UK Finale – Bath and Stonehenge

We checked in early to our accommodation once we arrived in Bath.  The host did an excellent Keith Richards impression, albeit unintentional.  He was quite nice though and the townhouse was very modern and clean.  We freshened up and got some good recommendations for touring the city.

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(Accommodation in Bath, England)

First we walked along a ridge that overlooked the Bath valley.  A very nice view. Perhaps I had underestimated this place.

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(View of Bath looking north-west)

We walked down a steep staircase cut into the side of the hill and crossed the River Avon to enter the oldest part of town.

(Entering the old town – Bath, England)

Bath had a unique look, with streets lined with buildings made of smooth, beige-coloured Bath stone.  Very rich!  Of course, it has been a spa town for nearly 2000 years!  We initially walked through a shopping area with colourful decorations and inviting stores.

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(Initial views of Bath’s old town)

Slightly peckish, we couldn’t resist Marks and Spencer’s offer for afternoon tea. Perhaps it would beat the one we had in the Cotswolds.  We shared one setting, as well as a green pea and mint soup that looked and smelled too good to pass up.  Cheese scones with clotted cream and jam, followed by finger sandwiches of egg salad, ham and mayo, smoked salmon and cream cheese, and roast beef and mustard.  Simple, but very tasty and yes, better than the King’s hotel.  We inserted the pea soup as a welcome addition to the usual fare. It was quite nice with the mint and not as heavy as the traditional pea soup with pork.  The sweets made for a nice finish…strawberry macaroon, cream puff, and a chocolate cupcake.  Our temptation served us well.

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(Afternoon tea at Marks and Spencer’s – Bath, England)

We walked further into the heart of Bath and eventually came to the magnificent Bath Abbey and Roman Baths, seated right next to each other in a stunning courtyard.

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(Courtyard in front of Bath Abbey and the Roman Baths – Bath, England)

The Abbey is now an Anglican church following a long history.  It began as a monastery in the 7th century and was rebuilt in the 12th and 16th centuries to become the buttressed cruciform plan that towers above the surrounding buildings.  Apparently it can seat 1200 people.

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(Bath Abbey – Bath, England)

Right next door, the Roman Baths complex contains the ancient baths themselves, a temple, the pump room, and now a museum, from which you can take a tour. We didn’t do the tour, but read a bit of the history in the front entrance and gift shop, where tourists were buying expensive viles of spring water.  The Romans first built the temple here in 60-70CE and then slowly developed the baths over the following 300 years, making use of England’s only natural hot spring.  Rain water from the surrounding hills trickles down very deep through the porous limestone where geothermal energy heats it up. The hot water then rises to the surface through fissures and faults.  In the seventeenth century, there were claims that the waters had healing properties when pigs were supposedly cured of their leprosy after wading through a muddy spring in the area.  Peculiar, but apparently very effective marketing.

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(The Roman Baths – Bath, England)

In the same square, a street performer, presumably called ‘The Pigeon Whisperer,’ tempted tourists to stand as a perch for his many cooing birds.  Such an obviously bad idea.  As we walked around the square, one unwitting woman gave her donation and all the birds promptly flocked into position.  Soon after, we could see the Whisperer dabbing the inevitable poop off the woman’s head and shoulder.  Perhaps this was the real show.  I know I was entertained!

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(‘The Pigeon Whisperer of Bath’)

Still sipping my coffee and Rachel’s tea from Marks and Spencer’s, we strolled along to the sound of Simon and Garfunkel’s Sound of Silence, Rolling Stones Painted Black, and various Beatles songs, played by a true street performer.  Around the corner was Kingston Parade, another square.  This area was much more quiet and there was another talented guitarist sitting in the centre.  We sat on a bench and listened to his lovely rendition of Pachelbel’s Canon.  It was so peaceful. A cooling breeze blew softly with the sound of seagulls flying above, seemingly in concert with the guitar. The Roman Baths in front of us and the Abbey to the right. This was a memorable moment.

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(Sipping our coffee and tea on a park bench in Kingston Parade – Bath, England)

(A street performer plays Pachelbel’s Canon on guitar in the Kingston Parade – Bath, England)

Eventually we continued walking, passed the Jane Austen museum and through antique shops filled with random treasures including old and very well used police batons, telescopes, and furniture. An untold story hidden in each piece.

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(Rubbing elbows with the locals – Bath, England)

We entered The Circus, a ring of uniform town homes built in the 18th century.  It was imagined by the famous Georgian architect, John Wood, who died before it was built.  He was apparently convinced that Bath had been the centre of Druid activities, so he designed the ring to match the diameter of Stone Henge.

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(View of one quarter of The Circus – Bath, England)

Down the road, we came to The Royal Crescent, another iconic example of Georgian architecture. This crescent of 30 luxurious, terraced town homes was also built in the 18th century but by John Wood’s son.

