(Most) Henges, Great and Small

Stonehenge is known the world over for its mystery, for the (alleged) alignment of the stones to the summer and winter solstices and for the achievement of an ancient people. But did you know you can see it from the motorway that runs near the monument?

I’m not sure what I can say about such an iconic landmark that you don’t already know. But I can tell you that Newgrange in Ireland is older.

I had always wanted to see Stonehenge, but Marilynn convinced me it wasn’t worth the trouble since you couldn’t get up close to it. I had always imagined a chain-link fence or some such so you could only see it from a distance. But I was wrong. The viewing was close enough to glimpse the structure in all of its architectural glory.

On these trips, I give little input, besides driving the car when necessary. Because there is so much of the world I haven’t seen, I let Marilynn and Declan fuss over the details. On this trip, my only request was to hunt fossils in Lyme Regis. We had planned to visit some other Neolithic ruins, but I didn’t realize we’d pass right by Stonehenge until Marilynn said that morning, “So, do you want to stop by Stonehenge”? “Well, hell yes, I want to visit Stonehenge,” I replied. So we did.

But I was equally impressed with the other structures we saw after Stonehenge. The West Kennet Long Barrow was the burial place for nearly four dozen people from around 3,650 BC. The mound was filled in about 4,000 years ago. During its excavation, archaeologists disinterred the bodies and left the chambers as they would have been during the time. To access this site, you simply park in the layby, pop the cattle gate and walk right up. You can walk in, on and around the site. When we visited, we saw a couple walking down the embankment as we walked up.

Silbury Hill is across the road from the long barrow. It stands 131 feet tall, the largest man-made prehistoric mound in Europe, and was constructed around 2400 BC. Like many other ancient sites, no one knows what prompted early man to build what’s basically a big mound. It doesn’t contain buried treasure, as Victorian folks thought as they tunnelled into the mound without considering the consequences. The burrowing got so bad that the site had to be stabilized several years ago, and access was restricted, so no climbing up on Silbury Hill.

And the village of Avebury was built around its ancient mounds, including a roadway that cuts right through the heart of the huge monument, which is 460 yards across and not perfectly circular. The monument, constructed around 2,600 BC had a ditch running outside the main monument that was 69 feet wide and 36 feet deep. Within the larger circle were two smaller circles, with a stone pathway of 200 stones leading to the structure, what’s now called West Kennett Avenue.

Compared to the Avebury Stone Circles, other known sites are one-quarter the size, including its more famous cousin—Stonehenge.

What Do You Call a One-Legged Woman…

I knew something was off about this sign in the Belfast International Airport, when it occurred to me: the women’s toilet is only for monopod women! Or amputees! Or only for women who stand on one leg like flamingos! Or for one-legged women who walk like Egyptians!

Just remember, somebody got paid to design that sign…

No Escaping Pasties and Poldark in Cornwall

Pasties. Poldark. Paved road the width of goat trails. And, oddly, sea salt. That’s what the Cornwall area of England is known for, if the proliferation of pasty shops, Poldark-themed maps, damned tiny roads and sea salt displays in stores and restaurants are to be believed.

The equivalent in Atlanta would be … let me think a minute … pasties (oh wait, our strippers are totally nekkid), the Walking Dead, 16 lanes of asphalt and chicken and waffles?

Tiny roads, great views

Seriously, Cornwall is the quite beautiful southwest tip of England, known for its rugged beauty, coastlines, beaches, cliffs and a history rich in mining—and smuggling. We took a quick trip to the Lizard, the southernmost point of “mainland” England. It was that morning, when hedgerows allowed for only one car for the last couple of miles, that prompted the post on puckering.

At one point, when the road still allowed for two lanes, a pheasant ran out in front of the car. I moved over half a lane. The pheasant did, too. I moved over more, and so did the pheasant. Let’s just say the end wasn’t pleasant for the pheasant.

Declan asked me whether the pheasant was OK because he saw the bird flapping. I explained it wasn’t likely given the speed I was going, a point backed up by the driver behind us. When we all arrived at the car park for the Lizard, he asked about the pheasant. I said I hated that it happened. The man replied, “That’s OK, because I put him out of his misery.”

What’s in a name? Product placements

Writers and marketers apparently have appropriated the names of many Cornwall towns, including St. Ives (lotion), Penzance (pirates) and Land’s End (clothing). I have no idea whether the links between places and products is true, but it certainly is interesting.

