Week 5 England Chronicles: Days 29-36

Index:
Day 29: Avebury, Stonehenge, & Salisbury Cathedral
Day 30: Merrivale Megalith & Cornwall
Day 31-32: Merry Maidens & Boscawen-Un Stone Circles, Lands End, & Chysauster Village
Day 33: The Eden Project
Day 34: The Lizard & Some Gardens
Day 35: Crowan Ancestors & The Nine Maidens Stone Circle
Day 36: Odd Crowan History & St Michael’s Mount

Day 29: Avebury, Stonehenge, & Salisbury Cathedral

As we drove toward Upavon yesterday (north of Salisbury), we passed a chalk horse on a ridge slope to the east. Today we drove toward that ridge, getting a closer view of the figure. It stands out very clearly, being brilliant white against the green of the hills. The figures are made by cutting the turf out, exposing the white chalk soils. They have to be maintained, obviously, or the grass grows back over them. Some of the figures are not all that old; I don’t know anything about the one that we saw.

A friend who lives nearby has told me that the single original horse glowed white in the blackouts of WWII, so the RAF pilots returning home from bombing missions to Germany used it as a landmark at night. Unfortunately, the Germans began to use it as well, as a navigation point in their bombing of England. So the locals went out and cut the same horse figure into many hillsides in order to confuse the German bombers.

We’d passed the horses on our way to Avebury, a megalith site that’s nearly as famous as Stonehenge. It’s a large site, the nucleus consisting of a very large henge (earth berm) and standing stones. The site is part of complex that includes Sidbury Hill – visible from the Avebury circle, West Kennett Long Barrrow, and various other sites in the area.

The Avebury site is interrupted by two roads, many fences, and a village. One has to use some imagination to able put the pieces together into one coherent whole. Because it’s chopped up, for me Avebury was more interesting intellectually than aesthetically. Its being connected to a complex of sites throughout the area further plunges it into the intellectual arena, dulling the visceral power of it.

The site is thought to be 4500 – 5000 years old. The depth of the henge ditch and height of the henge are rather stupefying if you imagine digging it with deer antlers and shoulder blade bone shovels. I hope they were pleased with themselves when they’d finished, and I hope they treated themselves to a pint.

 

Stonehenge in comparison is very compact. The proportions are perfect, like Monticello, so it could be any scale and still hold together beautifully. It is a sculptural and visceral experience. Having seen too many photographs of Stonehenge, and having read that Avebury is more impressive, I was surprised to find Stonehenge so handsome and muscular. It feels fresh and lively, even as a wreck of its original self.

The only way to enter the site itself is to go with a tour, and tours don’t run in October so we were confined to the walkways around the circle. This wasn’t as bad as it sounds, as the walkways are cleverly built so that it’s possible to photograph the stones without getting stray people in the frame. The stones sit on atop a hill, but like all the stone sites we’ve seen to date, it’s not on the highest point in the vicinity. The location commands a broad view of the countryside without perching above it all.

If, prior to visiting Stonehenge and Avebury, I’d have had to choose only one site I’d have skipped Stonehenge before Avebury because so many guidebooks gush about Avebury. Now that I’ve seen both, I’d recommend that if anyone has time for only one or the other, Stonehenge is a must-see. When I was studying in Madrid I visited Italy at Christmas, where I saw Michaelangelo’s David. I’d seen countless photographs of the sculpture, yet seeing it in person was a whole different experience. It was almost shockingly energetic and handsome. I felt the same way about Stonehenge. These things have breath – they’re alive, and unfortunately you won’t ever feel that breath without standing in front of them.

It was fun to people-watch at Stonehenge. We heard French, German, Italian, Spanish, Arabic, Japanese, Korean, and various Eastern European languages being spoken. There were women in high heels and men in motorcycle leathers; men in suits and hats and women in flowery summer dresses under umbrellas; skinny boys in baggy jeans, and skinny goth girls; soldiers in uniform, and herds of Asians. It was an amusing parade of humanity.

Speaking of soldiers, a large military training ground lies between Stonehenge and Avebury. Along the roads that we’ve been driving there are tank crossings, including signs with cute little military tanks on them, just in case you mistakenly expect a tank of propane to trip across the road in front of you, I guess.

 

Besides tip-toeing through other people’s houses, another inconvenience of staying in B&Bs is that here in England the B&Bs seem to prefer that you stay out of the house until at least 4pm. We’re often ready to go back to our rooms and nap or lounge around by two or three pm, so this has put us off our schedule. When we finished gawping at Stonehenge it was well before 4pm, so we had to come up with another amusement. We chose Salisbury cathedral. What a chore! (sigh)

The city of Salisbury had terrible traffic which may have been the start of Friday rush hour, or may be a permanent result of the old city having built their roads for fewer and smaller conveyances than modern vehicles. Whatever the reason, getting into the old city was stop and go for awhile. I never really mind that as navigator, since it gives me more time to read the signs and figure out which spur of the roundabout is the one that we need.

A word about road signs in England, which have their quirks. Junctions and roundabouts are always signed, but the signs are often half grown over with vegetation, hiding the information most pertinent to us. Even if the sign is not obscured by overgrown hedges or tree branches, we’re still often left baffled and scrambling for a map because only the M roads give a north-south-east-west direction after the road number. The highways and smaller roads’ signs never say, for instance, B3302 North or B3302 South. They leave off the direction of a road in favor of listing a few town names in the direction of the arrow. And they don’t always choose to list the largest or most obvious towns. They sometimes favor the third small village down the road, or the sixth. Perhaps their auntie lives in that village so the sign maker thought it a kick to list it instead of, say, something as dull and predictable as Bristol? Or could it be that the highway department is concerned with confusing stray Germans skulking around the countryside, leftovers from WWII? It’s difficult to say.

