A Stonehenge Adventure

As so many men are, when I was young, I was exceptionally stupid. Or, more precisely, I regularly failed to fully think through ideas before executing them.

My senior year I studied abroad – at Stanford University’s campus in England, ostentatiously set in Cliveden House, a Downton Abbey-style estate with a sprawling mansion and expansive grounds. Cliveden has been home to an earl, three countesses, two dukes, and a Prince of Wales. In the 1920s and 30s famous personalities partied at Cliveden: serious drinkers like Churchill, Joseph Kennedy, T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) and FDR, as well as serious writers like George Bernard Shaw,  Rudyard Kipling, Henry James, and Edith Wharton. As I roamed the halls late at night, I hoped previous hallway wanders’ writing skills might rub off on me. Sadly, only the drinking skills did

Cliveden 1981, I’m standing, 2nd row, 5th from the right.

Cliveden is located just outside the town of Maidenhead. Yep, Maidenhead. I always wondered what possesses the English to give towns names like this. And why the hell would someone want to name a town a euphemism for “hymen”? You’re just setting yourself up for a long future of loss-of-virginity jokes.

One day I realized that Maidenhead was not very far away from Stonehenge. Just a series of train rides would put me in the city of Salisbury, which is very near to Stonehenge. Salisbury is a fabulous old city with a beautiful cathedral. 

Thumbing through my Fodor’s book I found the cheapest Salisbury B&B I could find, and the bus schedule to Stonehenge. Having all the information I felt I needed, I packed a bag and headed to the train station.

By the time I reached the B&B, I had decided that I wanted to see Stonehenge at sunrise. “Wouldn’t it make for some awesome photos?” I thought.

A brochure in the B&B said Stonehenge was just 10 miles from the Salisbury. Since I was sure buses wouldn’t be running at fucking-early-in-the-morning, I realized I would have to walk there from the B&B.

I asked the B&B owner for walking directions to Stonehenge (about thirteen miles). When I told her what I was planning, she literally staggered at my idea. Her response was a simple, “Oh, luv.” 

We stared at each other for a few moments until she realized I was determined to do this, at which point she set about seriously considering my question. “Let me draw you a map to Stonehenge.” 

I thanked her and then pointed out that I wouldn’t be needing the second “B” of her B&B as I’d be long gone before breakfast. I was going to regret that several different ways the next day.

I walk fast so I calculated that it would take me about 3 hours to walk the 13 miles. I didn’t want to miss sunrise so I added a 15 minute buffer. Not having the Internet, and being too stupid to ask when sunrise happens, I decided it was 6:30, which meant starting at 3:15 in the morning! (If Google had existed, or if I’d asked, I would have known sunrise was 7:30).

At 3:15 I slipped out of the B&B and set off into the cold, overcast night. The B&B owner had done a nice job of the map and I felt good about my progress. About an hour in I felt hungry, but I only had a single Snickers bar so I decided to save it as a reward for reaching my destination.

After about an hour, I’d crossed the city and reached the outskirts. Fewer and fewer street lights, but that was okay because I was hoping to walk under a lovely British star-lit sky— just as soon as all the clouds dispersed.

Instead, it started to drizzle. A drizzle is usually no big deal, but after an extended time, even a drizzle can drench you.

Soon I was in countryside. The sidewalk and streetlights had disappeared and I found myself walking along a very dark road with lots of unnerving sounds coming from the bushes and trees that grew right up to either side of the road. I decided to walk down the middle of the road. I’d seen almost no cars, and I decided I preferred the risk of getting run over to the risk of getting eaten.

For some stupid reason, I started thinking about what kinds of creatures might be lurking just off the road, waiting for a dumbass like me to walk by in the dead of night. Soon I was thinking about scarier things than animals. When a movie gets to the scene where someone is walking in the dark by themselves that’s when you know the screaming is about to start. I knew I was psyching myself out, and I could see it happening, but I just couldn’t stop myself from panicking. I started jogging. And then it occurred to me that running would turn hidden observers into enthusiastic pursuers. Unable to stop myself, I started sprinting.

After a while I had to stop. My lungs were burning for air. I was so scared, wet and cold, I sat down by the side of the road and burst into tears, which is hard to do when you’re simultaneously gasping for air and shivering. It took a few minutes, but I finally pulled myself together. I wasn’t scared anymore, but I was in awe at how I’d panicked myself. I decided this was a perfect time to eat my Snickers. Pumped up on sugar, I headed out again, pleased at the idea that all the running put me ahead of schedule. That was good, just in case sunrise was earlier than I thought.

