode of a solitary named Guthlac, a young man of royal Mercian blod who, having spent his youth as a wild and bloodthirsty warrior against the Welsh, at the age of twenty-four entered the monastery of Repton. Here he learned of the Egytian solitaries, and desiring to imitate them, moved to a lonely, bramble-covered island amid the marshes of the Fens.
He was subjected to bitter persecutions, being thrown sometimes into the water, sometimes into thorns, attacks for which he blamed the demons; but, as on one occasion he confesses that he heard the demons conversing in Welsh, it is more probable that they were due to his old enemies. Like other solitaries, he was tormented by visions and hallucinations, and he was not long permitted to retain his solitude. His frame spread, and others came to dwell in cells around him. At last he formed them into a community, received priest`s orders that he might minister to them, and later, after his death in 714 at the age of forty-two, the king of Mercia raised the first abbey, a stone building founded upon wooden piles.
Queer little legends which survive attest his popularity as a local saint: how his companion-monk was tempted to cut his throat when shaving him and was prevented by Guthlac`s gift of thought-reading which warned him of his danger; on another occasion he accused some monks who were visiting him of having hidden food and ale, intending to supplement the meagre diet which they expected him to provide. When he lay dying the Abbess of Repton sent him two gifts – a leaden coffin and a winding-sheet! Not every invalid would have welcomed such a present.
Beyond Evesham my road took me through Pershore, where, long ago, King Oswald built a monastery for men.
At Worcester I shared my luncheon table with an elderly lady. She was dressed neatly in black, the high collar of her frock clutching her throat as though in a vain effort to hide her Adam`s apple which kept popping into view as she drank her soup. She regardec me through her pince-nez undecidely, then thinking that I was, perhaps, safe enough to converse with, she said, “You`re on holiday?”
I explained the purpose of my tour.
“Now, that`s really most interesting,” she said. “I do hope you`ll have some pleasant things to say about our cathedral, because we`re so proud of it and most fortunate in our Dean.”
I told her that really Worcester, like Hereford Cathedral and Bath Abbey, lay outside the period of my studies abd beonged rightly to a later volume.
“But you must see the cathedral, just the same, and the Commandery where poor king Charles hid when Cromwell defeated him. Oh, and the grave of King John is there – in the cathedral, of course. They say that he was buried in the garments of a monk to deceive St. Peter at the gates of Heaven. I`m afraid he was not a good man. Where are you going to after Worcester?”
“Malvern and Hereford.”
“You must remember, when you get on the Malvern Hills – you wil go on the hills, of course? – well, then, you must look back and you will see our cathedral – a very lovely view.”
I promised to remember. And afterwards, when I wandered round the cathedral. I thought that I had seen no other of which it would be easier to say “pleasant things”. It had been beautifully restored and furnished with many altars of dignified English style, hung with a tasteful simplicity of colours. Here was a House of Prayer, not just a choice relic of antiquity, and somehow it seemed joyfully in keeping with the English Prayer-Book, devoid of that fussiness that unattractive ornateness, which were some of the bad things of which the Reformation relieved us.
The first church was built in 680 by Boisel, a monk of Whitby, and Egwin was the third bishop. Three leaves of an eighth-century copy of the Gospels are among its treasures. The present building is chiefly Early English, and there is an exquisite chantry chapel which Henry VIII erected to the memory of his eldest son, Prince Arthur. The whole majestic grandeur of the nave, choir and sanctuary may be seen in one breath-taking sweep from the west end, shapely arches rising towards the peaked vaulting of the roof, pillar upon pillar, as though one looke down a long avenue of wondrous trees to the delicate pointed lights of the eastern window, the slender cross above the reredos poised gracefully against them.
But if you would have the finest view of the cathedral you must go out of Worcester and look back across the Severn where the east end comes gently towards the quietly flowing waters and the tower, four-pinnacled, rises high above surrounding trees, proclaiming the proud destiny of man`s creation.
When, some hours later, I walked out of Malvern and took the wooded road, edged by gorse-covered moor and hillside, which emerges beyond the house of Jenny Lind at the British Camp, I forgot to look back, but I do not think I would have been able to see Worcester from here. Where the road topped the hill and dropped again towards Ledbury there was a hen-pheasant caught between wire netting and the hedge, its breast bare and bleeding where it had beaten itself in panic-stricken efforts to free, and an Air-raid Warden, speaking very broken English, helped me to release it.
