September 7, 2015

Observations from the Mothership: Day 6

The Day I Cavorted with Druids

After getting a late start back to London from Littlehampton after a lovely day with Alan and his family, I finally arrived and checked into my hotel around 12:30 am.  I decided it was far too late for a nap at that point because I knew in my current state I'd never manage to rouse myself in time to make my 4 am pick up for the Stonehenge and Salisbury tour.  Besides, I can sleep when I'm dead, right?  Instead I killed some time taking a shower and knocking back a Coke (yay, caffeine!) then checking my messages since I've discovered that wi-fi on the railways is spotty at best when it's available at all.  Makes blogging a good bit more difficult, I have to say--all those hours in transit would be the perfect time to write but, alas, I've also yet to locate and key in the code for Microsoft office on my laptop so no internet and no word processing.  Sigh.

After a fresh change of clothes I headed off a little early towards Baker St (yes, that Baker St, Sherlock Holmes fans) for my 4 am pick up in front of the local McDonald's, which was cruelly closed and thus unable to provide either caffeine or sustenance for my poor, sleep-deprived body.  After standing around for 10-15 minutes on the deserted street a short, plucky woman cannoned up to me and asked if I was there for the tour.  When I said I was, she visibly relaxed, presumably relieved to be in the correct place and not standing there alone in the wee hours.  Her name was Sari and she stood a good few inches shorter than me, her frizzy grey-brown hair peeping out from under her bucket hat.  She seemed full of energy even for the obscenely early hour and we hit it off right away.

Elementary, my dear Watson.

Shortly after meeting Sari our tour bus arrived; we pretty much had our pick of seats since we were one of the earliest stops.  On board we met Salvo, a small little man of indeterminate ethnicity who looked more like a jockey trying to ride a 747 than a bus driver and our tour guide "Stacey with an E," a quintessential London woman with light cocoa skin and a full head of ample curls pulled back into a pony tail; she was wearing big hoop earrings and a stylish wool poncho.  Stacey with an E was absolutely gorgeous and could easily have passed for a model. Friendly and perky, she welcomed Sari and I onto the bus and we took seats next to each other.  Once all passengers for the tour had been collected, Stacey with an E went over some announcements and then we all promptly proceeded to pass out.  It took me a while to doze off; I guess when you've been operating on little more than caffeine and adrenaline for several days, it's possible to be too tired to relax.  By the time I finally started to sleep, I was struck by the dull quiet of the other passengers on board.  Driving around in the dark like that made it seem like we were all aboard a zombie bus to Stonehenge, perhaps to offer up bits of ourselves in sacrifice to any resident druids.

I don't know how long I slept, but eventually Stacey with an E woke us all up for some final instructions as we neared the car park at Stonehenge.  Leaving the bus and our jockey driver Salvo behind, we traipsed down a hill from the parking lot towards the Visitor Center where everyone could make a pit stop before heading to the site. I was particularly fascinated by the toilet flushes, which had a weird, hollow echo, almost as if they were calling back to the Neolithic era--a bawoosh from eons past, if you will.  It was kind of creepy in the early morning hours, actually.  Who knew that druids had flush toilets back in the day?

After everyone had a chance to use the facilities, we all gathered down in front of the gift shop for yet more instruction and to await a shuttle bus which would take us within a few yards of the henge.  I was shivering so hard my teeth were actually chattering.  It was a little chilly at the bus given the early hour, but for some reason out in front of the gift shop it was fricking freezing.  Fortunately the shuttle was minutely warmer, and I climbed aboard behind an older woman with an impossibly tight butt for someone her age...I'll admit it; I was totally jealous.    Clearly she's been getting her money's worth out of those Jane Fonda videos.

We arrived at Stonehenge proper around 6:30 am and had the place entirely to ourselves for an hour, during which Stacey with an E imparted more information about the site and helped us to take our obligatory photos.  The only caveat was that we could not touch the stones directly, something I flagrantly defied when I later backed up to take a photo and tripped over a partially hidden ground stone.  Whoops!  (I'm such a rebel.)

