Bath time

11 Jun

Day 3

Up and at ‘em early cause today we are going to Stonehenge! Why are we up and at ‘em early to go to Stonehenge? Because Stonehenge is in the middle of Capital-N-Nowhere. So, to get there we will take… a tour bus.

Ah yes, the mighty coach, scourge of the National Trust Site parking lots. You see a tour bus coming and you dash for the restroom/ticket line/café because any second now there are going to be upwards of 60 French school children… or pensioners from Brimscombe… or folks from Japan running after a fellow with an orange umbrella… and no matter what you want to do they are going to be in your way. I won’t even go into the cold terror that drops your stomach through the floor of the car when you encounter one of these behemoths coming around a bend on a cliff road hundreds of feet above the sea (We’ll save that for the pages about our time in Ireland).

I like doing what I want, when I want, at the pace I choose and without regard for anybody else’s timetable. I’m an American, it’s one of the things at which we excel.  Doing our own thing was a cornerstone of planning this trip. However, I just couldn’t figure out a way to get out there by any other means. You honestly don’t need a ton of time at the site. I’m normally not the sort of person who says “Look, the Grand Canyon.  Big hole.  Seen it. Moving on…” but in this instance it’s a close run thing. The things that the foremost experts don’t know about Stonehenge could fill volumes and even inside the World Heritage Site (For which you pay admission), you are not allowed any closer than about 20 yards to the stones. From the time you roll up until you leave the parking lot even taking into account browsing the gift shop, having an ice cream, and hitting the head, won’t be more than an hour. Once you take a good look at the site and soak up the fact that the thing you are looking at is almost impossibly old and certainly a world-class mystery… there just isn’t much else to do.

So we were looking at a destination 90 miles outside of London that we REALLY wanted to see, but knew wouldn’t engage us for more than an hour. Public transit presented some problems. Taking a train was a possibility. We could get to Salisbury, but that was 10 miles away. So from there it’s a taxi or dedicated bus to the site, or perhaps a bus to Amesbury, then a bus or taxi. Expensive proposition any way we did it, plus you’re looking at a round-trip and lots of time in transit. I didn’t really want to even consider renting a car in London just to drive to Stonehenge and back. Taking a tour looked like the only sensible option.

So I started searching for “Day tour Stonehenge.” The one that popped up over and over again was Premium Tours Ltd., and this was the company we ended up booking. The tour consisted of pickup from any of 170 central London hotels (The George was not among these so we had to get the Tube to the Victoria Bus Station), luxury coach to Stonehenge, “Fast Track admission” to the site, an hour at Stonehenge then on to Bath. Three hours in Bath then back to London to your hotel (If it was one offered for transfer, and possibly even if it wasn’t depending on the guide and driver).  The whole deal was £45 per person for adults and I certainly couldn’t beat the price on my own.

The tour departs at 8:30AM. I was concerned about getting to the station on time because A) I am a complete Worst Case Scenario psychopath when it comes to travel, and B) It was now Monday and I had some concerns about how a regular workaday rush hour would affect the efficiency of the Underground. I needn’t have been concerned.  In all our time in London, night or day, fair weather or foul (If you’ve ever lived in New York City you know what a good hard rain will do to the subway), we never waited more than 3 minutes for a train. We caught the Victoria line at King’s Cross and rode it directly to the Victoria stop. A brisk walk and we were standing in the queue at the gate a few minutes later surfing the station’s free WiFi.

I am now going to tell you something that nobody from Premium Tours mentioned verbally or in writing at ANY point before we boarded… eating is absolutely forbidden on the coach.  Seriously. They threatened to leave any offending party behind.  I went back later and checked our ticket. I checked the website.  Looked all over. This little tidbit is mentioned exactly nowhere. Julia and I had purchased snacks at a bakery since we’d left the hotel before breakfast and waited to eat in the relative comfort of the bus rather than standing in line.  We were mightily hacked-off when we learned it would be until we reached Stonehenge (Just under 2 hours from London) before we could eat.

If there was a single thing that could take the rough edge off of our hunger-induced rage it was our tour guide, Alan “Helen” Doyle (“Helen” from a misprint in a TripAdvisor.com review, although he prefers to be called just “Handsome”). Alan was a pro. Every statue, building, and house of any note at all on our way out of town… Alan had a story ready to hand.  He was full of helpful hints that would allow us all to be “Visitors” not “Tourists” in England. He even had John of Gaunt’s speech from Richard II (At least up until the line “This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England”) ready to hand and managed to end it as we rounded a bend and saw a wide valley, sun dappled and impossibly green, spread out before us.  Helen rocked.

We reached Stonehenge in about an hour and forty-five minutes. Julia and I wolfed down our breakfast as we were lined up and true to their word Premium Tours (In the person of Handsome Helen Doyle) whisked us past the ticket queue and through the turnstile. We took Helen’s advice and stopped in at the shop first, got a postcard for my sister, and headed through the tunnel under the A344 after picking up an audio guide (No extra charge).

