Dorset: North of Spain. 8

1375282168433We visited a souvenir shop on the way out, picked out a few postcards we ended up not ever sending, snacked on a soft ice cream cone and then plotted out the next couple of hours.  We walked down the pretty streets of Salisbury thinking of where and what to eat.  As I salivated as we went by every pub, my daughters suggested Burger King, and since we had made it through the cathedral with my being beheaded, and the Stonehengey-thing still looming, I thought it was a good moment to compromise and allow them to perk up their spirits with some crappy food.

                It did the trick.  With kids happy and ready for the second half of the day, we explored the town a little more.  Salisbury was certainly attractive and pleasant to visit, but perhaps because I was used to medieval heavyweights back in Spain like Toledo, Segovia or Santiago de Compostela, I have to admit I felt a little letdown.  I know it’s not a fair judgment since the two countries have such contrasting appearances, but I can’t help thinking I was expecting more.  Oh well, the section around the cathedral was truly awesome.

                We went back to the car and headed for the big challenge of the day: the blocks of rocks. 

                I have to confide that, on one hand, I was very excited about seeing Stonehenge but at the same time terrified of what I would find.  I had heard that it had been cut off from the public and only could be viewed from a distance; and that the crowds, oh the crowds, rivaled 5th Avenue on St. Patrick’s Day.  What kind of cultural experience would I end up impressing on my daughters?  Reverting to my teaching techniques, I kept expectations as low as possible to avoid excessive disappointment in the end, and relied heavily on the long-term effects to visit would have.

                “I know you may not find this enthralling, but, trust, ten years down the road, you’ll be thanking me for it.”  A decade was a very comfortable margin to snatch a victory from defeat.  And, if worst came to worst, at least time would heal that wound.  But I had lived similar experiences when I was there age, and even I can tell you that I have come to appreciate such bizarre tidbits of knowledge, like declining Latin words, years after considering homicide when having to study them by force.   Learning can be such an odd process.

                We departed Salisbury and, after bumping up on my first curb of the trip, a space judgment flaw that afflicts people used to driving on the other side of the road, we coasted north to the final destination of our day. 

Stonehenge is located on the famous Salisbury Plain a 300 square mile stretch of open land which has served as the backdrop of many literary tales.  Aside from that, it turns out to be a real task trying to ascertain just exactly where the Neolithic monument par excellence is and what or whom it belongs to.  Research is no good.  If anything, it serves to distance you from the truth.

It appears that Stonehenge is nearby a few different towns, but not technically within the boundaries of any.  A kind of no man’s land.  From my understanding, it is owned by The Crown, which suggests the royal family could pop down there at any time and munch on some cucumber sandwiches while reclining on the blue stones, but in reality it refers to everything that embodies the government (executive, judicial and legislative) of the United Kingdom.  In a sense, everything but the monarchy per se, if I have got it right.   So, the monument is owned by the country, and managed by the English Heritage, which takes care of many of England’s most cherished historical sites.  The surrounding land, some 2,000 acres in all, is maintained by yet another conservationist body, the National Trust, which I used to think ran the show when it came to England’s heritage, but apparently it’s not that easy. 

We glided up a long straightaway, leaving soon-to-be new visitors’ center to our right and, once on top, made for the makeshift parking lot in what otherwise would be a meadow for sheep. The English Heritage prides itself in making dozens of its properties available to the public for free, but it certainly finds a way of making up for the difference in heavyweights like Stonehenge.  Entry costs something like 14 pounds, 9 if you are a child.  Then you have a 5 quid fee for parking – unless you were a member of the Heritage or a ticket-holder, neither of which applied to us.  You’d think that since they would be having me fork over a handsome sum to see the rocks on the Salisbury Plain, the least they could do was foot the bill for the parking lot. 

                Enough of the complaining.  Despite my fears of masses of multitudes turning the afternoon into something like the New York State Highway on the weekend of Woodstock, to my surprise, the visit, while hardly intimate, was manageable.  I was just reeling to get inside.  Considering it was early August, it could have been worse. 

It was also one of the most international moments of our visit to England that year.  Down in Dorset, a foreigner is a Liverpudlian whose mother is from Glasgow.  At Stonehenge, English is just one of the dozens of languages filling the air.

                The visit takes you through a short subterranean exhibit with murals that prep you for the big moment.  Since the big moment was all that I was there for, we passed through rather blithely and headed for the ramp. 

There is certainly something liberating about emerging from the time tunnel they guide you through and rising up to the open plain with the family of ancient and noble stones cracking the horizon.  The vastness of the open area muted the magnitude of the people speaking there.   Stonehenge is hands down the most famous prehistoric site in the West, and to say you’ve been that close to it, sends a chill up your spine regardless of the multitude surrounding the circle.  Say what you will, but I didn’t see it as a letdown.

My daughters feigned disinterest at first, claiming that every child under the age of fifteen there was complaining as much as them.  “I just heard a boy saying how boring it was.”

                “He was speaking German.  How would you know?”

                “You can tell.”

                “You can, can you?”


