This is a two-part post about my first trip to Southern England. Photos courtesy of and © Eunjung Choi.
About ten years ago, I went to visit Glastonbury, Avebury, and Stonehenge. It was a whirlwind tour of just one night and two days, and for some reason, despite being in the travel business, Greg and I didn’t think through the logistics or the practicality or the timing of the trip.
As a result, everything that could go wrong… didn’t.
Instead, the whole trip seemed divinely guided, from the moment we stepped off the train to discover that we had no way of getting from the terminus point, Wells, to Glastonbury where we were spending the night.
We ignored the possibility for panic, the first of many times that weekend, and found that we could take a bus part of the way. Greg, our friend Lynn, and I were the only passengers and the bus driver overheard us discussing our concerns. “I might know somewhere you can rent a car,” he spoke up, seemingly oblivious to the fact that it was a Sunday evening in the middle of the English countryside. We nodded in relief, and he drove to a small town, parked outside a private home and left us, only to return a few minutes later with a younger, thinner version of himself, still wearing a dinner napkin around his neck. “My son,” he introduced him proudly. “He manages the car rental park.”
An hour later, oblivious to the fact that we had left our driver’s licenses in London, the manager had rented us a Ford Escort station wagon, the only vehicle he had on the lot. “And only because someone turned it in early!” he told us happily. We arrived in Glastonbury, checked in at the sweet little B&B where we would be staying for the night, and after a delicious dinner at a local pub, headed out around 9pm. The plan was to drive to Stonehenge, two hours away, then on to Avebury, a henge so large (four times the size of Stonehenge) the town ran right through it, then back to Glastonbury. We would catch a few hours of sleep, then explore the Chalice Well and Glastonbury Tor before heading back on the last train from Wells into London that day.
In retrospect, I can’t imagine what we were thinking.
At Stonehenge, we pulled into the parking lot, illuminated by weirdly bright moonlight. A strange storm had been coming up, and the sky was being lit regularly by flashes of lightning seemingly coming from the horizon line in a disconcerting reversal of nature. The elderly guard was none too happy to see us. “Ya can’t be here,” he told us flatly.
We begged and pleaded – after all, we were visiting from America and we had come all the way just for this (a white lie, but our passion carried the truth). He finally relented; we had fifteen minutes. We raced across the road only to run into our next obstacle: a wire fence surrounding Stonehenge, no way in (it really would have been smart to consult a guidebook or something) and, after a moment, a Scottish guardsman who came over and greeted us in a friendly Glaswegian accent.
“What would you do if I climbed the fence?” Greg wanted to know.
“Ah, then I’d hafta shoot ya,” he said, grinning broadly. But he offered to take our camera in and shoot photos of the stones instead, so we happily handed it over.
“What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen here?” Greg asked, curious, as he took the camera back. At least it had gotten to see Stonehenge up close.
“Three Americans trying to climb the fence,” the guardsman joked. He pointed at yet another flash of lightning coming up under the grey horizon. Despite it being almost midnight, there was no true darkness, and we could even see the looming outline of Stonehenge. “Nah, this weather. Oddest I’ve ever seen, and I’ve had this duty for a while.”
We thanked him and headed on to Avebury. In those days, with no cell phone installed with multiple navigation apps, we were relying on a paper map with wiggly lines for roads and only the highways marked. Nearly two hours later, closing in on our last stop, we needed a place to pee, and coffee and food were starting to move up on the priority list. When I mentioned coffee, Greg snorted.
“Do you think we’re going to come around the corner and see a 7-11?”
Around the very next bend, its florescent lights shining like a beacon, was an all-night Elf station, the only such beast we had seen since beginning our road trip.
Thanking the Universe for providing, we stopped for gas, potty, and hot coffee, as well as the British version of road snacks. The clerk, a young Goth, glanced shyly at us from under his thick wash of jet-black hair. “Where are you headed?” When we said Avebury, he nodded sagely. “That’s my town,” he said, and proceeded to give us such complicated instructions we wrote them down.
About 15 minutes later, we drove past the Avebury parking lot (as directed), and into the lot at the Red Lion Pub & Inn, just a half-mile further down the road. We parked, then Lynn, Greg and I ran across the road and did something I wouldn’t have had the nerve for at home: we opened the side gate of the stone house across from the inn, and trespassed onto a farmer’s field. Sure enough, after walking about a hundred yards, we almost ran right into a henge stone. We stood there, smiling at each other, pleased with ourselves, bundled up in coats and blankets against the icy fall weather. Suddenly, Lynn nudged me. “There’s something out there.” I followed her eyes and sure enough, something was moving a few yards away. My mind flashed to axe murderers and robbers, muggers or thieves lurking behind one of the henge stones, waiting for their chance to spring.
Greg squinted into the darkness. “I think it’s sheep.”
Sure enough, as I inched closer, I could see them, bunching together for warmth and none too happy to see us. Every time we moved nearer they shifted their huddle a few feet further away. I breathed again, perhaps for the first time in minutes.
That’s when we saw the UFO.