I found Ledbury sleeping in the sun, its old, half-timbered buildings seeming to yawn a lazy welcome, and in the evening a young man drove me onto Hereford.
Hereford Cathedral has the attractiveness of asturdy little boy – a Norman boy, standing a trifle defiantly upon a wide, geen lawn. When you come upon it suddenly at the bottom of the street which leads out of the town you feel as though it has been purposely hiding from you, mischieviously, and the warm red of its stone glows happily above the coolness of the grass.
A lady drove me two miles/3.2km along the road towards Abergavenny, and for a long time I sat on a pile of stones on the grass verge, waiting for a hitch which never came. Rain began to fall very gently, and as the day cooled into evening long shadows crept amongst the trees clustering the wayside and the songs of birds died, one by one; then an owl hooted and was still. Night fell, soft as gossamer, before I crossed the border into Wales, and it was late when I took the steep, silent road which climbs into the Black Mountains. But at Crickhowell I found the best and most comfortable Youth Hostel it has been my good fortune to experience.
Next morning an American soldier took me back to Abergavenny in a jeep, and from there a gentleman who had been spending a holiday fishing on the Wye, drove me to Monmouth where a massive Norman arch straddles the street beside the river. He told me that once, when he had spent a day fishing in Cumberland and was returning empty-handed, the farmer through whose land the river flowed, offered to provide him with a dozen trout. He sent his son some yards/metres upstream, armed with a bag of lime which the boy sprinkled in the water; the farmer than waded towards him thrashing about him with a stick, and the fish, unable to pass the belt of contaminated water, leapt upwards to be captured in a landing-net by the boy. “Of course,” said my companion, “it was an outrage, but very effective.”
Outside Monmouth an army lorry driven by two negroes stopped for me.
“Where d`you wanna go?” asked one, flashing two rows of brilliant teeth.
“Chepstow,” I said.
“Step right up behin`, bruvver,” he said, “an` you`ll sure reach Chepstow in no time at all.”
We tore down the Wye Valley at seventy miles an hour, the hills patched brilliantly with cherry blossom, but the river was disappointingly sluggish, its water dull brown and muddy. Nennius records that in the ninth century there was a marvel to be seen beside the Wye – an ash-tree bearing apples. Perhaps the inhabitants had knowledge of grafting which Columba had introduced to the Highlands two centuries before.
Tintern, a proud, grey ruin, hugging the river bank, flashed past us. In 610, long before the building of the abbey, a Welsh king named Tendric retired to live here in solitary contemplation of the mystery of God, but when King Ceolwulf of Wessex attacked the British, Tendric emerged to lead his countrymen to victory against the Saxon.
And so I came to Chepstow, with its impressive castle ruins. I called at a shop in the High Street to buy postcards, and when I asked the old lady who served me, “Are there any old churches in Chepstow?” she mistook my meaning and replied, “No, I`m sorry; they`ve all been sold.”
I spent an eternity of two hours waiting in a biting wind for the ferry to Aust. The Severn was no longer gay and sparkling, as when it leaves Plinlimmon, nor clear and cool, as when it flows past Worcester; here its waters were sand-coloured, thick as dirty treacle.
It was to Aust that Augustine is said to have come to meet the bishops and abbots of the British Church, and the name is supposedly derived from the Latin Trajectus Augusti which means `The Ford of Augustine`. Somewhere I had read there is an oak-tree at Aust called St. Augustine`s Oak beneath which the conference took place, but though I asked at the only shop which the little village boasts and afterwards at a house – recommended by the shop-keeper because the lady there was “a regular one for the Church” – I could not trace it. Indeed, I doubted if they had ever heard of St. Augustine. Anyway, it is probable that the meeting was not held at Aust at all, but at Cricklade on the Roman road.
Augustine demanded that the British Church should adopt the Roman date of Easter, baptize with a three-fold immersion instead of their customary single diing, change their Celtic tonsure for the Roman one, and acknowledge the primacy of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The British clergy were indignant, despite the fact that Augustine healed a blind boy to impress upon them for rightness of his claims.
