Log in

No account? Create an account

Not dead, just moved house

I feel that, after almost two years of neglect, I ought to post my forwarding address here.

For continued ramblings and bloggage, you can now keep up with me at my official site and blog:


I also have updates for eBooks, publishing, and art sales there as well trip reports and random bloggage. I feel I should at some point go back and finish my report from England. There is a lot to tell; Oxford, the Case of the Missing Pen; London, and how Dafydd got to meet David Tennant and Catherine Tate. But I have so much other stuff to do I don't know when I'll find the time to write it down.

In case I do, though, I'm keeping this account open. One can never truly know what the future will bring.

Bay, Busker, and Bad Writers

On the Great Western service to London Paddington, somewhere south of Oxford

We are leaving Oxford now, so writing about Cardiff is a bit of a stretch for me, so much has happened since. But I know that if I wait things will only get worse. Anyway, there is something very particular about our second day in Cardiff that I wanted to talk about, so here goes.

Once upon a time there was a television show called Doctor Who. It was very successful, but was dropped in the late 1980's. In 2004 a writer named Russell T. Davies led a revival of the series, and a few years later a spinoff called Torchwood began airing. Unlike it's mother series, which rambled all over the universe, Torchwood remained staunchly in Cardiff, and even included a number of its landmarks. Now, Torchwood carried a rather dark flavor, and over the course of its three seasons it managed to kill off all but a few of its principle characters. The last to go, Ianto Jones, elicited something of a outrage from the fans, who started letter-writing campaigns, protest petitions, and even went so far as to commandeer a piece of Ianto-related set and turn it into a public memorial to the character down on Mermaid's Quay in Cardiff Bay.

This has become something of an annoyance to the locals, especially those not interested in the show, who have to keep explaining to confused visitors that no, no one actually died, it was just a fictional character.

But I think it's very impressive, and I'm glad it happened. Because I think it's capitol mistake for a writer to become emotionally chilled as to kill characters off, willy nilly, instead of writing interesting and compelling reasons for them to leave. And sometimes, I think, successful writers can have a difficult time realizing when they have royally fucked up.

When armies of your fans come together from all over the world to erect a protest memorial, that's a pretty big hint that you might have made a mistake.

Unfortunately the writers of Torchwood are not so self-aware as to actually get the message, which is a pity, but of no great concern for me: I stopped watching it long ago.

Still, my sympathies definitely lie with the Ianto fans, and I left my own addition to the memorial before we left. It had to be improvised, as I hadn't thought to bring anything with me, but I think it makes the point I have been talking about pretty concisely.

Of course, this is not to say that gods do not make mistakes. And I'd be the first person to point out a few of their bloopers, but the message stands. It's stupid to play god, even if you are one, and if your're not… don't even try.

But on to more cheerful matters: Buskers!

I love buskers. Possibly because I come from a small town where there aren't any. But I think there is something about a real person performing real music out in the real world, when other people are not obligated to sit down and be quiet, that makes a place much nicer. I remember as a small child being absolutely enamored of street musicians, yet completely terrified at the same time. It made giving them money difficult. Fortunately, I have grown out of my fear, but not my appreciation.

Right, dragons, I had nearly forgot.Thank you, Dafydd.

I had so far resisted the urge to purchase a Ddraig Goch T-shirt, on the grounds that I already had drawer fulls of the things back home (T-shirts, not dragons, sadly). But I had recently worn out my very favorite cycling jersey, one that had had a dragon. I thought Cardiiff might be a good place to find a replacement, and thanks to some persistent phone calls from my aunt, on our last day, I succeeded.

Dafydd approved very much.

Also, before we left, I managed to make a drawing for our hosts. Living in the heart of Doctor Who fanville, I felt I should draw something along those lines, and since they grew up in the generation that had Tom Baker as their Doctor, I took that into consideration. The dog, however, is there own black lab, Max.

Next comes Oxford, but the train is almost to London Paddington, and I need to put the computer away.

Croeso i Cymru

2 Woodstock Road, Oxford

Our visit to Cardiff was something of a compromise, and it may have puzzled some of my friends to learn I was going there. One (who shall remain nameless, but he knows who he is) exclaimed: "Cardiff? Why would you want to go there? It's where all the British Rednecks live!"

The truth is our trip stemmed first from a desire to bicycle in Wales, which slowly degraded from a complicated arrangement involving the renting of expensive mountain bikes, to a more relaxed visit to Cardiff—which isn't proper Wales, not really, there are too many English there, and rather a lot of immigrants from Asia and Africa as well. So although I can say that I've been to Wales, technically, I would not say that we have been properly introduced. In fact, the only time I ever heard Welsh spoken fluently was at the train station, the very day we left.

Still, there are certain attractions particular to Cardiff. Some of these are more obvious than others.

Cardiff has historically been a busy port town, but recently it has been hijacked by the new version of the BBC television series Doctor Who, which since 2004 has been based in the city, and nearly everything is filmed either in or around it. So for the discerning SciFi fan, Cardiff has a certain appeal that would be lost on the ordinary lay person. Not least of all is its distinctive opera house, the Armadillo, that has made many cameos in both Doctor Who and its spinoff, Torchwood.

However, the main reason for this trip has been bicycles, and the first day of our visit was spent not in Cardiff, but in the nearby countryside.

