. . . VARIOUS TRIPS 1997/...
Africa 1999
Around-the-World 2001/02
Panamerican 2003
Various Trips

Machu Pichu & El Misti 2000
England 2001
American Wanderings

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So this is Civilization
2-4 February, 2001 

Traveling through the southwest provinces.

Finally got out of town at noon, tough to get motivated on this lazy student exchange pace. Nailed by the parking nazis, another ticket despite having fed the meter. Sweet Mother of Pearl! Fought traffic through Kensington, missed the Marble Arch underpass and got stuck watching the traffic circle for five minutes as a penance. Locals confirm that just getting out of town is such an ordeal that they just don't bother driving anywhere. I suppose that's a blessing in disguise. No elevated freeways with decaying graffiti-sprayed columns lurking over the downtown. Make it hard on cars and people will take the train.

"Well I'm not like you, I'm a bit worried about the unknown. I can't just run off to a strange country so easily" - said a friend on the phone the other day. It's not really like that. Even driving out of town into the English countryside, I have a feeling of dread about the locked horizon and what is out there. World travel or no - its not the lack of fear that leads me off into blank places on the map. The conversation rolled around my head as I steered onto the wide three-lane M4 heading west. I suppose restless curiosity is a spur, probably more than for other people, and I just figure things will work out in the end. As though it will all be ok. Is that fatalism I wonder, a sense of pre-destination? 

Morning sun on the River Avon - Bath

  Bath Abbey

After a few hours rushing along at 80mph, I cut south onto the A46, a narrow country road heading toward my first stop. First impressions of the countryside into Bath... sweeping hillside meadows so incredibly green, stone fences bound irregular meadows, everything neatly kept, and green, so much green.

"Bath ranks as one of Britain's top ten tourist cities, yet the place has never lost its exclusive air. Bath owes its name and fame to its hot springs, the only ones in the country, which made it a place of reverence for the local Celtic population - though it had to wait for Roman technology to create a fully fledged bathing establishment. The baths fell into decline with the departure of the Romans, but the town later regained its pre-eminence under the Saxons, its abbey seeing the coronation of the first king of England, Edgar, in 973. A new Tudor bathing complex was popularized by the visit of Elizabeth I in 1574, and the city reached its fashionable zenith in the eighteenth century, when Beau Nash ruled the town's social scene. It was at this time that Bath acquired its ranks of Palladian mansions and town houses, all of them built in the local Bath stone which is now enshrined in building regulations as an obligatory element in any new constructions in the city." (Britain, The Rough Guide)

Walking through cities at night has a particular charm. The shops are closed, and a town can seem more honest without its commercial urgings. I strolled past the Bath cathedral, around the Romanesque baths which give this town its name. There is appeal in the history of the town, and the Georgian townhouses are stately and imposing, but I walked past most sights in 90 minutes and there was little incentive to find more minor gems in the cold drizzly evening. Cafe Rouge deserves a special mention. I passed this French bistro just after the Roman baths, and returning at the end of my perambulations asked for a table for the night. Despite the fact that I was a single diner, the manager opened a reserved table, quite pleasantly seated me at the last space, and attended promptly for the rest of the night as I killed time avoiding the hostel. Evidently I'd picked an excellent spot because he turned away a constant stream of people for the next few hours, some of them quite well dressed and obviously capable of spending a mint.  

I passed a knot of teens in the deserted pedestrian-only streets, feeling like a cultural waif. A common feeling for me when I ramble through another country as an outsider looking in. It seemed odd that I understood their chatter. My past trips had always been to non-English speaking countries. Bath was still in a foreign country, so why was there an odd disconnect. I couldn't put my finger on it.  

