In early 2006, after a long period of ill health, I traveled to England to take the walking trip I had dreamed of since my teens. My 17-year old niece, Maddy, accompanied me. Maddy had Asperger’s Syndrome and had never been so far away from home.
All photos are my own except for the ones that are credited to others.
We ate a good breakfast and Maddy was able to walk as far as Mousehole, another mile and a half from Castallack Farm. Again it was blazingly hot and searingly sunny. I cursed my foolishness in not bringing a hat, but who’d have known that England at the beginning of June would be like this? Apparently, up to a week or so ago, they had been enduring one of the coldest and most rainy springs in recent history. And now it’s in the mid-80s and cloudless. Go figure! The “normal” temperatures for this part of the country for this time of year generally range from the upper 40s to lower 60s.
The thing that impresses me is the number of other walkers we’ve spoken with who think nothing of striding off for a good ten or twelve miles’ walk. A couple who were at our B&B this morning had walked from Sennen to Castallack in one day. The German we spoke with yesterday on the cliffs said he’s been coming every year for years, to walk from X to Y along the Cornish Coast. If I had been by myself, or with another reasonably fit adult, I could have walked much farther than we did (5.5 miles the first day, and about 7 the second). I’m astounded at how good I feel (notwithstanding perhaps the most extensive sunburn I’ve ever had, on arms, upper chest and face). No arm pain, no bad numbness (except while writing); nothing to report save a muscle cramp in my left calf. Compared with Maddy, I’m a model of physical fitness. I could not believe I carried both packs yesterday (even though it was not for very far, really). I’m so amazed at the physical change in my body – it’s like being reborn, or having an all-new body to marvel at and inhabit and enjoy. When I did my stretches yesterday I could touch my toes with no problem, and could perform all the other exercises that used to be painful and onerous. And instead of 17-year-old Maddy running circles around me, I ran circles around her.
We strolled slowly through part of Mousehole and ate luncheon at a tiny eatery, and looked at gimcrack tourist gifts through the windows of the many shops. All the shops had names like “Cat and Mouse” or had piratical or nautical themes. The village was perched on impossible hills above the water, with a handsome stone jetty sticking out into the water. Boats were tied up in the water and shrieking children ran chasing each other through the water at the shore. A stream issued from a culvert and spilled out over the rocks down to the sea. Gulls wheeled and cried overhead. The sun was blazing and we had little energy for touristing, what with our packs. We learned too late that we didn’t need to pack our bags on our backs each day; we could have chosen one B&B and taken the excellent bus system to anywhere on the Penwith Peninsula effortlessly without worrying about getting back. We could have walked from Sennen to Lamorna in one day, like the couple we met this morning, without being encumbered by heavy packs. But we didn’t know, so we can’t be faulted. Next time I do this, I’ll carry only a small bag with snacks and binoculars. (Sadder and wiser.)
Mousehole was very cute, with tiny stone cottages on narrow streets of appalling gradients, but it was filled with wandering tourists and one had the distinct impression that it was not real, but part of Neverland. So without examining it more closely, we caught the bus (which was standing right there) back to Penzance. We found our next B&B, unpacked and relaxed for a while, went to the Turk’s Head for a second lunch, strolled through the Morrab Gardens and the grounds of Penlee House, and did a coin laundry. It was notable that Penzance, which had looked so exotic to us upon first arrival, now looked rather seedy and unimpressive compared to the lofty cliffs along the coast, the beautiful cove of Penberth, the lush hidden valley of St. Loy, and the incredible quaintness of Mousehole. “Oh…..it’s Penzance again.” Our B&B this time was much less noble than Camilla House had been (although perfectly adequate for our purposes) and life seemed a bit flat in comparison to the adventures we had just been through. I had a headache from the constant blazing sun. We ate dinner at the Admiral Benbow (he’s the chap who finally caught Captain Kidd, apparently) and were amused with its décor, which was garish faux ship-style, with curved beams in the ceiling, ships’ wheels, bright paint with thick shiny varnish, and a fake hatch in the ceiling. We went “home” to our B&B, read, and worked Sudoku puzzles. Maddy has become a complete Sudoku fiend, thanks to me.
