Notes from a Small Island
Author:Bill Bryson

chapter Seven
I WENT TO SALISBURY ON A BIG RED DOUBLE-DECKER BUS THAT SWAYED down winding country roads and clattered through overhanging branches in a most exciting way. I like Salisbury very much. It's just the right size for a town - big enough for cinemas and bookshops, small enough to feel friendly and livable.

I picked my way through a busy market in the square and tried to imagine what the British see in these things. They always look so depressingly tawdry, with their upended crates and trodden lettuce leaves and grubby plastic awnings held together with clips. In French markets you pick among wicker baskets of glossy olives and cherries and little wheels of goat's cheese, all neatly arrayed. In Britain you buy tea towels and ironing-board covers from plastic beer crates. British markets never fail to put me in a gloomy and critical frame of mind.

Walking through the busy shopping streets now, I found it was the unattractive things that jumped out at me - Burger Kings and Prontaprints and Superdrugs and all the other manifold Enemies of the High Street, all of them with windows cluttered with announcements of special offers and all of them shoehorned into buildings without even the most fleeting nod to their character or age. In the centre of town, on a corner that ought to have been a visual pleasure, there stood a small building occupied by a Lunn Poly travel agency. Upstairs the structure was half-timbered and quietly glorious; downstairs, between outsized sheets of plate glass covered with handwritten notices of cheap flights to Tenerife and Malaga, the fagade had been tiled - tiled - with a mosaic of littlemulti-toned squares that looked as if they had been salvaged from a King's Cross toilet. It was just awful. I stood before it and tried to imagine what combination of architects, corporate designers and town planners could have allowed this to be done to a fine timber-framed seventeenth-century building, and could not. And the thing was that it was really not a great deal worse than many other frontages along the street.

It sometimes occurs to me that the British have more heritage than is good for them. In a country where there is so astonishingly much of everything, it is easy to look on it as a kind of inexhaustible resource. Consider the numbers: 445,000 listed buildings, 12,000 medieval churches, 1,500,000 acres of common land, 120,000 miles of footpaths and public rights of way, 600,000 known sites of archaeological interest (98 per cent of them with no legal protection). Do you know that in my Yorkshire village alone there are more seventeenth-century buildings than in the whole of North America? And that's just one obscure hamlet with a population comfortably under one hundred. Multiply that by all the other villages and hamlets in Britain and you see that the stockpile of ancient dwellings, barns, churches, pinfolds, walls, bridges and other structures is immense almost beyond counting. There is so much of it everywhere that it's easy to believe that you can take away chunks of it - a half-timbered frontage here, some Georgian windows there, a few hundred yards of ancient hedge or drystone wall - and that there will still be plenty left. In fact, the country is being nibbled to death.

It astounds me how casual are the planning regulations in such a sensitive environment. Did you know that even in conservation areas a houseowner may remove all the original doors and windows, cover the roof with hacienda-style tiles and the facade with artificial stone cladding, take down the garden wall, crazy pave the lawn and add a plywood porch, and still be deemed, in the eyes of the law, to be maintaining the carefully preserved tone of the neighbourhood? Just about the only thing he can't do, in fact, is tear the house down - but even that is a largely hypothetical legal nicety. In 1992, a development company in Reading tore down five listed buildings in a conservation area, was taken to court and fined all of £675.

Despite a certain stirring of consciousness in recent years, householders throughout the country can still do pretty much anything they want with their homes, farmers can still throw up mammoth tin sheds and grub up hedges, British Telecom can whip away red phone boxes and replace them with shower stalls, petrol companies can erect huge flat canopies on every forecourt, and retailers can impose their plasticky corporate styles on the most architecturally sensitive of structures, and there's nothing you can do about it. Actually, there is one little thing you can do: withhold your custom. I am proud to tell you that I haven't gone in a Boots in years and won't until they restore the frontages of their principal outlets in Cambridge, Cheltenham, York and such others as I might care to add to the list from time to time, and I would willingly get drenched to the bone if I could find a single petrol station within twenty miles of my home that didn't have a flying canopy.

