Buddy Holly in Salisbury

It has just been announced that a blue plaque is to be unveiled on the old Salisbury Gaumont where Buddy Holly and the Crickets played in 1958. There is, however, another iconic building in the city associated with his legendary visit to the city, which featured in a book we published in 2010 – The Inns of Wiltshire. Among the inns featured was the George, a Grade I listed building which has seen even more changes than the Gaumont since 1958.

The George was open by 1364, when the Teynturer family owned it. William Teynturer was a member of the Guild of St George, which probably accounts for the inn’s name. In 1623, the council decreed that the George was the only place in Salisbury where plays could be staged, ‘the size and form of the inner courtyard being well adapted for that purpose’.
Shakespeare and Cromwell are both reputed to have stayed at the inn. In June 1668, Samuel Pepys ‘lay in a silke bed’ there and had ‘very good diet’. When he ‘paid the reckoning’, however, he found it ‘so exorbitant, and particular in rate of my horses, and 7s. 6d. for bread and beer’, he ‘was mad, and [resolved] to trouble the mistress about it’. The George also features in HG Wells’ Secret Places of the Heart, in which he alludes to ‘the mediaeval modernity of the Old George smoking-room’. His reverie is interrupted, however, by an American visitor who instructs him to ‘just look at that old beam! … To think it was exactly where it is before there was a Cabot in America!’
It was to this ancient hostelry that Buddy Holly came with the Crickets on 22 March 1958. At the Gaumont that night, he was backed by the Tanner Sisters, Gary Miller, Ronnie Keene & his Orchestra, and Des O’Connor. In a letter written from the George to his parents back in Texas, he confided that ‘everyone comments on how my jokes get bigger laughs than the comedian on the show, Des O’Connor,’ before telling them what a ‘real old, quaint place’ the George was. Less than twelve months later, he died in a plane crash at the age of 22.
Less than ten years later, in 1967, the ground floor of the George was removed and a steel frame inserted to support the upper floors, creating an arcade into the ‘Old George Mall Shopping Centre’. Over 40 years later, even in a city so rich in historic buildings, the enormity of the devastation still seems incredible.

After the ‘conversion’, a restaurant opened upstairs in the old inn for a while, but this closed in the 1990s. Since then, most of the building has remained disused, empty and, except for occasional guided tours, closed to the public. The wonder is that, despite the destruction of the ground floor, the building should have retained its Grade I listed status. This can only serve to underline the importance of what remains, and of the urgent need to reverse decades of neglect.

Adapted from The Inns of Wiltshire published by Akeman Press, 2010



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Four New Ghost Signs in Six Months

Since publishing Ghost Signs of Bath late last year, four more ghost signs have been uncovered in Bath. The most impressive is in Oldfield Park, which appeared when the old party shop was refurbished to become Fire & Brew, which serves pizzas alongside local craft beer and cider. This sign almost made it into the book, as we were alerted to its discovery as the book was going to press. However, once a tiny bit of it had been revealed, it was decided to hold off revealing the rest until a plan of action to safeguard it could be worked out. So, as we could not hold up publication, we reluctantly had to leave it out. Now that it is revealed, the care and attention lavished on it can be seen to have been well worthwhile. This is a splendid sign, painted on glass and dating from the early 20th century, It has a curious feature, however, which we did not spot straight away, but, once you have clocked it, is obvious. This store started out as a branch of the Twerton Co-Operative Society, which, after a merger in 1922, became part of the Bath Co-operative Society – so the sign had to be changed.  Instead of replacing the whole thing, the section with ‘Twerton’ on it was removed and replaced by one reading ‘Bath’ – which has three less letters, and, as can be seen, did not take up the same amount of space. The style of lettering is also slightly different … so not only a great sign, but one with a bit of history that is not immediately apparent.

The next sign turned up on Lansdown Road, just below the old Old Farmhouse pub, on the corner of Ainslie’s Belvedere. This is a particularly well-preserved old butcher’s shopfront, dating from the days before refrigeration, when the windows could be opened fully, and hooks for meat hung from the awnings designed to keep deflect sunlight. Around 1919, it was taken over by Fred Cornish,who had his name – FT Cornish – painted below the window on the side. In the 1950s he was succeeded by WT Cornish (presumably his son) who altered the sign to read WT Cornish – and this is what it still reads today, although if you look carefully you can see the ghost of the F beneath the W.

