August 28, 2012

I left the hostel early in the morning and caught a train to Salisbury, a town about 90 minutes outside of London. I’ve done so much since I left Portland, but this journey still feels very new, and I still feel very new to it. I look forward to everything that lies ahead, and I also look forward to feeling more seasoned — not hardened, just seasoned. I never want to settle into any kind of complacency, here or at home.

The countryside on the way out to Salisbury is rolling and green, squared off by hedges and stone walls and dotted with sheep. London has a green belt that circles the city, eliminating the chance of urban sprawl. It’s so nice to see such verdant farmlands so close to the city limits.

Salisbury is a very old town that rests on tributaries of the River Avon. Central to the town is Salisbury Cathedral, build in 1258. The area of the Close (the cathedral grounds and buildings once occupied by clerics) is entirely walled off, the entrance to which is a large gate at the edge of the town’s thriving market square. To this day, the gates close at 10:30, and the only way for non-residents to enter is by knocking at the gatekeeper’s door.

The buildings in the center of the town are all old and squat and pressed together, Victorian and Tudor and Georgian and Queen Anne alike, brick and wooden beams and stone. And I just couldn’t get enough of it all. God, I love these old buildings. I read so much fantasy when I was younger, and it all makes me think of my favorite characters stopping in villages like this one to resupply and eat and drink and put up their heels for a night. Dorky, maybe, but to live inside this fiction so thoroughly thrills the child within me. I could really barely contain my love for my surroundings, standing at the center of it all, fists clenched and breath shallow.

The Salisbury Cathedral is immense and soaring. I walked around with my head tilted skyward, drinking in the grand arches, sculpted ceilings, and stained glass windows. One item of note was the Cathedral’s original clock, dating back to 1308. (Fun fact! Clocks from that time didn’t have faces — they existed solely to signal the church bells to ring. People didn’t read the time; they listened for it.)

Just like Westminster Abbey (and I imagine with most cathedrals?), Salisbury Cathedral has many people buried or entombed within it. My favorite coffin was that of William Longespree, who was the illegitimate son of Henry II and half-brother of King John. Longespree was married to Ella, the Countess of Salisbury, but he left her behind when he went to fight in the Crusades at the beginning of the 1220s. Longespree said he would only be gone a year, so as more time passed, most people presumed him dead. The Countess had a considerable amount of money, so a bunch of guys started putting the moves on her, believing her to be a widow. One dude in particular (I forget his name) decided to throw an extravagant feast for Ella, after which time he assumed she (and her money) would be his. But then along comes Longespree! Back from the Crusades! So the dude back-peddles and says the feast is now for Longespree’s victorious return. And the feast happens and everyone’s happy and then, a week later, LONGESPREE DROPS DEAD OF A MYSTERIOUS AFFLICTION. Foul play?! No one could possibly know! (The 13th century wasn’t known for its forensics.) So Longespree is entombed in the cathedral, Ella goes into the convent (taking her money with her — take THAT, bad guy!) and time moves slowly on. NOW FAST-FORWARD TO THE END OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY! There’s a flood at Salisbury Cathedral and the water rises mid-way up Longespree’s coffin. Concerned that there was damage, the curators pried open the tomb for the first time, relieved to find that Longespree’s bones were there and that no intervention was needed to save the remains. Everything was OK. BUT WAIT! Inside Longespree’s skull there was a very old, very dead rat, with hair still on its body. (Mom, you can stop reading two sentences ago and pick up at the beginning of the next paragraph.) So scientists decided to take the rat to a lab for analysis AND YOU KNOW WHAT THEY FOUND INSIDE THE RAT?! ARSENIC! In case you didn’t know, the brain is the last bit of a person’s body to decompose… so the story was finally pieced together… sometime after Longespree’s death, a rat burrowed into his tomb from the ground and ate some brains for lunch. BUT LONGESPREE’S BRAIN WAS POISONED WITH ARSENIC!!! This of course killed the rat (but kept the hair on its dead body) and also, undoubtedly, killed Longespree. And, lo! AN 800 YEAR OLD MYSTERY IS SOLVED! HE WAS TOTALLY POISONED!


Also on display at the Salisbury Cathedral is the Magna Carta — and not just any of the surviving documents that were signed or sealed by monarchs in the 13th century — this copy is the oldest (1216) and the best preserved (due to the fact that it was likely stored in complete darkness for hundreds of years). And I saw it with my own eyes! Wow wow wow wow wow.

To brush up your history, the Magna Carta is the document that lays the foundation for modern law. You see, King John was a real jerk and made a lot of enemies among his barons (not to mention the working class people, who were taxed out the ears). The barons eventually got so angry with King John that they invited France to basically take over their country. “Wait, wait, wait!” said the Archbishop of Canterbury. “Let’s make a deal instead. Barons, you write up your grievances and how to make to make this all better in the future. King John, you sign it. And then, barons, don’t give England to France. ‘Kay?” And so it happened. And it was called the Magna Carta.

What is so historically significant is the precedence set for both personal freedom and personal responsibility. According to the Magna Carta, no one is above the law (not even kings!). And every person who is thought to break a law is given a fair trial. So King John signed it, though he really wasn’t happy about it, and then there was more business with the Pope telling John to rip it up, and talk of a French occupation, and John’s death from dysentery, and Louie from France ruling over England for like five minutes and then the peaceful accession of Henry III to the throne, even though he’s something like nine years old. And then everything is OK again. For a while.

