September 2014

A Night on Whipsnade Heath

Ancient Stones, Chalk White Horses and Robed Choristers in the Dark of Night  

Whipsnade Heath is south of the Dunstable Downs, in Bedfordshire.  (Oh, of course, you say; I know just where you are.)  Strange things seem to happen at Whipsnade Heath, but we’ll get to that later on.

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All was calm and serene when we crossed into England from Scotland, landing in the area around Durham for our first night “in-country.”  The weather was a bit better than that we’d been experiencing further north, and we enjoyed the change.  County Durham is a lovely area, and we were really glad to see that the local heather was just as pretty as what we’d left behind in Scotland.

Our plan was to make our way south through England, heading for the south coast, from whence we’d take the ferry back to Brittany and resume our wanderings in northern France.  It mostly worked out quite well.  We had pretty good weather most of the time, we drove through areas that we enjoy, and we managed to see some folks we wanted to hook up with (or… up with whom we wished to hook, if you’re heavily into proper sentence structure).

Along the way we spent an enjoyable night in the parking lot of a pub near Nottingham; it was a good spot for crossing paths with a fellow traveler who was passing through on his way to Scotland.  We’d been corresponding for some time, and it was amazing to be able to be in the same place on the same day.  We all had lots of fun catching up on our travels and enjoying a good pub meal. 

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The parking lot came equipped with a good supply of ripe blackberries for the picking.  Unfortunately, along with the berries I managed to rub against something (probably a pesticide on the bushes) that gave me a really nasty rash for a few days.  It popped up so very quickly that I’d not had a chance to eat any of my newly acquired treasures, and I immediately threw them away.  All in all, a low point, as I had been eyeing slowly ripening berries all summer.  We did enjoy a great visit with our friend, however, so all was not lost.

We’d planned to see cousins Des and Sue somewhere around Peterborough, in the east, rather than return to their home in the west, but other forces intervened.  A minor but important repair needed doing on the Tiger, but our battery-operated drill (brought over from the States several years ago) had given up the ghost and no replacement battery was available on this side of the Pond.  

Des announced that he had all sorts of goodies available, and would be happy to share.  So we detoured, landed, visited, made repairs, exchanged hugs and promises to see them next year (in Ireland, perhaps) and took off down the road.

As you may remember, we wanted to go back to London for a few more days of sightseeing.  Heading that way, we stopped in Cheltenham one night to fit in a quick visit with a young couple we’d met earlier in the summer.  They were just moving into a new home, so we shared some pizza and wine and talked about their future plan to head out for the Americas once they got their truck built.  Such energy!

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But onward and downward.  We wandered a bit through the Cotswolds and Oxford area, mostly keeping to the open countryside.  We’ve spent a lot of time criss-crossing this lovely area over the years so it is very familiar to us.  This time through, the growing season seems to be about done, with most of the harvesting completed – lots of cleared fields and straw stubble.  But we really appreciated being out of the industrial cities north of us, and enjoyed the more relaxed feel of the area.  We kept getting email from other travelers who were near but not within our sights.  We had plans to meet up with two sets of them a little bit later on, but for now we all were busy enjoying the good weather and great local abbeys and cathedrals.

And then we were attacked by two maintenance workers at the local Lidl store.  Not really, of course.  They were fascinated by the truck, and chatted with us for quite some time.  One was from Poland, and delighted to see familiar stickers on the back window and to learn we had visited his country.  He spoke enough English to share his appreciation.  The other fellow, probably a bit older, had spent several years in the States.  They both loved the truck, kicked tires with Rick for awhile, and then, reluctantly, let us get on our way.  Lots of fun.

And then we wandered on to Whipsnade Heath.  We stopped for the night in a small parking area near a big hillside, with a path leading up to the heath.  As it started to get dark, and the moon rose, the lot started to fill with cars.  Not thinking much about it, we finished dinner and went on into the evening.  Suddenly we looked outside and noticed that the men and women getting out were putting on white robes before heading uphill. All told, probably twenty or more of them. Hmmmm, we said!  About 9:00 the singing started – chanting, actually.  This kept up until about midnight, then the music stopped, and shortly afterwards they all came down the hill, chatted merrily among themselves for a bit, got into their cars, and drove away.  Now what do you make of that?  Druids?  Witches?  Weekly choral practice?  Too early for an equinox event although they could have been rehearsing for one.  We were clueless but entranced… actually not an uncommon situation for us.

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Getting close to London, we took a hard look at what we had in mind (a day at the Imperial War Museum and a follow up visit in the Victoria and Albert Museum), and decided that it just wasn’t going to happen.  We had time and means to make it work.  But… not the will.  London is very hard work.  We decided to kiss off trekking all the way in, and figured we’d make do with a drive inside the beltway as far as the RAF museum in Hendon. 