All these B&Bs are charmingly done up with flowered duvets with ruffles, but who wants to sleep under a toasty duvet when the day has been 80 degrees and the nighttime temperature is scarcely any lower?
Everywhere we’ve been, except for Castallack Farm, had seagulls everywhere that screech and wail like peacocks, all night long. One of them sounded exactly like a whining puppy in the middle of the night, a puppy that had been locked outdoors with no friend, food or shelter. Yet I’m sure it was a bird. At breakfast this morning a woman at the next table asked the host about the poor puppy that had been locked outside. “I nearly phoned the RSPCA even though it was the middle of the night,” she said, “I was so indignant.” The host looked blank. “I never heard a puppy,” he said, “none of the neighbors have one. It may have been a gull. It’s breeding season and they do make quite a bit of noise at present.” “It was a dog,” the lady insisted. She began making conversation with me; it so happened she was from London. I asked the population, learned it was 15,000,000 (twice the size of New York City – that’s something to consider) and then her face darkened. “It’s that size because of the immigrants,” she told me. “Everywhere you go you see Poles. And people from Eastern Europe.” She looked as visibly disgusted as if she’d been a white Mississipian in the civil rights days, talking about blacks. I found it striking that she would agitate herself more on behalf of a dog than a Pole, but of course said nothing.
We settled the bill, shouldered our backpacks and set off for the post office (to mail another batch of postcards) and the bookstore (to get a Cornwall book before it was too late) and then the train station. I looked at the city with affection as it shone in the bright, warm morning sun, and realized I didn’t want to leave Penwith. I could very happily spend the entirety of my next vacation in Cornwall. As the train moved out of the station and rolled past Saint Michael’s Mount, I found I had tears in my eyes, and wiped them furtively several times until I mastered myself.
The trip was long and was made longer by mechanical problems with the next train up the track. We pulled into Bath around 4:00 pm and found our B&B, which was totally swank, with a ceiling featuring floral bas-reliefs in the plaster and great swags of salmon-colored curtains with sheer lace behind them. The garden outside was to die for; the poppies were in full bloom and were as wide across as my fully-extended thumb and pinky (eight or so inches across, magnificent flowers). We strolled back across the river into town to get Maddy something to eat, so we therefore missed out on getting in to see the Roman Baths and the Pump Room before they closed. We walked beside the River Avon, looking at the lock, the weir, and the charming old bridge with shops built along it, and we climbed up to the Circus and the Royal Crescent.
Maddy found the whole place off-putting instead of exhilarating, because she does not like anything that is swank or classy, and the sheer magnitude of it gave her sensory overload. I began to regret having brought her there, since it was so obviously wasted on her. Tomorrow we are signed up instead for a day-trip tour to Stonehenge, Avebury and the edge of the Cotswolds. The next day I had hoped to “do” Bath, since Frank and I missed doing properly long ago, but now I’m wondering whether I should try to get us into another different tour instead, to Glastonbury and Wells. It’s a shame to come to a World Heritage Site and not make the most of it, but it’s also no good to have a bored, diffident teenager on my hands who says that she despises this sort of thing in a voice that rings through a crowded street. She has no idea how loud she talks. I wonder if I was the same when I was her age? I suspect I was very similar to her in many ways, but I do know that I was quieter in terms of decibel level.
She confided to me how she feels she was born in the wrong era and in the wrong country, and how she believes that things like Harry Potter’s Hogwarts and other magical worlds actually exist on a different dimension and how sometimes a person can make the dimensions come together and touch. Suddenly I had a strong sense of déjà vu, recalling my awful first year at IU and how I took refuge in fantasy to block out my unhappy “real” life. I had completely forgotten.
