Wednesday, November 7, 2007

A Whirlwind Tour of the UK

It was three decades since I had been there, and nothing had changed. Only myself, who came then as a girl, now as a middle-aged woman with more ability to appreciate my surroundings. Of course the UK has changed over time, but it seems it did most of its changing long before I came the first time.

But the scenery seems to have miraculously stayed quaint and green. Take the green pastures full of sheep as an example. Once forests grew on those lands, and now they are covered with sheep. Wool, thought I, must be the reason behind the madness. But no…with all the new fibers, wools are less popular, and of the wools that are popular, they do not come from this kind of sheep. Rather the Merino and Kashmir growing flocks provide the favorites for today’s consumer. For fleece warmth, try the polyester growing animals instead.

No, it is not for wool but for meat that these creatures abound. And good meat too, to be found in the pubs that dot the landscape. Almost as many pubs as sheep.. Food has changed quite a lot since the 1970’s, then, a dismal fare was offered; things such as fish flavored chicken or gristle burgers were the mode of the day, the only good thing about it was the ease of staying thin. This time, the food finds were delicious and I’m going to have to whittle myself down again.

John, my traveling companion, and I stayed in an 18th century drafty stone farmhouse with great big rooms. The farm marm, as I like to call her, gave us the lowdown on hoof and mouth disease; the mysterious disease that jumps around, willy nilly, from farm to farm, ruining the lives and livings of the unsuspecting flockherders. It might be the badgers, according to a London Times speculation. I couldn’t help wondering if it’s the, well I guess you could say ‘ranching monoculture’ that pervades the landscape. But what do I know? Very little about that, I can assure you.

Traveling on to Ballantrae, a small village on the coast of Ayrshire in Scotland, I visited my dear Aunt Margaret, who has been inviting me to come since she married a Scot and moved there 27 years ago. The man she married, John Sanderson, I had met a couple of times in the states, but those meetings were so populated with family that I had no chance to notice much about him, other than his enthralling well schooled English accent, and the fact that he wore a kilt.

I found a kinship with him this time, as we have so much in common; from love of great music classics and a passion for travel and culture, to pursuit of creative drives made possible by the invention of electronics. From gardening and prize winning vegetable growing, to the art of choosing the right wine to go with a delicious meal, he’s a cultured and refined delight, and he enjoys cleaning up the kitchen! My aunt’s great love is a rare find indeed, the kind of man worth waiting half a lifetime for. Even if he does have differing views on global warming than I.

My aunt is a lucky woman. Furthermore, she’s a delightful conversationalist, a fantastic cook, and an amazing quilter. I enjoyed so much spending those days with her, a time that until those days, we had never had. We shared precious girl-talk, family gossip, and comforted each other in our fears. I think I forgot to tell her that she has inspired me to take up writing seriously as she is an endless font of encouragement. Since she’s probably reading this, let it be known how much it has meant to me! I was very sad that it had to end so soon, and left Ballantrae knowing I would return, sooner rather than later.

My companion John and I got in the car early on the day of leaving, and hit the motorway for an all day drive down to England’s fine and high living South, stopping for the endless stream of custard tarts to be found along the way. Sleeping that night in Marlborough, we had our evening meal in a haunted pub that resides in Avebury, a village within an ancient stone circle. In the morning, we went back to that circle and marveled at those stones, which also happen to inhabit Avebury’s pastures of sheep.

We saw Silbury mound, which is being explored currently, and renovated. How do you renovate a mound, you wonder? Well, apparently there were tunnels in it, possibly seeking some kind of treasure through the years. Those tunnels were causing the hill to collapse inward. Now, much more is understood about the mound, and those discoveries are being broadcast every few nights on The BBC. I haven’t seen the documentary, but I do know that the tunnels are being filled with chalk to keep the implosion from ruining the mound.

Then, we skirted on down to Stonehenge to admire that profound circle and gawk in awe at the mystery of the whole thing before hightailing it on down to Salisbury, visiting the great gothic cathedral there, which just happens to house the best copy of the four original versions of the Magna Carta, and then had a quick bite to eat, which was an unpleasant experience, before shooting on over to Brighton for an overnight visit with friends of my companion.

It was there that I met Kate, a woman who apparently is my British twin. We had one of those rare times where you meet someone and keep having to state, “Really? Me too!” We stood in the kitchen for at least an hour, drinking coffee and comparing personality traits, and then went upstairs to look at each other’s blogs and link them up. Once we were on our computers, we disappeared into our individual cyber realities and the world faded away without us.

John and I traveled back to London that day, stopping to admire Brighton’s Royal Pavillion, a late 19th century hybrid of highly ornate architecture and decorating styles in a modest palace built for one of the later King Georges. We got stuck on the circle motorway but still managed to get the car back a few minutes before it was due, avoiding a stiff fine.

Back in London in the warmth and friendship of John’s friends Pete and Kim and their lovely daughter Alexa, I set off to explore the town. The underground ‘tube’ is a great way to see the city, albeit expensive in comparison to other mass transits I’ve known. I saw the outside of Westminster Abbey, not wanting to brave the very long line, which is find because I remember it well from my teenage years, before they had lines. I listened to Big Ben, which really doesn’t sound like the electronic San Francisco version at all. Same melody, slightly different rhythm, and I was surprised to find that Big Ben is not as loud!

The next day, I took the trains out to Hampton Court, home of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, Cardinal Wolsey and many others I’m glad I did, so grand and fantastic it was. Joining with the crying children, I got lost in the maze. That night with my hosts, I experienced the thrill of the fireworks along with a huge crowd that jammed into a local cricket field to watch in celebration of Guy Fawkes night. The fireworks went on for the better part of an hour. In many places in the UK this celebration is marked with a bonfire, allowing folks to rid their houses of unwanted girth. Not practical in London, fireworks are the replacement, and can be heard and seen for several nights preceding the actual event.

But one of the most amazing sights in England wasn’t even English. I saw them at the British Museum, thanks to the advice of my Aunt Margaret; the Terra Cotta Army, recently unearthed in X’ian, China, the companions of long buried 1st Emperer Qin, dating back to 200 year BC. The exhibit was structured in a way that showed all of the accoutrements of the era first, with the actual statues placed at the end of the exhibit. When I got there I was experiencing so much anticipation that I could not hold back tears.

Qin’s tomb is the unexplored component of the region now. But it is speculated that within his tomb, an entire mini relief of China exists, including the rivers, said to flow with mercury. But it is not likely to be known for quite some time, as excavating the site is forbidden. Perhaps with some future technology they can know without digging. Which is good, because if it is true that there are rivers of mercury underground, it could be quite a toxic adventure.

I stayed a final night at an overpriced airport hotel and boarded a plane. After 24 hours in transit, I arrived back in Mirik, India. Where a tea worker documentary was wanting to be born.

And that is where I am today.
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