Up and out and heading past country towns with ridiculous names like Bishops Nympton and Clapworthy and enough Upmarys and Bussock Bottoms and Windy Breaks to have me smirking in the passenger’s seat next to a stone-faced Giristroula. We stop along the way to lie in the fields, talk to the cows, laugh at the sheep.
Eventually we reach Bath. I’ve never been here before, but Giristroula tells me she has. A group of friends came and, she insists, had a spa. I find this very difficult to believe but Giristroula is adamant, she maintains that she was here in Bath lapping herself in the restorative waters, pampering just as the Romans did. I’m taken by the beauty of Bath straightaway – I’d guessed the centre would be good, perhaps a few streets round the Roman baths, the Crescent, the Circus, but the Bath stone buildings start pretty much the moment you enter the place. I spend the whole journey into the city twisting and turning in my seat, inspecting all the Georgian architecture, it seems almost too much. Too much architectural confectionery. Too rich. We park the car on a meter and walk to the baths. Giristroula looks crestfallen as we get there and it transpires she hasn’t been to the baths at all, and her and her group of Greeks had actually just had a modern spa in a hotel outside the town. She won’t be getting in this time either, as the queue is formidably long and tourists pack the square outside the baths and the towering Abbey – with its comedic Jacob’s Ladder carvings – all waiting to get in. Instead, we choose the option of Giristroula getting up on my shoulders and attempting to peer over the wall. And so it is, in front of bunches of watching perplexed, Italians and Japanese, we giraffe around outside for a bit with Giristroula high up on my shoulders – me tottering back and forth underneath – as she grasps a quick glimpse of a bit of water and a few faux Roman statues. We then walk around the town. Have an overpriced Bath bun. Note the ancient Greek inscription on the old pump house “ΑΡΙΣΤΟΝ ΜΕΝ ΥΛΩΡ” – “Water is best.” Try to block out the tourists.
I’m more impressed by the sweeping architecture of the famous Royal Crescent – high above the stuffy hollow of the city – than my travelling companion, but I feel the one house that has painted its door yellow rather than all the others’ uniform white appeals to her Greek sense of bloody-mindedness. The love of following no rule whatsoever they are ever told to follow. There’s an old story that the only way to get a Greek to drive at 70mph on the motorways is that you need to have signs up all along the road telling them “On no account should you drive at 70mph on this motorway…”
I look at the time and with a horror see we only have five minutes before the parking meter runs out. I conjure up melodramatic tales of the behaviour of British traffic wardens that I have heard about, but have no idea if are really true or not: traffic wardens here seeming to sit between that world of tedious jokey hatred – the mother-in-law – and a real rancor that people lie sweating in bed about. Giristroula tells me that they’re not too popular in Greece either. “But, you know, as with most Greeks they just want an easy life. If it rains, just a little drizzle, or even if it looks like it might to rain, you know they’re never coming out – park wherever you like.” I work myself up telling her that these ruthless black-clothed clones, with their yellow banded hats – so you don’t park on their heads etc. – aren’t like that in Britain. No, not at all. I’ll have to race back to the car. It’s no good her coming, she’s too slow. She’ll only get us lost… Out of breath, having taken wrong turns all over Bath town, through the crowds, passing the lovers holding hands and looking at their mobiles in the teashops’ ingle-nooks, I arrive at the car. I find Giristroula patiently waiting behind the wheel, eyebrow arched. Not a parking warden to be seen anywhere.
Veering off the idea of a vague orbit of the UK for a bit, we head east rather than west from Bath as I feel we really should see Stonehenge on this trip. Well… you can’t leave the country without seeing the absolute obvious. So we drive down the long Warminster Road – fields and Cotswold trees and larks ascending on either side of our straight asphalt carriageway. A brown moulding sofa and two abandoned armchairs sit erected in a layby, balanced on top of each other. The nation’s modern standing stones, I guess. We arrive at the famous old stone circles as the sun begins to set and look to line up and pose and grin for identical photos as those being taken by people we don’t know standing right next to us. We walk up to the gate through the sheep-chewed grass. The hi-vis jacketed guard on duty tells us that we’ll have to pay £32 to get in.
There is a pause. We stare at each other. The silence stretches. The hi-vis guard finally breaks.
“You can just walk round there,” he says, pointing to the left of the roped off area. “You can see exactly what you can see in here, and it’s free.”
