Tag Archives: England

Woodhenge

It was 5:30 pm.  I could take the shuttle back to the stones of Stonehenge or take a taxi from right outside the visitors’ center back to town.  It wasn’t a hard decision; I was knackered and I’ve been in this situation enough to know that it doesn’t work to force myself to keep trying to find “that wow feeling.”  I had said, Wow! when I caught my first glimpse of Stonehenge from across the fields.  I had felt a mild wow when I saw my ancestor, homo-erectus-bradpitticus.

Sure, the wows! hadn’t come over and over like at Machu Picchu or Petra.  But those sites cover square miles.  Petra has over 800 structures.

I took the taxi.

The visitors’ center lady had told me the fare would be £8.  I always ask taxi drivers before I get in the vehicle.

“How much will the fare be, approximately?”

“£20,” he replied.

“Twenty!  I was told it would be eight.”  If he had said 10 I wouldn’t have pushed it but 20?

“It’s Sunday,” he explained, irritated.  “The local council sets the rates; I don’t have any control over it.  It’s all here on the rate card if you don’t believe me.”  This was all said in a thick southwest accent that I could barely understand.

“No, no, I believe you.”  No sense in upsetting a taxi driver who clearly has a chip on his shoulder—and will be driving you through remote farm fields.

Now, did I sit in the passenger seat or in the back—to make it clear I was not interested in any hanky panky?  Some tourist guides actually advise this, but I figured it didn’t apply to a 65-year-old guy who was a big gob I was sure I could outrun.

So I sat in front, where he proceeded to verbally assault me as he took a circuitous route.  “There’s an old military garrison there,” he growled, “Everyone should be in the military.  It’s compulsory here, you know.”

I was quite sure that wasn’t true.

“Our military is just a defense force now,” he complained.

And the problem with that is?  Do you really want your military to be an offensive force?  Do you really want to be paying 50% more in taxes for more bombs, guns, and to send young people to Iraq?

Of course I didn’t say any of this.

“My dad, brother, and sister were in the military,” I said.

I’m sure he had been assuming I was a new-age, trust-funded American liberal coming to Stonehenge to worship the sun and howl with the wolves … if there were still any wolves in England.  I am not from a military family.  None of them served during war time, and my brother and sister were in the reserves.  They all joined for the usual reasons that blue-collar kids join—it was something to do besides go to college.

But the driver was now warm to me.  We were driving through farm fields, and he explained that the buff colored ones were barley while the green ones were alfalfa, or maybe it was the opposite.

“And over there—you can’t see it—but over there is another henge, only it’s wooden.  It’s called Woodhenge.”

I just plucked this photo of it off Wikipedia.

“Woodhenge is a Neolithic Class II henge and timber circle monument.”

Oooh…a Neolithic Class II henge!  I assume these are not the original wood posts.

“It is 2 miles (3.2 km) north-east of Stonehenge.”   

I could have walked to it easily from the Econolodge.

I asked, and the driver agreed, to show me where I would catch my bus in the morning.  His phone rang.  “That’s the wife,” he said to me.  Then to her: ’ello, luv.  Yeh, yeh, yeh.  Ok, ok, yes, yes, yes, ok.  No, no, no worries, I’ll remember.  See you soon.  Love you, buy-eee.”

So he was a big softie after all.

He pulled up at the bus stop to let me off; I was going to walk around downtown Amesbury.

“That’ll be ten quid … for you.”

For me?  I felt guilty for implying I was from a military family.  I handed him a tenner and hopped out.

Stones, Tat, Pitt, Poppies

There is a tar path that winds around the stones of Stonehenge.  Ropes and small signs instruct you to stay away from the stones.  The crowds weren’t bad.  I could clearly see the stones and was able to take a photo without any humans in it.  Some people were standing by numbered stations listening to (I assume) a free app guide they had downloaded in their cars on the way here.

Since there would be a full moon, I had hoped to see it rising over the stones, but since summer solstice had just passed, the sun wouldn’t set until 9:30, and I wasn’t going to hang around for six hours.