The RAF museum was well worth the effort.  We had a lot of fun poking around the airplanes, checking out the Battle of Britain hanger, and enjoying all the usual pleasures of a good aircraft museum.  We saw lots of Spitfires and Hurricanes along with their German counterparts; Messerschmitts, Heinkels, Junkers, etc.  If you’d like to see pictures from this particular adventure, go on over to our Motor-Museums site to enjoy them.

We were able to get to the museum relatively easily, and left by mid-afternoon, quickly escaping from inside the M25 beltway.  The traffic was quite heavy, but not unmanageable.  We felt pretty good about our accomplishment.

Our plan now was to spend what remained of our time in Britain in seeing the part of England to the southwest of London.  We knew it would have some negotiating problems built in, due to the narrow roads hemmed in by stone walls (or the unforgiving hedgerows – they’re just as bad), as well as the tiny parking lots squeezed in around the supermarkets, many with entry barriers to keep us out, and don’t forget the sheer mass of people living in this part of England.

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Well!  We had a really good time anyhow.  The roads often were a real pain, but Rick is pretty darn good at estimating how to get past those nasty walls and tree trunks.  We can report now that we have finally mastered the art of getting in and out of a superstore parking lot, and – best of all – some of those barriers seem to have come down.  So the obstacles turned out to be minor.

We wandered around Hampshire, Bedfordshire, Oxfordshire, Wiltshire, Dorset and Devon.  My, what lovely countryside!  We were surprised (and delighted) to find so much open ground.  The towns are all there, of course, but they seem to be neat and tidy, with clearly established edges and little sprawl.  Once you’ve left each town or village, you’re really out there in the green space again. 

The weather was pretty darn good, clear and warm and a bit hazy from the agricultural field-clearing going on.  We got to see everything on my list, along with enjoying many an area next to hiking trails, commons, woods and ponds – all with more dog walkers and horse riders and hikers and cyclists than you could keep track of.  Several times we were parked next to either the Ridgeway Trail or the South West Coast Trail, both of which run along the tops of the downs and between them link up significant areas of interest and beauty.  We met and chatted with some nice folks and have received some nice emails from locals who spotted us and took note of our website info.

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I had an agenda, of course, places I’d wanted to visit for quite a few years.  First was White Horse Hill, a prehistoric chalk drawing on an open hillside featuring the very large partial image of a…. white horse (duh!).  Not far from Oxford, it’s a very popular spot; the day we were there lots of folks were about (it was the weekend), including hikers passing through and some people who were parasailing.  Maddeningly, you cannot see the horse from the site itself; it’s on a hillside and only viewable from a considerable distance.  I was told my only option was to buy a postcard.  But we did see it from afar, and the view from on top of the hill was its own reward.

There are other white horses on hillsides in this neck of the woods.  We tracked down two of them, and I was able to do a bit better in my “up close and personal” approach.  But horses on semi-vertical hillsides can prove elusive.  No one is really sure what the oldest one, the prehistoric horse, was all about.  It was made simply by clearing the brush and grass from the ground and scraping down a bit to the white chalk that makes up all these hills; it isn’t only in Dover that chalk forms the substrate in southern England.  The other horses on nearby hillsides are made in the same way but are much newer versions.  For instance, the one I checked out on Hackpen Hill, near Broad Hinton in the Swindon area, was installed to commemorate Queen Victoria’s coronation in 1837.

We were really enjoying Wiltshire County, an area we’d not seen at all before.  We made a detour to get over to Lacock, which has an interesting photo museum, honoring Fox Talbot, one of the founders of photography back in the 1830s, as well as an abbey with a lovely cloister.  Interestingly, the whole town is operated by the National Trust.

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From there, we went to visit stones.  Actually, that’s Stones, with a capital “S” for “significant stones.”  Stonehenge was nearby, but I’ll get to that in a minute.  First, I wanted to visit Avebury.  Now Avebury doesn’t get all the hype and press of its more southerly neighbor, so I wasn’t sure what to expect.  But it was royally cool.  Avebury is a tiny village, but that’s not why you’re there.  The area is full of stones in a couple of configurations: first a series of concentric stone circles that run right through the town; and then, just as interesting, a long double row of stones forming an avenue leading off into the distance.  I trekked around, communing and taking pictures and having a great time.  Later on, Rick joined me for a bit of a wander and to take in museums talking about the finds.  It was super-duper.  This is a really worthwhile place to visit.

