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Friday, 8th May 2009
Virginia's been watching these programmes on the TV about Longleat, which major on the Safari park with the fun-loving animals like lions and tigers. So we duly set off for a long weekend for our personal encounter with nature. The trip didn't start very brightly - rain was pelting down as we drove down towards the M25 round London. But happily blue patches started jostling with the dark clouds, and we got some sun and sharp shadows as we voyaged westwards.

Our trip out took in Stonehenge. It was overcast, and drizzling, when we went round the prehistoric building site. Couldn't go up close to and inbetween the stones as was possible on my last visit - but that was some time ago. The fencing off makes it a less intense experience. Black crows haunted the sarsens - perhaps the resident spirits whose utterances are now just caws and cries to us. The gift shop had books with various explanations of Stonehenge. A conflict between those wanting these stones to be mysterious, and those wanting to have answers for them. Perhaps the main importance of Stonehenge was and remains as somewhere that draws people together, a focus for a community, a symbol of unity.
We were one of the first arrivals at Longleat on the Saturday, driving down a lovely avenue of blossoming trees and bushes, and got into the imposing house while the guides were still getting ready. The guides were very welcoming, what was a little disconcerting was that they moved between rooms each quarter of an hour, and we could see the same guide several times as we went round!

From the outside the house is massive, but it is effectively four walls round a large empty central courtyard. Longleat is partly about show, about displaying the silverware and Meissen porcelain, about the chronicle in canvas of the Thynnes (the owning family who date back to King Henry VIII's kitchen clerk.) These aristocrats have taste and appreciation as evidenced by the recent additions to the art on display. But the current Lord of Longleat comes over as a showman too, both privileged and trapped by his genealogy?

We did a boat trip on a lake where one can see a poor elderly gorilla marooned on an island (but he does have satellite TV as a palliative.) Sea lions honked and hooted as they were fed by those of us on the boat. A pair of hippos kept their backs towards us, I wouldn't have noticed the grey lumps if they hadn't been pointed out! By the boat stage a colony of meerkats watched with undefinable and appealing expressions. We also did a mini-train journey round. We drove ourselves when we went to the Safari Park proper. Giraffes, camels, antelopes - the tigers and lions looked bored out of their skulls, but the wolves at least were roaming around. The monkey enclosure was closed so Virginia's car still has windscreen wipers.
Some exercise was had walking up Cley Hill, site of an iron age hill fort. There's not much to see at the top past vague ridges and hillocks, but from the top one could see a reasonable way around. We found a good tea room called ''Jacqueline's Restaurant'' in Warminster to eat in Saturday night, just hoped they had more business as we were their only patrons when we were there. The portions were ample, and the banana milkshake soothing. Did try to find a Chinese restaurant in Frome Friday night but failed pretty comprehensively!

On the way back from the Longleat area to Cambridge on the Sunday we went round Avebury Stone Circle, which for me is more impressive than Stonehenge. The re-erected stones are ghosts of the past, still making their presence felt as they stand in their circles like petrified cricketeers. Sheep graze in among the stones, a road bisects the circle, the village has squatted on what the site used to be. Yet this monolithic procession still hints at an unseen and unknown, beyond our mundane today. A focus.