A second conference was held, and the British were advised by a hermit only to give way to Augustine if he rose when they approached him, for such a gesture would prove him a humble and godly man. But Augustine remained seated, and the conference ended in hostility. An Irishman commented sarcastically at the time, “Rome is wrong, Jerusalem is wrong, Antioch is wrong, the whole world is wrong; only the Scots and Britons know what is right.”
But the Irish Church did not accept the Roman date of Easter till long afterwards, the Saxon Church not until 663, the Welsh Church not until the eighth century, and the Cornish only in the tenth century.
There can be little doubt that Augustine lost his opportunity by a too overbearing manner and proud demeanour. After all, he represented the Church of a cruel people who had conquered the Britons within living memory and driven them into Wales, and his own mission was by no means yet secure.
I slept that night in Bath. Bath is among the most fascinating of England`s cities, and from earliest times has been famous for its springs. Legend says that the springs became warm when David blessed them, and Nennius wrote in the ninth century, “The third marvel is not hot pool. . . which is surrounded by a wall made of brick and stone, and onto it people go on every occasion to bathe.”
But the waters are older than David or Nennius, and beneath the level of the present city you may see the great bath restored to the appearance it possessed in Roman days, though now it is open to the sky, surrounded by a roofed colonnade of slender pillars, surmounted by stone figures, with shallow steps leading down to the green, steaming water; and a few yards/metres away are the ancient hypocausts of the dry steam-chambers where the Roman citizen of lead from the Mendip mines, and these are still intact today.
You will only need a touch of imagination to see the citizens of Roman Bath, clad in their togas and sandals, parading the walks beside the waters, exchanging gossip or clinching a business deal.
But, apparently, it was not pleasant to live in close vicinity to such places, for Mr. Weigall quotes a complaint made by Seneca, the philosopher who was a contemporary of St. Paul.
`I live near a bath: Sounds are heard on all sides. Just imagine for yourself every conceivable kind of noise which can offend the ear. The men of more sturdy build go through their exercises, and sway their handshaevy with weighted lead; I hear their groans when they strain themselves; or the whistling of laboured breath when they breathe out after having held in. If one is rather lazy and merely has himself rubbed with unguents, I hear the blows of the hands slapping his shoulders, the sound varying as the massagists strikes with flat or hollow palm. If a ball-player begins to play and to count his throws it`s all up for the time being; or there is one in the bath who loves to hear the sound of his own voice. The hair-plucker from time to time raises his shrill voice in order to attract attention, and is only still himself when he is forcing cries of pain from someone else.`
The Romans built a temple at Bath to the goddess Minerva, but long before they arrived in Britain the natives had dedicated the spring of a water nymph named Sul. In the seventh century the Saxons built a Christian nunnery here.
Out of Chippenham the road runs cosily between tall trees and lush, green meadows to the old town of Malmesbury, and across the little bridge which spans the sluggish stream where stubby willows bow, there is the gaunt and unprepossessing wall of a cloth factory. When Henry came to spoil the abbey a wealthy textile merchant purchased it from him for fifteen hundred pounds, used the monastic building for a warehouse and presented the nave of the church to the townspeople.
Up the steep High Street there is a sudden view of the abbey beyond a fifteenth-century market cross. The church, restored and used for worship, is flanked at either end by ruined walls, once part of the greay abbey, their unglazed windows gaping blankly against the sky, sorrowing the desecration of ungodly hands. The porch is decorated with angels crudely carved by Saxon craftsmen, but the massive door is beautifully designed. The Benedictines built a monastery here, and the building which is preserved belongs to the twelfth century.
In Saxon times this was a marshy and largely uncultivated district, and after the Battle of Deorham it remained in British hands, so that when the Saxons came they found here a Christian community. East of the town the Roman roads from Silchester and Cirencester met and continued south to Bath, and it is on this road, at Cricklade, where Saxon and British territory joined, that Augustine most probably held his conference with the British bishops. At Down Ampney nearby there is an `Oak Farm` which may owe its name to that abortive gathering.
In 637 there came to Malmesbury from Ireland a monk named Mailduf who established a school and built atimber church north of the present abbey. Before he was driven out of the district by jealous neighbours he taught there a youth named Aldhelm who was a relative of Ine, King of Wessex. Some say that the name Malmesbury is derivedfrom Mailduf, others from his famous pupil, Mo-Aldhelm`s-borough. In Ireland the prefix Mo- is often added to a name as a term of affection and means `My`.