As Lynn had said, Stonehenge was a bunch of rocks in the middle of a field.  Since I hadn’t read up on it ahead of time and the interpretive signs had other tourists huddled around them, all I could do was gaze at the rocks for a few minutes, tying to rouse suitable feelings of awe.  I have done this before—arrived somewhere so unprepared and exhausted that I cannot appreciate it.  But I’m too chicken to drive a car in the UK, so taking a coach had been unavoidable.

I ambled off toward the shuttle bus that ran back and forth to the visitors’ center.  Aaahhhh!  Air conditioning.  I enjoyed watching the other passengers boarding, one by one exhaling, “Aaahhhh!”

The visitors’ center may really have been a mile from the stones.  The views were beautiful, and if I had only had a hamburger and an ice-cold Diet Pepsi, I could have ridden it back and forth on it all day.  My plan was to “do” the visitors’ center, then go back to the stones with a greater appreciation of them.

First, I had a pasty stuffed with lamb and potatoes and washed down with a pint of local ale in the café.  Again, I could not get the Wifi signal on my phone.  Why do you care or need to get wifi? I asked myself. I’m a baby boomer who refuses to spend more than an hour or two a day on my phone, so the only social media app I have is Facebook.  It irks me when people go all the way to the Roman Coliseum or some other such world treasure, then post selfies on Facebook—their grinning foolish faces in the way so you can’t see whatever the site is.  They may as well be in Indiana.

I checked out the gift shop.  There were Stonehenge-themed tea towels, key chains, T-shirts, books, postcards, water bottles, chocolates, calendars, tissues, pens, flashlights, scarves, umbrellas, tote bags, decals, patches, matchbooks, snow globes, figurines, earrings and pendants, hats, sunglasses, socks, tea mugs, beer steins, board games, puzzles, posters, book marks, and of course refrigerator magnets. The usual stuff.  I picked up a few items, then felt overwhelmed and put them back.

I exchanged my voucher for my souvenir “real” ticket, which looked just like one of the book marks in the gift shop.  I looked halfheartedly through the tiny interpretive center, which was partly inside and partly outside.  These were some souvenirs from the Victorian era:

Why didn’t they sell things like these anymore?

There was a re-creation of how the stones were moved, from 160 miles away on the coast:

Then I came upon the thing that jolted me.  This is a re-creation of a man of the time, (3000 – 1500 B.C.)He and his folk placed the stones.

There was a timeline of ancient sites and Stonehenge pre-dated the great pyramid of Egypt. I had no idea!  I realized I had always assumed that the oldest sites in the world are in Africa or the Middle East and were built by dark-skinned people, including my ancient Hebrew ancestors.

But apparently the people who lived in these huts looked like Brad Pitt.

Why did people come to Britain?  It’s so miserably cold and cloudy much of the time. Maybe they came “because it was there” and stayed for the same reason I don’t move to Arizona—friends and family and inertia.

What was that orange stuff?

Poppies! Apparently they would be harvested soon for use in medicines.

Stonehenge

I hurried on, puffing and sweating, toward Stonehenge.  I passed wooden signs pointing to places called Ratfyn, Larkhill, and Netheravon.  There was a sign pointing to Middle Wallop, which I now see is nowhere near Stonehenge, but just in case I wanted to walk five miles in the opposite direction, I would know which way to turn. Note to self: One would pass Palestine to get to Middle Wallop, and one could also visit Nether Wallop or Over Wallop while in the vicinity.

It ended up being a four-mile hike, in 90F+ heat.  I didn’t encounter any bulls; I also hadn’t brought a water bottle or a hat or applied sun screen.  But what were a few age spots compared with the opportunity to see Stonehenge?

