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May 1, 2014

Dorset: North of Spain 10

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Gold_Hill,_Shaftsbury,_Dorset,_EnglandThe logical thing to do when returning is to take the same route from whence we came, just to avoid any unpleasant surprises.  This is especially true when you are traveling with kids, because they generally don’t appreciate hearing sentences like, “Let me just pull over a second and ask this man where we are.”

So, I should have done that, but didn’t.  I much prefer to go back on an alternate route, just to discover something new.  We did; and that was, getting lost in England is easy.  Finding your way back is not.

We veered onto the A330 and headed west towards Exeter, generally in the direction of Cornwall.  According to my calculations, I would only have to do this for a dozen miles.  I was looking for a crossroads that would indicate a turn south towards Dorchester.  This never came.  It never came because a majority on the panel of experts of the British Road Network felt that kind of information was superfluous, and that mentioning the location of smaller, vastly less important towns was far worthier of mention on a sign than lowly and forgotten Dorchester.  So I bypassed my exit at a considerable speed, positive that the route I was looking for was still ahead.  After another ten miles of stellar summer English countryside, the very landscapes that inspired Thomas Hardy over and over again, I realized that if I didn’t do anything about it I would eventually send our vehicle off a cliff into the Atlantic.   

                So, I raced off the highway and onto a country road that headed south and hopefully towards a familiar name.  The route was so narrow that it allowed for just enough room two vehicles as long as neither of them exceeded the width of a mini.   Something must be said for these harrowing experiences, but I usually pay for them at a theme park and with the guarantee I won’t die as a result.

                We coasted into Shaftesbury, an ancient town whose earliest buildings have all but disappeared from existence.  Little has survived from before the 18th Century, making it on paper the kind of town which no one in England would give two hoots about.  The name Shaftesbury may not be familiar to most us from abroad, yet anyone who has spent more than five minutes in a bookstore or souvenir shop in Dorset will have undoubtedly come upon its famous Gold Hill, an extremely steep cobbled street lined by traditional thatched-roofed stone houses.   It must be the most common photographic image of Dorset.  The lane is also famous for being the setting for one of Britain’s most beloved commercials of all time, promoting Hovis Bread.  It was filmed and launched back in 1972 and directed by none other than a young and then unknown Ridley Scott.  The ad shows a boy pushing his bike up the hill with a degree of difficulty to deliver loaves to a neighbor and final customer of the day, who lives at the very top.  Reaching the summit is described as being “on top of the world” in the voice-overed mind of the child.  The impression is understandable.   Beyond the roofs and chimneys, the English countryside explodes in all directions.  I know this from the picture, of course, just as anyone who has been to Dorset has.

The commercial is quaint, twee and heartwarming, but I was initially puzzled by its lasting fame.   After a few viewings I began to understand and came to the conclusion that it was one of those otherwise insignificant cultural nuggets which for some reason appear at the right time in a society and become lodged permanently in the memories of a whole generation.  Or two.  Every country has its treasure trove of peculiar icons that seem to mean something only to its residents.  They are brief and modest rebellions against globalization.

The Hovis bread commercial is said to have been a hit because it depicted the essence of rural life in England, with a heavy dose of nostalgia to boot.  It is fitting they would choose this spot to film it.  Dorset still possesses that yesteryear allure that attracts the British tourist in search of that lost and forgotten past of a fondly recalled simpler life.  It was become a kind of generic Main Street for the nostalgic.  At least, that’s the sense I get. I didn’t know Gold Hill was there, though I had seen the picture already.  That is a blunder in advertising.  People didn’t associate it with any town in particular. 

I was focused on other things, in reality; on what street would take me back to Weymouth and was just happy to see a traffic light because it meant I was in civilization and able to get a better understanding of just how far off course I had gone.  Fully confident of my orientation skills but no longer sure of the way I worked them, I fled to a gas station and sought the assistance of the first person I came across, who happened to be a young man of about 20.  He was with his mates.  He had a slightly unkept, up-to-no-good look, the kind of kid I certainly would have avoided back in the States, now that I think about it, unless I wanted to end up on one of those reality shows about “Unsolved Mysteries”. 

But the funny thing about the British, from an American’s point of view, is that no matter what their appearance may be, it’s the goddamn accent of theirs that makes them somehow so appealing and worthy of the fullest trust.  They could be holding to your throat and telling you that they are going to take all your money but first sodomize you for an hour, and just because of that charming intonation of theirs, you’d find yourself saying, “Hey, that sounds just fine by me.”

 Now, I can’t say what this kid would be like when the pubs close, but he was surely helpful then.  He kindly explained that I was heading in the right the direction and that I was to first pass through Blandford Forum, where I would see signs for Dorchester, i.e., the capital of the county.  Blandford is only about from 15 miles from Dorchester, but to my surprise, the disoriented traveler would not be provided with irrefutable proof that he was not lost until he was practically at the edge of town.  Oh well; every country has its quirks.

                The trip back was taking longer than I had anticipated, but as we struggled to orient ourselves, we did get to enjoy the back roads of rural England.  The tree-lined lanes, the thick hedges, the green and golden fields that formed the most attractive patchwork nature and man could jointly produce.  Each turn afforded yet another bucolic and ideal setting for yet another Hardy novel.  We wove through hill and dale until we glided into a town called Iwerne Minster, which had been was commended in the 2010 for its charm in the Best Kept Villages in Dorset contest, an annual competition run by the Dorset Community Action.  This was no gratuitous distinction.  All it takes is for a quick look around the countryside for you to realize that the competition is stiff.  Just about any hamlet in those parts could out-quaint the vast majority of Spanish communities.  They are just that cute.  You could almost imagine Mrs. Tiggy-winkle emerging from any of those homes to sweep the front entrance with a nice thick broom full of long bristles.

Iwerne Minster had apparently stood above the rest in this category making me wonder just what it would be like to inhabit like that.  It seemed almost unthinkable that a dog could ever poop on its sidewalks; no drunk would puke in its bushes; no lewd sex act ever performed or heinous crime committed inside the walls of its homes.  I was sure no habitual human behavior went on in there.  Ever.

It was while traversing this town that we drove by a pub called the “Wild Garlic”, which I pointed out to the girls because I loved the name.  Little did I know that it was a recently started up restaurant and B&B run by a Masterchef winner Mat Follas, a British celebrity I had never heard of before.  It had apparently been opened just a few months before, and apparently was closed down just a few months since then.  This was a town for hedgehogs and bears donning rain gear, not gastronomic sybarites.   Didn’t Mr. Follas realize that?

We carved our way through the rest of the county and, without great difficulty but a great deal of patience, managed to return to Weymouth with a sense that he had finally made it to familiar surroundings.  The roundabouts.  The port with the scores of masts rising into the sky, the families coming back from their dinners at restaurants.  The day coming to an end, and the town coming to a close.  It comforted us.  After just three days, Weymouth had become our new home.