Michael’s Trip Diary – Monday, May 10, 2010

Leaving Bath, Driving to Ilfracombe via Wells and Glastonbury.

We only had to drive about 120 miles today, and we had packed the night before, so we weren’t in a huge rush to get going. We ate a leisurely breakfast at Annabelle’s, said goodbye to Natacha, and hauled our suitcases down three flights of stairs

(Note to Michael: Remember to pack half the weight next time).

A brisk walk down to the railway station (brisk because it was about 45 Fahrenheit = about 7 Celsius), brought us to Flio. At least it was clear and sunny, and didn’t look like it was going to rain. We loaded Flio’s trunk (BrE = boot), and I took a few pictures before we left. Here’s one of the train about to pull out. You can see Minay rearranging the trunk farther down the row of cars.

Bath Railway Station, Minay loading Flio's trunk

Bath Railway Station, Minay loading Flio’s trunk

We got underway about 10:30. We had earlier considered the possibility of stopping at the American Museum in Britain. It’s just a few miles to the east of Bath, and is supposed to have a wonderful collection of over 200 historic American quilts. Unfortunately, we found out last night that the museum wasn’t open on Mondays, and didn’t open until noon anyway. If we had known about it before we got to Bath (and had been able to pick up our car around 8:00 am, as we had planned, instead of 11:00 am), we could have stopped and visited it on our first day (before we checked into our B&B). If we had gotten an earlier car, we wouldn’t have had Flio, though, would we?

Lesson for the Day: Plan better, expect Icelandic volcanoes.

To get to Ilfracombe, on the Devon coast, we could have driven from Bath to Bristol, then followed the general shape of the coast south then west. We would have been on M5 longer, and probably would have made much better time, but we wanted to see Wells Cathedral and Glastonbury Abbey, so, after twisting and turning south of downtown for a bit, we finally found A367 (which was Wells Road for a short while, then became Wellsway), and took it out of Bath toward the southwest. Wellsway soon became Roman Road, and then Dunkerton Hill, and then Bath New Road, but the important thing to remember is the route number and the next few towns on your map. For us, A367 – Wells and Shepton Mallet (but we would only be aiming at Wells. This is all assuming you’re not using GPS (BrE = SatNav), in which case you would plug in your final destination and hope it knew what it was telling you (but have a map handy just in case).

A-Roads are interesting. Sometimes the scenery can be quite beautiful, and (although some of the British drivers do) you don’t dare go too fast for several reasons. First, there are speed cameras everywhere (at least three on the A367, two more on the B3139, and six on the A39, the roads we would be taking between Bath and Glastonbury). Also, because some of these roads are narrow and twist and turn, and it’s usually impossible to see what’s coming toward you around the next corner. For example, we followed this lovely truck (BrE = lorry) for much of the distance south of Bath, possibly halfway to Wells (about twenty miles away).

Following a lorry on A367

Following a lorry on A367

The lorry wasn’t in a huge hurry, and since we couldn’t see around or through it, and (in spots like this) couldn’t see the countryside either, we proceeded at a slower pace than we would have liked — but look at that beautiful blue sky. We had also initially wasted some time finding our bearings, getting out of Bath, and then were slowed down by the traffic. It was well after noon when we got to Wells. I was hungry by this time, and so was Minay. We had a discussion about where to eat. she wanted something fast and I wanted a regular meal. We finally settled on the Kings Head Pub on High Street (AmE = Main Street). I don’t remember what I had, probably fish and chips. The bill for both of us was £13.90 ($21.13). It was good, but we needed to get moving if we were going to stop both here and at Glastonbury on our way to Ilfracombe before sunset.

The city centre of Wells is very crowded and filled with one-way streets that curve around and seem to be going nowhere except probably far afield of your intended destination (not uncommon in most of the towns we visited). The prevailing formula seemed to be: the older the town was, the smaller and more twisty-turny the road was. The cathedral was probably only a thousand feet from the pub, toward the northeast. We had to drive to the southwest, then double back and circle around behind the cathedral for about a half-mile. Anyway, somehow, we managed to make it to the cathedral green and found a place to park (£3.00, or $4.56), about half what it cost us to park in Bath for a whole day.

We also had until May 22nd to cash in on entrances to English Heritage sites. Unfortunately neither Wells Cathedral or Glastonbury Abbey were covered by the Overseas Visitor Pass, so we had to pay an entrance fee here (£10.00 for both of us, or $15.20). I had already snapped a few shots of the exterior of the cathedral, but wanted to take some more inside. I had to pay for a camera permit (£3.00, or $4.56) to be granted permission to do that, so I took full advantage and took over 250 pictures while we were there, mostly of things I thought were interesting architecturally or historically. You’ve seen a few of them already in Flio’s Photo Album for today. Some of the best shots are there (check out the ceiling to the Chapter House, for example), but here are a few more.

Ina Rex floor slab, Wells Cathedral

Ina Rex floor slab, Wells Cathedral

Although many of the stones in cathedrals are actually gravestones, this is a floor slab dedicated to Ina, (or Ine) King of the Saxon kingdom of Wessex. He established some of the early laws that Alfred the Great later expanded on, and had a minster church constructed here, where Wells Cathedral was later built. Many of the buildings in the country are built on top of other buildings. Land is scarce on an island. If a foundation has already been established, but the building is damaged or destroyed (lots of wars over the centuries), somebody will build something else on the foundation.

