Monday, May 25, 2009

A weekend in the British countryside...

Our bus pulled off the two-lane road about 30 minutes after we had left the pub we lunched at. There was not a building in sight. We unloaded and began walking along a dirt path up a gently sloped green hill. I could make out three tiers of about 25-foot tall ridges ahead as we reached the top of the first hill. My professor explained we were looking at the remains of the 6,000-year-old Maiden Castle. The grass-covered rings once stood as imposing earth walls to protect the site's ancient inhabitants. Our group walked the perimeter and loaded back onto the bus.

Twenty-five classmates and I were halfway through the first day of a two-day trip to Dorset -- a county of sea-side towns and farming villages in southern England. Miles from the traffic-filled streets of central London in mid-April, I saw a slice of the quieter British life and a geological goldmine.

Earlier that afternoon we had seen the Cerne Abbas Giant: the figure of a naked man carved into the chalk layer of a Dorset hillside. The region is known for its chalk found just below the surface. We stopped half of a mile away for the best view.

We also stopped at Lulworth Cove, known for its Purbeck marble, drug up the river Avon to Salisbury hundreds of years ago to build the cathedral. Years of ocean's wear and tear has pushed the rock up to form the coves. Before we left, we also sampled the area's other specialty -- Purbeck ice cream. Strawberry trumped all -- and I'm not normally a fan of strawberry ice cream.

Our hotel in Weymouth looked directly on the British sea. We dropped our bags, grabbed a quick drink at a pub down the street and the group took a short ride to the Isle of Portland for a picturesque sunset. This tiny pseudo-island (actually a peninsula) is famous for its namesake stone used to build Westminster Abbey.

Back in Weymouth that evening, we ran across some local musical talent in one of the seaside town's finer establishments. "Tamborine Man" was playing at the pub and invited us to share our musical genius with the locals. Of course, we complied....

We began the next day with a cliff-side hike along the English Channel. We crossed fields of cows and sheep; climbed through caves; and stayed a safe distance back from steep cliffs over the crashing waves. Just before we finished, we hit a "surprise" in the trail -- a valley along the cliff. That translates to a very long staircase down and a very long staircase up -- nature's own StairMaster.

I tried an English specialty for lunch at the pub -- a jacket potato (mine had garlic and mushrooms). Then we explored the remains of Corfe Castle, reverting back to our five-year old selves running around the castle ruins. We took one last coastal hike along Chesil Beach before bus took us home to London. I walked into my flat exhausted, sore and sandy (especially my feet).

After a good night's sleep, I woke up Sunday for another day of exploring England's southern countryside with my uncle and his London friends. We drove about two hours before reaching the town of Chichester. After stopping for tea -- because that's what you do in England -- we toured the Chichester Cathedral.

Next, we stopped at Arundel Castle for a quick look around, which turned into an afternoon of wide eyes and lots of antique furniture. The oldest medieval parts of the castle are almost 1,000 years old. The newer additions house the current Duke of Arundel and his family during the winter months (when the estate is closed to the public). The castle design resembles Windsor Castle and the inside resembles a life-size doll house. The furniture collection comes from all thousand years of the castle's existence and from across the globe. Ornate carved chests, silver pieces and portraits fill the rooms. My favorite room was the library, rich with dark wood, red velvet curtains, plushes couches and books on every wall.

We made one more stop for tea -- because that's what you do in England -- and we drove back to London. One lesson I learned from the day: if you are going to marry rich, find someone who is going to inherit a castle.

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