I WAS visiting Salisbury the other day, to give a talk at Sarum College — that gem of the cathedral close, with its elegant 17th-century frontage and its glorious bookshop — and afterwards I was taken out to supper.
My hosts obviously knew their man, as they took me to a local hostelry. How much better to be in a particular, peculiar, timeworn “local” than in in some ersatz, identikit chain whose corporate image and plastic décor could be anywhere and nowhere.
And this particular inn was very fine. I knew from the moment I had to dip under the lintel of its low door and saw the blackened and irregular beams criss-crossing the old brickwork, with here and there the remnants of dark linen-fold panelling, that this would be an inn to savour.
And so it proved, as the landlord drew me a pint of porter and we made our way into one of the snugs in its maze-like interior. While we waited for supper to be served, I drew up from my memory a verse from a ballade I had written some years ago, which celebrated just such a place as this, and all the skill, the story, and tradition that it preserves:
I love the mullioned snug, the brewers dray
And all the tapster’s tacit craft and lore.
To reach a village inn when skies are grey,
To step out of the rain and through the door,
To feel the warmth, to tread the stone-flagged floor,
And sit beside the fire and take our ease,
This is the bliss our little life is for,
I’ll have another pint of porter please.
This Salisbury inn turned out to be very old indeed — older than the cathedral itself; for it was one of the first four houses in “New Sarum”, built to lodge the masons when the present cathedral was begun in 1221. But the best thing about it was its name; for, being the oldest hostelry in the place, it was, of course, called the New Inn.
It’s a good rule of thumb, in England at least, that anything prefaced “Ye Olde” was probably knocked up in the last decade or so, but that anything still called “new” is likely to be very old indeed. Witness New College, Oxford, founded in 1379, and so one of the oldest colleges; or, for that matter, the New Forest, proclaimed Nova Foresta in the Domesday book of 1086, though already ancient then, yet through all the centuries of its decays, its flourishings, and its renewals, still happily called “new”.
But there was better still to come. For, back at Sarum College after supper, I took up in my hands another of these ancient things that we still call “new”: the oldest and the best of all of them. Older than the New Inn, it was already centuries old before the proclamation of the New Forest; older still than the oldest English cathedral, and yet, in its own way, as welcoming as that old hostelry; as living and mysterious as that old forest; as hallowed and numinous as the old cathedrals; and as new and renewing as all of them.
For that evening I held in my hands that ancient book which we still call the New Testament.