Friday, June 12, 2009

Astral (?) legacies

The Milford Hall Hotel is such a pleasant place to be in the morning - the bed is so comfortable that we wake after sleeping like the proverbial babes. Breakfast in their Steakhouse Restaurant overlooks the gardens filled with pale pink (and perfumed) roses with irises and blue pansies - just lovely. We need something a little hearty for breakfast as we are not sure when (if) we will get lunch. After our now customary muesli, Michael settles for scrambled eggs with sausage and mushroom while I have my eggs poached. The waitress initially delivers bacon instead of sausages - but that is an absolute no-no (it gives me the runs - not good if we are planning a walk) so we have to insist that it was sausages we ordered! No problem - cheerfully and apologetically rectified.

This morning is a little overcast, but not unpleasant and in fact is probably preferable to a stinking hot day. For this morning, we are (finally) off to explore Stonehenge. Passing fields of bright red poppies, it only takes us about a quarter of an hour to drive out through the little town of Amesbury and as we feared, as we drive down the hill to the turnoff we can see lots and lots and lots of people at the monument. Stonehenge sits on a triangular piece of land bounded by two very busy roads and, at all times, there is traffic streaming past.

The car park is on the opposite side of the road to the henge and once you have paid your entry fee and collected an audio guide, you walk through an underpass tunnel so that you walk up a ramp and come face to face with the - people! Seriously, as you walk up the last turn on the ramp, the standing stones rise up from the ground bit by tantalising bit. And yes, there are hundreds in pilgrimage around the stones with us.

You cannot get up close and personal to these stones, but rather are kept at a distance of 12 to 50 metres by a low, roped barrier. As you walk around the henge you are guided by the audio guide. This is a very clever way to keep the flow of people moving around the stones - as there are bus-loads constantly arriving. It doesn't matter what language you speak, the stones have a dialogue for everyone. There are school groups, and tour groups, families, couples and singles - all sharing a well-trod path in the grass, learning as they go.

But it is the sight of these stones, standing silent, vigil to history through the millenia that have control. Control of the landscape. Control of the people. Control of our journey. In themselves they tell a story - one of amazing achievement at a time when man supposedly roamed the earth with clubs and crude societal skills. What hogwash! These people had highly developed analytical skills, project management skills and understood their environment far better that we have given them credit. In fact, it begs the comment that these skills lost, have taken mankind a hell of a long time to re-learn!

At end point on the path around the henge sees total strangers talking with each other, asking others to take a photo or two (hundred) of them with the Stones behind them in the photo. As well as the main commentary, there are lots of opportunities to get further information through the audio guide. And it appears that most people do listen to all the information, given the length of time they are holding the guides to their ears!

It takes us about an hour and a half to walk the 500 metres around the henge during which time we take about 185 photos from all angles - using both our cameras. Anyone want a blow by blow guide to Stonehenge?!! It would not matter if I uploaded all the photos we took, they just don't do Stonehenge justice.

Finally we have had our fill and wander, quite dazed back to the cafe near the car park for a drink. Michael then walks out to some of the barrows - the long burial chambers that are in the landscape around Stonehenge. We have seen a number of these in other locations - some long, some round, some horseshoe shaped. But the area immediately around Stonehenge has a concentration far denser than anywhere else in England, Europe or even the world. There are hundreds, big and small, in the surrounding paddocks.

By this point it is after 1 pm and we next head over to Middle Wallop (don't you just love the town names!) to the Museum of Army Flying.

It's the long hot summer of 1940 at Middle Wallop, where pilots of No. 609 Squadron are lounging in deck chairs or lying in the shade from the wings of their Spifires. Suddenly - the shouts of "SCRAMBLE"; "Don't just stand there..get one up!"; "Message from Dispersal: 'Intercept Angels in Red Sector at two-five!' "

However, today there are no signs of those harrowing moments when Britain was against the ropes. Middle Wallop is now host to the Air Army Corps and 2nd Regiment School of Army Aviation. The guttural sounds of Merlin engines bursting into life have been replaced by the thumping of helicopter rotors; and those ghosts of the past have been commemorated in the Museum of Army Aviation.

