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What follows is a somewhat rambling account of our recent trip to Wales
and Britain. For the most part, all information herein is from personal
experience, though I will occasionally draw upon guidebooks, maps, brochures,
et cetera for specific factual information without attribution (but I do not
lift anyone else's text). If you have a problem with that, don't read
any further. This isn't intended for publication, after all.|
The Warm Stones
My first real vacation in some 30 months, since Alix and I won the trip to Wales in 2001. This journey had a much more auspicious beginning than that one, which saw us stuck in Dallas, having missed our flight to London. This time, we arranged a direct from St. Louis to Gatwick.
So, the shuttle picked us up at 11:00 on this bright fall morning. The driver, a man who had developed the habit of travel as part of a US military goodwill band, was full of stories and good cheer and got us to the airport without delay. We checked our bags, cleared security, and took refuge in the Ambassador Club until time for our flight. Eventually we boarded, poured ourselves into our 'coach' seats, hooked up our Bose noise-cancelling headsets, set our watches to UK time, and crossed the Atlantic. All was uneventful. Fine by me; I wanted a vacation, not an epic.
The flight over takes about 8 hours, and we landed at 7:00 a.m. in Gatwick, an older airport south of London proper. Working out the kinks of being strapped into a seat marginally too small for my 6'-2" frame, we collected our bags, cleared customs, found a 'cashpoint,' went in quest of the shuttle for our rental car. It found us, deposited us at the rental place a couple of miles away.
And we ran into what was really the only glitch in the trip. Alix had booked a car with Thrifty, on the basis of some offer she had seen while planning and making reservations. Well, first thing, they informed us that they didn't have the car we reserved, so had given us a 'free upgrade' to a mini-van/SUV thing. Now, this would have been fine here in the States, with our larger roads, et cetera. But we were headed into the wilds of Northern Wales, where one-lane roads are the norm once you get off the major highways. And when I say one-lane, I mean one-lane . . . usually shared by an oncoming truck, bus, or tractor. And oh, yes, there is that small matter of driving on the opposite side of that one-lane road than we're used to. I didn't want a mini-van/SUV thing. I wanted a little bitty car, with lots of margin for error.
OK, fine, we got the larger vehicle. A nice red Nissan, almost new. I went out and loaded the bags while Alix took care of the paperwork. Came back into the office to discover some discussion of costs and insurance. Alix does not tolerate fools lightly (which is a wonder, given how long we've been married), and these folks were insisting that if we didn't sign up for their 'optional insurance,' then they'd have to charge her credit card for the value of the car. This, in spite of the fact that we had documentation of not only our own policy coverage, but also that of the credit-card issuer, which had always been acceptable for car rental in Europe and the US previously. "Sorry, company policy" was the non-helpful answer which we got to every protest. Alix refused to pay the additional insurance cost, so they ran a charge for the value of the car through. Unsurprisingly, the credit card company found this a little surprising, asked to talk with Alix about it. She discussed it with the card people, who were astonished that the car company wanted to do this, but promised not to post the charge to her account until after we had returned the car, at which point the charge would be cleared. Needless to say, Thrifty won't be getting our business on any other occasions.
Anyway, annoyed and bleary (I can't sleep on a flight in coach, no matter how effectively I kill the noise), we resolve to discuss this matter with Thrifty later, but to not let it get the trip off to a bad start. Alix navigating, I drive. I like London, but I wouldn't want to drive there. Particularly not during rush hour on a weekday morning when I'm sleep-deprived and not adjusted to local driving habits. We make quick to the M25, the big circumferential interstate which is busy but moving steadily. It's a glorious morning, clear and brilliant, perfect driving weather. The wide valleys and rolling hills south of London remind me of parts of northern Missouri, though with fewer trees. We hang over in the middle left lane with the vans and lorries, cars and the occasional SUV zipping past in the inner lanes, noting the complete lack of anything resembling a pickup truck. I approve.
We pick up the M3, head west. Getting settled into this driving-on-the-wrong-side-of-the-road thing, we pick up the pace a bit, and make the transition to the A303 with minimal difficulty. This is still good road, divided in places, with minimal hassle and few roundabouts. We set our sights on Stonehenge, and keep rolling.
Before you get to Stonehenge, the Salisbury plain opens up, the hills settle out a bit and the land becomes more agricultural. So when you come over the last large hill, and see it there to the north of the highway, it surprises you. You don't expect to see large paleolithic structures in the Iowa cornfields. But thats kind of what it feels like, the tall blue stones sitting in a patch of green, surrounded by the golden hues of ripe crop and cut hay. We took the right turn onto the access road, passing right next to the monument, trying to keep my attention on what I was doing but drawn to glance at the stones every few seconds. I bet the accident rate right in that area is higher than elsewhere.