Next to emerge was a sign for GJ Davis at 45 Bradford Road, Combe Down – not a particularly old sign, as he was there in the 1950s, but still a pleasing reminder of a lost age.

The most recent to appear is a good deal older. Sometime before 1910, W&J Warren opened a fish and fruit merchant’s at 7 London Street. They had gone by 1914, but the sign – admittedly not that easy to make out, and with traces of other writing as well – has now resurfaced over a century later. Whether it is covered up again remains to be seen.

That makes a total of four signs in six months … and word has reached of another possible sign on Bear Flat, which I’ve yet to check out. The story of Bath’s ghost signs is one that clearly is not going to stand still.


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The View from Little Solsbury

The ramparts on Little Solsbury date from the Iron Age, and the land within them was occupied as a camp or hillfort from around 300BC to 100BC. Alone among the hills surrounding Bath, it commands views in every direction, a distinction it shares with Kelston Round Hill, three and a half miles to the west. The views from here, though, over the valleys converging on Bath and its hot springs, are perhaps even more spectacular. The origins of its name are unclear, although it is thought that it may have derived from Sulis, the deity worshipped at those springs.

It takes a leap of the imagination, though, to comprehend what the view from Little Solsbury was like before the modern age, with its roads and urban sprawl, when the only sounds would have been those of the wind, of sheep cropping the turf and of skylarks high above. Or of what it would have been like, when the camp was occupied, looking out over the valley robed in moonlight. Or on moonless nights, when the darkness would have been broken only by the pinprick, flickering gleams of fires in hilltop camps ringing the horizon, and the only sounds would have been those of the birds and animals of the night, the hunters and the hunted.

Beyond that, history shelves off into myth. Little Solsbury is one of the candidates for the site of the Battle of Mons Badonicus or Mount Badon, at which Romano-British forces – possibly led by King Arthur – repelled an Anglo-Saxon advance in the late 5th or early 6th century. Writing in 1791, the Rev John Collinson also recorded the legend that Bladud built a temple dedicated to Apollo on the hill. More prosaically, he also revealed that, in his day, the land within its ramparts was an ‘arable field’ yielding ‘fine crops of barley’.

Little Solsbury’s current fame was assured when Peter Gabriel released ‘Solsbury Hill’ in 1977, describing a mystical moment when ‘time stood still’ as he climbed the hill. Ironically, this is one of Jeremy Clarkson’s Desert Island Discs – ironically because it was the Conservative government’s road-building programme that propelled Little Solsbury to national attention. The question of whether King Arthur fought the Saxons here may be a matter of conjecture; there was nothing illusory about the battle fought on Little Solsbury in 1994.

This was the first of the great anti-road building protests of the 1990s. Spurred into action by the imminent destruction of a sacred landscape little changed for millennia, the group of activists who took to the trees in the path of the diggers in March 1994 soon had a groundswell of local and national feeling behind them. In mid-May a weekend of action saw 1,200 people march on Little Solsbury.

The response of the authorities was draconian, with police and security forces using brute force to clear the campaigners out of their way, a tactic which backfired spectacularly. Many of the confrontations were captured by photographer Adrian Arbib. When the photographs were published, showing the campaigners responding with dignity to intimidation and violence, it was plain for all to see that the campaigners, far from being the feckless rabble the authorities portrayed them as, were idealists fighting for a cause – and a cause, moreover, with which a growing number of people were in sympathy. These were individuals undergoing hardship, abuse and provocation not for personal gain, but to try to save the environment and preserve a nationally important heritage site for future generations. The photographs also revealed the lengths to which those intimidating them were prepared to go. (The photographs can be viewed at www.solsburyhill.org.uk, which includes much more about the campaign.)

Ultimately, the battle was lost and the road was built, but the campaigners, by raising awareness of the implications of the government’s road building programme, successfully derailed around 300 other schemes. One lasting reminder of the campaign is the mizmaze cut in the turf below the ramparts of Little Solsbury by the campaigners. It commands a view up the Swanswick valley, with the caterpillar of trees at Freezing Hill on the horizon, a view now blighted by the dual carriageway slicing through it. Having been maintained and recut over the years, most recently in 2016, the mizmaze is still in remarkably good shape.

