Sunday, September 9, 2007

25 June: How to Get a Parking Ticket In Salisbury & the Wonders of Stonehenge

It was raining again this morning, so we weren’t in much of a hurry to get going. We experienced our first “full English breakfast” – all the fruit, cereal, and yogurt you could eat, followed by a huge plate of eggs made to order, with roasted tomatoes, sautéed mushrooms, bacon, sausage, and toast on the side – and realized that if we got this sort of breakfast at every hotel, we weren’t going to have to spend a lot of money on lunches. We checked out around 10:00 and followed our host’s directions into town, parking in a pay lot near the cathedral, which we wanted to see before heading to Stonehenge. We put several pound coins in the parking meter, giving us about two hours, which we assumed would be plenty of time to tour the cathedral.

I should note that I became interested in visiting Salisbury after reading Edward Rutherford’s lengthy but fascinating novel Sarum, which is a fictionalized history of the settlement of the Salisbury area from pre-historic to modern times. The construction of the cathedral is a major theme of the novel.

We crossed a stone bridge over a slow-moving canal and glimpsed the quaint shopping district lined with medieval houses (photo, right) before passing through the High Street Gate and entering the famous Cathedral Close. This is a series of regal homes and church outbuildings – some designed by the famed architect Christopher Wren – flanking smooth green lawns, where the church canons were given allocations of land upon which to build their homes. Before us loomed the single 404-foot Gothic spire – the tallest in England and the highest pre-1400 spire in the world – of Salisbury Cathedral. We forgot all about the parking meter when we walked through the main entrance and decided to sign up for the 90-minute Tower Tour (£11 for the two of us). We had some time before the tour started to wander the long nave of the cathedral and its double transepts, admiring the simple, unadorned grandeur of the interior. The nave is lined with the tombs of famous crusaders, bishops, and war heroes, the intricately carved choir stalls are quite impressive, and in the north aisle you can see what is believed to be the oldest clock in the world, dating from 1386. We also visited the lovely cloisters and the octagonal Chapter House, which is home to one of four surviving original copies of the Magna Carta (penned in 1215), one of the most important documents in the history of democracy, serving as the basis for the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights.

We assembled for our tour near a model of the cathedral at the rear of the building and were introduced to our friendly volunteer guide, an older woman who instructed us (wisely, it turned out) to leave our bags in lockers in preparation for the long ascent to the heights of the spire. We stopped at various points along the way while our guide provided a colorful narrative of the cathedral’s construction. Salisbury is unique in that the cathedral was built – the mastermind of Bishop Richard Poore and the architect Elias de Derham – to replace the old Norman cathedral at nearby Old Sarum, and the new town of Salisbury grew up around it. This is why the cathedral’s setting is so spectacular; the area around it was purposefully left open for the expansive Greens and the buildings of the Close. In contrast, most medieval cathedrals were built on the sites of previous churches, crowded between existing buildings.

Salisbury is unique in other ways as well. Whereas most cathedrals were constructed over a period of centuries, and so represent a hodgepodge of architectural styles, Salisbury Cathedral was completed (save for the spire) in the relatively short span of 38 years (1220-58) and thus has a consistent Gothic style. The construction of the spire in 1320 – not to mention the fact that it is still standing, albeit 2½ feet off vertical, over 680 years later – represents a marvel of medieval engineering. The cathedral’s foundations are only four feet deep due to the high water table, and by logic alone could not have supported the weight of the unplanned spire, but thankfully the entire structure sits on a thick, supportive bed of gravel. Over the centuries the building has shifted and settled, and we got an excellent view of the subtly bending columns from the elevated arcade at the rear of the church (photo, above). This is no trick of the eye – the columns really are leaning outwards (on the order of 18 inches if I recall) under the weight of the spire!

As we proceeded up into the tower, we got an up-close look at the amazing timber framing under the roof, some of which has been repaired over the centuries. One whole side of the roof was replaced in the last decade; the funding required for the constant repair and maintenance of this structure must be mind-boggling. We arrived at the top of the bell tower just in time to hear the bells ring out the noon hour – the famous four-pitch tune of the Westminster Chime followed by twelve reverberating bongs of the great bronze bell. We proceeded up a slightly rickety wooden spiral staircase (not recommended for those with a fear of heights) and got a good look at the intricate wooden scaffolding that supports the spire itself (photo, right). You can’t actually ascend the spire (this would involve climbing a series of scary-looking ladders), but we did go out onto the balcony circling the top of the bell tower and got some great views of Salisbury and the surrounding countryside. Fortunately the rain had let up, although it was rather windy up there! We looked down at the red-brick buildings of the Cathedral Close and out across the plain to the water meadows dotted with white sheep, the winding River Avon and, way off in the distance, the distinct rounded form of the ancient Norman hill fort of Old Sarum (photo, below).

After descending back to ground level and receiving our “I’ve Reached the Heights” pins from our guide, John and I wandered out across the front lawn, circled the cathedral (photo, below), peeked around the Close, and headed back into town. We walked up and down the main shopping street, looking into a few stores to see if we could find a good umbrella, because we were starting to realize that the two travel models that we had brought along might not be sufficient for England’s turbulent weather. Surprisingly we didn’t find a lot of umbrellas – certainly no sturdy wind-resistant ones – so we gave up for the time being and ambled back to the parking lot.