We park, get out of the car and stretch. We go down, through the ticket area (being members of CADW, the Welsh National Heritage organization, we're also granted free entrance to British Heritage sites), under the road and up into the area where the stones stand. We got the audio tour handsets on the way through ticketing, but listened to them casually, captivated by the monument itself. It's larger and more impressive than I expected, and yet I expected a lot. No, the stones aren't really that much bigger, but they have more presence than any picture or video can convey. I've stood on the lip of the Grand Canyon. I've been trapped in the chasms of Manhattan. I've seen Gothic Cathedrals galore. There's no place else I can think of where I felt so dwarfed. Not puny, not overwhelmed, but in awe. Of a few simple stones, arranged in their distinctive horseshoe. Small wonder that generations have considered the place magical, that it has been designated by the UN as a World Heritage Site.
When you can take your eyes away from the monument, you notice the burial mounds scattered all around the horizon on the nearby hills. It somehow adds to the age and power of the place, which didnít seem possible just a moment before. I turn and look again at the monument, now halfway around the path ringing it, and again feel that deep, profound awe that fills and energizes, that sets something in me ticking away to come to fruition later. I'm not religious, but this is a place of veneration, a place that touches something spiritual inside me and sets it rolling. It is the perfect place to start our trip, to blast away the thoughts and cares of daily life.
The audio tour talks about the various facts and theories about the site. How the stones are from the south of Wales, over a hundred miles to the west. What they weigh, how they're arranged, how they may have been placed, what they may have been used for. Mostly, standing there and looking at it, it doesn't matter. You just want to be there, in that place, in that moment. One fact I had not heard before stands out: that the Welsh blue stones are unusually warm to the touch, that there's a sample boulder next to a boulder of the other granite used in the construction of Stonehenge in the entrance that you can touch and see the difference. As we linger, then depart the monument, I stop and test this. The difference is unmistakable, but evidently unexplainable by science. That touch remains within me, a tactile memory and metaphor for something else I've always looked for in my life.
We eventually leave, driving back past the monument, heading predominantly south to Salisbury. It's a short drive, in fact we spent longer looking for the B&B than it took us to get to Salisbury, but it's on somewhat smaller roads, and entirely too exciting when you're tired and in a somewhat metaphysical state. Nonetheless, we got there, got parked in the front yard of the B&B, got settled into our room, then went out for a stroll around town before exhaustion overcame us.
It was still early in the day, just into the middle of the afternoon, but of course Alix and I were running on no sleep and the effects of jet lag. We wandered from our B&B down into the city proper, coming across the River Avon and the pleasant river-walk beside it. This led us through some nice park areas and to the Cathedral, a 13th century Gothic masterpiece which sits alone in a large open space, so you can enjoy and appreciate the size and imposing scale of the structure. Having just come from Stonehenge, however, it just didn't seem that impressive to me.
What was impressive, however, was the fact that the Chapter House there holds one of the four surviving copies of the original Magna Carta. I saw it. Right there, in a simple display case. No significant security, though they had taken some reasonable precautions to protect the document properly. Still, it looked like a couple minutes with a screwdriver would be all you would need to open the case and walk away with one of the most important artifacts in the history of jurisprudence. Yeesh.
We left the Chapter House, had a nice sit on the edge of the cloister, then resumed our exploration of the town. I had read about a pub in an old papermill (the first such in that part of Britain), across the Watermeadows in the southwest part of the old town. We followed the path through the Watermeadows, a wetlands/park area which may have been just a city commons. The path afforded incredible views of the Cathedral and the town proper, and was just a nice walk bordered by blackberries and various wetlands plants. We had thought to have a bit to eat in the pub once we got there, but the kitchen wasn't open for another couple of hours, so we just had a pint (when I say this here and henceforth, I mean that I had a pint of some local ale and Alix had some variety softdrink) out in the small courtyard, enjoying the beautiful weather and the chattering of the water in the mill race.
After our drinks, we made our way back into town, in quest of something more substantial, stopping only long enough for Alix to take some pics of the Cathedral and for me to discover the joys of stinging nettles nested in the blackberries I was seeking along the path. Ouch. Being out of season, and still a little early in the day (getting into late afternoon at this point), the first pub we tried wasn't any more successful a source for food than the papermill was, but we did eventually find our way into the 'Coach & Horses,' the oldest public house in the city, some 500 years old. There dinner (some variety of pannini for me, another variety of sandwich for Alix) and another pint, and I was more than ready to crash.
So, we walked back to the B&B, stopping only long enough in a small Tesco to pick up some snacks and whatnot for later. We crashed shortly thereafter, after the end of a very long day.
all work © James T. Downey, 1993-2006
photos © Martha K. John, 1994-2006
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