Sunday, 17 February 2008

Stoned Again

It’s been another busy week and I’m beginning to feel that writing every day will take some degree of focus and commitment. There just seems to be too much to do without having to sit down afterwards and write about it.

One major contributory factor is that the trailer is equipped with a Freeview receiving TV. During our three-year posting to Keswick, we had to suffer the ignominy of having only four channels to watch. No satellite; no freeview; not even channel 5! All that changed once we arrive in the South and could get a decent TV reception. Since then, I must confess to having wasted a huge amount of time flitting from one channel to another, searching vainly for something worth the wait. The only thing we’ve found (and it is almost good enough to compensate for everything) is Scrubs. Brilliant. Soon, I hope, I will have overcome the unfulfilled thirst for TV entertainment and get back to the basics of reading and writing.

On Wednesday (a beautiful, sunny day, full of the promise of Spring), after fulfilling the domestic duties of doing the laundry and getting a new gas cylinder, we took a trip out from Bath to have a look at a couple more Neolithic sites. The first was the stone circles of Stanton Drew. There are three circles, the Great Circle being the third largest in the country at over 300’ across. Some of the bigger stones stand about 10’ high. A seemingly random scattering of stones link the Great Circle with the smaller North East Circle about 150’ away. To the West of this is a short stone-lined avenue, and a third small circle lies a little way to the South East. To finish the collection, a trio of very large stones called the Cove, stand a short way off in the grounds of the local pub (closed in the afternoons!). Local legend says that the avenue stones are the fiddlers and the circle stones are the bodies of dancers at a wedding feast, petrified by the devil for dancing on the sabbath. The two standing stones of the Cove are the bride and groom with the third fallen stone being the drunken vicar. The penalties for having a good time on a Sunday were a little harsh in my view. The scale of the circles, the fact that there are three of them so close, and the size of the stones themselves all combine to make a very impressive sight. I found it difficult, however, to sink into the atmosphere – there was a fork-lift truck pottering about in a nearby builders yard, and the stones seem to be an incongruity in a landscape of farm yards, barbed-wire fences and telegraph poles.

It was getting late in the day, but we headed off (despite the Landrover reverting to its old problem of self-dipping mirrors and an immovable driver's seat) to have a look at the long barrow of Stoney Littleton. We arrived at dusk, so the short walk up the hill was taken at a stiff pace. Despite the failing light, the small but perfectly formed barrow set on a remote plateau was a stunning sight.

Despite being only about 100’ long and 8’ high at its summit, the barrow is by far the most atmospheric megalithic site I have visited. An impressive doorway opens into a passage nearly 50’ long, with six small chambers opening off it. I struggled along the low tunnel, not much more than three or four feet high, trying not to get my new jeans dirty. I stopped at the end and tried to catch my breath. The failing light filtering through the doorway, combined with the utter silence, gave me a feeling of complete peace. I sat in the darkness for a few moments before I began to feel a little spooked by the place and hurried back out. Perhaps visiting a deeply spiritual place at dusk was a little too much to ask of myself.

Having visited these awesome places, I’ve begun to wonder what can have happened to the people living with the stones to make them feel it was acceptable to dig them up, cart them off and build walls out of them. Most of the country’s megalithic sites would have been unknown to all but a few local villages until a chap called William Stukeley visited and wrote about them in the mid 18th century. Less than a year after Stukeley’s visit, a farmer called Green was responsible for the virtually complete destruction of one of Avebury’s circles. There must have been legends and folklore for every megalithic site. They must have been incorporated into everyday local life despite being thousands of years old. It is easy now to see the intrinsic value of the these places, but how can a person in the past have felt it was “ok” to desecrate their history. Am I making sense here? We know so little about the people who made these monuments, but it is vitally important that we lovingly preserve everything they have left to us. Otherwise we are nothing but vandals.

Sunday, 10 February 2008

Staring at stones

It's been a while, but since arriving in the South, there's been a lot going on. I spent a terrific weekend with my old friend Geoff and his family. And on Wednesday, we took the short trip to Bath.

There you go, a week in a nutshell.

Seriously though, there are more than a few things to relate, so I’ll start with last Saturday when we took a trip to see some outstanding prehistoric monuments.

Avebury is one of the greatest neolithic sites in Europe. Built around 2500 BC, the stones themselves are smaller than those of Stonehenge (20 miles to the South), but the circle itself is much wider and more complex. The main circle, which was originally (allegedly) composed of 98 stones (some of them over 40 tonnes in weight!), is encompassed by a 20’ earthwork over a quarter of a mile across. There are four causeways over an inner ditch, two of which extend into wide avenues running over a mile from the site. The site is so big, in fact, that there is even a small village including a church, a pub and an Elizabethan manor house encroaching into the site. An old barn now houses the National Trust's only vegetarian restaurant, and very good it is too.

