A Day To Remember: Through The English Countryside
Trip Start Aug 29, 2007
4Trip End Sep 02, 2007
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 ½ 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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