Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness

In September 2008, I had built up quite a bit of unrewarded overtime and managed to convince my boss to let me take a day off without taking it out of my annual leave. Andrew had some extra holiday time too, so we took a long weekend trip to Dorset, Somerset and Wiltshire.

Andrew picked up a rental car in Enfield on Saturday morning and we loaded up our camping gear and travel CDs and hit the road. We've only rented a car in the UK a couple times because they have weird rules about not renting to Americans who have lived here more than a year without getting British driver's licenses. We must have been just over the limit even then, but no one seemed to notice, and we thrilled to the freedom of the open road. We drove halfway around the M25, which seemed to take forever, but then we got onto smaller roads through charming villages and picturesque farms. This time we paid a little extra to get an automatic, so there was much less driving-related stress than on our previous car-renting experience, and we had a great time just riding along, singing and talking and relaxing.

We made it down to the Dorset coast, near Bridport, in time for a late lunch at the campsite. There was a little cafe in the farmhouse, and they served up delicious soups, sandwiches, scones and tea in the garden. After we ate and set up our tent, we walked down through the sheep pastures to catch the footpath leading to the water. There weren't too many people around because it was too cold to swim, so we had the beach pretty much to ourselves. That section of the Dorset coastline is called the Jurassic Coast for all the fossils that have been discovered there. We didn't see any fossils, but we did see lots of different kinds of rock and soil layered in the cliffs. There wasn't much of a beach, but there were huge boulders leading out into the water that were fun to climb on. After the beach, we walked back up the hill to the campsite, past dozens more sheep and one very big, very friendly horse. We were just too late to get afternoon tea, so we got back in the car and drove to the next town down the coast, Lyme Regis, to do some more exploring.

I knew of Lyme Regis from a Jane Austen novel (Persuasion, I think). It was a popular beach resort in the 19th century, especially among people who wanted to "take the water" for their health. Walking around the town, it was easy to imagine the leisured classes of Jane Austen's time strolling along the promenade and through the gardens. Everything was beautiful and elegant and timeless. We gave up on tea and explored the town, then found a restaurant on the promenade for a seafood supper. Then it was back to the tent to discover that it was quite a bit colder than we thought it would be. Do we never learn?

We had a pleasant night, however, and got an early start in the morning. We drove through some of the nearby villages on roads that were barely wide enough for one car, much less two, but we never ran into any real trouble. In the late morning we found an apple orchard that was closed for the U-Pick season but let us pick a few bags because we asked nicely. In the next town, we stopped to get a snack and Andrew bought a winning lottery ticket for 50 pounds! By the early afternoon we had left Dorset, passed through Somerset and arrived at our destination for the night: Stourhead.

I had really wanted to go to Stourhead when we were on our big camping trip, but it was impossible to get to on public transport so we had to skip it. It looked beautiful in all the photos, it was stunning in Pride and Prejudice, and I had built it up in my mind as a perfect place. It did not disappoint. We drove onto the estate, down a lane lined with ancient trees and went to the 300-year-old inn on the property to check in. We had a beautiful room with tall windows and a big, comfy bed. After we got settled, we walked out into the property and up to the manor house. Once you've seen a few stately homes, they all start to blend together a bit, but I remember Stourhead having a particularly nice library. More interesting than the house were the gardens, which we explored at a leisurely pace, knowing that we could go wander the grounds even after they were closed to the public because we were staying at the inn.

The early autumn scenery was beautiful, and we saw the sun set over the lake, casting an ethereal golden glow over everything. We walked around the lake, stopping to look into the temples, grottoes and groves that were dotted all around. We took about a million photos, too, some of which you can see here: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=100836&id=509253462&l=8fee0d6b43.Even more impressive than the beauty, though, was the feeling of bliss that washed over me as I contemplated the beauty all around.

After our tour of the gardens, we went back to the inn for a delicious dinner and a wonderful night's sleep. Nothing gets you ready for a good night's sleep in a bed than a cold night's sleep in a tent! The next morning, after breakfast, we took a last, leisurely stroll around the lake before the gardens opened to the public. Then we got back on the road and drove to Lacock, a tiny historical village that looks like it hasn't changed in hundreds of years. A lot of movies have been filmed there, and it really did feel like stepping back in time, but not in as cheesy a way as you might think. It was lovely. Lacock is also home to a medieval cloistered abbey-turned manor house and a museum dedicated to William Fox Talbot, who used to live in the house and who was an early photography pioneer. They had a really good exhibit explaining the history of photography and how the chemical processes work. They also had a great exhibit of photographs to illustrate a special edition of Alice in Wonderland by a woman from Gainesville.

After tea and scones in Lacock, we drove back toward London, stopping for lunch and a quick walkaround in Eton. It looked a lot like Oxford, and many of the schoolboys we saw walking around in their ties and tails will end up in Oxford in a few years. It's a pretty town in its own right, too, with the swan-dotted Thames flowing through the middle. It provided a perfect ending to our relaxing weekend.

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