Vicarious Sex
When staying in a hostel dorm, the key is to get good and tired before you go to your room so that you can fall asleep quickly. I hunkered down in the ragged lounge with a financial book on the history of risk (Against the Gods), the middle chapters are pretty heavy and I was convinced by midnight that neither hell nor high-water could keep me from slumber. Upon reaching the room I got the first bad sign. It was after midnight and most of the bunks were still empty - not good in a full house. Sure enough, right at that delicate moment when consciousness slides sideways into a dream, BAM, thuds from the wooden floor upstairs. Blast! Keeping the mind empty, thinking floaty thoughts... and again almost into sleep - SLAM, someone entered the room to crawl into their bunk. And so it went till 2:30am - until the piece de resistance... the last three backpackers staggered in having had obviously several too many at the pub. The first guy took out his cell phone and ordered a cab for the next morning at full volume, "yes! for 6:30am! yes! for three! out front!" There was a complete lack of sleeping noises after the call, the other six of us were awake in the room. So it was quite a surprise when the other couple crawled into the last bed together and began kissing, the moist smacking sounds of necking. The rest of the room was dead silent. The necking escalated, heavy breathing, whispers, the quiet slide of clothing coming off. 

"Some jockeying around in the starting gate, they're getting into position ... aaaand they're OFF! Steady Sam into the lead running strong at the head of the pack, heading down the front stretch, the filly moving well clearly in fine form. Around the turn, getting a bit sloppy, he'll have to be careful there, the track can be rough. Coming round the back stretch, this is the critical finish. Oh no Bob, he's not going to finish, he's off his timing. Oh a disappointing ending from Steady Sam, he was running so well, just lost it on the back stretch. Ah yes, she won't be happy with that performance Bob."

Sure enough, in the post-coital air there was a soft whisper from him, "Did you come"? "Oh that's ok, next time", she answered. I grinned.

St. Peter's Cathedral - Exeter

  The English Riviera - Torquay

Exeter, Torquay
Skipping Stonehenge, described by a few classmates who had visited a week previously as 'pretty much just a collection of stones', I angled south on the M5 ('M' stands for motorway in England similar to an American highway - 'A' is a main road possibly dual-carriage but with stoplights) heading for the southern coast and Exeter.  

"Exeter's sights are richer than those of any other town in Devon or Cornwall, the legacy of an eventful history since its Celtic foundation and the establishment of the most westerly Roman outpost. After the Roman withdrawal, Exeter was refounded by Alfred the Great, and by the time of the Norman Conquest had become one of the largest towns in England, profiting from its position on the banks of the River Exe. The expansion of the wool trade in the Tudor period sustained the city until the eighteenth century, and Exeter has maintained its status as a commercial center and country town, despite having much of its ancient center gutted by World War II bombing." (Britain, The Rough Guide)

Winding through the maze of streets (following the ubiquitous brown Town Center signs) I missed the Cathedral turnoff, ending up at the harbor. Not much commercial trade anymore, but the whole area has been converted to eateries, shoppes, and river views. I scooped half my gravy soaked roast lamb into my lap at lunch, and had to run to the bathroom to run cold water on my white wool sweater. I'm sure the staff was amused - I blamed it on lack of sleep. A long set of stairs winds up from the harbor into the town center, and with the low perspective there is no notice of the grandeur of the cathedral until you round the corner into the courtyard. The gray weather does not do the church any justice in this picture, but the contrast between the great Norman towers flanking the nave with the gothic architecture is stunning. The church boasts the longest unbroken gothic ceiling in the world. The streets surrounding the area a cluttered with shops and pubs, though old city is only a few blocks in size. In the words of one guide, "the rest of the downtown was built in the post-war architectural school of 'for goodness sake just get something put up'". 

   Fishing boat leaving Penzance harbor 

Leaving Exeter on the A380, again heading southwest parallel to the coast, I made for Torquay - described as the center of the English Riviera. Having visited the French and Italian rivieras I was skeptical, but driving along the seaside I could see the resemblance. Narrow pebbled beaches with occasional spits of sand were hemmed in with manicured roadside verges dotted with palms (actually New Zealand cabbage trees capable of thriving in the English cool). This was also the fictional home of Basil Fawlty, the comic hotelier played to perfection by Cleese of Monty Python fame. The harbor is fronted by a row of stores and amusements, a museum, a marina, and the requisite pubs - mostly deserted in the off season. Though the town could have secreted other charms, the spitting weather didn't encourage exploration - so I saddled back up for Penzance.