The village was busy – I guess that even a Saturday in early February is popular. The weather might have helped (oh no! he’s talking about the weather again!) I only mention it because it wasn’t raining. In fact, the sun came out and it actually felt like Spring might be around the corner. There was that expectant tang in the air and I saw my first snowdrops of the year. It was difficult to escape the crowds and absorb the atmosphere in peace, but it is still an awesome site.

A mile to the South is the subtly incredible Silbury Hill. It is right next to the A4 main road, but might be easy to miss if you aren't paying attention. The only thing that makes you look twice is its shape – a perfect cone with a flat top. It is only 130 feet high, but (and this is the staggering bit) it is completely man-made. In fact it is the largest prehistoric artificial mound in Europe. Composed of large blocks of chalk, infilled with chalk rubble, it was built around 2600 BC and is perfectly shaped. There have been many excavations over the centuries since, and the hill is now in danger of collapsing. English Heritage is in the process of looking through all the previous digs and back-filling and reinforcing all the holes. It means that while there will be no way to carry out more excavations, the hill will survive for a few hundred years more. The thing that interests me most though, is what sort of party it must have been for a bunch of people to decide that building a hill was a good idea?

A ten minute walk over the road from Silbury is the West Kennett Long Barrow. Dominating the horizon and running due East – West, it is over 300’ long and was built around 3250 BC. It was used as a collective burial place until the Beaker People closed it up around 2000 BC. There are a number of megalithic stones at the East end guarding an entrance to a short passageway which has five chambers opening off it. The side cells contained the remains of nearly 50 bodies, though the main chamber was plundered in the 17th century by a doctor from Marlborough who used the bones to make medicine. I wonder what that cured?

A cracking day out.

Sunday was, of course, geared towards the Superbowl. I don’t think I need to say much about that. Either you watched it (in which case there’s nothing I can tell you) or you didn’t (in which case you’re not interested so there’s nothing I can tell you).

We said farewell to Geoff and family on Monday evening. They are a terrific family and I don’t get to see nearly enough of them. I shall have to try harder this year. Tuesday turned into one of those write-off days (I think it rained) so we didn’t move until Wednesday when we took the hour-long trip to Bath. We’ve holed up in a smashing little CL just on the Western edge of the city. The down side is that it is carved into the side of a really steep hill. Maneuvering the outfit up a narrow lane and reversing into the pitch was a battle, but we managed. For some unfathomable reason, the waste point is at the top of the site, meaning that not only do you need crampons and an ice axe every time you want to empty the waste water, but a you are gasping for breath when emptying the toilet tank, and believe me, that’s the one time you really don’t want to have to take deep breaths…

Thursday, 7 February 2008

Where's Wiltshire?

The timing of our journey south was perfect. It seems that we escaped another spell of wind, rain and snow. In fact we only had a brief spot of sleet early on and the sun shone the rest of the way.
We hadn't been on the road for long when our good buddy Wayne called on the mobile. He's been a positive and encouraging voice since we started talking about being Airstreamers. As we mentioned earlier in the blog, he came with us the first time we went to see the Airstreams  at Tebay. Anyway, it just seemed like good timing on his part to call as we finally got ourselves on the road. More positive noises. He sounded very excited for us. Living on a boat as he does, not everyone gets it do they? So now he reckons he can point to us to show that there are people madder than himself. Mmm. Not very convincing Wayne! 
On sunday while Pete spent the day at Geoff's in anticipation of the Superbowl, I met up with two more good buddies. Helen and Ben had been in Glastonbury for a wedding and, in spite of our unfamiliarity with the geography of Somerset and Wiltshire we managed to agree that meeting up in Frome could be a happy arrangement. It was.
Although most of the shops and cafes were closed we did get a hearty sunday roast (with nut roast for me) in The George and then wandered uphill to a splendid cafe-cum-chocolate shop (perfect combination!) where we indulged in great coffee, hot chocolates and almond and rosewater meringues. Quite delightful. I wish I could remember the name of the place. It's at the top of the street with the open gully running down its middle.
Well Frome looked like it would definitely be an attractive town to visit when it is open. Just uphill from the centre there were winding streets with unique little shops selling all sorts, such as vintage clothing, music, models, as well as the all-important coffee shops. Geoff also mentioned getting a telescope there. How refreshing to get away from the homogenised high streets that we are all bored with.