 

We found our way into Salisbury with relative ease due to supplementing the overgrown signs with a 1:25,000 scale map. Hm … ok, another digression: a word about maps. England has the most wonderful Ordnance Survey maps covering every inch of the country. There’s one OS map available that covers the whole country on the front and back of one page. There are road maps covering different portions of the country, at a reasonable scale for most road trips. There are 1:50,000 scale maps of the country that show a good bit of detail and are much more useful for navigating the smaller roads; and there are 1:25,000 scale maps (our 7.5 minute quad equivalent) that show every farm, every henge, every abandoned pit, every track and path. I’m surprised they don’t name people’s dogs on these maps, they’re so detailed. These seem to be more up to date than our own shameful fifty and sixty year old quads, by the way. In any case, they’re all wonderfully useful maps. They’re also maps that come alive as soon as they’re unfolded.

I’m not kidding: these maps become animated and diabolically willful. They’re perhaps four or six times the size of our 7.5 min quad maps, and feel, when you’re wrestling with them, as if they slyly expand themselves to ten or twelve times that size just to prove that they cannot be mastered. We’ve actually pulled off to the side of a road in order to open a door because a map folding operation got completely out of hand.

Once they’re properly folded to show the particular area you’re interested in, they’re fairly docile, and today we’d accomplished that task prior to entering the city of Salisbury. We found our way to a car park easily, and walked to the cathedral in a light rain.

I’ve long forgotten my art history class facts about Salisbury, so I’m not sure what is architecturally notable on that scale, but the interior of this cathedral seemed much lighter and more delicate than many, even on an overcast day. It has fewer of the rich old stained glass windows – we wondered if they were they destroyed in the war. Or perhaps they’ve been cleaned so they look new, fooling us! Some guide gushed that this is the tallest spire in the country (404ft), and has the largest cloister and cathedral close in Britain (80 acres), which seem like pointlessly secular boasts to me, but it may draw more tourists, which should help to pay for the outrageous upkeep costs. They charge (suggested donation – you know how that goes) £5 per person to enter the cathedral. I understand the logic, but this sort of thing always makes me think of Jesus ranting through the money-lenders outside the temple, yes?

The cathedral was built in 1258 and sits on a shallow four foot foundation due to a high water level in this area. Four feet! This astounds me, frankly. I’m surprised the terrific weight of the stone edifice hasn’t caused the whole thing to sink into the ground. Stones from Old Sarum, a nearby megalith site, were used in construction, so maybe some old magic is keeping it afloat.

In the north aisle of the cathedral sits an old clock built in 1386. It may be the oldest working mechanical clock in the world. The clock doesn’t look like a clock as we know them, being a series of gears and wheels mounted in an iron frame about one meter square. The frame is held together with metal dowels and pegs. Like many clocks of the 14th Century, it doesn’t have a face. It’s attached to the cathedral bells, ringing them on the hour.

Hanging above the clock is a rank of old standards (flags) of various regiments. They’re stained and frayed, obviously well-used, yet the rich fabrics and colors are beautiful. A couple of them were burned, so that they’re just charred nets with scraps of fabric left clinging to the edges. Cathedrals are generally filled with stone and metal objects of great beauty – public objects in a sense, while these standards were intriguing to me for being so used and abused by individuals over time. It was easy to imagine the hands that held them and the action they saw.

The best preserved copy of the Magna Carta is also on display at the cathedral. In case any of you have destroyed or misplaced the brain cells that stored that history lesson, the Magna Carta was created as a solution to a specific Medieval political crisis in June of 1215. It’s endured to become a lasting political influence. It set out the basic principles protecting the rights of individuals, and laid the foundations of a balance of power between the king, the church, and the individual. It’s the foundation on which English law is based, and upon which the constitutions of many countries are based, including the United States.

The document is written in Latin with a lot of abbreviations, which I guess was normal for that time. It all fits on one sheet of paper that’s maybe 11x 16 inches. Other interesting old documents were displayed in cases near the Magna Carta, including missives from the 11th Century. Their wax seals were still dangling on dirty strings attached to the bottom of the pages, the strings or ribbons having been used to tie the rolled document. (If you get the idea by now that I’m drawn to objects that show the use of individuals, being worn and abused and somehow personal, you’d be right…)

After touring the cathedral, we drove back to the B&B in a light drizzle. The countryside here is flatter than anywhere we’ve been, though it’s still broadly rolling. It looks very like the Midwest. Oddly, while the vistas across the country make it look like the landforms are simple undulations, once we start driving around on the country roads we find that it’s all roly-poly, roads dipping into narrow wooded hollows and winding up and down little hills that aren’t obvious from a long view.

 

Tonight we walked to a pub here in Upavon for dinner called The Ship. I had the best ribeye steak I’ve had in a long time.

Tomorrow we move into our cottage in Cornwall for a week – what a relief! It’s so much more relaxing and convenient to have a base of operations – to have our own space, to be able to fix our own meals, and to do laundry in a machine. Renting cottages by the week is the only way to go!

Day 30: Merrivale Megalith & Cornwall

Driving in the south of England is significantly slower than driving in the north. In an hour and a half we made it forty-two miles, the roads winding through one small village after another as we wrestled our way over to the M6. Once on the freeway we ate up the miles, though, leaving time for a couple of side trips. We’d discovered some megalith sites on an internet search, two of which looked possible to find without detailed maps and long treks across unmarked moors. We hopped off the freeway at Belstone to track down the first.

Belstone lies on the north edge of Dartmoor National Park. Our directions said that a stone circle could be found by walking a “short distance onto the moor, starting off behind the church.” Sounds quite straightforward, but it wasn’t nearly so simple. Though Belstone is a tiny village, it took a bit of squeaking through improbably narrow and crooked streets dodging pedestrians to even find the church. When we found that, it wasn’t clear where one would start out onto the moors from behind it, as there were no footpaths marked and hedges blocked our views of whatever lay behind them.

To be honest, we were flummoxed from the moment we drove into Belstone, so were easily put off by the poor directions. We’d expected, I think, a sleepy little village. Instead we found a very busy village. A crowded car park on the edge of town asked us to leave our car there (we didn’t), and people were wandering all over the tiny streets wearing hiking kit and toting cameras. It looked like market day. We thought some special event must be taking place. If the total mass of the cars and people were set against the mass of the village buildings, I think the village would be outdone.