Today, surveying the scene from the ramparts of Little Solsbury, the legacy of the government’s intransigence is only too apparent, with the incessant roar of traffic mounting to a crescendo as you head down the slopes. Almost a quarter of a century on, a similar intransigence has raised its head, as councillors press ahead with plans to build a Park & Ride car park on the meadows through which the dual carriageway runs. Opponents of the scheme, along with many independent experts, believe it will have little or no impact on Bath’s traffic problems, but will be a hugely expensive and environmentally devastating white elephant. There have already been demonstrations larger than any Bath has seen for years; should the work begin these will undoubtedly escalate. The inheritors of the spirit of 1994 – and no doubt some of the original campaigners – will not let the wanton destruction of heritage and environment go unchallenged.

The Park & Ride is only part of a wider threat to the countryside east of Bath, however. The Batheaston by-pass was originally planned as a link in a superhighway linking Southampton to the M4. With plans to extend it shelved, Bath was left, in George Monbiot’s words, with ‘a high-spec dual carriageway to nowhere’ (Guardian, 11 February 2009) In that article, Monbiot went on to say that ‘building our way out of congestion and pollution is now a discredited idea, and for this the campaigners of Solsbury Hill can claim some responsibility’.

Despite this, proposals to link the bypass up with the A36 by building a road east of Bathampton have rumbled on for years, and Bath’s Conservative MP, Ben Howlett, has lobbied tirelessly for it to be built. Although only short, it would have a massive impact, and not only on the immediate area. Linking the A46 and the A36 would effectively make two narrow, winding and inherently unstable roads on the sides of steep valleys part of a major trunk route. Although the A46 and A36 are currently used as a through route by HGVs and other vehicles, many drivers are deterred from using this route because they either have to drive through Bath or, if their vehicle is small enough, use the single-carriageway and frequently congested tollbridge at Batheaston. Promoting increased usage of roads little changed for two centuries or more, and falling far short of the standards a new road would have to meet, seems a supreme act of folly. The A36, in particular, is so prone to slippage and subsidence that it has had to be closed for lengthy periods in recent years to shore it up, work that, by the nature of the terrain it runs through, can never provide a long-term solution.

But this link road is what Howlett and his ilk propose as the panacea for Bath’s traffic woes. Never mind about looking for sustainable solutions, never mind about investing in a viable public transport infrastructure. Rip up what is left of the countryside, encourage more people to get into their cars, to drive along roads manifestly unfit for the purpose, to park in Park & Rides … pave over paradise in the name of unsustainable economic growth.

Eight years on, George Monbiot’s belief that building our way out of congestion and pollution was a discredited idea seems to have been over-optimistic. With climate-change deniers taking charge and notions of progress ditched in favour of a headlong dash into the least creditable aspects of our past, it seems increasingly the case that, the worse an option is, the more chance there is of it being adopted. And, when George Monbiot returned to the subject of the bypass protest in May 2017 to address the current state of the nation, he made no bones about the enormity of the challenges ahead:

‘I remember being struck by the thought – when lying with a group of dreadlocked anarchists at the foot of an iron age hill fort in 1994, in the path of an earth mover commissioned by John Major’s government – that we were the conservatives and they were the destructives. We were seeking to defend the fabric of the nation while they, with their road schemes joining the dots between scheduled ancient monuments, chalk downlands, water meadows and woodlands, were trying to pulp it. They claimed to be patriots, but we loved this country more than they did … I find it hard to see how anyone can love people without also loving the living world that gave rise to us, or can love our civilisation without loving what remains of those that came before.’ (Guardian, 3 May 2017; the full article is at: www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/may/03/true-conservatives-fake-ones-destroying-britian-theresa-may-real-patriots.)

The battle lines are drawn; only history will tell whether the fight to save this precious part of our inheritance will be more bitter than any Little Solsbury has yet witnessed. For the sake of future generations, though, we can only hope that it succeeds.

(An edited extract from Andrew Swift’s forthcoming book, Country Walks from Bath)

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