Monday, October 3, 2011

Say Cheese - Wells of a Cathedral, and New Age Glastonbury

Monday - The Beeches - Churchill, England

Only time for a few quick thoughts this morning as we pack up our clean clothes and prepare to go back in time to the "New Age" mid 60s of tie-dyed shirts, magic, Arthur, the Grail, and spiritual awakenings. The major vortex at Avebury will have to wait til tomorrow as we don't want to overload our psychic senses all in one day. Before leaving the sanity of our wonderful lodging here in Churchill, I took a look out the window and spent a few minutes reflecting on the neat patio (with plenty of bird feeders) below us. It was easy to imagine sitting there on a beautiful spring morning with my honey, a cup of coffee and a good cigar, having a chat with Steve and Mandy. That is my kind of spiritual healing.

Sitting at the "Road to Cheddar" lay-by on Route 371 we overlooked the Somerset lowlands, a beautiful expanse of farmland, villages and in the bright morning sun, sparkling greenery. The Mendip hills stand out and their creation (when two tectonic plates collided) resulted in a number of outstanding topographical formations. The two most famous are Wookey Hole Caves and Cheddar Gorge, both of which are shamelessly promoted everywhere (except for roadside billboards which apparently, and thankfully, seemed to have been banned).

There was a stone monument in front of us with a plaque that read:

Somerset literally means set hard in summer. The flat levels before you would flood every winter before we stepped in with drainage channels and sea defences. The massive limestone ridge of the Mendips would then jut out into the sea providing a safe refuge for people and animals in the winter. Protected today for it's natural beauty the Mendip hills played a vital role in keeping people high and dry.

Two things struck us about this. We hadn't realized we were so close to the ocean, but a quick check of the map settled that point. The term high and dry is clever as normally it means "without help or hope of recovery," like when it started to snow in the Donner Pass that year. I like this connotation better.

As we contemplated the view, the hole and gorge faded from thought. Our travel down this beautiful road had one purpose: to eat cheddar in Cheddar. Like drinking champagne in the Champagne region, port in Oporto, or cognac in Cognac, some experiences should not be missed if you have the opportunity. (Musing now; wondering how many more of these connections there are and whether or not eating off china in China would apply. And is there a nice compact single word to describe this phenomena? Like scotoma, one of my favorites, that connotes the blind spot we have to things around us until some event makes you aware. For instance you see and fall in love with a unique painting then become aware that it is popular and appears everywhere you look - it's just been in your blind spot. Sorry I get carried away sometimes and head down these flights of linguistic fancy.)

Arriving at the Cheddar Gorge Cheese Factory early, and shortly after the fresh local milk had arrived, proved fortuitous. The staff was just setting up and with a wave and a smile we followed the signs toward the back to watch cheese be made. It was just the two of us outside a windowed wall that gave a great view into the surprisingly small one-room factory where all the magic took place. Beside the single table/vat the little old cheese-maker-man was just adding the culture and the rennet that would turn this common product into an extraordinary cheese. The fact that there was just one vat made it clear that not much cheese is produced each day, making us more anxious to taste the real thing. Our guy went about his work, smiling at us every now and then, clearly enjoying his work. On a wall mounted TV a 25 minute documentary played explaining the process from start to finish. It was very well done. We left the viewing area in great anticipation of getting to (rather than through) the obligatory gift shop you must pass through at the end of every tour in order to exit.

Back home cheddar is to cheese as vanilla is to ice cream, and we have eaten plenty of it. This was excellent and bore no resemblance to what we were used to. There were various flavored cheeses (think herb/peppercorn, not chocolate), various ages, and vintages. You could sample all you wanted, and of course buy chunks, at what we thought were pretty steep prices but probably were not given the artisan type quantity they produce. It does not travel well, must be kept refrigerated, and they will not ship to the US. So, for real, fresh cheddar this was the pilgrimage site. It was a great stop and we got in and out before the tour buses arrived. There were plenty of them angling their way into our parking lot, and in the rear view mirror we saw the silver tops flash in the sunlight as the buses disgorged their contents.

Our next stop was Wells. It's a nice small town with easy parking and a Disneyesque medieval town center. By the way, the reason they named Wells Wells is because there are three wells in the city of Wells and of course the plural of well is wells. Well, we didn't see any wells in Wells, however (all right I'll stop). What we did find was the magnificent Cathedral Church of St. Andrew known throughout the world as Wells Cathedral.

The front is breathtaking and it's difficult to take it all in at once. It stands proud in a beautiful park-like setting and I thought rather intimidating, with lots of sharp angles and a sufficiency of verticality. Once you enter the cathedral however you cannot help but be awed by the softened beauty of the architecture within. The interior support is provided by unique scissor arches, shown in the picture below (It is customary to make a 10 pound "donation" upon entering, which we were glad to do, however neglected to pay the 3 pound photography permit fee. This picture must have accidentally been taken as I was holstering my camera). After marveling, we meandered through the chapter house (built circa 1300, and still in good shape), scooted through the gift shop and emerged back into the glorious Somerset day. It was a nice stop but not sure we would do it again.

