Dispatch from London
A person only has so many great moments in life. You know the kind of moments I’m talking about; the ones where time moves slowly, everything feels amazing, and you walk away with a sense of awe. I had one such moment on Monday and it was at Stonehenge. At sunset.
But before we get to that, I have to lead up to it. I am trying to get a highly visited blog going here.
Monday was slated for my tour of Stonehenge, Avebury, and West Kennet Long Barrow. It was a pretty good highlight tour of Neolithic British History. It was a structured tour group, complete with a coach (not a bus, as our coachman, Amit, pointed out) and a tour guide. I know I’m getting groans from some friends reading that, but I really would not have seen two of these sights without the tour AND this was a special private tour of Stonehenge after it was closed to the public…a private tour that takes you into the stone rings. Yeah.
So, the first step in the tour was being picked up in the morning. It was a bit odd (or “dodgy” as one of the other tour members put it) on how we got picked up. I had to be at a specific bus stop right at 10:55am and the couch would pick me up. As you can imagine, doing this on the busy streets of London, I was concerned about it showing up on time and recognizing it. Did I mention that it was a very busy bus stop right across from a major rail station?
But Amit, who I was about to meet, didn’t disappoint and was right on time. I’ll jump ahead right now and introduce Amit. He’s a coachman; not a bus driver. What’s the difference? A coachman is a gentleman and a bus driver is a jerk. In fact, there only two types of people Amit doesn’t like: bus drivers and taxi drivers. He calls both organ donors, because that’s what they create. He’s English, born and raised in the north, though his ancestry is Indian. As we learned towards the end of the day, he has a penchant for corny jokes. And he knows London very well; so well, that he showed some of us that night a great shot of Big Ben through the London Eye. I’m hoping to go back to get a proper night photo to do Amit proud!
Back to the tour, we did about four more pickups throughout London and then headed out to our first stop of Avebury. A little town about 45 minutes from Stonehenge (~1.5 hours from London), Avebury has one of the largest henges in Britain. It isn’t as complete as Stonehenge, but the henge part is mostly intact. Quick side note: a “henge” is not the stones; a henge is a dug trench with an earthen embankment. You now will say, “does Stonehenge have that?” No, it doesn’t; so Stonehenge is technically not a henge.
So Avebury; dates to a little later than Stonehenge, about 2000 BC. The medieval town grew up close to the stones, and the henge went through a couple of periods of removal over the past few centuries. Along comes a wealthy jam magnet in the late 1800s, buys up the village and surrounding land, and starts demolishing the village to re-erect the stones. That didn’t go over very well and he eventually stopped. Eventually he donates the henge to the National Land Trust and the sight becomes a World Heritage Site.
Avebury was interesting, especially considering the size of the henge. I don’t have exact numbers but think about the area of two or three football fields; so pretty big. The stones that were still around were also massive; as big or bigger than the largest ones at Stonehenge. Since it was sighted next to a medieval village, it has some interesting stories. For example, one of the stones was called the “Barber Stone” because when the stone was re-erected in the mid-1800s, a body was discovered underneath. Or I should say, part of a body. Sometime in the Middle Ages, there was an attempt to remove the stone and it fell on top of this man. He was found with a pair of scissors (oldest pair ever found) and a metal rod; both tools of Medieval barbers or hedge doctors. As we were told, the evidence suggests the man didn’t die immediately. To add insult on top of that, he was buried under the stone because it was too difficult to move it. And to prove exactly how much bad luck this fellow had, when he was excavated, his remains were moved to a university in London. A little thing called the Blitz happened in the 1940s, a bomb dropped on the building holding his remains, and everything was destroyed. No luck in this world or next, it seems.
After Avebury, the group headed off to West Kennet Long Barrow (long name for a spot, not a town). A barrow is a Neolithic burial mound and this one is the largest one in the world; there are a ton throughout England, and hundreds around Stonehenge. We hiked up a hill and were greeted with a low mound with some large cap stones at what was effectively the door. Sadly, right behind us was a group of about forty Italian tweens (I have found something worse than American tweens; and they are any European nationality of tweens). It was a fascinating sight, especially considering the view: farmland all around, a huge Neolithic mound called Salisbury Hill, and all in the middle of nowhere. Would have been perfect, were it not for the tweens.