St. Ives, despite its confusing, rage-inducing, tiny one-way streets, was worth a visit after a beer to calm one’s nerves. The town has a vibrant harbor that’s still in use by commercial fishermen. Seals also visit, judging by the signs in the harbor. Virginia Woolf spent her childhood summers in St. Ives, gazing across the water to the Godrevy lighthouse, which was said to inspire “To the Lighthouse.” The proprietor of the B&B in St. Ives showed Declan and Marilynn the lighthouse in the distance while I apparently was stuffing my face, because I missed that little detail.

We also spent a day in Falmouth, another seaside town, so Marilynn could give a talk. It’s a fine-looking town, but I’ll admit that at this point Declan and I had had our fill of seaside. Instead of taking a ferry trip (too late in the day) or visiting the maritime museum, we spent considerable time in Trago, a huge store that sells everything from guns and gnomes to toilets and teacups, and kayaks to kitchen cabinets. It spreads over what looks like at least three buildings and four stories at one point. The website claims it carries 180,000 items, which, if anything, is an understatement. It even has a cafe with impressive views of the harbor.

Everything Poldark

Now back to what Cornwall is known for. If you don’t know what a pasty is, neither did I before coming to England. Basically, it’s a meat pie that looks like a fried pie we Southerners would instantly recognize. I can’t eat them because they invariably contain onions (I’m allergic), but Declan is quite fond of them.

And if you didn’t catch the Poldark reference, then you’re not a fan of the Winston Graham books, the 1970s miniseries or the current BBC series that’s shown in America as part of “Masterpiece” on PBS. The scenery is another star on the show, often used as a stunning backdrop as some character or another walks, gallops or cavorts by the sea, the wind sweeping back hair and horse mane with equal ferocity.

The community certainly caught wind, and quickly, of the popularity of Poldark, evidenced Poldark (2)by Poldark tourism map where visitors can see various big houses used in either series, mines and scenic spots, including the secluded cove where a pivotal bathing scene takes place in Season 1. We attempted to glimpse one of the mines used in the series, but a succession of wrong turns left us running out of time to get to Falmouth. However, we did see signs for the township of Warleggan, also the last name of Poldark’s nemesis.

As for the sea salt? I have no idea why it would be popular, but apparently tourists will buy anything during a vacation. Pillow with Poldark’s very large face on it, anyone?

Rain Can’t Dampen Spirits at Football Match

You know you’re finally acclimated to the UK when you:

  1. Actually crave British food
  2. Drink British beer
  3. Attend a football match in crappy weather
  4. All of the above

The answer is C. Attend a football match in crappy weather, as evidenced by our attendance at Friday night’s Bristol City vs. Huddersfield Town match at Ashton Gate in Bristol. The other two are unfathomable (see why at bottom).

This was a pivotal match in the Championship, the league right under the English Premier League. What I especially like about football is that it’s a game of comers and goers. Have a great season, and your team gets promoted to the next higher league. Fall apart, and you get relegated to the next league down.

Promotions and demotions

If American baseball were organized in the same way, it would be like the three or four worst major league teams getting sent to AAA, while the best AAA teams got promoted to the big leagues, just like players do. Nothing like the threat of being relegated to get complacent owners to invest in their teams!

Declan would watch football seven days a week if he could, so we purchased our tickets well in advance of the match. Huddersfield Town is near the top of the Championship, where the top two teams advance automatically to the Premier League and the next four have a playoff for the third transfer spot. The home team, by contrast, sits near the relegation zone to the next lower league.

Our tickets were in the second row, near the American football equivalent of the 40-yard line. That’s the good news. The bad news is that our seats were not covered and it was misting cold rain the entire time. I guess we could have moved up (good but not great crowd), but Declan liked our primo seats, so we endured as best we could. The rain swirled around the stadium the entire match.

A neck injury to a Huddersfield player resulted in a lengthy, but necessary, halt in play early in the match and an unheard-of 14 minutes of stoppage time at the end of the first period. But after that false start, the match picked up speed, with Bristol City winning 4-0 to help them stay out of the relegation zone. A friend who is a lifelong Leeds United fan was virtually shouting encouragement during the match because his team is fighting Huddersfield for the final transfer spot.

Unfortunately, I missed the third goal while in the bathroom, but it was apparent what had happened from the roar of the crowd.

A little help from our friends

We have to thank several people who helped us get to the right bus stop, get off the bus at the right place, find our seats and reverse the process to get back to our hotel. These include the clerk in the hotel who looked up the bus schedule and gave directions to the bus stop; the nice woman at the bus stop who confirmed we were in the right place; the bus driver who promised to announce the stop; Bristol City supporters who pointed out the bus stop for the return and walked with us to the right entry gate to the stadium; and the bus driver on the return trip who dropped us off at the right place.

