A Day To Remember: Through The English Countryside

Trip Start Aug 29, 2007
Trip End Sep 02, 2007

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Friday, August 31, 2007

Our little wake up call came early, the telephone singing out to us in a shrieking voice at around 4:50am.  Of course, me being me, I picked it up, hung it up, and fell right back asleep... finally opening my eyes for the second time around 5:20am.  Laura yelled at me (I deserved it), jumped in the shower, and by 5:50am we were off and racing towards the underground station at Pimlico.  As we sat at Victoria Station (still 10 minutes from Paddington and the car to Paddington a full 9 minutes behind schedule), I watched the well needed minutes on my watch wasting away into the morning.  It slowly began to sink in that we were not going to be making our scheduled 6:30am train to Bath.
     And I was right.  We hit Paddington at 6:35am.  We ran over to the platform and searched for a sign that the train was miraculously still there.  Not seeing it, I ran over to a station attendant and asked, "Has the 6:30 train to Bristol left already?".  "Of course it has", she said in a snooty little tone, rolling her eyes to look up at the clock.  "It's 6:37am!".  That's when I learned, the hard way, that European trains are on time... unlike Amtrak or any other rail service in the United States.  Luckily for us, another train was leaving for Bristol at 7am, its second to last stop being Bath Spa Station, our destination.
     The train pushed out of the station at precisely 7am.  About 20 minutes later the conductor came through to check tickets.  Wearing his neat little suit and hat, he checked our tickets, looked me in the eye and exclaimed, "You were supposed to be on the 6:30am train", a hint of annoyance in his voice.  "I know", I replied, "We missed that one".  He glared at me and said, "You know, I'm supposed to charge you again.  You're not on the right train".  I must have given him a look of desperation at that point, because to my surprise (and as I was reaching for the money in utter despair), he walked away.  He had decided to let this one slide.  Score one for the stupid American.
     Like clockwork, we arrived in Bath at 8:30am.  Laura and I made our way out of the station at a blazing speed.  Our tour group was more than likely waiting (hopefully), as they required everyone to meet by 8:30am for their 8:45am departure to the English countryside.   Running, but still awestruck at the site of the beautiful town of Bath, we made our way towards the glass shop near the traffic island on Manvers Street, our meeting point for Mad Max Tours.  With the River Avon running through and alongside it, the glorious town of Bath is set upon 3 majestic hills.  The famous Bath Abbey welcomes you to town on the left just past the train station.   It was in front of the Abbey, many hundreds of years ago, that the first King of England was crowned.  Next to the abbey are the Roman baths of Aquae Sulis, discovered and unearthed by the Brits in the 1800's.  We would be visiting them later, running by them as we raced to meet our tour group, with whom we would begin our journey to Stonehenge, Avebury and the rolling hills of the Western England.
     Started in 1991, Mad Max Tours is one of the best England has to offer.  It began as a one van show, driven by a lady and her dog (Madeline and Max, hence the name of the company).  The company now has 4 vans, several full time drivers and a few different tour options.  We met up with our group around 8:37am, loaded into the van with everyone else and met our guide for the day, John.  Little did we know, Laura and I would learn more about English history (and John's political views on just about every subject), than we ever would have imagined. John was the type of Englishman whom, if a conversation was started with him, he could give you hours and hours of intelligent, encapsulating information.  After introducing himself to everybody and going over the day's itinerary, he started the van and headed off.  Within moments we found ourselves miles away from the throngs of tourists in Bath and off into the curving roads of "Middle Earth" like atmosphere.  Next stop, the 4,500 year old megalithic monument of Stonehenge.
     One of our favorite things about the tour was the fact that, besides the amazing people in our group and having John The Walking History Book to guide us, there was never a dull moment while driving from place to place.  John provided excellent commentary as he drove, stopping at several interesting places along the roadside.  There truly was never a break in the action.  As we made our way to Stonehenge, we drove by a huge castle set upon a hill.  John informed us that the castle and the property attached to it was recently purchased by none other than the actor Nicholas Cage... for a mere 13 million pounds.  That's about 26 million U.S. dollars or so.  In fact, John informed us, Mr. Cage had been making a habit of snatching up quite a few properties in the Bath area.  A few miles later, we came upon a strange sign... "tank crossing", it said.   It just so happens that the entire area of Salisbury Plains (500 Square Kilometers of land), which Stonehenge, other stone circles, prehistoric burying grounds and centuries old farms are part of, is also an active training ground and live firing range for the British Army.  A bit past the sign we passed the military garrison town of Warminster, where Prince Harry was stationed.  Not only is the British Military in charge of protecting the country, but they are also in charge of protecting all World Heritage & National Trust sites within England.  I found that little tidbit to be in striking contrast with that of the United States Military.  Living in Hawaii for 5 years, I saw first hand how the military treats archaeological wonders, with the most striking case of disregard being them having a training ground and live firing range in the valley across from Yokohama Bay, a treasured site to native Hawaiians.  Or how about the repeated naval bombing of Kahoolawe near Maui, Kahoolawe being an island with native artifacts going back thousands of years.  Our military (in Hawaii anyway) could give a rats' patoot about history.  Unless it's military history I suppose.  The tour moves on, and soon enough, we see the giant megaliths of Stonehenge approaching in the distance.
As we walked around Stonehenge with our audio tours held up to our ear, snapping picture after picture, I was practically stumbling due to disbelief that I was actually there.  The monument is an awe inspiring reminder of the power of the human mind, with the perfect measurements of these giant stones being too many to list or comprehend.   Not to mention that the blue stones that make up the inside circle came from a mountain range in Southern Wales, about 240 miles away.  As we walked around, I kept wanting to know... why?  Laura remarked that people like to build things for fun, kind of like building stuff with play-doh.  "Yeah", I said, "But this stuff is way heavier than play-doh".  