We took an all-day bus tour of Stonehenge, Avebury and part of the Cotswolds today. Maddy was thrilled with Stonehenge and exclaimed over and over how excited she was. It was WAY more crowded than I remembered from 19 years ago, several tour buses from London having rolled up just as we arrived, the visitors all crowding through the gate and shuffling past holding audiophones to their ears. I myself like Avebury better for its vast scale and its picturesque qualities, but Maddy was less impressed because she had never heard of it before. She is now totally enthusiastic about ley lines and believes implicitly in them, although she thinks dowsing for them is bogus. Our tour guide demonstrated the dowsing rods at Avebury, just as Harry had done at the Merry Maiden stone circle, but I realized when I handled them again that the rods naturally cross (as they’re reputed to do if you’re on a ley), and they flip outward if you raise or lower the tips slightly. I think any crossing of the rod tips is completely due to the holder’s own subconscious desire to find a ley, and Maddy is of the same opinion.
We drove on past Silbury Hill to Lacock, an astonishingly handsome mellow old medieval-Tudor village with limestone buildings and wider streets than is common (were they built wide perhaps for market purposes, or for driving droves of sheep?). We ate at the King George, which dates to the 1380s and has the oldest continuously-operating pub license in England (although for obvious reasons it cannot have been named the King George back in the 1300s). I had my first hard cider: bubbly and sweetish-tart, a little like sparkling fruit wine. We strolled down to Lacock Abbey after lunch and got in to take a super-quick tour of the cloisters; the rest of the building being closed. I had no idea that it was used as a backdrop in the “Harry Potter” movies. I took what I think are some good photographs inside the ruined old galleries of the cloister, impressed at having just found out that William Fox Talbot (the inventor of the photographic negative process) also lived there for some time.
We drove on the Castle Combe where we spent a half-hour, a ridiculously charming picturesque village only one street wide, with old stone houses of the same era as Lacock. Our guide told us that the villages with the most remaining historic atmosphere are the ones that suffered the worse economic privation in the past and therefore found it impossible to afford any alterations that would have modernized the appearance. The town was undeniably beautiful, but its narrowness seemed almost stifling, and its quaintness almost oppressive. Apparently it costs over half-a-million pounds to buy a cottage there nowadays, so it’s very gentrified.—We went into the little churches at both Lacock and Castle Combe. The first had several original brasses left in the floor, behind velvet ropes, and the second had a Crusader effigy tomb, very impressive.
We came back to Bath with enough time left over to see the Roman baths. Maddy seemed less interested in the Roman ruins than I thought she might. And she definitely dislikes Georgian Bath, finding it boring. I resolved to forego one more day of exploring Georgian Bath in lieu of taking another day-tour tomorrow to Glastonbury and Wells, since she’s so interested in ley lines and New Age weirdness. (It’s funny that after arguing that she hates Christianity, she’s now apparently interested in looking inside churches, having seen two in Cornwall, two today, and the Bath Abbey yesterday.)
We ate dinner at a little café just above the oval-shaped weir, and then went out at sunset for a “Bizarre Bath” comedy walk with a local stand-up comic and sleight-of-hand artist. Maddy, being completely literal, was barely amused by any of it and asked loudly several times if he could explain. When the comic tonight made a gentle jibe at her expense, even though I had told her in advance to just smile and take it silently, she told him “Same to you” in a tone that sounded exceptionally rude. I should have known that comedy would be problematic for her. I regret having gone on the tour, even thought she had asked yesterday in particular if we could go see this attraction.
We took the day tour to Wells and Glastonbury. Wells was initially interesting, having a medieval cathedral, the first we’d yet seen (and a magnificent specimen), but it was market day in town and the place was filled with day-trippers, literally thousands of them, and my phobia of crowds kicked in with a vengeance. By the time we left, two hours after getting there, I was completely fed up with the place and could not wait to leave.
Glastonbury was different. I had looked forward very much to the tour and knew what we were heading into. When the tour guide was driving down from the crest of the Mendip Hills, he pointed out Glastonbury Tor, which lay straight ahead of us across the Somerset Levels, and my heart leaped at the sight: a high, perfectly shaped tall hill on a misty horizon, surrounded improbably by a flat plain. A tower jutted from the top. The tour guide stopped the bus at the foot of the Tor, which was itself atop another broader, lower elevation, and let all of us off except those who had no interest in climbing (three elderly ladies). There was no way I was NOT going to climb; I had come a long way to get the satisfaction of doing exactly this. Maddy had had enough of climbing hills in the sun, and she stayed at the bottom while I and the others charged up the path to the top.