Why Penzance? Did you ever watch the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, Pirates of Penzance? I was kind of curious to find out where they had come from. It seems the area had a reputation for piracy, the coastline being especially sympathetic to nefarious activities with nooks and crannies galore. "Penzance was a major port but most traces of the medieval town were obliterated near the end of the sixteenth century by a Spanish raiding party."  (Britain, The Rough Guide)  The gathering dusk made navigation difficult by the time I arrived, so I bargained my way into a nice little single room for 17at Carnson House on the main road (with a 1 discount because I promised to mention the name of the place on my website). From the B&B it was a short walk to the Longboat Pub for chicken wings and a Coke - and the comfortable knowledge that I'd sleep well that night. 

  St. Michael's Mount - Marazion (near Penzance)

  Western tip of England - Land's End 

Ok, a legitimate nod to Carnson House for such friendly service and a free breakfast. I quartered through Penzance with the car, speed sightseeing, to make up some of the time spent on a lazy sleep in. Like most English towns, the layout is a crazy maze of streets with one slightly wider route tagged with the highway number. The harbor sheltered a small fishing fleet and small hotels and B&Bs faced the sea along the wide curve of the bay. Not really much to see in the town - but five minutes drive away is a rather famous attraction - an ancient Celtic monastery only a accessible at low tide. 

"St. Michaels' Mount can be seen a couple hundred yards offshore. A vision of the archangel Michael led to the building of a church on this granite pile around the fifth century, and within three centuries a Celtic monastery had been founded here. The present building derives from a chapel raised in the eleventh century by Edward the Confessor, who handed over the chapel to the Benedictine monks of Brittany's Mont St Michel, whose island abbey was the model for this one. At low tide, the promontory can be approached via a cobbled causeway; at high tide there are boats." (Britain, The Rough Guide)

The observation parks along the sea were deserted in the off season and the island was swathed in driving rain, high tide obscuring the causeway. After a few snaps, I retreated to the car and looked for a closer view in town. Maybe the gate was not closed because it was the off season, or possibly most English drivers have more sense - but as I turned onto a cobbled narrow road that seemed to promise an excellent view, I was shocked to see through the driving rain that it disappeared down into the ocean a dozen meters away! Evidently it was the causeway to the island, now submerged under high tide. Nothing like a bit of drama to settle breakfast.

Land's End, St. Ives
Raw, ugly weather kept me inside the car for the most part as I explored the western tip of England. My Rough Guide bemoaned "the colossal theme park... violating irreparably the spirit of the place" Coming from the US, a land that specializes in irreparably violating the spirits of places, I was amused to find a tourist center with six laser show theatres and an intimate hotel. No ferris wheel, no five story roller coaster? It was less a violation than a bad date.  Violation or no, I was happy enough to throw down some hot coffee and a Cornish meat pie at the hotel restaurant while the gale beat the huge glass panes. The sun broke out briefly, allowing some exploration. The sixty-foot cliffs drop away to a churning ocean below, the Longships lighthouse warns of the rocky outcrops lying offshore. There are no trees, only turf and ankle deep bushes. Footpaths wind along the coastline, up and down in the undulating hills, attesting to the popularity of hiking in England. Several well wrapped old codgers tramped past me with their hickory walking sticks clacking in concert into the distance on the pebbled path.

