December 22, 2000, Friday
We had tea and crumpets for breakfast! Now doesn’t that sound wonderfully English? A crumpet is sort of like a chewy English muffin (although I don’t think they call them English muffins over there, ha) that you don’t slice. Hard to explain, but delicious nonetheless. (And if you want to be further confused, read this.) Those of you who know I had given up breads in my quest to shed a few pounds can just imagine how difficult it was for me to try all these wonderful new baked goods.
And then … off to Stonehenge. Yes. This place, this circle of rocks on a windswept plain, was the only item on my absolutely-must-see list, which may astonish some of you. Or not. I have always been fascinated by history, and it’s the most ancient history that really gets my attention.
Anna had downplayed Stonehenge. “You Americans always say ‘it’s not as big as I expected’”—and, frankly, that was true, although not a disappointment in the least. (Those outer stones are about ten feet high.) Here’s why some Yanks expect something more: we’ve all seen those beautiful sunrise or sunset photos of Stonehenge. Lovely, but there are no humans in them for scale, so we never really grasp the true size and scope of the place. It looms very large in our imaginations.
But the thing about Stonehenge isn’t the size, for heaven’s sake. No, it’s that the two distinctly different types of stone used to build it were brought such great distances with such primitive tools. The unique bluestones, they know, came from the Preseli Mountains in southwest Wales—a distance of some 150 miles as the crow flies, which is not how the stones came, thankyouverymuch—in 2600 BC. Think about it. That’s the Neolithic period, and these stones weigh about four tons each.
“There were three phases in Stonehenge’s development,” the guidebook says. “The first Stonehenge was a large circular earthwork, probably used as a ceremonial meeting place about 5000 years ago. This was followed by timber settings between 4900 and 4600 years ago. The final phase came with the erection of the bluestones, followed by the building of the stone circle with sarsen stones from the Marlborough Downs.” I have some lovely postcards with aerial photographs that clearly show the circular perfection not only of the monoliths, but of the mounds and earthworks, which trace a much larger circle in the chalk plains.
Stonehenge sits out in the middle of nowhere, on the Salisbury (pronounced SOLZ-bree) Plain, and the wind, even on a nice day, sweeps right through. This particular day was the coldest one we’d yet experienced—though it didn’t stop your intrepid travelers! By now we’d learned the fine British art of weather-ignoring.
While I was purchasing tickets, I asked to buy a reduced-price student ticket for Jesse. The clerk asked for some proof that he was a student, and while I was nonplussed for a moment, the Englishman standing behind us spoke up. “It’s quite obvious he’s a student!” he said and pointed to Jesse’s very American school jacket. By their clothing ye shall know them. 🙂 Really, it was just so stinkin’ cold, he wanted to move the line along, and it worked. We toured the site—probably faster than we might have on a nicer day—and took lots of photos. After that, we bought hot chocolate and more baked goods (I had bread pudding, a favorite of mine) from the on-site food stand … and then blithely stood right outside and ate and drank as if the wind wasn’t blowing and we weren’t freezing. “Lovely day, what?”
From Stonehenge we drove on in to Salisbury to visit its magnificent cathedral, which has the tallest spire of any in England (reaching a height of 404 feet). Salisbury Cathedral is unique amongst medival English cathedrals in that it was entirely built within one century (between 1228 and 1258), with no substantial later additions; as a result, it is a single architectural style, called Early English Gothic.
Within sight of the modern town of Salisbury (pop. 40, 302 in 2011), which even a thousand years ago was a thriving community, is the outline of the old Norman fort called Old Sarum—the residence of the local royalty. (I’m sorry to say we didn’t visit it.) A cathedral was laid out alongside this royal castle, the foundation of which can still be seen today; it was consecrated in 1091. After one hundred years or so, though, the need was seen for a site on which the cathedral could grow, and that’s when the present-day cathedral took shape. (This building was called de novo—a Latin expression for from the beginning, afresh, anew, beginning again—because they moved it to a completely new spot, away from the old town. There it stood, out on the plain, alone. Later the town grew up around it, but the grounds are still very parklike.)
I cannot even begin to describe how beautiful it is; step inside and you can truly feel the presence of God.
The cathedral is filled with art, both ancient and modern, from an antique stained glass window and the tomb of the first bishop (both brought from the original structure at Old Sarum) … to a modern series of stained glass windows installed at one end in 1980 (dedicated to political prisoners worldwide) … to a group of very modern papier-mâché statuary decorating the nave.
Outside the cathedral is the Chapter House, an octagonal building that serves now as a museum, housing art, silver chalices, medieval manuscripts and early printed books, and one of the four surviving original texts of the Magna Carta, the famous agreement made between King John and his barons at Runnymede (near Windsor) in 1215.
The barons violently opposed John’s disastrous foreign policy and his arbitrary use of power, and in their successful rebellion forced the king to accept this bill of rights. “Its importance cannot be exaggerated,” the guidebook tells us. “Initially designed to regulate the feudal relationships betaeen the Crown and its immediate tenants, it provided for regular justice in courts and ensured that the Crown (and nowadays the State) would only act against its subjects by recognized legal procedure. The most famous chapter of the Magna Carta states: ‘No free man shall be take or imprisoned or deprived or outlawed or exiled or in any way ruined … except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.’”
When Jesse and I moved to the front of the crowd to better see this ancient piece of vellum, the older gentleman there, a volunteer guide, asked us where we were from (had we opened our mouths, he would have known). When we answered, he smiled and said, “Oh, this manuscript is of monumental importance to the people of your country,” and proceeded to tell us—and others gathered there—all about the Magna Carta.
I so enjoyed him that I asked if I could take his photograph, and he walked outside into the cloister green with Anna, Jesse, and I, where we stood talking for another twenty minutes. He was eighty-two years old, a retired Church of England bishop, and quite charming. After he’d gone back inside, Anna told us we’d just had yet another truly British experience: listening to an old soldier tell about the war! (World War II that is.)
We walked through the town’s shops on our way back to the car, and it was here in Salisbury that I bought my personal souvenir: a sweater. I’d wanted something I could use and enjoy in the coming years that would be a reminder of my trip, and this lovely sweater, knitted and hand-embroidered in the north of England (I was told by the shopkeeper) really fit the bill.
We’re nearing the end of our journey … and getting closer and closer to Christmas. We were really looking forward to a traditional England Christmas celebration—stay tuned and you’ll hear about it!
NOTE: These photos were taken before the days of digital cameras—or at least, before people like me could afford them—so what you see here has been scanned from the hard copy. Not great quality, but it’s all I’ve got. 🙂
UPDATE: Want to know about more recent developments at Stonehenge? I did some research on it.