Three misericords, Wells Cathedral

Three misericords, Wells Cathedral

The top two of the misericords are medieval and the bottom one dates from the 17th century. They are small shelves that were attached to the bottoms of folding seats. When a seat was in the upright position, someone who had to stand for very long periods of time could rest their tush on the misericord and still appear to be standing. The Latin name, misericordia, actually meant “act of mercy.”

The next two pics were of one of the things I found most intriguing. The first picture is of the tomb of the Bishop of Shrewsbury. The second one is a close up shot of his face. Take a good look and I’ll meet you below the pictures.

Tomb of Ralph, Bishop of Shrewsbury, Wells Cathedral

Tomb of Ralph, Bishop of Shrewsbury, Wells Cathedral

Graffiti on the effigy of Ralph of Shrewsbury

Graffiti on the effigy of Ralph of Shrewsbury

First of all, I think he looks remarkably like Bill Nighy. If they ever need someone to play him in a movie, he’d be the go-to guy. Secondly, it seemed really strange to me, but apparently carving your initials, or even a message or a prayer on a tomb effigy was an okay thing to do. The carvings weren’t just on his face. They covered almost all of his body, and even the pillow his head was resting on. Medieval good luck graffiti, I guess.

The cathedral itself is breathtaking. The scissor arches were both beautiful and functional (again, see the photo album for a pic), and the cathedral has a wonderful medieval clock. Minay will tell you a bit about that one. The ceilings were amazing, and so was the Chapter House, but by 2:30 we knew we had to go. Glastonbury Abbey was next.

Glastonbury was only about eight miles away. We left Wells on the A39, and took it straight to Glastonbury, made our way (somehow) through downtown to High Street and parked near the abbey (another £1.60, or $2.43), then an entrance fee of (£10.50, or $15.96) for the two of us.

The entrance to Glastonbury Abbey is sandwiched between the Town Hall and the Man, Myth & Magik shop, which might give you an idea of the flavor of being there. The entrance looks a bit more medieval than the Man, Myth & Magik shop (which is a touristy place which sells jewelry, swords, crystals, CDs, and artwork that evokes rock ‘n roll and fantasy themes), and less modern than the town hall. See?

Entrance to Glastonbury Abbey

Entrance to Glastonbury Abbey

The abbey itself is no more. Only ruins remain. After King Henry VIII founded the Church of England so he could divorce his first wife (I know, simplistic explanation, see more detail here), he began a process known as the Dissolution of the Monasteries. In 1536 there were over 850 monasteries, nunneries and friaries in England. Five years later there weren’t any. This allowed Henry to not only banish Catholicism in the country, but (more importantly for him) it gave him an excuse for confiscating all their wealth, which he desperately needed. Over the next few centuries, the land was sold and resold, and much of the abbey’s stonework was taken for other building projects, leaving it in the ruins we see today.

One of the reasons I wanted to come to Glastonbury was because of its frequent associations with Arthurian legends. I had been thinking of writing a modern version of King Arthur set in New Orleans, Houston and Las Vegas (it’s still in the works), and I wanted to do a little Arthurian research while we were in the UK. It turns out there’s a lot more Arthurian myth than reality, but I wanted to see some of the places that were associated with his legends.

Glastonbury’s Arthur connection was probably spread by medieval monks who claimed that Glastonbury was the site of Avalon (where, according to the legend, Exalibur was forged, and Arthur died after his battle with Mordred). In the twelfth century, most of the abbey burned down, and they badly needed funds to rebuild it. Miraculously, they dug on the grounds and found a grave with two bodies in it, and a lead cross which read “Here lies interred the famous King Arthur on the isle of Avalon.” They reburied the bodies, King Edward I attended the reburial, and pilgrims flocked to the site refilling the coffers of the abbey, which helped greatly with the rebuilding. [A modicum of snark may be noted in the previous few sentences.]

Here’s a picture of the “grave” today.

King Arthur's "grave" at Glastonbury

King Arthur’s “grave” at Glastonbury

We had only driven about twenty-five miles so far today, and still had about ninety to go. By the time we finished at Glastonbury it was nearly 5:00 pm. We still had to spend some more time on A-Roads, maybe fifteen miles on A39 before we got to M5, a six-lane divided highway (BrE= dual carriageway). We were only on M5 for about twenty-five miles, then it was A361 and A39 to Barnstable, and A3123 to Ilfracombe. Naturally, we got lost trying to get into Ilfracombe, but made it to our stop for the next two nights, the Montpelier B&B, by about 7:30.

Here are a couple of pictures of our very nice room.

Montpelier B&B, Ilfracombe

Our bed – Montpelier B&B, Ilfracombe

Our room - Montpelier B&B, Ilfracombe

Our room – Montpelier B&B, Ilfracombe

We were completely worn out by the day, and — although we were hungry — didn’t even try to go out. We had a Bath bun we brought with us, and some other goodies left over from Natacha’s Stonehenge breakfast. We drank hot chocolate that our hosts, Diana and Ron, had left in the room for us. I don’t think we stayed up very late, maybe another couple of hours.

What’s your take on the King Arthur mythology? True, as written by Malory? Only partly true, but based on someone so far back in history we’ll never know? An alien being dropped here by the mothership? Something else entirely?

Minay’s version of Sunday, May 10, 2010, will post next week.


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