An old church, a pile of stones and a bath tub

Trip Start May 06, 2008
Trip End Jun 06, 2008

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Flag of United Kingdom  , England,
Monday, May 12, 2008

“Like all great travelers, I have seen more than I remember, and remember more than I have seen.” – Benjamin Disraeli

Day 5 : 12th May 2008 (Monday) An old church, a pile of stones and a bath tub

Day trip!! So the original plan for today was to take the car and drive to see Salisbury and Stonehenge. A couple days before, we decided we weren't prepared well enough to drive for a big day trip and that it would best if we took one of the guided tours. Sanjiv quickly got on the net two days ago and booked us a trip with Golden Tours, we would be doing Stonehenge, Bath and Salisbury. I really didn't know how they would be able to squeeze in Bath all in one day trip, but those are the wonders of coach tours. Bath wasn't anywhere near our itinerary, but sounded really appealing so we went for it. The cost was pretty reasonable too. 39 per person. I never do coach tours, and prefer to explore on my own time and pace but these were desperate times... Our days in London were running out and Glynis and I really wanted to see Stonehenge. Last night Lui offered to drive us wherever we wanted to go. Very nice of him to volunteer after we tortured his feet yesterday. But the deed was done and the coach tour was booked. There's always a first time.

The tour was to start at 845 am and we had to get to the Golden Tours Office near Victoria Station, which meant we had to leave from Bunga's place pretty early. We actually were able to get ready and leave the house on schedule and tube it to Victoria Station We checked the map and started walking towards the office. Along the way, we saw a deli and dropped in to pick up some on-the-go breakfast. I think ham and cheese sandwiches. We were running a little late as usual so we literally had to run with our sandwiches. We got to the office, presented our vouchers and lined up in the queue to get inside our coach. It was a full tour and as soon as the stragglers were seated, the bus took off. Our guide, an older gentleman called Steve and the driver Adrian were good. The guide, Steve, was very knowledgeable and articulate.

The traffic in London was horrendous this morning. It took a couple hours just to get out of London, the bus was literally inching its way out to the motorway. The whole time Steve entertained us though, pointing out interesting buildings like Margaret Thatcher's house and the Wellingon Arch and regaling us with interesting commentary. We passed by the famous three kings pub and he said the three kings were Charles I, Henry VIII and Elvis... He even went into the history of London, going on about how the city started out as a bunch of villages around the river Thames. Apparently, Lon means the deep end of a dark pool of water between the Tower Bridge and the London Bridge and Don means fortified roadway. Didn't know that. He talked about how much of London vanished in the Great Fire in 1666 and how Christopher Wren rebuilt the entire city. We went past All Hallows Church, one of the oldest churches in London that escaped the fire, whose tower was built by Christopher Wren. We finally broke free of the traffic and got onto the open motorway. He talked about the green belt movement around London to control urban growth. We were out in the English countryside and it was beautiful... Lots of wide open space...

Our first stop was Salisbury and Stonehenge would follow soon after. Since it was a long drive to get there, Steve thought it best to talk about the history of Stonehenge and Salisbury, as we wouldn't have much time once we got to Salisbury. This is what he said, almost verbatim, and I haven't verified it, while Ashok and Glynis slept and Godwin did his own thing. I was the only one paying attention AND taking notes... Those not into history might want to skip past the next paragraph or two...

" STONEHENGE: So apparently, Druids had nothing to do with Stonehenge. It was actually built by the Beaker Folk. They built burial mounds called burrows for the tribal chiefs who were buried with their beakers (whatever they are), bows, arrows, etc. The long barrows had thousands buried inside, they were 20-40 feet wide, made of stone and covered with earth. Inside these chambers, the dead were boiled and the bones were separated and buried in different chambers for various body parts. Gory. Like there'd be a chamber full of skulls. Each body part was marked so it would be identified later. During festivals, the bones were taken out and ancestors represented by their disjointed bones joined in the celebrations. Weird. The toolkit consisted of a stone, the antler of a stag and the shoulder blade of an ox. The construction was done in 3 stages. Stonehenge I  dates back to around 3050 BC based on carbon dated bone fragments. The neolithic people dug a circular ditch about 30 feet deep, then used the rubble to build a bank about 20 feet high inside the outer circle. Finally inside the bank circle, they dug 56 shallow holes that held wooden posts. Nobody knows why. Also, they erected two parallel stones at the  entrance. Stonehenge II dates back to 2100 BC where they assembled blue stones within the ditch and bank circle. They actually dragged or who knows what (nobody knows) these stones, weighing about 5 tons from some place in South Wales about 250 miles away.  They aligned the entrance to the blue stones with the midsummer solstice by making a new approach to the site called the Avenue and placed two Heel Stones there. One Heel stone still stands near the highway. Stonehenge III dates back to 2000 BC where they constructed another circle of sarsen stones, each pair topped with a horizontal stone called a lintel. This is what is seen today. These stones were dragged from the quarry about 25 miles away and weighed 50 to 55 tons each. The surfaces were smoothed and carved and the five pairs of trilithons were placed in a perfect circle. It would have taken taken five years just to get the center stone (lintel) up. Why would they do that. About a hundred years later they rearranged some of those blue stones inside the stone circle in the shape of a horseshoe. The Altar Stones is the biggest of these ones. And then, around 1500 BC it all ended. Again, nobody knows why. The long barrows were sealed and Stonehenge was abandoned. The age of the ancestors ended and the age of division and farming began. For the next few thousand years the stones were stolen to build houses and roads. Kind of a form of legalized vandalism. Its a wonder anything survived at all."

