In early 2006 I thought my days of action were numbered due to worsening autoimmune illness, so I resolved to go to England to finally take the walking trip I had dreamed of since my teens. Two weeks before leaving I drastically altered my diet, with outstanding results, and thus left for England with what amounted to a new and improved body.
My 17-year old niece, Maddy, accompanied me on this trip. Maddy had Asperger’s Syndrome and had never been so far away from home. Neither of us knew what to expect, but we turned out to be excellent travel partners who enjoyed each other’s company.
Following is the first part of my travel journal. All photos are my own except for the ones that are credited to others.
Sat next to a 300-plus pound man on the overnight flight from Newark to Heathrow. The armrests obviously gave him great pain, and I suggested that he feel free to raise them. He did this gratefully, but then his enormous bulk pressed all against my side and thigh. I spent the night squeezed painfully away from him, unable to sleep at all despite having taken half an Ambien. It sent me into a drowsy, murky twilight but gave me no sleep. Maddy, who had been inexplicably seated by the airline four or five rows in front of me, played Tetris on the personal TV set built into the back of the seat in front of her, then slept. It was a long, long night. My tailbone and legs protested. I declined the in-flight food but gratefully accepted orange juice. In the early morning we flew over what I supposed might be Wales, a coastline adjacent to impressive rolling hilly country, and we landed at Heathrow soon thereafter. We tried to fix our tickets which were all messed up for our return flight, since I deemed it better to fix it then and there (which they were unable to do) rather than wait ‘til the last moment next weekend, and this made us late for the bus to Reading, which made us miss the train to Penzance by about three minutes, causing delays that expanded and grew as the afternoon wore on.
Reading was filled with handsome little tri-colored brick houses all joined together, their original yards now taken up by parked motor vehicles, everything with a sad, shabby air of run-downness. We passed a Staples, a Toys-R-Us, and a Burger King. The view from the highway between Heathrow and Reading had been very similar to what we could have seen at home (save for the Victorian buildings). I thought of Oscar Wilde on the platform at Reading, in his prisoner’s stripes; and thought about homogenization of culture, and about the vanishing of true national character due to global ugliness. Past Reading, the countryside grew prettier, with herds of cattle and hedgerows and blossoming wildflowers, yet even there I could see traces of homogenization.
We ran for train connections and sweated over timetables all day, after having run for our flight in Indy and again at Newark. I tried to phone Frank with a credit card but was turned down by the machine. I found that I was sick of schedules and itineraries. If I ever do this again, I want spontaneity instead of regimentation. Long live my own spontaneous spirit of adventure, untrammeled by global standardization.
Later—near Exeter, which was pronounced “Axter” by the heavily accented conductor—the countryside drew increasingly beautiful. Maddy slept on the train seat beside me, head forward, mouth open, breathing the heavy slumbering breath of the truly exhausted. We passed old churches, ruins, farms; an estate filled with probably at least a hundred spotted deer moving about grazing in clumps like pale African gazelles; a farm field filled with huge lolloping rabbits; and briefly (just around Dawlish) the train ran at the very side of the sea. At first I saw on the left what looked like an exceedingly muddy marsh, then I realized it was a tidal estuary with the mudflats exposed; then suddenly the train window was filled with gray ocean and small whitecaps. Then we went inland again, the train going slower and slower the closer we came to Penzance. Finally we reached the end of the line and we climbed out, half-dazed by weariness.
I don’t remember when I’ve been so tired, except perhaps the last time Frank and I went abroad. All the way on the train, my head kept nodding as I sat beside Maddy, and I’d begin to fall asleep, only to jerk awake again with a start. If I had fallen asleep I would have missed the alpaca farm! and the huge plateau that looked like an enormous Iron Age hillfort! and the ruined tin mine buildings! and a castle! and a huge brown bird that I later learned was an English buzzard. Packs on our backs, we trudged into town, following the written instructions I had for our B&B, Camilla House. We arrived, I rang the bell, and our host, Simon, opened the door with outstretched hand of welcome, expecting us. He sat us down in the parlor of his 1836 house and plied us with tea, and answered questions. We washed up, combed our hair, and went down again for dinner. I was famished in addition to being mortally weary, and tucked into a meal of sautéed fresh sole, new potatoes with homemade butter, and steamed green beans, carrots and summer squash. I drank about four glasses of water, being dehydrated. I had had no food on the airplane, no breakfast, and almost nothing to eat all day. We went to bed by 9:30 or 10 and slept like zombies. Or at least Maddy did, whereas I woke at 2:30 to pee and then suffered insomnia due to being excited to wake up and remember that I was in England, not my home. I took half another Ambien and slipped back to sleep peacefully.