It was a 45-minute bus ride in each direction, and the wait for the return bus was in excess of 30 minutes. My feet didn’t unfreeze until a cup of tea back at the hotel, and I shudder thinking about the cold two days later.

But, for Declan, it was a highlight of the trip, right up there with fossil hunting in Lyme Regis and above visiting Stonehenge. We were all tired the next day flying home, but staying home because it was raining was never an option.

Why the other answers were incorrect: A. No one craves British food beyond fish and chips (or curry and chips). In truth, the food is getting much better and more varied than on early visits. But, as a cuisine, I’ll take just about anything else.

B. The same goes for British beer. On a UK trip with Marilynn more than a decade ago, I tried every British beer I came across—and was left disappointed and thirsty. Lest you think I’m equating Guinness and my beloved Smithwick’s to this bunch, both are Irish beers brewed in Dublin.

Exeter Cathedral: Looking Good for a 900-Year-Old

For all of its grandeur, Exeter Cathedral tries hard to remember its central mission as a community of God. And, for the most part, it succeeds. We were fortunate to walk in on a recent afternoon just as the hourly tour was starting. The docent was in great spirits and obviously was enthused about sharing this great Gothic cathedral with others.

I’ve been to many of the great (and likely not-so-great) cathedrals in the US and several countries of Western Europe, and Exeter Cathedral holds its own in terms of prominence, beauty and history.

Linebackers (not) Wanted

Started on the foundation of an earlier Norman church, two towers and about 10 feet of the nave walls remain from the earliest building. But atop those humble walls sits the longest continuous medieval stone vault in the world, about the size of an American football field.

Despite its age (started in 1114, with a rebuild in Decorated Gothic style in the 13th and 14th centuries), the cathedral seems much more open and airy than many other cathedrals I’ve visited. Part of the reason may be the bomb that hit the back of the church during World War II, which blew out most of the stained glass windows. Fortunately, the Great East Window was removed and stored in Cornwall during the war, so the 14th century glass remains. You can still see gouges in the columns that resulted from flying debris from the bomb blasts. One of the new windows depicts the bombing and its aftermath.

Parts of the cathedral also retain their original paint. Stone certainly is beautiful in its own right, but paint brings out a warmth that stone can’t match. The stone figures outside the cathedral were once brightly painted, but the docent said there are no plans to recreate those colors in the cathedral.

Whip it Good

We particularly enjoyed the astronomical clock that dates from 1484, when the earth was thought to be the center of the universe. The minute hand was added at the relatively late date of 1760.

Other relevant features of Exeter Cathedral include:

  • A 4,000 pipe organ that was recently refurbished. According to a history of the cathedral, the longest pipe is 36 feet tall.
  • The elephant misericord, one of 50 tie-up seats that ran along the walls of the cathedral so clergy could sit while appearing to remain standing. Seats are a relatively “modern” convenience. These misericords were carved in the 13th century.
  • Proof that idiots exist in every age can be seen in the extensive graffiti on the alabaster effigy of Bishop Edmund stafford, who died in 1419.
  • The 14th century Minstrels’ Gallery features 14 carved angels playing a dozen medieval instruments, including the bagpipes.
  • The windows above the Minstrels’ Gallery were for the dog whipper, who kept order in the nave, which was the social center for the town for centuries. In the illustration the docent showed, the dog whipper was going after a canine who had just peed on one of the columns.

Our nearly hour-long tour flew by, and we were left with a deeper understanding and appreciation of Exeter Cathedral’s place in history and in the life of the Anglican church. During our visit, activity ceased within the cathedral as the duty chaplain called for silence and offered a prayer for those within the cathedral and for the larger world.

That simple act reminded everyone that while parts of the cathedral are more than 900 years old, the church remains vibrant today.

New Sign Needed for Narrow UK Roads

After three days in Cornwall, I’ve come to realize that UK road signs don’t address the sphincter-tightening condition of many roads in the middle of nowhere and in the middle of small towns that have been around since the Normans.

If you think roads around my Tennessee hometown of Fayetteville were twisty and narrow, you need to think again. They are interstate roads compared to what we’ve been driving on.