At the top, sweating and out of breath, I felt no ley line energies prickling the hairs at the back of my neck. I felt peaceful, and reflective, and I walked slowly about on the small top of the hill, examining the 1300s ruined tower and the silver shining “compass” that shows you what you are looking at in each direction, and how far it was. I sat on the grass on the brink and watched the jackdaws fly past beneath me in the air. The Tor is so very high that the viewer can see in all directions over three different English counties. The pleasant pattern of fields and hedgerows stretched in all directions to the far-off hills. I was perfectly happy, sitting there with a gentle hot breeze flowing past, baking in yet another day of unseasonable English heat. I chatted with a fellow American on the tour, a man from Seattle who was interested in King Arthur. He was friendly, a fellow American in a strange but fascinating land. I never learned his name, but I warned him about stinging nettles and taught him that the crows with gray heads were jackdaws, and told him how lively Cornwall was. By the time we descended together, we were friends.
When we descended the hill to the bus, which had driven off to town with the elderly ladies and then returned for us, I found that Maddy had gone with them without telling me. “She said she was tired of ley lines,” the tour guide told me. I was horrified at the prospect of searching through all of Glastonbury in every Magick shop and emporium for my niece, and explained that she has Asperger’s. This of course concerned the others quite a bit. But as it turned out, Maddy was fine. She had been hanging out in a New Age bookstore just across from the bus parking lot, and came out when she saw us (“us” being me and the tour guide, who felt somewhat responsible for losing a passenger thus). I ended up allowing her to continue her shopping by herself after lunch, since she expressed the desire to do so, and promised she’d stay in one of the two shops opposite the car park. I went up along the high street to check out the action.
Glastonbury is the very heart of New Age weirdness in England and I saw two practitioners of Wicca striding the streets in black hooded robes. (I must say, black is not a good color for a hot cloudless day, but they DID look impressive.) There were shops selling incense, tarot cards, tattoos, hippie clothing, Wiccan costumes, books on astral projection, Native American beliefs, and Egyptology stuff. The number of groovy individuals walking back and forth was impressive, not to mention the fact that they all seemed very interested in the free exercise of the capitalist system. I bought a lovely little hand-embroidered hippie-chick blouse for £12.50 and went away, quite satisfied, to have a quick look at the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey. There I met my friend from the Tor, and we strolled around the grounds sociably together. He had been there for a while already, and showed me where “Arthur’s tomb” had been, and the cutting of the Holy Thorn (not a cutting any longer, but a tree the size of a crabapple). The ruins were lovely and I was glad I went to see them. Even in a state of ruin, they radiate serenity. I very much enjoyed Glastonbury in contrast to Wells.
On the way back our guide took another road, this one through Cheddar Gorge, and stopped at the side of the road so we could marvel at the formations towering high above us. The limestone cliffs were brownish, not the color of grey Indiana limestone, and the rocks fell apart along ragged cleavage lines instead of separating in neat layers.
The gorge was several hundred feet deep and very steep and winding, and as the bus labored up the long, long road, the cliffs above were visible through the van’s skylight – indeed, they filled the skylight entirely. When we parked and got out and looked upward, the effect was vertiginous. There were wild (or feral) goats making their way along the sloping grassy shelves halfway up the cliffs. The guide said they were an actual rare species, but they were all multicolored (browns with white markings) instead of uniformly drab, which made me privately suspect they were simply feral.
My feet are killing me, particularly today. I’m simply grateful they did not act up on the hike last week. I have a seeping large blister on one toe, and both little toes have been driven completely beneath the adjoining toes because the boots turned out to be too narrow at the ends. I shall gladly dispose of them when I get home. When I think of how straight and independent my toes used to be, and then look at them crushed and constricted today, I wonder if I’ve caused lasting damage.
[Find the fourth and final installation of this travel journal at https://storiesbycarrol.wordpress.com/2015/07/07/more-from-the-journal-england-part-four/.]