Michael’s Trip Diary – Sunday, May 9, 2010

Taking a Tour to Stonehenge, Avebury, Lacock and Castle Combe, lunch in a pub, and horses.

We woke up early and got ready to go. We had to be at the Abbey by 8:30 am. We opened the window and pulled in the breakfast Natacha had made for us last night. It was mostly fruit and some fruit juices. We made some tea in the room and sat on my bed and ate the cheese sandwiches, split an orange, and had some fruit juice. There was more in the bag, some cheeses and some tarts, but we left them in the room. The Abbey was several blocks away, and it promised to be another cold, windy, maybe rainy day, but we were prepared for it (jackets, caps, gloves — the wind on the Salisbury plain was supposed to be fierce).

We walked to North Parade Street, near the Abbey. The tour van (Mad Max Tours, named after their dog, Max, not the movie) was already there. We had booked a spot on the tour before we left the US. We paid our driver £60 cash ($91.20) for the two of us. The only other expense we would have during the tour would be our entrance fee to Stonehenge (and we had taken care of that in advance too), our meal at lunch, and anything we might want to buy in shops, of course. There were about fourteen in the group, including Minay and me. The plan was to go to Stonehenge first, then on to another henge or two, see some chalk horses on the way, stop for lunch in one of the towns we were going to visit, then back to Bath, a fairly full day.

I’m not exactly sure which route we took to get to Stonehenge. I could (safely) pay more attention to the scenery since I didn’t have to drive, but that also meant I didn’t have to worry about which roads to take. We were able to piece together what we thought was a plausible route on our road map later. You can see from our scribbling below, we changed our minds a few times. Today’s tour is marked in yellow, places we stopped at are circled in pen.

Our Stonehenge Tour Route, but completely messed up.

Our Stonehenge Tour Route, but completely messed up.

If you can follow it, the order was from Bath to Stonehenge, then past a chalk horse, to Avebury, past another chalk horse, to Lacock, to Castle Combe, then back to Bath. If we had actually driven it ourselves, the map might be more accurately marked (because Minay would have marked it as I drove), but I would have remembered less of the drive because I would have been focused on minutia. Actually, the map above is rubbish. One example: It shows us driving through Devizes to see a white horse at Roundway. After studying the map in more detail, and looking through the 400 or so pictures we took that day, I’m sure we didn’t turn west on A342 at Upavon. At that point we cut across country on smaller roads and saw the white horse at Alton Barnes instead. I added the thick, dotted red arrow today to show that change. The map, as marked, is full of inconsistencies like that. Mea culpa. Just accept that the map shows where we went, but not precisely how we got there.

Near the first part of this blog (you may recall) we chose to drive ourselves around the UK on our own instead of taking a full-fledged tour (partly to have the freedom to roam at will, and partly because we thought it would be less costly), but the Mad Max tour is exactly the sort of tour I would recommend, a day trip out from a central point with an experienced guide.

Our guide, Dave, obviously knew the territory well, and pointed out lots of interesting tidbits to us along the way (about history, thatched roofs, the military gunnery ranges in the area, and other things). His commentary was interesting, often humorous, and it occupied the time between stops, but wasn’t intrusive.

The first stop was Stonehenge. We probably took A36 from Bath to somewhere around Deptford, and switched to A303 there. That would have taken us almost all the way to Stonehenge. A small road about 500 yards from Stonehenge’s car park heads north from A303. The entrance fee would have been £13.80 for the two of us ($20.98) if we paid cash, but to get in we used the Overseas Visitors Passes (OVP) we had pre-purchased (for £45.20, or about $69). If we used another £31.40 ($48.02) worth of admission to English Heritage sites during our trip we would have saved money by buying the passes. Once our passes were activated (here at Stonehenge) we had fourteen days to see as many other English Heritage sites as possible for free. Did we come out ahead or lose money on the deal? I’ll keep track as the trip diary entries proceed.

Some things I’m about to describe about our visit to Stonehenge have (I have been told) changed since we visited, so I’ll post a separate info page about the changes, and some other Stonehenge stuff, in a couple of days.

