26. Wonders to behold


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Jun 20th, 2011
26. Wonders to behold

Salisbury! The historical city with its Arthurian connections and its majestic gothic cathedral, its copy of the Magna Carta, the fabulous museum full of artworks by Constable and the collection of relics from neolithic Stonehenge, all this….. we miss, because of the dreaded flu. But our b&b is lovely, and fortunately we can stay an extra night, holed up trying to sleep away the fevers.

On the last morning we do manage to totter onto the Stonehenge shuttle bus and walk slowly round the actual monument. It is overcast and grey, but Stonehenge up close and personal is indeed mind-blowing. It reminds me of the Great Zimbabwe, the same feel of aloof antiquity and the massive presence of sacred stones. One is given a hand-held device which feeds you a recorded commentary as you walk past each vantage point. The ghost of a ditch encircles the standing stones, and the public is not allowed to cross this, which is disappointing because one’s first desire is to run up and touch them. The upside is that least it gives you nice pictures without crowds in the way. And the commentary keeps you grounded.

Standing stone with carved ball on top; at its foot lies a stone with the corresponding socket

These stones were already here when the pyramids of Egypt were being built. Massive 80 tonne chunks of rock have tongue-and-groove shapes and ball-and-socket joints, for heaven’s sake. The big ‘blue’ stones, quarried in Wales, have a slight natural radio-activity and are discernibly less freezing to the touch than the other sandy stones. I wonder if this means the snow would probably not settle for long on them…? The ring of rock is visible for miles around, but was once at the centre of a sacred forest. In the surrounding fields, at a respectful distance, one can see many ‘barrows’, the ancient burial mounds of long-forgotten warrior kings or priests. Artefacts from these and the Stonehenge digs are all back at the Salisbury museum.

Who lay under this Barrow? Other mounds beyond. Buried within sight of the Henge, they must have been important people.

In a few days it will be the summer solstice, a day when thousands of pilgrims including modern pagans and druidic sects, gather at Stonehenge to witness the alignment of the dawn sun on the altar rock, and to celebrate summer. On this day the public is allowed access to the site and can wander between the stones. Pity our timing was out by such a short time! That would have been a blast.

We reboard the shuttle bus which takes us back past Old Sarum, another fortified town and hill fortress – this one of mere 500BC antiquity, built well after Stonehenge – and now mostly in ruins. Its Iron Age earthworks were built on a heroic scale, but regrettably we are too ill to take the walk up to the top.

That afternoon we board the train for Axminster, the closest station to our next destination: Lyme Regis, the ‘Pearl of Dorset’ and quintessential English seaside village. Here resided or holidayed many English novelists, including JRR Tolkein, and Jane Austen who used the town as a setting for part of her book Persuasion, as did resident John Fowles, in The French Lieutentant’s Woman.

The captivating little town is reached via double decker bus which sways down narrow roads across picture-postcard countryside which looks like The Shire, straight out of Lord of the Rings – one expects to see Hobbits at any second. Ponies in fields, hedgerows enclosing narrow lanes, church steeples in flower-bedecked villages, and tame, tidy little woods crowning gentle hills.

Lyme’s picturesque main street leads straight down to the sea. Our accommodation in Lyme is a lovely little flat on the first floor of an old house, right in the centre of things and close to the seashore, pubs, gift shops, fossil shops and pie shops. The seagulls here are large and insolent, and ‘miaow’ at the tourists rather than go ‘cut cut cut cut’ like the ones back home in SA.

Large stone and cement ramparts, disguised as seafront promenades, protect the town from the winter gales, with large rocks and a thick layer of pebbles to absorb the wave action.

The sea defences at Lyme village, with the old harbour at the other end of the bay

In the spring sunshine we stroll along the pebble-front promenade, which has a row of traditional colourful beach huts (one of which has a Zim flag in its window – we wonder if it’s being inhabited by a refugee!). There are amusement arcades and ice-cream and candyfloss vendors, as well as some shabby-genteel boarding houses for pensioners. The “Jane Austen Garden’ is in bloom with roses and hollyhocks.

We reach a stretch of real golden sand, protected by an ancient, 14-foot thick Cobb wall that curves out to form a picturesque harbour. You can get up onto the broad top of the wall via a slanting row of flat stones which stick out of the side to form a primitive stairway. The tourist blurbs tell us that Lyme used to be one of south England’s most important sea ports! Today it looks too small for that, and there are only pleasure craft and fishing boats moored in the harbour.

"The Cobb", a very old sea wall. Charmouth is across the other side of the bay.

Across the beautiful sweep of bay we can see the famous landslip where a huge stretch of hillside slipped into the sea, exposing blue mudstone cliffs full of Jurassic age fossils. Charmouth, where our friends from Bulawayo live, is just around the headland. Fossils are a big theme in Lyme Regis, big ammonites are built into the sea walls, or sit on cottage windowsills – every other shop sells an array of fossils and even the street lamps are adorned with an ammonite motif.

The quaint pubs on the romantic seafront charge more for a pint than those at the top of the town’s steep main street. Many of the pubs sell ‘perry’ on tap – the modern version is called pear cider. Did you know that ‘Babycham’ (popular in the sixties & seventies) was actually sparkling perry?

Draft perry, delicious when made from special inedible varieties of pear

To our consternation, our idyllic flat is not suitable for receiving wireless internet signals. So we come to rely upon the pub over the road, which offers free WiFi in exchange for buying a coffee – or a pint. We frequent a table near the window, from where we observe the early season tourists determinedly wearing shorts above their pasty white legs, eating ice-creams in the chill sea breeze on the promenade. It’s all so very English.

Narrow street to the waterfront. Our flat windows in the building on the right.

We are once more welcomed with a braai and Zimbabwe-style fellowship when we visit with our friends from Bulawayo. Deracination has not been easy for them either, even when re-planted in an area of pretty landscapes, Enid-Blyton lifestyle and lack of inner-city badness. Their kids have had the best of the excellent education on offer and access to first-world facilities and culture. But the economy is flaccid and the majority of Brits seem to be equally soft in the middle. Jobs are scarce. Discipline in schools has been replaced by ‘rights’ and a culture of entitlement has taken hold. The Brits complain constantly about everything and seem obsessed with soccer, celebrity gossip, and television. This happened to Rome before its imperial civilisation crumbled.

I wonder if other sets of foreigners who have settled in Britain have the same kinds of conversation? Or is it just an ex-Zimbabwean perception?

Insolent English seagull







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