It was still dark and drizzly when I arrived at Stonehenge. It was just after 6am and not light enough to take photos. I was filled with disappointment. Besides being cold, wet, and hungry, I was beginning to doubt that there would be a good sunrise. I was right. A long time later, darkness simply gave way to muted daylight.

In the early 1980’s Britain’s treatment of Stonehenge was embarrassing. Until 1977, anyone could just walk right up to the stones. Even worse, highways ran within just feet of some of the stones. To protect the monoliths from further vandalism, they’d erected a butt-ugly metal cyclone fence around the site.

The fence, only about chest high, was trivial to climb. If I couldn’t take a sunrise photo, I at least wanted to take a photo of my Stanford sweatshirt draped on Stonehenge. What stymied me were a series of signs warning that guard dogs were patrolling the site. I whistled a few times and called the dogs. No dogs responded, but the handful of other visitors all stared at me. I climbed part way over the fence and whistled again. Were there really dogs or was it a cheap ploy to keep people out?  

I decided to check out the situation more before risking having my throat torn out. I circled around the site. Again I climbed part way over the fence and whistled for the dogs. Nothing. I dropped down into the restricted area and waited. Nothing. I took a tentative step. Then I heard a sound that might have come from the center stones. I bolted back over the fence and the safety of the official pathway. In the end, I decided I was too cold to take off my sweatshirt, anyway, and settled for a series of highly forgettable photos. I had walked here in the middle of the night for nothing.

Stonehenge: 1986. Image credit: english-heritage.org

I decided it was time to throw in the flag and head back to town, so I walked across the street to the undersized visitor center, parking lot, and bus stop. I was disheartened to read that the first bus wasn’t scheduled to arrive for almost two hours. 

A snack shop at one end of the visitor center was scheduled to open in 30 minutes, which meant I could sit some place warm while I waited for the bus. I should have predicted that the snack shop had no indoor seating. It was just a window where you ordered from a menu hardly better than a vending machine. There were bags of variously flavored crisps, candy bars, sodas, and a meager selection of pre-packaged pastries. I bought a danish and a cup of tea. 

Before coming to England, I’d rarely drunk tea, but when I did, I only added sugar. On rare occasions, when I felt like fancying it up, I would add lemon, but I mostly associated lemon-doctored tea with head colds. England introduced me to drinking tea with a splash of milk. It was so fancy. It was so British. It was so weird. I’d only done it a few times.

I got my cup of hot water and tea bag. Feeling petulant and drowned, I decided I needed something more substantial than sugared tea so I treated myself to a dollop of milk. And then I decided that I deserved to have the best of all worlds, so I squeezed in a slice of lemon. 

According to the site @Kitchn

When milk becomes too acidic, like when we add lemon juice or when it goes sour, the negative charge on the casein groupings becomes neutralized. … On the other hand, if you add lemon juice or other acid to hot milk, the curdling happens much faster. You can see this if you make ricotta or soft paneer cheese at home!

I stared with dismay at the clumps of nascent ricotta cheese floating in my tea. I considered trying to drink it before tossing my inadvertent science experiment into nearby weeds. I surprised the shopkeeper when his first customer of the day came back to buy a second cup of tea so soon.

As I stood in the parking lot drinking my third cup of tea, a car pulled up near me. The driver rolled down his window and asked if I wanted a ride into town. I didn’t hesitate. The lovely British couple dropped me off at the Cathedral. I didn’t know where else to have them take me. It wasn’t even 8:00 yet, but I was hoping I could at least visit the cathedral. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t open for another two hours. I considered walking back to the B&B and asking if I could have that second “B” but figured that by the time I got there that breakfast would be over, and I really didn’t want to walk another 3 miles, anyway.

I’m happy to report that in 2016 Joy and I visited Salisbury and Stonehenge. England has created a world-class tourist center and better protection for the site. They have surprisingly good food at the cafeteria. And just because, I bought a cup of tea and fancied it up with a dollop of milk. Afterwards, we visited the lovely cathedral in Salisbury. It’s amazing how much better things go when you plan. Or you’re married.


5 thoughts on “A Stonehenge Adventure

  1. Funny, really enjoyed it. Taking a break from packing and watching snow flurries. Not supposed to get them before tonight. Already have approx 6″ . A friend told me Walgrens didn’t even open. Bridge called off tomorrow and Tuesday so maybe I will get some packing done.

    Franmundy

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  2. Oh my gosh, Tony – I’m howling with laughter here at my desk. So glad that I didn’t try for Stonehenge that year! This is a classic. I think the tea is what tips it over from funny story to epic narrative.

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  3. “Salisbury is a fabulous old city with a beautiful cathedral.” This is exactly the quote the two russian assassins who tried to murder Sergei Skripal last year gave to the media in interviews explaining what had brought them to the UK! Just sayin…. 😉

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