Hit the Road and I'm Gone. Part 1.
Well I did it. I ventured out of Cornwall in the Time of Covid and I can report that it’s not all that bad on the other side of the Tamar. Masks are worn; common-sense pandemic courtesies are observed.
While my tentative enquiries of Scottish friends and relatives had not been received with quite the necessary degree of enthusiasm, (absolutely no offence was taken – these are difficult and personal decisions) those in the south all seemed very relaxed. Yes of course! Come for lunch, we can eat in the garden. Stay over by all means – we won’t be hugging but it’ll be great to see you! Camp on the lawn! So the Grand 2020 East Anglian road trip was up and running.
The principle ingredients were: two nights near Salisbury with old Uni friends; afternoon tea in the thatched cottage of an elderly and seldom-seen Aunt; lunch with a schoolfriend who, despite sitting next to me in maths with the same dreadful teacher many decades ago, took an accountancy degree and ended up as a captain of industry; two nights in a comfortable hotel; an al fresco buffet with a former boss who had shown great kindness to my family in difficult times; and a couple of nights with the eldest off-sprung and their partner in Cambridge. Oh… and one night camping in a field in Somerset, where we sat in the dusk and watched for beavers, of which more in part 2.
It was great to catch up with friends and family, but it was the things seen, nearly seen and not seen that made the greatest impression. Here then are a series of vignettes that give a flavour of what was or wasn’t on offer, and at what price.
1. The Fleet Air Arm Museum at Yeovilton. I had briefly spent some time forecasting, or trying to forecast, the weather at the Royal Naval Air Station at Yeovilton some years ago, but I had never visited the museum. I was ahead of schedule, so I decided to swing by and see if it was open. A guy at the gate in mask and hi-vis flagged me down.
“Hi,” I said. “Is the museum open?” “We do test.”
“Sorry, what sort of test?” “Covid test. We do you Covid test.” “What, without an appointment?”
“Yes, it’s no problem. We test you right now.”
“Um…well, that’s good to know, but I really wanted to visit the Fleet Air Arm museum.” “Museum closed. This is test centre now. We do you covid test right now.”
I admired his enthusiasm, and given that I was going visiting, I can see all sorts of arguments for me treating this as an extraordinary stroke of serendipitous star-alignment. Had it come as less of a surprise I might well have taken him up on the offer, but I was free of symptoms, and in holiday mood, so not quite in the frame of mind to have a cotton bud put up my nose at short notice. I’m afraid I passed, and headed for Stonehenge instead.
2. Stonehenge. The chap on the gate explained that you had to book in advance. OK, fine – I was going to be staying nearby so I might come back the following day. How much was it, out of interest? Twenty-three pounds. Twenty-three quid?? Are you serious?? I’m afraid so sir. And your reaction is not untypical. But in fairness that does include the shuttle bus. I’ll think about it, I said, and set about turning the car, wondering if my holiday was set to be nothing more than a series of three point turns. I was about to zoom off when a chap with the look of a local detached himself from the fence post nearby and leaned down to address me, conspiratorially, through the still open window.
“Turn left on the main road, go exactly 1.1 miles and you’ll see a track on the left. Follow it for seven hundred yards and park up. You’ll get a great view from there. They’ll be catching the sun something lovely this time of day.” This seemed straightforward enough – no bodily gyrations, no invocations in ancient tongues were required - so I thanked him and followed his instructions, which proved to be remarkably accurate. There indeed were the stones, a hundred and fifty yards away, catching the sun something lovely as advertised. I got out and contemplated them thoughtfully for a few minutes.
I have no druidic instincts, and for me the significance of the stones largely rests in the role they play in the fictional demise of Tess of the d’Urbervilles. It struck me however that I might get an even better view if I walked along a bit, and this brought me to the final gateway to the site, to which I would presumably have been transported by shuttle bus had I coughed up the requisite sum. There were security people all around. About six feet behind one of them, just inside the gate, was an information board. I am a diligent reader of information boards, which I often find tell me about as much as I wish to know.
“Hello,” I said brightly. “I don’t have a ticket, but I wonder if I could just have a read of that board?”
“No I’m afraid that won’t be possible sir.” (Subtext – because you haven’t paid your twenty-three quid, have you?) He paused. I maintained my interested, open, eager to learn expression. He was only young, and he relented.
“But if you go through that gate at the side and walk along the path you’ll get to within a few feet of the heel stone.”
“That’s very helpful,” I said. And I followed his advice, and blow me but I did indeed get to within about fifty yards of the stones, and had an excellent view of the poor people on the other side of the fence staring thoughtfully at the lopsided lumps of Neolithic dolerite, wondering how they could eke out their visit long enough to not to feel they had been fleeced.
In Part 2, Sutton Hoo, Ely Cathedral, and… the Beavers!