When Jeff and I were about to be married (three years ago!), we thought for sure we would honeymoon in Jamaica. We love island culture, reggae music, warm beaches, and all the other enticements Jamaica has to offer. We were just about to book our flights when I had an email from Dr. Meeks, United Methodist theologian extraordinaire and just all-around great person. He was writing to let us know that United Methodist students (and their spouses) at Vanderbilt Divinity had an awesome opportunity. We could travel to Britain, stay for ten days, lodge at a bed-and-breakfast on a gorgeous cathedral close adjacent to the tallest cathedral tower in Europe, and tour with a group of our friends for something to the tune of two grand. (That included the FLIGHT and everything!) Just our plane tickets to Jamaica would have cost nearly as much. We talked it over and decided to jump. Sure, it wouldn't be the intimate just-the-two-of-us island experience we had planned, but it could possibly be infinitely more awesome. And it was.
So, bright and early on the morning after our wedding, we pawned the pup off on Jeff's folks, dragged ourselves out of bed and stumbled onto a plane at Nashville International. By way of Charlotte, we arrived in London.
There was a course for credit being offered to students while we were there, but Jeff and I had agreed that I wouldn't attend the classes so that we could use that time to explore by ourselves. The first night in Salisbury, we decided to jettison our jetlag by hitting up a few local pubs and seeing what it was all about.
Contrary to popular lore about Britons and their stuffiness, everyone we met was friendly and talkative (it didn't hurt that our liberal politics and open-mindedness impressed everyone there - it felt good to be an American ambassador that was actually interested in experiencing another culture). That very first night, we bellied up with our warm and flat beers (kegs are kept under the bar in England, rather than behind the wall in a cooler room - surprisingly, it makes them much more chuggable!) next to an older gentleman named Malcolm. He had a beautiful dalmation with him (another awesome thing about all pubs in Salisbury: well-behaved dogs always welcome!). As Jeff is wont to do, he struck up conversation and they became fast friends over the next several hours.
The pub was about to close around eleven that night and we were hungry. Accustomed to American amenities, we figured we would just grab a bite at a deli or a mart on the way home. Malcolm chuckled and explained that this is not the way it works in Salisbury. All restaurants close around ten, and not even the grocery store would be open! Instead, he offered, why don't we just come back to his house and he'll fix a snack for us?
My radar started beeping. Follow strange man with large dog in foreign country back to his house? Negative. I could see pictures of our hacked-up bodies printed in the Salisbury paper and the headline: "American tourists stupidly trust local wacko!" I tried to signal my hesitation to Jeff, but he had already agreed and had one foot out the door. We didn't have our phones available to surreptitiously text-message, so I had to go along or look extraordinarily rude.
Malcolm's home turned out to be one of the more fantastic things we saw in England. Built during the time of Elizabeth II, when all fresh lumber was commandeered for ships to fight the Spanish Armada, the joists, studs, and supports were made from retired ship timber.
Also, I noticed that we had to descend two or three steps to get to the entry level to his home. He explained that this was because the road had been built up over the centuries, but his house remained at the same level. Amazing!
He poured us a very expensive drink of sherry, made us sandwiches with bread and bacon (in England it's more like ham - not crispy), and I consequently spilled said sherry all over a very old and precious-looking Persian rug. Ever the kind soul, Malcolm assured me it wasn't a big deal and to leave it alone.
My radar turned out to be way off. Malcolm was one of the kindest and sweetest people we met on the whole trip. We decided it was time to head home, and we started the short walk back to our lodging. It was probably about midnight or one at this point. We were so ready to crash.
Let me pause here to explain what a "cathedral close" is. I had no idea before I experienced it. It is basically the oldest part of the city, which was built tightly around the cathedral and then a tall, thick, retaining wall was constructed as a fortification around that. It's probably about an acre or two total. Every night at nine or so, the gates to the close are shut and locked, and you must request a key if you are a visitor in order to let yourself back in if you plan to stay out later than that.
But, we didn't know that on our first night. So, we showed up at the gate where we had exited the close and found it locked. We had no phone service, scarcely any idea where we were, and not much hope of getting in. Panic.
We walked around the close wall to find the shortest part of it, where Jeff might boost me up and then try to pull himself up over the wall. We found it, he got me up, and then he was stuck on the other side. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a couple of young men appeared, asking, "Need a boost, mate?" Yes please! He hopped up, and together we tumbled down onto the other side of the wall. Like Malcolm had said, the street had been built up several feet, so on the other side of the wall it was a considerable drop down to the ground. We fell hard. I cut my wrist on some rocks and still have the scar to show!
We tiptoed through someone's back yard, past the cathedral school, and into the front door of Sarum College. Here I am shaking hands with a statue on our way home:
It was the first night of one of the best trips we've ever had. We still long to return to Salisbury, and can't wait to take our kid(s) and show them everything! Maybe we can even look Malcolm up.