Salisbury Cathedral is what Westminster Abbey should be. While almost identical in aspects of their 13th-century Gothic design, Salisbury Cathedral is blessedly uncluttered with the tombs of every Briton who wanted to be thought of as important through the ages. It retains a sense of awe-inducing vastness, the few tombs set among the pillars serving as poignant reminders rather than barriers in an obstacle course. In an utter rarity, the nave even features a 21st-century fountain that successfully adds to the ambiance rather than detracting from it.
The cathedral's £6.50 'voluntary donation' is so voluntary that the ticket kiosk is better staffed than any station office in British Rail.
The chapter house of Salisbury Cathedral contains one of only four surviving original copies of the Magna Carta, the 1215 document that set the first limitations on the powers of a monarch. Most of it had to do with protecting lords' land rights, but it was a start. The document was the beneficiary of a Second World War ordnance against bombing Salisbury Cathedral, for the dubious honor that its spire was the only thing the Luftwaffe could use to navigate by in south-central England.
England has the weird idea that any church can be improved with a cafe. While an entire ceiling seems to have been knocked out of Salisbury Cathedral to accommodate a sunlit eatery, my favorite example was the Cafe in the Crypt at the Church of St Martin-in-the-Fields, which has its own atrium-style entrance rising up in the midst of the sidewalk by London's Trafalgar Square.
Salisbury is only about 20 minutes' bus ride from Stonehenge. I nearly stepped off the bus when they told me the ride would cost £20. That this included £8 entry to the site didn't make it much better.
The audio commentary at Stonehenge takes exactly twice as long to listen to as it does to walk around the site. After two laps at a leisurely pace, it still wasn't done yammering about everything we don't know about the place.
Much of the commentary had to do with debunking myths—my favorite being any association between Stonehenge and druids, who, as nature lovers, did all their worshipping in forests, not in giant man-made stone edifices on plains that had long since been cleared for farming. Given that they only showed up in Britain a thousand years after the first version of Stonehenge was built, the real question is why neo-druids are allowed to hold ceremonies on the site while everyone else has to stay on the walkway.
To summarize: Nobody has a clue who built Stonegenge or why, but the present structure wasn't the first on the site, and even this one has been rearranged a few times. It works as a massive calendar for predicting eclipses and the position of the sun, and it's been used as a burial site since before they built the Great Pyramid of Giza. The rest is pretty much shrugs, anecdotes and carbon dating.
What I found most interesting was that the stones aren't just shaped to lay together, but connected with mortise and tendon joints—there's a little pointy bit at the top of each vertical stone that slots into the lintel. Roughly a third of each stone is concealed underground.
There's been a lot of activity in the surrounding area as well, with a 12 meter-wide avenue connecting Stonegenge to the River Avon and several hundred barrows in the surrounding landscape, many of which are barely labeled.
Closer to Salisbury is the Old Sarum earthwork, an Iron Age structure that later became the site of a castle. Stonehenge tends to take all the headlines, but had I known how much else there was in the area, I would have allowed more time for a proper poke around.
On the Way Out
I would be remiss to fail to mention British public lavatories, which are amusing in that they are actually labeled 'Laides' and 'Gents', and share the Australian preference for broad stainless steel troughs over individual urinals. My favorite feature was the little all-in-one hutches into which you place your hands to automatically receive an allotment of soap, water, and warm air at a pace determined by someone not in a hurry to catch a train.
The prevalence of tattoos was interesting, with perhaps one in three people seeming to sport ink, the preponderance penned by marginally skilled artists. In Japan, tattoos are associated with the Yakuza, and if you have a visible one, you are essentially declaring your inelegibility for a corporate job for the rest of your life. You'll also get kicked out of every public bath you visit, which may not sound like a big deal, but pretty much invalidates you for Japanese group holidays as well.
For all that the British like to rib the French and Americans for their arrogance, I suspect that it is only because they are all trying to push one another off the same pedestal. Everything in Britain has a sense of, 'Well, that's the way it's done,' even if it's not done particularly well. I loved the train out to Cornwall, proudly named The Great Western Railway—which it has been called since it had all of 36 km of track in 1838. Though, to be fair, by 1924 they had enough track to run a line from Toronto to Brussels and still have enough left over for an extension to Brampton.