Dorset, North of Spain 4

After we had breakfast, I thought the first thing to do was to get in a nice visit around the town so that the girls could get a good feel for the place.  Feet was our transport of choice.  Actually, it was mine.  Unless it’s a trip to the kitchen or the living room couch, getting teenagers motivated about walking can pose a serious challenge to any parent.   For that very reason I tend to be quite selective about the details I put out to the general public (i.e. my daughters) regarding the distance and characteristics of any walk and, when possible, use the English system of distance measurement to add to the confusion.

                “Let’s walk to town”

                “How far is it?”

                “Not far.  Maybe a mile.  Two max.”

                “Is that a long way?”

                “Nah.  Trust me.”

                I took them to a path which hugged the coast along the southern edge of Weymouth Bay, past a grassy park which served as soft natural bleachers for the spectators who had come to watch the sailing competitions in the London 2012 Olympiad.  Then we poked our heads inside the Nothe Fort for a few seconds, girls don’t like forts, and followed that by a stroll down to the pier which gave us a full panoramic view of the harmonious Georgian-style beachfront of Weymouth.  The weather wasn’t so hot in all ways, but after four weeks of 90+ temperatures in Madrid, and knowing we could expect another three weeks or so of the same when we got back, the cool air and the overcast skies were more than welcome.

                Weymouth is a sizable town of some 53,000 residents, and it is a very active community, especially in the summer, when the number of visitors raises its temporary population tens of thousands higher.  There is nothing new about this pattern.  Weymouth is one of the oldest resort towns in the country ever since King George III, yes the one American children are taught had so badly treated their forefathers, took his holidays there on no less than fourteen occasions.  Hence, the predominance of the architecture from that period.

             Proof of the king’s association with the town can be seen in the distance from the pier where we were standing, on the side of a mountain, where a huge chalk carving of the monarch mounted on a horse can be seen.  It was done in 1808 in honor of George’s frequent visits to the town, but the running joke was that the artist screwed up and depicted His Highness on the animal as it trotted away from Weymouth, thus suggesting that the townspeople wanted nothing to do with him.  Rumor also has it that the blunder so deeply affected the creator of the artwork that he took his life in despair.  I must admit that I am always rather skeptical of these tales since I feel that most people, no matter how distraught, do not kill themselves over such matters, unless, of course, their disappointment is compounded by a healthy bout of clinical depression.  My guess is the story is apocryphal.

                Enormous engravings set in limestone hillsides are, by the way, fairly common sights in Dorset, as well as other in neighboring counties.  Like many, I used to think that they were the product of Iron Age cultures with grand aspirations, and I am sure we can recall a few of the more noteworthy examples.  The man with the bludgeon in one hand and a huge erect penis comes to the mind of many of us.  It’s called the Giant of Cerne Abbas which happens to be located in the Dorset town of Cerne Abbas.  It is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the county, and while many will assert that the wish to see the image is solely out of a love for archeology…let’s not kid ourselves, I am convinced that more than one woman has surely asked her husband, “John, could you please take a picture of me next to the scrotum?”

                On top of that, it would appear that the work is not that old after all, contrary to popular belief.  Unless otherwise proven, most experts say it was probably sculpted in the earth in the 17th Century, which is still a respectable 300+ years old.  Some even assert that it may have been a kind of political statement against Oliver Cromwell, which I find to be a hysterical, were it true.  A stroke of genius to artistically shout throughout the countryside, “Cromwell is a big…”.  Because the fact is, a times he could be.

                It turns out that many, if not most, of these figures are from the past three centuries, not three millennia, and some were produced as recently as ten years ago.  While it comes as a bit of a bummer to learn this, it shouldn’t be taken as a drawback, since they are still pretty cool to look at and each has its story.  Like the George III and his horse.   A notable exception is the magnificent and truly ancient Uffington Horse, in Oxfordshire, a stunning masterpiece from antiquity that would have made Miró piddle with excitement.

