Tuesday, 17 April 2012
Crossing England.... Roman city abandoned, Marines train in Plymouth
England really is the most beautiful country. We had all the benefit of sunshine, sloe blossom, primroses, buzzards, baby lambs, empty roads, early bluebells and distant views to heal us after leaving the damned motorways and the spiritual insults of Fleet Services on the M3. Why do we not complain about these plastic hell-holes? The noise levels are nearly as bad as being in the car at 60 or 70mph - muzak, air-driers for your hands, gambling machines, the general acoustics, and the sound of cash registers on every side. Fleet actually has a tiny Waitrose shop, with FLOWERS for sale, which was the only natural thing to be seen in the place. I was grateful for a clean and relatively spacious toilet, but the rest made me want to turn and flee..... Out into the lanes, heading towards Ramsbury for lunch with an old BBC friend, but calling first to Silchester to see the Roman remains. This is an extraordinary place. If a Roman were to reincarnate here, he would be astonished. A thriving city of 40 hectares (roughly the size of Canterbury), which was the capital of the Atrebates, and was going full pelt for about 500 years, with Forum, baths, theatre etc. - well the whole thing has just completely vanished, apart from its banks and walls. Anyone who's interested in what Canterbury may have looked like before the Saxons rebuilt it (on completely different alignments, as we know), could come and look at this lost city. How are the might fallen...... Ramsbury is another feast for those interested in how our country works. A village which had a bell-foundry and a big parish church presumably built on wool, edging on some of the finest and richest estate lands in England, and once had 14? pubs, now has two. It also has two extremely wealthy inhabitants: Mr Hyams who built Centrepoint, and a Norwegian who owns H&M. One is a recluse, the other has helped to rescue the big pub (The Bell), from decline. We had our lunch in the Bell, and very good it was, stylishly done out and with friendly service. The pub is rather surprisingly owned by a clerical lady who lives in the cloister of Salisbury Cathedral. She has no need to sell it as it produces a fine annual rent of £40,000 so they say, and she has very little to do for that. However, the villagers are lucky that the Norwegian decided to repair it (I hope I have been told the right story here), because it is now the focus of the whole place. He also set up a brewery, and I am told Ramsbury Ale is excellent. Our friend owns a pretty cottage in one of the main streets. It is a b&b, and has a little millstream at the end of the garden, with crayfish in it. He would need a licence to fish them out. He has in his garden a nest of a goldcrest and of a green woodpecker. All very tranquil and he was very jolly and full of stories of our old acquaintances and friends. The sun shone. We had a lovely time. Then off again through the lanes, through Marlborough (last visited for the funeral party for my lovely uncle Laurie), over the Wiltshire downs. We missed Stonehenge but passed by those mysterious beckoning barrows at West Kennet, and the astonishing Silbury Hill. I used to drive past all that on a regular basis when I worked at BBC Bristol. The military sections of the downs heading south from Avebury are all marked with flag poles - red flags unmistakable, and rather quaint-looking in these days of drones and computer-targetted long-range missiles. We had a long way to go to get to Plymouth, but the A303 proved to be a totally delightful experience with hardly any traffic or hold-ups. We arrived at the hotel at about 7. This is the Quality Inn. Quality is one of those words, isn't it......? Can mean anything. To change to a room with a sea view is an extra £10 a night. Breakfast not included, an extra £11 each. Business like approach from all the staff, but a rather faded and tacky feel to everything. Bedroom carpet thoroughly worn out. Things feeling a bit sticky. This computer has to be paid for £1 for 10 mins, but an anti-virus pops up and eats your time and no-one cares or suggests a reimbursement. We walked out for supper - down along to the Barbican, and disdaining the swanky, found a Greek/Italian resto and had superb fresh crab and scallops. Then back up to walk round the Citadel, and back along the Promenade, where two young men were skate-boarding with a kite in the darkness. We walked under a line of cherry trees with fantastic massive pink blossoms - magic. They may all blow away in the night, with this great storm coming. We had wild winds in the night, the whole building and the windows and outside doors all howling their protest. We went out for breakfast in a cafe by the sea - Andrew had the full veggie works, I had 2 poached eggs and left the toast. But I bought some repro posters with maritime stories - wreck sales, tars needed, slaves for sale, news of Nelson's victories, etc. Then we explored the West Hoe, with its tiny little harbour which is about to be restored. We saw squads of marines out training - running, running, up and down these steep hills, some carrying might backpacks. Young men, gathered up into life in a 16th century fortress, the base for the 29 Commandos... Now we are going to get ourselves ready for Alyson's daughter Judith's wedding, over in Cornwall this afternoon. We will cross by the ferry. I am happy to tell you the cherry blossom mostly survived the storm. I will post pictures of it later.