  Tate Gallery - St. Ives

'As I was walking to St. Ives I met a man with seven wives. Each wife had seven sacks, each sack had seven cats, each cat had seven kits. Kits, cats, sacks, and wives - how many were going to St. Ives?' I knew the answer to the riddle but was curious about the town. In the early years of the century the former fishing village was beginning to attract a vibrant artists' colony, which culminated in the 60's. Hmmm, artists, the seven wives thing was starting to make sense. The artistic heritage of the town was solidified with the building of the beautiful Tate Gallery, overlooking the rolling waves and surfers of Porthemeor Beach. Specializing in modern art and some sculpture, I found the most appealing feature to be the gallery itself (and the coffee served from the top floor with the best view in the town). 

Low on time now, I headed toward home, steering onto the A30 a direct shot back northeast. Cornwall, the province at England's southwest tip, is renowned for the beauty of the countryside. Cooped up in the car, I reflected on the winding lanes I'd driven - stone houses, green, sheep filled meadows, narrow winding roads, occasional reversing, tight hairpin turns. My mind wound back to the odd cultural impression I'd had in Bath. What was it that nagged at me?   

Exmoor's desolate heath
Having made great time on the A30, I decided to veer off north and explore a bit of the northern coast, and possibly Exmoor. After being passed at speed a few times, I figure the locals would forgive one more rampaging blue Fiat. I downshifted and took off. Once off the main highways, the roads closely follow the contours of the land. But most challengingly, the stone walls guarding the pastures crowd either side so narrowly that occasionally even my tiny car couldn't squeeze past oncoming traffic. Road etiquette demands that you remember the last wide spot, and the driver closest reverses back to allow a pass.  In the gathering dusk the road was deserted, so I shifted into rally mode, fast clutching up grades, steering close to the skid point around corners. A 'friend' at Wharton had sent an email to LBS warning my fellow exchangers not to ride with me in a car - evidently his life had flashed before his eyes while driving with me in Philadelphia. Well I was in control the whole time, though to be honest I wouldn't ride with anyone driving like this - except probably my brother William who always beats me on the rally arcade games (very disconcerting). In the dark a  Road Closed loomed up suddenly. I wouldn't be able to get to Minehead after all, I would have to drive through Exmoor park.

"A high bare plateau sliced by wooded combes and splashing rivers, Exmoor can be one of the most forbidding landscapes in England, especially when the sea mist descends. When it's clear, though, the moorland of this national park reveals rich swathes of color and an amazing diversity of wildlife, from buzzards to the short and stocky Exmoor ponies, a species closely related to prehistoric horses. In the treeless heartland of the moor around Simonsbath, stands Exmoor Forest, scarcely populated except by roaming sheep and a few red deer. The word 'forest' denotes simply that it was a hunting reserve. In the middle of it stands the village of Simonsbath, home to the Knight family who bought the forest in 1818 and by introducing tenant farmers, building roads, and importing sheep, brought systematic agriculture to an area that had never before produced any income." (Britain, The Rough Guide) 

The Exmoor White Horse Inn - Exford

The forbidding emptiness of the area automatically slowed me, an accident out here would mean a cold night alone, no traffic in sight and no town lights anywhere. Turning left at the little hamlet of Simonsbath, I continued thoughtfully across the moor. A gentle sweep down into a hollow preceded a quick turn onto a stone bridge over the Exe river at Exford. To the left, a warmly lit inn. I'd had enough of traveling, the proprietor offered a discount (always ask) so I stayed in a beautiful room, well furnished by any standard, accommodation, dinner, and full English breakfast for 50. 

Huddled in the bar, scratching out this journal on my Palm Pilot, I glanced around, the place was chock a block with old couples. In the bathroom I saw the familiar prophylactic dispenser and had to chuckle, most of the options were for Anacin, Tylenol, or Asprin. These were sprightly folks though - some hikers, some drivers. The courtyard was a convention of 4x4s. This could be an great base to hike the moor. Calendars of the moor, "view a real hunt - by Land Rover" brochures, maps of the moor (only 2), the Inn did its best to capture all the available revenue - as an entrepreneur I approved. Nice work. Dinner was lovely, though my age really came into contrast by that point. Across the room a white haired gentleman was grilling the table opposite, "so how old do you think I am then? born in '24, what, what! served in the big one..." The ladies beside me leaned over, "quite silly really, we can't reserve the same table for our entire stay, don't you think?" 