Before we get on to that, however, a word about our hosts.

At this point we had stayed in no less than three Bed & Breakfasts; one in Salisbury run by a husband and wife couple, one in Bristol run by a woman named Fran, and the one in Cardiff, which was a little different that the others: it was run by gay couple, and as such the decor had a somewhat different flavor.

The halls were decorated with posters from musicals like Cats (all of them signed by the cast), and a notable piece (just outside the shared washroom) of John Barrowman in full red-sequined drag. It was signed too, of course. Other, more subtler hints, included a pair of ruby slippers in a display case in the lounge, and a little framed picture of Jesus with the caption: "Jesus is Coming… Look Busy."

All in all, I felt right at home.

Now if our visit to Cardiff had elicited confusion in the U.S., once we actually got to the U.K. everyone was overjoyed to hear we were visiting Wales. We were particularly instructed to visit Caerphilly Castle, about 12 miles outside Cardiff, and on our first day this was exactly what we did.

Well, almost. We did visit the castle, but we took the Taff River Trail to get there, so for us, at least, the journey was half the fun.

The Taff River is the "diff" in Cardiff, and terminates in Cardiff Bay. Inland, it winds through southern Wales to the Brecon Beacons, a range of hills which the Welsh a pleased to call mountains. (Sorry, mates, but you get to be proud of your cheese and beer and general superiority: I'm Californian, I get to be proud of my mountains.) Anyway, there is a pedestrian/bicycle trail called the Taff Trail which runs roughly alongside the Taff, on its wall calling and not one, but two castles.

The first is Castell Coch, which was once a Norman Fort, then destroyed, excavated, and finally rebuilt by one of the Marquis of Bute in a style that may best be described as schizophrenic: the outside pretends to be as close to a reconstruction of a medieval fort as possible…

…while the inside is pure fancy… or, if you like, folly.

Pictures do not do it justice, I'm afraid, and I do not have the stomach to give it a proper description. Suffice to say that if Walt Disney saw this place, he would probably die of jealously.

There are goldfish painted around the inside of the Lady's Chamber's wash basin, too.

One interesting thing about Castell Coch, at one point I wandered down some interesting looking steps (interesting, because they seemed much older and rougher than the rest of the place) and soon found myself in a cold, dark, dankish rectangular room. It had stone walls and a vaulted stone ceiling, with some flagstones protruding through the dirt floor. Peering inside from the safety of the last step, I heard my aunt wonder if this was a store room, or cellar.

"No," I said, "I think this was a dungeon."

There was not door, no chains in the wall, but standing there I could not shake the sudden feeling that this was a place they would put people they did not much care for. Castell Coch was originally a Norman fort, built to repel the savage Welsh, and they would have needed a place to put prisoners.

Another thing I noticed, once I forced myself to go into that hole, was that it was not still air: there was a draft, left in through a long narrow shaft that ran through twenty feet or more of stone, before terminating in a tiny square window covered in bars.

Looking up at that tiny square of light, feeling the cold deadness of the stone all around, I could easily imagine going quite mad if locked in a place like this. I thought of the many times characters in stories are thrown (sometimes quite casually) into dungeons. I think more writers should take the opportunity to actually sit in one.

Not that I'm absolutely certain that room was a dungeon. It could have been a place to store extra potatoes, for all I know. Still, I was glad to leave and get on to our real destination, Caerphilly Castle.

And if you think that looks awesome, you should see my reaction.

Caerphilly Castle has undergone some major renovations in the past century, so that now its ruins, while still majestic, are safe enough that they let you clamber around on them with only the minimal amount of guardrails and Keep Off signs. But what gave the castle an extra special flavor, to me, was the prevalent Welsh dragon, the Ddraig Goch, on the flags flapping from the north towers. A castle is an impressive thing, but dragons tear bits off them all the time. So a dragon on a flag on a castle is… I don't know what. Totally awesome?

I should talk a little about the Ddraig Goch, the national symbol of Wales. It is one of two dragons that, in pre-Arthurian legend, are said to be sleeping under the mountains. The other, the White Dragon of England, plays a rather prominent role in The Merlin Conspiracy, by Diana Wynne Jones, but it is the Red Dragon of Wales that you notice particularly when visiting the U.K. The Welsh people insist that you do. He is on their flag, their court houses, their beer breweries, their napkins, bookmarks, mugs, dustbins, and door mats. I would not be surprised to find him on a role of toilet paper, to be honest.

And, currently, one of his relations has become my traveling companion.

The giftshop for Caerphilly Castle is adjoined to the entrance gate, so you have to shuffle through it on both entering and exiting the attraction. On the way in I noticed, among the T-shirts and cheap trinkets, a rack containing stuffed doll versions of the Ddraig Goch. These varied from reasonably large to key-fob size, and I toyed with the notion of buying one as a gift for a friend back home who collects stuffed animal dolls. Then I went inside the castle, took a look around at the crumbling stone work, and decided I wanted a dragon for myself. Now. So I turned right around, went back into the giftshop, and purchased the medium-small Ddraig Goch for about seven pounds.

