Day 74: One of the many charming character traits of the English is their attitude towards their own weather. If, as a visitor to England, you experience four days of near-incessant downpour and you happen to make a casual reference to the foul nature of the conditions to a local, they will nod in deep agreement, roll their eyes at the darkened heavens and say, "I can't understand where it all came from so suddenly. Last week was beautiful." Rain, amazingly, takes the English by surprise. They see it as a freak occurrence, the kind of thing most people only ever read about in textbooks.
That's not to say England isn't a land of freak weather occurrences. If you hang around long enough you'll experience one. It happened to me. We had an evening balloon flight scheduled for the 16th, and then a second flight as back-up on the 17th. On both dates, the weather forced early surrender. The sky was wet concrete, as steady wind was blowing and a balloon, no matter how hot the air inside, would have been beaten downwards by the pelt of raindrops. By mid-morning on the 17th, however, just as the window of balloon opportunity had opened and closed, the freak occurrence occurred: the sky cleared.
A break in the weather
It all happens very quickly in England. A tear appears in the celestial carpet of grey and a shaft of sunlight blares down, illuminating a patch of green, wet land. As the clouds move, the spotlight zooms over the topography, cresting rises, falling into valleys and dipping into little streams. Another tear appears and everything begins to look joyfully lush. Soon, the sky is more blue than grey.
Ballooning may have been scotched, but the thought of gaining elevation still seemed like a good one. Drew and I drove to the top of a place called Kit Hill, a local highpoint in east Cornwall not far from the north coast crowned by a pretty smokestack, the sole intact remnant of a 19th Century wolfram mine. I had never heard of wolfram before, but there used to be a lot of it on Kit Hill, apparently.
These days, people come here to mine something considerably less tangible than ore: the view. It stretches in all directions. An elderly couple pulled up in a blue hatchback and released two spaniels from the back seat. A flat area of grass--grazed by sheep to putting-green smoothness--was the setting for their canine exercise. The woman threw a tennis ball for the dogs. On one throw, a white and brown spaniel took off with enthusiasm and reached such a speed that the physics of spaniel locomotion failed and the dog tumbled and rolled for a stretch of ten feet. As quickly, it gained its stance again, snatched the ball in its mouth and returned happily and triumphantly to mistress. There's nothing like a good recovery.
Drew and I drove down to Plymouth, where we found an incredible parking spot right in the center of town. Plymouth, I am pleased to report, isn't nearly as ugly or depressing as some people will have you think. There are nice looking pubs and restaurant, cute shops, and in front of the courthouse Drew and I watched two unsavory youths engage in a shouting match that had overtones of violence. As Nabokov nearly said, "Nothing is more exhilarating than philistine vulgarity."
Following signs for "Tourist Information," Drew and reached our goal: the harbor where, in 1620, the Pilgrim Fathers set sail on the Mayflower for Plymouth Rock. There's an arch commemorating the event, and just across the street is an interpretive museum where I learned that almost all the foggy notions I had about the Pilgrim Fathers were mainly myths. For example, the Pilgrim Fathers weren't the first settlers in America-they arrived about a hundred years after the first settlers. Second, Plymouth Rock wasn't so named because the Pilgrim Fathers set out from Plymouth. It was called Plymouth Rock before they even got there, and the only reason they landed there was because the first place they planned on landing didn't work out.
Not far from the Mayflower Museum, Drew and I found a fish and chips restaurant. In terms of English stereotypes, fish and chips is second only to the weather and just like the weather, the quality of English fish and chips veers towards the soggy. But when you get lucky, you find that you're very happy indeed to be in England, which is just how we felt after downing a slab of fried cod, a plate of chips and mushy peas. Full to the point of bloat, we stopped in at the Plymouth English Gin distillery, started up about almost 200 years after the Mayflower set sail. There is no question that gin travels extremely well and tastes as good in India as it does in England. Still, it always feels to good to purchase such things right at the source.
Back in 1620, Plymouth was not, in fact, the Pilgrim Fathers' original point of departure. Southampton was, and the only reason they stopped in Plymouth was for emergency repairs. Their journey across the Atlantic took them 60 days, during which time the passengers suffered from bouts of seasickness, a baby was born and one man died. As an interpretive display at the Mayflower Museum pointed out, below decks conditions were cramped and ventilation scarce and the smell would have been "unbearable."
Like the Pilgrims, I too am taking on a ship across the Atlantic departing from Southampton and bound for America. My trip should take about one tenth as long as theirs, and below decks I'll entertain myself by seeing live shows, indulging myself at a spa, spending the tattered remnants of my budget at the casino, and eating at one of 10 restaurants onboard. With any luck, the smell will not be unbearable. And unlike the Pilgrim Fathers, I'm packing gin.