               In any event, we made out what we could of George and then walked towards the center of town by way of the harbor.  There we could experience Weymouth’s other true love, and quite possibly its real true love: the sea.  Boats of all sizes, shapes, colors and purposes bobbed along the docks.  Children wedged in lifejackets and ready for sailing class raced to their boats that lay on the shore; a massive ferry heading for the Channel Islands gave passengers their final warning that the ship was about to depart; the marina was replete with activity.  Weymouth had been a port since at least the 12th Century, probably earlier, because its natural features made the waters calm and thus perfect for the shipping trade; however, the lack of any serious defense infrastructure made it equally ideal for raiding by the French.  The Spanish didn’t do much there, but the locals did so to the Spanish by fitting six ships to take on the ill-fated Armada.

              Everything in the harbor exudes a rich shipping tradition and evoked images of the people who lived in its past.  Seamen, mariners, sailors, captains, fishermen, anglers, dockers, stevedores, builders, merchants, pursers, pirates, stowaways, widows, and the lot, all must have made their contribution to an atmosphere which can still be felt today.  Fishermen chug out of the harbor, owners rig their boats, children fish for crabs, tired walkers rest on the rocky walls near water’s edge and hungry seagulls search out unwary fish & chips eaters.  On the other side, diners fill up seafood restaurants.  The atmosphere spoke of nothing but the sea.  Nothing but the sea.

             We loved Weymouth.  It is a fun and vibrant town.  The pedestrian streets that connect the harbor to the beachfront were lined with stores, shops, restaurants and pubs, and filled with locals and visitors alike.  The girls window-shopped but were tired from the walk and wanted to go home for lunch.  But I had two missions to complete first.  One was to finally exchange four 5-pound notes which had fallen from use several years ago and were accepted by establishments today.   Few were around but the ones that circulated were in the possession of the London taxi-drivers who meted them out to unwary American tourists like me.  I have never understood this practice because the bill is good; all you need to do is go to your bank and get a new one.  It seems pointless to hand one to a foreigner unless your aim is to be a shithead, which seems to be the case.

            Either that or they do it because getting a fresh set of accepted notes ain’t that easy.  I first went to a Santander, a huge Spanish bank which bought out Abbey National a few years before and now goes as Santander UK.  I noticed that it habitually rates among the worst banks in the UK in customer service, which didn’t surprise me since I was never very happy with its service in Spain. My brief experience with the institution in England gave me reason to think there was a reason for this.

              I was told that I needed to have an account with which to deposit the money.  I did have an account, which is true.  “But it’s in Spain.  Does that count?”

             “I’m afraid not.  You would have to open one here.”

             “But I don’t live here.  I’m on vacation.  You mean to say I can’t exchange twenty pounds for good notes?”

            “I’m sorry.”

             Now, I must be fair here.  The woman was friendly and she did empathize, but what she didn’t do was budge.  Not even for a measly 20 quid.

             “It’s the bank’s policy.  You might try the post office or one of the other banks.”  On top of that, she sends me to the competition.

            I had heard that about the post office on more than one occasion, so I made for there, only to walk by a Barclays Bank, where I had another account.  So, for the heck of it, I gave it a try.  The line was longer than the English Channel Tunnel, a long wait just to be told no, so I poked my head inside one of the officer’s offices and with a gentle American accent and presented my case.  I told her about my account there and everything.

            She told me the bank’s policy, which was similar to Santander’s, but said that for such a small amount of money, which was my thinking, there probably wouldn’t be a problem if I asked a teller.  Then she glanced at the line and smiled and asked me to wait for a second.  She rose from her desk and personally asked the manager if the exchange could be made, and within seconds was back with a tiny wad of four crisp bills.  I thanked her very much and left.  Now I could see why her bank had such a long line of customers.  It’s as simple as that.  That’s why they call it satisfaction.

           My second mission was to locate the tourist information office, but I soon learned that it had been closed down in April.  Not a good sign, I said to myself.  But you couldn’t tell from the masses of people in the streets.

          We had a long haul back up hill to the house, that was the part about the walk I had kept from daughters, but on the way back we were treated to watching the drawbridge rise.  It was two o’clock.  One daughter astutely observed that it must occur every day at that hour, or else the bridge people would go crazy.  The two slabs of bridge went vertical, and presently a half dozen ships slipped by, some heading out to sea, and others returning.  It was great to see the tips of their masts gliding by over the top of the open bridge.  It was a pretty sight.  Yeap, nothing but the sea.

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