In the morning we had breakfast and then went on a “Harry Safari” hosted by a local personality, raconteur and singer-songwriter named Harry. We were the only ones in his tour van this morning and received a personalized tour. “What do you girls want to see?” he asked, and I said at once “Ancient sites!” He took us first to Sancreed holy well, where the mossy hole in the ground was rock-lined, filled with ferns, and topped with a hawthorn tree covered with strips of cloth tied on by neopagans. On all the crevices of the stonework inside were little offerings (including a small plastic dinosaur). I left an American quarter, sorry I had nothing better. “See the flowers floating on top of the water?” Harry said; “they’re recent offerings. Usually there are many more pieces of cloth tied in the tree but there was a baptism here two weeks ago and the Christians removed them all. These have been tied on since then.”
He showed us stonework in a rough square which was the ruins of Saint Creed’s monastic cell. “This was the local water source, so people would come to get their water, and the saint was living right here and could see who was coming and going, and he’d talk to them and convert them,” said Harry, who appeared to be warm on neopaganism.
He drove on through impossibly narrow lanes lined on both sides with hedgerows, and stopped so we could see the masses of wildflowers growing naturally at the bottom and sides. Navelwort is a sedum-like plant that grows in cracks between rocks and has round conical leaves with a gentle indentation in the middle, like a belly button, with little spikes of colorless flowers; English bluebells drooped their little blue heads; Queen Anne’s lace was a different sort altogether than ours, being juicier, with a different sort of umbel at the top and a similar but distinctly different leaf (Harry claimed there were over 10 types of Queen Anne’s Lace); foxgloves – digitalis purpurea – with huge fat inch-thick stems [including some that stood as tall as myself]; wild alliums with white clusters at the end of a triangular stalk; Herb Robert; and yellow buttercups. Harry wadded up an herb that looks similar to sweet woodruff and showed how swains used to toss it at their girlfriends, and if it stuck to their clothes (as it always does, like natural Velcro) their love was returned. He showed how the hedgerows in Cornwall have stone at the bases, and he showed us a fox run that went over the wall and down the bank, across the road, up the opposite bank and over the opposite wall, the hedgerow rising up on both sides of it but kept from growing by the constant comings and goings of generations of foxes.
He showed us rabbit scrapes excavated between stones in a wall near the holy well. He showed us English buzzards soaring in the sky above a field, an English buzzard being not a vulture at all but a large brown hawk almost the size of an eagle. We drove to see the Merry Maidens stone circle, where we met with a family who were hiking along the public path. Harry went into his tour guide spiel for the strangers and told us all about how there are many things that stone circles could have been – worship places, astronomical observatories, public markets, or gathering places for tribes; and how the number 19 may have been significant since it appears over and over again across Cornish circles, but how we can’t know for certain.
He produced dowsing rods and let everyone try their hand, claiming that when you walked along the path to the center, the rods would jump in your hand when you passed the spot where the two ley lines crossed. (Maddy refused to try, being completely annoyed with Harry’s constant teasings about how he was going to divorce his wife and marry her.) I tried the dowsing with great interest, having read of this many times, but although one rod twitched strongly, I attributed it to mishandling the rod combined with wanting to feel an effect. Harry said that some people can do it, while others can’t, and expounded a theory of the earth covered with a complex network of lines of magnetic intensity, pulsing invisibly. The strangers were happy with the free show. I put a buttercup blossom on the top of a stone, since neopagans had done the same on many of the rocks, and we moved on and examined the nearby standing stone called The Fiddler (as opposed to The Pipers on the opposite side of the stone circle) and the nearby stone burial chamber, now despoiled by destructive early archaeologists and almost bisected by the road. The tomb was a round circle of rocks with a capstoned round burial of the Beaker Folk in the middle, a neat and symmetrical bull’s-eye. Harry told us how the existing stones across the top had been pilfered from a nearby stone wall and were not original, and how the multiple-holed quernstone in front of the tomb was simply a lichen-encrusted cement replica, to deter thieves. “Hmphhh….inauthentic,” I sniffed to myself.
