Thursday, 13 March 2008

19th Century Novelists

“I do not, for one, think that the problem was that the band was down. I think that the problem may have been that there was a Stonehenge monument on the stage that was in danger of being crushed by a dwarf. Alright? That tended to understate the hugeness of the object.” This Is Spinal Tap

This, might we say, would be a difficult feat. Travelling to Stonehenge on Sunday March 9th demonstrated just how huge it is. Brock commented afterwards that it was so much bigger and more impressive than even he had imagined it would be. How could people possibly have been able to get such large rocks on top of others, so high off the ground? Why would they have wanted to do so? The size of the spectacle would have been helped by the hundreds of tourists from all sorts of nationalities who were there with us. It may also have been aided by the fact that, immediately after we left, we went a couple of miles away to a site called Woodhenge. As the name suggests, instead of stones, the almost identical site had been constructed using blocks of wood. Because of the nature of wood, these had rotted to such an extent that concrete pillars now stand where the wood would have been. This meant that, unlike at Stonehenge, we were able to get right in amongst the pillars and imagine just how big and impressive it all once was.

After visiting these first two sites that were thousands of years old, we journeyed slightly further south to another, Old Sarum. Unlike Stonehenge, Meg, Brock and Quinn had never heard of Old Sarum, which was a great shame. In many ways it is as impressive, both in the sheer size of the place, and in the amount of history connected to it. The earliest fortifications date back to 400BC when it seems to have existed as a hillfort and market centre for the local area. During the Roman occupation of Britain (43 BC) it was re-established under the name Sorviodunum, as the defensive possibilities inherent in the site were utilised once more. In 552 AD, an Anglo-Saxon named Cynric fought and defeated the Britons here, and it was given the Anglo Saxon name of Searobyrg. Then, in 1003, King Sweyn of Denmark, destroyed the larger cities of Exeter and Wilton (from where the county Wiltshire gets the name) and moved the mint, among other things, to Searobyrg. By 1066 it was considered a borough (known as Sarisberie) at the centre of a huge estate owned by the Bishop of Ramsbury and Sherborne. When William the Conqueror arrived he also recognised the potential of the site as a fortification and made it part of the first wave of royal castles built by the Normans in 1069 (when it was known as Seresberi). A cathedral was also built, just outside the castle walls but within the enormous earthen fortifications, which was consecrated on April 5th 1092. 5 days later it was severely damaged by a violent thunderstorm. The cathedral was extended under Bishop Roger who also had a bishop’s palace built at the site, but his death in 1139 meant that building on the site was scaled back. Eleanor of Aquitane (the wife of Henry II) was kept in the castle for much of the 16 years she spent as a prisoner of her husband, but under King John, relations between the clergy and royalty deteriorated severely. As a result, the Cathedral was moved stone by stone into ‘New Sarum’, the city of Salisbury, which is 3 klms away in the valley below the castle and, although the castle was still occupied, by the time of Henry VIII it no longer served any purpose and he gave permission in 1514 for the stone of the castle to also be taken down. Even this was not the end for, despite the fact that, by then, no one lived at the site, its position as a borough meant that it had the right to parliamentary representation and it became notorious into the 19th Century as a ‘rotten borough’ by which someone could be guaranteed a place in parliament. Wayne had come across the name while reading about this practice in Modern History at both High School and University, but had not realised the other historical links to the place.

The wind was very chilly at Old Sarum, which made things a little uncomfortable, however it paled into comparison to the number of stops made on the way down to Stonehenge allowing Meg to vomit. Wayne had woken up that morning having to vomit also, so it seemed either food poisoning or a virus provided the explanation. On the bright side, we now know much more about the quality, cleanliness and facilities available at the various services between Broxbourne and Wiltshire. Compared to the following day, when the south west of England was hit by an enormous storm and Salisbury was experiencing winds of up to 80 miles per hour, a chilly breeze and occasionally overcast conditions were not worth complaining about. Certainly, the rabbits which lived in the side of the fortifications seemed more concerned about having Australians visit than the huge number of dogs which were being walked around the site or any weather.

