Saturday, October 24, 2009

History & Culture 101 - Stonehenge, Stourhead and Bath

". . . Have you ever noticed that there are people who do things which are most indelicate, and yet at the same time--beautiful?" - A Room With a View E. M. Forster

I wish this post could just be written the way the day was felt. I hardly know how to begin, but I’ll try.

Stonehenge. I’m probably exaggerating when I say my Dad’s been making semi-random mentions and references to Stonehenge since I could comprehend, but that’s how I perceive it, and therefore that is my truth. Like puppies. (You pick your favorite.—Name that TV show.) I sent my Dad a postcard, that’s how great Stonehenge was. I actually licked a stamp, since they don’t believe in sticker-stamps in this country (almost as dumb as separate hot and cold faucets) and put it on a postcard and sent it. Hardship. But it was worth it, because I Was there and he was all I could think about.

You see, although I’ve wanted to see Stonehenge since I could remember, I needed no help to strangle that desire with doubt—I don’t think I really believed I’d ever get to see Stonehenge. And now that I have, that doubt is entirely irrelevant. I love irrelevating doubt. I think I may spend the rest of my life doing it.

I wasn’t disappointed at all. Although I wish I could have touched it and walked through it—to date it would have been the oldest thing I’ve touched (if I could’ve)—because I’m not sure I could have found anything older. (Does anyone else have that insatiable desire to touch old things? You don’t have to answer that question.) But I’m content merely having been there.

My professor, Dr. Paxman, has spoken to us a couple of times about internalizing the information we receive and the places we go. He mentioned that sometimes people go places merely to check it off their list of things to do before they die. Honestly—although I love lists—Stonehenge was and is far too important to merely check it off my list. It’s been checked, don’t get me wrong, but he asked us what type of pilgrimage we were doing—one for show, or one for spiritual and intellectual development. I guess I don’t know the answer to that. It’s that Stonehenge is so old. It’s that Stonehenge proves men haven’t changed one bit. Sure, God is the best architect there is, but men get pretty close. That’s not to say Stonehenge is the most beautiful building or monument I’ve ever seen, but that need to build, that need to say something is a human trait I’ve always admired.

There’s an interesting idea, because after Stonehenge we drove to Stourhead. (Those are the gardens filmed in the newer Pride and Prejudice when Darcy proposes to Elizabeth; incidentally, the little temple where he proposed was closed for cleaning and repairs. You told me, Lindsey, you told me.) I said that the whole idea of God being the best architect and yet men coming close was interesting because the plot of land bought by Henry Hore in 1717 was transfigured into an “idealized” garden to be more of an ‘artful wilderness.’ In other words, the whole area is meant to look untouched, while all the while it’s taken care of so that it looks perfect, with several vistas—those picture perfect spots.

Here’s a few examples.

It sounds a little awkward, maybe a little like you’re being tricked into appreciating nature—but once you’re there none of that matters. It’s beautiful. The colors are vibrant, the water looks clean, the little temples in the background are picturesque, and you realize that God must not mind getting a little help getting the gardening done—not when it can create something so beautiful.

Last on the agenda for the day was Bath. I never wanted to go to Bath because I never really considered it as a possibility, but when I was told we were going I couldn’t wrap my mind around it. Bath—Bath. Where aristocracy used to go to on vacation, where the Roman Baths are, where people used to come to get well again. They thought the sulfur water could cure them of anything. I spent almost all my time in Bath at the Roman Baths, and walking around a small shopping area. I tried Ben’s Cookies for the first time (best cookie I’ve ever had, I think—except when Chocolate Krinkles are made perfectly), and went into Bath Abbey.

I will look back on the Roman Baths as one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen. I still have a hard time getting my head around it. The only naturally occurring hot springs in Britain are in Bath. The Romans came to Bath in 43 AD, defeating the Dobunni tribe for the land. They immediately built the Baths there to model the baths at home in Italy, and did an incredible job of it. Along with the baths, they built an entire courtyard, a temple, an altar for sacrifices, and a staircase to the sacred spring that even the Dobunni used for worship.

I tell you this, because of the doorstep into the Sacred Spring. That doorstep had been crossed for worship so many times, it was worn away into a crescent shape. It wasn’t a mere polishing of the stone from feet rubbing across it—it was several inches of stone worn away by a constant crossing of the threshold. For some reason it just demonstrates such dedication and devotion to faith and worship—even if the worship was for the wrong reasons or to the wrong God. If they believed it, that says enough. We should be proud for our temples’ doorsteps to be so worn away.

The Baths are still lined with lead, just as they were during Roman times. The pipes from the hot springs still run into the baths. They found gemstones and roman coins at the bottom of the baths, either lost or sacrificed. They found curses etched into lead sacrificed to the Sacred Springs—asking for the death of whoever stole a pair of gloves, for the blindness of whoever stole a hood. Reminds us of why the Roman Empire fell, doesn’t it? But if I really think on it, the Romans probably left more good in this world than bad; a lot of idealism, and beauty, and sincerity. I’d rather have that.

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