Nov 11, 2005

Day 4 : Rain in Salisbury plain

Late – I grumbled to myself. According to my rough estimates we should have reached our first destination by now. And here we were just reaching the Hertz parking lot to start our road trip. “M’am,” SR tipped an imaginary hat and opened the door for me, like an expert chauffeur. I got into the front seat and flipped open my map smiling at all the lines. AS and SS got into the back, SS seemed a little grumpy, perhaps because we had skipped the dungeon in London. “We could have gone there this morning,” I could hear the mumble.

“Left, Right on Buckingham road towards Marble arch and follow Edgware road,” I called out the instructions as we eased into the traffic towards Salisbury. We followed the road for a good part of an hour past Harrods, more shops, yet another museum, a house where Hitchcock lived and then finally joined the motorway. Initially, I had been pretty excited about a board that said so-and-so stayed in this house. I think I took pictures! But after finding so many such boards, I had turned blase. Brits have clearly excelled the art of promoting tourism.

SR got himself comfortable and in a few minutes we were speeding along past Heathrow. I noted the speedometer gaining steadily, glanced outside and remarked worriedly, “I dont see any speed limit board.” “Neither can I,” he agreed cheerfully. I made a mental note to find the speed limits. Despite that, and despite a quick lunch (CC’s delicious Parathas) we arrived in Salisbury later in the afternoon, after a nice drive with grassy hills providing the scenery.

It was cloudy and there wasnt much light, and I didnt have the town map of Salisbury. It was a town full of narrow roads, most of it one way and with my expert direction, we soon found ourselves circling the town going nowhere near the cathedral. The Cathedral spire continued to play hide and seek with me. There werent any parking lots. It began to dawn on me perhaps the good folks of Salisbury didnt like other people driving into their town.

Finally we got near the Cathedral, got to a narrow lane for parking, which was luckily near the entrance and stopped. ‘I wonder how much more harder this would be in summer,’ SR remarked, sneezing.

One look at the cathedral and I knew it was worth the trouble. There are two paintings by Constable of this cathedral I had seen earlier in the gallery. Now, I saw the same spire about 800 years old rising majestically, right in front of me. I stood there quietly admiring the largest Cathedral close in Britain for a few minutes and wandered slowly in.

A volunteer handed me a brochure with interesting information about dimensions [height of spire 404 feet] , material with which various parts were made [jurassic limestone, purbeck marble, oak from Henry VIII], the style [Early english and english gothic], how long it took to build [within four decades] etc. I wandered towards the oldest working clock, headed along the nave admiring the stained glass windows towards the quire. The carvings in the wood were beautiful. I am used to some of the best stone carvings in the world – South India has an abundance of them, but except for a very few palaces in Kerala, I havent seen many wooden carvings. I could see the arches towering above in a style similar to that of the chapel I had seen in London, but much more spectacular here.

Above all this was still a place of worship. AS lit a candle and sang softly kneeling on the bench, SS followed. Rain drizzled outside, candle flames danced a bit. After staring at the blue glass window for a bit, I moved on to the chapter house to admire what was left of the frieze.

Later I stared at the best preserved copy of the Magna Carta – “To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.” I was looking at the Latin version ofcourse and didnt understand a word of what I was seeing, but nevertheless it felt momentous.

I remembered going to the temple in my town one rainy day a few years ago. The temple towers rose against the laden clouds, rain drops fell on the stone; it was dark. But somehow it suited a place of worship. I stood in the dark confines of the cloisters and watched the rain drum gently on the relatively brighter grassy area in the center. Medieval monks would have walked on days similar to this along the same corridors. Yes, that weather suited the history, majesty and magnificence of the Cathedral.

It was nearing four now and sunset was imminent. I didnt have any map for this part of the journey, so I did the next best thing. I approached a stranger and asked him a blanket question – “Excuse me sir, how do I get to Stonehenge?”

“Hm.. lets see,” He scratched his chin and started giving me the directions. He paused, “You do know that it would be closed now?” “Yes ofcourse,” I answered brightly. No I didnt know. I got back into the car. How was I supposed to know they closed it at four? How was I supposed to know they can even close Stonehenge? I stared at all the maps and the failing light outside, calculated how long it will take us to reach and said in a miserable voice – “Lets head to Bath”

“Do you know the way?” AS asked. She wasnt being sarcastic, she was genuinely worried. We headed out trying to figure out the way when SS first complained of a smell.

“What smell?” SR queried and sneezed again. AS agreed there was a smell. Sort of a burnt smell. Like someone was burning their pot roast, or like the tire was burning. The street went a bit uphill. SR changed gears and started to drive up. The smell became oppressive. “Stop, stop. It smells of something burning inside the car,” I shouted in a panicky voice. “I dont smell anything!” SR responded. “Your nose is clogged. Just stop the car!” I was getting a bit hysterical.

SR stopped it reluctantly and we all scrambled out. I stood there not knowing what I expected. I expected smoke or sparks to come out. Nothing stirred, it was cold, SR looked under the hood and declared nothing was wrong. AS’s lips started chattering. After a few tension filled minutes we looked at each other and decided to proceed.

We got into a single lane highway towards Bath. Cars came in the opposite direction their glare blinding us. Sun set. SR fidgeted with the radio and settled in some FM station. I sat there staring ahead counting miles. AS and SS debated whether the burning smell was there or not. It wasnt as oppressive as before though I could tell for sure it was lingering. I expected something really dire about to happen. How foolish of me to have embarked on this trip in this kind of weather , in a hilly region, in an unknown country.

We reached Bath after what seemed like hours.

“I have a map for the city of Bath,” I pronounced triumphantly.

“Okay where do we go?” SR asked.

“Er.. I dont have a list of hotels,” I mumbled. AS, the back seat Nostradamus started predicting dire things. “Its dark. We arent going to find a hotel. Even if we found one, there wont be any vacancy.” SS had dozed off without a care in the world. The implied trust in my navigating skills touched me deeply.

We cruised along, again no place we could easily park. The good folks of Bath also were not car friendly. Shops were closed, there werent anyone walking on the streets. I accosted a stranger and asked him the way for a good hotel. “What do you mean a good hotel?” he asked not unreasonably. With sudden brilliance, I asked him to direct me to a travellodge. Got back, drove around some more, based on my understanding of his direction, couldn't find any travellodge.

SR stopped the car, walked a bit, came back and said he had found the Jane Austen center. I bit back an angry retort. We drove around again. While I was staring ahead, SR suddenly stopped the car, backed it a bit and turned into what seemed like a hotel. I got down to go and inquire. Yes there was a vacancy. The receptionist quoted a prize. I gasped. He took another look at me and said he will give it for a better prize and quoted something slightly less.

We decided to stay the night there. The time unbelievably was just 7:00 PM. Had chinese take out for dinner. It was a beautiful hotel, probably converted from an old mansion with narrow steps and long corridors. The room was well furnished and decorated. I was too tired. I lay down on my bed, worrying about how to make up the lost time, about the smell from the car and about the lack of maps.

November 11, 2005