We finished our day by travelling down into the valley to Salisbury, a gorgeous town with hundreds of years of history. Parking in the centre of the city, we wandered through the shopping district toward Salisbury Cathedral. We came across the river which runs through the city centre where others were feeding the beautiful white swans and mallard ducks. Interestingly, swans were not as calm or peaceful as their image would make them seem. Shops provided access to a toy walrus named Barry, and some styluses for Quinn’s Nintendo DS. We also managed our first ‘taste’ of McDonalds in England, where we discovered that not all the English are as polite as we had experienced previously. Apparently there is something about a Big Mac which just means you have to push in front of unsuspecting tourists and then claim that you were told to do so by a member of staff. Fortunately, the boys and Wayne managed to persuade Meg not to take matters into her own hands and we got hold of McFlurries to sustain us on the trip home without any blood being shed (although there are an English couple who may not realise just how lucky they are.).

Salisbury Cathedral is an absolutely magnificent building. It was begun using stone from the previous Cathedral at Old Sarum in the 13th Century but is now absolutely enormous. Having been founded prior to the English church becoming Protestant during the 16th Century it was a fascinating mix of old Catholic and Anglican styles and features. As you walk through the building you walk over and beside the graves of people which date back centuries. The stained glass windows are absolutely magnificent and the sense of history is almost overwhelming. The tombs of people connected with the Battle of Agincourt or the defeat of Richard III by Henry Tudor make those events seem real. People who are characters in plays by Shakespeare lie next to Archdeacons and Bishops from down through the ages. The concept that those who have money can buy anything, even a place in heaven (which led to the reformation of the church), is also fairly prominent. Most amazing of all was one of the 4 remaining originals of the Magna Carta (the English equivalent to the Declaration of Independence in the United States) which established the rule of law in England. It was signed by King John, at the behest of the barons, on June 15th 1249 and is kept at Salisbury Cathedral in the Chapter House. Obviously, because of the impact of British law upon the political and legal systems of Australia and the United States (among others) this document has had enormous significance down through the centuries.

Much of the trip home was spent admiring the gathering clouds which precluded the storm that the country was to have the following morning. Brock and Quinn began learning how to spot clouds with the potential for snow, although ultimately it only snowed in the North of England, in Ireland, and in Scotland. Despite it being a Sunday afternoon, the M25 on the way back to Hertfordshire conformed to its English reputation as the World’s Biggest Carpark, so there was enough time to discuss a possible visit to Stratford on Avon next weekend, and to listen to the football results. Despite initially having very little interest in British football, exposure to their schoolmates has convinced Brock and Quinn that Wayne was right in encouraging them to choose a team to support. Funnily, Quinn’s choice of West Ham has now altered to Everton (a good decision given that West Ham have lost their last three premiership games 4-0, while Everton are equal 4th and playing in the Quarter finals of the UEFA Cup). Brock initially elected to follow Newcastle but has now decided that Tottenham might be his second team, on the basis that his friends seem evenly divided between Arsenal and Tottenham.

Just so you know, both Meg and Wayne have stopped vomiting and seem much better. Finally, the title ‘19th Century novelists’ refers to Thomas Hardy (on whom Wayne wrote his university thesis), whose Tess of the D’Urbervilles concludes at Stonehenge; Charles Dickens who satirically condemned political abuses, such as the ‘rotten borough’ of Old Sarum; and Anthony Trollope, whose 6 part Barchester Chronicles were set in a version of Salisbury (renamed Barchester) and concluded with The Small House at Allington which was a village we passed on the way to Stonehenge. Anyway, that concludes our adventures for this week. We hope you are all well and enjoying reading about our travels. Thanks once more for your feedback and love, which we appreciate immensely.

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