Salisbury, I must point out in fairness, is actually much better at looking after itself than most other towns. Indeed, it is the very handsomeness of the place generally that makes the odd desecrations so difficult to bear. Moreover, it appears, little by little, to be getting better. The local authorities had recently insisted that a cinema owner preserve the half-timbered facade on a sixteenth-century building in the town centre and I noticed two places where developers appeared to be actually taking apart buildings that had been despoiled during the dark ages of the Sixties and Seventies and restoring them with diligence and care. One of the developers' boards boasted that it did this sort of thing more or less always. May it prosper for ever.

I would probably forgive Salisbury anything as long as they never mess with the Cathedral Close. There is no doubt in my mind that Salisbury Cathedral is the single most beautiful structure in England and the close around it the most beautiful space. Every stone, every wall, every shrub is just right. It is as if every person who has touched it for 700 years has only improved it. I could live on a bench in the grounds. I sat on one now and gazed happily for a half-hour at this exquisite composition of cathedral, lawns and solemn houses. I'd have stayed longer except that it began to drizzle, so I got up to have a look around. I went first to the Salisbury Museum in the hope that there would be a kindly person behind the counter who would let me leave my rucksack while I looked at the museum and cathedral. (There was, bless him.) The Salisbury Museum is outstanding and I urge you to go there at once. I hadn't intended to linger, but it was packed with diverting Roman oddments and old pictures and little scale modelsof Old Sarum and the like, for which I am always a sucker.

I was particularly interested in the Stonehenge Gallery because I was going there on the morrow, so I read all the instructive labels attentively. I know this goes without saying, but it really was the most incredible accomplishment. It took 500 men just to pull each sarsen, plus 100 more to dash around positioning the rollers. Just think about it for a minute. Can you imagine trying to talk 600 people into helping you drag a fifty-ton stone eighteen miles across the countryside, muscle it into an upright position and then saying, 'Right, lads! Another twenty like that, plus some lintels and maybe a couple of dozen nice bluestones from Wales, and we can party'!' Whoever was the person behind Stonehenge was one dickens of a motivator, I'll tell you that.

From the museum, I wandered across the broad lawn to the cathedral. In the tragic event that you have never been there, I warn you now that Salisbury has long been the most money-keen of English cathedrals. I used to be pretty generally unsympathetic about ecclesiastical structures hectoring visitors for funds, but then I met the vicar of the University Church of St Mary the Virgin in Oxford - the most-visited parish church in England - and learned that its 300,000 annual visitors between them deposit a miserly £8,000 in the collection boxes, since which time I have mellowed considerably. I mean to say, these are glorious structures and deserve our grateful support. But Salisbury, I must say, takes things a good step beyond what I would call discreet solicitation.

First, you have to pass a cinema-style ticket booth where you are encouraged to pay a 'voluntary' admission charge of £2.50, then once inside you are repeatedly assaulted with further calls on your pocket. You are asked to pay to hear a recorded message or make a brass rubbing, to show your support for the Salisbury Cathedral Girl Choristers and the Friends of Salisbury Cathedral, and to help restore something called the Eisenhower flag, a seriously faded and tattered Stars and Stripes that once hung in Elsenhower's command post at Wilton House near by. (I left lOp and a note saying: 'But why did you let it get in such a state in the first place?') Altogether, I counted nine separate types of contributions box between the admission booth and the gift shop - ten if you include the one for votive candles. On top of that, you could hardly move through the nave without bumping into an upright display introducing the cathedral staff (there were smiling photographs of each of them, as if this were a Burger King) or discussing the Church's voluntary work overseas or glass cases with cutaway models showing how the cathedral was constructed - diverting, I grant you, but surely more appropriate to the museum across the close. It was a mess. How long, I wonder, till you climb into an electric cart and are whirred through the 'Salisbury Cathedral Experience' complete with animatronic stonemasons and monks like Friar Tuck? I give it five years.

Afterwards, I collected my rucksack from the kindly man at the Salisbury Museum and trudged off to the central tourist office, where I presented the young man behind the counter with a complicated prospective itinerary through Wiltshire and Dorset, from Stonehenge to Avebury and on to Lacock, Stourhead Gardens and possibly Sherborne, and asked him if he could tell me which buses I needed to catch that would let me see them all in three days. He looked at me as if I were wildly eccentric and said: 'Have you by any chance travelled by bus in Britain before?' I assured him that I had, in 1973. 'Well, I think you'll find that things have changed a bit.'

