The Curious Olde Bookshoppe

The thing they don’t tell you about really ancient places is that they don’t half collect clutter.

The problem about having been in the same hands for centuries is that people grow immune to the junk-places: the cupboards no-one ever clears out, the attics stuffed with the clap-trap of great-great grand aunts, the outhouses in which generations of men have stored screws and tools and cans of oil and old cars.

There are places here in England where, since the exodus of The Staff almost a century ago, things have just accumulated.

Mostly, though, there is someone to bring order. Corners are swept, clutter classified.

They retain the bizarre Mary-Poppins-Bag enchantment, though.

Today I was wondering through somewhere which was once a great seat of power. Winchester had a grand castle: it was capital of Wessex. Alfred the Great laid out its streets. It has a cathedral which has stood for 1,000 years. It has one of the only remaining water mills on its river, and one of the country’s poshest public schools.

So, naturally, it has baggage. What city wouldn’t?

If it has baggage, it follows that this must be some of the most interesting baggage you could want to stumble upon. But where are its cupboards, and attics, and outhouses?

I trailed past the cathedral, camera dangling round neck, in search of a place I had often passed, and never yet entered.

It is a bookshop; but it is no ordinary bookshop.

For starters, it is open air. There is no glass in its windows. In fact, one might venture to suggest it is quite a makeshift bookshop, with all its wares second-hand.

There is no proprietor. Or rather, one cannot see them. The bookshop seems to be sited in the porch of the Deanery – the place where the Dean of the Cathedral lives. I believe the Dean might have hurried absent-mindedly past me as I browsed, and burst into the house, shutting the door before hollering exuberantly to the occupants.

But the porch? It’s not really a porch. More of a small covered cloister. It has stone fan vaulting and a Harry Potter air of enchantment.

And it is stacked, from floor to ceiling, with gorgeous, underrated second-hand books.

They are stored in cardboard boxes such as you might see in the market, full of oranges. But they are more exotic fruit: the flyleaves are often signed and dated, and a great many of them come from the thirties. They are small hardbacks, with a sense of permanence which reminds one of a comfortable pair of old slippers and a pipe.

In a nod to modern marketing techniques there is a sign on the lintel which reads persuasively:”Books! Books! Books!”

Say no more.

I picked up a little Jules Verne which used to belong to Alan Audsley and is dated the 19th March, 1938. It was once a text book at Lindesfarne College, Westcliffe-On-Sea. The book seemed to settle comfortably into my hand.

And as I stood, enchanted by the most curious olde bookshoppe I have ever encountered, I chanced to look down.

I was standing on a roman mosaic.

They stashed it there, you see: they found it in the Close during some excavation or other and laid it in the little cloister, and it has become buried beneath the books and the old lamps and the ancient stonework and the honesty box and the jars of marmalade at £2 a jar.

That’s the thing they don’t tell you about these ancient places.

A lot of clutter.


74 thoughts on “The Curious Olde Bookshoppe

  1. So interesting! I am dealing with the clutter in this house of my husband’s attachment to his mother’s attachment to her parents’ attachment to stuff – very hard as I too am sentimentally attached to a lot of these things, and of course the greedy side of the family wants everything – brass, silver, books, clocks but I value many of these things too so I am in a dilemma!

  2. Isn’t it gorgeous – the building that is, and the hodgepodge of books books books (though not, perhaps the shipping pallets on the Roman mosaic) – but so sad, too, with the honesty box pasted up like some poor out of the way vicarage.

    1. I quite like that bit, Wanderlust. Honesty boxes are few and far between in our cities, and its seen here as an indication that the proprietors trust their customers enough to leave the paying to them. It is a gorgeous building indeed!

      1. Oh, I do to – it’s just that the honesty box seems more in keeping with one of those small, unfrequented little churches out in some village somewhere, not such a magnificent cathedral 🙂

  3. One of the many reasons to love England. That mixture of stuff doesn’t occur everywhere.

    I wandered into a basement bookshop in Stamford once. I found a very old children’s book with an obscene price on it. The smell of the old books went to my head, I guess, because I bought it and gave it to Cayleigh.

