The next day we left for Salisbury, which, of course, is famous for Stonehenge. It was close to the end of our trip now, the penultimate night. The last night would be in London.
For this night I had booked us into a guesthouse in Amesbury, a small village, a little distance outside Salisbury. I was hoping that we would be able to walk to Stonehenge, which was supposed to be just down the road from our guesthouse, Mandalay. It was, but nobody mentioned that to get there, you’d have to cross a busy motorway and climb over a barbed wire fence.
We slogged all the way back to town and got a cab. It took us back the same way, crossed the motorway at the circle a long way ahead and circled around to the visitor centre. That’s where and we got out and trotted up to the window and shelled out 15 bucks each.
It was worth every bit of it, of course. This was Stonehenge, after all. You couldn’t come this far and not go in just because of taxi fare and a steep entry fee.
Words can’t describe Stonehenge. Even pictures are of limited utility, though they are better than words. I’ve seen a thousand picture of Stonehenge, so in a way seeing it had no surprises. But as with the Taj Mahal, even though it looks just like its pictures, meeting it face to face is something else.
We were determined to walk back. It was 6 km, according to GPS, which did show a walking route. We would not have to climb over the barbed wire fence or cross the ferocious motorway. It looked ok. At 5.45 p.m., armed with an empty bottle of water and no food (and not having had much by way of lunch either), we set out. Who needs food and water when you have determination?
In 20 minutes, my determination turned to dust. There was a footpath – for the first half km. After that, there was a narrow and weedy verge, for about a hundred metres. After that, it was just prayers and luck. It wasn’t a motorway at this point, but there were plenty of cars speeding by and my instincts said putting our faith in prayers and luck would not be a smart idea. We might have got there eventually and we might even have survived the experience relatively intact, but it didn’t look like it was going to be fun and I guessed that we would end up walking a lot slower than 3 km per hour and it would take quite a bit longer than two hours and by then tiredness and hunger and thirst and potentially even dusk would descend upon us.
So we went back and called a taxi and what might have been an extremely memorable travel experience was nipped in the bud.
I picked up a big bowl of kebab in town, mixed with salad and chilli sauce. This kebab is not what we call kebab in India. It’s the meat part of what we call a shawarma roll in India. In England, it comes with chips. Omitting the roll makes it gluten free. But I had had a lot of potato already and asked for just the meat, not realizing that the guy would give me enough meat to feed a cow. Oops. Ok, enough meat to feed an elephant. No, that doesn’t work either. Well, he gave a lot of meat. Hungry as I was, having survived the entire day on a single jacket potato and coffee for breakfast, I still struggled to finish it.
At any rate, food in hand, we were back at the guesthouse by 6.30-ish. I spent the next three hours sitting at the garden table and looking out on the charming lawn, reading, writing, and sipping a bottle of beer.
Mandalay was as pretty a place as I’d expected it to be, a small home tucked away in a corner of Amesbury. Amesbury was small enough to start with, perhaps not as small as Helmsley but in the same class. Mandalay was one of the last few houses on the road that led to Stonehenge and the motorway. It seemed to be a family run affair. Breakfast was provided, but no other food or drink, and there was no self service kitchen. The place was furnished just like a home, not hotelish at all. The furniture was all pretty, flowery stuff, and little bits of china decorated bookshelves, window ledges and the like. Every room was different and the rooms were named after poets. We were in the room called Wordsworth.
The woman who greeted us was a little less than warm and friendly. In fact, when we first arrived around noon, she was quite curt in sending us on our way, since check-in opened only at 3 p.m. She did allow us to drop off our backpacks, though. When we went back in the evening, we met Nick, who was very cooperative and helpful. He showed us to our room, made a packet of noodles for Rajashree and handed out several bottles of sauce, and best of all, when I asked him if he would sell me a bottle of beer, he not only produced it promptly, he even waved away payment for it. What a sweetheart.