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Stonehenge (To scale)

Now you’re likely to come away thinking I was let down by Stonehenge. That’s not the case, it’s just that it is really hard to sort out the emotional and intellectual response to something so ancient and so utterly baffling and get it down on the page.  We’ve deciphered hieroglyphs, so the pyramids are explained to my satisfaction. The Parthenon, the Flavian Amphitheatre, the Great Wall, no explanation needed really. But Stonehenge, well… I mean… what the hell? The audio guide really just adds to the frustration. It is chock full of useful information about the range of dates within which the site was in use and the details of the materials used, including the fact that most of the stones were hauled from a theoretically impossible distance away, but the why and the how? Not a peep, cause that information just isn’t available.

Visitors are kept at a good distance from the stones. My understanding is that you are allowed among them only on certain occasions with advance permission. This is to try to maintain the site in an age where nearly everyone knows of its existence. Part of the reason it has survived so long is that it is in such a remote area. However, tourists were known to show up with hammers in the 1800s to take bits home as souvenirs (A local blacksmith is reported to have done a brisk trade selling hammers to those forgetful folks who left theirs at home) and the RAF actually used the site for target practice during WWII.  I certainly understand the need for these measures, but it adds to the unreality of the experience. You get the feeling you’ve come to visit Stonehenge and you are looking at the worlds biggest and highest definition picture of Stonehenge, the reality of the site still out of reach.

After crossing under the road you emerge in a large field.  Small markers with numbers on them let you know when to hit “Play” on your audio guide. The path sticks to the inside of the outer ring, now just a low circular rise in the ground. Where the path would carry visitors over archeologically fragile areas raised decking is in place. We encountered people from all over the world and at the far side of the circle overheard an English twenty-something explaining to some Americans;

“We were sitting around last night and thought ‘Hey, let’s just do it’ you know? ‘Lets go to Stonehenge!’ We started at ten o’clock last night and just, you know, drove through the night. We figured we’d just rock on up and sit on the stones with a bottle of wine and watch the sun rise from Stonehenge, you know? Give a toast to the dawn, you know? And we got here and there’s a FENCE! You have to pay to get in! It’s a World Heritage Site. We’re British, we should have KNOWN this!”

I find the notion that as a British subject he should be aware of the admission status of the major cultural sites in his country admirable. I’m not holding my breath though.

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Exactly what it says on the tin. Tank Crossing.

Helen gathered us up and put us on the bus for the ride to Bath. Along the way we passed the ghost village of Imber.  During WWII the British Ministry of War emptied the village so that it could be used to practice for the Normandy invasion. Like the more famous village of Tyneham on the southwest coast, the villagers have never been allowed to return.  The area around Imber is used as a training ground for mobile artillery to this day and we saw several armored vehicles and a “Tank Crossing” sign as we rode along.

I love Bath. To fit it into our schedule we did the single day bus tour, but I recommend spending a full day or even two. Bath is a beautiful city of golden sandstone, full of shops, museums, theatres and parks. The main tourist draws are Bath Abbey and the Roman/Georgian baths, so certainly be sure to make these the centerpiece of your visit, but wander farther afield if you have the time. In fact, if you decide you want to stay overnight, you can return on Premium Tours’ coach the next afternoon for an extra £10 (Total £55 per person). The cheapest round-trip train ticket from St. Pancras to Bath I could find was £57.50, and bear in mind that doesn’t include a stop at Stonehenge.

According to legend Bath was founded by Bladud, father of King Lear, in 860 BC. Bladud contracted leprosy and was put out in the wilderness as a swineherd. The pigs in his care came down with a skin disease but were miraculously healed after rolling in the hot mud around a thermal spring in the Avon Valley. Bladud covered himself in the mud and was healed of his leprosy. When he became king he founded the city of Bath on the site.

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The river Avon in Bath.

Archaeological evidence suggests that the site was known to Iron Age Britons and that Bath was sacred to the Celts. The Romans constructed a spa in 43 AD and the town that grew up around it became known as Aquae Sulis after the local god Sul. The Romans co-opted Sul, who they associated with Minerva, and over the next few hundred years a sprawling bath and temple complex grew up around the thermal spring. The Romans abandoned Bath when they pulled out of Britain in the early 5th Century.  The buildings covering the spa and temple complex eventually crumbled and were forgotten, and silt from the thermal spring covered the Roman pools.

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Note the angels on either side of the facade climbing Jacob’s Ladder

Bath Abbey was founded around 675. The current building was begun around 1500 and completed within about 30 years. Just inside the public entrance you will find the Stars and Stripes hanging from a column, given by the American embassy in 1948 as reminder of the two countries’ friendship. The entire length of the abbey has gorgeous stained-glass windows. The Abbey is full of over 1,000 years of history.  Edgar I (Edgar the Peaceful) was crowned King of all England on the site in 973. The walls and floors are lined with memorial stones, mostly to notable local persons going back to the 1700’s. At the far end we found a beautiful illuminated book in a glass case. The Book of Remembrance contains the names of service personnel from Bath who fell in WWII, as well as the names of the civilians killed in the air attacks known as the “Baedeker Raids” when, in retaliation for the bombing of Lübeck, the Luftwaffe targeted strategically unimportant but picturesque English cities chosen for their 3-star ranking in the Baedeker tour guide. If you’re “Readers” like Julia and me, allow yourself at least an hour and a half inside.

