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I went on a really nice trip to England — some dear friends, Peter and Julie, invited my brother and me up to their lovely home in Sunningdale, right outside of London, for hanging out, tramping about, and the stupendous music festival known as the Proms. What fun. After half our time was up I realized that I could commando their laptops and fire out these dispatches to my lucky friends. Better than snapshots, eh?
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A U G U S T 2 1 , 1 9 9 9 .
It's Saturday afternoon here in Sunningdale, and I've just awakened after an extremely busy 26-hour day. Yesterday, Paul and I got up early (7am) and Peter took us out for a Day of Spirituality, starting with Winchester Cathedral, a gorgeous example of the Perpendicular Style (that great, ornate squarish style of architecture you only find in England — think Big Ben). Then we went to Salisbury for one of my favorite places in the world, Salisbury Cathedral.
Peter and Paul laughed a little when I mentioned to them that there's something about this place and its people, who for thousands of years have had this urge to move stones and earth together in gargantuan acts of worship, but by the end of the day, I think they were beginning to be convinced. Salisbury is immediately frustrating, because for years its Deans have embraced not only modern art but modern efforts within the Cathedral, instead of simply being preservationists. So, you see some silly modern things that are little more than distractions, but also some really gorgeous examples of modernism in the church as well, like that fantastic East Window and both altar fronts. The altar fronts as well as tons of other stuff in the Cathedral were designed and made not by hired artists but by parishioners: needlepoint cushions and embroidered banners adorn the place. I simply love it, because, unlike any other great cathedral I've been in, it gives you the feeling that it's part of an ongoing effort, with the parishioners really involved in the life of the church, not only as a work of art dedicated to God but as a real operating parish. The signs of true spiritual life going on there are all over, and make for one of the most homelike and warm monuments in Europe.
(And, by the way, it was the first cathedral, a few years ago, to enter the fray of controversy by getting female choristers — they were really the ones to do it, because they were the first in England to have boy choristers in the first place, centuries ago!)
To the side of the cathedral is the chapter house, where there's a fantastic medieval frieze, a great series of stained-glass windows, and the Magna Carta. Yep, the best of the four extant copies of it, too — it's really in perfect condition, and there it is, just sitting right there for all to see.
The docent in the chapter house was a lovely 92-year-old lady who sort of reminded me of my late grandmother Mimi — sharp as a tack, and with a verdigris of grace that can only come toward the end of a gently worn life. I stopped and had a conversation with her, and she talked about the various Deans of the Cathedral that she's seen come and go, and how she grew up in its shadow, with its yard as her playground. Her grandmother and great-grandmother also had had some kind of official duty or other with the place. I felt that I was standing and talking with a living breathing part of a living tradition that probably went back much further than 3 generations — isn't it likely that her great-great-great-great-etc grandparents worked on the cathedral itself, and before that on its predecessor in Old Sarum, and before that Stonehenge? Not at all out of the question! Mind-boggling!
Speaking of which, Stonehenge was our next stop, where this lady's ancestors obeyed their pagan urge to worship by moving megaliths from hundreds of miles away together. On the way we stopped by Old Sarum, where the original cathedral was built, and where a huge Castle that was the seat of English rule before London had been situated. You walk across a giant moat to get to it — goodness knows how deep it originally was; Peter said that it had filled in by people and erosion over the centuries, but it was still cavernously deep — I can only imagine the number of man-hours it took just to dig the moat and pile up the earth for the castle. Then of course the castle itself: it's thrilling to know that I'm standing there looking at stones that were placed there over a thousand years ago, overlooking a landscape that really hasn't changed much at all since then. (Those of us who are used to the Alamo being across from Walgreen's are always surprised by that.)
Then on to Avebury, a similar place that predates S-henge. On the way, we saw Woodhenge (figure it out yourself) — only the stumps are left, but there it is; Silbury Hill, an amazingly huge manmade hill that they recently discovered was made in three stages of piling up and compacting chalk, totalling four million man-hours, for what reason no one knows; and Long Barrow, a burial site marked once again by megaliths, that dates to 3500 BC!! Thrilling. Then Avebury itself, a stone circle about a mile in circumference, that originally had two smaller circles in it. Many of the stones are missing, but you still get the idea. What's neat is that the town is right there in the circle, co-existing with it. The circle is surrounded by a built-up ridge made by digging out what I can only think of as a moat! Seeing as the Old Sarum folks can't possibly have been unaware of this place, it strikes me that those military men might have been consciously playing on the natural tendency of the people in this area to move stupendous amounts of earth together in circular formations. What is it that brings the motivation for these huge projects just in this little province?? Again I ask: what is it? It's definitely something in my opinion, and Paul and Peter began to agree.
Then of course there's the issue of the Crop Circles. I'd never put it together but Avebury is the very area where those mysterious crop circles have been appearing since 1981. It's often postulated that it's, naturally, the work of aliens, but anyone who's ever taken a look around must conclude that it has to be the work of some strand of DNA in the blood of these rural people!! The circles are stunningly beautiful, perfect circles and circle-based designs in the fields, made by breaking the stalks of wheat in an area, usually around 300 feet in diameter. Amazingly ornate designs, too: a couple of Julia sets that are perfectly rendered, and a Mandelbrot set — one of the most complex fractal-based designs in human knowledge.
We stopped by a place called the Barge Inn, which caters to the barging people who float up and down the web of canals that criss-cross England (by last century there was not a place further than two miles away from a canal or some water source in England). Paul and I decided that we'd spend a month or two doing that sometime.
Then we ate at a place in Avebury, and met a couple of the crystal-and-incense crowd that keeps the Unsolved Mysteries market healthy, and enjoyed a meal of Steak and Ale Pie. All in all, a wonderful, full day of exploring some of the out-of-the-way glories of Old England.
We arrived back in Sunningdale at 10:30 or so, and I changed and went in to London for a night of raving. I was incredibly tired, but figured I'd shoot myself if I missed the opportunity. And sure enough I'm glad I did it.
I'd found out about a place in the Brixton area of downtown London (which Peter dutifully clucked about but which turned out to be perfectly safe) that had a thing going called Escape from Samsara. When I arrived at around 12:30, there was already a line 45 minutes long. When I was about ten minutes from the door, a beautiful, gregarious girl named Prama came up and started talking flirtatiously with me. I figured she was planning to cut, but on the other hand, hey. Then her friends came — 10 or 15 of them, all greeting each other and me with kisses on the cheek. I'm really not sure how the folks behind me felt about this, but if they were angry they sure didn't show it. I'd made some new friends: this was a pack of extremely fun people, most of whom apparently worked with a french software company. Prama appeared to be the focal gal of the group, and one of those people who always act like the hostess of life's fabulous party.
When we got in the place was packed. It was held in an old theater, and was just exciting. The crowd was there to dance hard and listen hard to some really good electronica, expertly mixed by a parade of DJs, most of whom really knew how to work a crowd into a frenzy. There was one group doing live PA, with a girl playing the Theremin, to my astonishment. And visually the place was rich as well: outlandishly clad performers on stilts, a stunning set with flame-like sheets, lights and lasers everywhere, and of course the customers themselves. When I left at quarter to six the place was still going strong. A walk through London in the morning, and back out to Sunningdale almost alone on a train, and then to bed at last! I still need a foot massage. 26 hours of mostly trekking and dancing.
In the meanwhile, today Paul and Peter went in to Windsor and Eton. It's a beautiful, sunny day!
Tonight it's a quiet evening at home with friends and winetasting, then London and promming tomorrow.