His name is Dafydd (pronounced like Dah-vith), and together we set about exploring the castle together. Dafydd has since become my trusty companion on this trip, going so far as to develop his own personality (how'd THAT happen?) He is now on Facebook, of all places [HERE], so if you want to follow the adventures of a little red fuzzy gay dragon from Wales, go ahead and send him a friend request.

After some time wandering around the castle, secretly hoping to stumble into Narnia (I keep dreaming, yes), we retired to a cafe across the road, had tea (Dafydd helped eat the scones), and then cycled back to Cardiff.

All told we were gone for the majority of the day, and even then I still had four pages of Angeldevil to sketch. Ah well, the price of a working vacation.

From Bristol to Bath, and Back Again

Still the Graveyard of St Giles Church, Oxford

I have three things keeping me company right now. Dafydd (who I will introduce in his own time and place) and two pigeons who are doing their part to keep the graveyard free of stray pieces of bread. In this capacity, one of them got so close I could make out the scales on its bright pink feet, and the way they turned translucent in the sideways sun.

But this has nothing to do with our bike ride to Bath, which lies about as far from Bristol as Stanton Drew, only in a different direction. But it was closer to fifteen miles by the route we took, as we travelled along the Bristol-Bath Bicycle Path, which lies in the course of an abandoned railway line. The tracks have been removed (save for a brief stretch where they run a vintage steam engine alongside) and the line converted by an organization called Sustrans (short for Sustainable Transportation), which builds and maintains bicycle paths and routes throughout the United Kingdom. And they have become the patron facilitators of our trip, whinge hinges so critically on having nice bicycle rides from one place to another. We had good experiences following their cycle routes and dedicated bike paths, but nothing had really prepared us for the Bristol-Bath trail.

It is flat. Perfectly flat. So flat you can go blindingly fast without much effort—provided to accelerate slowly… rather like a train, actually. The thing that catches you, of course, are the flocks of walkers ambling along, and the cyclists zipping past in the opposite direction. It runs between hedges, under trees, bridges, and once through a very long tunnel. Roughly halfway along aunt and I stopped for lunch at what had once been the Warmley town station, but was now a small refreshment venue, with tables and chairs set up on the platform above the path. This platform was further decorated by profile statues cast in the attitudes of people waiting for a train. A train that will now never come, but has been replaced by trains of cyclists.

Of course, once of the glorious things about going anywhere by bike, is that the journey is so fun, and lends itself so well to spontaneous stops and detours, that you very often find yourself doing and enjoying things very different from the ones you meant to.

This trip was an excellent example: for we had cycled to Bath with the intent of seeing the Royal Crescent, the Roman Baths, and of course Bath Abbey. Once we arrived, however, we found the Crescent to be underwhelming (Diana Wynne Jones's residence, in Bristol, is much nicer), the Abbey to be closed for afternoon service, and the line for entry to the Baths to be three abreast and stretched around the corner into the adjacent square.

Fortunately, there was other things to amuse us: there was a fair of sorts set up in a nearby park, where stalls selling French and Italian delicacies were doing a brisk business with both tourists and locals alike. I purchased some bonbons, and aunt restocked our supply of energy snacks, which had begun to run low.

From this same stall I also purchase some Turkish Delight (which disappeared in two gulps between us) and a little coconut cake stuffed with pistachios. We also treated ourselves to a crepe with Nútella, and thus sustained we wandered around, enjoying the free sights and wonders of Bath.

Buskers in Bath come in a shapes and sizes, and doing everything from playing metal drums, to death-defying stunts.

Look closely, you'll find the Abbey tower isn't the only thing in the picture.

After a brief respite with some tea and Bath Buns we found the Abbey had opened again, and we took a detour inside. I have to say I think I am over cathedrals—you can only admire the architecture for so long before its subject becomes somewhat trite and annoying. I did like this lectern, though, as it struck me as decidedly avian beyond anything else.

There is little left to say of Bath. From there we cycled south, to try our luck again at Stanton Drew (see my previous post). On the way we paused in small village to reassess our location, and I found myself faced with two interesting works of stonemasonry.

Aunt and I hopefully speculated that it was a Roman aqueduct… but it turned out to be merely Victorian, and a disused railway line. Perhaps one day it will be another bicycle route.

In the mean time, it was quite fun cycling under it.

The next day we packed up our bags and returned our bicycles, before bidding farewell to Bristol—and to England—as we headed for Cardiff and Wales.

But that journal shall have to wait. It is nearly dinner time, and we are meeting an old friend of my aunt's. The story of Cardiff and Wales (and Dafydd) will have to wait.

To Bristol and Beyond

Graveyard off St Giles Church, Oxford, Oxfordshire, U.K.

I am writing this in a graveyard in Oxford, and despite its intended purpose, it is actually quite a cheerful place. It is a sunny, warm afternoon, and I can see the tower of St Giles rising above the row of evergreens that mark the primary path between the tombstones.

But all this is far away from where I left off, in windy Salisbury on the way to Bristol. This lapse in updates is due in part to this being a "working vacation," as I couldn't spare the time for a proper one and so have brought the most vital of my work with me. So any time I have had in the mornings or evenings that could have been spent in writing journals has instead been used for cleaning and inking the chapters of Angeldevil I have brought with me.

Now, however, after a full week of travel, cycling and sightseeing (and working!) I have insisted on a rest day from my aunt, and so I'm using this afternoon to get caught up on the chronicling of this adventure.

