Thursday, November 7, 2013

Day 3: Stonehenge, Lacock & Bath

After a poor night’s sleep (I was lying in bed and listening to London rain from about 2:30am), we rose at 4am. While Cazy showered, I kitted myself in an array of thermals and fleeces, fearing I would freeze.

I checked the weather at Stonehenge online and was delighted to see that rain was not due until midday. Our preparation was interrupted by the hotel calling us at 4:40am, announcing our pre-booked taxi. We emerged onto the street and I chuckled from inside the confines of the taxi while Cazy struggled to shut the hotel's large door.

The trip cost 13 pounds - we drove over Westminster Bridge while rain trickled down the taxi windows. Big Ben was a disk of light and many windows in the Houses of Parliament glowed dimly in the fog. Windows were similarly eerie at Westminster Abbey.

We were dropped off at the Grosvenor Hotel at 5am and briefly waited in the lobby with others until we migrated outside to the cold. The bus arrived 10 minutes late and we had one last hotel stop before leaving London. The tour guide attempted to tell us his name was “Smith Smith” (he was quite a character and he reminded me of Tony Robinson - he even said “I’ve got a cunning plan”!) but eventually we were introduced to him as Stephen and the driver as Malcolm.

The group was not large so we could sit where we liked. Rain chased us out of dark London and Stephen made up a crazy story about cows jumping to their deaths - a 5-10 minute set up which resulted in a punchline involving a building with fake cows on the roof.

After some time (and some more oddities from Stephen) we took a brief comfort stop. I burnt my tongue scoffing a hot chocolate and then we raced back onto the bus, headed for Stonehenge.

Heavy fog obscured many sights and I strained to see the long barrows and round burial mounds that Stephen pointed out. But quite suddenly the stone circle appeared before us, lonely and imposing. At 8am, we were let in (after stern warnings not to touch the stones) to the site - and then into the inner circle. This is why we paid big bucks. There were only 23 tourists which made photographing the stones so easy. 


What commanding models the stones make...each angle brought forth new sights, shadows and lichen. I had scoffed at Neil Oliver for thinking niches in the stones matched each other when viewed at a certain angle but he was so right! Ravens hung around the stones, guarding them more vigilantly than the security dude in bright yellow.

Stephen told us how, some 20+ years ago, they fixed a ruined stone with modern paste made of dust from the original quarry. He did not like it - called it a mistake. Yes, it was obviously “artificial” but I liked it - yet more history added to the site. It will one day tell our descendants that we cared enough, that it meant enough to us, to fix it.

20th century repairs

Stonehenge is large and magnificent. I felt very familiar with it...I felt an urge to step on stones on the ground and even the need to use a stone to rest my bag. Very odd desires which I did not give into, I am proud to say.

We spent up in the gift shop and off to Lacock we went! On the way we passed historical houses and other points of interest. Lacock was tiny. I would love to spend more time there, even live there...but the town has a policy against the display of phone cables or TV antennae. Lacock is used frequently in film and television (Harry Potter, Cranford Park, etc) so it’s important to preserve the image. 

We had English breakfasts at the George Inn (quite old - although rebuilt heavily, it holds the oldest known liquor licence in the UK). Great fireplace, awesome wood beams. I stole nibbles of Cazy’s food.

The George Inn, Lacock

After breakfast, we waltzed across the street carelessly (but not before Cazy and I bought finger puppets from someone’s unattended door - 50p through the letterbox!). Cars care not for scattered Aussie and American tourists! Stephen used a particular house to illustrate his point that in the past if your family grew, you did not sell up to another house - you just added parts onto it. This house had hundreds of years of such alterations.

We paused at the B&B “At the Sign of the Angel” which Stephen would later divulge as the location for out of wedlock trysts between Prince Charles and “Camilla the Gorilla” (Stephen was clearly not a fan!). Apparently the owner did not like tour guides announcing this. 

We moseyed past the King John’s Hunting Lodge which is the oldest house in Lacock. Yes, Richard the Lionheart’s brother stayed there. It began to rain, much to our dismay. Up went the umbrellas as we viewed the oldest building in Lacock - a church. But right nearby was a nice little house with PRIVATE stuck on the closed gate. This was used as the Potters’ house in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Luckily, Voldemort did not appear and the rain eased.

The Potter house, Godric's Hollow

After a detour to the Tithe Barn (where tithes were paid in hay), the Blind House (where you were locked up if drunk) and the old market street (it was here Dame Judi Dench said hello to Stephen while filming a snowy scene for Cranford Park in summer - think about that one for a moment!), we again boarded the bus and slowed outside Professor Slughorn’s house before heading for Bath. On the way we passed a canal, Brunell’s Box Tunnel and Peter Gabriel’s house.

Bath was exquisite. Stephen loved the limestone in the buildings. I loved how pretentious and showy they were. Apparently Johnny Depp and John Cleese live here. Jane Austen’s house passed us by and then we were unloaded at Bog Island (once upon a time it was just that - an island in a bog). Stephen led us past the local cathedral and admitted us to the Roman Baths (they were partially Georgian). To my surprise and delight, Alice Roberts's voice was used for the audio commentary.

The Great Bath

We had to be quick with only an hour to spare. Statues of Georgian keep watch over the Great Bath - a green, steaming square pool. It was somewhat mystical. We descended through museum pieces (including Roman curses thrown to the gods) and other masonry (a hypocaust and the steps of a temple!) to the baths. So many people touched the water despite warnings.

The smell in darker places was of moisture and buried things...

In the West baths, I found the plunge pool. I tossed 10p in and asked the Greco-Roman gods to make me as prosperous as the other writers of Bath.

Coins glittering in the plunge pool

After the gift shop, we had hot chocolates and scones at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party on Stephen’s recommendation. Great prices! We boarded the bus just in time and were lifted up onto the hills once more. I was glad - it was sunny and overly warm in Bath and I was dressed in thermals!

On the way back to London, Stephen showed us a mobile phone tower disguised as a tree then told us of his odd experiences. He believes in aliens because one day in the Salisbury area (a member of the group said it has a high UFO sighting rate) he chased a strange slim man (like a boy) into a circular wooded area and suddenly the man was gone despite the closed-in area. Stephen also thinks he saw a UFO (lights that hung in the night sky before zinging away) and he regaled us with stories of crop circles.

Stephen then figured out where to drop us off and so we were dispatched, though not before he told Cazy and I about Southwark. The Clink was an old prison here and very old pubs abound. “Southwark” comes from the phrase “South Works”. In Roman times, it was where the smelly industries were based - all downwind, of course!

We were dropped at Gloucester Road station (4pm-ish) and went “home” via the undeground. Very tired and occupying myself while Cazy sleeps...

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