We squeezed through the village to the far end (a matter of maybe five hundred meters as the crow flies), where the road curved off onto the moor. Some ponies and cows were grazing there, and a man was sneaking up on them with a camera. We didn’t know it at the time, but both the ponies and cows are wild. They looked quite tame and placid when we saw them.

We turned the car around and did park for just a few minutes near the church, getting out to inspect the churchyard for any signs of an obvious trail off to the stone circle. None was evident. Lacking a 1:25,000 scale map that might have helped us bushwhack our way to the site, we abandoned the quest. We climbed back in the car and left, feeling oddly put out that this tiny village could be so busy when we’d never read or heard anything of it – as if we’ve heard and read about every busy or interesting little village in England! Too funny! Later we googled the town, and concluded that this was probably a normal autumn weekend of crowds, as it sits literally right at the edge of the Dartmoor National Park, perfect for hiking and pony riding.

We abandoned the freeway again soon after Belstone, heading south on secondary roads toward Merrivale, where our second megalith site was located. This one proved to be easier to find, though the approach to the site is crucial. It’s described as visible from the road, but is only visible on approach from one direction – which is not the direction we first tried, of course!

The site was described on the internet guide as a line of stones 850 ft long. In fact, there are two double lines of stones laid out beside one another, with a small stream running between them. The lines are located on the brow of a broad-topped hill or ridge, with fantastic views in every direction. The little settlement of Merrivale and an old granite mine were highlighted by dramatic sunshine off to the northwest when we were there. To the north and east the high moorland ridges rose in gentle curves. To the west was a long view off to the inhabited valleys.

The granite stones of the linear alignment were pretty evenly spaced, being about one and a half to two meters apart. Some were standing boulders, particularly near the ends of the lines, but many were short boulders that didn’t stand out in the general landscape. The site didn’t have the concentrated feel of the circle sites, but was quite striking in its setting and interesting to see.

It was also fun to walk on the Dartmoor, since I’ve read of Dartmoor in various books. The land is very boggy, with areas of quicksand that have apparently sucked many people down to their deaths. (What a surreal, slow, and gruesome way to die! I’d rather be blown up…) Coming from the western US, it seems mysteriously improbable that high country can be so wet, but there it is squishing with every step, proving itself. The bogs on the plateaus are blanket bogs created by peat, which can be as thick as seven meters. These high bogs are thought to have formed in wetter periods of time. Enough peat built up that the blankets hold plenty of water from rain and snow. They’re no longer growing thicker though, as the peat no longer accumulates to the degree it once did. The lower peat bogs are recharged with runoff from higher areas, and those lower peat bogs are still accumulating depth.

After one more stop at the Tesco grocery in Helston (vegetables!!), we made our way to the Deugh An Chy cottage. What a relief to unpack the whole car, tossing out empty potato crisp bags and water bottles, and retrieving stray books and maps … we celebrated the cottage with Tesco ready-to-eat meals (cottage pie!) and piles of vegetables for dinner. Ah.

Tomorrow we’re taking the day off to do laundry and laze around – no page will be posted! Check back in on Monday …

Day 31-32: Merry Maidens & Boscawen-Un Stone Circles, Lands End, & Chysauster Village

Yesterday was a lazy day, as planned. Lisby and I did take an afternoon walk up the barely-one-lane-wide hedge-crowded road that our house is on, but that was the extent of our exertions. It drizzled or blew cloud mist most of the day, so we chose our day off well. We did laundry, read, napped, and otherwise relaxed. This house has wi-fi, so we googled some things we’ve been meaning to google – like newts! Cindy, newt in Cornish is padgetty-pow -!- Sounds like a Batman comic book. In mid-Cornwall they call a newt a four-legged emmet; emmet is ant. From ant to newt … quite a leap.

Yesterday I also spent a little time riffling through the little black notebook where I jot down tidbits of information that interest me while we’re driving. For instance, I had noted that crematoriums are marked here with road signs. I find this unspeakably bizarre! Really, don’t the people who need to know where the crematorium is already know where the crematorium is? Now I imagine a harried couple driving around with dead Uncle Earl stiffening in the back seat, cussing under their breath when they miss the turnoff.

We woke to clear skies today. (We’re told this past summer was horridly rainy and cold; perhaps the English could pay us to spend next summer traveling Britain. We have happy weather mojo.). After breakfast and showers we climbed into the car to hunt down some stone circles and visit Land’s End, the easternmost point in England.

On our way to the stone circles we came across a curious scene. We’d rounded a curve on one of the typically narrow roads lined with tall hedgerows, and were surprised to see a horseman on the road. He wore a red coat with tails, black boots and a small-brimmed hat, just exactly like the paintings of men in hunt parties about a hundred years ago. This seemed remarkable and odd, and it was immediately compounded by a beautiful silvery hound dog loping toward us with his nose to the ground as if on a scent. The horseman shouted at the dog, who paid no attention whatsoever (could you take a man in red tails seriously?). We passed the horseman, and the dog – oops! – followed us. Spinning his horse, the man raised a small horn to his mouth and blew on it! (I’m not making this up – I have photographs.) The dog, snuffling around enthusiastically in the hedgerows, ignored the man’s silly horn.

We had stopped the car by now, feeling that we might be compounding the man’s dog problems somehow. He rode up in front of us shouting at the dog, blowing the little horn, and suddenly a whole pack of dogs came swarming around and past the car, following the man’s horn! There were at least fifteen, maybe twenty dogs running past us, tails wagging and noses to the ground. As they swept past, they absorbed the recalcitrant stray hound. When the man had them all gathered as a pack around his feet, he spun his horse and rode back past us, thanking us as he trotted past with his pack of hounds.

As Aurelia would have said were she here: whattahell?! We drove off shaking our heads in wonder.