Not much to the Long Barrow; it’s been dug in and around since the Middle Ages. And as our guide said, “archeologists say that it was used for cultural and spiritual purposes; which is code for we have no idea what it was used for.” Effectively it is a really old man-made mound in the middle of nowhere. Even considering that, it was pretty amazing. I collect man manned sights that I’ve seen (Step Pyramid of Djoser in Egypt, circa 2500 BC; Lion Gate of Mycenae, circa 1500 BC), and this is one of the oldest, dating to somewhere in the range of 3000 BC to 2500 BC. Those go right up to the beginning of history; it amazes me to think of that.
After West Kennet Long Barrow, we headed off to Stonehenge and got there at about 6:30pm. As it turned out, our tour guide got double booked for the tour and we had another group who was going in with us once the site closed to the public. In addition it ended up that the other group was going in before us (numbers issue; there are only allowed ~26 people in the stone circle at one time). At first, I was a bit annoyed and concerned, but it ended up being a gift from God.
All day, we had been fighting the weather: over cast skies and on and off rain. Nothing majorly bad but enough to make the day cold. The entire group was convinced we were going to be rained on while we waited. However, as we waited, the sky did not open up, but instead cleared up a bit. When it was our turn to go into the circle of Stonehenge, sunset started and it was amazing.
Honestly, it was a great sunset without Stonehenge. With Stonehenge, it was magical. A beautifully golden slither across the horizon; a boil of storm clouds lit up by the sun; and this great, mysterious site that is linked to the sun in popular imagination. Think of a sunset after a late afternoon storm; large number of fascinating clouds; and bright orange colors highlighted by thick dark clouds. The entire tour stopped while everyone raced around taking photos; even the guards on duty gave us a few extra minutes because the sunset was so captivating.
It was at that point that I took a few moments, stopped everything, and just looked around. I was inside the stone circle of Stonehenge, during a beautiful sunset, and I had a brief moment of calm. I haven’t had a moment like that since my time in Egypt, when I was in one of the tombs in the Valley of the Kings. I still tell people that story. I tell people this story forever.
I’ll be honest, the first week of my trip has had some annoying downs and I’ve been hit by the travel blues pretty hard. There have been many times that I’ve been thinking I should cut my losses and go home. “How am I going to survive three+ months of this?” has gone through my mind many times (epically at Heathrow). Then I had this one perfect moment. It was like a rebirth.
Not long after, we were told our time was up and we had to leave. Long ride back to London followed (met two awesome Aussies from Melbourne: Jen and Nick) and got back to my hostel around 11:30pm (hence being a day late on this entry). I crashed happily in my bed. That was Monday the 10th.
Side note: If anyone is interested, my tour of Stonehenge was through Anderson Tours. Here is the description. I highly recommend it if you can do it.
A quick recap of today (Tuesday the 11th): went to Greenwich, saw the Cutty Sark, stood on the Prime Meridian, crossed into the Eastern and Western Hemisphere multiple times, found out Edmond Halley (of Halley’s Comet fame) was a bit of a pompous ass (which is to say he was an astronomer) and saw the ball drop at the Royal Observatory to signal 1pm for London’s seamen (they’ve doing that continuously since 1833). Oh, and I finally stopped into a pub to have my first English ale (Sharp’s Doombar; pretty good). Why hadn’t I done that yet? 1) My hostel has some shitty beers on tap and won’t allow outside alcohol to be brought in; 2) the pubs around my hostel have been PACKED every time I go out; 3) I’ve been watching my money like a hawk. But that’s my day in a quick nut shell. Then I headed back earlier than normal (about 2pm) because I had to do my first load of laundry to take care of.
Tomorrow is my last day in London and so I have to do Westminster; the Abbey, Parliament, Big Ben, and Buckingham Palace, to name just a few spots. I’m hoping to do some night photography tomorrow too, but that might be a bridge too far (literally). Keeping my fingers crossed. Newcastle is the next stop on Thursday; I hope to update tomorrow night but I might be packing. Wish me luck!