Stonehenge, just after daybreak.

I was surprised by how close some of the roped-off walks came to the circle--I'd always thought they were much farther away--and also by the size of the circle itself.  Compared to the professional and/or panoramic photos one usually sees of Stonehenge, it seemed much smaller than I had anticipated.  I was also intrigued by the reactions to the site of the various members of our group.  Mostly people were just taking photos everywhere: there were the two European girls clearly doing the Instagram sorts of photos by every stone, an Asian couple who likewise snapped a photo every few paces while managing to look supremely apathetic in nearly every shot, there was Goth Selfie-Stick guy walking around in circles holding a camera/video over his head like a boom mike without the slightest clue if any shot was ever even in frame, and then there were the Americans with cameras as big as my first apartment.  Beyond these were a couple of other completely unrelated women who marked much of their time standing in the shafts of light coming through the stones from the sunrise.  One seemed to be muttering prayers while the other appeared to be absorbing the light as though taking it into her very being.  It was absolutely fascinating observing the different effects the circle had on each person.

As for myself, I enjoyed the experience on a more visceral level: the thick, misty fog blanketing the neighboring fields gave the stone circle an eerie, otherworldly appearance; the deeply dew-saturated grass around the circle soaked through my shoes, making them as cool and damp as I imagine the stones themselves must have felt in the early morning mist; and the break of dawn glinting through and bending around the stones in rays of orange flame seemed to burn right through me.  It was quite sublime.



I wandered the stones along with everyone else, taking my photos and spending an inordinate amount of time waiting for my fellow travelers to move out of frame.  I even got someone to take some pictures of me pretending to touch the stones like Claire Beauchamp Randall Fraser of Outlander fame in the hopes of falling through time and into the arms of a dashing young kilted Scotsman.  (Didn't work, by the way.)  As I wandered around, I happened upon a small medallion tucked away in a tuft of grass.  It had a picture of St. George slaying the dragon and looked like it had fallen off a necklace or perhaps a keyring.  I pocketed it so Stacey with an E could ask anyone had lost it once everyone returned to the bus.  I also swiped a small pebble from the nearby walkway for a friend who'd asked me for a stone from Stonehenge when the Heritage Site cops weren't looking, the pathway being the best I could really do.  Aside from being a protected site, there simply weren't any stones around the henge itself given that the entire area is covered in grass and the stones themselves have long since eroded nearly smooth.  Hopefully a path pebble will be close enough to suit her, though, and not get me extradited.

St. George slaying the druid dragon.

After our private hour at the circle was up, we returned to the shuttle bus and rode back down to the Visitor Center where another group was getting ready to go up to the stones for their own special access tour. To me that seemed a waste; if you're going to get up ridiculously early to hang out right next to Stonehenge anyway, why do the one after sunrise?  Still, I suppose it's better than being kept behind the barriers, though at least then it would be easier to get good photos without everyone walking unintentionally photobombing them.  Everyone was sad to leave without purchasing any souvenirs, but sadly the gift shop didn't open for another 90 minutes. We did get to walk around a display of Neolithic huts near the Visitor Center, however; I especially enjoyed the clearly Neolithic padlocks chaining all the hut doors shut.

Those locks probably came from Druid Depot, right?

Eventually we all piled back onto the bus and headed off to Salisbury to get a little breakfast before touring the town and the cathedral.  I ended up having breakfast with Sari, who turned out to be from near Perth, Australia.  We waited in line to order our food, listening to the cashier constantly spouting "Fantastic!"  after virtually every statement he made to anyone, not unlike Christopher Eccleston as Doctor Who.  While waiting for our food, I quickly discovered Sari and I had a fair bit in common. Both of us had just purchased Fitbit Charges that we were still trying to figure out, both of us were on our third trips to Europe, and both of us really enjoy attending the theater.  In fact, Sari had just scored a last-minute canceled ticket to see Benedict Cumberbatch in Hamlet at the Barbican that evening.  I was totally jealous, but didn't begrudge her since I get to see a play at the Globe tomorrow.  I hope she enjoyed the show; I wonder how it was.  I also learned that both of us have done some genealogy research and come to the conclusion that walking where our ancestors walked and just experiencing their worlds is at least as important as finding out all the historical facts about them; as a result we refused to punish ourselves for not having the time to find out every fact on our too-short trips.  I was proud of us for being so realistic with our time and resources...clearly we rock at adulting.