One-lane road with tall hedgerows on either side. Single-lane road that twists around a 16th century building that some guy is painting, leaning out into the already restricted road. “Larger” two-lane roads where you inevitably meet a 16-wheeled lorry going around a corner. One-way street through the center of town, with dogs and tourists and women with strollers walking in the street, oblivious to the danger. And this in a rental car with a 1,000 pound deductible.

These roads have been here forever and aren’t going to change. I guess it’s one reason most cars in the UK are so tiny.

But I do have one small suggestion: a new sign that warns of what’s to come. Get the lube ready, because the road (and your sphincter) are about to get tight.

About the sign: First you do a Google search for “animated buttholes.” Then you try to figure out how to merge an image with a shape with words. And once you actually manage to put them together, you can’t figure out how to group the damned things, so you take a photo and go from there.

Few Fossils, but Lots of Fun in Lyme Regis

After a morning of fossil hunting along the beach at Lyme Regis, I cannot escape the feeling of being Charlie Brown at Halloween. The geologist was polite as he dismissed my sure fossil finds as flint, beef limestone, a clay waterpipe—and in one instance—a piece of wood.

Gentle as the Lyme Regis Museum geologist was, all I heard was, a la Charlie Brown, “I got a rock.” It was a familiar refrain among the three of us on a misty Sunday morning, when about a dozen amateur fossil hunters joined Paddy Howe for a dinosaur walk.

Although we pulled out a bagful of ammonites, belemnites (ancient squid-like critters) and a single ichthyosaur (big fish) vertebrae from the sand, the rocks and the muck, Paddy was most apologetic we didn’t find more stuff. His preferred fossil hunting weather is high winds and pissing rain, so we didn’t feel too bad we didn’t pull a giant ichthyosaur from the cliff face.

She really sells fossils

Unless you had a kid enthralled by all things dinosaur, you may not realize the significance of Lyme Regis. Do you know the tongue-twister, “She sells seashells by the seashore?” That’s actually a reference to Mary Anning, who lived in Lyme Regis during the 19th century and was credited with discovering the first complete fossil of an ichthyosaur, which roamed the area 200 million years ago.

To support her family, Anning actually sold fossil bones and ammonites by the seashore, but hey, that doesn’t rhyme quite as well. We passed by Anning Lane while walking from the car park to our flat, so it’s apparent that she remains relevant today.

The Natural History Museum in London has many fossils that Anning collected, including a complete ichthyosaur, that we’ve seen (and photographed) on a previous visit to London. It if weren’t such a pain to access our backup files, I’d go looking for it.

Lyme Regis is part of the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site, which stretches for 95 miles along England’s southwest coastline. If you’ve ever visited a heritage site, you’ll probably remember hearing about how you can’t touch anything or take photos with flash, and how you must watch your kids and mind your manners—basically, touch something and we’ll kill you.

Polishing the turd

Lest you think we were stealing fossils, Lyme Regis is not a typical world heritage site. As Paddy explained, since the tides continually both uncover fossils and erode parts of the cliff every year, the authorities just want to catalog significant finds, and what nearly everyone finds is of no significance. You can’t dig into the cliff face, but if there’s something sticking out you want to dig out, you can—with permission. But if it’s in danger of being carried away, you can dig it out first, then seek permission.

And if you find an entirely new skeleton, it’s yours to keep, to sell to the highest bidder, donate to the British Museum or to do whatever you want with. So instead of leave no trace and take nothing but photos, here it’s haul off all you can carry and just watch out for the cliffs.

Marilynn gets the credit for finding the ichthyosaur vertebrae on the way back to the flat after the fossil hunt was officially over. This is one of the more rare finds. I had seen so much beef limestone that I didn’t believe her, so we had Declan run the specimen back to Paddy, who said it came from near the creature’s neck.

But I don’t think anyone found any coprolites, fossilized dino poo to us ordinary folk. Paddy explained that they are commonly found and were particularly prized as jewelry during Victorian times. The fossils were polished and made into necklaces, so as Paddy wryly said, it is possible to polish a turd—and wear it, too.

I’m trying to imagine those highly stylized women, like those on those PBS series that Marilynn makes me watch, wearing hoop skirts and brocade while basically wearing a piece of shit around their necks.

Side note: That afternoon, we traveled to West Bay along the Jurassic Coast to see the cliffs. Those who watched the UK version of “Broadchurch” would recognize the cliff face immediately as the scene of the initial murder. While you’ll never find me on a “Walking Dead” tour in Georgia or the “Games of Thrones” tour in Northern Ireland, it is pretty neat to see the same perspective in real life that you’ve seen on the small screen.