THE SUZI FEAY COLUMN: Deep in the bowels of the pump room

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Indy Lifestyle Online
I WOULDN'T say I was disappointed by Stonehenge, even though it was a lot smaller than I expected. But then I had been envisaging avenues of precisely aligned boulders, majestic stones tramping towards the horizon, cowled, chanting Druids - not this huddled group of petrified pensioners, trying to cross the A303 en masse.

I'd heard so much about the "national disgrace" of Stonehenge that I was expecting a Stone Age shopping mall, a car-park or Portaloo 10 feet from the monument, or a conveyor-belt "Stonehenge Experience" with Stone Age aromas and wax dummies clad in furs. Compared to this, the access tunnel, reminiscent of a Sixties housing estate, and the English Heritage shop were quite poignant in their well-meaning naffness.

Despite the bitter cold we were ready to go for it - Go For The Stones! Yay! Another tourist had the same idea - brandishing his camera, he leapt the barrier, but a woman masquerading as a visitor in Barbour jacket and headscarf, gesticulated furiously and he sauntered sheepishly back on to the path. The sky was a brilliant, hard-edged, ice-blue and the shafts of pallid light touched the stones to gold against the turbulent clouds. At the back of my brain beat the refrain from This is Spinal Tap: "Stone'enge, where a man is a man! And the children dance to the pipes of Pan!"

Back in the tunnel, by far the best place to be in the stinging gale, we admired the mural showing the monument as it would have appeared 4,000 years ago. It would make an excellent novelty gateau, we thought, constructed from sponge fingers and slabs of Madeira cake. Such a confection will no doubt be available when English Heritage have built their luxuriously appointed visitor centre, Cursus shopping mall, mile-long access tunnel and so forth. Belonging to English Heritage is a strangely schizophrenic experience. On the one hand they are kind people who, for a modest fee, will allow one to scramble around their ruined castles. On the other, they are the pushy busybodies who stepped in to "protect" a malodorous, leaking train tunnel in east London, thus obliging the workmen to down tools and displacing 25,000 users at great cost and inconvenience, gnash, snarl, gnash ... But as far as Stonehenge was concerned, I didn't think EH entirely deserved its bad press. It is precisely the shabby proximity of the 20th century which makes the Stones themselves look sorrowful, brooding and numinous.

The rest of the weekend was spent, with varying degrees of success, in keeping the 20th century at bay. Our hotel room in Salisbury was of Biblical dimensions - you continually had to watch out for the beam in your eye. Dinner at Ye Olde Worlde (and Ye Bloody Freezing) Haunch of Venison was gratifyingly meat-based and sturdy, but why was our waitperson a halting French girl, rather than an apple-cheeked Wiltshire maid? Outside the snow dredged down over the Poultry Cross. Out next port of call was a city-centre pub where we occasioned some mirth on account of being suitably attired for the weather. "We're not from London, you know," we wanted to bleat as we unpeeled our vast scarves and discarded our mittens before the derisive gaze of girls exposing 10 inches of bare leg between boot and hem. But impressively, we saw none of the Dionysiac drunkenness, none of the vomiting in gutters, one associates with small towns on Friday nights. Young folk of Salisbury, we salute you!

In Somerset, we were not exactly gruntled to discover that our 18th-century cider farm with views of Glastonbury Tor (it says here) turned out to be the Crossroads motel in the middle of a vast car-park. We had to change rooms twice before we found one with a working radiator; on unlocking room number three we smiled and nodded at the mild-mannered chap letting himself into the room next door. No view of the Tor from our room, just a broken-down caravan in the road outside. But things looked up with the presentation of the evening menu: this was clearly the Restaurant That Time Forgot! You could order prawn cocktail, steak, Black Forest gateau and Irish coffee - as though the Eighties never happened. Despite this, people in the downstairs bar were munching their way through plates of cold sandwiches, which seemed a sad way to spend Saturday night.

I thought no more of our unassuming neighbour, until I was woken up in the middle of the night by extraordinary sounds echoing from his bathroom. Was it catarrh, bulimia, raging consumption or too much Black Forest Gateau which accounted for the roars of "Gaarrraagh! Plugh! Plunk plunk plunk!" which tore through the wall. I speculated grimly about the potential for inner life of a man who had to rush into the bathroom and spit violently into the toilet several times a night.

If it hadn't been for the Roman Baths Museum in Bath, these nocturnal groans would have been the closest to the uncanny we got all weekend. Deep in the bowels of the Pump Room, the unromantically labelled "overflow of the sacred spring" was a hole in the wall from whence sulphurous orange water spouted into a drain, but gazing into this creepy fissure was like an induction into the Earth Mysteries. Glastonbury might be just the place for Mystic Meg to hang her cobwebby hat, but it had nothing on this.

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