Sari and I spent the next 15 minutes finishing our breakfasts and complaining about how rude and disrespectful other nationalities can be to a host country.  I'm looking at you here, the half of the United States who thinks that the world revolves around you and/or that the sun shines out your nether regions--those of you who routinely think everyone in every other country of the world should serve the food you like and on your schedule or speak English just because you showed up, even though you fully expect anyone stepping on our shores to speak perfect English or to get out of the country because "'Murica!," which is just code for us being a bunch of big, fat hypocrites. Sari complained of fellow Aussies as well; I guess there's just gotta be some in every crowd.  She mentioned once overhearing an American complaining that the French refuse to speak English to us because they're snotty and stuck up, as opposed to because we are demanding, entitled assholes.  As far as I'm concerned, why even bother going to another country if you're not going to try to absorb and appreciate the local culture, people, and food?  What's the point?  But I digress.

After breakfast Sari and I walked over to the cathedral to meet Stacey with an E and retrieve our tickets; Stacey with an E also offered to take our pictures in front of the cathedral as she'd done at Stonehenge.  Sari and I walked into the cathedral together but she stopped to look at something and said she'd catch up with me.  We lost track of each other completely after that, and I didn't see her again till we got back to the bus.

I love you, Stacey with an E, but don't quit your day job for photography.

Not surprisingly, I spent most of my time at the cathedral gawking at the architecture.  Other people fangirl over celebrities; I lust after books and medieval architecture like some sort of Master Builder groupie.  At least I didn't throw my linen shift at any of the buildings like a complete tramp.  A girl has to have at least a few standards.  Really, though, the cathedral was stunning.  Perhaps what I love most about such European buildings, though, isn't even the design as much as the scale.  So many of these buildings are simply enormous, towering overhead like a giant's erector set.  But then I suppose that's rather the point, really, at least for the cathedrals which are built both as a love letter to the God who will be worshipped in them as well as a reminder to mankind how small we are in comparison to the Almighty.  Or so I'm guessing.  The artistry in the soaring stone walls and vaults or the woodwork is absolutely glorious, particularly when one considers how many months/years/decades most of these edifices took to be built.  How cool would it be to live in a place where there was a medieval castle across the street?  I imagine the novelty would wear off quickly for someone local, but personally, I'd love it.

Salisbury Cathedral...wouldn't you hate to be the one responsible for dusting those vaults?

In spite of all Salisbury Cathedral's extraordinary beauty or notable claims such as having the tallest spire in the UK and supposedly having the oldest working clock in the world (dating from the late 1300s), I think I might have preferred the cathedral in Arundel, which I found very striking as well.  The detailing there was perhaps less grandiose, but I still found it very elegant.

After touring the main cathedral, I wandered over to the chapter house to view Salisbury's copy of the Magna Carta, one of four still in existence.  Apparently it's the best copy as well because the scribe was more educated and making the copy from an original for himself (you could even see where the ribbon marks from where the seal had been) as opposed to hack scribes working from copies. The calligraphy was quite lovely; it was a beautiful document, I have to say, and in a much clearer script than the one I saw in the British Library several years ago.  We weren't allowed to take photos of it, though, because of the age and delicacy of the document.  Seeing Magna Carta was a big deal for me, not because this year mark's the document's 800th anniversary, but because at least two of the 25 Magna Carta Barons appointed to ensure the king's compliance with the document are my distant relatives.  And that's just cool.

