Saturday, 10 November 2012

In the footsteps of Harry Potter at Gloucester

'Doctor Foster went to Gloucester' goes the nursery rhyme: he got wet in a puddle, and never went there again. It seems to be a place that people can have unfortunate experiences in.

When Gloucester had two main-line railway stations, Central and Eastgate, with no obvious pedestrian route between them, travellers who tried to get from one to the other often found themselves wandering around the city centre to no avail. 'Lost in Gloucester' was a well-known phrase.

I myself recall trying to drive through Gloucester in 2006 with the caravan in tow. I missed a vital turning, got thoroughly lost, and ended up in a dead-end road by the parish church in Quedgeley, a southern suburb. A dire situation, because I was then much less skilled in reversing with a caravan hitched up behind! I managed to extricate myself, but it was a poor and nerve-fraying start to a journey home.

I did not return to Gloucester till last month, when I could do it in super-serene Fiona, with electronic mapping at my disposal, and no caravan to worry about if I ended up in a cul-de-sac.

I have to say, Gloucester city centre did not impress. I'd been to Oxford only the day before, and there was no comparison between the two cities. Oxford had exuded history and architectural integrity. It was buzzing with tourists and shoppers and students, and above all had a well-off air. Gloucester seemed a bit down-at-heel, neglected, ordinary, unimaginatively rebuilt after the war and not much tarted up since. The people I spoke to, to ask directions from, were friendly enough; but whereas some cities inspire you, Gloucester didn't. At least not immediately. If you looked closer, if you explored alleyways, or looked above shop fronts, you discovered an older, historic city. But it was somewhat hidden from the casual tourist, as if the locals didn't rate their own city much in the league of Places To Visit. Certainly, Gloucester did not spring to mind like Oxford and Cambridge and Bath and York as a Must-See Weekend Destination.

On a hunch, I headed for the Cathedral. Cathedrals are usually a good bet if you want a taste of history and splendid architecture. From the outside it looked vast, an agglomeration of medieval add-ons, not especially handsome, but inside it was much more interesting. It had atmosphere. And the aisles and cloisters and side-chapels all had a wealth of decoration in stone and marble and paint. Here for instance are some views of the cloisters:

Note the rich and delicate roof decoration! Some of the best fan vaulting that I've seen. But I was nevertheless surprised to find that these cloisters had been used in the Harry Potter films. How the film people managed to get permission wasn't stated, but apparently they took these passageways over, and set about disguising all the giveaway ecclesiastical features such as gravestones set in the flooring, angels' haloes and things like that; and if you know where to look, you can discern where bits and pieces were stuck on to hide something that wouldn't look like part of Hogwarts School. Well I never. Of course, it all had to be closed off to the public, and you can see how a scatterbrained old biddy in an aqua-coloured jacket might ruin a carefully set-up take! Having now been there, I'm mildly curious to watch a Harry Potter film (a pleasure so far denied to myself) to see how these cloisters appear in it. Other parts of the Cathedral were also used for the odd shot, and there is a 'Harry Potter Trail' for children to follow.

Back in the main bulk of the place, I was struck how elaborate some of the memorials were. There were plenty of effigies of various dead people, showing them 'at rest', although to my eye some of the poses were odd. Here's a woman who instead of lying in dignified state, on her back, her hands together in prayer, is instead propping herself up as if reading in bed. All very casual, especially as there's a baby included, implying that both died tragically in childbirth:

That's a strange expression on her face: she looks bored! It's unfathomable why anyone would think this appropriate for a Cathedral. She wasn't the only example. On the wall opposite was another lady who needed to prop her head up with a hand:

Perhaps contemplating eternity induces fatigue and yawns. Who knows. There was also another effigy worth mentioning, that of Robert Curthose, the eldest son of William the Conqueror, who didn't get the throne when his father died and ended up being imprisoned for his last 28 years by his youngest brother. He was clearly useless as a serious pretender to the throne of England. But, look at this, he was a whizz at dancing! Even in effigy, he is apparently doing some kind of Highland Fling on his back:

I struck up two conversations while at the Cathedral. One was just inside the entrance, with an elderly man with a nice face who was acting as a Welcomer. He came up every week from Christchurch in the Forest of Dean to do his stint. I must say, he did it well. We talked about the Cathedral and about ourselves for at least a quarter of an hour, and I made a vague promise to visit Christchurch next spring. The other conversation was with a pleasant lady from Yorkshire, who like me was on holiday in the area. We seemed to find much to say, but parted when we realised that a couple who had followed us in (it was the Lady Chapel), and had sat nearby, were actually attempting to pray. It's easy to treat cathedrals as museums where you can talk, but their true purpose musn't ever be forgotten. Even I lit a candle, for Dad:

It's bottom centre. Poor Dad. I feel I ought to do the same for Mum, but I never do. However, let's not discuss that just now.

1 comment:

  1. Have you been on the writing course which says leave your reader with a cliff hanger and wanting more...?


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