29 June 2009

dispatches from the british road

The Wild Wild West. It always impresses me how the most fun and memorable travel experiences seem to pop out of the less glamorous aspects of a trip. After spending our Sunday at an eccentric environmental boondoggle known as the the Eden Project and then on a gorgeous hike along the coastline, we headed toward the hostel Stella had booked for the night. They had a firm check-in deadline of 9 pm, but we had plenty of time. I drove, Stella navigated. As the roads narrowed and other cars grew fewer and farther between, Stella's instructions became equally sparse. After a very long spell on the same winding road without a word from my copilot, I asked for an update on our progress, and Stella informed me that she was no longer sure we were going the right way. I pulled over and looked at the GoogleMaps printout with the directions to our hostel, and any doubts about Stella's navigational abilities quickly went away. I gazed in disbelief: almost a full page of instructions with no route numbers or street names at all, just turns and distances. The map portion was equally unhelpful: our route meandered through a cobweb of unnamed back roads. Only the occasional intersection was labeled with what I could only assume were the names of some very, very small villages. Where there are no street names or numbers, I quickly realized, Google is of little help.

There was only one way to connect the directions with real life. Each intersection we came upon had a signpost with the mileage to various villages, and some of the names matched up with places on the map. Thus, at the next junction, we picked the name of a village we knew was in the right direction and headed toward it. (I should stress that I'm using the word "village" only for want of a better term- often there was no sign of a church or pub, just a handful of country homes around a junction.) Many of the roads were only inches wider than our tiny rental car, and the overgrown brush on either side whipped the doors and side view mirrors. At times we encountered bogglingly steep grades and curves that had me praying no cars were coming in the other direction. Other stretches had tree cover dense enough virtually to block out the light of the late-evening sun. Eventually we came to a place called Portloe, with stunning views of the ocean far below. An elderly man with a hairy neck and long, caramelized fingernails was having a smoke outside of the local inn. The "No Vacancy" sign left me scratching my head as to who the hell takes their vacations out here. We asked him for directions, and within a minute I could tell he hadn't even heard of where we were going and was just interpreting our map for us. ("Take this road and follow your nose until you get to Portholland," he intoned in a vaguely Irish-sounding accent.) By this point it was past 8:30, so I extricated myself from the conversation as politely as possible, rolled up the window and continued on.

I don't know when it happened, but sometime before Portloe, we started having fun. It was a ridiculous, completely unexpected challenge. The scenery was amazing, and we laughed at our predicament and at the ludicrousness of tourism in this kind of place. We rolled into the Boswinger YHA hostel at 8:52 pm. "I was wondering if you were going to make it," said the teenager working the late shift at reception. I asked him if there was a pub around, and his smile told me that I was silly even to have entertained the idea. We did have a lovely walk, though, among some cows and the distant sound of surf and the fading light of a long summer evening:

Fun with Placenames. One of the fun little bonuses of being a Bay Stater in England is seeing the places that many of the towns in Massachusetts are named for. Up until now I hadn't noticed any underlying relationships within the names, except for the one-off correspondence between the two university towns named Cambridge. In Southwest England, though, I got a whiff of a pattern: I found Dartmouth, Plymouth, Falmouth, Truro, Barnstaple (yes, that's a "p"), and St. Dennis. If you're not from Massachusetts, or if you share my home state but aren't particularly observant, these are all the names of (or are close to the names of) towns on or near Cape Cod. Given the geographic similarities, I can certainly see the Cape reminding the early British colonists of Cornwall, so I doubt it's a coincidence.

And on an entirely random note, here's my nominee for the most deprived-sounding region of England: junction 14 on the M4 motorway leads to the towns of Hungerford and Wantage.

Wales. I had never been to Wales before, so Stella agreed to add it on at the end so that I could get my card punched. The Welsh language is alive and apparently much more viable than Cornish; the road signs turn bilingual as soon as you cross the border, and at least one radio station was utterly incomprehensible. Though the capital city of Cardiff is close to the border, we decided to pass on it due to concerns about traffic and testimonials to its relative unWelshness.

Instead, we headed for Caerphilly Castle, which is now right in the middle of a Cardiff suburb of the same name. When it was built in the 1200s, the castle was not only one of the world's largest, it was also at the cutting edge of castle technology, with a "concentric" design featuring multiple moats, walls, and battlements. The castle was built to defend Gilbert de Clare, an English lord, against Llewelyn the Last, the last Welshman to rule Wales. (Incidentally, Clare College in Cambridge is named for one of Gilbert's daughters, who saved the college from an early financial ruin.) Shifting alliance quickly destroyed the rationale for the castle's existence; it was left to rot and pillaged for stone until an early-twentieth-century restoration project. Here's a shot of the castle, with its very own leaning tower on the right side:

A Special Mention. I will conclude the tale of our road trip to the Wild West of Britain with an acknowledgement of another very special companion: Michael Jackson. The UK is also mourning the King of Pop (as is Vietnam, I'm sure), and it was a nostalgic treat to hear his old hits on the radio mixed in with the trashy dance music that generally fills the airwaves here. RIP, Jacko.

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