*

The first stone circle we found was called the Merry Maidens. It was located in a field just a few minutes walk from a roadside lay-by. The circle was made up of nineteen stones spaced evenly at one to two meters apart. The circle was, as I’ve described others we’ve visited, sitting atop a gently sloped hill that offered a commanding view of the countryside without being on the highest point in the landscape. When we arrived there wasn’t a cloud in the wide sky, which was beautiful in its own way but not ideal for photographs. I mentioned to Lisby that we could use a few clouds, and within twenty minutes some lovely puffy clouds appeared. Perfect.

[If you’re interested in energy woo-woo stuff having to do with stone circles, check the post entitled Megalith Sites.]

The next circle we visited, Boscawen-Un, was about a quarter mile off the road on a farm track hemmed in with thick blankets of dry bracken. From afar hillsides covered with dry bracken have a symphony of subtle color, but up close dry bracken is, frankly, dull and dead. We were surprised by that fact.

The stone circle was in its own paddock, surrounded pretty closely by hedgerows and reached by a stone stile. The closeness of the space made it feel intimate and cozy. This circle, like the Merry Maidens, also had nineteen stones spaced evenly about one or two meters apart. In the center of this one, however, was a tall pointed stone that had tilted off to a dynamic angle, excellent for photographs.

We had marked two or three other circles on our map, but on closer examination it looked as if we’d have to trek through farmyards or negotiate dirt tracks to reach them. The paved roads are bad enough in Cornwall (single lanes smushed between high hedgerows); dirt tracks were out of the question. We decided to skip them and drive out to Lands End.

Lands End is a beautiful rocky cliff shoreline with a tacky tourist development atop it. The owners of the land apparently decided to cash in on the location instead of, oh, I don’t know – donating it to some preservation agency, maybe? Too bad … it would make a lovely wildlife management area, or national park. Instead they’ve built stores, a tea shop, a restaurant, and bar all in a little mall-like area overlooking the sea. Some weirdly unrelated attractions were advertised on signs near the entrance, which I didn’t examine closely. A re-creation of a Cornish farm from a couple hundred years ago sits off in the distance.

Luckily, our family comes from the Black Hills of South Dakota so we’re accustomed to ignoring tacky tourist attractions marring scenic places. This one was, in comparison to places like Wall Drug and Keystone, positively classy! No billboards (anywhere in England – intelligent and tasteful people, the Brits), no big fences keeping the less intelligent from falling over the edge of the cliff (just a thin rope haphazardly tied to some insubstantial sticks), and these buildings did a fair job of imitating substantial structures.

Foregoing the shops, we walked down to the lookout area for a lovely view of the cliffs and sea. The big telescopes mounted on the lookout patio were talking telescopes, but like I said, we’ve had a lifetime of training: we took no notice. Ships were passing far out on the blue horizon. The air was nearly still, and with the sun shining brightly it was warm enough to walk around in short sleeves. It was (American English doesn’t have enough really good descriptive words for positive things) a smashing view.

On the way home we stopped at Chysauster Ancient Village. This is a site that has excavated remains of nine ancient houses. They were round stone houses, each with a central common room or courtyard, with small rooms around the outside of that common. It’s thought that they had thatch roofs. The stone walls of the buildings are largely intact, as are some of the walls delineating fields surrounding the settlement. Views from this spot were amazing, commanding a broad valley below and all the way out to the sea.

This evening we drove south to the village of Perranuthnoe to watch the sunset. This name may seem like a mouthful, but remember that we recently drove through the edges of Wales. This name has five vowels in it – a veritable cornucopia of vowels! Five more vowels than many Welsh village names have in them! Unlike Wales, I’ve found that I can make up a reasonably plausible pronunciation for almost every village name we’ve run across in Cornwall (‘make up’ being the key phrase here: not to say my pronunciation is anywhere close to correct, but plausible given the spellings and my accent … ). Where I’ve run into difficulty in Cornwall is keeping the villages beginning with Tre- straight. After a dozen of them, they all begin to sound alike and at a glance on the map, they look alike. Trewallen, Tregedjack, Trethingey, Trelean, Trenedros, Trevarrack, Trevalgan, Trenowin, Tregarthen, Trevowhan, Trewellard, Tregeseal: there’s a dozen. Scatter them across a piece of paper and see if you can remember which one is where on the page!

But I digrss (again) … Perranuthnoe is spread out on bluffs above a crescent of white sand beach. Rocky points jut out on either end, protecting the bay. We watched dogs ripping around after sticks, and fishermen set their lines for sea bass. One of the fishermen told us that in September and October the bass come in close, so he walks down most nights to catch dinner. Nice life! The sunset was a blaze of orange behind the headland, casting subtle tinges of pinks on the few clouds above. It was a fine end to the day.

Day 33: The Eden Project

We dedicated the whole of today to a visit to the Eden Project. This is a Landmark Millennium Project that aims to explore and describe human dependence on plants and the natural world.

The project was begun in the mid-1990s with no funding at all. A few horticulture types with a green bent just had an idea and found a way to turn it into reality. The originators acquired an exhausted clay mine (open pit) that was about two hundred feet deep – about fifty feet below the water table – and basically transformed it into self-sustaining gardens. The architect and construction contractors agreed to work without payment or contracts, only being repaid if the project was successful. First they shaved off the sides to level the bottom of the pit. They added 83,000 tons of soil made from recycled waste. An elaborate drainage system was constructed after the pit – oops! – flooded with 43 million gallons of rainwater during construction. Water that drains into the transformed mine pit is now put to use for the toilets and irrigation needs.

Huge multi-geodesic-style dome structures house a vast Meditteranean conservatory, and an equally spacious Rainforest conservatory (from the guidebook: “You could fit the Tower of London in the Rainforest Biome. Just a suggestion!”). The structures are steel, and the skin is some sort of high tech indestructible transparent plastic. The steel used in the skeletal construction of the biomes weighs, according to the guidebook, only slightly more than the air contained within the biomes. The structures are more likely to blow away in the wind than collapse, so they have them tethered to the ground with some sort of anchor.