We left Wooton Bassett on wednesday and hooked up at a certified site in an orchard on the fringes of Bath. Today, after a slow start due partly to me feeling the symptoms of a cold and being reluctant to get up, we set off for Bath. We took a route on foot suggested by the site owner, who warned it might be a bit muddy. Well it was a bit. Until we arrived at a quaggy field where it was extremely muddy and I sunk in up to my ankles. At which point I felt inapropriately mucky for a visit to the museums and fine shops and cafes of Bath. So, with ruined shoes drying in the bathroom and an old episode of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes playing out quietly on the television, the day has transformed from the one we planned into one that we have surrendered to.
Some days are like that, I find. 

Friday, 1 February 2008

Tracey & Pete have left the county...

Finally! We've actually managed to get somewhere. Eventually.

Wednesday was a cold and blustery day. I dropped Tracey in Kendal to taste the delights of big town life, while I headed off to Settle to have the car looked at. Fortunately the warranty covered the job, because it took nearly three hours and still isn't quite right. It'll be an easy job to fix eventually, it just needs a part which they didn't have in stock. Still, I had a smashing lunch in Ye Olde Naked Man Cafe (I have no idea, so don't ask).

At some point after returning to the trailer, it began to rain. Again. Now having the full complement of wipers, we braved the weather and set off in search of the Black Swan Hotel in the splendidly named Ravenstonedale. Curiously, I had yet another run-in with the menu, having to go through three options before I found one they hadn't run out of. Again, a couple of pints of a very fine beer (Hedonist ale from the Wylam Brewery) made everything good.

About ten minutes after getting back to the trailer, the wind picked up. And stayed up. A lot. We had planned to get up and head South early. It turned out that we didn't actually get much sleep and were awake when the alarm went off. The trailer was rocking all night while being pounded by torrential rain. It was such a strong Northerly gale, and we were rocking so much that we went to bed in Cumbria and nearly woke up in Lancashire! Michael arrived as I was trying to pack the bikes in the back of the car. He tried to convince us to stay another day. The M6 had been closed overnight, there were ten lorries on their sides and one driver lost his life when his truck hit the central reservation.

We stayed another day.

The Airstream team pulled us into the warehouse out of the elements. After the noise and motion of the night, it was a very welcome relief. We took advantage of the extra day (and the shelter) to do a bit of packing - it was the first opportunity we'd had to empty the back of the car since moving out of the flat. During the afternoon we took another brief trip into Kendal. On the journey, there was sleet howling at us horizontally and a couple of trees had been blown over in the road. But when we got into Kendal, it was calm as a mill pond with clear blue sky! I think I might go and live there.

We stayed in that night. It was MUCH calmer (at least it was in the warehouse) even though there was still quite a stiff wind rattling the doors. It was a bit odd, sleeping in a trailer inside a building, surrounded by about twenty five other Airstreams, all in varying states of completion. Almost like the opposite of a graveyard, whatever that might be.

The next morning was still blustery, but clear and bright. Without hesitation, we decided to go for it. Snow was forecast for the North of England, and we felt that if we didn't go now, we would be stuck in a warehouse for another two or three days. Anthony and John did a couple of last-minute tweaks while we got ready. Just as we were about to leave, Chris Johnston, a fellow 684 owner (he's had his a couple of months longer than us) arrived to have his awning fitted and a couple of little niggles sorted out.

And finally, at 09:53 on Friday the 1st of February, 2008, we set off on our Road Trip.

The journey was great. It was still blustery, but the trailer handled well, and the car was a dream to drive. I'm very happy about the choice of towcar. I ummed and ahed for a very long time about which car to buy, but I have to say that the Landrover does the job very well, and I never felt that I wasn't in complete control. Tracey had a go for an hour, and we made very good time to arrive in Wootton Basset, Wiltshire, at about 4:15. Just under 270 miles, and the car managed a fairly respectable 20mpg (not too bad considering it was pulling two and a quarter tonnes).

It didn't take long to set up camp (we didn't try out the new awning - it's still a bit too windy). Wiltshire is home to a number of chalk horses. I've heard it said that there are more white chalk horses on the sides of hills than there are real ones in fields eating grass. The other problem with them is that no one is quite sure when they were made. The Victorians were great builders of this sort of thing, and it is entirely possible that any given horse could have been made 4000 years ago, or the Thursday before last.

Now we're off to visit my oldest friend Geoff (not meaning that he's the oldest of my friends, but that I've known him the longest. Probably since the early 17th century - at least it feels that long) and his family.