When I was eleven, I visited Glastonbury Abbey, one of the top contenders for the title of “final resting place of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere.” At the time, my main sources of King Arthur knowledge were a high-school theatre production of Camelot, and First Knight, a film starring Richard Gere as Lancelot and Sean Connery as King Arthur and concerning what seemed to me at the time a delightfully scandalous depiction of the Lancelot and Guinevere romance. With such historical knowledge, I thought it was pretty cool that I was able to see where these sexually-charged and magically-aided royals were buried—taking for granted that the Abbey was telling the truth. I was also at the age when I still thought that Glastonbury’s many crystal-cum-tarot card shops and flowing clothing emporiums, along with the people who frequented such places, were cool. My illusions about crystals, tarot cards, and latter-day hippies were crushed at roughly the same time that I learned that there is little historical and archaeological evidence – and the little actual evidence is dubious at that – to prove that Arthur ever actually existed, although Arthur pilgrims can choose to visit over fifteen sites that claim to be the real Camelot. In other words, Glastonbury’s claims to housing the bones of the once and future king and his queen should be taken about as seriously as its contention that it was also the Isle of Avalon.
If the intervening millennium and a half since Arthur’s supposed death has given rise to baseless Arthur legends and sites, the almost two hundred years since Jane Austen’s death have not passed without the creation of some similarly fictitious Austen legends and myths. In search of an Austenian Glastonbury, I headed north to Derbyshire, a county that has created a thriving Austen-related tourist industry with absolutely no proof that Austen ever set foot there. To even the casual Jane Austen fan, Derbyshire is likely a familiar name, best known as the real home to the fictional Mr. Darcy and his estate, Pemberley. When I was planning my trip, I realized that only by renting a car could I get to all the out-of-the-way places I needed to visit. So my travel companion, Colin, and I picked up a compact Peugot and began our journey north. My father, who had learned how to drive on the wrong side of the road, and so experienced my dilemma in reverse when he moved to America, offered me this advice: “Keep your wheel away from the curb.” I drove out of the car rental lot, Colin shrieked, and I realized I had already broken that cardinal rule, although to this day I have not admitted it to Colin, at whom I decided instead to yell for having “distracted me by shrieking.” Matters, however, improved and I made it onto the highway, where I quickly discovered that, rather like in New Jersey, speed limits in England are little more than politely disregarded suggestions. I settled into the fast lane (ie: the innermost lane), pushing the little Peugot to around 95mph and was shocked to find English drivers sitting on my ass, flashing their lights, and blaring their horns. After it had happened for the third or fourth time, I decided the English were just angry people and would usually just ignore it, finding that sooner or later the driver would either give up or pass me angrily, usually while honking again and flipping me off. Only after I had finished driving what totaled over a thousand miles around England was I informed that the far right lane is the passing lane and, as such, is supposed to be used only for passing. The adventures in the passing lane occurred on the M roads, England’s equivalent of interstate highways. But, as I discovered when we neared Derbyshire and Colin directed me off the M1 and onto a succession of ever-shrinking roads, driving on true English roads is its own special far more special experience. These roads have three official classifications: 1. The A roads, which can be either one or two lanes in each direction, a distinction that seems mostly contingent on the inclination of the civil engineer responsible (the same civil engineer who, I also believe, usually places roundabouts at exactly a place that will force you to brake furiously right after having built up a decent speed – and, while braking and envisioning a seemingly imminent rear-end collision, also making you choose which one of the at least six different exits to take. I always took the wrong one). 2. The B roads, which make an attempt to have one lane in both directions, but often end up short of that goal, usually right before a blind curve, on the other side of which there is frequently a giant truck bearing down from the other direction 3. All other roads, most of which are slightly wider than one-lane roads and bounded by hedgerows. Every mile or so, the road widens by an extra foot or so, into which a car could pull – albeit not without scraping against the hedgerows – to allow an oncoming car/truck to pass, which usually occurs only after both cars have played a prolonged game of chicken. A and B roads, and shockingly, even “all other roads,” have a tendency to be frequented by slow-moving trucks, usually laden with manure, horses, or, if you’re lucky, large bushels of hay. These vehicles will, pied-piper-like, feature a line of cars trailing behind them. Every time the road unwinds and reveals a sufficiently long stretch of straight asphalt, the first few cars will furiously rev their engines and attempt to pass the obstructing truck, hopefully narrowly missing obliteration by oncoming traffic in the process. It was behind one such lumbering truck that Colin and I found ourselves as we neared Derbyshire, and I began to muse on the warped English sense of distance. It was not, I decided, due to their country being 1/70 the size of America. It had to be because their roads were designed so insanely that they could not make their way around this tiny landmass in any logical or non-road-rage-inducing manner. Mapquest had estimated the journey to Derbyshire at two hours and forty-seven minutes, but it actually took closer to four and a half hours. Colin and I arrived at our hostel in Derbyshire around dusk. We were staying in Eyam, a town of the “blink and you missed it” variety, whose claim to fame dates to 1665, when the arrival of Plague-infested cloths at the local tailors caused a Plague outbreak. But rather than be responsible for obliterating the better part of Derbyshire, Eyam residents nobly quarantined themselves so successfully that the Plague never spread, although the town lost over three-fourths of its population in the process, an event from which it never quite seems to have recovered.