We had a fabulous room, a fabulous bathroom, a fabulous view of a fabulous garden, and a breakfast that was quite satisfactory. And so, well rested, well breakfasted, and generally quite pleased with life, we checked out on Friday to start our last day in England.
I’d wanted to see Woodhenge, which was nearby, and which Nick said had pavements all the way to. But Nick also said there wasn’t much to see and when I asked him about Old Sarum, he said it would be a better option. So we walked to the bus stop, got a bus to Old Sarum, and got off and walked up to this old hill fort.
It was lovely! The hill fort was built around 1000 AD and abandoned and demolished sometime in the 1300s. (I think. Don’t rely on me for facts. If you really want to know, go look it up.) All that now remains was excavated in the early 1900s. Considering that what I had worked on last week was also an Iron Age hill fort, it was extremely interesting for me to see one that had already been excavated. Of course, ‘mine’ might have been quite different, but all the same. It would have been nice to have seen this before I went in my dig, so that I had some picture of the kind of thing we were working on.
We went back to Salisbury and wandered around for three hours. The Cathedral was nice, though not spectacular. There was a medieval clock in the cathedral, built sometime in the 1300s, which has been restored and now works.
The Reeve bakery in Salisbury was terrible torture. All manner of mouthwatering aromas wafted out and the views were no less appetizing. What agony to stand there and drink it in with eyes and olfactory but not be able to eat. It was almost as bad for Rajashree as it was for me, many of the mouthwatering items being non-veg and that too, beef. In the end, we both went in. I asked forlornly for gluten free stuff, but of course they didn’t have any. Rajashree was luckier, at least a few goodies were vegetarian. But I must admit, I did consider the ‘eat and be damned’ philosophy for a few seconds. Unfortunately, in my case at least, this gluten intolerance manifests in such a way, you eat for five minutes (if that) and are damned for two weeks or more, in which time the joy of whatever it was you ate is long gone and just doesn’t seem worth the damning.
And so I bought sweet Williams pears for one buck and feasted on them all the way back to London. Such are the joys of a gluten free diet.
There wasn’t time to do much in London when we got back. We collected our luggage and went to the other Youth Hostel, since the Noel Street youth hostel had no beds for us. Then we walked out and all the way back to Oxford Street and spend an hour wandering the narrow lanes of Soho. I bought a big box of kebab at the same Lebanese place we’d been to a few days earlier, and took it back to the youth hostel with me. It served for both dinner and the next morning’s breakfast.
It was a warm night, made extremely stuffy by some bright spark in the room actually closing the window. I think all the buildings are made to trap heat and the windows open just a crack. It was so stifling that I woke around 4 a.m. sweating. I opened the window and stood there a while to cool off, and then by the time I was refreshed enough to go back to sleep, the night was over. And there was nothing more to look forward to except the long, tedious flight back home.
This time, unlike many other trips to other places, I felt satisfied with my holiday. I’d known that sightseeing in England in one week was pretty much an exercise in frustration. I had only a sketchy agenda and I didn’t manage to see even all that was on it. Many, many highly recommended options just didn’t get done. Amit wanted me to see Wimbledon. Rajashree wanted to see Bath. Others had recommended Cornwall, the Lake District, the Tower of London from the inside, Westminster Abbey from the inside… I myself had wanted to see Oxford University and Canterbury. At least. (Without talking about Scotland and Wales and…) So, definitely, whatever I had seen was just the tip of the iceberg. The thing is, I’d known that even before I left home, even before I started planning the trip.
At the end of every journey, all you are left with is memories and photographs (and a big hole in the bank account, but that doesn’t matter). Photographs, though, capture only what you saw, and only a small part of that. Yet, the travel was never about that at all. It’s about the experiences: what you felt, whom you spoke to, what they said. It’s about such fleeting things as impressions and emotions, things you experience but can never capture or hold on to.
And that’s why I came home satisfied. There’s much I haven’t seen and as always – I might never see; I might never go back to England. But I have the experiences, I packed in as many impressions and emotions as one can hope to experience in two weeks’ time, and that’s what matters.
It might even be all that matters.