Monday, 10 June 2013



Where the demons dwell.  And the banshees live.  And they do live well.*

Yes, last week I went to Stonehenge.  I know the Solstice celebrations aren't till the 21st but I like to be early.  Beat the traffic and all that.

Inevitably, I took a bazillion photos. Well, of course. It's a spectacular place, even more so on a glorious early morning in June.  We were fortunate to have been invited to go along as part of a small group by the English Heritage team with whom (posh grammar eh?) Mr WithaY has been working recently. So at 0730, bright and breezy, we rocked up in the car park and met the rest of the group.

It immediately became apparent that we had dressed over-optimistically for the trip, as a stiff wind was blowing, but being British we gritted our teeth and ignored it.  Take that, weather.

There are some semi-tame rooks living in the monument, some of which were interested enough to come and watch us.

This one is called Gerontius and is trained to peck out your eyes if you fail to return your audio tour.

We were given strict instruction not to touch the stones because the acids in our skin would damage the lichen, apparently.  Perhaps they had a bad experience with a visiting group of Geiger aliens.  We were also warned not to climb on the stones, deface them, lick them or try to push them over, or they'd set the rooks on us.

I've always thought Stonehenge was a tad unimpressive, to be honest. I know it's a world heritage site and all that jazz, but when viewed at 50mph from the A303, it seems underwhelming.  Even when I've paid to get in, and walked around the outside with the audio tour (which I was careful to return, for fear of Gerontius) it's felt a bit, well, commercial and dull.  Plus you're always surrounded by massive crowds of tourists, probably all feeling as disappointed as yourself.

Last week, though, it was very different.  The stones are HUGE.  Really, really big.  And when you stand next to them, you appreciate how incredibly hard it must have been to move them from where they were found, organise them into the correct alignment, and then stand them up.  And then, incredibly, somehow hoist the equally-massive lintels onto the tops of them.

The guide, bless him, tried to explain all about Stonehenge, but was hampered by the fact that he did not have answers to the burning questions we all wanted to ask, viz:

1)  What's it for?

2)  How was it built?

He gamely explained various theories, backed up by the archaeological evidence, but basically had to reply to many of our questions with a smiling "We're not sure..."

Here's one of the rooks, keeping a wary eye on the group:

We were there a few hours too late for sunrise, but it was still lovely to see the long shadows crossing the centre of the circle.

That's a view of the Heelstone between the central pillars, thankfully without any traffic passing by on the road behind it to ruin the atmosphere.

This is one of my favourite pictures which gives a sense of the circular-ness** of the monument from the inside.

And this is the view off to the north west, across Salisbury Plain.  Usually there would be a thick crowd of people in an unbroken line around the path, so it's gorgeous to just see the stones and the big sky.

When the new visitors centre is opened, it will be a very different experience, and I am looking forward to seeing the changes.

Mr WithaY and I amused ourselves as we walked around by quietly exchanging comments in the "Neolithic Accent" as seen on Armstrong and Miller's TV show.

One careers option I was made aware of that day, and never offered at school, is "Astro-archaeologist."  I demand to know why not.  Is it because it sounds like a load of made-up bollocks?  Or just that the people who write horoscopes AND have a keen interest in digging holes want to keep it secret from the rest of us?

The truth will out.

In other news, the catering business is making slow but steady growth, and I am selling more of my home-made chutneys to people.  Mr WithaY has been carving some beautiful wooden bowls recently, and I am trying to persuade him to sell them online.

We've been making the most of the last week of fabulous weather to get stuff done outside and have  replaced the roof of the shed, planted more fruit bushes, cleared a huge (and I mean HUGE) amount of assorted shite out of the garden, and planted a lot of mixed wildflower seeds.  I have high hopes that in a few weeks we will have more flowers.

This of course, is a celestial cue for torrential rain until September.

*I still adore Spinal Tap.

**Yes, it's a word.  Shut up.

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

No Vikings Today

Yesterday was all about Doing Different Things.

Mr WithaY and I were in town early in the morning - dropping my car off for its MoT, which it passed without a hitch - and then went for a cup of coffee and a bun in a nice little cafe.  The cafe has adopted the quaint European "pavement culture" approach, which means that there are several tiny metal tables on the pavement, mere feet away from the traffic which rumbles through on the main road almost constantly.

