Published: April 10th 2012April 2nd 2012
Last Sunday I took a train to London and got up early Monday morning for a day tour to Stonehenge and Bath. Stonehenge needs no explanation, but Bath, in case anyone doesn't know, is a city in the southwest of England known for the Roman baths built on the site of a hot spring.
Back in Roman times, its name was "Aqueous Sulis," which is Latin for "the waters of Sulis" referring to the Goddess deemed responsible for the springs. Later, the Brits took over and called it "Bath."
I'd love to be around when someone from Bath meets someone from Wall and they have the "so where are you from?" exchange. Oh Britain.
I found this day tour through Groupon, which many of you know offers mediocre deals on a variety of things and - occasionally - a very good deal on something. This particular coupon (or "voucher") was half off the price of the trip.
I liked the tour, but it was very different from the MacBackpackers one (duh). For one thing, it was a full-sized coach and had been completely booked. Also, easily half of the passengers were American. The guide was funny and knowledgeable, but his jokes were somewhat gentler than our Scottish guide's had been. It was fine for a day tour - especially because we only made two stops, so the number of people never became a huge problem - but it reinforced how lucky I had been on the Highland Tour.
Ultimately, I would recommend it. Especially because Stonehenge in particular is said to be a hassle to reach by public transit (I wouldn't know, I've never tried), and an hour is really all you need there. So getting to Stonehenge by car or pre-booked tour is definitely preferable.
I've never been to the southwest of England before. It's not dramatically different from the rest of the rural areas of the country: rolling hills and farmland*, sheep and cows and pigs, manor houses and small, compact villages. According to the guide, J.K. Rowling has said that she imagines the Malfoy family to be from Wiltshire, the county Stonehenge is in.
*I have often compared countryside like this to the area of New York state where I went to college. The woman sitting next to me on the coach was from New York City, and this conversation pretty much sums up how the world understands New York:
Her: (after apologizing for leaning over my seat with a camera) I'm from New York, and we have nothing like this at all.
Me: (diplomatically understating out of politeness) Well, I feel like some parts of upstate New York might look similar.
Her: (subtext: you're an idiot) No. No. Upstate is mountains. Not this.
Me: (subtext: and I went to college in Canada, then?) Well, I think the area around Utica and Syracuse...
Her: I don't know anything about that. I'm from The City. (capital letters obvious in her tone of voice) We never go farther than the Catskills.
And here's why that's funny
. This woman has been to Paris and London and now Stonehenge, yet does not incorporate 75% of her home state into her worldview. Ben, prepare yourself. You will encounter this a lot.
We were told that Stonehenge is not just about the stone formations, but the landscape around it as well. It was built on Salisbury Plain, a huge chalk plateau. Obviously the land has changed since the prehistoric era when Stonehenge was built, but the fact that it is on a raised section of land, with the rest of the area rising gradually to it, is not a coincidence. A more recent theory than the popular Sun-worshipping is that Stonehenge was built as a symbol of power and intimidation. It is suggested that only certain members of certain tribes were allowed to go anywhere near it.
Or possibly a tribute to the dead: brial mounds like this one (and the few on the horizon) were all over Salisbury plain, and especially concentrated in this area.
The ditch around the outside was apparently older than Stonehenge itself by at least a century. It was carved out with animal bones and antlers, which have been found and carbon dated to 3100 BCE. If I remember the audio guide right, the final version of Stonehenge wasn't completed until 1500 years after that, using stones taken from 150 miles away, in what is today known as Wales.
And despite all the theories, no one truly knows how or why. And we probably never will.
I admit that it was hard to feel spooky and mystical in broad daylight when surrounded by tourists, but it was still impressive. I made sure to stand at the places marking the equinox and solistice, trying to imagine what it looked like when the sun rose or set over the Heel Stone.
This standing stone was said to mark the end of a long, ancient avenue across the country, used in a ritual procession. From here, Stonehenge would have looked especially huge and imposing.
A lot of people said it was smaller than they expected. I disagree, especially when you consider the difference in the average person's height between historic times and today. Even as recently as 200 years ago, doorways were visibly lower; I can only imagine how huge this structure must have looked to its contemporaries.
Obviously we couldn't go right up to it, but part of the path went close. I loved all the intricacies: the smaller circle of standing stones, the altar stone in the exact center, the bumps and notches used to fit the stones together, the preciseness of the calculations with the arrangement of stones and the movement of the sun. A ton of thought went into this, by a culture that didn't even write.
(At least if they did, we have no record of it.) Amazing.
After this, we piled back on the bus and went to Bath, where we spent several hours in the afternoon on our own, exploring. To be honest, Stonehenge was the major reason I signed up for this tour, but Bath turned out to be a beautiful and interesting place, and I'm really glad I got to visit.
Obviously the city has kept a lot of its Roman influence, because the Roman Baths are such a major part of its history and tourist attraction. Our guide said that Bath feels more like a city on the European continent than it does an English city, and I think I agree. It had a cathedral, but instead of a castle and a city wall and dark stone houses, it had pillars and marble and plazas with musicians and outdoor cafes on the river side. And multiple gelatto shops.
A beautiful city overall.
Two major architectural sites are residential: the Circus
and the Royal Crescent
Very posh, as you can see. In order to capture the whole of the Royal Crescent (it was a half-circle), I would have to get too far away to see it properly. And the Circus was pretty much a full circle, with gaps. Beautiful, though I'm not sure how I'd feel about tourists snapping photos of my house all day.
I guess Nicholas Cage used to live there. Which makes sense, because it probably costs a disgusting amount of money.
The Bath Abbey. I am obsessed with cathedrals/abbeys and was no less impressed by this one. The interior was so well-lit (probably the lightness of the stone and sunny weather had something to do with it) that I could actually use the normal setting of my camera to take pictures. Normally, cathedral pictures come out too dark unless I use a specific setting that requires me to keep the camera inhumanly still, bracing myself horizontally against a pillar or a 'DO NOT TOUCH THE STATUES' sign. So this was a nice break.
Also a 48-star US flag for some reason. Okay.
And of course the famous Baths. The admission was expectedly steep, and the student discount not as good as other places have been, but I didn't feel right visiting this city without a look inside. It turned out to be well worth it. I especially liked the optional commentary by Bill Bryson in the audio guide.
As far as I know, Bath is the only hot spring site in the UK. At least it's the only one the Romans knew about. We were told not to touch the water (which was not as hot as I expected
I mean what?), but you could sit on the ledge next to it.
I espeically loved the ducks.
And that you could see the Abbey from the main bath. Obviously that wasn't a thing in Roman times, but still very cool. You could see the steam (and in some places, the bubbles) rising in the center part of the water. It was fun to imagine what it would have been like in Roman times.
Bryson pointed out that it would have been odd for our view of religion, because although these baths were connected to a major Roman temple and visiting them was seen as a religious experience, it was the kind of religious experience that involved rich men and women getting naked together in warm places to relax after a long and trying day. I'm not implying what some of them may have gotten up to (Bryson did), but it's a connection between the physical and the spiritual that modern western religions tend to frown upon.
At the end of the day the guide met us at a prearranged point behind the abbey. Half an hour later, the bus driver finally showed up. We never found out why or where he was, but it was fine because the weather and the city were beautiful.
All in all, even though I'm sure living or going to University here would be nice, from a tourism perspective one afternoon was enough. And unlike most cities in Britain, I can see how a good trip here really depends on the weather. People aren't exactly going to be hanging out in open air pool areas in a downpour. I wonder how much that continental-Europe feel disappears on days of typical UK
cold and/or rain.
Tomorrow: Cork, Ireland