Another large wood building is used for classes and seminars, and a visitor’s center houses shops and restaurants. Sculptures are integrated into the landscapes all over the place, inspired by plants or incorporating plants or the science of botany. We watched some men reassembling a forty foot tall sculpture of a surreal looking bug-like creature made entirely of electrical objects that an average English person would throw away in one lifetime: washers and dryers, a vacuum cleaner, tire rims, toasters, things of that nature. Lisby and I thought that an American equivalent would be a few times the size of this creature and perhaps more appalling, unfortunately.

All told, the project must house millions of plants in the Biomes and outdoor gardens. We saw medicinal plants, foods, spices, decorative plants … an enormous range. Interpretive signs describe traditional and modern uses, or the roles the plants play in ecosystems. Some birds, bugs and lizards inhabit the Biomes, which helps keep the bugs at a balanced level and in some cases pollinate the various plants.

Lisby and I agreed that intellectually the project is interesting and certainly impressive. We weren’t so enamored with the reality of it. I thought it was very well done and attractive, and must be an amazing resource for science and teaching. Call it a lack of imagination on my part, but that didn’t translate to a fascinating experience. A lot of the information was basic green/organic information that we already knew, and I’m just not so into plants as plants that looking at a few thousand (hundred thousand?) species in one afternoon can count as wildly entertaining.

Driving to and from the Eden Project, we were taking note of some of the snack shacks that set up in lay-bys along the road. For some reason this idea strikes us as funny, especially when they provide a table and chairs, and a portable loo! I think to me it looks third world, as I only see Mexican vans selling tacos this way in the States. England is so thoroughly civilized and decidedly not Third World, the juxtaposition strikes me as amusing.

Even more entertaining are the boot sales – selling things out of the boot, or trunk, of a car. We’ve seen men actually selling boots out of their boots! Three or four men had gathered around the salesman and were trying on boots of various styles. I suppose this is an equivalent to our flea markets (and what would a Brit think of that name? That we’re selling fleas?).

All the walking at the Eden Project has tired us out, so we’re up for a nice nap. Our dreams will probably be dominated by plants … perhaps in boots … in boots, growing from boots, being sold from boots … who can predict what entertaining combinations might show up. It’s always good to have something to look forward to …

Day 34: The Lizard & Some Gardens

Last night we watched a little television for the first time since we arrived in England. We were amused that a leading story on the local news had to do with a woman whose car was clamped at a privately owned car park. She claimed she wasn’t there longer than the time she’d paid for, and was going to fight the £90 fee to retrieve her car. We decided that if this is a leading story in the area, we’re in a fairly quiet part of the country.

We then watched Heir Hunters, a show about some company that tracks down heirs of people who die without wills and without known family. From what we gathered watching the show, if these companies can track down lost cousins or forgotten great-grand nieces, the government doesn’t get to keep the dead person’s money and, perhaps more to the point, the company gets a cut of the estate. Does this happen in the States? We didn’t know.

Most of the distant heirs who were found didn’t seem terribly overwhelmed with the money they’d inherited (anything from about £8,000 to £90,000). One woman said she and her husband lived a “pretty boring life” … they didn’t travel because she wouldn’t leave her dog, and she didn’t have any other real need for the money. Dogs had given her the most joy in life, so she’d probably leave it to a dog charity when she died. Stereotypes perhaps do come from somewhere, though I’d have expected a cat theme rather than the dog! I’ve read too many English mysteries, I’ll admit.

Well, obviously we were watching some gripping television … not unlike home but with more interesting accents.

This morning we flew right past a few snack shacks along the road. We were, however, tempted to stop at a lay-by where a man was offering to wash cars, as we found that even stranger than food vans in the lay-bys. But we were on our way to the southernmost point in England, the Lizard, and didn’t really want to stop. He’s there every day … perhaps tomorrow.

Like Lands End, the Lizard is a rocky, cliffy shoreline that’s quite dramatic. Unlike Land’s End, this beautiful spot was not quite so mucked up with touristy paraphernalia. A very few small tourist shops lay along the ridiculously narrow road, but they were housed in small cottages that sat a little more gently in the landscape. (I think Lisby, more years removed from South Dakota and so perhaps more sensitive to tacky intrusions, disagreed with that assessment).

Two boathouses were nestled in a tiny sand beach cove just below the overlook area. I assume they’re still used for search and rescue, as signs were posted around the shops for donations to the organization. The sea water was so clear, we could see the dark rocks beneath the water from our viewpoint above. The variations of sand and rock bottom shifted the water’s colors from beautiful shades of midnight blue to tropical aqua.

After enjoying the view from a lookout point below the shops, I walked a small piece of the coastal path to the nearby lighthouse. As noted before, I love it that handrails are rare in Britain; at home there would have been handrails all along this path, impeding the feeling that you’re adept enough not to tumble off the cliff if left to your own devices. I could very well have tumbled off, I suppose, given that it was a narrow path with a decidedly steep drop off to the rocks and sea, and my mind is often wandering to places other than where I am at the moment … good practice, this – a test of attention as well as therapy for the tricky lack of depth perception and sometimes woozy balance. I’m learning to feel where the ground is rather than relying on vision: old dog, new tricks! Life would be so dull without them …

The lighthouse is still a functioning lighthouse, though I didn’t find out anything more about it, being too cheap to pay the admission fee. There’s quite a complex of buildings around it, all enclosed by a stuccoed stone wall, and all painted a brilliant white. Many of the houses and buildings in Cornwall are painted white or pastel colors, giving a Mediterranean flavor to the coast.