The Home of Civilization?
And that's when the nagging thoughts coalesced into something coherent. Growing up in Africa, I attended school in Kenya, a former English colony. Most of my novels as a kid spoke of the English civility, staunch courage, Saville Row suits, proper manners and afternoon tea. Attending school in Texas, I felt as though I had not yet found civilization, Canada? a former colony wannabe. Travels around the world confirmed this subconscious impression, mimicking old colonial standards. Even the US, brash and bold - New York city at its center, though exciting, harbored a secret need to be bespoke, cultured. So now I was living in the center of London, and on this trip passing through the most English of the English countryside - Devon, Somerset, Cornwall. Which is why in Bath, and Penzance, and the countryside of Exmoor, the assumption of my youth that there was a better place where all was right, came up empty. Wait, this IS civilization. And so a tenet, crusty with age, crumbled in the countryside of Somerset - so there is no "best of all" after all, only bits of the best here and there, and best for different reasons. But that pretty much seems right after all - the world is not a place of absolutes, the best option is usually a mixture of common sense and compromise. I suppose its nice to be freed in a way, to have no easy best destination. But its a bit sad really - I did so like those English novels.

Wells Cathedral

   Wells Cathedral Academy

Wells and home
After a satisfyingly greasy English breakfast, I settled my tab at the White Horse and received a free color calendar of Exmoor (and I didn't even promise to put them on the website), free stuff? I really approve! Winding slowly down the coast, I didn't feel like heading back on the highway. Scanning my Rough Guide I came across the description of Wells... "a miniature cathedral city that has not significantly altered in eight hundred years. Technically the smallest city in England, Wells owes its status entirely to its cathedral, begun in 1180. The building presents a majestic spectacle, the broad lawn of the former graveyard providing the perfect foreground. The west front teems with some three hundred thirteenth-century figures of saints and kings, once brightly painted and gilded. The interior is a supreme example of early English Gothic, the long nave punctuated by a dramatic 'scissor arch', one of three that were constructed in 1338 to take the extra weight of the newly built tower."

I wandered around the cathedral, there is no way to present in a photograph the splendor of the church. Not only the central span, but the long extensions of houses, buildings, and park. Even the Bishop's Palace is impressive - "the place was walled and moated as a result of a rift with the borough in the fourteenth century, and the imposing gatehouse still displays the grooves of the portcullis and a chute for pouring oil and molten lead on would-be assailants."

On the north side of the church, the row of houses are mainly seventeenth and eighteenth century, and house the Wells Cathedral Academy - a prestigious school of music whose choir performs regularly in the cathedral. 

Southern view of cathedral  

After tea and a cucumber sandwich in a wee restaurant facing the cathedral square - I saddled up again for home.

The western country is indeed beautiful. The most vivid impressions are of the unending green - I can see why green lawns became a religion in the colonies - the sheep dotted pastures and sturdy stone walls evoke a sense of permanence. This country has been tended for centuries and there are few abandoned corners, everything has been tamed and carefully husbanded. Yet the land does not feel tamed. Ever present rain sweeping off an unpredictable ocean, and the strong connection to the sea that is only minutes away in almost every direction, shadows the neat landscape. I would love to come back for a week of hiking on a few of the myriad marked trails. To walk through the moor for the day and relax in a country inn like the White Horse at night - that would be a real treat!

Three hours of highway funneled back into London, and I dropped by the apartment at Covent Garden to drop off my luggage before returning the rental car. Thought about turning on the hazards since I was illegally parked - but figured I'd just run up quickly and be back on my way. In the two minutes it took to run up and down I was nailed by the ticket nazis again. Well even silver clouds must have dark linings.




Copyright January 1999-2011
All rights reserved - Jeff Willner
Contact: jeffwillner@yahoo.com