Now—would they let me in?  I walked along a dusty gravel road lined with caravans and tents.  Were they Travellers, or hippies, or what?  Many had placards declaring, “Free the Henge!” or “Make the Henge Free for ALL!” and “English Heritage are Selling YOUR Heritage!”  The protesters, who appeared to be permanently camped there, sat in lawn chairs drinking beer, smoking weed, and barbequing who-knows-what.  They wore uniforms of tie-dyed shirts, dread locks, and lots of tattoos.  Some were friendly, some were menacing.

Gee, I thought, this wasn’t a very appealing entry to such a historic site.  Some people might find this scruffy protest charming, and if I hadn’t been tired and hot and thirsty and in a hurry I might have stopped and chatted with the ones who appeared nonthreatening. I gathered that they were protesting that English Heritage charges people admission to Stonehenge—£18.20 for adults.  I can understand how, if you are unemployed as all these people appeared to be, that would be a prohibitive amount.  However, given that the road was strewn with cigarette butts and empty beer cans, Stonehenge could look like Glastonbury post-concert in no time if they let everyone in for free.

I kept trekking and finally presented my printout to a guy wearing an English Heritage vest.  He did that British thing—the low sucking in of the breath and clenching of teeth.

“Oohh…I’m very sorry miss,” he began.

Damn!  I was afraid of this; he wasn’t going to let me in because I was 25 minutes late.

“This isn’t a real ticket, you see,” he said as he shook his head and looked at it as if he wished he could wave a magic wand and make it a real ticket, whatever that was.

“You’ve entered at the wrong end.  You’ll need to go to the visitors’ centre and exchange this voucher for your souvenir ticket, which is what we collect here.”

“Wha … where is the visitor center?” I asked with trepidation.

“About a mile down that road,” he waved in the opposite direction to where I had come from, “You can’t see it from here.”

“But I just walked four miles!” I groaned.  “This place isn’t set up for ramblers, is it?  It’s all car centric.”  I intentionally used the word rambler instead of walker, hoping he would feel that, despite my Mee’-neh-soda accent, I was sort of British, and he should let me in because this was my heritage.

He hesitated and then, after looking shiftily from side to side, said confidingly, “I’ll let you in, but you have to promise to go back to the visitors’ centre afterwards to exchange your ticket.”

“Oh I promise!” I lied.

“There’s a lovely café and gift shop there, too,” he added.  “And you can take a shuttle bus.”

He had me at café.

Stonehenge.  When I had asked Lynn and Richard and Possum at breakfast what they thought of it, Lynn had replied “It’s a bunch of big rocks in a field.”

And so it was.

Stonehenge was the latest in my grand tour of ancient sites, including Machu Picchu, the Basilica Cistern in Istanbul; Petra, in Jordan; Tikal, in Guatemala; Lalibela, in Ethiopia, and multiple other places in Israel/Palestine, Peru, Mexico, Malta, and El Salvador.  At least I was in, which is more than I can say for the Hypogeum of Ħal-Saflieni in Malta, which was closed for renovation when I arrived.

Getting There

Sunday morning.  After breakfast at the hotel, I was off to Stonehenge.

“See you soon!” we all said as we hugged good-bye.  It was nice to be “over there” for an extended period of time.  Saying good-bye meant au revoir—until we meet again.  When I’m texting “good-bye!” to friends in Britain as I board a plane back to the States, I always wonder if I’ll ever come back to Britain again, if I’ll ever see them again.

Of course, it works the other way around, too. When I’m in Britain I miss my friends and family in the States, and when I’m here I miss my friends there.

My ticket for Stonehenge was for 15:00—3:00 pm.  The tickets actually said something like, “Please be on time or we cannot guarantee you admission.”

All I had to do to get there was take the tube from Barbican station to King’s Cross, then to Victoria, then find the Victoria Coach Station, then catch a coach at 11:00 for Amesbury, find the Econolodge and dump my bag, then figure out how to get to Stonehenge, which was some ways out of town.  How hard could it be?

As usual I had planned like I was on a military special operation.  I got to the coach station easily.  It’s on Buckingham Palace Road, which is a laugh because like all bus stations it’s seedy and run down and full of lurkers—but also nice middle aged couples probably going to visit their children at college.