A hostel sits directly below the lighthouse, with full views of the cliffs and sea. It would be fun to hike the Coastal Trail, quite a long trail by the looks of it, hostel-hopping down the shore. I’ve seen so many public paths that look intriguing … Of course, we’re still skimming along on our perfect weather mojo right now – who knows if I’d be so dreamy about long walks were we clinging to rocks in driving rain and gale force winds, occasionally creeping forward along a trail slippery with mud. Hm. Let me think about that …

From the Lizard we drove north and east to Glendurgan and Trebah Gardens, also along the coast. Both of these gardens are extensive grounds once belonging to large houses, now given over (sold?) to the National Trust. The gardens run from atop the bluffs above the sea, down small valleys to the shore. Paths wind around through stands of exotic trees, past banks of flowers, beside ponds … they’re enchanting. I found this more interesting than our visit to the Eden Project yesterday, perhaps simply because I felt left alone to enjoy textures, scents and views without having to read and absorb facts (those pesky facts).

Glendurgan Gardens were quiet and calm. Trebah Garden was, in comparison, a whirlwind of activity. A backhoe was running back and forth on the paths hauling buckets full of weeds, and a group of university students were scattered about madly sketching scenes in their sketchbooks. A woman tried to lead her two greyhounds across a stone dam at the bottom of a pond, and one of the dogs slipped and fell in! The woman cried out, her husband tried to take the lead of the other dog, but that dog was transfixed by the dog who fell in the water, and the dog who fell in the water was scrabbling, trying hard to get out but couldn’t get any purchase on the stone … it was quite a wild scene for a few moments!

The most memorable portion of the gardens was a large plantation of gunnera at Trebah. Gunnera have obscenely large leaves growing on thick stalks straight out of the ground, like rhubarb on steroids. Some of the leaves were four feet across – big enough to shelter the Tower of London! Ok, not that big … but you could fit under one in a heavy downpour and remain quite dry. Walking through a forest of these plants was fascinating, as well as a little creepy. The stumpy stems had reddish fur balls where the leaves sprouted from them, and the flowers were oversized pulpy masses covered with bubbly little polyps. There were slimy rotting leaves draped over thick, heavy green stems, and hairy fur balls turning black and foul. If a smelly gnome had leapt out from behind a leaf, we wouldn’t have shouted in surprise.

These plants are native to Brazil. How they came to be popular here, I don’t know but they do seem to be favored in gardens of Cornwall. This fact makes me suspect that Cornwallians have a fine sense of humor.

After walking up and down the slopes of the gardens, we were worn out. We headed back to our house at Godolphin Cross, attempting to keep to the wider roads … a hopeless enterprise in Cornwall, really. Even the roads marked as reasonable-sized two lane highways on the maps of Cornwall inevitably narrow to one lane in real life, squeezed between hedgerows. We had to back up to a wide spot once in order to allow a van to squeak past from the other direction, which only worked because mirrors were folded back and two of our tires were propped up against the base of the hedgerow. Twice other cars had to reverse to wide spots in order to let us pass.

It’s not entirely clear to us who has the legal or customary responsibility of backing up in these situations, but it seems to be the car running upslope. If there’s no slope, whoever most recently passed a wide spot seems to be obliged to back up. This could involve hundreds of feet in reverse, not Lisby’s favorite gear. If necessary, we’re not above sitting patiently waiting for the other car to reverse, telling ourselves that we’re stupid American tourists and don’t know any better. Don’t you just hate tourists like us?

Day 35: Crowan Ancestors & The Nine Maidens Stone Circle

We didn’t pass the man washing cars at the lay-by today, and may not have needed it anyway. We woke to grey skies, and by mid-afternoon a light drizzle was falling.

Before the day turned wet, we drove over to the nearby village of Crowan, which is the closest village to where our great-great-great grandparents lived. On the way we drove past the Tuckingmill Farm where we think the Harvey ancestors lived, and a large stone house where the Carnsew’s lived. We didn’t drive into the yards to knock on any doors, though, neither of us being comfortable with cold calls.

Before entering the Crowan parish church we prowled the churchyard, reading gravestones. At the front of the church is a Carnsew gravestone from the early 1800s. It’s almost unreadable for the lichen and erosion of the lettering. We’re not sure what our relationship is with this man – probably some distant cousin. One of our Harvey ancestors married a Carnsew woman.

Behind the church, the graveyard was a bit of a mess, though it has been cleaned up considerably since the last time Lisby and her family visited. Six years ago piles of brambles had completely overtaken the gravestones. The grass is still patchy and poorly cared for, the brambles are gone so walking around the grounds isn’t so hazardous as it must have been.

Near the center of the graveyard we found the gravestone of Christopher and Jane Harvey, our great-great-great grandparents. The marker is a simple stone with the inscription still legible: In Memory of Christopher Harvey Who Died 14th Dec 1842 Aged 53 years Jane his Wife Who died 31 May 185[?] Aged 67 years And Christopher their son Who died [?] Aug 1839 Aged 29 years.

We pulled some of the weeds and grasses off the grave, and gathered some wildflowers to set by the stone. I thought it would be nice to plant some perennials on the grave, but we weren’t up to actually driving to Helston to find plants and tools. Maybe next time.

The first reference to Crowan church was in the 12th Century when it appeared as Eggloscraweyn. In 1201 it was referred to as the church of Saint Crewan (undoubtedly by some scribe who simply refused to spell out Egglescraweyn). It’s thought that the church was founded in the 7th or 8th Century, in the early days of Christianity in Britain. Lisby believes our Carnsew ancestors may pre-date the church, basing the suspicion on place names. Carnsew means black rock in Cornish, and a village named Black Rock is located within a few miles of Crowan today.

Inside the church we found a metal plaque in memory of a Carnsew ancestor named William, born 1799, died 1854. He led the choir. Doesn’t knowing that make him a bit more real? I can see him urging the altos to sing a little louder, or scowling at some horseplay in the back row.

We prowled around reading other plaques and inscriptions, but didn’t find any other references to Harvey’s or Carnsew’s.

When we’d finished wandering about in the church, we were at a bit of a loss as to what to do. When I suggested having a quick look for the Nine Maidens stone circle, Lisby looked doubtful. She told me that she and Sara had spent a lot of time looking for this circle six years ago. They drove back and forth many times on the road it’s supposed to be on, peering over hedgerows, never finding the circle. Anyway, she’d heard that it wasn’t much to see, as a farmer had moved or knocked down most of the stones.