As we walked to the door, as we had sensibly decided to sit INSIDE with the buns, and not OUTSIDE with the traffic, something in the road caught my eye.  Coffees and buns bought, we settled down at our table and I leaned over to see what it was that I had spotted. An elderly man sat at one of the tiny metal tables, reading a newspaper, blocking my view of the road.

I stepped outside, walked briskly to the point where I had spotted the anomaly and took a photo.  The elderly man watched me from over the top of his newspaper.

Readers, this is what I photographed:

Is it a piece of raw veal?  Is it a large boiled sweet?  Is it a dog toy?  Why no, gentle reader.  It's the end of a big rubber cock.


Coffee and buns devoured, we walked through the town enjoying the sunshine.  Passing the tourist information office, I spotted a notice for the local history society's forthcoming programme of events.  There was a lecture on The Viking Invasion of Wessex listed.

"Ooh, that sounds like it might be interesting," I said.

"Mmm.  When is it?" asked Mr WithaY.

"Tonight!  Shall we go?"

"Yeah, why not?"

So it was a date.  Half past seven at the public library.  We drove home in high spirits, debating whether it would be inappropriate or not to go to the the lecture dressed as Vikings, carrying huge horns of mead and driving looted oxen before us*.

At seven that night we headed back into town, parked in the main car park and went and sat outside the front of the library, where all the doors were locked and there was no sign of anyone from the history society.  Time ticked on, and we were joined by a charming Australian man and a young chap who arrived in a taxi, both eager to hear about the Viking Invasion of Wessex.  Neither of them had dressed up, I was pleased to see.

After twenty minutes of waiting, the taxi driver said "I'll just go and see if the back doors are open."

Off he trotted, returning in a moment to let us know that "There's about 40 people in the back room all being talked to."

Well, arse.  We hurriedly made our way to the top secret BACK doors of the library, 10 minutes after the start of the lecture, and sheepishly sidled into the room.  Inside was a varied collection of local history enthusiasts sitting on little hard chairs facing an old man standing at the front of the room.  He smiled and paused in his talk to let us latecomers find somewhere to sit, which we did as unobtrusively as possible.

The chap taking the admission fees - £3 a head for non-members - bustled along the row of seats and handed Mr WithaY and I a photocopied piece of coloured paper each.

I looked at my paper in puzzlement.  There were two maps, side by side, one dated 1782, the other 1970, showing the same streets in town, with various buildings marked in red.

Were these locations where they had found Viking hoards?  Or perhaps the graves of notable Wessex Viking chieftains?  Or even just houses the Vikings had burned down?  Even with my somewhat rusty grasp of history, the Eighteenth Century seemed a bit late for Norse invaders.

I tried to imagine the scene - a Regency dandy strutting down the pavement, eyeglass in one hand, silver-topped cane in the other, hat at a jaunty angle, shining boots twinkling, only to be felled by a single mighty broadsword thrust from a shaggy bellowing Viking.


My wandering attention was yanked back to the old man at the front.  He had a small laptop, the screen facing the audience, and he was apologising for the fact that the overhead projector had failed to work properly, meaning that an entire roomful of people was trying to look at an image about the same size as a packet of cornflakes.  As if that wasn't bad enough, there were two or three bull-necked** chaps in the audience who interjected their own hilarious comments as the old chap spoke.

He kept forgetting names and street details, having to be prompted by the audience, and stammering in his nervousness.  I wasn't sure if the nerves were due to the failed projector, the interruptions from his cronies in the audience, or the fact that at least two of the people facing him were open-mouthed in horrified disbelief at his subject matter.

Instead of The Viking Invasion of Wessex, we were being treated to The History of Old Warminster, without visual aids, and with a Greek chorus of wise-cracking Wiltshire elderly men.

I started to feel a huge bubble of laughter rising inside, and had to bite my lip to stop myself from exploding aloud. Mr WithaY was sitting rigid in his chair, the photocopied map clutched in steely fingers, his jaw set in a manner which clearly stated "I am trapped, and must remain here until the end. I shall Do My Duty."

In desperation I stared fixedly at the pictures on the walls of the library, and then an image rose unbidden in my mind of Mr WithaY and I arriving in full Viking garb, hallooing and roaring through the doors, only to be stopped in our tracks by a convoluted, halting, timorous description of Eighteenth Century Warminster malthouse placement.

I had to bite my hand.

At the end of the lecture, the chap who had taken the entrance fee tried to persuade us to join for the rest of the season.  We said we'd think about it.

*We decided it might be.

**I could only see the backs of their heads