Let’s Go Camping – Salisbury and Stonehenge

We should try camping again,” I told Madam, “There’s a tent in the garage we haven’t used yet.”

She reminded me that the last time we went camping, many years ago, we pitched our tent in a field behind a pub. We then spent every evening in the pub, drinking beer and eating sticky toffee pudding. While this was, in essence, true, she was implying that it wasn’t “proper camping.” Proper camping needed to be many miles from civilisation, she told me. The camping that needs a roaring fire to keep wild animals away. The sort where you hang food in sealed bags in the trees, out of reach of roaming bears. Proper camping needs potatoes baking in the embers of the fire and marshmallows roasting on wire coat-hangers. Personally, I’m just as happy to forgo burnt fingers and bits of ash in my dinner in return for a comfy seat, a tasty pudding, and a pint of Theakston’s Old Peculiar.

Being a few years older and a lot achier than on our last camping trip, I was a little concerned at the thought of sleeping on cold, hard ground myself. “Just a couple of nights,” I suggested, “Maybe three at most. We can always come home early if it’s too bad.”

As a (slight) compromise, we booked into a site on the edge of the New Forest, but still within a respectable distance of a few pubs and other eating establishments. The New Forest gets my prize for the most misnamed place in the whole of England. The New Forest isn’t new, or even close to new. Nor is it a forest in the modern accepted sense of the word. It got its name when William the Conqueror, who fancied killing a few deer in 1079, declared an area of 143,000 acres of woodland and open heath to be his “New Hunting Forest”. Forest in those days simply meant “hunting ground.” The Anglo-Saxon inhabitants of thirty-six parishes were evicted in short order so that William could hunt uninterrupted by the sight of lowly peasants. Karma later reared its head when two of William’s children, Prince Richard and William II, were killed during hunting expeditions, the latter under mysterious circumstances.

The area was recorded in the Doomsday Book as “Nova Foresta” in 1086 and the name stuck. Nowadays it’s a national park, but 90% is still owned by the crown, so it may not be wise to go hunting deer, unless you happen to be a minor royal. It has shrunk in size a little since William’s hunting days, to around 100,000 acres. Although still impressive, it is the UK’s smallest national park, and also its most densely populated with some 35,000 people living within the bounds of the forest. About 25% is wooded forest with a mixture of broadleaf trees and conifers. It is believed there are around 1500 ancient trees, some reportedly over 1,000 years old. Much of the rest is grass and open heathland. It is also one of the last places in England to have common grazing rights; there are many privately owned free-roaming horses, pigs and cattle, which help to maintain the current open landscape.

The campground was large with a number of attractions. There was a bar; archery (£7); Segway Experience (£20); crossbows (£7); Go-Kart Grand Prix (£7); Mini Golf (£3); Water Tag and Laser Tag(£7); Target Shooting (£7); Skittles (£15) and Trampoline (a bargain £1.50). All of them were closed. Late June, it seems, is out of season.

We found a space nestled between a pond and a stream. I’m being generous in calling it a stream. Let’s call a ditch a ditch. A mother duck and seven following ducklings were wandering around the site. Mosquitoes were grouping up into attack squadrons, buzzing around eyeing the tasty feast to come. It was too hot to wear anything other than shorts and a t-shirt, so there was plenty of exposed flesh for them to savour. The Met Office had issued a heat-wave warning. Temperatures could reach a high of 30C (86F) in London. The public were advised to stay in the shade and drink plenty of water.

You would think that, having lived in Texas for many years, I would have learned how to cope with the heat. The hottest day in England is but a pale, weak, imitation of an average summer’s day in Austin. The truth is, however, that most Texans spend their days colder than an Eskimo in winter.

All businesses, and particularly restaurants, in Texas seem to have their air conditioning set to only a degree or two above freezing. Sometimes even below freezing. It will be a blazing hot day outside and I will be sitting in the corner of the restaurant, huddled up with an overcoat, gloves, scarf and hat. I would be on the point of asking if there was a mylar emergency blanket in the first aid kit when the waitress turns up. She would be chirpy and loud. They are always chirpy and loud. She will say something along the lines of “Howdy y’all, how y’all doing? It sure is a purdy day out there. Can I get you something to drink?”

My teeth will be chattering so hard I have trouble speaking.

“T…t..t.. e..a..” I will manage to utter, thinking a nice hot cuppa might ward off imminent hypothermia.

“Sure honey, one iced tea coming right up!”

I may be exaggerating a little. But only a little.

Day 2

I wonder who suggested camping during one of the longest days, and hence shortest nights, of the year. It is 5am and I am sitting outside the tent watching a dozen ducks who think they are getting breakfast. They are mistaken. All my food is in a sealed bag, high up in the tree. Madam was concerned there might be bears. I am a little hungry myself. Does anybody have a ladder?

After breakfast in Salisbury, it was off to Stonehenge.