Salisbury Cathedral Chapter House, where Magna Carta was displayed.

Outside the Magna Carta display.

Afterwards, I walked back through town towards the car park where the bus was waiting, where Stacey with an E cheerily said hi, then demanded to see all the swag I'd purchased at the gift shop.  While we were chatting, I asked if there was any chance of us making a quick stop back at the Stonehenge gift shop.    She pondered the question, saying "Let me think on it" several times.  About that time Sari climbed back on board and we started chatting so it slipped my mind.  Once everyone was back inside, though, Stacey with an E informed us that she'd been making inquiries with her boss and had gotten permission for a brief stop if everyone wanted it.  Apparently most of the passengers did (I was sitting in front so couldn't see), because several people started clapping in approval.  And so we got an extra half hour to hit the gift shop and/or exhibition at Stonehenge on the way back to London, thus validating once again my favorite motto "Don't ask, don't get!"  Yes, I know it's supposed to be "nothing ventured, nothing gained," but I like mine better.  While on the bus Stacey with an E also asked if anyone had lost the medallion I found, but no one claimed it so now I have an bonus souvenir directly from the grounds of Stonehenge.  Score!

The River Avon, running through Salisbury.

On the way back to the gift shop, Sari and I were walking beside a guy from Arizona who has managed to rip the leg of his cargo shorts a little more each time he steps off the bus because he keeps catching it on the railing.  So I asked him if he was trying to emulate a naked druid.  He just laughed and then said he'd deliberately emailed some friends earlier that he was on his way to see the droids at Stonehenge just to make them twitch.  Sounds like my kind of guy.

I enjoyed the drive back to London, what with the being awake and there being daylight enough to see where we were going.  As usual, I found much of the signage along the way particularly amusing, such as the shop on the way out of Salisbury called Stonehenge Carvery, which just makes it sound like Wiltshire has something hinky going on up at the stones.  We also passed something called The Dental Lounge.  I don't know about you, but I have never found dentistry very lounge-worthy.  It's the one thing that makes me twitch every time I go.  Next we passed the Three Kings Pub and were told by Stacey with an E that the three kings referenced were Henry VIII, Charles I, and Elvis.  Because why not?  There was a shop in Knightsbridge for big and tall men called "High and Mighty," which made me wonder once again why big men's shops are always so illustrious and grand-sounding while stores for big women invariably sound more like "Fat and Schlumpy."  You know, like Dress BARN, or how everything is "plus-sized" for the inexcusably non-skinny, as in "Oh, crap, we have to add more fabric..."

Bag O'Nails...mmmmm, tasty!

As we drove through afternoon traffic we also passed a Lamborghini shop and a store with the Michelin Man rendered above its doors in stained glass, making him look disconcertingly like the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man.  We likewise passed a 35' tall sculpture of a disembodied horse head pointing nose down. Lastly, as we were passing Wellington Place, Stacey with an E told us all about how the statue of David had to be turned around so his rear was facing the street because he had been causing traffic accidents previously...as well he might.

Who ya' gonna call?

I returned tired but happy after a long but rewarding day to find the door to my hotel room slightly ajar, much to my consternation.  I cautiously pushed it open to find a maid in my room messing about with the bathroom.  She backed away, apologizing and mumbling largely gibberish punctuated by the occasional "Okay?"  I've no idea where she left her cart.  I nodded, seeing nothing out of place, and she nervously backed out the door, bucket in hand.  Once she was gone I decided to avail myself of the much-needed facilities, only to have the outer door suddenly open while I was sitting there mid-pee.  Startled, I hurriedly pushed the bathroom door shut with my foot while watching through the door crack as the maid come back into my room unannounced with a handful of towels and more "okays" and mumbles and apologies.  Needless to say, I bolted the door after that to prevent further ill-timed incursions.

I spent the rest of the evening catching up on the messages of the day and treating myself to a room service dinner before crashing in exhaustion on the bed after my all-nighter.  Totally worth it, though.

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