Outside the circle, a giant Sarsen stone called a "heel stone" marked the end of the procession avenue for those that came to worship at Stonehenge.  Though now the monument is surrounded by fields and there are sheep grazing all around, one can only imagine what it must have been like when it was in use... a long line of ancients making their way through an avenue in the forest, coming through an opening in the trees to see a circle of stones larger than anything they had ever seen before.   As we left, I looked back over my shoulder and said goodbye.  I had one of those feelings where you just don't know how to say goodbye to something, or if you really want to, or if you really should for that matter.  I could have stood and stared for hours.  On the way back, we stopped in the little gift shop and bought little Cairo a sterling silver baby spoon that, on the end, has a replica of two of the giant Sarsen stones with a lintel lying across.  Beneath the stones it says, "Stonehenge"... "henge" being the old English word for hanging down or something.  The literal translation is "The Hanging Stones"... or as close as you can get to that anyway.
       Our next stop was the tiny village of Avebury, home to the largest stone circle in the world.  On the way we stopped to have a gander at "The Milk Hill Horse", one of seven giant white horses carved into the hillsides of Wiltshire.  Looking as though it could be some monumental carving by the aliens, John explained that all they really are is examples of people having too much money and nothing to do with it. Rich nobles would commission someone to carve a hill into the hillside, commemorating their ancestors and their land.  Because one did it, the next one had to build one bigger and so on, and so forth... until eventually you had the Wiltshire hillside horse carvings.  Wasteful spending or not, they are beautiful to look at.
     There are two big differences between Avebury and Stonehenge.  One is that Avebury allows you to wander anywhere you want, climb on the ancient stones... pretty much do whatever.  The other became clear when we pulled up to the village. We counted a total of 16 people walking around the stones.  Our tour group was 16 people.  We had actually doubled the population by showing up.  In contrast, Stonehenge gets 7 to 8 thousand visitors per day, eventually ending up with more than a million visitors by the end of each year.  Best of all, Avebury is just as cool, if not cooler and a bit more mysterious than Stonehenge.  No one knows why this massive circle, with two other circles inside of it, was built.  Or by whom.     With church bells from the town Abbey ringing in the distance, John gave us a quick lecture on the history of the site.  Most of the stones that make up the circle are over 40 tons in weight, with the largest being near the quadrant, weighing in at over 100 tons.  The place took about 500 to 800 years to build, with generation after generation of people working on the circles.  And, it was built before the wheel was even a thought of a thought of a thought.  
    The site was actually excavated by a man named Alexander Keeler, who had made his money in the marmalade business, of all things.  He bought all the property, and set about digging up and replacing all the stones.  That's right.  When he bought it, every stone was buried just beneath the surface... thanks to the Catholic Church.  They had labeled the place a site of Pagan ritual, and according to Church doctrine, set about dismantling the circle and burying them.   Today, there are still 22 known stones buried beneath the ground.  Alexander Keeler made it his life goal to excavate all the stones, but sadly, died before he could finish the job.  Laura and I walked around the ancient stones, once again in awe and taking picture after picture.  The Avebury stone circle is much more personal than Stonehenge, due to the latter being roped off, and I think it makes for a little bit better experience.  We payed our respects to the stones, hopped back on the bus and headed out toward the village of Lacock.  
Lacock.  A gorgeous, quaint little English village trapped in the England of long ago.  Much to the town's dismay, but also to the happiness of those that like large bank accounts, the town has become Harry Potter town.  The large Abbey outside town was used as Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in the first two films.  Two of the houses in town are going to be used for Harry Potter Six with filming starting in October. And best of all, in the back of town, sits the house that was used to shoot the scenes in Harry's parents' house in the first film... the scene where he receives his lightning bolt scar and becomes the boy wizard who survived an attack from him whose name we dare not speak.  Check out the pictures of Laura and me standing in front of it.  Not only is the town used for Harry Potter, but the BBC uses it regularly for documentaries.  It was also the town used for Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice", the one with Colin Firth.  Walking around the little town with houses hundreds and hundreds of years old, we made our way to The George Inn for lunch.    