So we do, and we stand and take our pictures and wonder, as I suppose absolutely every person who has ever come to this place does, just what these stones are all about. I don’t even attempt an explanation to my travelling Greek companion this time. All I can offer is how they don’t seem quite as big as you’d think they’d be, do they? How it’s a bit like noticing some celebrity from tv out walking on the street. Or going to see Morrissey.
The Greeks don’t have druids of course. They do have Dodekatheists though – Giristoula’s best friend’s brother back home is one in fact – people who still believe in Zeus and his gods living on top of Mount Olympus. They gather at the ancient archaeological sites and on Olympus’s slopes in their robes and garlands, giving votive offerings and sacrifices. I wonder how they and the British Loyal Arthurian Warband druids – with their ivy in their hair and their cups of mead on their day off from work, dancing round Stonehenge in beatific rapture during the Summer Solstice – would get on. Maybe some sort of cultural exchange could be arranged.
We head back to the car. We have an appointment to keep with a friend in Bristol but I feel, as we’re in semi mystic-mode, we should try and get to Glastonbury too, before night completely falls, and then head on to Bristol afterwards.
We arrive at the Glastonbury Tor just as the light of the day is spluttering to an end. We climb up in the gloaming, and in a covering of light rain. At the top, the only ones here, we stare out at the counties of Wiltshire and Somerset and Dorset as they slowly put their lights on, and the buildings start to burn bright on the wheeling circle of darken green fields below us. Even in the falling darkness stacking up over us, it is a fine sight.
And did those feet in ancient time walk upon England’s mountain green? Did Jesus really walk on this mound of earth, as William Blake’s poem asks? One of Christ’s disciples – Joseph of Arimatheia – is meant to have taken Him here as a boy on one of his journeys as a tin merchant. Joseph later came again after Jesus’s death and set up the very first British church here. Some even say the Holy Grail is planted somewhere on this hill. Quite a leap of faith needed to follow all this, I would have thought. I turn to ask Giristroula – pottering about, head down, sniffing around here in the gloom on the top of the hill – to see what she makes of it all. There is, after all, a cave back home on the island of Patmos in Greece where God talked through a hole to Saint John who scribbled it all down in his Book of Revelations. The Greeks seem to believe all that. But before we can dwell on these high matters, I catch sight down from our vantage point on our own chariot of fire waiting far below. I lean forward and peer into the darkness and watch as the distant figure of a cycling policeman stops his bicycle and takes down the number of our hastily – and, I now realise, quite illegally – parked car at the foot of the hill. So, after all that, we’ve been got. I suppose at least we can now feel like true Brits and can complain endlessly, obsessionally about unscrupulous parking laws. Stranded here though, impotently, 500 feet up in the air, there is nothing to do but just watch him ticket us and let go with with a low, groaning, inward moan. “For Christ’s sake…” I mutter to myself. And then raise an apologetic eye to the dark sky above.
We make our way down in silence, and head into Glastonbury town. Giristroula doesn’t feel the otherworldliness of the town much, but I do. Or at least tell myself I do.
“It’s like finding yourself in the middle of a pack of Tarot cards…” I say, to no response.
It’s not just all the ludicrous witchcraft shops (‘The Goddess and The Green Man’, ‘The Wonky Broomstick’) or the wafts of patchouli oil as we walk down the High Street, I really feel there’s something here as we float along the empty descending street of beautifully cockeyed 19th Century buildings. Giristroula has no time for it at all though. Her mood doesn’t improve in the ancient George and Pilgrim pub either, as the local aging hippies top up their spirituality on pints of walloping cider. A terrifically drunk man with a face like one of those slobbering dogs that you don’t really want to pet, but who wipe their face all over your trousers anyway, grabs her as we pass the bar and hugs her close to his large sagging body. He holds her tight, holding her close in his voluminous green t-shirt – a dizzying psychedelic spiral on the front – and he attempts, without much great success, to talk to her about ley lines. We find a seat. A Spanish tourist perches her socked feet next to us on the grill by the open fire to dry out and Giristroula’s mood sinks lower. But I maintain my beatific disposition. Even back in the car, as we get lost in the dark narrow country roads and have to consult antediluvian road signs – white and old, with pointing hands – the finger showing us the arcadian way to Bristol.
We arrive late, my friend having laid a Great British cold spread of pork pies and scotch eggs for us – as always, gingerly eaten by the Greek – and I later dream of England’s hermetic Avalon and all the Merlin magic of the West Country as I drift off to sleep on the Ikea bed in the rather cold upstairs spare bedroom. A high moon peering in at us, with its limpid face leering through the skylight.