JOURNEY OF THE WHITE HORSE
Going to England was a trip of a lifetime. To tell everything that happened would fill a book. So, instead, I'll tell you a story of the journey Janet and I encountered on our trip across the Atlantic.
The first week was spent with Janet's relatives. We filled our days in East London together exploring medieval castles and stately manors. I boarded the Catty Sark and heard the legend of Nonna. Her white figurehead jutted boldly into the wind with a bit of horse's tail firmly grasped in her hand. We walked the historic streets of Oxford and charming Cotswold villages.
Once at Aunt Katie's, we stretched out on the sandy beaches of Bournemouth and feasted on Sunday roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. We toured the quaint thatched cottages of Dorset and saw Milton Abbey, the first of many churches on our trip.
One morning I met my Grandmother Niemann's English cousin. Her name is Sarah Cassidy. We shared our life stories and suddenly I was a part of England, its land and its people.
But our journey really didn't begin until the red Fiesta arrived at Aunt Katie's doorstep. With Janet behind the wheel and myself as chief navigator, we were off to the highways and by-ways of grand ole England.
Our first stop was in East Hampshire. As we pulled up behind the Queen's Hotel, we were greeted by a friendly white horse. As well as being a good size horse, he was, also, very muscular and his large feet were covered with a mass of hair. As we feasted on our picnic lunch, we talked to the white horse and promised him an apple when we left.
We had read that in Selbourne there was a gypsy museum where Peter Ingram had collected bits and pieces of gypsy families' histories. Outside the museum there were caravans that Peter and his assistant, Derrick, restored to their original beauty. Janet and I were fascinated with the gleaming red wagons trimmed in gold with canal painting on side boards and cabinets.
Peter was busy with relatives while we were there, so we talked to Derrick. He was from Scotland, but he had lived in England for many years. As he talked of the gypsy's life certain stereotypes and unfounded myths dissolved in front of my eyes. Now I saw clearly the life of a people rich in a culture, unique in its existence. When Derrick shared his dream of coming to Montana and riding his horse across the Great Plains, Janet and fell in love with the gypsy man. We immediately wanted to hitch up to his caravan and ride off into the proverbial sunset. But there were places to go and things to see so we bid a fond adieu to our gypsy man and prepared to leave Selbourne.
As were pulling out of the parking lot, Janet suddenly stopped the car. "I forgot to give the apple to the white horse. I promised. It just doesn't feel right." So she put the car in park rummaged through the trunk and fished out the half of an apple that was left over from our previous night's repast. The white horse gladly took the treat. He was standing next to the fence with his white face looming next to mine in the car. He licked his lips with his long pink tongue. Then he looked directly at me with his brown, watchful eye all trimmed with white lashes as if to say, "You did the right thing."
And, as weird as it may seem, there were times throughout our journey when it seemed as if, perhaps, there were a watchful eye protecting us as we traveled.
The first time was at Stonehenge. Much has been written about how "touristy" Stonehenge has become. But when one comes over the horizon and those huge megalithic stones rise up out of the ground there is certain awe and reverence that one feels. We arrived at sunset which was even more dramatic. The sky was streaked with pink and lavender clouds and black birds flew to and from the huge stones. Because the site had already closed for the night, Janet and I hung on the fences and marveled at its presence.
As Janet went off by herself, I struck up a conversation with the guard. He was very impressed when he heard my "American" accent. He, like so many others we met in England, loved the "Americans". If it weren't for us, he said, they'd all speaking German now. Yes, it was the Americans that had saved the war for England. He took my camera and took pictures of Stonehenge from other angles. When he returned, I told him how disappointed I was that we couldn't get closer to the stones. He said that oftentimes, for Americans, mind you, they would let them come in after dark. At this point Janet joined in the conversation. "Janet," I said. "He said we could back later and they'd let us in." What time, we wanted to know was "late". We thought 11 o'clock was "late".
"Oh, no," he replied. "There will still be many people here at that time and well past midnight. You'll have to be here around 2 o'clock. You see this is the night of the full moon."
The night of the full moon? Stonehenge? A special viewing of the ancient ring of stones with the full moon glinting off its granite faces? It was just too much! What stories we'd have to tell about the moon and Stonehenge when we returned home. Of course, we would come back.
We immediately set out to find a bed and breakfast that would let us come and go as we pleased at 2 o'clock in the morning with no questions asked, thank you very much. There were no such accommodating B and B's to be found. After much searching, we decided that the only route for our daring-do was a hotel. So for twice the money we settled in at reputable hotel in downtown Amesbury.
