Amazing Avebury

Seventeen miles north of Stonehenge is the charming village of Avebury, itself the site of an ancient stone circle that may rival its more famous neighbor in terms of interest.

IMG_2923

Imagine this.  You and your friends are given shovels and asked to dig a henge (large circular bank with an internal ditch) that is nearly four football fields wide and ten football fields long.  After finishing that bracing task, your hearty crew is given axes (for cutting trees into roller shapes) and asked to roll 98 stones–some weighing up to 40 tons in weight—and set them into extra holes that you dug in your spare time.  A 40-ton stone is about the weight of 20 cars.

IMG_2914

Did people 6,000 year ago not have enough to keep them occupied?  Couldn’t they have invented cricket earlier?  Why would they undertake such a massive construction project? Clearly this was not a leisure sport. Of the many theories, the most serious one suggests these people used the site to practice rituals observing alignments of the stars, moon, and sun.  Another interesting suggestion is that the stone circle might have been viewed as an axis mundi—a marker indicating the center of the world.

IMG_2926

So feel good that instead of using a spade and axe, you can pay the National Trust a modest admission fee that helps protect these stones from souvenir hunters.  Allow yourself to wander among the stones and feel awed by what the ancients were able to do.

IMG_2931

And before you leave, have a nice pub lunch at the Red Lion and treat yourself to a saunter of the side streets to see their lovely gardens.  Perhaps you can watch a cricket match at the local pitch as well.

IMG_2921

Next Time:  The Destruction of Great Country Houses

Photo Credits:

Aerial View–Google/Open Source

Individual Views–Nancy C. Parrish

 

 

A Pilgrimage to the United Kingdom. Chapter 1: You Arrive

You’re finally arriving in the United Kingdom.  Good for you.  You deserve it. You’ve perhaps even taken British Air to give your legs a bit more room and your ears an auditory tune-up.  Anyway, ridiculously happy, you float down into Heathrow where Terminal 5 welcomes you, Mary Poppins-style, with a canopy of colored umbrellas.

IMG_2750

You linger over a cup of coffee and a croissant for an hour, gaining your sea legs, studying the “Fly Emirates” posters, noting signs directing people to the London train, or just people-watching: Arabs in exotic native dress, Norwegians headed to the Alps with skis bundled under their arms, gorgeous Italian women with Skycaps carrying their mountains of luggage.  You genuinely see how you are a part of the world when you take time in an airport.

Next, you pick up your car.  It’s probably a model you’ve never heard of before—say, an Ateca—and though you have been mentally preparing for it, it remains a shock to see that the steering wheel is firmly structured onto the righthand side of the dashboard.  Nothing concentrates the mind or makes for a better driver than driving on the left side of the road.  Fortunately you begin on a motorway (their interstate highway), so you can creep along in the slow lane at 40 mph until you get the feel of things.   Later we’ll discuss the thrills posed by small roads.

IMG_2808

Out of the thousands of beautiful places to visit, you have wisely chosen Wiltshire and its lovely “downs” (rolling hills) seventy miles due west of Heathrow.

IMG_2797

Even a short list of more official attractions in the county stuns:  Stonehenge and Avebury, Salisbury Cathedral, lovely Stourhead and Bowood estates, and charming Lacock Village to name only a few.

Wiltshire is the home to hundreds of thatched roof/stone cottages, enchanting gardens lush with flowers, and elegant horse estates.

IMG_2805

Your base is the small village of Pewsey.  The central intersection memorializes Alfred the Great who united early tribes into the Kingdom of Wessex (East=Essex; west=Wessex; south=Sussex; no, I don’t know the north term).

IMG_2835

Your Air B&B is Southcott Cottage.

 

Settle in.  The pleasure is just beginning.

 

Next Time:  Avebury

Photo Credits:  Nancy Parrish

Oxford and Its “Dreaming Spires”

If you ever want to read a Romantic poem designed entirely to make you pine away for the English countryside, Matthew Arnold’s 1865 “Thyrsis” is a winner.  In three lines, he single-handedly created the phrase that fueled the tourism industry for the town of Oxford for the next century and a half:

 

And that sweet city with her dreaming spires, 

She needs not June for beauty’s heightening, 

Lovely all times she lies, lovely to-night!—

Just say “dreaming spires” to most Anglophiles and their eyes mist over while they look off into the distance, heaving a long, wistful sigh.

In fact, Oxford has a Bridge of Sighs (an urban bridge based on its Venetian elder):

BridgeofSighs2

Its buildings echo with the footsteps of famous writers.  You, too, can sit in the Eagle and Child Pub (locally called the Bird and Baby) and have a pint right where C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and the others in their group The Inklings sat and read from The Narnia Chronicles, Lord of the Rings,or other works.

Eagle and Child

You can watch scullers on the River Isis:

Rowing Oxford

And if you are a book-lover, you will be drawn like a drug addict to Blackwell’s Booksellers. You fall silent when you enter the door and see the heavy wood beams and walls of books.  It is an English Temple to Reading.

Blackwell's

So, yes, at the end of the day, you’ll agree that Matthew Arnold got it right.  Oxford is a town out to capture your imagination.

