It was in my favourite series of mediaeval detective novels that I first met a room I would like, one day, to possess.
Susannah Gregory’s 1348 hero, Dr Matthew Bartholomew, is a good guy. He has many fee paying patients but uses much of his time to help the poor and close to destitution. The hero of ‘A Plague On Both Your Houses’ and subsequent novels, is a wry,admirable, very English early academic; Cambridge’s first Master of Medicine.
Bartholomew’s world is coarse and vivid: Gregory is an academic with an eye for detail, and to open the pages of these stories is to walk the streets of mediaeval England. Thus, I can see it in my mind’s eye.
The Doctor’s sister married a rich merchant who has a very big house. And at the top of that beautiful building is a solar.
In those times much living was done in the great hall. But the most important people in the house could escape the noise and bustle of that busy nucleus. For high up in the house was a sanctuary, away from it all, where work could be done and embroidery completed.
It was a place of calm in a turbulent world. A place of grace at a time when the grotesque was the norm.
A solar was not a glasshouse on a roof. It had windows, the same as any other room. But there it perched, on top of the mediaeval world, and further towards the sun than the common man, offering views of a city stretching below and squaring up to a cathedral with domestic credit.
Ah, solar, my solar. My turret far above the world. I wonder if you will stay a figment of my imagination, or if one day you might find substance in bricks, mortar: and glass, that conduit of the light so precious to us here.
It may be as distant a dream as another I have: to see a fantastical observatory perched impossibly on a steep precipice.
It is called the Sphinx Observatory, and it balances precariously at purportedly more than 3,500 metres above sea level.
Back in 1912, there was great excitement in this level-headed part of the world. The highest station in Europe was given a grand opening at Jungfraujoch station in the Bernese Alps.
Tourists flocked. But so, in their legions, did the scientists.
Its high altitude opened the way for unheard of experimentation, you see: the air is pure and astronomers, geologists, physicists, meteorologists and hydrologists all want a piece of that rarefied action.
Very soon it became clear they needed a place to work. And so, in 1937, the highest construction in Europe was opened. One can get to it on the Jungfrau railway, which is bizarrely landscaped. You sit on the train and peer through the windows of an Ice Palace, where ice sculptures train the eye away from the mountaintop hulk which looks as if it must surely be a Verne fabrication.
The mountaintop has been hollowed out to fit an elevator. Can it get any more Bond than this?
Yes, it can. The observatory itself is mesmerising, a fairytale fortress on the roof of the world with an eye on the stars, peopled by minds of complexity which forge into the future, questing for data: because the devil, as they say, is in the detail.
Up there, on top of the world, what a rarefied solar that is.
Of course there is only one place I could possibly end.
Four or so years ago I hit New York, and loved it instantly, not for the same reasons many love it, but because it is a study of how a group of people settled on an island and it grew from a wilderness to a metropolis.
A glance at early maps shows how wild New Amsterdam was, but even then there were echoes of the names we find today after the legion feet of almost 400 years have trodden the local strata, schist.
Phil and I arrived at the Empire State Building on a bitter March day. We joined a long inglorious queue, trailing through the building to elevators. We marveled at the time it took to climb to this modern solar, high above the hard commercial glamour.
When we arrived and looked down, our breath deserted us. And with greed of which this illustrious city would be proud, we gazed and gazed and triangulated and compared notes and froze and still refused to go in because here we were, at the very top of a world.
A small, affluent, captivating island world.
In the early days, when men lived with the light and slept with the dark, the solar was generally knee-high to a cathedral. And only the rich would ever achieve such panoramic views over their diminutive world.
An affluent island created a modern-day solar which dominates its skies and affords the humble tourist a view from 381 metres onto a centuries-old settlement, with all its glorious treasures and flaws.
But that solar, that sanctuary up in the highest mountains of Europe, that steampunk cathedral provides not just a 360 degree view of unparalleled beauty, but a panorama of the mind for the men who forge our future.
Like a mediaeval lady with a favour: that one has my heart.