Where the Fleet Air Arm Museum is rambling, this museum is small by comparison but just as compelling. It chronicles Army aviation history from the early days of balloons, the Great War through to present day. Yes, and I wet my pants several times as well! It's such a great resource, the exhibits are not just restricted to aircraft alone; for there are uniforms and life size dioramas. When I walked into the reception area and payed my entry fee, hanging over the entry door into the museum was a propeller from an Royal Aicraft Factory powered Re8 - (this represented the first of my many dribbles....)

World War 1 section has life size dioramas, which includes: armourers at work; ground crew prepping a Sopwith Pup (YES, an original aeroplane); a tribute to the Royal Flying Corps/Royal Air Force Aces - Albert Ball, Edward "Mick" Mannock, Billy Bishop, Arthur Rhyse-Davids, James McCudden...just to name a couple. Around the corner is a Victoria Cross chapel dedicated to those very young (at that time) recipients.

World War 2 section concentrates on the family during these dark years, whereas the military is represented through those unsung heroes the Reconnaissance, Training and the Glider Regiments. Seeing a Miles Magister and Beaver aeroplanes, along with a variety of gliders including the Horsa Mk1. Korea through to present day, there is a smorgasbord of helicopters, from a 1941 Rotochute through to an Apache Attack Ship. (By this time I'm crossing my legs!)

On the way to the museum, we pass the sign to the Danebury Hill Fort. So once Michael had had his fill, and I had completed another 40 odd pages of Sarum, we left the museum to go have a look at the fort. This one is an earthen bank fort as opposed to a built structure and although it is hard to get an idea of the size from the photos, Michael says that walking around the perimeter wall he surely got a sense of the size and the aerial view in Earth Google sure shows how large it is!

If you would like to know what it is like to live with an amateur historian, with an insatiable appetite - ask Maria! Hill forts, standing stones, henge's and stone circles - if you've seen one, then you haven't seen all of them. Each and every site is different and can only encourage questions that knock on many doors but open only a few. The Danbery Hill Fort is just mind blowing as to the circumference of the perimeter wall mound, and attempting to visualise the fort's arrangement in the 'mind's-eye'. Just as confounding, is the surrounding ditch from which rose the wall mound. The fascination with hillforts is the sheer logistics in establishing such a structure - was it just one clan or several who built them and was the system of rule empirical or oligarchic?

Walking up to this hillfort was a Herculean effort, as the gradient was very steep. The defensive advantages was most apparent when I arrived at the peak - a 360 view all around. Due to a copse at the centre of the fort's interior, it was difficult discern the diameter of the wall mound? So, as with Old Sarum, I walked the perimeter of the wall mound, which took me ten minutes to complete. Archaeologists from Oxford University conducted excavations between 1969-88, estimated the total area of the fort to be approximately 5 hectares.

And then we are off to Southampton for 4 nights. We are staying in the penthouse apartment of the former railway building, The South Western Hotel, right down on the waterfront. This building is something else - with a hue vaulted entrance hall complete with original painted ceilings, gilt edge mirrors and the rest. The bedrooms in our apartment look out over the water through porthole windows (5 floors up!) and we have 6 rooms at our disposal (so we can hide from each other if need be :-D ).
Michael cooks tonight - a stir fry with lots of veges - mmmmm. No dessert - one course is fine after weeks of restaurant food!

Oh, back to the hotel just for a moment. The hotel was built in 1868 as the Imperial Hotel but re-named the South Western in 1870. Built with the centre of an open design which allowed guests easy access when arriving or departing at the Terminus Station which was located behind the hotel. The station has long gone, however the original awning is still attached to the hotel and the railway line is still in use.

Were you aware of the connection between Southampton and the RMS Titanic? After leaving Belfast, where Titanic was built, the liner sailed into Southampton to take on her maiden voyage passengers. This hotel also has ties to the liner mainly through two of her passengers: J Bruce Ismay, the Chairman of the White Star Line [which owned RMS Titanic], and Thomas Andrews the Titanic's designer stayed in this hotel when the liner was in port. After the decline in transatlantic ocean passenger services the hotel closed and later converted into the offices of the Cunard Shipping Line in 1962! Cunard had merged with the White Star Line in 1932.

No comments: