Inanimate objects have one overriding advantage over the living: they have the capacity to live something like forever.
Is that why we love our cathedrals and antiques? I remember standing next to a case in St George’s Chapel. Inside sat a prayer book which belonged to Catherine of Aragon, and my companion and I stood and silently yearned to hold what she once had. Catherine is dead and gone, but her prayerbook waits patiently for her return.
And at Jane Austen’s house in Chawton, I stood rooted to the spot by the sight of her writing table, positioned next to a bright window which had once afforded a view of the carriages to and from Winchester, and now sported cars trundling back and forth past the pub.
But one of the most unsettling examples of this ever loomed up at me, justifying at once the hefty £8 entrance fee to a tiny museum, in Salisbury just yesterday.
He is quite astonishing, when you first meet him. He does fit in the room, but only just: 16 feet high, dressed in splendid scarlet, he is known as St Christopher. And there is evidence that one part of him – his face- has existed since 1400, and probably before that. They call him The Salisbury Giant.
He is a leftover from those ancient trade organisations, the guilds. Salisbury’s powerful Taylor’s Guild would wheel him out once a year. on Midsummer’s Eve – the feast of their patron saint, St John. The Giant drew a crowd, as footage of his later appearances shows.
The Giant is made from a timber and wicker frame, his head carved from a solid piece of wood. For centuries he processed through Salisbury on important public holidays, and folks never failed to turn out to see him. He has a sidekick: Hobnob is a hobby horse, who would precede the giant, making way for him so that he is not toppled by the crowds milling around at his feet. It is very like the Cornish ‘osses. Just as unsettling, and odd and arcane. But he has always been here in Salisbury, and folks never ask too many questions about things that have been here forever and a day.
In 1570 it is recorded that he was taken out and repaired by the Taylor’s Guild. His face, painted black in the 19th, has recently been restored. Originally, restorers say, St Christopher had a European complexion. Though, to me, he resembles a moor from the times of the crusades.
There’s an illustration of him being easer under the City Gate which appears to come from Georgian times:
And photographs exist which show him celebrating the coronation of Edward VII in 1902, and George V in 1911:
It is possible this towering oddity has been parading the streets since mediaeval times.He was lauded by people doublets and hose and cote-hardies. And here he stands, in the museum, in retirement, an inanimate animate object who has watched the ages pass, and now stands looking much as he would have done when Henry V was sporting that extraordinary hairdo.
An enchanting, unsettling, baffling business.
To find out more about the Giant from the Salisbury Museum, have a look at their film here.