Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach
I woke up this morning in London to a gentle rain, and was reminded of a comment by Mark Twain. When Twain was living in the UK, a couple of his friends from the US were out to his house to tea. A week later, he writes to someone else:
“We furnished them a bright day and comfortable weather—and they used it all up, in their extravagant American way. Since then we have sat by coal fires, evenings.”
So, hoping I hadn’t used up all the good weather, in a light rain we packed and stowed and jumped on the tube to Heathrow, where we rented a car and drove west to Salisbury.
And as always, there were surprises. The first surprise was how quickly the city was replaced by lovely green countryside. And not only countryside, but farms, large farms, growing wheat from the looks of it. I’d expected miles and miles of suburbs, but that didn’t happen at all.
(Click to enlarge) The second surprise was that the rain went away, and although the day was cloudy, it was lovely.
The very best part of the day, however, was being taken on a tour of both Stonehenge and Avebury by Tim Daw. It was great to finally meet Tim. Back in 2007, a couple of years before I started writing for WUWT, Tim was gracious enough to post an article of mine about the Central England Temperature (CET) record. At present, that blog is inactive, but he is still running his family farm … and in addition, he also works at Stonehenge, and is an amateur archaeologist himself. So there could not have been a better guide.
So we all jumped into Tim’s car and he drove us from Salisbury to Stonehenge. I knew nothing about Stonehenge … and as it turns out … nobody does. Oh, that’s not quite accurate, we know that they made urns with collars around them, and that they built long barrows for their dead, not round barrows. We know that the blue stones came from Wales, and that the sarsen stones came from about twenty miles north of Stonehenge. We know that in the Middle Ages people thought Merlin built Stonehenge.
Other than that, however, I fear we know very little more than the people from the Middle Ages about who built Stonehenge, or why. But despite that lack of knowledge, or perhaps in part because of that, the place has an awesome and remote majesty that captures nearly everyone’s imagination. Here’s what it looked like today when we were there:
From there, we went to Avebury, which I’m told is another “henge”. My obviously over-valued estimate of my own knowledge of the oddities of the English language has taken a thrashing on this trip. I’ve found out a few things about British place names I never knew. One was that a “minster”, as in “Westminster”, means a big church. Next, a “stoke”, as in Greystoke, is a stockade. I found out that a “staple” or “stable” in a place-name means a market, and that “Bury”, as in Salisbury where I am now, means a fortified town. I learned that “sarsen” is a corruption of “Saracen”. My new bible on these matters is here.
I also now know that a “henge” is a circular earthen wall with a ditch inside it.
Now, all over the planet people dig circular earthen walls with ditches. Why? Well, for defense, of course. It’s a great plan. The attackers are all down in the ditch, and you stand up on top and shoot at them with whatever armament you might have. So, what’s wrong with this picture?
Well … the henges on Salisbury plain all have the ditches on the inside, not the outside. They would be totally useless for defense. So the obvious question arises … why were they built?
Bad news in that regard. Nobody knows. After asking Tim question after question about any and all aspects of the builders’ lives, I decided I could just record him saying “Sadly, no one knows”, and dispense with him altogether—I could just ask the question, and then play the recording. Not that he is ignorant on these matters, quite the contrary. It’s just that regarding why the henges were built … no one knows. Regarding the beliefs or origins of those who built them … no one knows. How did they move the stones? See the previous answer …
So with my ignorance doubly confirmed, and then reconfirmed, we left Stonehenge, and Tim took us onwards to Avebury. This is another famous nearby henge. It is much larger, encircling the entire village of Avebury. And the henge is much bigger as well, perhaps a thousand feet (300m) across, with a much higher wall and a much deeper ditch.