The George Inn is the oldest building in town, dating back to around 1360.  For lunch, I had a Gammon Steak w/ veggies and potatoes and a traditional English Ale called "Triple 6".  Laura had a bacon and baked brie sandwich that I wish I would have gotten instead.  My ale was excellent though. 
      As if Lacock didn't have enough things to be famous for, the town is also home to the church where Princess Camilla Parker-Boules's daughter just got married.  

Just this May, Charles, Harry, William and Camilla were all present in Lacock to see the wedding.  John showed us pictures of the event and pointed out who much Camilla's daughter looked like Diana.  They actually do look frighteningly similar.  Later, while at The British Library, I would discover that the church was also used as a safe deposit box for the Magna Carta, the precursor to every Democratic Constitution on the planet.
     Leaving Lacock, we headed out for our last stop of the day... a little village in the Cotswolds known as Castle Combe. 

 Nestled away in a forest, with the River Avon running through it, Castle Combe was my favorite English village of the day.
  Just walking around there made you feel like it was 1400 something.  John gave us some interesting facts about the old village life that we found rather hilarious.  When you think of adorable little villages in the Cotswold's, the horrible smells of the place are not the first thing that pops into the mind.

  On the contrary, nowadays the places around here smell like flowers and green, green, green.  However, during the height of the Woolen period that made England so incredibly wealthy and created a lot of these villages, things were not so savory.  All human waste was dumped into the streets outside of the homes.  Not only was their human waste on the streets, but there were sheep and horses all depositing their waste on the street as well.  Basically, John painted a picture for all of a village filled with feces and urine.  Not the way one likes to think of a quaint English village.  More great facts by John our tour guide: (1) 90% of the land in England is owned by less than 1% of the countries population. (2) The Norman Invasion was THE climax and starting point for all of English history, and most of the people who own the land today are descendants from these initial invaders... who were also the knights responsible for The Crusades. 
     Finished with our amazing tour of the English countryside, we made our way back to Bath, arriving at around 5pm.  We had 3 and hours before our train back to London, so we did some exploring around Bath.  Of course, you can't go to Bath without going to the Roman baths.  We shelled out the 11 pounds each, grabbed our familiar audio tour guides and made our way through the legendary museum.  

There's about an hour of sightseeing within the museum before you actually get to the baths.  Before long, you finally reach the baths of Aquae Sulis.  With glowing green waters, the hot springs invite you in, to bathe where the Romans once did.  In fact, the stairs leading into the baths are original, allowing you to get a glimpse of some of the original architecture.  The base of the pool is made of lead, and they used a lead pipe to get the water from the springs into the baths.  Rumor has it that lead, yes lead, may have been the actual downfall of the Roman Empire.
  Not only were they swimming in it, but they were drinking out of glasses with lead inside, basically driving themselves mad with lead poisoning.  There's about 3 different springs and multiple baths throughout the complex.  In one of the baths, the excavators found tons of Roman coins and Roman pamphlets on the bottom... people had been making wishes, and curses, by donating to the gods.  The curses were quite comical, with literally everyone wishing death upon the person that had stolen their gloves, or their friends hat, or whatever it was that had been stolen. 
We spent about 2 hours walking around the baths and then went and had dinner at a 18th century inn called "The Huntsman".  Dinner was yummy.  We walked around Bath again for a bit, made our way back to the train station and rode the rails back to London.  We had left this morning at 5:40am, we had arrived back home at 11:00pm.  Twas' a long, long, long day... filled with sights and experiences that I never imagined I would actually be a part of.  What a lovely little English day.
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Where I stayed
George Inn
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