He fetched me a slender leaflet giving the bus times between Salisbury and points west and helped me locate the modest section dealing with journeys to Stonehenge. I had hoped to catch an early-morning bus to Stonehenge with a view to proceeding on to Avebury for the afternoon, but this, I instantly apprehended, was an impossibility. The first bus to Stonehenge didn't leave until almost eleven in the morning. I gave a snort of disbelief.

'I believe you'll find the local taxi services will take you to Stonehenge, wait for you there, and bring you back for about twenty pounds. A lot of our American visitors find this very satisfactory.'

I explained to him that though I was technically an American, I had lived in Britain long enough to be careful with my money, and, though I had not yet reached the point where I extracted coins one at a time from a little plastic squeeze pouch, I would not willingly part with £20 for any good or service that I couldn't take home with me and get years of faithful use out of afterwards. I retired to a nearby coffee shop with a sheaf of bus timetables and, extracting from my rucksack a weighty Great Britain Railway Passenger Timetable purchased specially for this trip, began a lengthy cross-study of the various modes of public travel available through Wessex.

I was mildly astounded to discover that many substantial communities had no rail services at all - Marlborough, Devizes andf

Amesbury to name but three. None of the bus timetables appeared to interconnect in any meaningful way. Buses to places like Lacock were woefully infrequent and generally made the return journey more or less immediately, leaving you the choice of staying for fourteen minutes or seven hours. It was all most discouraging.

Frowning darkly, I went off to the offices of the local newspaper to find the desk of one Peter Blacklock, an old friend from The Times now working in Salisbury, who had once carelessly mentioned that he and his wife Joan would be delighted to put me up if I was ever passing through Salisbury. I had dropped him a line a few days before telling him that I would call at his office at 4.30 on whatever day it was, but the note must never have reached him because when I arrived at 4.29 he was just easing himself out of a back window. I'm joking, of course! He was waiting for me with twinkling eyes and gave every impression that he and the saintly Joan couldn't wait for me to eat their food, drink their liquor, muss the guest bed and help them pass the night with a robust seven-hour version of my famous Nasal Symphony. They were kindness itself. In the morning, I walked with Peter into town while he pointed out local landmarks - the spot where As You Like It was first performed, a bridge used by Trollope in the Barchester Chronicles -and parted outside the newspaper offices. With two hours to kill, I pootled about aimlessly, peering in shops and drinking cups of coffee, before finally calling at the bus station, where a crowd of people were already waiting for the 10.55 to Stonehenge. The bus didn't arrive until after eleven and then it took nearly twenty minutes for the driver to dispense tickets since there were many tourists from foreign lands and few of them seemed able, poor souls, to grasp the idea that they needed to hand over money and acquire a little slip of paper before they could take a seat. I paid £3.95 for a return ticket on the bus, then a further £2.80 for admission at Stonehenge itself. 'Can I interest you in a guidebook at two pounds sixty-five?' the ticket lady asked me and received in reply a hollow laugh.

Things had changed at Stonehenge since I was last there in the early Seventies. They've built a smart new gift shop and coffee bar, though there is still no interpretation centre, which is entirely understandable. This is, after all, merely the most important prehistoric monument in Europe and one of the dozen most visited tourist attractions in England, so clearly there is no point in spending foolish sums making it interesting and instructive. The big change is that you can no longer go right up to the stones and "scratch 'I LOVE DENISE' or whatever on them, as you formerly were able. Now you are held back by a discreet rope a considerable distance from the mighty henge. This had actually effected a significant improvement. It means that the brooding stones aren't lost among crowds of daytrippers, but left in an undisturbed and singular glory.

Impressive as Stonehenge is, there comes a moment somewhere about eleven minutes after your arrival when you realize you've seen pretty well as much as you care to, and you spend another forty minutes walking around the perimeter rope looking at it out of a combination of politeness, embarrassment at being the first from your bus to leave and a keen desire to extract £2.80 worth of exposure from the experience. Eventually I wandered back to the gift shop and looked at the books and souvenirs, had a cup of coffee in a styrofoam cup, then wandered back to the bus-stop to wait for the 13.10 to Salisbury, and divided my time between wondering why they couldn't provide benches and where on earth I might go next.