Again, like Stonehenge, Avebury is imbued with a sense of profound mystery—what is the purpose of the wall and the ditch? But this time the mystery is bizarrely juxtaposed with everyday life:
After we walked all the way around the circular earthen mound and came back down to the inside of the henge, the only thing I noticed was the sense of privacy, enclosure, and comfort that the surrounding earthen wall provided. Was that why they built the hedges? Mentally, I press the button on the tape recorder and hear Tim’s voice saying “No one knows …”.
From there, it was a lovely afternoon drive back to Salisbury. The clouds had built up. There were a few thunderstorms in the distance, and beneath a couple of them was “virga”, falling rain that evaporates before hitting the ground. The earth’s climate control system was back in operation, keeping the English countryside from overheating.
Back in Salisbury, we thanked Tim for his kindness. He was the very best of guides, knowledgeable and patient with rank novices like myself … a point of view for me to ponder on, indeed.
Then we walked into Salisbury town to see the Cathedral … and I’m here to tell you that it’s not any ordinary pile of stones. I’ve seem piles of stones in the form of cathedrals before … but this is a double-dyed, no holds barred cathedral.
We didn’t have much time to go in, it was late and just before closing, but it was open. The Salisbury Cathedral was built in the 13th century, and has been used continuously ever since. One of the four copies of the Magna Carta is kept there, but because of the late hour we didn’t see it. However, a service was going on, and the girl’s choir was singing when we entered the Cathedral. It was the perfect accompaniment to the structure, lovely voices echoing around the massive vaulted interior:
Even in the Cathedral, however, my karma seems to be following me, no surprise there. In this case, I seem to have English clocks on the agenda. Here’s the clock from the Cathedral:
And a closeup of the gear train:
So what’s unique about this clock? Well, other than the bizarre nature of the gears, there’s nothing unique … other than the fact that it’s rumored to be the world’s oldest working clock, and it’s been running since 1386. It’s so old it never had hands to tell the time, just a bell that it rang when it was time for prayers. How curious, that the desire of humans to pray on a regular basis should set in train the long chain of clockish events that end up with John Harrison’s chronometer …
Anyhow, that’s all the news that’s fit to print from Salisbury. Tomorrow, we’re off to Bath. My thanks to all of the folks who have provided commentary, suggestions, and most importantly, offers of assistance. They are much appreciated even though they are not individually acknowledged. And my particular thanks to Tim for a most enjoyable and educational afternoon.
Regards to all,
PS—On the way back from Avebury, Tim stopped in the village next to his to show us a version of the British Library that he was involved in setting up. It looks like this:
It’s a “Take One, Leave One” library, and despite plenty of nay-sayers, it has worked well both there and in Tim’s village. It seems that when Post and Telecom were taking out the phone booths, they offered to sell them to the villages for one pound. So in his village, Tim and some others said sure, we’ll take it, it’ll make a great library.
But of course, this being the UK, nothing goes so simply. The day before they were to take possession of it, some drunken yobbo hit the phone booth with his car and knocked it at an angle. Didn’t damage it much, just bent it over some.
“That’s no problem”, sez Tim and his mates, “we’ll take it anyhow.”
“Oh, no, no,”, say the P&T folks, “can’t do that. It’s all super-dangerous now, someone might get hurt, we can’t sell it to you”.
So Tim and the villagers say, “So what if it’s dangerous? I mean, we’ll just put a chain ’round it and tip it back to vertical.”
“Ooooh, you can’t do that!”, sez the P&T, “It’s not your property, it belongs to the UK Government”.
Hard to fault that logic …
So then the P&T sent out a big truck and a big crane, along with one man to work on the job, two men to direct him, three men to lean on shovels and explain things to the villagers, and an Obersturmbannführer to run the whole show. They stood the phone booth back up at great government expense, and said “OK, now it’s not a dangerous phone booth any more, so we can turn it over to you”. So Tim and the folks thanked them, and put in the books.
And to complete the story … the P&T never did come around to collect their pound. Government work at its finest, find someone doing something imaginative and useful, and get in their way. What strange animals we are indeed …