We settled right in and luxuriated in a bath soothing the muscles of a day spent exploring the prehistoric wonders of England. When Janet dressed, she was wearing black... black from head to foot. I laughed because I still had on my neon white jogging suit. "I guess I'll have to change into black, too. After all, if I bend over the New Agers will think another moon is rising in the east!" So, I, too, donned a black outfit. We were ready for our night's adventure.
As the midnight hour approached our resolve started to dissolve. The sights and sounds of a full day manifested themselves in yawns and drooping eyes. And besides, those nice young men may have had more on their minds than showing the "Americans" Stonehenge by moonlight. But shortly after midnight, even with a nagging question about the intents of the British guard, we left the hotel.
By this time the streets of Amesbury were deserted. The only footsteps were those of two middle-aged American girls dressed in black making their way down the darkened corridors and into the night. After we left the bright lights of the city, we looked, for the first time at the night sky.
It was then that we noticed that while we luxuriated in the bath the sky had covered itself with a thick cloud cover. No stars, no moon, just inky blackness. When we arrived at Stonehenge, the stones were just a mass of blackness against the dark blue sky. There, indeed, were many people hanging on the fences. We knew our adventure was bust. After all, that was the whole idea - to see Stonehenge by moonlight. We turned the red Fiesta back to the hotel. As we traveled back, images of the white horse appeared. Where did that impenetrable cloud cover come from? And that nagging question about the British guard seemed to be answered.
Our next few days were filled with some amazing sights - Glaustonbury Tor shrouded in a veiled mist, waves crashing on the stony cliffs of Headland Point, carpets of wildflowers peppered with grouse and thistle. One evening after walking the cliffs, we decided to try a pub. Janet had kidney pie and I had a potato and leek pie. We both relaxed with a glass of wine.
As we approached the parked car we noticed that it was not parked in the same place. Panic set in. We rushed over to discover that it was not in park. We had parked on a bit of a hill. The car had rolled. But what had stopped it? We looked all around and found a small boulder wedged between the underbelly of the car and the back wheel. If it hadn't been there, the car would have rolled even further into a line of parked cars not twenty feet away. After we dislodged the car from the stone, there was a silence. Janet and I were thinking the same thought. Where had that boulder come from? It was as if some watchful eye were there seeing to our safe journey.
Our sojourn was at the halfway mark as we made our way down the Cornwall coast. Bright sunlit days lit our way through the legendary King Arthur country and sparkling sunsets over the Atlantic greeted our nights. As a rest and reprieve from the car, we stopped at Polzeath. On its sandy shores we absorbed some sun and let the tensions be swept away with the waves on the beach. One evening on a grassy knoll near Daymer Bay we listened the poetic words of John Beacheman being read while the sun was being swallowed by the coastal clouds. They served Cornish pasties and lemonade. Janet and I felt like to English ladies out for a holiday.
On our return we wanted to experience the heartlands of Cornwall. We had touched on Exmore and the Bodmin moor, but the true heartbeat was felt at Dart moor. Even the weather cooperated as a gray, swirling mist snaked its way amongst the granite tors. Ah yes, if one listened carefully enough one could almost hear those hounds of Baskerville baying in the distance.
After perusing the new museum at Princeton, we set out to find the "perfect B and B" to truly immerse ourselves in this ancient countryside. What happened next was a series of wrong turns that lead us to the "perfect B and B".
The navigator (me) pointed to the right, but the Fiesta turned left. "Really," I remarked, "I think, we wanted to turn right." With cars suddenly on our bumper, the Fiesta made a sharp turn to the left into a side road. Hidden among the tufts of tall grass was ...the rock. Its pointed edge reached out and punctured Fiesta's left front tire. Fiesta slowly rolled to a stop. We looked around to see where we were. And there in the middle of Dart moor with the gray mists swirling about appeared a red telephone booth. Janet and I laughed. This is just too good to be true. We quickly found the emergency number and within an hour we were back on the road...to the right.
We stopped here and there looking for the "perfect B and B". We went up one road and backtracked down another. Nothing felt quite right. Then Janet spotted a sign. It simply stated "B and B" and arrow pointing down a C-road. As we passed a herd of sheep and cows littering the road, Janet remarked, "I have a feeling about this. I know this is what we are looking for." The road narrowed. The sheep were now polishing the sides of the car.