"SALISBURY: So the story is that in 1218, Richard Poore who was the Bishop of Old Sarum came at 2 am and was locked out. He got upset so he went to petition the Pope for a new cathedral. The Pope told him shoot an arrow, and where it lands will begin construction of the new cathedral. It landed two and a half miles to the south, the Bishop claimed it hit a deer, who ran and finally died in that spot. Work started in 1220 and was completed in 38 years (in comparison the York Minster took 250 years to be built).The foundations were only four feet deep and made of timber because of the high water table. Because it was built in such a short time, the cathedral has a single architectural style, Early English Gothic. Later, around 1320, the Cloisters, Chapter house, tower and spire are added. The spire, at 404 feet and weighing 6400 tons is the tallest in England. It would have collapsed if they didn't add the scissor arches and flying buttress in 1380 to keep it from falling. The marble columns at the corners of the spire can be seen to be bending inwards with the stress. Another story: The relic. Apparently in 1170, Henry II wanted to reduce the power of the church and fought with the Archbishop of Canterbury. The king said "Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?" So four knights did just that, chopped his head off, and he became a martyr. Now Salisbury wants a relic too and they get a 17 foot by 17 foot green cloth that is supposedly the robe that Mary Magdalene wore at the crucifixion. When the spire was struck by lightening, the robe was put up there to protect it."

We finally arrived at Salisbury at about half past noon, the bus was parked and we walked (or rather, were herded like cattle, the joys of coach tours...) behind our trusty guide. The cathedral was amazing, its huge tall spire soaring up into the sky, the highest medieval structure in the world. The spire truly is impressive and dominates the landscape. Inside was the world's oldest working clock, the Cope Chest for storing ecclesiastical garments, the font which was breathtakingly beautiful and the prisoner's of conscience window. Did I already mention I love Gothic buildings? After reading Pillars of the Earth, a novel about the building of a cathedral set in the middle of the 12 century, standing inside Salisbury Cathedral was surreal.(Steve told me that although its fictional, the cathedral in the novel is based on Wells Cathedral. Next time I need to make time to go see that.) We saw the black marble pillars bending with the weight of the spire. The Chapter House has one of the four surviving original texts of the Magna Carta that we got to see. The Chapter House itself was beautiful with an interesting stone frieze depicting bible stories. It was nice to have Steve guide us inside, pointing out little things we wouldn't have known to notice like the symbol called Chi Rho carved into the walls, one of the earliest cruciform symbols used by Christians. I wish we had the time to climb the 322 steps up the spire, but being on a coach tour and already behind, we had to get to the lunch stop.

The price we had paid didn't include lunch, but Steve said those who wanted to have lunch at the Cloisters could pay the 10 per person directly to the restaurant and join in. We were seated, lunch was good. It was pre-ordered to save time. Steve came by our table and we were talking to him when the manager stopped by to pick up our lunch tab. We were fortunate Steve saw the transaction, because when we got back on the bus at about 2 pm, we were informed that there were a few people who hadn't paid for their lunch. He said if those responsible didn't own up, he would have to make up the difference himself. Someone in the front of the bus felt sorry for him and said they would pay for the looters (I'm reading Ayn Rand...). The ride to Stonehenge from here was short. We were driving through the rolling hills and plains of the English countryside when suddenly, there it was. We had to make our way from the parking area, through the underground walkway up to Stonehenge. You get to walk around it, and it was crowded. It definitely was worth the trip, its an amazing site, you get a sense that it is of great importance to be left standing silent vigil for so many years. And no one knows why so many men worked so hard for so long to get it built, just that it was very important. It remains an enduring mystery.

From here the bus took us to Bath, our bonus site for the day. On the way we passed by Silsbury Hill, the largest man made mound. No one knows who made it or why, and digs are forbidden after part of it collapsed. It was late by the time we got to Bath. We didn't really get time to explore the place other than to head straight to the Roman Baths. These were only rediscovered in the 1870's during the Georgian period. The free audio guides were quite good and I especially enjoyed listening to complementary commentary by Bill Bryson. I had read his book Notes from a Small Island about his travels in the UK in preparation to our trip and I'm generally a fan of his work. The tour took us through the Sacred Spring, the Roman Temple, the Roman Bath House and finds from the Roman Baths. I really liked the temple of Sulis Minerva and the Sacred Spring from where the hot water and steam still rises as it has for a thousand years and more. Very atmospheric. The Romans used to write curses or hexes on pewter and throw them into the Sacred Pool imploring the Goddess to intervene. Very cool. The Green Bath is lined with sheets of lead and the water is pretty yucky looking and green and odour of sulphur is not the most aromatic. Apparently during the Roman times this was the place to see and be seen. The few stairs leading into the bath are intact from Roman times but the columns, terrace and statues date back from the Georgian era when the Baths were rediscovered after lying under the city streets for centuries. You can then go to the Pump Room and drink the water if you want. I didn't. Apparently it tastes like blood but I wouldn't know... We did go to the gift shop and pick up a few items.

We didn't have much time in Bath but we did pass by Bath Cathedral and have time to eat some ice cream before we had to pile back into the coach. We drove through the Cotswold's. The driver took another route as the highway was jammed or something and Steve kept us entertained till we got back to London. I remember him saying that if the gargoyle's don't have water coming out of their mouths, they're called grotesque's. I thought that was interesting. Anyway we were soon back in London and it was nice of Steve to drop us off at the nearest tube stop. We left him a tip and thanked him. He asked us how long we were going to be in London so we told him we were flying to Prague early tomorrow morning and Ashok and Glynis were flying to Paris but we'd be back...

We got back to Bunga's exhausted, and had to pack for our early morning flight to Prague!!!

Steps walked: 9832
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