  4. Such a cool book shop. I love the history that goes with used books. Even if it’s just a scrawled name in the cover, or notes by someone who was obviously writing an essay about it.

  5. Is this the Winchester Cathedral from the song that was so popular when I was a kid? Very cool. I will say this about clutter, when you see it every day, after a while you go blind to it. What I love about book clutter is that books are interesting.

    1. Lameadventures reminds me of what a fun time the charts were in 1966. ‘Winchester Cathedral’ displaced the Supremes at No 1 in the US, juggled around with the Beach Boys’ ‘Good Vibration’ before finally giving way to the Monkees’ ‘I’m a Veliever’. Happy memories!

      1. Sorry, my memory’s shot to pieces I’m afraid, so it’s all down to Wikipedia (where would we be without it?) for which I can’t claim any credit.

  6. I shall hunt for that place on my next visit to Winchester. The only thing I don’t like about the place is that I always seem to find a wrong road when trying to leave.

  7. Lovely pictures, Kate, which make me so much want to be there! Drawn to the Roman mosaic photo, with its repeated vine leaf and guilloche patterns, so common as border features to a more individual central panel: wonder what that would have been!

    One of the saddest aspects of some of our cathedral buildings is a visible lack of that clutter that suggests archaeological layers of culture as well as history, one which also wears its age lightly; instead we get a cleaned-up pristine look, perhaps like that beloved of the Victorians who cleared away earlier architectural clutter and un-Gothick furniture to present their restored ‘pure’ High Medieval version of religion, sanitised and antiseptic. I won’t name names, but you recognise them when you step inside.

    1. Would I be right in thinking English Heritage aspire to that look, Chris? You could eat your dinner off some of their castles. The bookshop never seems to close- another great big plus in its favour. It will wait for you until you can get there…so many books to read and review….

      1. Not just English Heritage but also the National Trust and one or two Welsh sites… But this bookshop looks just so tempting: somewhere to linger and to daydream.

  8. One thing that we North Americans don’t understand is history. To us, an old building dates from the early 20th century. 19th or 18th century buildings are really, really old. I remember walking around Paris and thinking, holy shit, I don’t know what old is.

    Beautiful post. I love the photographs.

    1. Thanks, Belejar 🙂 Another blogger I know, Side View, comes from South Africa: she always said the history would be quite oppressive to someone who wasn’t born there. Like too much gravity. I like it though: it makes me feel part of something much bigger than myself.

      1. I forwarded the post to a friend who had recently described herself as “crawling on the floors of a used bookstore and drooling over the books” – she decided the shop you showed us is just one more reason to visit England.

  9. My favorite kind of place! What a wonderful place to spend hour just looking for the little treasures. I would have trouble controlling my purchases, and the problem with that goes back to your opening description of collections and clutter. I am continually working to try not to fall too deeply into that trap…so far, I think I’m losing! 🙂 I really enjoyed the photos, too, Kate. D

  10. Oh Kate that looks divine! I love the thoughts of the layers of clutter for it not having changed hands. Just catching up on some blog reading and I’ve missed you.

  11. Kate, I can smell the lovely, musky, old books from clear across the pond. Makes me want to be there or at least read Mary Poppins with my granddaughter.-Jillian

    1. Hi Jillian! Oh, do get Mary Poppins out. I was only the other day reading the story of her day out through the chalk drawings. Sometimes, when I get days out like the one at Winchester, I feel just as enchanted. Enjoy your reading 🙂

  12. Oh, no, what on earth will we do with another tatty old bit of mosaic? Ah, shove it out the back and we’ll figure it out later…
    You make everywhere interesting Kate- when you retire from teaching you should be a tour guide 😉

  13. Frankly the books stashed in amongst the Harry Potter magic of it all only increases the enchantment. Felix and I have been reading the early Potter books over the last few months, and I’d bet anything there’s a Roman arched room stuffed full of marvelous old books hiding somewhere in Hogwarts.

    And that sign! Incongruous and tempting.

  14. Great blog and I love the pictures. Very trusting with the honesty box – these days there’s usually someone willing to nick it! At least this one looks fairly permanent and unsteal-able. Hay on Wye has some great places like this too.

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