Dave parked the van in the Visitors Lot; and, after most of us went to the loo (AmE – the restroom), we presented our OVP receipt at the Ticket Office. They gave us our OVP cards, activated them, and gave us our audioguides for the site. Then we entered a tunnel, walked under the A344, and up onto a paved walkway that encircles the stones. It was windy, and occasional bits of rain were flung at us periodically, but more than anything, it was COLD. The wind was so strong it cut right through us. I know it was May, but the wind is why we were bundled up so tightly. Despite that, we did (of course) take the obligatory pictures of each other with the stones in the background. Here’s mine.

Michael's obligatory picture at Stonehenge.

Michael’s obligatory picture at Stonehenge.

Small numbered markers beside the path corresponded to the commentary on the audioguides. The audioguides were similar to others we used at other sites around the country. They looked a bit like cell phones, and you were required occasionally to punch in a different number as you made your way around the circle. I didn’t figure out until later in the trip (maybe in Edinburgh or London), that you could plug ear buds into them and not have to hold them up to your ear the whole time. Here’s Minay, listening to the commentary about halfway around the circle.

Minay, listening to her audioguide at Stonehenge.

Minay, listening to her audioguide at Stonehenge.

Even though we chose to go on a day that was cold and damp and windy (it was in the low 40’s Fahrenheit, 13-18 mph winds), the experience was wonderful. I think enjoying something is mostly a question of attitude. Some people don’t care about, or appreciate, historical things, so (as I saw on some web reviews) Stonehenge is just some old rocks to them. The truth is, after 5,000 years, we still don’t know how they got those huge rocks to the Salisbury Plain, exactly how or where they shaped them, how they assembled them, and we don’t know what the stones meant to them. You don’t purposely construct something that massive just for fun. It held some deep meaning for the inhabitants of this area. I say you should come here if you have an ounce of desire for mystery in you. It will be worth it. And the sheep are fun too.

So, for us, when we were done here, it felt like today’s tour must have started with the climax of the show, and it could only go downhill from there, but we were glad to get back in the warm van anyway. We thought Stonehenge would be the highlight of the day, but there was much more to come.

The next stop was just around the corner. A couple of miles down A344, we turned north onto A345, and stopped almost immediately. This was just a brief stop, at another Neolithic henge, long enough to take a few pictures and let Dave explain about Woodhenge. It wasn’t nearly as impressive as Stonehenge, because the original pillars here were made of wood. Archaeologists found 168 post holes arranged in circles, in a similar manner as Stonehenge. They estimated the posts might have been as high as 25 feet (because they were sunk six feet in the ground). Carbon dating has shown that Woodhenge was constructed at roughly the same time (maybe a little later) than Stonehenge. Obviously, the wood deteriorated, so today there are short concrete posts to mark the spots where the original wooden ones would have been (the concrete ones are only a couple of feet high, though. We were beginning to learn that there are henges all over the UK. Here’s a pic of Woodhenge, taken from the side of the road.

Woodhenge, taken from the side of the road.

Woodhenge, taken from the side of the road.

We continued north, to see a horse this time. We left the A roads briefly for some smaller roads, and stopped south of East and West Kennett to look at one of England’s famous chalk horses. Before we could get a look at it, two real horses came trotting in from the pasture to meet us. They allowed us to pet them and take pictures, but (when they discovered we had no treats to give them) they trotted back to where they had been before we so rudely interrupted their grazing, and we turned our attention to the chalk horse on the hill. The chalk horses come in all shapes and sizes, some more realistic than others. Underlying a great deal of Southern England’s topsoil is a deep layer of chalk (like the White Cliffs of Dover). When the upper layer of soil is removed, the chalk is very visible, especially in the spring or summer, when the grass is a dark green. These art works (some from as early as the Bronze Age) were created so they would look like particular objects when viewed from a distance (horses, naked giants, etc.). Quite a feat. Here’s a picture of the first one we saw, the Alton Barnes white horse.

Alton Barnes White (chalk) Horse

Alton Barnes White (chalk) Horse

Just about four or five miles farther up the road, we came to our next stone circle, at Avebury. Avebury is the largest stone circle in Europe. The circle, in fact, encloses the entire town. Outside the circle is a huge ditch. Here’s a panorama of the ditch and some of the stones. I had to take three shots and stitch them together to get the whole width.

A panorama of Avebury and the surrounding ditch.

A panorama of Avebury and the surrounding ditch.

