Monday, February 6, 2012

England - Stonehenge, Cathedrals and Declining Manners

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70 miles, Wednesday, July 27

Onward to East Challow and Ramsbury, it was a pleasant ramble through quaint villages. A house was being re-thatched, the roofer fortunately in progress who was able to answer our questions. Each roof is 3 feet thick, constructed of specially grown straw which is longer than standard wheat. The new roof can be applied over the old one, provided it doesn’t make the overall weight too heavy. An average roof takes 10-12 weeks and costs $13,000 USD. The straw alone is $4,500. The thickness provides the insulation and the roof can last 25 years. It’s a painstakingly slow process. We watched the guy climb down the fastened ladder, pick up his bundle of thatch, then return to where he left off. It was incredibly physical labor, not one I’d prefer to do, but the overall beauty lent country charm to stone or brick houses.

Thatching a roof.

Pig farming is a common sight. We come to vast acres of nothing but dirt. Upon closer inspection we spy rows of sheds with a storm of snorting bovines. Pink bodies are covered in muck; many are butt out to the highway. The stench is overpowering but we laugh; the hilarious hog calamity is a reminder why my husband is a vegetarian.

Helicopters peppered the skies around one particular farm. As we dipped into a gully, yellow posts identified warning signs “Danger: Unexploded bombs and mortars”. Later, red triangles read: “Tank Crossing: Greasy Road”. It was clearly army land. Though we never saw a tank, Andy and I made sure to high-tail it without a moment’s rest, not even to empty our bladders.

The wheat fields are like our country’s Midwest, a rolling horizon with golden crops. After a series of hills, including a 17% grade that we challenged ourselves up just because it was a quantifiable ascent, we pedaled into Amesbury, home of Stonehenge.

Stonehenge, of course.

The most popular tourist attraction in England is a ring of ancient stones on a rise in a vast treeless landscape. The lure, much like the Mona Lisa, is in its mysterious origins and the amazing engineering one imagines must have taken place to erect such a wonder. With this fascination in mind we pedaled to where Stonehenge stands within 200 feet of the road, though surrounded by a chain link fence. The stones are smaller than I expected, and a fee is required to wander among them, so we opted to admire from a distance. I imagined druids gathered in the darkness with nothing but stone pillars and a starry sky. I could almost feel its otherworldly presence. Without the refuge of a nearby campground to easily return and explore, we had to continue southward, but we’re delighted to have finally seen the famed site.

By 7:45 p.m. we were exhausted, and after a marathon day on the road, glad to make our destination for the evening.

32 miles, Thursday, July 28

In the morning we relaxed, talking with Wendy and Shane, another couple on a year-long stint. One difference is they tote mandolins. They’re headed to Ireland for a weeklong music course. Andy and I are continually amazed at the amount of two-wheeled travelers on extended vacations.

To pass the time while cycling, we often reminisce about Oregon. A dear friend of ours and her husband were enjoying hiking in the Cascade Mountains. We wonder if they’d like cycle touring and even though it’s a long ways in the future, we dream of taking some time with them in Washington State before returning home.

Salisbury Cathedral
At Salisbury Cathedral we lock the bikes, marveling at its tall steeple. Indeed, it turns out to be the tallest one in England. The church was built in 1220, taking 38 years to complete. On the worn exterior walls, a gallery of life-sized human sculptures stare down on us. Fingers were chipped, words pockmarked, patterns gouged - all expected in an ancient structure. I kept an eye on the figures as we detoured around scaffolding at the entrance; routine cleaning was underway.

The gothic interior (arches with a point at the top curve) was remarkably preserved and breathtakingly grandiose, though dark in light of a brilliant day. Only 3 of the original stained-glass windows remain, identified by diamond patterns of pale colors, while the rest are vivid replacements. I felt small and insignificant is such austere and religious surroundings. Indeed, when these edifices were built, the church was a powerful presence in society. A woman of vast landholdings donated the marble from her property for 12 years for the church’s construction.

Alongside the pews, several tombs lined the walls. A statue of the deceased lay atop each grave with hands held in payer. One even propped his bare feet on the belly of a dog. A particular immortalized soul was a brother-in-law of a signer of the Magna Carta. The entombed also witnessed the historical event. Only four copies were made of this document, a famous agreement between King John and the barons at Runnymede in 1215. One was on display in the Chapter House near the cathedral. It’s a beautifully written manuscript of new laws inscribed on vellum. It established, among other things, that no free man may be imprisoned or prosecuted without a fair trial by his equals, the Church of England should be free and treated like any other, and that widows could own their husband’s land without marrying the brother of the deceased. It was a mouthful of history, but its significance was notable when you understand these basic principles were also incorporated into the U.S. Constitution.

50 miles, Friday, July 29

From the campground it’s an easy ride through Romsey and Braishfield to our destination at Winchester Cathedral. The humid morning was already promising a scorching afternoon. As we entered the cooler air of our second cathedral I thought it odd that in more than three weeks on our bikes we visit two cathedrals in as many days.

The Winchester Cathedral is similar to Salisbury’s but two hundred years older. As I tread over the 900 year old brittle red clay tiles, I was once again in awe. The stone ceilings towered 125 feet above, adorned with scrollwork and paintings. The beauty brought tears to my eyes, especially when a choir began practicing for an evening concert. Oh, to stay and listen to music resonate through the stone…

In the early 1900s a man dove underneath the building’s foundation, into the water table, to assess and repair the pilings – for six years. A bronze statue sits in a corner of the church as a tribute to this angel who saved the cathedral.

Beautiful English villages. Annie is on the wrong side of the road for the picture.

It was late afternoon when we tried to leave town by a main artery, planning to take the first cutoff to a back road. The automobiles roared past, eventually bottlenecking. We tried to squeeze by but the lorries showed no mercy and I was forced to the curb while watching the underside of a truck nearly swipe my shoulder. Andy and I quickly pulled our bikes up and over into the tall grass. It was a scary reminder to stay off England’s treacherous main highways. Our cycling acquaintances were right when they said to stay clear of A roads.

We spent the better part of an hour retracing our route, circling roundabouts before heading east and south. Our attitudes went from grumbling and swearing back to a reasonable camaraderie. The miles through pleasant Bishop’s Waltham and Wickham, bypassing busy Eastleigh and Southampton, were a reminder of better days.

Now that we’ve been on the road for a month our manners and sanitation have undergone a transformation. Hedgerows often line the road, providing relative quiet, but also an impenetrable thicket if we have to relieve full bladders. Andy urinates without dismounting his bike. I on the other hand, am forced to squat behind a curtain of panniers. At lunch time our plastic utensils are often licked clean and shoved back in a pannier pocket. Water from our bottles is better utilized for quenching thirsty bodies. Only at the end of the day do we properly clean the implements. We have to laugh - there are advantages to cycling with a spouse.

Also of note at campgrounds, the morning sleepy-eyed women and men walk around in t-shirts and underwear, visit the restroom or sit at their site. We marvel at their lack of modesty.

By 8 p.m. we pulled into a campground near Portsmouth, our last stop in England. Showers and food restore tired, overheated bodies. I catch up in our journal, mark the route and properly fold up England’s map. We want to be prepared for the next adventure. We’re off to France in the morning. 

1 comment:

  1. A lot of history. You and Andy are so lucky you got to take this all in. In regards to the ancient stones ... I would have taken them in at a distance too. I think the oldest cathedral I've ever been in is the Notre Dame cathedral in Montreal; so, truly amazing how old these cathedrals are that you got to see.


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