(Avebury, for those non-Brits in my audience, is the site of a stone circle slightly older than Stonehenge, which you can still actually get near and wander around.)
Yesterday's traffic was fairly terrible, what with all the rain and many accidents. I hate to think how long some people were trying to get to Bristol's Harbour Festival, bearing in mind that on my way out of town, I saw that all three lanes of the M32 were blocked on the way into town, lane one by a crashed car, lane two by an ambulance and lane three by a stationary car parked facing the wrong way up the motorway. Ouch.
So, I didn't get to Avebury until about half past one. The Red Lion car park was full, but luckily there's a National Trust one not too far away, and I've actually remembered to put my National Trust car window sticker on this year, so it was free.
And then began my tribulations. Because Avebury -- possibly as a result of emanations from the Stone Circle -- has no O2 reception to speak of. So, no phone calls.
First off, I tried to find my way back to the pub (not so easy when the road you arrive on has no pavement, so you've got to go by footpath, in another direction. It's fine once you know where you're going, but I'd never been to Avebury before.)
I succeeded in the end, mostly by dint of asking a nice, if slightly oddly-dressed, couple. The tall man with the lush, warm-looking cloak (I wasn't dressed for yesterday's weather, either) pointed me in the right direction. I was a little surprised at how good his enunciation was, considering the number of lip piercings he was sporting, but I guess that's the prejudice of the old fogey talking.
So, I got to the pub. And it was stuffed to overflowing with druids. Really; they were overspilling into the car park. The pub was so busy it took a good few minutes to get through the front door. Then it took a lot longer to look through all the rooms in the TARDIS-like interior and figure out that there was no-one I recognised there.
Arse. So, I traipsed out, and tried to figure out what to do with no mobile reception. I asked a group of druids if any of their mobile phones worked, with the thought of borrowing one for a minute, and that's when I learned that none of the networks work well in Avebury.
It strikes me that one of the phone networks could get all the local custom sewn up by sticking a fibreglass standing stone with a mobile phone mast hidden inside in a nearby field; I'm sure no-one would notice.
Anyway. Getting damper by the minute, I traipsed back in the direction of the car park, because I'd seen some signposts to other stuff on my way. And found a nice old-fashioned red telephone box. Although the prices aren't old-fashioned; I can't believe it's a 40p minimum to make a phone call these days! I suppose, if you're in a phone box, then you're pretty much out of all other options, so they can charge what they like.
But as I scrolled through my address book to look for my friend Anna's phone number, a text message arrived from her. Yup, ironically, the only place there's mobile phone reception in Avebury is inside the phonebox. "Change of plans," it said, "Now at stones in village ring when you get here".
Calling, I just got voicemail. So I traipsed back to the pub and asked a handy druid where I could find his village ring.
Then I wandered around the stones for quite a while. Like I said, I've never been to Avebury before, and despite the rain and trouble finding people, I was already starting to like it. The people were friendly, and the stones were gorgeous. And the slight drizzle actually seemed to suit the landscape.
I really didn't think much of Stonehenge when I went. Don't get me wrong; I think it's probably a beautiful, mystical place, and a literal monument to astounding early engineering achievements. But as they don't actually let you get anywhere fucking near it, I can't be absolutely certain. Avebury is definitely a lot more relaxed about wandering around the (admittedly much smaller) stones, and was full of people (even discounting the druids) on a rainy day. And the people are part of the picture; they help bring the place alive and give some context. That was what was missing from Stonehenge, for me. Without the people, and without being able to get close, well, it's just some rocks.
My friends weren't in the stone circle. So, time for plan B. Actually, about plan F by this point. I see a staircase cut into the hill next to the stones, and figure I'll try my luck. More height should mean better phone reception. And I'm right. While I'm reading the next text from my friend, which pings onto my phone about a minute after I get to the top, my friend Hal calls. They couldn't get into the lovely pub for all the druids, so they're having lunch at the National Trust cafe instead. And I haven't missed much, because the food is crap.
Of course, as I'm leaving the stone circle, all the druids march out of the pub, across the road, and into the circle. Slightly faster than their drummers at the back would like, as it happens. "Psst! Stay with us, Kev, you're going too fast!" is an incongruous phrase for a druid musician to use...
I debate whether I should mention that the pub is now druid-free with lots of empty tables to my friends who've just eaten the crap food at the National Trust cafe. Probably not, I feel.
Finally, as I'm halfway to the cafe, I bump into Mark (Harry's brother, the stag of the night before's stag party, and the birthday boy for the lunch celebrations.) He's damper than I am, having camped out the night before on the stag do. We straggle into the cafe. I'm immediately hugged and kissed by a woman I've met briefly before, once -- Anna's mother is the woman whose novel synopsis I proof-read and tidied up at very short notice last week, before she sent it off to HarperCollins, and I think she was quite grateful. I say "hi" to everyone else, and go to get some food, as I'm starving.
And now, as a "reward" for anyone who's still with me at this point in an LJ entry that seems to have turned into a "what I did on my holidays"-style creative writing exercise, here's a small rant about the National Trust:
As I mentioned, I'm a member of the National Trust. But I'm considering lapsing my membership next time it comes up for renewal, and one of the reasons is their cafes.
Until the archaeologist who owned it sold his Avebury cafe to the National Trust, apparently it was fantastic. People came for miles, it had its own cookbook, and it was known for its friendliness. You sat on real wooden benches and someone who knew what they were doing cooked you fantastic food.
Now, sadly, it's your standard, utterly generic, sandwiches-trucked-in-from-a-factory, plastic-tabled National Trust cafe. I'm astounded that the same organisation who maintain some of our most distinctive, grand, historic buildings also maintain some of the blandest, most boring, utterly generic cafes in the country.
This one had the usual suspects. The dull brown trays, the open fridges full of pre-prepared rubbish, and bad, expensive coffee. Also -- and forgive me, I'm clearly getting old -- twelve-year-old staff with no interest at all in what they were doing. And, to be fair to them, surely no way of changing things even if they were interested in it. These are Neal Stephenson's "three-ring binder" employees if ever I've seen them.
Forewarned, I made my food choices carefully and tried to pick stuff that would be merely boring, rather than offensively crap, and was at least successful on that score.
So, the main reason I went to Avebury -- lunch with my friends -- turned out to be a quick meal eaten after everyone else had finished, among damp and mostly hung-over company, in a plastic caff with no redeeming features. Still, the rest of Avebury looked pretty impressive, and I wish I'd had time to get my camera out. Definitely going back.
I don't know whether they were bolshie from being hung-over, or resentful that they'd not got into the pub, but most of the company was dropping in comments about the "hippies and weirdos" that were all over the place, and how Avebury would be better without them. I did point out that I'd never even have found them if I'd not been very helpfully pointed in the right direction on a couple of occasions by both a hippie and a weirdo, but my protests fell on deaf ears and I gave up the argument.
I still say, though, that the druids and other assorted folks who were filling the place up yesterday really gave Avebury a distinctive atmosphere, a sense of community that wouldn't have been there otherwise.
But, like I say, I didn't have much time to make more of an opinion. By the time I got there, it was pretty much time to go -- the party was over, and only the headaches were lingering on. So, pausing only to chat to Anna's mum about her novel while we waited for her lift to appear, I headed back to the car park, and left Avebury with a definite feeling of incompleteness.
I shall return. With a camera, more spare time, and a lack of hippie-hostile entourage.