Salisbury, Stonehenge and Bath

Trip Start May 26, 2006
Trip End Jun 18, 2006

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Saturday, June 10, 2006

Thursday morning saw me catching the train and back on the tourist schedule, first stop Salisbury and Stonehenge. I was headed to Bath to visit my youngest brother, and Salisbury is on the way, so it worked out perfectly. It was a great stop.

First order of business was to find somewhere to leave my bag for the day, since I wasn't staying overnight. A Pub near the station called the Cat was happy to oblige for a couple of pounds. I decided to have breakfast there as well.

I then wondered into town, and sought the tourist information centre to find out how to get to Stonehenge (some 10 miles away). Got a ticket for a guided tour bus. Unfortunately, my leisurely brunch at the Cat and a bit of aimless wondering around looking at the town meant that I had missed the midday tour, with the next bus only leaving at two. I was also really keen to see Old Sarum - the ruins of the first Salisbury, where the king held court in the 11th and 12th century. It's only a mile or two out of town, so I set off to find it. Of course, stone was very valuable in the area, so the castle and surrounding buildings of Old Sarum were reduced to foundation level ruins centuries ago, with some of the stone being used to complete Salisbury Cathedral. It takes a bit of imagination (or help from guide books etc.) to picture what it once looked like. Still, it was interesting to get some insight into 12th century life.

Discovered on my way to Old Sarum that I could catch the tour bus to Stonehenge from just down the hill, which was useful because I would have struggled to make it back into town in time to catch it there.

Stonehenge is pretty amazing. Especially when you consider that most of the stones came from the North West coast of Wales, and the nearest navigable river is several miles away. What you might call a logistical nightmare followed by an engineering feat of note. Our guide also demonstrated the energy lines radiating out from the Stonehenge with a pair of welding rods, which crossed each other as she crossed one of the lines. Being the sceptic that I am, I volunteered to test it myself, and was most surprised to find the rods crossing each other and then opening up again as I walked around the perimeter.

Back in Salisbury, I had about an hour and a half before I had to catch a train to Bath, so headed down the High Street to Salisbury Cathedral. This is a really impressive piece of Gothic architecture. Apparently it is the tallest Cathedral in Britain. The legend goes that the bishop who built the cathedral shot an arrow from Sarum, and built it where it landed. Of course, it's two miles away, so that's just a bit unlikely.

Besides being a magnificent building, the cathedral also has one of the four remaining original copies (as distributed by the King in 1267) of the Magna Carta on display.

Back on the train for an hour to Bath. Mitch met me at the Platform and we walked up to his digs in an area called Bear Flats. Bath is surrounded by hills pretty much on all sides, so venturing out of the centre of town in any direction is uphill. Mitch likes hills. He likes walking up them. Briskly. More about that in a bit.

After dumping my stuff at home, we headed down to the local pub - the Bear - for a couple of drinks and some supper. We played some pool afterward and beat a couple of poms, which was particularly satisfying given the World Cup fever permeating everything in the country. The English are very obnoxious sports fans. And loads of them are driving around with flags stuck to their cars, or hanging from their windows, or even draped around their shoulders (and not just at the pub watching England play).

Mitch had to work Friday, so I set out to see the sights. Bath offers free guided walking tours around the historic part of the city, and I discovered the meeting point just as one was about to set off, so immediately joined the group.

Bath is particularly special for me, because I'm a huge Jane Austin fan, and she spent several years living in Bath and set two of her novels there. It's pretty amazing to see buildings and landmarks that feature in a novel written at the end of the eighteenth century. You can peer into the Pump Room (whose host is actually dressed in Georgian costume) and picture Catherine Morland (Northanger Abby) or Anne Elliot (Persuasion) taking a turn about the room. It's now a very expensive restaurant. You could have a scone for about seven pounds. I decided not to join Austen's heroines there.

Of course, the history of the city goes back a lot further than the eighteenth century. The Roman Baths were built between 100 and 200 AD. The drains they built 18 or 19 hundred years ago are still perfectly functional today. I spent a good hour and a half wondering around the ruins or the baths on a self-guided tour.

Bath Abby is also a pretty impressive building. It doesn't tower over the city to the same extent as Salisbury Cathedral, but that may actually be because Bath is much bigger and rises up the hills on all sides. The Abby is still an imposing presence.

During the course of the afternoon, I got an sms from Mitch suggesting a venue for supper after he got off work - the Hare and Hound. It had stunning views, and was only 20 minutes walk out of the centre of town, up Landsdowne Hill. Like I said, Mitch likes walking up hills. Briskly. He might have been able to get there in 20 minutes if he didn't have me holding him back. But I'm sure it took us twice that. It was a magnificent view when we got there, and the first beer tasted awfully good, but had I fully appreciated the distance and altitude of our destination, I think I would have insisted on taking a bus.

After supper we caught a bus back to Mitch's place - I needed to shower and change - and then headed back into town to check out some clubs and pubs. After a couple of false starts - one that was empty and smelt of stale beer and another that was just far too pretentious - we discovered Bath's Po Na Na, which is not at all like Cape Town's. It did have an element of pretention, in that they didn't serve any beers on tap - only premium bottled beer (at 3.20 a beer). But it had a much more down-to-earth atmosphere than the previous place. Might have had something to do with the fact that the club was literally down-to-earth - i.e. in a series of interconnected cellars. They were also playing some great cheesy-retro music. It was a fun place, and worth another visit (one day), the pricey drinks notwithstanding. Finished off the night out at a late (all?) night takeaways for a pizza.

Had a very slow Saturday morning before heading back to the station to catch the train to Bristol and a plane to Dublin.
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