As we approached the car, I got a sinking feeling in my stomach as I remembered the parking meter. Sure enough, our time had expired more than an hour previously and there was a white envelope on our windshield with a £30 ticket inside (£60 pounds if we waited longer than 14 days to pay it). I think I said a bad word at that point, which was overheard by a friendly guy walking by. He smiled, instantly identifying the source of my angst, and advised us not to pay it if we had come from overseas. I wasn’t sure if he realized that we weren’t driving a rental car, and I didn’t have the presence of mind to ask him if his advice applied to private cars from the continent. Eventually we decided to take our chances and didn’t pay the ticket – after all, the city of Salisbury would have to track the car to Germany, then to Mercedes, and finally to John, a process that would certainly cost some city employee more than a measly £30 pounds. I am normally a law-abiding citizen but I felt pretty unsympathetic in this particular instance. I am used to German pay lots where you pay for your time when you leave, which makes pretty good sense to me. (Postscript: It’s now two months later and we haven’t gotten any nasty letters postmarked from Salisbury, so hopefully we are home free!)

As we headed out of Salisbury, we passed very close to the hill fort of Old Sarum. If we had more time I might have liked to stop there, but at least we got a good view from a distance. We continued onwards to Stonehenge, which is about eight miles north of Salisbury. I had debated whether we should visit this king of all tourist traps, particularly after I found out that the special after-hours access to the site (available by prior reservation through the English Heritage organization and various tour companies) was not being offered at the time of our visit. Nevertheless, I couldn’t imagine passing so close to one of England’s most legendary sites without giving it at least a quick look.

We were not disappointed. Even though we arrived in the middle of the afternoon, the crowds were not bad, perhaps kept away by the inclement weather. It had actually stopped raining and the sky was blanketed with billowing clouds in a thousand shades of gray, making for a spectacular backdrop as we approached the stone circle across a gently undulating plain of emerald grass. We took the audio tour (£13 with the general entrance fee for two people) which was excellent – informative without being cheesy. The narrator speculates on the ancient origins of the site, dating to about 3000 B.C., including the great distances over which the great stones were mysteriously transported and the site’s purported uses as a religious shrine and astronomical calendar.

We circled the stones on a grassy path, which is marked occasionally by numbers corresponding to points on the audio tour. While I had read many complaints that the path keeps you disappointingly far from the stones, preventing you from viewing the ancient carvings, there are no ugly barriers as I had imagined. I personally didn’t want to see the stones swarming with people, and I actually got some good pictures despite the fact that we were in the company of several hundred other visitors. Most everyone was quiet and well-behaved, and standing on that wind-swept plain with the clouds billowing overhead, I was certainly awed by the mystery and mysticism of the place.

Before returning to the car we decided to invest in the English Heritage Overseas Visitor Pass, which would get us into other English Heritage-operated sites and partner sites in Wales and Scotland for free or at a reduced rate. We didn’t start our journey west to Cornwall until after 4 p.m. and ran into more rain along the way. As we left the Stonehenge area we encountered a long traffic jam on the two-lane highway, the cause of which was a terrible accident involving a tour bus. The entire left front corner of the bus was smashed in and we just hoped that no one was sitting up front at the time.

After passing into Cornwall, we left the main highway and set off across a windswept landscape of hedges and open fields. Finally the ocean came into view, a plate of blue-green metal on the horizon. We took some crazy narrow winding roads to Boscastle (Susie has some pretty weird ideas about how to get around in England), and literally stumbled across our hotel, the charming white-washed Bottreaux (photo, right), as we came down the hill into the village. It was 7:30 and the front door was locked, so I rang the bell four or five times, to no avail. There was a phone by the door as well, so I finally picked up the receiver and called the number indicated, which finally succeeded in rousing someone to let us in.

Our room was tiny and spartan, starkly outfitted with all-white walls, a white bedspread, one small ultramarine-blue oil painting of the ocean, and a massive wooden cupboard, but we had a very nice modern bathroom with white-and-green tile, a stand-up shower, and a very swanky green glass bowl sink (albeit with a serious drainage problem). We’d been advised by our host to get to the pub next door before 8:30 if we wanted a meal, so we headed over as quickly as we could.

The Napoleon is an awesome 16th-century pub with loads of atmosphere – low ceilings, dark wood, and a local clientele. Right after we ordered, the lights flickered and went out: a power outage caused by a localized storm. We nursed our Cornish ales (Tinner’s and Tribute) for a while until finally our waitress came around and said they didn’t expect the power to come back on until 10:00. The only things they could make without power were smoked salmon and crab salad. We ordered the smoked salmon and were busy digging in when the lights came on again. We were hungry so we decided to go ahead with our original main course orders. John had a Cornish rump steak piled with mushrooms, tomatoes, onion rings, and chips. I had the crab cakes, which looked and tasted like something out of the freezer aisle, with a side salad to which I grudgringly applied a foil packet of "salad sauce" (a.k.a. mayonnaise). Despite the less-than-stellar food, the place had good entertainment value – we watched the locals celebrating a birthday and a couple of young German guys (most definitely gay) puffed away on their cigarettes in the corner (a ban on smoking in restaurants goes into effect in England on July 1st).

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