Standing beneath the skeleton of an ancient deer which is positioned as if gazing out of the window of the modern interior of a Warwick museum, I felt oddly out of perspective in both time and physical dimension – like Alice in Wonderland or something from a Magritte painting.
This skeleton’s back is over 1.5m high (they stood nearly two metres high at the shoulder) and its head looms high over the viewer. Prehistoric man would hardly have needed time lapse photography to see the antlers of these beasts growing – they started as stumps each year and grew up to four metres across.
Humans arrived in Warwickshire about 500 000 years ago. They roamed the area with these giant deer, monkeys, boars, rhinoceroses, oxen, bears and elephants. Then came the ice. They returned about 10 500 years ago, deadlier than before – now they sported weapons for hunting. It took about four and a half thousand years for their descendants to work out how to farm.
The Market Hall museum in Warwick has it all: local fossils dating back to the beginning of the Jurassic period, 200 million years ago; the skeleton of a plesiosaur; parts of a woolly mammoth (they hung out in the county until about 40 000 years ago – about the time Aborigines began leaving dateable traces of their culture in Australia); piles of treasure (coin hoards); displays of water courses and habitats; medical instruments of previous centuries (the bloodletting tool is positively horrible with its many blades) and a working beehive. It’s a great place for children and adults.
During my last stay in Warwick, I visited the castle (an excellent few hours). Leaning over the battlements, I noticed a lovely garden at the end of Mill Street like a cheerful handkerchief laid between the castle and the river. I didn’t realise then that The Mill Garden is open to the public for £1.50 from April to October. What a delight it is with its soft lawns and variety of textures, colours and fragrances flowing through a number of ‘rooms’. The cottage was built around 1398 for the bridgekeeper. The multi-level garden looks out to the ruin of the original bridge and up the castle wall. It embodies everything I enjoy about English cottage gardens.
A somewhat different garden setup can be found at Packwood House in Lapworth. A friend and I walked from the town on the route linking this and another National Trust property. The sixteenth or seventeenth century building (both dates are provided by the N.T.) is very large with gardens extensive and glorious. They include a herb and vegetable garden completely removed from the house and a topiary yew garden, supposedly representing the Sermon on the Mount, laid out in 1650. The sunken garden surprised us both. Suddenly it popped up (down?) next to us from behind a low hedge. Had I seen it in Australia, I would have found its raised bed of widely spaced plants set in sharp gravel, arid. Here, the stones provided a canvas for the individual plants.
A great delight of this walk was the section along the Stratford-upon-Avon canal. It is littered with locks. On this day many boats were navigating up and down the hill, filling and spilling. Locks really are a triumph of the mechanical mind. With what ease humans can displace water. And using one’s body to do so would surely satisfy at least part of any desire one may have to pit one’s might against the elements.
St Margaret’s church in Hunningham, a low-population but spread-out village with a dear little single lane bridge, is rather sweet. Suitably small, it was built in the thirteenth century. The wooden bell tower with its rooster weathervane reminded me of a beehive. Inside, a wall plaque from the 1600s commemorates a man buried there. It spoke of his children as his ‘ishew’ – sounds like a secretion. The churchyard is strewn with ancient graves. Standing next to them, knowing that less than a metre away is someone who lived hundreds of years ago invokes that weird sense of distorted perspective and vast distances made small. Cows chewing in the adjacent paddock cast shadows over lichened headstones. Their presence and the rural setting add to the holiness of the place.
Warwickshire’s a bit like that.