Since it wasn’t more than a couple miles out of our way, we decided to give it one more shot. We drove to the general vicinity and, using the 1:25,000 map, pulled into a lay-by that had to be close. A farmhouse stood across the road, and we thought it must be in a field behind the house. Dodging speeding cars, I scurried across the road to ask a woman who was in the garden hanging laundry if she could point me toward the circle. She told me to go to the first gate at the bottom of their garden, which would let into a small field. You’ll see it there, she told me, though there’s not much left to see.

The road we were on was a two-lane so people were driving fast – as opposed to the single lane roads, where people simply drive pretty fast. And describing it as a two-lane must be understood as literal: it was two-lanes and not an inch more. There is no wiggle room on Cornish roads. If we were going to walk down the road to this gate at the end of the garden, we wanted to know how far we’d be walking on the road, and whether there was a closer lay-by to park in!

I hopped back in the car and we cruised down to the end of the farm’s garden, reaching it almost immediately … meaning we should park in the lay-by we’d been in, yes, and walk about a hundred meters down the highway to reach the gate. Only three hundred feet of walking on the blacktop … hm. Doesn’t sound like much, does it? Well, it seemed too far to us! We did it, but not without some reservations. Lisby was a little more unnerved by the speed and frequency of the traffic than I was, but look, I’ve dodged tanks and became accustomed to mortars and rockets smacking down around me a few times a day. What’s a little traffic? I put my trust in the quick reflexes of the excellent British driver and led the way.

When we reached the metal gate, we could see the standing stones about a hundred yards out into the field. The gate didn’t open, however. We discovered that it was pretty solidly set in place, wrapped with rope and blocked with large rocks placed at either end. I went ahead and hopped over it while Lisby opted to wait for me there.

Five stones still stand, forming an arc near a stone fence. More than one boulder in the fence looks as if it could once have been part of the circle. Of the stones left standing, one was particularly even in shape, being a rectangular block with sharp corners. All of the stones had flat faces turned toward the center of the circle, which I’ve read is common in this area. None of the stones had nearly as much lichen on them as stones of other circles we’ve seen have had, but that may be due to animals being kept in the field. Livestock will rub against stones, and since sheep will eat lichen I assume cows will as well.

While I wandered around I could hear voices from the house nearby, which made me feel like I was intruding in someone’s back yard so I didn’t stay long. Within ten minutes I was climbing back over the gate. We scurried back down the road, leaning into the brambles and nettles of the hedgerow but still causing some kind drivers to slow and wait for adequate space to swing wide around us. My trust was well placed!

Grey skies had started to thicken and darken by the time we reached the car, so we called it a day. Since we’ll be staying in B&B’s from Saturday until we fly home on Wednesday, we’re taking the afternoon to do laundry. Lacking a dryer, we need to plan ahead! We were afraid if we did laundry tomorrow, the clothes wouldn’t dry by the time we leave on Saturday. Now we’ve got clothes hanging in the spare bedroom and bathrooms and have cranked the heaters to high, creating an upstairs sauna. I think I’ll go up and enjoy it …

Day 36: Odd Crowan History & St Michael’s Mount

After I posted yesterday’s page here on the blog, I started reading the Crowan church history booklet and found interesting if disturbing details about the era that Christopher and Jane Harvey would have been members of the Crowan church. Reports from “shortly before” 1821 described the following deficiencies: “… very small doors, clock doesn’t work, vicarage roof leaks, small churchyard and bodies in graves being pulled up before they were decomposed and the stench is insufferable.”

Hm … where to start with this astonishing list? How about with the doors. Exactly how small would the doors have to be to be notable beside, say, the stench of rotting bodies? I imagine small round knotholes that people wriggled and twisted through, getting buckles and hairpins caught along the way. Stout men and women might be pushed from behind or pulled from inside, like Pooh Bear caught in the honey tree.

Ok, they were probably not that small.

So what exactly was the problem? Were the doors too short, or too narrow? Were they half-height hobbit doors, or keyhole slots only a foot wide? Did they suddenly notice the small doors because three or four people, rushing to get inside to escape the stench of rotting bodies out in the small churchyard, get jammed up in the door? Hm. If they were really troublesomely small, one would think that would have been noted early on and addressed rather briskly. Like when the church was built! It’s all a bit mystifying.

Not nearly so mystifying, though, as “bodies in graves being pulled up before they were decomposed.” -!- Once again, to quote Aurelia (whom we miss!), whattahell?! Is this a case of animals digging up graves, or people digging up graves? Ah, this could be linked to the reason that the churchyard is noted as being small: did the parishioners pull bodies out of graves in order to make room for more to be buried? That was sometimes done in those days, I’m told. Yet if that’s what they were doing, what were they doing with the bodies they pulled out of the graves – sloppily dragging them to a corner of the churchyard and dumping them? Yuck! Come to think of it, if you’re going to have decomposing bodies lying around, why bother to dig the half rotted ones up when you’ve got perfectly good fresh ones? Why go to all that bother with a shovel? Makes me wonder if there wasn’t a bit of payoff going on between the gravediggers and the vicar, eh? Bit of a kickback for the vicar if he orders a few extra bodies dug up, I’m thinking. He’d need the extra lolly, after all, to fix that leaky roof.

Well, history is certainly entertaining, isn’t it.

After Lisby and I had a laugh over that, we discussed our chicken-shittedness in refusing to knock on the door of Tuckingmill Farm to explain that our ancestors lived there and see what might come of that. I told her that this is just one of many instances in my life when a PSD crew would come in handy. When I first started working with personal security details in Iraq, I felt supremely silly having ten to twelve men orbiting around opening doors for me, getting out of the vehicles first to knock on a door and tell the person who answered that I’d come to call, and chauffeuring me virtually anywhere that I asked them to take me … but after a few months, I started to see the potential usefulness of having a personal security team with me for the rest of my life. In a city, for instance, I wouldn’t have to mess with the riff-raff men asking for change or a cigarette. Such hoi-polloi wouldn’t approach me with ten fit men running interference. I pointed out to Lisby that driving in Cornwall would not be a problem with a PSD team on duty. Instead of muttering our suspicions that Cornwallers consider meeting another car on a single lane road as an opportunity to play chicken, we could relax in the back seat while our PSD men drove (like maniacs, probably), letting loose with the sirens – or even a flare or two if necessary – to persuade anyone reluctant to give way that, really, backing up to let us pass might be the best option under the circumstances.