My phone connected to the wifi in the station, albeit very slowly.  It wouldn’t connect at all during the three-hour coach ride, but it snapped up the wireless signal in the Econolodge.  All over Britain, I found that wireless would work on one bus but not the next, on the train one day but not the next, and so on.  Was it my phone?  Was it the wireless? I tried to be zen about it, whatever that means.  I was in the front row of the coach, where adverts prominently declared, “Free WIFI!”  “Now it’s so easy to stay connected!” “Download our free app!”  When I did finally connect at the Econolodge, there were a slew of emails from the coach company thanking me for my custom, urging me to sign up for special deals, asking me to complete a survey, and reminding me to download their f-cking app.

I pulled out my printed map and checked the route for the 10th time.

Gulp.  The bus stopped south of the motorway, but the Econolodge was on the north side.  How would I get across?  Was there a bridge, or would I have to climb over a fence and dart across six lanes of speeding traffic like a deer?

As we pulled into town, I was elated to see a pedestrian underpass.  I jumped off the bus and hurried toward it, forgetting to ask the driver where the return bus departed.  In minutes I was north of the motorway but there was no Econolodge.  I walked back under the motorway, accompanied by some scruffy henge groupies, then back north again.  Then it dawned on me that this was all set up for people in cars.

Think like a car, I said to myself, and after walking through the bushes along the motorway off ramp, I found the motel.

I asked for a walking map to Stonehenge at the front desk and the woman did that British thing where they pull back their lips, clench their teeth, and suck in their breath, while looking down and away from you.  This means, “Oooh, that’s a very bad idea but I’m not going to say so.”  She handed me a map and advised, “Watch out for the bulls.”

“It’s two miles,” she said.

Two miles? Easy peasy.  I walked briskly. The views were fantastic.  The fields appear dry, I think, partly because we were in a heat wave with 90F+ temperatures.

Two miles … three … I saw the henge in the distance.

“Wow!” I exclaimed aloud.  If I had known this was the best view I would get all day, I would have savored it, but it was already 3:15.

Lady Day

Lynn, Richard, Possum, and I made our way into the Wyndham, got some drinks, then headed into the auditorium.

The show was Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill.  The premise is that Billie Holliday, the American jazz icon, is performing at a run-down bar in Philadelphia right before she dies, age 44, in 1959.  It’s a two-hour monologue and song book, accompanied by a man who plays the piano, tries to stop her from shooting up, then procures heroin for her.

I don’t go to a lot of live theatre.  It always feels to me like people are talking in a stilted way: “Look at me—I’m acting!”  I was leery about going to any American show in Britain.  On my first trip to England, my cohort of volunteers—who were from all over Europe and Asia—insisted on going to a west end musical involving a loud-mouthed Texan in a big hat.  There was also lots of waving and shooting of guns.  I squirmed through the whole thing.  The group members loved it and laughed all night about “typical Americans.”

Lady Day would be performed by Audra McDonald, with actual audience members on stage as though they were customers at the bar.  This was a bit strange, since McDonald and the musicians were dressed in period costumes, while the customers/audience members were dressed in contemporary clothes.

We were seated at a café table right below the stage.

I loved Billie Holliday as much as anyone; I had listened to her songs over and over, especially in my angst-ridden 30s, but would I be able to sit through two hours of angst?  And my chair was wobbly!

Then McDonald began her performance, and within moments all distractions melted away and I was riveted.  I knew Billie Holliday’s story—raped as a child, raised by a single mother, addicted to drugs and alcohol, did prison time, full of regret over not having children and a string of abusive relationships.

McDonald’s voice was well up to the task of Holliday’s songs; when the first strains of “Strange Fruit” began I teared up instantly.