So, Bristol.

"Why Bristol?" is the first thing I've been asked when I would tell people I was going there. The answer is a complicated one, but it boils down to this: that my favorite author of all time (the late Diana Wynne Jones) lived in Bristol, and I felt that any trip I made to the U.K. would be incomplete if I did not visit her city. Besides, a number of scenes in her books are set in Bristol, and I was curious to see how the real city compared to the one described there.

But Bristol alone was not the only draw: there was also the stones of Stanton Drew, a much lesser-known neolithic monument, without the complexity and grandeur of Stonehenge, but without the tourists and lorries either. It is about ten miles south of Bristol, in the Somerset village of Stanton Drew, and my aunt and I determined that this would be one of the places we cycled to during our stay in the city.

So there you have it: some nearby rocks, and a dead writer. As it turned out Bristol had more in store for us than we expected: a thriving counter-culture lifestyle, and a climate and landscape reminiscent of San Francisco—and as two Bay Area natives we found this to be surprisingly reassuring.

The first order of business—after acquiring our bicycles the day before—was to make a pilgrimage to Diana Wynne Jones's former residence in the city. We did this in lieu of visiting her grave, the good writer having been cremated, and although there had been no public announcement of a memorial in her honor, I felt justified in paying this visit—for the reason I knew her address in Bristol in the first place (it has not, to my knowledge, been made public) was because she sent it to me herself.

I wrote Jones several letters over the past decade. All of which she answered, even later on when she was not at all well. Inside one of these cards was scrawled an address in Bristol, which I never thought would be of any use time me—until now.

Those of you who know Jones's work, know the atmosphere her books possess: that magical, sparkling feeling that the world is woven through and through with vibrant threads of unexpected magic. So take that into consideration when I tell you that her house feels more like something out of her stories than anywhere else—even the places that she used directly.

I once saw a photograph of Neil Gaiman's house, and thought "If I saw that house without knowing, I'd say it was a house like Neil Gaiman would live in." I could say the same of Diana Wynne Jones's.

It is one of a set of high, narrowish houses built into the same structure, set on the hillside overlooking Bristol. It is a strange sort of back-to-front house, with the only automobile access at the back, and you must make your way up a narrow, cobbled footpath splashed with puddles and rose petals, to a lane that runs past the front gardens of all the houses. These are overflowing with creeping vines and roses, and at the time we visited the sun was just high enough to send slanting beams of pale golden light in, dappling as it made its way through the high trees that overshadowed the lane.

After we payed our respects—which basically amounted to standing tactfully in the public part of the lane and craning our necks to get a glimpse of her door (it is blue, with a big brass number 9 in the middle)—we set off up the steep and winding streets of Clifton, to the setting of one of the most memorable scenes from one of her books: the Clifton Suspension Bridge.

The book is called Deep Secret and I won't spoil it for you. I had in fact almost forgotten about the scene that morning. I knew it took place on a bridge—a narrow bridge—but I had no idea which of the many bridges in Bristol it could be. Until I saw the Clifton Suspension bridge. As we approached I became more and more sure—I recognized the setting as described in the book, and as we neared the center of the bridge I got off my bicycle and gave myself over to silliness: Yes, DWJ fans, I did the Witchy Dance.

It wasn't until we were back at our B&B that evening that I learned from the Diana Wynne Jones fan group here on Live Journal that doing the Witchy Dance on Clifton Suspension Bridge has become the de-facto fan tribute to Diana Wynne Jones.

I still think a plaque would be nice.

After exiting the bridge (and, accordingly, Bristol proper) we cycled through an expansive park and south, toward the tiny village of Stanton Drew. Stanton Drew (which gets it's name, Stanton, from Standing Stone) is the home of the Stanton Drew Stone Circles. There are three of them all told, and the largest is second only to Avebury (which has a village inside it) in circumference. The stones are even older than the ones on Salisbury Plain, pitted and warped, and many of the toppled over or leaning drunkenly to the side. It is altogether a much friendlier place: there is no gift shop, no parking lot and no busy roads with lorries on them. There is an honesty box, which humbly asks for a donation of 1 pound per visitor, and an empty box with "take one" penned on the outside.

While Stonehenge is accompanied by the solemn barrows and ominous crows, Stanton Drew is in the care of some placid (if a little shy) cows, who are perhaps one of the things deterring vast hordes of tourists from trampling all over the field containing the stones. Certainly, aunt and I had to tread very carefully.

And, again unlike Stonehenge, this circle is without any officials or "Keep Off" signs. So I was able to take the opportunity to meet every stone individually, in the many I think it proper to meet large pieces of rock: I climbed on them. With perfect respect, of course.


Now, what we didn't know at the time, was that Stanton Drew is a somewhat sprawling monument, consisting of the big circle, the smaller south-east circle next to it, and their accompanying avenue stones. But there is a third circle, in a separate field at the top of the nearest hill, and something labeled only as The Cove, which we could not find even as we were standing right next to the sign for it. In the end we decided that, not being able to see it, it must not be much of a monument, and we went home.

There is a saying in whitewater rafting: "If you fall out, and you pop up and cannot see your boat, turn around—it's probably right behind you."

This is what we should have done.

