Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Breaking it Gently to My Inner Druid

I read a rather hilarious article in the New Yorker a couple weeks ago regarding Stonehenge.  There's a paywall, but here's the intro if you are interested.  Anyway, she talks about how various spiritual groups who call themselves Druids have adapted Stonehenge as their own, and there's really no basis for this as Druidism as we know it is a Victorian-era invention.  Seriously!  The idea that the Druids created Stonehenge has been debunked a thousand times over, but this is the temple of their choice anyway.

What is this place?  A bronze age calender of sorts, a gathering spot, a grave yard.  This area of the Salisbury Plains is filled with ancient henges and circles and burial mounds, and evidence of great feasts in the area remain.  None of these are more iconic and recognizable and hold the mystique as Stonehenge.  It is somewhat magic, no matter what you choose to believe in.

They've changed the site around a few times recently- they have tried to keep this area free of development, despite having a highway going right past it.  A brand-new visitor center and a car park is about a mile from the site, with a countryside walk or a bus ride in store for those who want to see the henge.  Saying that, to actually get here from London takes a bit of work.  It's easiest by car as the nearest train station is about five miles off.  The only other way to get here is, sigh, joining a tour.

I'm sad to say that this is what I ended up doing- I hate tours, and I am loathe to join one, but in this case it was the cheapest and easiest option.  It also gets you expedited admission into the site (which can be quite a long line) and a really useful audio guide.  Still, it was a tour, and we were only allowed an hour and a half at the site, and I could have done another hour or two easily, and the flexibility to be here early or late in the day for better lighting would have been nice.

I did take roughly seven million pictures: the sky was brilliantly blue that morning, and I couldn't help myself.  I wish to come back in late afternoon to capture more shadows, and I think bringing a drone to fly around and get a nice view would be a brilliant idea.

Anyway, it was a lovely spring day.  Seeing Stonehenge was amazing, and I'm glad I did it.

Set outside the circle is the Heelstone, a great chunk of rock that the sun rises directly over during the solstices.  The arrow on the ground next to it points to the "avenue", a depression in the earth which was used as the pathway to access the monument by the ancients.


Unless you are here for an Equinox or a Solstice, you are confined to a pathway well outside of the circle.  Damage to the stones is the biggest concern- graffiti and people walking and climbing them has done a bit of damage over the years.   A few of the stones have fallen, some have been reinforced with concrete at the bases, and a few more have been righted.  Preservation at sites like these can be tricky.

The path swings you around wide, so you get good views of the surrounding countryside and chalky hills and mounds around the monument.

It's quite funny- the highway that runs by gives motorist a nice view of the site, so everyone is rubbernecking it and creating a 20-minute traffic jam as they drive by.

 You can also see a shallow bank and ditch circling the stones- this is the "henge", the original monument that was built thousands of years before the stones were erected here.  This site had been sacred for eons.

That's the heelstone way over to the right:

As you walked along the path, you got to see it a bit closer, and the inner circle of smaller stones appear.  Despite not being able to get kissing-close the the site, it was impressive regardless.  The stones, even from afar, are enormous, and the engineering required to place the stones on top of the standing stones must have taken immense energy.  The stones themselves were brought in from a quarry at least 25 miles away.

The general flatness of the Salisbury Plain contributed to this most impressive  collection of rocks.

The brilliant yellow in the nearby fields is rapeseed, the seed they make canola oil out of.  It is really in bloom right now, illuminating the landscape with brilliant mustard colors as more and more of it gets planted to feed the bio-fuel industry.

Colonies of rooks were on the prowl looking for easy meals.

I also spotted a kestrel, hunting mice in the field next to the monument.

You can walk back the mile to the car park via a chalky path through the sheep fields, across more burial mounds.  The visitors center is brand new and quite modern, with a recreated bronze age villa out front and artifacts and skeletons that have been found in the pits around Stonehenge.  Regrettably, I didn't really get a chance to see much of it as the tight schedule the tourmaster had given us.  He was serious about it too:  ten minutes after our scheduled departure time, he gave to order to leave despite the headcount was seven people less than what we started with.  I guess some people were really taken in by it all.  