Southern trees bear strange fruit

Blood on the leaves and blood at the root

Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze

Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees

 

Pastoral scene of the gallant south

The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth

Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh

Then the sudden smell of burning flesh

 

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck

For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck

For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop

Here is a strange and bitter crop

So the show was about Holliday’s life, but also about racism in America, and the lot of being a famous woman performer, and love, and addiction. Believe it or not she was also very funny.  I wanted to run up onto the stage and hug McDonald/Holliday, tell her everything was going to be alright and that I would take her home and take care of her.

I didn’t find myself feeling defensive about the theme of racism.  In fact, just the opposite.  Racism is a reality in America and always has been.  It’s something we’ve had to struggle with, collectively.  We’ll probably never see the end of it.  I’d like to think that as older generations die off, younger ones will be less racist, but the crowds in Charlottesville at the white supremacist rally last year were mainly young men.

So why would I feel proud of my country?  Because at least half of us are fighting this shit. At least half of us are fighting back–marching, writing essays, lobbying our elected officials in opposition to racism and other “isms.”

The performance ended; we looked at each other and I spoke first, “I feel like a wrung out rag!”

“That was intense,” said Richard.

“I’m exhausted!” said Lynn,

Added Possum, “I never knew!”

We went back to the hotel, ordered some wine, and talked for hours about racism in our respective countries.

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill was made into a TV show; if you want to watch it it’s here.

Have a box of Kleenex handy.

Greater and Lesser and Lost

Now that I know more about the Charterhouse, I wish I had had the time to tour it.  I realize only a tiny, tiny percent of British pensioners can live there, but what a great model that could possibly be replicated.

The two places on my To-See list today were Smithfield Market and St. Bartholomew the Great church.

Smithfield is the original meat market.  It’s a wholesale market which takes up several city blocks so even I couldn’t miss it.  I had had it up to my eyeballs with other shopping areas and markets that sold artisanal caramels and hand-knit tea towels and reproduction antiques. I wanted to go somewhere where I couldn’t buy anything.

Smithfield exceeded my expectations by being closed.  Of course, it was Saturday.  Few people set out to buy half a cow on a Saturday in London. So I walked around and through the parts that were open.  There wasn’t much to see; the site has been a stock yard and meat market for over 800 years and the buildings appeared to be Victorian but who knows.  Later, I learned that they do indeed sell meat retail, so if you are looking for a deal on offal or a lamb shank, check it out.

Now I had to find St. Bart’s, as it’s commonly called, which was one block away but which required me to take the following route: Poultry Avenue to West Smithfield, which turns into Long Lane.  Right on Cloth Street, then right on Middle Street which turns into Clothe Fair, and it should be right there.  Right. 

I passed Barley Mow Passage, Rising Sun Court, Kinghorn Street, and Bartholomew Passage.

Don’t turn, I said to myself each time, because I always have the urge to turn at the first place I see.  Maybe they were shortcuts.  And Rising Sun Passage sounded intriguing.

I steadfastly stuck to the route on the paper map I had printed out, and immediately became lost.  The neighborhood was deserted except for a few shady-looking guys unloading trucks, and I wasn’t going to ask them for directions.  I doubled back, retraced my steps, still couldn’t find anything indicated on the map, started to whimper and imagine myself murdered; some poor vendor would find me hanging from a meat hook when he opened his stall on Monday….

I decided to walk down Rising Sun Passage after all, and there was St. Bart’s.

Rising Sun was named for a pub, so that was a relief.  When in doubt, go into a pub and have a pint and a packet of crisps, and everything will be ok.

I knew that St. Bart’s was old.  In fact it’s the oldest church in London, which is saying something. It was founded in 1123 as an Augustinian monastery.  In case you’re wondering, there is also a St. Bartholomew the Less, also founded in 1123, and “It was called the Less to distinguish it from its larger neighbour.”  So there weren’t two St. Barts, one who was great and one not so great.  There are two churches named after the same guy.

I have been in many, many old churches but St. Bart’s struck me immediately as really ancient.  Which of course it is.  But after visiting a dozen old churches in a month, they all blurred together. St. Bart’s was different.

