December 30, 2022

Dateline – Stonehenge, Salisbury and London, UK

Today it was time for a trip to the West Country. Up early, breakfast, and on to the motorcoach through the west suburbs of London and eventually out of the metropolis and into the rolling, hills, downs and copses of Wiltshire. After about an hour and three quarters, the circle of monoliths known as Stonehenge appeared, looming out of the mists on the right side of the motorway. We hit the coach park, pulled on our rain gear (drizzly, blowing and a good ten degrees colder than central London), and shuttled up to the venerable circle. I’ve seen pictures for decades but had never seen it in person. In some ways, it seems a bit smaller than one might imagine, but in others, when considering how neolithic peoples of five millennia ago had to drag the stones for dozens of miles from their quarry sites it seems enormous.

As I have aged and become a bigger believer in the power of narrative and ritual, and connection to both previous and future generations, I think the monument means a good deal more to me now than it would have if I had wandered around it on my first trip to England nearly forty years ago. The generations of people that needed to be involved in the planning, the erection, the support of the builders, the still somewhat mysterious purposes that drew people to that site for thousands of years, reworking the placement of stones according to their seasonal calendar. It may have been a blustery day but it felt just right being out there on the grass, ignoring the other tourists and reaching back in time. I’m sure ancestors of mine were involved. I’m about 100% British genetically. Who knows if owe my existence to some chance meeting on the building project?

From Stonehenge, off to the nearby town of Salisbury, a midsize market town for lunch. (Fish and chips in a traditional pub accompanied by hot mulled wine to get the chill out of my bones from standing out in the wind and the rain for an hour or so). The town is prosperous, full of medieval and Tudor period buildings still functioning as various businesses, and very walkable. The centerpiece of town is Salisbury cathedral, with it’s spire of over 400 feet and the tallest building in Britain until the 1960s. It looks like every Constable painting you’ve ever seen and is one of the most uniform of early gothic cathedrals as it was built in the 13th century in less than forty years, unlike the usual two to three century building plan that most of them went through. The interior is light and airy as most of the windows are clear rather than stained glass. It has a clock which has been working continually since 1386, predating dials and numbers, and which is still wound every night. It also has one of four extant copies of the original Magna Carta which I could not read, even with my four years of high school Latin.

We got back to town around dinner time and most of the gang got together and went over to Whitechapel and Jack the Ripper’s old stomping grounds for an Indian food dinner in Brick Lane. Fun fact. One of my great great uncles was a coroner on the Ripper case. Then some wandering around looking at Christmas lights, a night cap and so to bed. No need for an early start in the morning so I get to sleep in a bit. I’m not feeling overly tired as I napped in the bus back from Sailsbury and got a second wind.

Out of curiosity, I looked up the Covid statistics for the UK. It has roughly 1/7 the population of the USA but its current rates are roughly 1/15 those of the US so they’re running about 50% of what we’re running. Deaths remain relatively low other than amongst the oldest and most frail. Currently, London is jammed and I’ve had to hold my breath and squeeze to get on the tube a few times but I figure it’s spreading less rapidly here than at home. What’s the difference? If I had to guess it’s because 2/3 of Britons have had the fall bivalent booster against omicron. It’s less than 20% in the USA.

Europe is not where the real questions are going to be for the next few months. Those are going to come from China. For the last three years, it had been running a zero Covid policy, locking down any city or neighborhood where cases were spreading. This past month, they’ve reversed (after noisy public protests) and are basically no longer monitoring the population at all, stopping all mitigation measures, and no longer even collecting data on cases. As they were never that great at getting their population, especially their elderly vaccinated, it’s now spreading like wildfire through a huge and vulnerable population. Their health system is being overwhelmed worse than ours was that first terrible year. It’s a perfect storm for creation of new variants. And if they do arise, they will come. We shall see…

Keep those hands washed before heading out for New Years Eve. And stay home if you feel unwell…

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