Last night I arrived back in America, and as I usually do, I felt a little sad at leaving England behind. The feeling doesn’t last too long though, I soon switch into ‘America Mode’ and all is well again before my suitcase has made an appearance on the conveyor belt the Philadelphia end. But this time I am feeling it a little more.
Don’t get me wrong, living in America has many advantages over living in the UK, like the reliable weather, the cost of living and the unbelievable amount of closet space. But depending on my mood, I feel there are some things even more precious than closet space, cheap petrol and sunshine.
I had bought a coach ticket (‘coach’ as in a long distance bus) to travel from London down to the west Country. I haven’t travelled by coach in years, and was surprised at the comfort, cleanliness and the amazing low cost of the ticket compared to traveling by train across the UK, or renting a car. I was lucky enough to get the front four seats to myself on the top deck, which was to offer an amazing panoramic view of the journey ahead. As we pulled out of the bus depot and drove through the city, I half day-dreamed and watched the rush-hour commuters from my high vantage point, scurrying to catch their trains or busses home. Lost in thought, it didn’t take long before we were out of central London, zooming over the Hammersmith flyover and on the open motorway towards the west of England.
‘The West Country’, as we call it, i.e. Wiltshire, Somerset, Devon, Dorset, Cornwall etc are very ancient counties, as far as human history goes. And I don’t mean ancient as in 2,000 years, I mean ANCIENT as in 10,000-25,000+ years or more. There are countless mounds left behind of ancient settlements, gigantic white horses carved by Neolithic man into the chalk hills that are so beautiful, permanent and visible from miles away, and there is even an outline of a well endowed, naked chap holding a club, carved into the chalk escarpment on a hill as big as a football field. No one really knows who went to such measures to create it hundreds of centuries ago, or why, but it is, as is everything else in the landscape, a reminder of how old the country really is. There are stone, round circles galore in the ground, and large bumps in the fields that time has eroded all knowledge of, oddly shaped areas where trees do not grow, and evidence of settlements that can only be seen from the air. There are stone circles and monoliths in the oddest places, and then there are the high, man-made hills and knolls that only the sheep and fittest walkers bother to visit on a Sunday afternoon in order to walk off their lunches. All these marks on the landscape are thousands of years old, made long before men could write and record who they were. I love this area of England as it always reminds me how we are borrowing the earth for a little while before passing it on to the next generation.
Then of course, we can jump a few thousand years to almost the present day, comparatively speaking, with all the castles there are dotted around this peninsula-shaped area of England. Some castles are intact and some are in ruins, some with moats and some on hilltops. Some are so old and crumbled that we don’t really know their history. Some have legends around them, such as Tintagel, but most have factual, recorded histories.
There are the Roman villas and the Norman and Saxon towns or those Viking settlements that live on with their tell-tell names and historical buildings and churches. Not to mention the Medieval Cathedrals and 18th century houses and estates. All this is taken for granted when you live in England, no one really butts an eyelid or thinks about it much.
But as I sat up on the top deck of the coach, looking down on the wintery countryside, the sun had began to set on the A303, and I saw the wonderful sight that thousands of tourists come to see every year; Stonehenge, looming in the distance across a field to my right. But this was a different view, a complete panorama of the landscape, one that not many saw. It was very moving.
I was no stranger to Stonehenge, I had passed it dozens of times on my way west. I had stopped there with my family. But I had never seen it from a high vantage point such as this. I looked at it, majestic and strong and with the terracota sun setting, casting its last shadows over the grey, ancient stones, I wondered about the determined men who had brought the stones all the way from Wales. Who were these men? Would they ever have imagined that thousands of years in the future, under the same setting sun, on the same blades of grass, their descendants would be wondering about them and wishing they could have met them?
It made me quite sad that we would never know them, that they were gone, that we were them, yet we knew nothing of them.
I looked behind me on the bus, but none of the other passengers were really taking any notice of the scene. I felt alone. Was I the only person who felt like this? I thought of the families who had lived here thousands and thousands of years before us, generations and generations, one after the other, that finally got us to here, to this point, to me sitting on the top deck of the bus… but then, I am a bit of a dreamer.
I thought of their tireless efforts in bringing the massive stones to this spot, and hoped that we, the people of the future hadn’t let these people down. Although we have really lost the true meaning and significance of their massive, important henge, and although archaeologists probably have an idea about what it is all about, (it may even have been the base/foundations for a massive roofed building, which makes perfect sence to me, why would it not have a roof?) I wished the original ancient builders could have known that we were still caring for it, regardless how off the mark we might be about what it was for, and that we love it as much as they had.
Across nearby fields I could just make out distant mounds protruding from the surface of the land, and it was obvious there had been ancient settlements here from the same period. I needed to read up on this, I thought.
The sun set behind the horizon and I saluted those ancestors, and with a heavy heart, I thanked them for passing on their land, and their everlasting monument and their spirit to us.