I'm trying to figure out a good time to go back, as there are three other henges and sites close by that are much less visited and controlled, and free to see- Avebury, Woodhenge and Durrington Walls.  All slightly less than iconic, but if you are nerdily happy to visit circles and stones and posts into the ground left by the ancients, this area is pretty much your zen place.  

Monday, 28 April 2014

FO: Barley Hat

The weather has been warmer and sunnier and wetter than I could think possible in one place in one day, but I've been out, walking and exploring and traveling and eating and drinking, and generally having adventures of the amazing variety.

On one such adventure, I met a rather intrepid couple from New York.  She, heavily pregnant.  Here's the thing: on their paternity leave, they decided to move to London and have their baby there, just for something to do for four months.  Seriously!  They were so calm and cool and collected about the whole thing.  They flew over before she got "too big to fly", found a sublet near Portobello Road, found a local doctor, spent a month waddling around and exploring London before having a really uneventful happening in which a healthy baby boy appeared.

Here's a hat I made for them:


It's a quick little knit called the Barley Hat from Tin Can Knits.  It's a free pattern, well-written, and sized from infant to adult, and totally unisex.  I love classic patterns like this which will show off some special yarn and look fab on anyone.


The yarn is Rowan Denim, a cotton DK that I had leftover from a crochet trim that I have yet to show you.  It worked perfectly; I didn't know if they were having a girl or a boy so denim was perfectly unisex color anyway.  It's machine washable, fairly soft, and really durable.


Like my total cynicism in thinking that every baby item I made for friends in Paris, I'm pretty sure that this hat will be yanked off by tiny angry fingers and whimsically tossed off the Tower Bridge.

PS, I hate the new Flickr so hard.

Friday, 25 April 2014

Kew Gardens

I couldn't believe what a over-hyped dump The Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew were.  It was a sad smudge of earth in the middle of London where happiness went to die.  Why don't you just go to a landfill and paw through the garbage and make the baby jesus cry in the process, and then go stand in line at the DMV for the rest of your life.  

Kidding, kidding.  It's a fantastic place to see.  

It's impressively sprawling, with gorgeous Victorian greenhouses dotting the parks.  I walked all day and barely saw half of it.  Brits take their gardens seriously, and to put a UNESCO stamp on this place isn't unwarranted.   

It's also one of those places that you could be entertained there year-round.  Although it was stunning in springtime, there is enough indoors that you could cheer yourself in the middle of January.  While I have been to plenty of gardens before, I don't think I have seen one quite so ambitious with so many varieties of plants.  As an amateur but passionate vegetable gardener, I can't even fathom the care that would go into so many landscapes and micro-climates.  I mean, it doesn't get as cold here as it does on the East Coast of the US, but it also doesn't get as hot, and it's quite damp.     

Being springtime, it was a bit crowded around the main gates and in some of the houses, but it's so big that it was easy to find a quiet corner: a pathway of rhododendrons, a Japanese garden and Minka house, ponds and groves and mature copse of beautiful old trees.

It wasn't exactly warm or sunny the day I visited, so it was nice to duck into the various greenhouses.  Rooms filled with delicate Orchids, palms and cactus were a nice break from the slightly dreary day.   

There was a skywalk around some tall old trees where you could get a good vantage point on some escaped parakeets.

Like New York and San Francisco, there is a booming population of tropical birds here.  It's hard to miss them as when they gather, their squawks are about as subtle and charming as a gathering of bagpipe players, but they are quite pretty. 

Another subtle resident:

In true Victorian style, they had peacocks roaming the gardens.  They seemed quite happy to shake out their plumage and win the title of the most absurd creatures.

Happily, the skies didn't open until I was contemplating an exit anyway.  They did have one of the most amazing and inspirational gift shops I've ever encountered.  If you are into gardening, it would be hard to escape unscathed.  

Thursday, 24 April 2014


No matter where you are, springtime always makes your environs positively intoxicating.

Are you sick of flowers yet?  Too bad.  Everywhere you look, a painterly landscape.

The parks here are gorgeously manicured and planted.  There's just so much in bloom, everywhere.  It's really energizing to be out, even if the skies are less than sunny.

I love the robins here.  They are tiny birds compared to the American robin, and they sing loudly and quite cheerfully, with little flashes of orange as they hop from one branch to the next.