Upon returning home, and re-connecting with the all-knowing beast that is the internet, we discovered our error, and resolved to return the next day—this time better prepared with references and directions. This time we found the third circle, and The Cove—which was not a circle at all, but an arrangement of three stones (two standing, one fallen) that provide the main decoration in the beer garden of a nearby pub. There is no entrance fee to see these stones, but if you want to get into the garden you have to buy something at the pub. So aunt and I went in, got a gingerbeer each, and sipped these as we regarded The Cove.

As we were leaving (to try and find the third stone circle), I noticed a set of cinder blocks which had been laid near the waste bin. One was whole, but the other was broken into two unequal halves. So I took them and arranged them on the grass in a rough mimicry of the older stones, using the whole cinderblock to represent the large standing stone, the small half for the other, and the large half for the fallen stone. The result was a little random and impressionistic, but I hope someone notices the joke before the blocks are thrown away.

Anyway, onward to the mysterious third Stone Circle. Back through the gate with the honesty pox (another couple of quid), back across the treacherous, cow-pat laden field, where we picked up a young German who was also seeing the stones. We asked him if he knew about the other circle. He said no, so we dragged him along.

This circle was hidden by a fence with a hedge around it, at the top of the wide, swelling hill, so it was difficult to spot. Even harder to find was a pedestrian gate, so I simply climbed over the nearest locked vehicular gate, and found myself in a field that was mercifully free of cows (and thus, fresh cowpats) and dotted with the slumbering forms of what must have been the oldest of Stanton Drew's Standing Stones.

It's a very different experience to meet Standing Stones in an empty field, without walkways or signs telling you to keep off, without people or busy roads rushing by. In a way it's more like meeting a natural formation, rather than something built and constructed by humans. And in that respect, I liked the Stanton Drew stones much better that Stonehenge.

There was one last member of the Stanton Drew family whom we did not get to me. Hauxville's Quoit, or single stone, which lies somewhere in the private fields of Quoit Farm, outside Stanton Drew. After some instructions from the owner, and making our way over a gate, past a tractor overflowing with cow manure, and through yet another treacherous cow field, we finally saw what we thought was the Quoit, in the middle of a hedge beyond an electric fence. At this point, in the early evening, hungry and tired, we decided we had gotten close enough, and went home.

What we should have done, of course, was turn around and looked behind us, for that was where the Quoit actually was.


Still, it was a beautiful ride back to Bristol.


May26-27 2011
Salisbury, Wiltshire, U.K.

I like cathedrals. This might sound a little odd, considering that I'm not religious in any sense of the word, and I find people who are devoutly so to be a little trying on my nerves. But I do like cathedrals. Anything that is big and made of stone, with a tower or a dome, is something I can appreciate. Maybe I don't care for the spiritual bullying that can go on inside, but just as I may not agree with whatever distasteful rites prehistoric peoples were performing at Stonehenge, it doesn't stop me from admiring what they've done.

In the case of Salisbury Cathedral what they have done is to build it three times. The first was a wooden one, built on the hilltop town of Old Sarum, which was struck by lightning and damaged. So they built a bigger one out of stone around it. Then, deciding they did not like having to ship their water up the hill, they abandoned that cathedral, and moved down into the river plain and built their "new" cathedral in what is now Salisbury's City Centre. It is surrounded by a wide green lawn, on which can still be seen the footprint of the old free-standing belltower, long since demolished and stuck on to the main building.

This one, I later learned, has also been struck by lightning. But, being in the middle of a city and at close proximity to three rivers, it only suffered minor damage, and today it is the centerpiece of downtown Salisbury.

When we first arrived in the city, tired and jetlagged, we stumbled our way around trying to find the Bed and Breakfast we were staying at. It was called the Cathedral View, so we knew it had to be close to the cathedral. The problem is, the cathedral has a rather impressive spire, which you can see from just about anywhere in Salisbury. So we found the cathedral all right, but it took us another hour of trudging in rectangles along the busy streets before we got some sound directions and were able to find our lodgings.

The Cloister is surrounded by a flint-brick wall, like much of the buildings there, and during our stay we discovered no less than three different gateways inside: all but one were pedestrian only, and inside traffic is reduced to a crawl, regulated by the disorderly gaggles of tourists walking around with their heads craned back, staring up at the spire.

It was here, at a bench and table across the wide lawn from the cathedral, that I spent my first morning in Salisbury, sitting and inking. It was interesting to note, over the course of the few hours I spent there, that the stringy crowds of people moving through were not entirely made up of tourists. A good number, judging from their accents (or, as our tower guide said "lack of accents") had to be locals, and some walked with such purpose and concentration right past the front doors, morning coffee in one hand and briefcase in the other, that they could not have been there for the sight. Still, if you lived in a city with something like Salisbury Cathedral, I imagine you would route your morning walk to pass it by.

But if the outside is impressive (and it is), you get a whole new appreciation for the building when you step inside, and take a look and what went into making it.

On Thursday afternoon Aunt and I took the Tower Tour, a guided walk that led up into the attic of the cathedral, before twisting upwards on tight wooden staircases past the clock mechanism, the bells, before terminating at the base of the spire (after which the only way up is a string of rickety ladders, and a the every top, where it becomes to small to fit through, you have to pop outside and climb up metal rungs to the very top. And this they would not let us do).