Aldhelm was born in 639 of pagan parents. Perhaps he owed his conversion to Birinus, who was working in Wessex while Aldhelm was a little boy, or to his master. Maildulf. When the school was closed he travelled to Canterbury where he came under the unfluence of Hadrian, who had lately accompanied Archbishop Theodore to Kent, and who also had a school. In 672 Aldhelm returned to Malmesbury as ateacher, three years later being made abbot of the monastery, and in 705 he was consecrated Bishop of Sherborne.
At both places he built churches unsurpassed at that time for beauty of craftsmanship, and when the Normans arried and destroyed so ruthlessly the buildings and religious crosses of the Saxons, both of Aldhelm`s churches were spared. After his burial at Malmesbury in 709 the Danes robbed his shrine, but the thief was struck blind, and thereafter they were careful to avoid the place.
The Christians of his day shocked him by the formality of their religion, and when he found that they hurried away immediately after Communion, not waiting for the sermon, he took to singing their favourite folk-songs on the bridge below the village and so attracted a congregation to receive his teaching.
Once, when visiting Rome, he flung his chasuble over his head, but the officer who should have stood behind him to receive it, had moved away and it hung miraculously suspended on a sunbeam. During his visit a woman bearing a nine-day-old child accused the pope of being its father; Aldhelm blessed the baby, and it denied the charge out of its own mouth. And when he returned to England he is said to have brought with him an altar top of solid marble, tied to a camel and weighing a ton. The unfortunate camel must have found the crossing of the Alps a trifle arduous!
He was the author of a number of works and letters, writing to King Geraint of Cornwall in a vian attempt to persuade his people to keep Easter on the Roman date, and denouncing the worldliness of nunneries whose inmates wore violet underwear, scarlet tunics and shoes, sliken hoods, and veils tied with ribbons which hung to the ground, while they curled their hair and cut their red-painted nails to sharp points. He also produced a work in praise of virginity which echoes the unbalanced opinion of his times, disparaging marriage as an inferior state; and he protested against the CeItic custom of electing an abbot by blood-kinship, rather than on account of personal holiness.
He lived in an age when Saxon are and culture flourished throughout the country; when exquisite crosses, like those of Bewcastle and Ruthwell, were freshly carved when the verses of Columba, Patrick and Caedmon were still young; when men worked skilfully in metal, as witness the silver altar and gold pectoral cross of Cuthbert, both preserved at Durham; and illuminated such manuscripts as the Lindisfarne gospels and the Book of Kells with an artistry which has rarely been surpassed. Wilfred was building Ripon and Hexham and furnishing them with treasures fro the continent, and Biscop was collecting books and paintings for the new-built monasteries of Monkwearmouth and Jarrow. Both of these men would be known to Aldhelm. Wilfred he befriended during his Wessex exile, exhorting the monks of Ripon to remain loyal to their abbot, and when Biscop first brought manuscripts from Rome it was for a library at Malmesbury that he intended them, but finding that King Cenwalch, his friend, had died during his absence in Italy he went north to Monkwearmouth and settled there instead.
This was the age, too, which saw the dawning of missionary effort. In 590 Columban the Irishman had gone to Gaul; in 734 Boniface of Exeter was to go to Germany and amid its trackless forests which hid the blood-stained altars of heathenism, die a martyr`s death for Christ; and Wilibrod, who, as a boy, had been taught at Wilfred` school at Ripon, was to carry the Faith to Denmark and be consecrated at Rome Bishop of Frisia.
The day of Aldhelm marks the height and full-blossomed beauty of the Saxon Church, rich in achievement and resplendent with selfless courage, decking the English kingdoms with the colourful glory of a Christian culture
Aldhelm died at the age of seventy at Doulting in Somerset; they buried him at Malmesbury, bearing his body therei n seven stages and marking each resting-place with a stone cross. Near Swanage, in Dorset, there was a church dedicated to his memory which, although roofless, was said by local shepherds to give shelter from the rain. The headland nearby, which is called St. Albans on the modern map, originally bore St. Aldhelm`s name.
A friendly postman took me in his red van back to Chippenham, and from there a lorry carried me home along the Great West Road to London.