Stonehenge and Carlisle, England. A day of great ups, and a few tragic downs

Setting off to continue on my backpacking through Europe, the day after London was a day of really terrific ups (seeing one of the most mysterious historical sites in Europe, if not the world, and having one of the best *experiences* of my entire trip: driving through the English countryside in a sexy convertible) and crummy downs (destroying my camera and having to move hostel rooms late at night to avoid pounding club music and a colony of mosquitos).

So, on with the story of the day:
Got up really early to catch the train from Waterloo Station to Salisbury (the closest town to Stonehenge). Europe has a reputation for outstanding trains that you can take literally everywhere. Well, I think that England missed the memo on train revolution: when they privatized the entire rail network the service plummeted. They have moderately-fast trains that aren’t all that reliable. No bullet or ICE trains here.

Well, the train did get me to Salisbury, but I still had about 50 miles to Stonehenge and my schedule was completely out of whack for the shuttle bus to Stonehenge. I couldn’t wait for the shuttle since I had a train to Northern England later in the day. But I couldn’t pass up on my opportunity to see Stonehenge. So, I decided to rent a car – the cost and challenge of driving on the left side of the road seemed entirely worth it.

And this is how I scored on the greatest up of the day – and one of the greatest all-around *experiences* of my entire adventure… my sexy rental car.

Fortunately the cost of renting a car was MUCH less than I had anticipated since it was Saturday and I scored on the weekend special rate. There was one car left for rental in the entire town. I asked the rental agent if I could still get the car for economy price, and he said “absolutely, it’s the only car we have available so we will give it for the cheapest rate.”

*** THE BIG UP:

Imagine my utter euphoria when out of the wash bay comes a stunning silver Peugeot 307cc hardtop convertible. I was drooling instantly. 

I hadn’t driven a car in more than four months, and sorely missed it. Now, I was being presented with one very sexy machine… on narrow, winding English country roads. To make the challenge of driving on the other side of the road easier, it was an automatic (I prefer stick, but I had enough things to get used to… roundabouts, etc). The warm spring air through my hair and the wind whistling past my ears. I could have skipped Stonehenge entirely and still had one of the best days of my life.

I won’t say that Stonehenge was a letdown – not in the slightest. It’s just not as big or grand as you’d expect. I half-pictured its carefully-balanced stones rising from the horizon as I drove up to it. In reality, it’s a pretty small site and the stones aren’t huge.

But you picture how incredibly old they are, and the enduring puzzle of how they were transported to the site, how they were stacked, and the significance of their symbolism and the purpose of the site. The mystery of the site was actually quite captivating and you didn’t really notice that the whole thing is smaller than you’d imagined.

*** THE BIG DOWN:

Now, my visit to Stonehenge was considerably soured by a tragic occurrence (well, probably just sum it up to my clumsiness/stupidity). I dropped my beloved camera in the Stonehenge parking lot, and it smashed hard against the pavement never to work again. The photos were safe on the memory card, but it definitely sucked. I couldn’t get hung up about it though… when you have a busy day of sightseeing, you just have to keep going and make due. I got a cheap disposable camera to tie me over until I could find a camera shop. That’s why the photos of Stonehenge and the sexy car aren’t the best quality.

So, this was a day of ups and downs.

*** THE SECOND BIG UP:

While driving a super-sexy convertible through the English countryside is probably one of the neatest experiences of my life, this experience was kicked up a notch on the way back from Stonehenge.

Zipping through the winding roads, I spotted a polo tournament taking place on a posh field just off the highway. I had to check it out.

Polo is as posh as you imagine: driving down a well-landscaped lane-way to the grounds, passing stables with expertly-groomed horses and ritzy-looking people everywhere.

And, I had incredible fun faking my way through the elite environment with my rental car. I was the young foreign guy with the sexy convertible coming to check out the polo match. Fun! That, and it was a women’s match: definitely a fan of the polo outfits.

I reluctantly returned my rental car after an exhilarating morning, and caught the train from Salisbury to Northern England… as far as I could make it towards Scotland for the day. I crashed the night in a cheap hotel/hostel room in the town of Carlisle, which is right at the Scottish border.

The train ride (not the train itself) was spectacularly beautiful. The English countryside with the ancient farmhouses and barns, stone walls running the perimeters of the fields, and the rolling landscape was just as I’d imagined. The old stone railway bridges made me think that the train should almost be pulled by a steam engine.

I arrived at Carlisle at 10pm, and immediately checked in to my room. Not too pleasant looking, but I didn’t pay much attention… went out to get a bite to eat and a pint.

I quickly realized that Carlisle was a major university/college town, and its main street was a huge party scene. But not in a good way. There were police everywhere, people being drunk-rowdy (hey, England does have a reputation). I went to a decent-looking pub, had a pint, got hit on by a frightening-looking woman, and decided to get on my way to bed.

And then: ***THE SECOND BIG DOWN:

I had to change rooms. I walked in and realized that the innkeeper had left the screen-less window open. First, the pounding music and revelry from the street was going to make it hard to sleep – but that I could live with. I couldn’t, however, live with the colony of more than 100 mosquitos on the ceiling poised to drain my blood while I slept.

I convinced the innkeeper to refund my money, and had a walk through Carlisle in search for another vacant room. Utterly exhausted, I was nearly ready to set my backpack down and curl up on a bench for the night. But, at the last moment, I found a vacant room that was both inexpensive and clean.

A day of ups and downs indeed.

I woke up and realized that Carlisle looks very nice during the day: scenic downtown area and an ultra-cool medieval castle (that looked like something out of Monty Python) that once protected the border from Scottish attack.

I just don’t think I’d visit Carlisle again… once was more than enough. Though, these are the sorts of stories that make life interesting (and that you tell your mother once you’ve safely returned home).

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