As usual my photos won’t do it justice, but maybe they’ll give you a feeling for the place.

In old sites where they built one thing on top of another, it’s good to look up, down, and around so you don’t miss anything.  There were crypts that told sad stories.

I liked the contrast and detail in the flooring and wondered what was below the grating.

I spent a half hour inside, then wandered back out into the passageway.

I was glad I had come on a Saturday.  The quiet seemed fitting and I felt at peace.  I had a pint and a packet of crisps in the Rising Sun, then walked back toward the hotel, where I ran into Lynn and Richard having a bite to eat at a sidewalk café.

“They’ll let anyone eat in this neighborhood!” I exclaimed as I joined them.

London Crawling

Lynn organized a London weekend to celebrate her birthday. She and Richard flew down from Scotland and Possum and I met them for a West End show, Lady Day.  Lynn arranged everything—hotel rooms, tickets for the show, and a pre-show meal.  Of course we bought her presents too, but it’s the fun times like these what we remember later, right?  Not the stuff.

From London I would go to Stonehenge the next day.  A friend who was coming from Minnesota was supposed to have gone with me, but back problems forced her to cancel her trip.

This highlighted a dilemma about travel planning.  Do you buy travel insurance?  I never do, but my friend had and she got a refund for her flights. She paid around $80 for the insurance, but that was nothing compared to losing $1,400.

I had already paid for the Stonehenge tickets.  I couldn’t find anyone to join me so I was out the price of one ticket, about $20.  Should I have waited to buy the tickets?  No, because Stonehenge books up fast in the summer, especially on the day we wanted, which happened to be on the full moon.

My friend had reserved for our tickets for Windsor Castle.  She couldn’t get a refund for them, so she was out $20 and we came out even.

Whenever I lose money like this I consider it a donation to the National Trust.  Lord knows they need it.  Losing triple digits to Expedia or Delta?  That can’t be shrugged off.  Next time I book a flight I’ll look into flight insurance and whether my credit card covers anything.

As usual I meticulously planned my jaunt into London and the boomerang bus ride I would have to undergo to get to Stonehenge.  More about the latter later.

This was the first time I would catch a bus from Waterloo, as opposed to the tube.  When you get off the train at Waterloo the signs quickly devolve from the helpful “All London Bus Stops” with an arrow, to “Buses,” with an arrow, to what could be interpreted as a bus icon with an arrow, to nothing. When I exited the station, there were clearly marked bus stops A through E, but no F, which was what I needed.

London is a mob scene any day of the year, but this was the day of the London Pride parade.  The city was teeming with revelers in rainbow wigs, hats, T-shirts—singing, drinking, laughing and having a great time.

Overstimulated, I started to feel the usual panic that I was lost.  I would never find the right bus stop, would never get to the hotel, I would probably end up unconscious in an alleyway, my ID gone and with amnesia; I would wake up in a locked mental unit, blah, blah, blah.

I’ve written in detail about this syndrome of mine. This summer was good practice for me to just notice it—not try to push it away but not indulge it—and carry on.

Think, Anne—think.  Or better yet, look at the area map five feet in front of you.  Stop F was just around the corner.  In fact once you knew the plan, it was obvious that the stops were arrayed in alphabetical order around a gigantic roundabout.  You just couldn’t tell it was a roundabout because it was impossible to get a view of the whole thing, with pubs and souvenir shops and hundreds of double decker buses blocking the sightlines.

The people watching was so good, I didn’t start to worry again until the third Number 4 bus drove past with an Out of Service sign.  Others who were waiting shrugged and started to walk.  There was no way I could walk—should I take a cab?

Just then, a Number 4 arrived and I happily dumped my exact fare in coins into the collection plate.

“No cash, love,” the driver said.  “Cards only.”

I dug out my credit card and tried to swipe it.  “No, love—Oyster cards.”

Damn.  I hadn’t gotten around to buying one.  But in line with the general celebratory mood of the day, the driver winked and waved me aboard.