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.