Harry took us to a lovely 1400s church at Sancreed with the most beautiful graveyard I’ve ever set eyes on, the sort of place I’d like to rest in myself had I not already planned on cremation. The church was locked and Harry was disappointed since it was nearly always locked nowadays to deter theft. “Thieves took the carpets out of the church at Tre——-,” he told us, shaking his head, “and they took the furniture from the church at ——.” The key-keeper for the church saw Harry’s van parked in front, and came next door to unlock it for us, which we thanked him for. Inside it was musty, damp, and with a slightly dank odor, with green patches on the wall from too much disuse and not enough human activity. The pews were handsome but of a later era; the spectacular window was turn-of-the-century; there were indeed original carvings left at the base of the medieval carved screen, which had been cut down to table height much later, and the roof was exactly like an upturned boat hull. It makes perfect sense for a seafaring people to build rafters like that.
Harry was an original, and was well-informed. One pale blue eye roamed off to the side independent of the other eye, and his hair and scraggly goatee were very gray. He kept teasing Maddy mercilessly until I explained in an aside to him when we were at a teahouse having a midday break that she had Asperger’s. Then he cooled it. — The teahouse had fabulous baked goods as well as pottery tchotchkes and gewgaws for tourists. I had a big slab of treacle tart and Maddy had apple pie, both with huge gobs of clotted cream on the top. Maddy tasted hers and pushed it off to the side, but I ate most of mine. It was buttery in texture but not in taste, or perhaps I should describe it better as ice-creamy in texture but not sweet. It was thick; it was rich; it was satisfyingly schmaltzy. A bold chaffinch landed on the end of the table and begged for scraps; his song was like that of the song sparrow. An iridescent black-green magpie landed on the next table over. A tiny English robin perched on the fence and a jackdaw flew over. I was in heaven in that beautiful tree-shaded yard.
Harry took us also to Carn Euny, an Iron Age settlement with ruins of circular houses (of comfortable size, I must say) and farm enclosures, with a curious underground place called a fogou, reachable by a low passage in which we had to walk doubled over. Then we could stand inside the roomy (but damp) inner chamber, which was corbelled with heavy blocks of rock. It was used perhaps for cold-storage, perhaps for defense, or perhaps as a way to worship the womb of the Earth Mother. A curious phenomenon – when you moved and caught the light on the wall just right, the moss lit up like the reflective strips on clothing meant to be worn at night, bright green. When you moved only slightly, the green glow winked out completely. I really was struck by the eerie effect.
Harry gave us a lift over to Marazion after the tour was over, where Maddy and I went to see St. Michael’s Mount, an English version of Mont Saint-Michel in France, founded by the same order of Benedictine monks. We walked across the causeway to the island and walked up through the little village to the castle, where we paid a stiff price (£6 each) to watch a bad introductory movie and tour the castle, which was swathed in scaffolding and was having work done on the exterior. The castle was actually quite interesting despite being largely Victorian.
The view from the top, looking down at the gardens and the rocks falling down to the shore, was completely vertigo-inducing. “How would you like to be a workman up on the roof, looking down at that?” I asked Maddy. I found with surprise that in addition to being dyslexic, she has no depth perception. Although she sees the drop-off and knows it’s a good way down, she cannot estimate distance nor judge relative danger and even more interestingly, perceives no difference at all between looking at it with both eyes open and one eye shut. “There’s no difference,” she said a bit defiantly, confused as to why I was asking. “Do you see things flatly, or in three dimensions, like when you look into a View-Master?” I asked. “I can’t look through those things,” she said with disdain, “I don’t know what you mean by three-dimensional.”
We walked back along the causeway and all the way back to our B&B in Penzance, along the Coast Track. Maddy, being dyslexic, also cannot tell that English traffic flows along the opposite side to ours, and cannot tell the difference between the driver’s wheel being on the right as opposed to the left. “Couldn’t you tell that Harry was sitting on the side of the front seat that’s opposite to your mom or day when they drive your car?” “What do you mean? Is it different?” asked Maddy, blankly. I think, myself, that she ought not to get a driver’s license.
I went out for a little walk after dinner by myself, Maddy choosing to stay in the hotel room playing Sudoku. I felt a bit apprehensive about being by myself in a strange town, walking narrow lanes with no company, but nothing happened, and I put in another mile or so of walking. Tomorrow we begin our trek on foot around the Penwith Peninsula.
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[Part two of this travel journal is posted at https://storiesbycarrol.wordpress.com/2015/07/07/more-from-the-journal-england-part-two/.]