Some of the stones are really huge. Here I am, standing in front of one of them.

Michael, in front of one of Avebury's standing stones.

Michael, in front of one of Avebury’s standing stones.

The temperature had warmed up a little bit by this time, and it had stopped raining, but the wind was still pretty fierce. We took a walk around the perimeter of the stones, and could really feel it. Here’s Minay, leaning into it to keep from being blown over.

Minay in the wind at Avebury.

Minay in the wind at Avebury.

The rest of the afternoon was going to consist of visiting two small towns, Lacock and Castle Combe. Lacock is only 14 miles away from Avebury, but a request for directions in Google Maps suggests that it will take you about 24 minutes to get there, an indication of the lower speed limits and smaller winding roads. We stopped on the way to see another chalk horse, this time at Cherhill. No real horses this time, just another austere chalk one, high on a hill.

By the time we arrived at Lacock, it was past noon, so we ate lunch there, at The George Inn. I had fish and chips and an ale. [Hey! I wasn’t driving, and it was five o’clock somewhere in the world.]

After lunch, we had less than a half-hour to explore the village before we had to move on again. Lacock was charming. If you want to choose one small town to visit in the English countryside, and spend a half-day or day, Lacock wouldn’t be a bad choice. For movie buffs, two of the town’s houses were used in the Harry Potter movies (the Potters’ and Professor Slughorn’s houses). There are also flowers and greenery everywhere, and old stone houses, many of them packed tightly together like apartment units, while others have their own separate space with yards and gardens. Here’s a shot of some bluebells in one of the gardens.

Lacock Bluebells

Lacock Bluebells

We could have stayed much longer, but our next stop was Castle Combe, and we had to move on. I think we headed north on A350 for a few miles, then skirted west of Chippenham, Wiltshire’s second largest town (at about 45,000 residents), then we cut west onto another A road, followed by a B road, and we were in Castle Combe (less than ten miles from Lacock).

I saw a sign that I had to take a picture of as we entered town. While everyone else started exploring, I hiked back up the hill and took this picture.

Free Range Children sign, Castle Combe.

Free Range Children sign, Castle Combe.

Once I rejoined Minay, we wandered past tons of charming stone houses, again (like Lacock), all packed together. Many of them had displays of flowers and finery in their windows, but one of my favorites was a small tribute to one of the greatest rock bands of all time, Queen. Here’s Freddie Mercury, fronting the band on a window ledge.

Freddie Mercury and Queen, on a window ledge in Castle Combe.

Freddie Mercury and Queen, on a window ledge in Castle Combe.

Before leaving, Dave parked by a stone bridge, and the group fed the fish in the small stream below. We were now about ten or eleven miles northwest of Bath as the crow flies, but about fifteen miles away by the British roads, and it was time to head back. Dave knew where he was going, even if I didn’t have a clue. I think he might have headed west on A420, and then taken A46 south into Bath. At any rate, we ended up back at the Abbey, safe and sound after a wonderful day, possibly (for me) our most enjoyable so far.

Minay rested in the room for a bit while I took a quick walk down to the railway station to feed the meter. Before we left for supper, we settled our bill with Natacha, paying her the rest we owed her (2/3 of the total) for our four-night stay at Annabelle’s. It was £196.00, or $298. Then, hungry, we walked back up toward the Abbey again, almost to where the Mad Max van had dropped us off an hour or so before, and ate at Yak Yeti Yak, a Nepalese restaurant. I had Dal Bhat Tarkari, a meal of rice, potato and chickpeas (which are stir-fried with cumin and some sauces), popadum (a kind of bread, served with chutney), and dal (a lentil soup), and some delicious chai – spicy and sweet. It was our most expensive meal so far (£32.20 including the tip, or $48.95), but I thought it was very good.

It was a great day, and our last in Bath. Back at Annabelle’s, we packed up, to be ready to go in the morning. Then we relaxed and read until we fell asleep.

Do you have a favorite food that you would like to be able to eat wherever you go? I’ll put in a big vote for Thai and Nepalese.

How do you feel about old stones and castle ruins? Let us know below.

Check out my post on the changes at Stonehenge, etc., coming up in a couple of days.

Minay’s version of the day, Sunday, May 9, 2010, will post a few days after that.

Michael

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