So anyway, the Magna Carta is basically the first human rights document, and it has been used as source material among many nations of the world for hundreds of years. /historylesson

Damn, I love history. You get the benefit of seeing things from a distance. It’s not all mucked up in the present.

I left Salisbury by bus, and we drove over winding country lanes toward Stonehenge. We passed many little thatched cottages and a few bigger manors, and then we were out in the open, speeding along a straight road, green farmland on every side and there, ahead on a rise, shining in the sunlight: Stonehenge.

When I was little, I had a illustrated jigsaw puzzle of the Seven Wonders of the World. It had a couple hundred pieces, and I put it together over and over again. This was when I first learned of Stonehenge. At the time, it was widely thought to have been an ancient Druid temple, and this played well with my active and vivid pretend world. I think I was reading The Black Cauldron at the time, and so I was entranced by the idea of fantasy come to life. In my minds eye, I can still see the illustrated image of Stonehenge, up at the upper right corner of the puzzle. I think I must have been about eight years old.

To then have the illustration of my mind’s eye fade away and be replaced by actual stone — in front of my very eyes — that is something I will never forget. It actually took my breath away. I just kept saying “oh my god oh my god oh my god” over and over again, smiling and laughing, trying to catch my breath. The stones are massive and beautiful, and so obviously sacred — the energy of the place is palpable. I took the large circular walk around the stones over and over, never quite able to get enough.

I will say that part of the appeal of Stonehenge when I was younger was the no one knew how the stones got there. I was intrigued by what was seemingly a cosmic mystery. Modern archeology and anthropology have unveiled much in the way of the of the stone’s origins and popular theories about the people who erected them (who were, I learned, not the Druids but the ancient Britons). I found this information to be slightly demystifying, but fascinating nonetheless.

Stonehenge was erected in several stages over hundreds of years, beginning in about 3000 BC (though some scholars claim a connection to Stonehenge and Mesolithic postholes found nearby, dating as far back as 8000 BC). Over time, it was likely used as a burial mound, a place to worship ancestors, a way to tell seasonal time, and a kind of celestial observatory. Nearby are dozens of barrows, small hills under which people are buried. And the whole thing lies on an ley-line, which is a straight line that connects multiple places of spiritual significance.

It took a while (bus, train, Tube, train) to get to the bus station in St. Albans, and when I got there I discovered that the bus to Redbourn wasn’t scheduled to arrive for another ninety minutes. So I settled down on the sidewalk, sitting on my backpack and writing in my journal, entertained by two (Welsh? Scottish?) guys whose language was right out of a McDonagh play. Lots of “fooks.” I could honestly only understand every fifth or sixth word, and most of them were swears.

The bus to Redbourn eventually came. It was rather late by that time, and I was looking forward to getting to the Gales’ house and crashing. Until this evening, Elizabeth or Pete had been dropping me off and picking me up from the train station in St. Albans, but since the work week started today, I told them I would take the bus. I had never before actually walked from the bus stop to the Gales’ home until tonight (though Elizabeth had showed me the route by car a couple of days ago). I set out confidently from the bus stop, though, energized whenever I recognized a marker or monument. Footpath, check. Town common, check. When I got about mid-way down the common, I turned right and then right again, fully expecting to see their house in front of me. But… it wasn’t. Perplexed, I pulled out my phone to look at their address but… it was dead. So, there I was, 10pm in a small town in England, lost.

The whole thing struck me as rather funny. Rebdourn is very safe, and I had my wallet and passport with me, so I knew I wasn’t in any kind of real trouble. So I set out to retrace my steps, convinced that, with just a little more mental effort, I could find their house. FORTY-FIVE MINUTES LATER, I stood in the middle of the street, honestly a little unsure of what to do (but still kind of enjoying myself). That’s when I saw a guy taking out his trash, and I drifted up to him. This was, roughly, our conversation:

Kerry: Hello. I’m lost.
Guy: (a little cautiously) Where are you trying to get to?
Kerry: Actually, I don’t really know.
Kerry: Do you happen to have an iPhone charger?
Guy: I’ve got an iPod charger… in the house…
Kerry: I’m staying with friends, and if I can charge up my phone, I can find their address.
Guy: …
Kerry: I promise I’m not a robber.
Guy: … All right, then. Follow me.

And that’s how I met Tom and Stephanie, two of the nicest people in the world.

While my phone charged, I stood in their kitchen and we chatted about all sorts of things. Tom works at the Royal School of Music, and Stephanie is a local school-teacher, and who is actually from Ohio. They’re both about my age, and we hit it off immediately. They offered me a seat and a drink and totally restored my faith in the kindness of strangers. Eventually, when my phone charged up enough to turn it on (which for some reason took a while), I looked up the Gales’ address and Tom and Stephanie promptly put on their shoes to walk me there. I told them that they didn’t need to bother, that I could find my way, but they wouldn’t hear of it, and then we were outside in the cool night air, walking along the town common. It was lovely (and we saw a hedgehog!) and when I got to the Gales’ house, we hugged and said goodbyes (but not before I gave them the address of this travelogue… if you’re reading, Tom and Stephanie, hello! And thank you again!). In the end, though I got home far later than I would have preferred, it was an experience well worth having.

Tomorrow: Stratford-upon-Avon!