Finally, we came to a sign "Warren Head B and B". This must be it, but where was it? There was a chat driveway that led to a place nestled in the folds of land. We turned and followed the way until we saw it...an ancient hovel. Its gray stone face was topped with thatched matted straw. A slew of chickens, goats, roosters, cats and dogs surrounded us. Janet had an overpowering feeling that this was our pre-destination. After all, there was white horse in the corral. What more could we ask for?
We passed through an arched doorway. On the wooden door was a brass lion's head knocker. I remarked that this setting was something out of one of the many folktales we tell. She took hold of the brass ring and knocked once, twice. I halfway expected the door to creak open by itself. Then we did hear a sound. Only it was behind us, and it was the sound of a land rover jeep coming to a noisy stop next to our Fiesta. Out jumped Diana. She greeted us with a hardy handshake. We asked if there was room for the night and she agreed to put up two journey-weary Americans. The strange thing was that if we had come even five minutes earlier, we would have completely missed each other. And looking over the events of the day, it just seemed like we were guided to arrive at precisely the time we did.
If the outside exuded a sense a place, the inside exuded a sense of friendliness and belonging. Upon entering there were racks of raincoats and boxes of Wellingtons. Turn to the left and the living room spread its open arms to welcome and soothe. The house was over six hundred years old. The beams holding the second floor sagged, as did the mantel over the huge stone fireplace. The circular staircase was chipped out of stone. The tiny steps meandered around to the dark hallway, which led to the bedrooms. Although there was electricity, it was run on a generator. So when the last light went out at night, everything stayed out until morning. There was also an attached cottage on the other side of the house. Janet decided to stay there, and I took one of the upstairs bedrooms.
Because there was a chill in the air Diana started a fire. She placed some heather on the flames and soon the room was filled with a sweet, smoky fragrance. Janet was anxious to explore the area so she took off to the hills while I snuggled under the spell of the fire. When Janet returned, she was excited to tell about all the discoveries she made - rings of stones and unusual land forms. As we shared an evening meal with Diana in front of the fire, we also shared our life stories.
We knew from the moment we met Diana that she had a story to tell, so we sat back and listened. She was originally from the northern part of England, but things were getting so congested that she no longer had a place to run her horses. She had been looking for several years to find a place. About six years ago she bought this horse farm and started a bed and breakfast. Although she was sixty years old, her fitness and form belied her age. Janet and I were both taken with the fact that she was able to leave her home and start out all over by herself. Quite a feat in today's world. Any woman contemplating changing her life would be inspired by Diana's story. We stayed up until the fires died down.
I have never stayed in a six hundred year old house. In America there are no six hundred year houses. As I lay in the bed with the comforter neatly tucked under my chin, I started to imagine the stories this house had to tell. Dart moor itself is full of lore and history, and I was sure this house could match it. Perhaps it was the tea, perhaps it was an overworked imagination, but whatever it was it prevented me from getting one iota's worth of sleep. Not until I heard the roosters crowing the coming dawn did I rest.
The next day was the first wet, windy, chilly day that prevented us from doing much exploring. But Janet was undaunted. She donned layers of sweaters and a yellow slicker. She fished out a pair of Wellingtons and she prepared to face the wind. She was gone for a quite some time when she returned with more treasures from Dart moor. That night we went to the pub. After several glasses of Chablis, I was able to sleep comfortably through the night. The next day the weather didn't change and the forecast was for more of the same. We decided that we had received what gifts Dart moor had to give us, so we prepared to leave.
As we left the skirts of Dart moor the veil lifted, and by the time we entered into Devon the skies were blue. Since we felt that our journey was complete, we wanted to get back to Bournemouth by nightfall. The Fiesta stopped with a sigh in front of Aunt Katie's. She was there to greet us with open arms and spot of tea. As we regaled her with stories of the trip, Aunt Katie caught us up on some of the news. It seems she was a bit concerned. Historic, torrential rains had fallen in Cornwall, and she thought we might have been caught in the flash floods. When we looked at the papers, we could see that, indeed, the areas most severely hit were the area we had driven. We had missed all the bad weather by just a day in three different areas. Again, Janet and I gave each other a silent look, and we knew there was one more thing we had to do before we left England.
The following Monday, we went back to Selbourne. We stopped the car behind the Queen's Hotel and Janet fished a half an apple out of the trunk. The white horse was across the field. We stood there patiently until she took notice of us. She ambled nonchalantly over to the fence where she received hugs and the other half of a well-deserved apple.
Our adventure was over. The following Wednesday we took a bus to Gatwick. As we passed a field, there was a white horse. It was then that Janet and I realized that everyday while we were journeying in the Fiesta, we saw a white horse. And everyday we were reminded that, indeed, we had done the right thing.