           There is little mysterious about how to visit the site.  You start at one point, something like one o’clock, and go counter clockwise for a full loop until you have observed it from 360 different angles.  It may seem simplistic to say, but I can tell you that the changing perspectives are worth it.  The weather was typically English fickle climate.  The balmy and mostly cloudy skies allowed for persistent changes of light and depth. Not sure if I would ever return, I went for another around, doing my best to tune out the crowds.

        The girls ended up loving it; I knew they would.  After looping around slowly, we sat down on the grassy prairie, pulled out a couple of packs of Walker’s crisps, or chips, as the Americans would say, and gazed at the timeless structure endlessly, the way you do when bewitched by the dancing flames in a fireplace. 

         The girls enjoyed it, I tell you.  And I no longer had to tell them “Ten years from now.  Ten years from now.”  Two thousand years ago had suddenly become now.  Ten years into the future had turned into now.  Now was all of time encapsulated, beneath the expanse of a bone-white sky and in a silence only broken by distant windy voices and the crunching of brittle chips.  Or crisps, as the British say.

Dorset: North of Spain 8

One of our objectives, at least it was mine, was to mellow out on the pebbly beaches of southern England and just enjoy the space and fresh ocean air.   I imagined the water would be something frighteningly cold, but maybe that Gulf Stream effect would improve things in that department.

This plan, of course, depended on one of the least dependable variants on the island: the weather.  The forecast that was called for those first few days was anything but beach-friendly, unless perhaps you were a mollusk, so I switched to plan B and herded the girls into the car and made for a few points of cultural interest, thus taking advantage that they were still dumbstruck by the new country and didn’t quite think for themselves.

Eventually they would stop believing me, and I knew this, but until that happened, I took it as my duty to get as much out of them as possible.

                The mission for that day was Salisbury, a medieval town known for its outstanding cathedral, and Stonehenge, which doesn’t really need any introduction, I believe.  This is the way I feared my girls would see it: a big church atop an acre of moss and a pile of poorly hewn boulders which looked as if they had been stacked by a tribe of four-year-olds. 

I did my best to impress upon them the wonders that lay ahead.  Salisbury was a terrific town and its cathedral stood out as one of the finest examples of early English Gothic architecture anywhere in the country.  And Stonehenge, that speaks for itself.  Oh, yes, and all that summer solstice crap and virgins dancing around. 

I should note that neither of these places is actually located in Dorset, but rather in the neighboring county of Wiltshire, but it’s all within striking range.  Sticking to the secondary roads, which on the whole are the primary roads, and allowing for the inevitable moment of doubt, in 90 minutes or so, we were gliding into Salisbury, also known as New Sarum.  Being used to the way you can spot a Castilian town from afar back in Spain, it did startle just how one simply happened upon these places.  One minute you were immersed in a thick and wooded lane, and before you knew it, were surrounded by houses and shops.

There is an Old Sarum, by the way, but it is currently a grassy mound of earth girded by an equally grassy ditch just a few miles away.  Not much good for a postcard and a pint, but its early history makes it popular among tourists who enjoy using their imagination.  The town had once been a thriving cathedral city with a castle overlooking the homes, but its limited size and lack of a river spurred the authorities; especially the church, to relocate down by the Avon to present-day Salisbury.  That brought on its decline and practical disappearance. 

The original settlement gained notoriety in the 1800s for being the epitome of what is known as a “rotten borough”, a term used to describe a political district which is overrepresented in parliament.  In Old Sarum’s case, overrepresentation is an understatement.   At one point it was reputed to have had only 7 voters, of whom not one actually resided in Old Sarum anymore.  And yet it had the legal right to send two members of parliament.  William Pitt, no less, was one beneficiary of this demographic botch. 

Old Sarum wasn’t alone, by any means.  By the time of the Reform Act of 1832, the problem was widespread in Britain with 152 of the 406 members of parliament being elected by populaces of fewer than 100 voters.  The new law effectively disenfranchised 58 towns, with Old Sarum at the head of the pack. 

Salisbury was already a major center for centuries by that time.  The residents of the former town had wisely improved their position to more fertile land and started afresh.  The second cathedral would turn out to be one of the finest examples of English Gothic in the land.  It’s the upward movement it evokes.  Those spires that truly scrape the sky. 

The fact that it was erected when the town was in its infancy is clear by open space that surrounds it.  Those marvelous lawns that the English care for so well.  We sat on the grass and snacked and then went in and took a look around. 

I have been in a lot of cathedrals in my life, so I can’t say they overcome me with awe at this stage – I admit that I was more impressed by the view from exterior – but I did enjoy looking at the stain-glassed windows.  There is also a clock which supposedly dates back to the 14th Century, though there is considerable debate about that.  Probably the biggest surprise came in the adjoining cloister where you could enter a room and see with your very own eyes the best preserved copy of the four oldest Magna Carta originals in the world.  Right there.  This was a terribly exciting from a History students’ perspective.  Couldn’t quite say I managed to stir the girls with same degree of enthusiasm, but there it was.  One of the most important documents in the history of the Western world.  I suppose if I had done my homework and read up enough on the place I would have known that, but sometimes not doing so makes travelling so wonderfully full of unexpected moments.  That’s what makes travelling so wonderful itself.