It was during this tour that our guide, Leslie, stopped beside a piece of wall in the attic which held two remarkable things. The first, and the one I noticed right away, was a carving of an animal head—possibly a dog, through the snout was too long; maybe a wolf? But it seemed to slight for a wolf. Maybe a fox? Leslie told us that they had a very nice story about the carving: that a long time ago a philosopher had come to stay in the city of Salisbury, and taking up stone carving as a hobby. He had carved this dog in the fashion of the other dog-heads which decorated the top of the spire—put there to commemorate the dogs of the original stonemasons. However, being outside in all winds and weathers, these carvings were much given to decay, and so the philosopher hoped that one day his carving might be used to replace one that had worn away.

"That was our story," Leslie said with a wry smile. "Then a few years back we had a gentlemen on tour with us and he got to this point and said, 'Oh, I see you still have the head I carved in 1976!'"

The other thing Leslie pointed out was the little square hole below the dog head. That, he told us, was an aperture for a putlog, a sort of bracing beam used to support scaffolding during construction. He told us to remember that word, or he wouldn't let us back down the tower. I made a point of remembering, because I know I will use it in a story one day.

Thanks, Leslie!

Now, the actual beams of would that make up the trusses and the spine of the roof are interesting: in many of them you can still see the curvature of the original bough, indeed these were often picked specifically for their shape. And there are no nails in the original woodwork: instead the medieval carpenter utilized a sort of peg-in-hole set up not unlike pinning two pieces of wood together, as you might do with a metal needle through cloth.

There are no stairs built into the wall of the tower. Instead you go up a tightly winding wooden staircase with shoots up clean through the air, and lets you off at various levels: first the bells, and then, the base of the spire. Here you look up to a complex net of wood beams which in turn support the wooden ladder which leads up inside the octagonal spire. At one side is a huge wooden wheel, big enough for two people to stand shoulder to shoulder inside. On the outside there are rungs, like that of a ladder, and the whole thing is connected to a rope and pulley system, which was used to drag the one-tonne slabs of stone up to construct the spire.

This, as I have said before, is as high as they will let you go. But we did get to go out on a (very) narrow walkway outside the tower, from which we could look out over the Cloister, over Salisbury, to Old Sarum on his hill.

The last thing I have to tell, before I am dragged once more from the computer, is of Evensong, and the service we attended before dinner. Though I had to pointedly ignore the gaping holes in both logic, reason and decently storytelling, I did very much enjoy the choir. And really, to come and sing in a building like this one, it is not such a bad way to practice your religion. I might be compelled to see the attractiveness of it, if there weren't so much more fascinating stuff out there.

I had meant to tell of the Bed and Breakfast we stayed at: of friendly talkative Steve, and slight, elflike Wenda. But I have run out of time again, as today we bicycle to Bath, and take a second pass at the Standing Stones of Stanton Drew. These last are considerably lesser known that their famous cousins on Salisbury Plain, and as such are a great deal more fun to visit.

What the Stones had to Say

May 24th to 25th 2011
Salisbury, Wiltshire, U.K.

Jet lag is the first obstacle any trans-Atlantic traveler must grapple with. After a nine hour flight, bus ride and train ride, followed by walking in rectangles through the City Centre of Salisbury, all I wanted to do was collapse onto a bed and sleep. Which is surprisingly difficult when one finds oneself in a strange and exciting new place. However, even after a night of sleep the first full day of a trip is often spent in a state of half-life as one muddles through the time shift. So when my aunt proposed we bicycle to Stonehenge from Salisbury that very day, instead of the day after as we had originally planned, my initial response was…

Well, it was along the lines of "Hrrrggggmf…" because it was 6:30 in the morning and I was trying to cram in a few more winks of sleep before our 8:30 breakfast call.

The change of plans was spurred by the weather. That day (Wednesday) was to be clear and sunny and relatively warm (which to Californians means around 80° F, but the English call it warm at around 65° F), but Thursday had scattered thunderstorms and rain predicted, and aunt had made the much more reliable prediction that we would not want to bicycle in such weather.

In the end, after another hour or so of sleep, a good breakfast and some time spent working outside Salisbury Cathedral, we decided to make the trip that very day.

Think of England, or a trip to England, and Stonehenge must rank somewhere quite near the top of any tourist's list of Must Sees. So it may come as something of a surprise when I tell you that I was not particularly excited about seeing it. No. Not seeing it. Anyone can see it. It is everywhere these days, from Spinal Tap to Doctor Who, Stonehenge is as much a celebrity as any of the Royals (perhaps moreso: it will almost certainly outlast them). Seeing Stonehenge is easy. The whole point of going to see something in person, for me, is being able to do things with it. To interact with it in ways that you simply cannot do from the other side of a television screen. And there is the problem: seeing Stonehenge is all they allow you to do. It is roped off, with severe "No Access" signs posted all around. You can take an early-morning or late-night guided tour inside the Circle, but those must be booked well in advance, and even then they don't allow you to climb on them.

It's understandable, of course, given the history of tourists and graffiti (see my earlier journal concerning my experience inside the Duomo of Florence Cathedral) and our penchant for knocking things over, that to preserve the majesty of these glorified rocks they are given about as much protection as a much more delicate work of art would be. If the National Trust thought they could get away with putting Stonehenge inside a glass box, I think they would try.