And then there’s Stonehenge, a bit further south; to us this is the Disney World of Neolithic Monuments with all that implies.  We knew even before arriving that it was tremendously expensive (oh, and you now have to pre-book your tickets for a specific time before your visit), very fancy, and just not our style.  We knew the stones would be visible from nearby roads, and hoped to be able to sort of creep close; but you no longer can drive anywhere close.  There’s no chance to get a glimpse and feel the aura; those roads have been closed off.  So we decided the best we could do was a slow drive-by.  Well, “slow” ain’t possible, folks, ‘cause you flash right past on the motorway.  Rick did his best, but we went by at 50 mph.  And I did my best to shoot pictures through the window.  In the end, I wasn’t all that displeased; I’ve got a helluva good camera, and was able to get some decent shots.  You’ll have to go to the Photo Page to see the results.  They do show Stonehenge in all its glory – sort of.  The only good type of drive by shooting.

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After all that excitement, we had to retire for a couple of days before chugging on.   When we resumed, we meandered further south, toward Bournemouth.  We’d spotted a couple of “goodies” to go see.  We started by spending a night parked up near the Badbury Rings, a series of Iron Age concentric circles in the middle of a forested area.  They were very evocative, 3 sets of rings with ditches between.  Cool.

The Rings are part of the huge estate known as Kingston Lacy, owned by the Bankes family.  They lived in the manor house here for over 300 years; it was built when they were kicked out of Corfe Castle in 1646, during the English Civil War.  The castle was put to ruin during that war; we stopped by to take a look at the remains a few days later -- it’s over near Kingston, by the coast. 

The castle, manor house, and Rings are all run by the National Trust, with which we are affiliated, so we had access to all of them at no cost; this was a real treat.  We spent a very nice morning exploring Kingston Lacy.  This is one killer house, I can tell you that.  We really enjoyed it.  It has been wonderfully restored and it makes a great wander.

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That afternoon we visited the small city of Wimborne Minster, which has a really nice church.  It is most famous for its Chained Library, one of England’s oldest public libraries, which we missed because it was closed.  Ah, well.  We treated ourselves to lunch out, a rarity, before puttering around in the town and church for a couple of hours.  I’d never heard of this city, and there weren’t a lot of folks around, which added to our enjoyment.

Somewhere along in here we spent a bit of time with some Australian email friends we’d first met in Bulgaria, who were getting ready to put their vehicle into storage and fly home for the next several months.  We had a great time swapping stories and considering where to go “next season.”  They are nice people and it was good to meet up.

It was getting to be time to move on, to head toward Plymouth and our ferry to Brittany.  We had several days available, and wanted to see some of the southern coastline.  We started with a drive-by of the aforementioned Corfe Castle, and then headed for the beach. Well, that didn’t last very long.  The weather was nice, it was the weekend again, and all of southern England was out and about.  We tried to head down to one spot, Lulworth, which is supposed to be the home of a nifty rock formation out in the water.  The place was a zoo!  Pismo Beach in high season.  We decided that further inland was a better idea.  Perhaps some cold February Tuesday we’ll try again.

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We poked along, heading for Devon.  Why?  American friends were visiting relatives in the charming village of Dittisham, near Dartmouth.  We dropped by for a night, and enjoyed a reunion with fellow Tiger owners.  Dittisham is absolutely charming, with a really cool church that dates back to the 12th century; it’s a great spot for a nice walk.  The family home we visited was lovely and warm and welcoming; what a great place to live – of course we had to travel down one of the famous Devon country roads to get there: steep, narrow, defined by the hedges on either side, and on the day we arrived filled with happy folks walking back from the ending of the Totnes to Dittisham Swim.  Fraught.  But we survived to tell the tale, as we always do.

Saying adios to our friends the next day, we plunged on toward Plymouth.  We still were determined to try and see the coastline a bit, so we headed due south out of Dartmouth, where the road goes right along the shore.  We stopped at the beach in Slapton.  Bet this is one town you’ve not heard of.  Slapton is where they did their practice run for the D-Day landing in Normandy.  It was a terrible disaster, as German e-boats found out and wreaked havoc among the troop ships.  There is a monument to those who perished, as well as a tank that was recently raised from the ocean bed and placed in a prominent spot.  

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The historic aspects aside, we enjoyed walking on the beach in the hazy sun.  It’s a pretty spot, and worth a visit.  We looked on it as a lead-in to our visit to Normandy in a week or so. 

Moving on to Plymouth, we revisited the really, really good fish and chips spot where we’d had lunch with Des last June shortly after arriving in England (Harbourside Fish & Chips on the main drag by the harbor).  It seemed a fitting end to our time here. Late in the evening we caught the overnight ferry to Brittany.  It was September 16; we had just over four weeks before we would fly home for the winter.

During our 3-plus months here in Britain we spent more time than usual visiting and less time exploring.  We enjoyed it all, but now we are ready to get back to France and see some new territory, as we wrap up our fifth season in Europe. (Can you believe it?  Five Years?)  All’s well with us and we hope with you as well.

Rick and Kathy



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