Oxford in snow

Next time:  Photos and thoughts from my August 2019 ramblings about Wiltshire

Photo credits:  open sources online

Looking Around Cambridge

 

In the 1200s and without due process, the townspeople of Oxford executed two university students accused of killing a woman.  Disgusted and fearful for their rights, some scholars walked seventy-six miles eastward into the fens, marshlands that would not be drained for five more centuries.  There on the river Cam in 1209 they established Cambridge University, a modest academic center that would grow into a powerhouse educational institution of 31 colleges housing about 600 students each. Though the two universities are rivals, they will be forever linked by the shorthand term of “Oxbridge.”

 Make no mistake: no one is joking about the marshland origins now.  Cambridge is the wealthiest university in Britain and has such strong technology centers that it is often referred to as Silicon Fen.

Bridge of Sighs

As one of the two premier universities, Cambridge with its 114 libraries is also legally entitled to one free copy of every book printed in the country. Its libraries house over 8 million volumes!Cambridge

Several of the older colleges border the river Cam with lovely greenspaces called the Backs.  If you visit, you can inexpensively rent a small, flat-bottomed boat and see the Backs as you pole (“punt”) along the river down to the Mathematical Bridge (originally assembled without a single nail).  Don’t be surprised if you see some young boy clinging to the pole mid-river because he held on after getting it stuck in the mud.

queens-college bridge

You also might want to tour Trinity College where Lord Byron kept a pet bear (to spite the administrators who refused to allow pet dogs).  Just be sure to keep off of the courtyard grass. Only members of the college are allowed to walk on it, and there are college officials called Beadles who will tell you in no uncertain terms to remove your feet from their fescue.Byron's Fountain

If you are a Harry Potter fan, you will be please to stroll along the King’s Parade, stroll into shops selling elegant woolen scarves emblazoned with a college seal (just as it’s done at Hogwarts).

Kings College entrance

Let yourself be stunned by the shortlist of scholars associated with Cambridge:

Scientists Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Alan Turing

Abolitionist William Wilberforce

Musician Ralph Vaughn Williams

Writers W. M. Thackery, E.M. Forster, A. A. Milne, Michael Crichton, John Donne,

Williams Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Actors Emma Thompson, John Cleese (Monty Python), Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey)

fan vaulting

Finally, treat yourself to a spirit-nourishing experience. Close your day of touring by making your way into the King’s College Chapel just before 5 p.m. There you can listen to an evensong service of organ and voices that cannot help but move you.  The music spirals up and rolls over the fanned stonework in the high ceiling of this elegant chapel, drawing you heavenward.

And at that moment, you will know that you have been in one of the special places of the mind and heart.

Next Time:  Oxford and Its “Dreaming Spires”

Make yourself a note: This Christmas, tune in to hear the King’s College Nine Lessons and Carolson PBS or NPR.

Photo credits:  Open source internet

Opening featured photo aerial view of Sissinghurst cottage:  Nancy Parrish

Walking to Tea in Grantchester

Grantchester-Tea-Table

You have arrived at the train station in Cambridge, dropped your bags at the quaint, half-timbered B&B, and decided to save the pleasure of studying the town until tomorrow.  However, you do very much need a proper English tea.

Before there was a Grantchester television series with an impossibly handsome Anglican vicar named Sidney Chambers (James Norton), there was—and still is—the impossibly charming village of Grantchester, an easy 40-minute walk southwest of Cambridge.  This is just the place to find your tea and scones in a quintessentially English country setting.

Grantchester III

Your walk begins at the Mathematical Bridge.  The legend goes that medieval scholars assembled the wooden bridge without a single nail—just by calculating inclines and pressures. But when modern scholars took it apart to analyze it, they couldn’t reassemble it without braces, screws, and nails.  It’s a good story.

Banks_of_the_Cam_at_Grantchester

Anyway, you stroll from Grantchester Street to Eltisley Avenue and soon find yourself walking a flat earthen path meandering through the Grantchester Meadows. Here and there the River Cam peaks out at you from the soft, green weeping willows overhanging its banks.  Bluebells, lilacs, primroses, and cowslip escort the river on its leisurely way.  Meadow flowers festoon the fields. No motors disturb your reverie, and so you easily drift into a daydream of walking through Victorian or Edwardian England .

Cropped church

Almost too soon you find yourself coming up to the High Street in Grantchester where you face the pleasing 14th-century stone Church of St. Andrew and St. Mary with its square bell tower.  With a turn of the head you see, swathed in ivy, the brick 17th-century Vicarage that was once home to the poet Rupert Brooke and to the novelist Jeffrey Archer.  And now, the handsome Sidney Chambers.

Old Vicarage at Grantchester

But you’ve earned your tea now and so stroll left on Mill Way for just a few yards where you see the Grantchester Orchard Tea Garden.  Scattered beneath apple trees are low-slung canvas chairs where have sat relaxed and cozy tea-drinkers ranging from Virginia Woolf to—yourself. Generations of writers, artists, and ramblers have found their ways to this orchard and have spent gentle afternoons in conversation and silence, content in this country grove. Settle in with your tea, strawberry jam, Devon cream, scone and you may agree with Rupert Brooke:

Tea table 3

I only know that you may lie

Day long and watch the Cambridge sky

And, flower-lulled in sleepy grass,

Hear the cool lapse of hours pass,

Until the centuries blend and blur

In Grantchester, in Grantchester. . . .

—from “The Old Vicarage, Grantchester” by Rupert Brooke

Next Time:  Looking Around Cambridge

Note of apology:  This blog has been delayed as I was completing and sending my book The Downton Era: Great Houses, Churchills, and Mitfords to the publisher.  Be looking for its launch in late October or early November!

Photo credits:  Open sources on the internet