So I determined that Stonehenge itself could not be the sole reason for our trip. The trip itself had to be worthwhile. Hence the bicycles. And as it turned out, this couldn't have been more true.

Picture a road. A narrow one, smoothly paved, bounded on either side by high green hedges. It is a warm, sunny day with scudding white clouds. And you are not stationary on this road, oh no, you a gliding along it, passing the green hedges, houses with thatched roofs and roses growing up their fronts slide by. You dive under a canopy of trees, then out into the sun again and past a long field filled with giant white flowers.

This is the road we took to Stonehenge, and it is a road most visitors do not see, because they come in big buses along busy roads from the train station or London. They park in the lot just across the road, they shuffle around the stones, then they shuffle back onto their buses and leave. And they think they have seen something remarkable. They have not.

We took a bicycle path out of Salisbury, past the hill where the ruins of Old Sarum sit, and then along a winding country lane that eventually landed us at the busy main road to Stonehenge. Then we turned around and went back the way we had come, because we had missed the turn onto the byway they would takes us up onto Salisbury Plain, approaching Stonehenge from the south, perpendicular to the busy road. It says something about the landscape that we were not at all disappointed about this.

The turn was labeled "To Springbottom Farm," and the road led up a swelling hill bordered by trees on one side, and a field of mustard plants on the other. Cresting the hill we descended, past a house and stable that must have been Springbottom Farm, and then along a dirt track. We nearly made another wrong turn here, as the signs (when we found them) were frisbee sized plastic things with "To Stonehenge" written in green pen on them. These pointed along a wide thoroughfare covered in short green grass and broken by the indentation of off-road vehicles. On either side were wide pastures, spotted with daisies and buttercups, where glossy horses grazed under a sky that was becoming ever more cloudy the further north we went.

The track led us gently up, not so that it was a difficult climb, but so the horizon was right before us, and we could not see very far ahead. To either side of the track, and growing more frequent as we neared the summit, mounds of grass-covered earth, such as one might see at a trick bicycle park, loomed on either side.

The sky was completely overcast now, with high white clouds that let in lots of light, but in a diffuse way which seemed to push the distances even further back, making the place seem even bigger than it was. As we passed one of the larger mounds a flock of black crows took to the skies, cawing and shrieking.

At the time I was more interested in taking pictures of the landscape than of thinking of what that landscape actually was, but I think it was then that I began to have an inkling that these mounds—though clearly man-made—might not be at all recent.

We crested the hill. There, as my aunt had predicted, we could see down onto Salisbury Plain, to where two roads cut across the green landscape. Even from the distance of half a mile the road of the trucks and cars could easily be heard, and you had to look closely, in between the two roads, to see the ring of gray-green stones, and the tiny gaggle of colorful sight-seers clustered around them.

Nearer to hand there was a sign, stained with lichens and barely legible, to the side of the track, that told us that we were in the middle of the Normanton Barrows. One set of many barrows which ringed the horizon around Stonehenge.

There, on the deserted grassy track, with the cawing crows and the silent barrows, and looking down over the busy road and the clusters of tourists with their brightly colored buses, it seemed to me that I was looking at two worlds, overlaid upon each other. For Stonehenge, even though it lies within spitting distance of a busy road, and is surrounded by camera-weirlding tourists in T-shirts, viewed from a distance seems to stand apart, and seems instead much closer to the the bleak hills and the solemn barrow-mounds. The world of the crows and the windy, white sky.

We crossed the last piece of field, descended from the swell where the Normanton Barrows sat, and there came to the most harrowing part of our journey: crossing the first of the busy roads that everyone else takes when they go to Stonehenge. After that it was a bumpy ride over a red and chalky road, then another crossing, and then we were at the parking lot.

And then we decided to cycle right past it, because we could see more barrows to the north of Stonehenge, and decided we weren't quite ready to brave the crowds just yet.

These were the Cursus Barrows, and unlike their Normanton comrades, we were actually allowed to go in and climb over and on top of them. Doing so I discovered that, though very nearly perfectly bell-shaped when viewed from the base, each one had a small depression at its top. I later learned this was the result of early excavators, who dug into the barrows, extracted the interesting artifacts, and then put the dirt back—never-minding that the loss of matter beneath had created a corresponding vacancy above.

As it turns out, far from being an isolated phenomenon, Stonehenge is in quite good company. In addition to the Normanton and Cursus Barrows, more barrows are scattered all over the surrounding hills, mostly in such a position as to cast impressive profiles agains the horizon when viewed from Stonehenge. There is also the Cursus itself, which today is hardly more than an unassuming grassy ditch, but in its time must have been a working to rival Stonehenge itself. And there is the Avenue, a high-way sized walkway which approaches Stonehenge from the north, where it is thought important ritual processions took place. Nowadays it is mostly occupied by some placid cattle, and the crows, who are the real owners of Salisbury Plain now.

The crows have thoroughly taken over Stonehenge itself. They dive in and out among the stones, cawing and cackling at the wind-swept tourist shuffling around, heads bent away from the wind and into their little hand-held audio tour devices.

