Celtic Britain TRAVEL JOURNAL--part 1
Just settled onto the Air New Zealand 747 for the 11+ hour flight to Heathrow. Far from getting a Celtic Britain preview, a video is playing of sub-tropical New Zealand (thatched Maori houses, tree ferns, placid lagoons at sunset. Well, well — there's Uluru, Ayars Rock. They go to Oz, too.)
So we're on a plane from the Antipodes, bound for the "Podes?"
9:50 p.m. LA time — We've passed over Newfoundland and are closing in on the southern tip of Greenland. For hours, we've been traveling with the — well, I thought it was sunset — to our left. But the sun just rose out of the "sunset." The video map shows that we've passed Godthab, Greenland. I'm on a center section aisle seat, so all I see is sky, not land or sea. It's the time of summer solstice, and I believe we're a few degrees south of the Arctic Circle.
Tuesday, June 19, 2001, 3:00 a.m. LA time, 11 a.m. Greenwich time, LONDON!!!
We're off the plane, and on a bus/coach at Heathrow, waiting for the entire party to rendezvous. La Sierra zombies, all. I did verify with the coach driver that it's now Tuesday the 19th. Gives new meaning to the hymn, "No More Night."
"Ah!" I said when I stepped off the 747 threshold. "I'm returning to the land my ancestors left nearly 400 years ago. Breathe deeply of the air!" Far from being a London pea soup fog, or the bracing salt air of an island, I choked on a lung full of diesel and jet fumes.
The coach driver needed MY map to find today's stops. Uh-oh. That's not a good sign. My map is 15 years old, but is well marked for all the places I want to see someday. Or on this trip.
The tree-lined motorway, gently rolling hills, farm buildings, townhouse developments — hmmm… I suspect we flew around the perimeter of the U.S., and have been put down in Maryland or Virginia. Just drove past a brewery delivery truck. Driver could have been Evil Twin of Lance Tyler. Must tell him in next e-mail.
We drove through forests of pine, hay fields, and green sheep paddocks. (Not for green sheep, the paddocks are green.) We saw small Quonset huts all over a field, and upon closer inspection, we found hogs on every doorstep!
All of a sudden, on a broad hill, there was Stonehenge! (I paid £3.50 for admission.) The weather was perfect: breezy, cool, and the clouds were breaking up. We only had 20 minutes at this place of wonder, so I rushed around the path. Stonehenge is an awesome monument, but based on the (probably doctored) photos, it looked a bit squat in person. Still incredible. I wish we'd had a couple of hours there.
Bus took off for Salisbury immediately. We saw many barrows on the hills surrounding Stonehenge, and I was looking for other earthworks. I watched hilltops for evidence of digging, which would indicate a hill fort. We drove into the narrow medieval streets of Salisbury. Still two-way vehicle traffic. We were given 90 minutes to see the cathedral close and get lunch. I spent 85 minutes there, looking at every effigy and memorial. (William Longespee/Longsword's effigy adorns the center aisle of the nave.) The carved stone everywhere was amazing, and I appreciate it so much more for having read Edward Rutherford's Sarum. I stopped in the Trinity Chapel (top of the chancel) and prayed for a few minutes. Many of my Angevin and Plantagenet royal ancestors did the same, I'm sure, though with varied degrees of devotion.
Then we went to Old Sarum, which is an immense hill fort. The ditch and steep bank were dug out and built up by people living here a thousand years before Abraham. What was this generation of monument builders, who built the pyramids of the Middle East and Central America, who dug ramparts of earth, moved sarsen stones scores and hundreds of miles — all with stone, wood, and bone implements?
This sense of history with every footstep and every glance at the countryside, just makes me feel so tiny and humble. No griping about jet lag or burning feet. (Yet.) These people couldn't take an ibuprofen after placing a lintel over a Stonehenge pillar, or sit in a jacuzzi after digging and building (with hands) a hill which would take most of a year for earthmovers and engineers to get accomplished. How did the Old Ones know to carve a knob on top of the pillar, to securely notch the lintel to the gateway? Who were these visionaries and engineers and slave drivers the ones buried in the barrows? No, I suspect the barrow tombs were only for royalty or priests.