There is a recent claim that Stonehenge was built using Pythagoras’ Theorem some 2000 years before Pythagoras was born. Several of the measurements between stones exactly match the theorem, as do the distances of several other stone circles in the area. It would make sense, as it is the easiest way to get a perfect right-angle. Either way, it is a remarkable achievement. Something that was built over a period of a thousand years. How many civilisations have even lasted that long, let alone started to build something that would take so many generations to complete. The upright stones weigh 25 tons and were dressed using rocks and deer antlers then dragged twenty miles. The smaller cross stones dragged an incredible 150 miles. All this, two thousand years before the Greeks built the Partheon. All this assumes, of course, that it was really built by the Neolithic people. There are an alarming number of theories circulating the internet: God made it before he created Adam and Eve; Merlin magically created it either from a single stone, or by moving it from Ireland; Giants, later wiped out in the biblical flood, erected it as a shelter; Aliens created it on a fly-by. One of the guides told us that he had two American visitors who, quite separately and on different occasions, were adamant that it could only have been created by an alien race.

Any why was it created? Well, we don’t know. Suggestions include a temple; a burial ground; a festival site; an astronomical calendar; a site for healing. There is some evidence for the latter, since the top blue stones were long thought to have healing properties. All are just guesses. A few much smarter people have said:

To all these questions beginning “Why?” There is but one short, simple and perfectly correct answer: We do not know and shall probably never know – Richard Atkinson, archaeologist.

One might almost suppose that it was specially designed to accommodate every notion that could possibly be projected onto it – John Mitchell, writer.

And, perhaps best of all, if only due to brevity:

God knows what their use was! – Samuel Pepys.

Entry is by timed ticket and when we got there at 10am, the giant car park was only a third full. There wasn’t much of a queue and we were on the shuttle bus in a few minutes. What was like? Astonishing. Amazing. I found myself gazing in a state of awe. Not that it would be hard to create nowadays, with modern machinery and techniques. A decent crane and a few loads of ready mix concrete would have the job done in no time. After the requisite planning permission, public enquiry, cost-benefit analysis and health and safety briefing of course. But it wasn’t created using machinery and concrete. It was built by a people we previously thought of as nomadic hunter gatherers; made with manual labour and stone tools. Hitting a twenty-five ton rock with stones for months or years on end until it was a perfect shape. Dragging it over hilly ground and across rivers for miles using only human muscle power. Lifting three ton of stone sixteen feet in the air. Digging holes through solid chalk with only a deer antler and a bone shovel. That takes some dedication.

You cannot get close to the stones nowadays. Once upon a time you could wander amongst them, scratch your initials and chip off a bit to take home as a souvenir. Now you are kept several yards away, behind a low rope. As I walked around I noticed that many of the visitors had their backs to Stonehenge. They were more interested in taking selfies, or having their picture taken, that they were in looking at the stones. I wanted to turn them round to face the stones and shout “LOOK!”, but I didn’t of course. One doesn’t do that sort of thing in England.

By the time we had our fill, there was a long queue to get the bus back to the visitor centre. We were starting to wilt in the heat by this time, so it was nice to get back to the air-conditioned obligatory gift shop (there was no other way out) and cafe. The visitor centre was very well done with an attempt to explain the hows and whys as to the construction. Sadly, the site did seems to be very focused on extracting as much money as possible from the one million plus visitors it receives each year. Entry was over £20 a person unless you are an English Heritage or National Trust member. Everything in the crowded gift shop and cafe was, how shall I say it, optimistically priced. I can understand if it was a cathedral or stately home. These cost a fortune to maintain. Stonehenge has been there for millennia, managing to look after itself just fine. Where does all that money go?

There is only so long you can stand and gaze at a pile of old stones, however artfully arranged, so we found ourselves heading back into Salisbury by early afternoon.

A few weeks ago there was a bit of an incident involving the (alleged) attempted murder of an (alleged) spy involving an (alleged) nerve agent which, reportedly, makes the average cyanide dose look like a tasty picnic beverage. Luckily, both victims survived. There was still evidence of the aftermath in the city centre. The restaurant at the heart of the (alleged) poisoning was surrounded by hoarding with a stern-looking security guard standing to one side. In fact, there seemed to be security guards in ones and twos standing on just about every street. On the plus side, parking was free in all the council car parks after midday, which does go to show that there always is a silver lining. We spoke to the waiter in one restaurant and he told us that the city was eerily quiet for several weeks after the (alleged) attempted murder. Even the locals were staying away. Things had thankfully now returned to normal. Indeed, the city centre was bustling. We parked in the central car park and wandered through the crowded open market.

The market had all the usual stalls: Bags, clothes, hats, tools, CDs, and phone cases were in abundance. There were however some signs of a more discerning clientele. I saw Smoked Trout Roulade, Cambozola and Brie de Meaux cheeses, Wood-Fired Artisan Bread and Goats Milk Soap. The latter had me a little baffled. Why on earth would you want to smell like a goat? Is that a fetish thing? I kept goats once and, trust me, it is not a smell to carry on your body or clothing if you want to make friends and influence people. It takes all sorts I guess. I was disappointed to see that the market greengrocer had not been to that special school where they teach them the greengrocers’ apostrophe. He had for sale: Dates, Cherries; Plums; Carrots; Apricots and Potatoes. Honestly, the standards nowadays. Or should that be standard’s?