I see no need to describe Stonehenge. It looks exactly the same in person as it does in all the photographs. Tall. Impressive. A little forbidding. Cold. Maybe it is daunting to consider the size of the rocks, and what it must have taken to erect them. But then I glance to the side and see the road with giant motorized chunks of metal whizzing along it, and I think of the jet airplane that took me across the ocean in less than a day just to see this thing, and I think that compared to everything else we've done, Stonehenge maybe isn't so remarkable after all. It is impressive, and obviously took a great deal of work, but then, so does building and maintaining a jet airplane.

Doing remarkable things is simply the human condition. It is what we do.

Genetically and evolutionarily speaking, the people who built Stonehenge were hardly different from the people who stand there in t-shirts staring at it, who for the most part can't even be bothered to walk over and take a look at the barrows that have been its neighbors for thousands of years.

One thing I can say, though: Stonehenge has a character, and seems unperturbed by the trappings of modernity that have sprung up around it. It stares right back at the tourists: out of it's world of crows and white sky and windy, grass-covered barrows. Cold, impassive, and patient.

Most people come and see Stonehenge and call it a day, but we took a detour on the way back to Salisbury to see Old Sarum, the original hilltop town which had been successively a Roman Fort, a Saxon Castle, a Norman Castle, and a town, before the people there had decided they liked the idea of living down in the lush farmland much better, abandoned their castle and their cathedral, and moved to what is now Salisbury, or New Sarum.

The hill is covered with grass, which is dotted by sheep, and is gouged into rings by steep trenches which might once have held moats. Beyond the first of these is a wide ring of flat land where the village once lay, with its cathedral. Now it is empty lawn, with a car park and some bits of stonework showing where the old cathedral once lay. Then there is an inner trench, and beyond that the hill rises again in a near-vertical wall, and beyond that lies the castle ruins.

These are accessible only during certain hours, and we had missed them. Still, we were able to wander around the ruins of the old cathedral which—unlike Stonehenge—had no one around to tell me not to climb on them. This was particularly fun because they had been built of little round stones of flint, which had since cracked and sheared off, creating perfect and and footholds. It also gave all the ruins the look of being covered in bristling scales, like an upset dragon. Or a dragon that is about to shed. This tactile style of stonework seems to have caught on, and many of the older buildings in Salisbury have flint stonework. On the once hand it is very textured and interesting to the look at. On the other I want to give the poor dragon a good back scratch.

I was going to use this journal to cover all our time in Salisbury (I'm writing this in Bristol), but I'm on my Aunt's computer, and she wants it back now, so I shall have to tell you about the other impressive stones sometime later.

I'm talking course about the "new" and current cathedral, in Salisbury's City Centre. Built in the 1200s it's a far cry from Stonehenge and the ruins at Old Sarum, but it's yet another example of humanity's talent in making things remarkable.

Bound for England

Next Monday I'll by flying out to London for a three week stay with our friends over the pond, along with my Awesome aunt. We're going to be walking and riding bicycles over the south-western area, visiting Salisbury, Bristol, Cardiff and Oxford—before heading back to London for the last few days.

Anyway, unlike our trip to Italy last year I'll be working during this trip. It may sound odd, to go on vacation in England and take work with me, but the way I see it is: I can do this work at home, or I can do it in England. I'd rather do it in England. But it means I'll not have as much time for posting journal updates—though I am going to try. I think that having these journals will be invaluable to me later on—and I'm told my mother likes reading them. Hi, mom.

So I guess the is the unofficial introduction. Look for more updates of this sort in the coming weeks.


Winblog: A Kinder Truth - Julio Diaz

I started this thing I'm calling the Winblog because it's so easy to find depressing, cynical stuff out there. I thought it would be a good idea to gather together in this little corner the things that remind me why the world is a mixed bundle of good and bad. In short, to have a little oasis of win in a vast sea of fail.

Now, it order to do this at all I needed some evidence that I'd actually be able to find things of win to put in it. And that evidence is the story I want to share with you today.

It's a story from 2008, and the only reason I haven't posted it yet is because I was simply too lazy to go and google it. Shame on me.

Anyway, you know how people often say that truth is stranger than fiction? Well, this is a surprising case of truth being kinder than fiction.

It's the story of Julio Diaz, a social worker from New York City, who was mugged on his way home one evening… and then did something remarkable.

He was walking toward the stairs when a teenage boy approached and pulled out a knife.

"He wants my money, so I just gave him my wallet and told him, 'Here you go,'" Diaz says.

As the teen began to walk away, Diaz told him, "Hey, wait a minute. You forgot something. If you're going to be robbing people for the rest of the night, you might as well take my coat to keep you warm."

The would-be robber looked at his would-be victim, "like what's going on here?" Diaz says. "He asked me, 'Why are you doing this?'"

Diaz replied: "If you're willing to risk your freedom for a few dollars, then I guess you must really need the money. I mean, all I wanted to do was get dinner and if you really want to join me ... hey, you're more than welcome."

The you can read the conclusion of the NPR story, and listen to Diaz tell it himself, right here.

I won't spoil it, but Batman hasn't got chips on this guy.

Winblog: MondayMashups

Some days you just don't want to get out of bed. Those days suck. For those days, there is this:

<3 mondaymashups on YouTube.com

Latest Month

February 2013



RSS Atom
Powered by LiveJournal.com
Designed by Tiffany Chow