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(The Royal Crescent – Bath, England)

It was time for dinner, so we headed to The Raven, a pub recommended by our host.  Famous for their ales and meat pies, we ordered one of each, bangers and mash, and a cider for Rachel.  We were a bit reluctant to commit to 2 pies, remembering the terrible pie we endured in London.  The food was good, but slightly under seasoned, as we had come to expect.  While there, I received a recommendation to visit the Thermae Spa from my friend Percy. She had been there 10 years earlier and said it was amazing. So after dinner we went to check it out.  It looked quite nice so we decided to go in the morning before leaving Bath.

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(Dinner at The Raven Pub – Bath, England)

We woke up early and had a quick breakfast of those tiny individual cereal boxes. I haven’t had cereal like that in years.  We packed up, loaded the car, and headed for the spa. So much for budget travelling!  We arrived just before opening and there was already a short queue.  We got in and paid for the basic 3 hour session, which gave us access to the roof top hot spring pool, steam rooms, and a wading pool.  The roof top pool was heavenly. We were among the first to arrive, but it quickly filled up with other tourists, which took away from it a bit. But it was a unique atmosphere, floating in naturally warm water on the roof of a modern building set among the Bath Abbey and old Roman bath complex. A nice way to wake up!  We were starting to bump into other guests indicating it was time to move on. One floor down was the steam room, which had three pods with scented steam.  Eucalyptus, lemongrass, and lotus flower.  This was a real treat.  As the pods started to fill up, we shocked our bodies under the cold shower and moved on to the wading pool on the floor below.  This was a little disappointing. It was already packed and just felt like a public pool with a current that slowly drifted you around the pool. It would have been nice if we weren’t constantly banging into other tourists.  All in all, a very nice experience  but too many tourists. I can’t imagine what it would be like at peak hours.  We left shortly after the two hour mark and got a quick bite to eat before walking back to the car.

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(Awaiting entry to Thermae Spa – Bath, England…sorry, no pictures inside!)

It was a fairly quick drive to Salisbury for our UK-finale, Stonehenge.  We both had visions of hordes of tourists crowding an anticlimactic site of big rocks.  The giant parking lot overflowing with tour buses, camper vans and tourists with overpriced ice cream cones dripping onto their “I ♥ Stonehenge” t-shirts confirmed our fears. Oh well, this is a site we should see while in England.  Lets just get it over with…

We picked up our audio guides and boarded the packed bus to get to the actual site about a mile down the road from the museum and ticket office.  To our surprise and despite the volume of people, this turned out to be a real highlight of our time in the UK.  The audio guide was excellent.  In fact, I wouldn’t recommend the visit without it.

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(Arriving at Stonehenge)

The ring of famous stones is set within a dense collection of Neolithic and Bronze Age monuments, all of which are believed to have been constructed between 3000-2000BCE.  Earth banks and ditches encircle the famous stone structures with a long avenue stretching to the nearby River Avon.  The entire area is dotted with burial mounds, most of which have been relieved of their ancient artifacts.  Interestingly, the horseshoe arrangement of the largest stones and the avenue embankment are aligned with the sunrise and sunset of the summer solstice.

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(Various views of Stonehenge)

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(Burial mounds surrounding Stonehenge)

The largest vertical stones that make up the outer part of the horse shoe are called “sarsens” and are up to 30 feet in height and weigh 25 tons.  They support the horizontal “lintels” with intricate mortise and tenon joints.  Based on the mineralogy, the stones are not native to the Salisbury plains and must have been brought from Marlborough Downs, about 20 miles away.  The smaller stones inside the horse shoe are called blue stones, weigh up to 4 tons and are believed to have come from up to 140miles away.

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(Volunteer repair work at Stonehenge)

For a long time it was widely believed that Stonehenge was built by the Druids, but carbon dating has shown that it was present about 1000 years before the Druids came to the region.  Not much is known about its original builders because they left no written record to tell us who they were, or why and how they built it.

 We left Stonehenge genuinely impressed and intrigued by the rich and mostly unknown history of our species and this world.  We speculated as to the purpose of that site and imagined the dramas that we’ll never know as we drove back to Heathrow. It was time to say goodbye to the UK and bonjour to France.

We enjoyed the UK, especially the wonderful people we got to meet and stay with along the way. Chris and Qiu Jiang, Su Ying and Adri, and the many hosts at our random accommodations enriched our experience in so many unique and wonderful ways.  The UK was quite a contrast to our first stop in Iceland. From one of the most untouched and exciting landscapes to one of the most tamed and, in many ways, subdued countries, we appreciated both for very different reasons.  The UK brought history to life for us.  You can reach out and touch it, everywhere.  It is charming, diverse, and, if nothing else, so very polite. I have to admit, we did not understand their aversion to salt, but the beer was truly superb.  I guess their reputation is deserved on both fronts.

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