Thursday, March 10, 2016

unexpected highlights

On Saturday we had an optional field trip. It was billed as a trip to Stonehenge, which was frankly not all that appealing to me, as I'd heard reports that Stonehenge can be markedly underwhelming. But the iron age fort of Old Sarum and the White Horse of Uffington sounded interesting, so I decided to go along. I am so glad I did. 

This is a view from the top of Old Sarum. There had been a fort there since the iron age, and by the time of William the Conqueror (the Norman lord who defeated the Anglo-Saxons at the Battle of Hastings in 1066) there was a cathedral there in addition to the old fort, and he added an imposing castle. It's nothing but a ruin now, but it's really cool to climb over. There were lots of people walking very happy dogs, which was fun to see. Simon pointed out that the view in the photo below has probably changed very little since the days of William, which was fascinating to think about. 

Eventually there was enough friction between the churchmen at the cathedral and the soldiers at the fort that the bishop decided to move the cathedral down to the plain. This decision was also a good idea in terms of comfort: Old Sarum is on a very exposed hilltop, and we got a taste of the bitter wind there on Saturday. I would not have wanted to live there in the days before hot running water. So the bishop moved the cathedral down to the plain, and eventually the people who lived at Old Sarum followed. Apparently starting a new city was a big moneymaking venture in the Middle Ages, and somewhat risky. This one was a smashing success, and is now the city of Salisbury.

After Old Sarum, our next stop was Stonehenge. I'm really I glad I went with the group, because Simon told us a lot about the cutting-edge research on the place and how significant summer and winter solstice are to the arrangement of the stones. Something that I found fascinating is that as much as we may learn about what was at the Stonehenge site, we will never know why it is there and who had it built. 

It was a massive undertaking, as a group of enthusiasts discovered in the year 2000. Some of the smaller stones - blue stones weighing 3 tons - came all the way from Wales, so a group of people decided it would be cool to celebrate the millennium by moving a comparable stone from Wales to Stonehenge using prehistoric methods. It was an absolute fiasco. They ended up using fancy low-friction nylon netting, getting into tiffs with insurance companies, landing the stone at the bottom of a river where it had to be found by scuba divers and fished out with a floating crane. Eventually they gave up and the stone was carted off in a flatbed truck to a botanical garden, where it was blessed by a druid and now rests in peace. So if we can botch it so much with all our modern technology, what on earth possessed prehistoric people to accomplish this massive undertaking? We will never know, and yet instead of throwing up our hands and walking away, people are more and more fascinated by the place. 

One of the bits of research I found most fascinating has to do with the fortifications that were around Stonehenge. Usually when you are building fortifications, the thing you are defending is higher up to keep attackers out. What's intriguing about the fortifications around Stonehenge is that they were not constructed in such a way as to protect the henge from intruders. Rather, it was built to keep something inside the henge from coming out. Which I find to be downright eerie. Who knows the thought processes behind that, but it was a reminder to me that if this place was some sort of cult site, there is no reason not to think that there were spiritual forces present here. Creepy. 

Something I was thinking about while we were there is how impossible it is for me to imagine what it would have been like to live at the time that Stonehenge was built. I can imagine what it would have been like to live under primitive conditions, but I cannot begin to construct the kind of mindset that a person living in Britain thousands of years ago would have had. Several people were talking about how it was difficult to engage with the site. I think part of that has to do with all the tourists taking selfies and jumping photos, but another part of it has to do with the vast removal of time between us and the people to whom this place was important. To put this in perspective: Stonehenge was an ancient curiosity and tourist destination for the Ancient Romans. That's how old this place is - people we consider ancient considered it ancient.

All in all, I'm glad I went. Photos can't convey the wind, the smell of sheep nearby, the surrounding fields...or the traffic on two fairly large roads within a couple hundred yards of the site.

After grabbing something warm to drink in the visitors' centre cafe, we headed to our final stop, the White Horse of Uffington, which we reached after a minor delay when our bus broke down and they had to send another one out to rescue us.

The White Horse of Uffington is a chalk monument in a hillside that has been there for around three thousand years. We don't really know why it's there. You can kind of see it in the white markings in the photo below:

However, I'm pretty sure the best idea of it comes from a helicopter view, so, courtesy of google images: 

{Actually never mind: google images does not want to cooperate with me. Google it yourself.}

So anyway the White Horse was cool. But the location...was spectacular.

The top of the hill that the horse is on is the highest point in Oxfordshire. From it, you can see seven counties and mountains that are 47 kilometers away. I felt like Emma Woodhouse on Box Hill, except that the weather was moody and windy and there were no major social faux pas.

The half an hour that I spent on top of that hill was one of the highlights of the semester so far. It was absolutely amazing - something about the wind and the openness and the sublime view struck a much-needed chord in my soul. I wandered around alternately racing as fast as I could across the grass, standing stock still gazing at the view, and flopping on the ground to look at it some more. 

At the end of the day, we returned home to macaroni-and-cheese cooked by Anastasia, the one girl in our food group who didn't go on the field trip. And afterwards we had chocolate cake and ice cream and watched an episode of the BBC Little Dorrit miniseries. The cake was in honor of Anastasia's birthday, but the ice cream and Little Dorrit is a weekly event, because we are all English majors, period drama fans, and in weekly need of ice cream.

Life is good.

1 comment:

  1. absolutely great blog posting!
    i am chuckling.
    when we went to stonehenge, there was zero touristy…no coffee shop.
    loved the background on salisbury cathedral!
    and the photos of you--best of all.
    loved hearing your thoughts.