It was at least a two-hour bus ride from Devon north to Avon, but at last (though I could not help dozing for five minutes at a time after 40 hours with no sleep), I saw a pass in the rolling downs, which would be the south bank of the Severn Valley. We crossed a very long and modern toll bridge, over a muddy "river" that was really a sound or bay, and arrived in Cymru, the Land of the People. My people! My Celtic ancestors moved here when Jerusalem was rebuilt after its Babylonian captivity. Our hotel is the Newport Hilton. We had a group supper, where Dr. John Jones, one of our two directors, dryly said that after the meal, we should check out the south Wales night clubs. I'm sure everyone did the same as I: showered for the first time in 40 hours, and slept for the first time in about 44-48 hours. (Don't count the nodding on the bus: I was forcing myself to stay at least semi-conscious so as not to miss a thing. Many of the tour mates gave up the fight, however!)
I slept for 6 hours and am now awake at 4 a.m. I'm sleepy enough to get another couple hours in before breakfast, though.
Wednesday, June 20, 2001, 3 p.m., Newport, Wales
We started the morning with a buffet breakfast. Then we bused to Glastonbury to see the abbey and cathedral ruins. The weather was perfect: 70, breezy, sunny. I prayed at the grassy place where the high altar would have been, near the end of the nave, before the chancel. I stood in the same place as my royal ancestors had done.
As we drove out of Glastonbury, we could see the Tor and its tower on a nearby hill. Some of our group climbed it while the rest visited the Abbey. A few miles later, I noticed a hill-fort. They have banks or terraces to give them an irregular profile. I've noticed 5 or 6 of them so far.
I keep noticing square Norman towers every few miles. Sometimes there's a church, but not always, if the church burned or fell down. The towers seem to last, though.
Longleat House: this is the 16th century manor house of the Marquess of Bath. Grounds by Capability Brown: very natural meadows and lake. But Capability would freak at the asphalt car and bus park, and the safari rides, gift shop, and ice cream shops. On the house tour, we saw huge paintings and beautiful furniture, although the gigantic windows were all shaded or shuttered so as not to fade or damage the art treasures. The docents let me take a lift upstairs when they saw my cane, and kept asking if I was all right. I was halfway down the grand staircase on my way out, when I heart a docent ask if anyone wanted to play the grand piano. Suddenly, stairs held no terror for me, and I shot up the steps, offering, "I'll play." I did an improv of "The Water is Wide." (Yes, same as I sang in the glow-worm cave at Waitomo, New Zealand.) The ice cream shop had banana and Rolo flavors, so I had an exotic cone for lunch. Penny Shell and I sat on a shaded bench and ate our cones while I rubbed my sore foot. Then we were off to Bath.
I've wanted to see Bath since I first heard of it as a child. Roman mosaics. Magical hot springs. We were let out of our coach by the Avon River, and while others decided what to see first, or who would group with others, I was out the door, down the street, and paying for a guided city tour! I was the only one on the double-deck bus, so the tour guide just told it all to me. Bath has narrow, curving streets lined with Edwardian-era tan limestone tenements. I don't mean that they were a slum. Just every one alike. Thousands, all alike! I went first to the abbey church, and read a few memorial carvings in the floor. The carvings all face east, same as Salisbury, so I believe it's so that at the Resurrection, the bodies will all come up facing Jesus? The organist was practicing, and it still sounded great.
Found the Adventist church, literally in the shadow of the abbey church. About as small as a garage. Left my LSU business card in the letter slot, for the pastor to find at prayer meeting that evening.
Then I went to the Roman Bath and museum. It was very interesting and lived up to all but one dream: to soak my aching feet or dangle them in a hot spring pool. The archaeological society could have a spa concession, like 50p or £1 to let you unshoe, and roll up your pants legs, and dunk! Walking up and down stairs, and across stone blocks, and concrete — aieeeee, my feet.