Driving along I prepared myself for our next way-point, the interesting little town of Glastonbury. It has quite a storied past; it started out as an Iron Age village, has associations with both King Arthur and the Holy Grail, has a famous Abbey, and now has somehow become a New Age "cultural" center. Determined to go with the flow we were on the lookout for any good vibrations (and for me the sweet smell of cannabis wafting on the wind - not that I would partake but love the aroma). There was an aroma all right, but not pot as we made our way past the cows and sheep that graze on the prominent Tor hill. More on that later but we started at what was left of the Abbey Church.

In 1191, monks at the abbey claimed to have found the graves of Arthur and Guinevere to the south of the Lady Chapel. (Ed. Note: If you believe the history the remains were later moved and were lost during the Reformation. Many scholars suspect that this discovery was a pious forgery to substantiate the antiquity of Glastonbury's foundation, and increase its renown. Today Glastonbury Abbey presents itself as "traditionally the oldest above-ground Christian church in the world," which according to the legend was built at Joseph's behest to house the Holy Grail, 65 or so years after the death of Jesus) We parked at the ruins of what must have been a beautiful abbey, a shame that old Henry VIII couldn't take the pope's rejection of his divorce petition with a little more grace. We thought it a touch excessive when he had the last Abbot (Richard Whiting) (Whyting)) hanged, then drawn and quartered as a traitor on Glastonbury Tor in 1539. The tower might be more interesting than we first thought.

Glastonbury is a weird place, and worth a visit. The high street has storefront after storefront housing mystic healers, tarot card readers, New Age medicine doctors, etc. There are cool little alleyways with creative decoration which are fun to explore.
Mixed along with the mayhem is the occasional historic building with suits of armor clad dummies standing at attention. The architecture delights and if not for the other side of the street with the faith healers and crystal balls, you could imagine you were back in medieval England. The average person walking the street (which we were quite obviously not) looked like a Woodstock refugee, decked out in tie-dyed clothing, barefooted, pierced, tattooed and hippily dressed.

We decided a nice climb up the Tor would be more our style.

The site is run by the National Trust and their only requests were that we not litter, not start a fire, and try not to damage any trees. Easy-peasy. Built upon a natural land formation that juts from the earth (not as imposing as Le Puy, but certainly out of place among the flat farmland), the tower rises 561 feet above street level, higher than the Washington Monument in the District.
Our calves were burning by the time we hit the base of it, and we were a little thankful that we couldn't climb it, because if we could have we probably would have. The hill is terraced and cows and sheep run, graze, and defecate freely, providing an earthy scent as we gained altitude. It didn't start life as a tower at all; it's what's left of the Church of St Michael built on the site in the 14th century. Whatever, it's pretty cool and the views are wonderful.

The descent was easy, though no less aromatic. We skipped the Chalice Well at the bottom figuring it was a trap to relieve us of any loose money. The same with the shops along the high street. We had had our fill, gotten some good exercise, and were soon motoring our way toward our stop for the night, Southwick (pronounced Suthick we think as many times the w is silent like our k in knight), a few miles from Bradford-on-Avon.

Our B&B for the night was the very nice, very modern Forge House, (check out their classy web site for some great pictures) owned and operated by two of the nicest people we have met on our trip; Lance and Sharon. The home is tastefully decorated, the artwork and sculpture evocative, and the shower the best we had encountered. (Note the picture on the wall behind L & S. Sharon had mentioned that she was the decorator, and when I commented on that particular piece of artwork she blithely said "Oh that's me", followed with a little smile and a quick "I picked that one out.". It tickled us and I imagine she has used that line a number of times). After freshening up, we descended to the kitchen where our hosts were having tea with the other newly arrived guests (Graham and Jen we latter learned), so being the Americans we are, rather than join (we were invited), we asked for directions and recommendations for dinner.
It was a pleasant drive to Bradford-on-Avon, and were disappointed to find that since it was a Monday night the recommended restaurants were closed. The town itself was worth the ride, though. It is littered with building that you think may fall in upon themselves at any moment. Would love to have gotten a look a the interior of the Bridge Tea Room & Restaurant.
We settled (and I'm not using that word as a pejorative) for the Dandy Lion on Market Street. We ate in the Pub downstairs and the food was excellent (we even had pudding), with a great atmosphere. We wondered why we had not taken Sharon up on the invitation to join the tea group. Isn't that what travel is all about?

Returning to the Forge, we let ourselves in and settled into the comfy bed for the night. It had been a great day. Our last full day of sightseeing was only hours away and if things went as planned we would spend part of it encircled by one of only 11 known major vortices in the world. Stonehenge's baby sister/brother - Avebury. Maybe we could get our spirits back in alignment post Glastonbury.

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