"When a man buys a ticket for a magical mystery tour, he knows what to expect. We guarantee him the trip of a lifetime... and that's just what he gets. The INCREDIBLE MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR."
It was 9:47 a.m. on Sunday morning and I was on the 243 bus heading south to Waterloo. I was already two minutes late. And as if he was reading my mind, Will, who was meeting me at the train station, sent a text message that came buzzing through my mobile.
"I am near platform 17." he wrote.
"Ok... I'll see you soon. On the bus right now... almost there, I think," I replied.
As I anticipated my arrival at Waterloo Station, I gazed out the window and noticed some of London's famous landmarks. I took out my moleskin notebook; in the section that I had previously hand-labeled "places of interest," I wrote down "St. Paul's Cathedral." And somehow that reminded me of another place I wanted to see, so I also wrote "Bunhill Fields Burial Grounds" in Islington- the final resting place of poet William Blake, along with hundreds of nameless others who had died during the plague.
I carefully closed my book, placed it back inside my purse, and then continued to take in the surrounding scenery from the top deck of the bus. It was a beautiful day. Traces of a bright blue sky peered through the narrow patches of mild London fog, which was beginning to dissipate in the crisp autumn air.
Moments later, I heard a lady's voice announce the words "Waterloo Station." I pressed the "stop" button next to my seat, gathered my belongings and made my way down the stairs to exit the bus. The mechanical doors made a squeaky whoosh noise as they opened, and as soon as I stepped onto the pavement just outside the station I took an exhilarating deep breath. I turned the corner and was approaching the stone steps of the station, when my mobile phone began to ring...
"Hey! Are you almost here?" Will asked.
"I'm right outside. I'm walking in now," I said.
"Oh okay. There's a long line so we're getting in the queue to buy tickets. It's right across from platform 17," he said.
"Cool. I'll be right there."
The concourse at Waterloo Station was quieter than usual. The absence of weekday commuters left the platforms free for day-trippers, leisure travelers and some who may have been returning to the city after a weekend at home with family or friends.
Across from platform 17 was a row of ticket machines, with short queues of people forming behind each one. I walked past the row and found my friends, Will and Allison, standing in a much longer line of people who were all waiting for a manned ticket window. I hopped over a few ropes and joined my friends in line. By 10:02 a.m., we had reached a ticket window and purchased three discounted round-trip fares to Salisbury for just under £54.
With 13 minutes left before our train was scheduled to leave, we stopped at a nearby coffee stand to get some drinks. I had a latte. Will had a mocha. Allison had a chai.
Drinks in one hand and our tickets in the other, we made our way to our train- already waiting at the platform for its passengers. We entered the second carriage and inched through the aisle, which was constricted by other guests looking for their ideal seats. We agreed on a set of four cushioned chairs- arranged as two on either side, facing each other and separated by a mid-sized table.
The journey from Waterloo to Salisbury was an hour and thirty-eight minutes. By the time we had arrived, we had passed through seven different English cities and witnessed the picturesque landscapes of the southern-most midlands. As soon as we stepped off the train, we were struck by the change in ambiance. We were definitely not in London anymore...
Having spent the last month living along the loud and crowded streets of London, the three of us were surprised by the calming quiet of this quaint little town. We walked no more than a mile from the Salisbury train station into the city centre. And as we passed by the cute little shops and mom-and-pop eateries, all closed for their day of rest, we all felt a sense of tranquility and appreciation for the nice departure from our busy school-week schedules.
We had just over an hour before we were supposed to catch our 1:10 tour coach at the Salisbury bus station. So we roamed the main street and found a nice pub to have some lunch. Quite different from the average pub in London, this one was full of locals- people who probably raised their families and lived in Salisbury for years. It was very easy to feel like an outsider.
After our meals, we walked to the bus station and saw the coach immediately. It looked just like any other bus, except it was painted black and decorated by subtle earth tones... with the big letters on the side that spelled out the name of our next destination...
"Oooh I see it!" I exclaimed from inside the bus.
I pointed to a spot straight ahead as the coach climbed the road. Both Will and Allison wriggled in their seats to get a clearer view. And as the image of Stonehenge began to materialize before our eyes, the three of us welled up with excitement to see one of the most famous landmarks in the world.
No matter how many times I had seen Stonehenge in photographs and films, it wasn't until I actually saw it in real life that I felt the magic of its existence. As soon as we stepped off the bus, we turned in the crudely-designed parking lot to get a better look at the site. "Cool," we thought. "It's really Stonehenge!" And yet... there was something very awkward about it...
"Really?" asked Allison, with a tone of disappointment, as she clapped me on the arm.
"Aw, that sucks," I said.
"Yeah, my friends told me it might be anti-climactic," Will added.
Contrary to what we expected, the site was completely roped off. Instead of feeling the widely-believed aura of magical mystery associated with Stonehenge, we suppressed the urge to laugh... for there was no mysterious hill or tall, waving blades of grass. It was instead situated on a well-manicured lawn full of grazing sheep, and directly adjacent to an active highway. Oh, the grandeur!
With our digital audio tour guides pressed up against our ears, we followed the rope circling the site and learned about how the experts didn't seem to know ANYTHING about Stonehenge... besides how the giant rocks came from far, far away and that it might have something to do with seasons and solstice. There was also some speculation that the stumpy hills surrounding the site were once used for mass burials.
"And while we're not exactly sure about what it was used for, we do know what it WASN'T used for," the voice in my ear piece said."It is widely rumoured that the Druids used this site for mysterious ceremonies and sacrifices, but that is simply untrue."
Still, despite our obviously slight disappointment in the environment, we were still happy to be there. Because after it all, it's STONEHENGE. And even if we were unable to learn much new information about it, at least we were in the perfect place for a photo op.
For the rest of the day, we took full advantage of the spectacular weather and rural scenery. After leaving Stonehenge, we spent a few more lazy Sunday hours meandering through the charming streets of Salisbury...
We gaped at an original copy of Britain's magna carta... stored at the great Salisbury Cathedral.
And we finished our day-trip with a nice cup of rosehip and cranberry tea... English style.
All-in-all, the three of us had a great time. And if I could do it again, I definitely would... because even if Stonehenge wasn't as magically mysterious as I had hoped, it gave me but another memorable story to bring back home with me.