Searched desperately for a sandwich shop for supper, since I'd only had the cone for lunch. They roll up the sidewalks at 6, though, and it was 6:15 when I was needing sustenance and a tall drink. Finally found a tuna salad to go, after hobbling back and forth on the cobblestones, and then I made it back to the coach for the 90-minute trip back to the hotel.
It's 9:35 p.m. here in Wales, and the sun is just now setting and it's getting chilly out here in the hotel courtyard. There's a fountain splashing, and the birds are singing. Maybe I'll go in and soak my feet in a hot bath: the porcelain tub and tap water. Tomorrow is New Moon and summer solstice, here in neo-druid headquarters. There's supposed to be a world-wide voluntary "rolling blackout" to make people aware of and encourage participation in energy conservation. Jay Leno will do his show in candlelight tomorrow night.
Thursday, June 21, 2001, 7 p.m., Cornwall
We're rolling across the moors of Devon and Cornwall. The sun is still high in the western sky, with two and a half hours of benevolent smiles left in this longest day of the year. Back in my hometown of Phoenix, there's no reason to celebrate the long, blasting hot day, when the earth is closest to the sun and tilted toward Old Sol at the same time. And who thought up Midsummer's Eve, when there are still three-plus months of hellish heat to go? Dang! But here in Britain, I can at last understand reveling in the perfect day. There are sheep and cattle on every hillside, either grazing, ruminating, or shamelessly stretched out for a snooze. Clear sky, green grass, fields of red poppies, the occasional puffy cloud…. Very nice.
We left Newport, Wales, and took small, narrow lanes to get to Cerne Abbas in Dorsetshire to see the Chalk Giant. (I think our driver would have got there 45-60 minutes earlier if he knew where he's going, and drove faster. We are the slowest vehicle on the road.) The Giant is a warrior with a 120-foot-long war club, and (let's not go there for the length!) an erect penis, cavorting on a hillside in Dorset. He could be Celtic and Iron Age, or Hercules/Helios ca 275 AD, or an 18th century invention.
We poked our way through the rural valleys and across moors. Dorset and Devon were part of the kingdom of Wessex, where Alfred the Great (my ancestor) ruled. I read aloud parts of a chapter on Alfred and his Welsh (Celtic) teacher. After more sheep, more cattle, a drive through the southern town of Bridgport, we headed northwest past (oh, yes) more sheep, cattle, and moors. Not one single part was ugly or blighted—it was all beautiful. I suggested we stop for a cream tea, since this place has a world-famous reputation for clotted cream, so we started looking for a tea room. We stopped at Camelford Bridge, the site of King Arthur's last battle, where he was killed by Mordred. We walked 300 yards (seemed a lot farther, though) down a gravel path to the famous bridge, and then had Cornish cream tea at the little tea room. Two small scones, clotted cream, jam, and a pot of tea. Very nice.
About 7 miles more, and we were in Tintagel, a clifftop village. The castle there, actually built by Reginald, illegitimate son of Henry I, is supposedly Arthur's birthplace, although why anyone would be born on a cliff 600 years before the castle was built, is beyond me! The existing ruins are on a wild crag of coastline. I paid a pound to ride a Land Rover down to the base of the castle stairs, but there was no way I was traipsing up or down hundreds of steps. I stayed by the little stream/waterfall above the cove, with its booming surf, and took some pictures of Kit and Penny and various seabirds. Just before our time was up, I bought a beef pasty, a world-famous Cornish specialty. I even influenced several others to try pasties. We boarded the bus for the three-hour trip back to Newport. We pasty-eaters sampled the huge pies after 9:30, and everyone really liked them.
See Celtic Britain Travel Journal Part 2 in this blog. (Coming up: Ireland)
If you enjoy life sketches, anecdotes, and historical details like these, you can find them in the book Effigy Hunter, by Christy K Robinson. It's available in print from CreateSpace, Barnes and Noble, and Amazon.