The first village in Wiltshire, as you go along the road from Bath to Bradford-on-Avon and cross from Somerset, is a place called Winsley. If you park by the bowls club there - and I don’t suppose you ever will, which is why I am telling you all this instead – and if you walk down the old track, you come after a couple of hundred yards to a cricket field on the left and a field full of alpacas on the right. (Alpacas are like llamas which have been reinvented by Walt Disney; they have clownish heads and knobbly bodies, and I still can’t quite see how they manage to avoid falling over when they move.)
Ignore the alpacas. Ignore the cricket. Look at the view straight ahead. It is a pleasing prospect, with a long low plain below you and then hills in the distance. If you move your eye along the horizon to the right, past Salisbury Plain, past the White Horse at Westbury, you come to a series of long low wooded hills, which are the woods in and around Longleat. Keep your eye moving, and just when you think you have run out of hills, you will see, at the very right-hand edge of the wooded hills, fifteen or twenty miles away, a small pimple on top of the final trees.
This is Alfred’s Tower at Stourhead Gardens.
Now, it doesn’t take much knowledge of maths to work out that if you can see Alfred’s Tower with the naked eye from twenty miles away, it must be a big tower from close to. It certainly is. I first saw it from close to a couple of years ago, when my wife took me there on a walk, and suggested we might like to go to the top and have a look at the view. There was sense in her suggestion, because apart from going to the top and looking at the view, there is nothing else you can do with Alfred’s Tower. It was built in the 1770s by the creator of Stourhead, banker Henry Hoare, who wanted to construct a memorial to King Alfred’s memory, and there it stands to this day, all alone in the woods, a triangular tower 50 meters or 160 feet high. A million bricks.
I stood near the entrance and looked up. Above me, going up and up, was this immense folly. Even higher, the brisk white clouds in the sunny sky sailed past the top of the tower, but as I looked up it was impossible to say whether the clouds were sailing past, or whether they were stationary and the tower itself was moving through the sky. I felt sick. I had that feeling I always have at the top of high places – and I wasn’t even at the top. I was on the ground. Suffering from vertigo!
“There will be a wonderful view from the top,” said my wife.
If this was the first time it had happened, I might well have gone along with her. But all my married life I have suffered from my wife’s taste for high places. My wives’, in fact. Both my wives had a taste for climbing to the top of places where no reasonable person should ever ascend, and saying: “What a wonderful view.” The top of Canterbury Cathedral. The top of Liverpool Cathedral, reached up a rickety staircase inside. A viewpoint from Ravello, Italy, with a 500 foot drop. Some dratted tower or other in Venice. . . .
And now, Alfred’s Tower, in Stourhead, England. Inside the tower there is nothing but a staircase. There are no floors, no doors, just steps going spirally upwards, lit by the occasional dim window. Nearly 200 feet of rising darkness. In 1944, a war plane crashed into Alfred’s Tower at night. It was an American plane. It hit the top of the building, in what must have looked like a mini-version of 9/11, and the plane crashed and everyone was killed. You can still see the lighter bricks where the tower was mended later.
I know what will happen when I get to the top. I won’t get a surge of sickness so much as an urge to throw myself off. On high places, I always get this urge to fly. Sometimes it is very strong. I always tell my wife, whenever I get married again, “Don’t take me to high places, because I get this urge to throw myself off”. They never believe me. Indeed, my second wife once took me up in a hot air balloon. Before take-off, to make myself feel better about everything, I knelt at the four-foot high edge of the basket, like a dwarf among humans.
“Feeling all right, sir?” said the pilot.
“Oh, yes,” I said. “It’s just that I get this urge to throw myself off high places.”
“I know what you mean,” he said. “I get it myself the whole time. Especially when we are flying through cloud. You really think you can get out and walk around on it! But you can’t, you know.”
It worked. I forgot about my vertigo and worried about his thereafter. He was a man after my own heart. The sort of person I should have been married to . . . .
“No,” I said, “I am not going to the top of Alfred’s Tower. I know the view is wonderful. But I would rather stay here and stay alive.”
And I never did go to the top, and now, whenever I want a the Alfred’s Tower experience, I go down the track to the cricket field and the alpacas, and stare out into the distance to that far-off pimple on the trees, though even from twenty miles away I feel a slight frisson of fear.
Live dangerously, that’s my motto.