In the case of cold calls at houses once inhabited by our ancestors, we could let the men go knock on the door, explain who we are and why we’re there, then if the people slammed the door in their faces, it would be big tough PSD men’s faces the door slammed in, not ours. If the people happened to be friendly and welcoming, we’d have had our introduction, which is always the worst part of a cold call, isn’t it? We went so far as to imagine replacing the PSD men’s guns: approaching Tuckingmill Farm they ought instead to be carrying a tin of biscuits and a jar of marmalade. PSD teams as a social crutch! Perfect. Of course, a personal secretary would work just as well if we could find one or two with the requisite buff build and aggressive driving skills … (and if we could only win the lottery …)

We had a busy night last night, obviously.

*

This morning we headed to St Michael’s Mount, a former monastery turned castle which is perched on a tall conical rock that can only be reached on foot at low tide. The first structure built on the tiny island was a chapel dedicated to St Michael, inspired by someone having had a vision of the archangel in the 5th Century. In about the 8th Century a Celtic monastery was built on the site, and in the 11th Century it was turned into a Benedictine monastery. When King Henry VIII kicked off the Dissolution, the monastery was handily turned into a fortress. Ramparts were built and cannon installed. After the Civil War the St Aubyn family acquired the fortress and turned it into a residence. The family still owns the property (and may still live in a portion of the castle?), letting the National Trust manage it.

We chose another lovely day for a seaside visit. The drizzle of yesterday had been replaced by clear skies and there was just a breath of wind, no more. By 9:30am we were walking down across the beach to the stone causeway that connects the town of Marazion with St Michael’s Mount. The stones of the causeway are dressed granite blocks, many of them with edges worn and softened by the water that covers them at high tide. The walking is rough, but they’re generally large enough not to cause difficulties with footing.

This is not true of the path up the slopes to the castle. The lower paths are paved with relatively small flattish cobbles set on edge, which theoretically ought to help minimize their slipperiness. It didn’t, sometimes because they ran the lines of stones in the direction of the path, rather than cross-ways! They were like slippery little railroad tracks. The next section of path was paved with larger stones, many of which were smooth and rounded. Interspersed were a few rough granite surfaces. All the rocks were damp, making those smooth rock surfaces a bit treacherous. To complicate matters, the bed of the path was not level or smooth; it had humps and bumps and steep little unexpected drops in elevation. We’re such wimps: some seventy or eighty year old ladies were making their way up the path in thin-soled, low-heeled leather pumps! This is what comes of the soft life; smooth pavements and handrails of the US have ruined us.

The views of the mount from shore were a bit fuzzy from the angle of sunlight and moisture in the air. From the island, the shore looked the same way but the white buildings of the towns along the coast stood out, shining in the sun. The view from the castle battlements was gorgeous, villages strung out along miles of coastline, with rocky cliffs and boulder falls dramatizing the drops from the bluffs.

The interior of the castle was decorated in tasteful 19th Century style. The most striking rooms were the old refectory which had been transformed into a beautifully proportioned dining room, and the old chapel, which is still a chapel. The chapel was, like the dining room, perfectly proportioned to feel both spacious and cozy. It felt well-used and peaceful.

We zipped through the castle, really, concerned about getting back across the causeway by 12:30, when the website had said that the tidewater would rise to close it. Lisby gets seasick, so even the short boat ride back to the shore wasn’t an option we wanted to be stuck with. We slowly picked our way back down the cobble path of the castle slopes, and wandered slowly back across the causeway taking photographs. Since it was still early in the day, we decided tea and lunch at one of the restaurants overlooking the bay would be lovely, and would allow us to watch the tide come in to close off the island.

We found the perfect spot at the Godolphin Arms, settling at a picnic table on a patio above the beach. We were surprised to see people still walking back and forth on the causeway even as the tide came in to cover it with water. We could see small figures pausing at certain points, then hopping from stone to stone. Ten minutes later we could tell people were wading, and ten minutes after that the last group of four looked as if they were in water above their knees. It was fun to sit and watch the little figures moving as the water slowly swirled over the path, eventually eliminating even its outline. On the beach dogs were running around and occasional children trotted to keep up with their families. Two young people passed pushing a man who was in a wheelchair with sand tires – fat round tires like a dune buggy! What an excellent idea. When the water had completely covered the causeway and a kayak slowly paddled across the water atop it, we packed up our cameras and walked back to the car.

On the way home we stopped for a few minutes at an old tin mine just a mile or so from our house. The tall brick or stone stacks marking defunct mines are a common sight throughout the Cornwall landscape. This mine, Great Works, was mined for over four hundred years, from the 1500s until the 1930s, and there’s evidence that tin was mined in the area as far back as prehistoric times.

The Godolphin family owned this mine. The interpretive sign described the family as “mining adventurers,” which struck me as funny. Mining and adventure don’t really seem to fit together well, knowing the miserable conditions that most miners lived through! (The Godolphins, however, weren’t slogging away in the wet and dust, were they?) The interpretive sign went on to say that “Their ingenuity, enthusiasm and capital investment in the latest technology led to major innovations in Cornish mining …” including radical improvements in processing during the 16th Century, the first use of gunpowder in Cornish mines in 1689 (there’s a little boost to the incidence of black lung!), and the regular use of steam pumping engines in the early 18th Century. A well-known saying in the mining world used to be that at the bottom of every successful mine is a Cornishman. All over the world, Cornish miners were appreciated for a creative spirit of innovation and practical application.

I’m thinking that they might oughtta have applied that creative problem-solving to the decomposing bodies in the churchyard …

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