Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Day Eight: Dartmoor

Friday, August 8, 2008

Widecombe In The Moor
The Church Of Saint Pancras, Widecombe In The Moor

We plan to leave Salisbury at 8:30 a.m. and proceed immediately to Stonehenge, located just outside the town of Salisbury.

My brother and I have visited Stonehenge twice, and my parents visited Stonehenge on one occasion many years ago. We are making a return visit so that Josh and Josh’s sister may see the great stone circles for themselves.

Stonehenge is one of the world’s great travel disappointments. The stones themselves are not a particularly impressive sight when viewed in person, and the manner in which visitors must view this ancient monument is a disgrace.

A two-lane blacktop highway separates the giant parking lot from the stone circles. Visitors must cross the blacktop highway by dodging traffic flowing in both directions—there are no traffic stoplights, and no pedestrian crossings painted onto the blacktop—and then make their way through mud paths to the circles. It is not a pleasing experience.

Visitors have the option of purchasing tickets that enable them to approach the circles fairly closely (but not too closely, as the circles are fenced off from the public—with an American prairie snow fence, of all things) or simply walking along a barbwire livestock fence that parallels the two-lane blacktop, separating the road from the adjacent fields. This latter option allows visitors to observe the circles from a slightly more distant perspective than the paying customers.

Stonehenge is generally mobbed with tourists, and it is always fun to see the profound looks of disappointment on the faces of visitors. Most typical is a look of incredulous disbelief evidencing “We traveled all this way to see THIS?” on visitors’ faces. Most tourists spend a few minutes looking at the stone circles, re-cross the road, get in their cars, and drive away.

The first time my brother and I visited Stonehenge, in 2002, we witnessed an incident in the Stonehenge parking lot involving a double-deck bus full of German university students. Whatever touring schedule the German students were obliged to observe required that they spend one hour at Stonehenge. The students became incensed—they wanted to leave Stonehenge as soon as they saw a glimpse of the stone circles across the road. About half of the German students did not even bother to get off the bus.

A group of the students got into a very public argument first with their guide and then with their bus driver, both of which were also German. The guide and bus driver refused to leave the parking lot ahead of schedule, and the students became very upset, heaping abuse upon the guide and driver, dumping trash in the parking lot and relieving themselves against the bus.

Finally, about half of the students left to visit the concession stand in the Stonehenge parking lot, while the other half remained in the bus. None of the students bothered to cross the road to get a closer look at the stone circles.

In a short while, the students who had departed for the concession stand returned, bearing sausages laden with mustard. They boarded the bus and glumly sat, eating their sausages and mustard—and drinking beer. It was 9:00 in the morning.

Since Stonehenge is so close to Salisbury, it makes no sense for Josh and his sister NOT to visit Stonehenge while we are so close by. It is imperative for everyone to see Stonehenge at least once, even if deep disappointment is inevitable.

After spending whatever time Josh and his sister want to spend with the stone circles, we will head toward our evening’s destination, Plymouth, routing ourselves through Dartmoor.

Dartmoor is the giant moorland that occupies much of Devon. Over half of Dartmoor is covered with peat; the rest of the land is farmed or tended, or is a combination of bare hills and rock that has its own special beauty.

Dartmoor is very sparsely populated—only 33,000 persons reside in this giant swath of moorland—and it is a warren of narrow roads, hills, streams, bogs, farms and villages. On a dark, cloudy, rainy day, Dartmoor is very mysterious and evokes moods right out of “The Hound Of The Baskervilles”. On a sunny day, Dartmoor does not look much different than parts of Northern Minnesota, only with peat on the ground instead of grassland.

We have planned what we believe to be an interesting path through the giant moorland, and it should make for an interesting day’s drive.

Halfway through the moor, we will stop at Widecombe In The Moor, a small village near the center of Dartmoor, and walk around the village and have lunch.

Widecombe In The Moor is one of the more popular villages in Dartmoor for visitors, but I cannot say why, precisely. It is a convenient stop if one is driving through Dartmoor, but the village itself has only one interesting feature: an ancient church, The Church Of Saint Pancras, erected in the 14th Century in the English Perpendicular style.

The church is very large for such a small village because, as the only church for miles and miles around, it serves a very large parish. It has a large, tree-laden churchyard, and its exterior is very beautiful, although the interior is not very notable.

The Church Of Saint Pancras was the site of the earliest recorded instance of ball lightning.

In 1638, during Sunday afternoon worship service at which 300 persons were present, an eight-foot-wide bolt of ball lightning entered the church through a window, made its way around the full church interior and exited through the roof. There is confusion on the question how long the incident of ball lightning lasted. Some persons insisted it lasted a full minute, others insisted it lasted a full two minutes. However long it lasted, it must have seemed like an eternity. Four persons were killed by the lightning and another 60 were injured. A dog died, too, first thrown into the air and then thrown several feet out the church’s main door. The path of destruction was random, and inexplicable. Some victims had their clothes burned off but were otherwise unharmed. Other victims suffered severe burns to their flesh but their clothing remained untouched and unscorched. In the months following the event, all persons in the church that day were asked to write an account of what had happened or asked to dictate their personal observations to local clergy and schoolteachers, who duly recorded their tales. It is from these old eyewitness accounts that scientists of today have concluded that the phenomenon of ball lightning is the only possible explanation for what occurred that day at The Church Of Saint Pancras.

Once we have spent whatever time we want to devote to Widecombe In The Moor, we will continue our drive to Plymouth.

We should arrive in the late afternoon. We will check into our hotel first thing and relax.

Our Plymouth hotel has a swimming pool, and my brother and Josh and I will probably take advantage of that luxury. Our Plymouth hotel is the only hotel during our trip that has a pool.

Later, we’ll find a place to have dinner.

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