Places in The Onion Stone

  • Bignor

    "Luck held. Frances, balancing a cup of coffee and a flapjack in one hand and her bag and book in another, made her way over to one of the low, wooden benches in the picnic area. She had visited Bignor many times before and knew the villa and its guide book almost by heart. Much nicer, she thought, to sit in the warmth of the late afternoon sun with the soft, green hills of the South Downs all around her, white sheep grazing in the distance like toy farm animals and the smell of the rich brown earth."

    From 'The Onion Stone'

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    A popular place in the summer and one of my favourites all year round. The mosaics are exquisite, of course, with tales of their own in every tile; the one that pulls me most is the 'Head of Winter' – an antlered god in a bleak and forest-dark clime.

    Here was a Roman gentleman's country estate; a large and abundant farm supplying provisions by road and river for the nearby palace at Fishbourne. The original scale is hard to imagine: one corridor alone, the guide book says, would have stretched the length of three tennis courts. It's hard to see it in tennis court terms; I prefer to picture the 200 sheep, 24 oxen and 54 head of cattle cropping and grazing the summer grass. There must have been much business and noise.

  • Keats in Chichester
    Keats in Chichester

    'Why do I never remember to bring useful things like gloves?' she asked herself. She'd brought her notebook and several pens for jotting down impressions of John Keats who had spent some days in Chichester and the surrounding area, working the beauty and magic of the place into his poems, but she had no gloves and no umbrella either for sudden rain.

    From 'The Onion Stone'

    This is the house in the cathedral city of Chichester where John Keats stayed for a few days in January 1819. It was the home of the parents of his close friend Charles Wentworth Dilke. Originally called 'Hornet Square' the plaque now marks the spot of No. 11, Eastgate Square. Here, according to tradition, Keats began writing 'The Eve of St Agnes' – a poem built on the medieval superstition of a maiden performing certain rituals before going to bed the night before St Agnes' Day in the hope that her husband-to-be would appear before her in a dream.

    These are the famous lines that begin the long poem:

    St. Agnes' Eve--Ah, bitter chill it was!
    The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold;
    The hare limp'd trembling through the frozen grass,
    And silent was the flock in woolly fold

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    She sat down on an empty bench and pulled her notebook out of her bag, flexing her fingers to warm them up. "Keats used the imagery of Chichester Cathedral and his impressions gained from attending a service at Stanstead Chapel, to create a medieval, gothic atmosphere for his poems on St Agnes Eve and The Eve of St Mark," she wrote.

    She sighed impatiently. No, that would never do. Didn't describe it at all, the imagination of that young man already sick with the illness that would kill him soon – the imagination that could visualise golden threads embroidered on dull brown cloth, or see the brilliant blaze of stained glass in a dirty-grey plain window.

    From 'The Onion Stone'

    Here are some other features of Chichester and its Cathedral that Keats would probably have seen during his visit and which may have worked their way into his imagination:

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  • Cowdray Ruins
    Cowdray Ruins

    “She walked slowly down the Causeway, once lined with tall trees, where Queen Elizabeth had ridden on her seven day visit to Cowdray House. Frances, who thought of the past as a chink in the curtain through which images flickered, could almost hear the slow groaning wheels of six hundred carts laden with trunks, each one dragged by six weary horses, their hot flanks steaming and their breath making patterns in the bright air. 'What a woman' she said to herself, thinking of the long dead queen, 'trailing court and crown all over the land to save herself money.' She considered Elizabeth, who had walked a tightrope of nerves every day of her life, fending off plot and counter plot, treachery and fear. Had it taken its toll of her? History offered tantalising snatches of weeping and passion, of screaming rages and near hysteria, but the overall pattern was one of control. 'What would she do now?' thought Frances Goodbody, scrunching the golden brown leaves underfoot. 'What would she say, how would she handle Ellis?'”

    From 'The Onion Stone'

    Cowdray Ruins have been considerably restored since Frances would have seen it in the 1980s. Even more so since the days when it was a magnificent Castle where Elizabeth 1 was entertained for a week in the sumptuous style she expected from her noblemen.

    A tragic, haunted place however, since a curse was laid on it by a monk who had seen the monastic buildings at Battle Abbey razed to the ground on the orders of Sir Anthony Browne, the owner of Cowdray. Descendants of the family, so said the curse, would perish by fire or water.

    In 1793 the 8th Viscount Montague was drowned in Switzerland, attempting to shoot the falls of the Rhine. Shortly afterwards Cowdray House itself was almost completely destroyed in a fire that left it in the ruins we see today. In 1815 two young boys from the Montague family were drowned in a boating accident. The monk's curse, said people, appeared to be coming true.

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  • St Mary Magdalene and St Denys
    St Mary Magdalene and St Denys

    “They walked on up the street, Ardie in a witty mood and humming softly to himself, the others silent. In the church of St Mary Magdalene and St Denys the light was still on. ‘Look at this,’ said Henry Shakspeare after they had wandered round for several minutes. He was standing in front of a large memorial tablet, peering at the writing. ‘It’s commemorating a father and his two sons who served in the church choir for sixty years. Sixty years!’

    ‘What’s wrong with that?’ said Ardie, coming up behind him and staring at the memorial which he had never noticed before. ‘A very good thing to do. They had some first class choirs at King’s in my day. Best in the land. Still are. We always listen to the Christmas Eve service on the radio. Takes us back to the old days.’

    ‘Yes, but sixty years!’ repeated Henry. ‘It’s a lifetime!’

    ‘You needn’t scoff, my love,’ said Frances to her husband. ‘Mr Shakspeare is obviously horrified at the thought of the monotony, the repetition. You must admit you’d die of boredom as well, doing the same thing for sixty years. That is,’ she added, glancing challengingly at Henry, ‘unless it’s hunting for Shakespeare of course.’

    She walked away to study another brass inscription as Ardie wandered slowly in the direction of the main door. ‘This is my favourite one, Mr Shakspeare. Come and see what you make of it.’ He moved over to the memorial and for a moment their two heads, one grey and one dark, were side by side as they studied the words in the light slanting from the stained glass window. ‘In loving memory of St John Dacres Montgomery Campbell,’ Henry read aloud. ‘Good grief, what a name. 2nd Lieutenant York and Lancaster Regiment. Killed by a fall on Merdah Mountain, Baluchistan.’ He peered at the words again. ‘Where on earth is Baluchistan, Mrs Davendish?’

    ‘I’m not sure,’ she said. ‘By the way, I go by my own name of Frances Goodbody. My maiden name. I use it professionally. I’m a writer too. I’ve published several books on Robert Browning, a couple on Keats and ... and I write other things as well.’

    Henry Shakspeare stared at her, startled. ‘Please go on,’ she said. ‘Read the rest of the inscription.’

    ‘Oh yes. Right. Where was I? Killed by ... Baluchistan. 26th January 1908. Aged twenty two and a half years. His warfare is accomplished.’

    He studied the memorial in silence. Frances waited expectantly. ‘Yes,’ he said slowly, fingering the birthmark on his face, ‘Think I can see why it’s your favourite. Think I’ve got it. Is it the half bit?’

    ‘It was important to someone,’ said Frances gently. ‘Probably his mother.’ She looked round anxiously. ‘I think we had better go and find my husband. He gets a bit of a chip on his shoulder if he feels left out of things.’ Together they hurried out of the church in search of Ardie.”

    From 'The Onion Stone'

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