Day 3.

When I had an allotment, some years ago, there was a degree of friendly rivalry as to who had the biggest or best crops. Runner beans would be closely inspected to see whose were highest or earliest. The largest onions were left on display, conveniently by the communal path. Marrows were measured and hefted, and your place in the pecking order would be immediately lowered if your marrow was small or misshapen. I later found out that this behaviour is known as willy-waving. Those of you disadvantaged by geography may not be familiar with this term. Willy-waving is simply a vivid way of describing male competitiveness, much favoured by alpha-male politicians and businessmen, willy being British slang for penis. Picture that, if you will, and with that visual aid in your mind let us move on.

There are several explanations as to why churches or cathedrals have spires. Tall spires act as a guiding landmark. The higher the church spire, the closer to God. The bells can be heard from a greater distance. After much thought and reflection, I have decided that we can discard these theories and that medieval bishops were simply prey to extreme bouts of willy-waving. The higher the spire, the bigger the willy. The 14th century Bishop of Salisbury must have had a lot to prove, so had built the highest spire in the UK reaching 404 feet and weighing almost 6,400 tons. This monstrous appendage caused any number of structural problems. It started leaning perilously to one side as it settled into the gravel subsoil and needed the addition of many buttresses, braces and anchor irons over the following centuries. Bigger, it seems, is not always better, at least for church architecture. You can still see the spire from a great distance. As we approached Salisbury along the busy main road it was the first building visible, towering above the city rooftops. I hope the Bishop is pleased, wherever he may be.

I don’t often take guided tours. I find then a bit dull and tedious. I am pleased we made an exception for the cathedral tour. The elderly guide was both informative and interesting, telling us more about the history of Christian churches than about specific architecture. He took great delight in explaining how medieval priests made their living by praying for the soul of the dead. In Roman Catholic belief, there is, or was, an intermediate state after physical death called purgatory. Those in purgatory would have to undergo further purification before ascending to heaven. The cleansing process involved lots of painful burning and poking with sharp sticks, or something like that. If you had people pray over your remains, you could earn the odd day off from your suffering. There seems to have been a points system. Prayers by regular mortals might only get you an hour of relief. A priest might get you a whole day. If you had enough money to persuade the medieval pope to offer a blessing, you might have a whole month of respite. The rich built rooms within the cathedral, called chantry chapels, where their remains would be interred. Priests would then pray or perform a mass over the deceased to give them a day’s relief from suffering. The richest would leave the priest enough money to have a mass every day to give them a comfy afterlife.

I took a few pictures around the cathedral, but you can never capture the scale and grandeur with a two-dimensional image. It is definitely worth a visit if you find yourself in the area. Try and find the same guide. Check out @gap_year_oap on Instagram if you want to see some of the pictures.

Magna Carta, or The Great Charter, has to be one of the most famous documents in the world. Rebellious barons forced the unpopular King John to sign the Magna Carta in 1215. It said, in essence, that everybody, including the king, was subject to the law and that all free men had a right to justice and a free trial. Many of the principles established in this document have been used in subsequent documents, including the US Bill of Rights and The European Convention on Human Rights. The original Magna Carta is lost, most likely stuck at the back of an unopened drawer or in a box in somebody’s attic. Forty copies were made immediately after the signing but only four survive. One if these, they claim the best, is on display at the Salisbury Cathedral Chapter House. Needless to say, this was were I headed after the tour. It was written in Latin and in the smallest possible writing, comfortably readable only with a magnifying glass, so it was impossible to make out many words. Quite how the medieval scholars managed to write that small, with no obvious crossings out or corrections, is baffling. Since all they had were tiny quill pens and a pot of ink it is even more impressive. Those poor scholars must have been plucking sparrows for weeks.

I called into the tourist information office to see what else was worth doing in Salisbury. Unfortunately, they had turned the office into a gift shop with a rack of infomercial leaflets. I managed to find a brief town guide amongst the leaflets for bus tours, petting zoos, attractions fifty miles away and the like. It said go to Stonehenge, visit the cathedral and then go shopping. Having already done the first two, I decided to do my civic duty for the local economy by buying a cheese and potato pasty for £2.20 from a local baker. It was a very nice pasty and I was glad to do my bit.

We did manage to find a National Trust property for the afternoon. It was Mompesson House, which is an 18th-century townhouse in Salisbury’s historic Cathedral Close. It was left to the NT empty of contents and they have tried to furnish it in the style of the 1700’s. It wasn’t on the regular tourist trail and there were very few visitors. The elderly volunteers looked bored and leapt on us as soon as we entered a room, explaining every facet and detail of each room, so our visit took longer than needed.

We were still in the middle of a heatwave and were flagging by late afternoon. After a quick caffeine boost, we headed back to the campsite and spent the evening drinking wine and trying to keep ducks out of our tent. They were persistent. I tried asking nicely. I tried looking menacing and muttering “Duck a l’Orange.” I tried shooing them away with my hands. It wasn’t until I stood up and shouted “DUCK OFF!” that they got the message. The people in the next tent gave me a bit of a look, but I’d had two glasses of wine by then, so I didn’t care.


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