Well we survived our five trains and made it successfully to Winchester, a small town south-west of London. I can categorically pronounce that taking luggage on the London underground is for the birds.
Looking out the windows of the train after we crossed the channel I didn’t immediately notice a huge aesthetic difference between the UK and France: both look very old, quaint and basically European. The weather was about the same dreary, or more. But they are quite different as I started to notice when I got off the train.
It was no surprise to me to learn that the term “nanny state” originated in Britain. This is a place obsessed with warning people about any possible hazard no matter how minor. Warning signs abound on every surface. Stepping off the train in London I was greeted by signs warning me that arranged marriages are a form of coercion and a number to call if I know of anybody in slavery. At one tiny train station there was a sign that said “Caution – Fragile Roof.” I wasn’t planning to climb the roof but good to know anyway. In my hotel room there was a caution placard mounted in the shower to warn me about the dangers of walking on wet surfaces. In the restroom of a museum I visited there was a sign asking us to be careful not to scald ourselves with hot water (if only the water in the hotel was hot enough to scald, it never got beyond tepid). And at the end of some BBC television shows is a number to call if you’ve “been affected by any of the issues raised in tonight’s program.”
At all the tourist sites I visited there were placards and signs affixed to every surface to let me know what brand of stout shoes would be recommended if I felt fit enough to take the exactly 19 steps on such and such a staircase. And not just warning signs, it seemed almost every tree, stone and puddle in town had some explanatory pedestal nearby to describe the historical significance of whatever I might have otherwise walked by uninformed about.
In France I saw countless statues, buildings and other major monuments with nary a sign to let me know what I was looking at or what world-changing events had transpired on the ground where I stood. I had to take two trips to Rouen before I found the sign that marked the spot where Joan of Arc was burned, hidden in some bushes. For whatever reason the French don’t seem very much into showing off.
Back in Britain, even though WWII wasn’t actually fought here the event is commemorated at every corner, with numerous war memorials and red poppies at every turn, and half the tents at the Saturday market selling framed prints of the Spitfire airplane.
Anyway these were my first impressions. I came to Winchester in order to meet the owner of a company for whom I have done some consulting work, but also because it has one of the UK’s major cathedrals, along with another in nearby Salisbury. I got a hotel right across the street from the cathedral with a great view from my window and it was the first place I visited.
I’d lost count of how many cathedrals and churches I waltzed into in France and I sort of had the idea it would be a similar experience here. But no, the first thing I was greeted with through the door was a large counter and cash register. Admission will be nine pounds fifty please! (That’s roughly $12 US) I was happy to pay but clearly at that rate this is not a place you are going to wander into randomly multiple times a day just to look around or sit in silence.
The interior of the church is brightly lit with modern lights, there is a museum-like exhibit to one side to highlight the 800 year old Winchester Bible and other artifacts from around the area, with an elevator to see the upper floor and the place is even heated! (to an extent.) The architecture is quite different from the French Gothic – on the outside the church is basically box-shaped with almost no buttressing. Missing inside are the countless small chapels around the aisles and behind the choir as there are in the French designs, but there are halls and stairways leading all over to various things including a library.
The walls are covered every few feet with signs and memorials to every cause and luminary conceivable. The uneven floor is treated with a similar hodge-podge of marble burial slabs listing every person who apparently ever died in Winchester for the last one thousand years.
The engravings often go on at great length about various details of the person’s life and if you tried to read them all you would be in that place for a very, very long time. Nevertheless, it was a beautiful church that more than makes up for the plain external appearance with intricate interior decorations.
I wondered if maybe Winchester was an unusual cathedral and others would allow free entry, but when I took the train to Salisbury and visited the cathedral there I found they also charge admission. In fact a sign at the door says it costs £14,000 per day to maintain that cathedral – that’s over $18,000 dollars! Like Winchester, Salisbury was also heated and of course who only knows what it costs to heat a cathedral in winter. Inside there was not only a ticket office, but also a gift shop and large restaurant! They say they get no financial support from either the government or the Church of England, so expenses are covered presumably in large part by visitors, though I’m sure I didn’t see enough people on this day to raise fourteen thousand pounds.
As at Winchester, the “English Gothic” style here is very boxy with almost no buttressing, and consequently smaller windows in the walls. Of course the maximum height of the vaults is necessarily going to be lower as well. The interior at Salisbury is however particularly exquisite due to the contrasting stone they used for the pillars. One thing I will say that I prefer about the British cathedrals over the French (from the grand total of two that I have now seen), are the large green areas around the building in an area called the “cathedral close.” It is only appropriate to put apples of silver in settings of gold, and it also lets you stand back and get a good view of the building.
Salisbury has regularly scheduled tours which I signed up for and I definitely got my money’s worth. It is a full two hours long and not only do you get to visit the upper level of the nave on the inside (something I wished they had let us do at Amiens), you also get to go above the nave in the roof area, and after that, to the outdoor balcony near the top of the crossing spire. Of course the roof and spire were not heated and after two hours crawling around in gale force winds up there everyone in our group had turned into an icicle.
On another day during my week in Winchester I took the train to the small village of Wool and from there walked a few miles into the countryside to the Bovington Tank Museum. Thankfully this was the one day of the week it did not rain.
I’ve been interested in armored vehicles for years and passed many a happy evening building small model tanks in my old life in America. This museum has a great YouTube channel that I have followed for years. They have probably the best collection of historical tanks in the world, particularly from the first two world wars, many which they have restored to running condition, and some of which are the only known examples still in existence. It is a place I had wanted to visit for many years, but with all the experiences of the past few months it came to pass that I was not particularly in a tank state of mind. This was my one opportunity so I was happy to take it, but I don’t know if I appreciated the experience in the way I imagined a long time ago. Some things might be better enjoyed when life around you is stable, rather than in the middle of a long sojourn away from home.
Anyway, I had a good week in Winchester and might even have relaxed on one day or two. It is a small village, quiet and peaceful with very British-looking countryside all around. I never figured out exactly what people eat there, since the “grocery stores” were smaller than the average QuikTrip gas station in the US. So far I have been eating Pringles, pre-packaged Tesco sandwiches and Mr Kipling Bakewell Slices for dessert. This is quite the change from fresh baguettes with 246 varieties of cheese and I’m not sure it’s an improvement for my health.
Alas the wandering has not yet ended, Winchester was just a temporary stop. Next we are headed to Edinburgh where I hope I can settle down for a little longer while I wait for my EU visa to reset.