Somerset – here I come! Part 2

Johnny and Ricky.

I left Stonehenge in time to avoid hordes of tourists armed with their horrifying selfie sticks. I cannot bear these new social tools. I got on my English car, and I headed towards another jewel of the British crown: Salisbury Cathedral.

I got to the Cathedral after parking my car in a small parking lot that turned out to be free for me as two ladies gave me their daily ticket (long live British ladies!). I walked through a nice gate and along a small street, which was exceptional for two reasons:

  • A plaque said that in one of its building William Golding taught at the local school for almost 20 years. Without his flies, I hope! I got wondering how it feels to have such a genius writer as a teacher. It’s hard to admit it, but none of my teachers or professors has left much in my life: none showed me “the way” or enlightened me. I suppose I didn’t do much to them either, but I have often dreamt to meet a professor that made me want to jump on my school desk and scream “O Captain! My Captain!” like in “Dead Poets Society”. It never happened. End of the story.
  • I saw a sundial painted on the wall of one of the houses in this cobblestone street. Gold and blue were its colours. One could read this sentence above it: “Life is but a walking shadow”. Pure genius. Shadows. Sun. Genius. Moreover, the sundial is not really showing the right time. It’s not wrong – it’s … early! It dates back to 1749. In 1752 the UK switched from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar. 1749 turns out to be 14-day-shorter than 1752 and if you look closely at the sundial, September 2nd becomes September, 14th. I wish it were that simple, sometimes, to skip some days.

At the end of this amazing street, I saw the Cathedral. Even from a distance it is stunning. Slender and elegant as only the Gothic buildings can be. It’s crazy to think that it was built in less than 40 years between the first and the second half of the 13th century. It has a huge 123-metre-long spire and a very extensive cloister (32 hectares) that is also the largest in the country.

There’s more to this place when you enter it. Salisbury Cathedral is also home to two other fascinating items.

The first is the oldest clock in the world, dating back to 1386. At first, though, I didn’t even understand that I was looking at a clock as the oldest clock in the world does not look like a clock. It looks like a mistake. It looks like a bunch of wires and weights hanging here and there. It doesn’t even show numbers. It doesn’t even beat the hours. For a moment, I thought I was looking at an error.

The second is one of the four surviving original copies of the Magna Charta. Its drafting dates back to exactly 800 years ago – 1215. Who signed it? John Lackland, aka “Johnny” – Richard the Lionheart’s brother, aka “Ricky”. I imagine the two brothers. You must not be very cheerful when your nickname is Lackland and your brother’s is Lionheart. Moreover, Johnny lost all the crown’s possessions in France and did not receive anything from his father Henry after Ricky’s death. Johnny thought that a war could sort this Lackland business. To finance this great idea, he also thought to impose high taxes on his barons. Let’s just say that they were not really excited about this decision. Nobody was excited about much anyone’s decision at that time. Things get really sour after Johnny lost at the Battle of Bouvines. He was then forced to meet his barons at Runnymede: his only option to renew his subjects’ obedience was to pass a series of concessions that became the Magna Charta.

It’s called Magna not because it’s big. The Latin adjective distinguishes it from another law on hunting, issued around the same year. When you are at school, you learn that the Charta is the first document of fundamental rights of citizens. In reality, there were other similar writings that granted privileges to the communities some years before or around it. However, I haven’t got a clue of their contents or titles, so let’s move on after this lame attempt to appear knowledgeable.

What I can tell you, dear readers, is that the Magna Charta, remains an essential document in the European history. These are only some of the reasons:

  • It took away Johnny’s right to impose new taxes onto his vassals without the prior consent of a common advising board. If only a common advice was sought today, in Italy especially. Then again, maybe it would be the same as the advising board was then made of archbishops, abbots, earls and barons. No. It would not be better.
  • For the first time, citizens cannot be imprisoned without being offered a regular process. Too bad that in several centuries and nations, this measure went blissfully to hell.
  • The Magna Charta also speaks of proportionality of the penalty to the offense. I live in a nation where, obviously, this idea was not too liked and then those who steal or kill, they are having nice walks in the park and who is late in paying his monthly instalment, gets evicted. I am not sure I understand …

I then left Salisbury, and after a few kilometres I got to Old Sarum Castle. I was alone there and I enjoyed the local legends. In the tower, which is still very well preserved, the local lord’s wife was imprisoned for many years. Story has it that the subjects loved her and brought food to keep her alive. How many women suffered in history?

I then entered a tiny chapel where there are symbols of noble families besides frescoes showing some fierce Crusaders on the right, in shades of red. Moments of solitude like this make me rejoice: I can enjoy something that probably few know, or perhaps many, but I am the only one here, and now, in this moment. Travelling makes my life unique. Wide. If travel was free, I would spend very little time to stop.

Bristol awaits me tomorrow. But above all, my hero: Banksy!

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