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After touring the abbey we stopped in a little pasty shop for lunch, then entered the Roman Baths.

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A mosaic recovered form the site

I’ve mentioned before that I am a nut for all things Roman and the baths are fantastic. This is another place I visited in 1989 and the museum has been vastly improved in the last 20 years. Admission is £12.25 (Except in July and August when it is £12.50) and audio guides are free. You can access the upper and lower levels of the Georgian-era terrace around the main pool. The remains of the Roman site are all below street level, and include the hot and cold baths, spa rooms, spring overflow, the temple yard and temple steps.  The museum has a number of artifacts, including tombstones and grave goods, as well as architectural details from buildings around the site. Some sculptures and altar stones have actually been returned to the site after being used as construction materials in buildings many miles away.  It was a common practice among the Romans to inscribe curses on lead sheets and toss them into the bath in the hope that Sul/Minerva would act on them and a large number of these have been recovered. These were generally employed when someone had been wronged in some way. One curse we saw complained of a bather having his clothes stolen. It was complete with a list of suspects.

The abbey above the Roman Baths

Much of the plumbing is still intact. The spring overflow still dumps water into a gravity drain that carries it away to the river Avon. I find that absolutely amazing. The lower  Roman portions of the baths were covered for over a thousand years, but the pipes still work. Dude.

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The fountain in the Pump Room

After touring the museum and the entire bath complex we stopped in at the Pump Room restaurant.  The restaurant is inside the Grand Pump Room, completed in 1799. You can sample the water from the spring (50p per glass, or free with your ticket to the Baths). The water fell as rain as long as 10,000 years ago. It filters down through the limestone to a depth of around 14,000 feet before being forced up through fissures by the Earth’s geothermal energy. It reaches the surface at a temperature of 115°. It had a slightly mineral taste, but was better than a lot of the tap water I’ve had in Appalachia.

We gathered back at the bus and left for London. About 10 miles outside of London we came to a dead stop in traffic. This is where Alan got his chance to really show what he was made of because he had to vamp. For an hour.  We got history lessons. We got a lesson in diction, a primer in how to talk about the weather. The weather in England is either “Lovely” or “Shocking.” That should get you by. He kept a bus load of tired people stuck in traffic entertained for an hour, made us laugh, and taught us a thing or three about his country.

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The Food Stalls at Harrod’s

Once the traffic cleared out and we began to draw close to the Victoria Bus Terminal, Alan sorted out who needed to go where and began dropping off passengers where they requested. We had him drop us off at Harrod’s. We did a quick turn through the toys and the Harrod’s gifts just before the store closed and then headed back to The George. We had dinner at The Boot on Cromer Street. They did a very good fish & chips and Julia discovered Apple Tango soda. While we didn’t encounter it again in our travels I’ve secured a source here at home!

Our last little errand of the day was to pop in at King’s Cross and get train tickets for the next day’s outing. I spoke at some length with the ticket agent about fares and schedules for a trip to Bath, not realizing until after purchasing the tickets that Bath was the city we’d just visited and that I really wanted tickets to Canterbury. Fortunately refunding the first purchase and squaring away the trip I really wanted to take didn’t take very long. We left the ticket counter to do one last thing…

Ok, for all you Harry Potter fans out there… There is a Platform 9 ¾ in King’s Cross. Sort of. We walked through the open turnstiles near platform 10 but couldn’t find the right spot. We very sheepishly approached a conductor and asked him if the brick barrier where Harry enters Platform 9 ¾ existed. After laughing a bit he pointed us in the right direction. There is a mock up of a luggage cart disappearing into the wall on the ground floor between a currency exchange office and Watermark Books. The clever folks at the book store have a display of the Harry Potter books in the window closest to the cart.  We were there late in the evening when the station was practically deserted, but if you show up during the day be prepared to wait in line to take a picture. I have since learned that the actual location used in the movies is located between tracks 4 and 5. As it is behind the turnstiles you hardcore Potter fans will have to buy a train ticket if you wish to find the spot while the trains are running.

After that we wandered back to The George. Our first and only experience with a tour bus having gone pretty well it was now time to head off to a day trip destination on our own. Next stop,Canterbury!

Take good care.

© 2012 Roy Guill, The Naked Investigator

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3 Responses to “Bath time”

  1. angic1964 June 11, 2012 at 2:39 pm #

    yay for Platform 9 3/4! sounds like the tour guide was great (reminded me of Amazing Grace, one of our Hawaii guides)

  2. MichaelE June 15, 2012 at 11:08 am #

    I also never had anything other than admiration for the train service and found it utterly reliable. Which made it all the more puzzling that I heard Brits whinging the enitre time I was there about “bloody British Rail”.

  3. Joey Are a June 29, 2012 at 4:47 pm #

    Check my Facebook photo galleries under “The Great European Adventure” for an alternate way to do Stonehenge. It does involve pitching a tent, hopping a fence, and bribing a 17 year old security guard about £50 but it was totally worth it!

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