We woke up bright and early (5 am) despite not sleeping well due to the noisy people at the bar across the street. Breakfast wasn’t served until 7:30 am but we went downstairs to hang out just in case it was ready earlier. The receptionist made a caffé Americano for Clayton and a latte for me while we waited. She let us know when she was ready for us to come in for breakfast.
Breakfast here was a highlight of the stay. There is a continental breakfast spread with many delicious choices, including warm croissants and freshly squeezed orange juice, but they also take your order for a hot breakfast. A full English breakfast was one of the choices, but that is way too much food for either of us. Clayton had the pancakes with fresh berries; I had the whole-grain toast with avocado, a “perfectly poached egg” and streaky bacon. I was really curious what streaky bacon was; it turned out to be fried ham. The next day, they had changed it to crispy bacon but it was still fried ham. Whatever they called it, it was quite delicious. I don’t know how many others were staying at the hotel; there was only one other person at breakfast. That may be due to the fact that it was still early; breakfast was served until 10 am, I think.
We were signed up for a tour of Stonehenge, Avebury and the Cotswolds today. I had read about the tour in Rick Steves’ Great Britain book. The company is called Mad Max Tours; Rick and I heartily endorse them! We had an absolutely fabulous day in the British countryside. Our tour guide was Richard. He was knowledgeable, personable and witty; the perfect guide! We booked Tour #1: Stonehenge, Avebury and Cotswold Villages. It was definitely a full day tour – we left at 8:30 am and returned at about 5:45 pm.
As we drove through the outskirts of Bath, Richard explained why the limestone homes were no longer white (coal residue); he called it “mascara for buildings”. He also pointed out that there were bricked in windows in many of the lovely home we passed. He explained that in the 1700’s the government had imposed a window tax. At that time, personal wealth was judged by how many windows you had in your home. The government cleverly decided to impose a per-window tax. So, people took to bricking in their windows to avoid paying taxes.
As we left the town and drove through very lush, picturesque countryside, Richard explained that the canals that lace the area were the chief means of transport prior to the railways. By land, 6 horses could transport 1 ton of freight. By canal boat, 1 horse could transport 20 tons. It took 3 days to transport goods to London by canal boat. When the railroads came into being, it only took 3 hours. Canals fell out of favor but have experienced a resurgence lately (mainly for tourism purposes). Along each canal is a tow path because the horses pulled the boats. These are now used as walking paths. Inns and pubs can also be found every few miles along the canals.
We passed by our first “Red Lion” pub. You might think this was a chain since there are over 450 pubs with this name in the UK but you would be wrong; it is simply the most popular name for pubs!
The drive to Stonehenge took about an hour. As we neared the site, Richard played a recording made by the tour company’s owner who gave us some historical information about Stonehenge. I will briefly summarize what she said. About 6000 years ago was the start of the Neolithic period. The first people arrived in the area due to the agricultural opportunities. Forests were cleared and the land became farm land. Flint was plentiful in the area and was necessary to create the tools used in early civilization. The people were highly intelligent; they did not conform to the stereotype that many have of early man. They wore dyed linen and fine jewelry; they decorated their pottery.
Around 5000 years ago the building of Stonehenge began. A henge is a term used to describe a circular area enclosed by a bank and ditch. The ditch is inside the bank; at Stonehenge the reverse is true, so it is not technically a henge. At this time the bank and ditch were constructed and holes were dug into the ground. Cremated remains have been found in these holes.
A few hundred years later the small circle of blue stones was installed. These stones were from South Wales and so had to be moved about 150 miles. The stones weighed 5 tons each; at the time there were no wheels so it is thought that rafts were used on top of rolling logs.
4300 years ago the huge stones were put in. These were “local” stones; they were moved 30 km over hilly terrain to the site. They were beaten into shape. One unique feature of Stonehenge is the use of lintels, the horizontal cross-pieces on the outer stones. No other stone circle uses these lintels. It is aligned to the winter solstice which was more important than the summer solstice to the Neolithic people.
There are no written records about Stonehenge’s use. The most common misconception is that it was constructed by druids. Druids didn’t arrive in the area until after Stonehenge fell into ruins (about 2700 years ago). They never built religious circles but may have adopted stone circles that already existed for use in their ceremonies.
We had now arrived at the site just as it opened. There is a visitor’s center but Richard strongly suggested that we visit the site first (before the hordes arrived) and then visit the visitor center. While he bought our tickets, we had time to use the (free!) toilets. The cost of admission is not included in the price of the tour; we paid him back after we had toured the ruins. We were each given an audioguide and told were given 90 minutes to explore. There is a shuttle bus to the actual site (it is about a mile from the visitor center). We were so fortunate that it was a beautiful, sunny day. I was able to take lots of pictures; I really hope that when I get home that I can successfully transfer them from my camera and post them here! There were 7 informational stops where more information was given about the stone circle. In the area surrounding the stone circle are many barrows which are burial mounds. The bones that have been found there are predominantly male, although there are some women’s and children’s bones as well. These are thought to be the bones of important people in the community.
We took the bus back and explored the gift shop (very overpriced items!) and the museum. Outside of the museum were replicas of the homes that the people that constructed Stonehenge lived in. There was also a display showing how the stones may have been moved such great distances. I found Stonehenge fascinating. I had read that some “experts” suggest skipping Stonehenge – it’s too touristy, too crowded, underwhelming in size, etc., etc., etc. I heartily disagree!
On the drive to Avebury, another stone circle, we drove past Woodhenge. Yup, a circle made up of wood pilings. That was extremely underwhelming! It isn’t a gimicky, made-up tourist thing; it was built around 2300 BC. It literally looks like a bunch of wood posts in a circular pattern. We passed by Durrington Walls which was the largest Neolithic settlement. It is thought that this is where the workers that created Stonehenge lived. There were many pigs carcasses found here which is thought to mean that it was a feast location.
We saw a unique roadsign – a tank crossing sign. You don’t see those anywhere! Richard told us that when they were resurfacing the road recently that there was a sign that said “cats eyes removed”. That sounds a little grim! He had to explain that cats eyes are the reflective bumps in the center of the road. Whew!
He pointed out some homes with thatched roofs. The thatch is created out of long-stemmed wheat. On some of the roofs are small animals made of thatch, such as owls, birds, and squirrels. These are symbols of the master thatcher that created the roof. Thatched roofs have been banned in London since the 13th century because of the fire hazard. They are quite common in this part of England, but apparently the insurance is quite expensive. If you look closely at the roofs, you can see that they are covered in chicken wire. This is not to hold the thatch in; it is to keep small critters out! During the winter, small animals like to take shelter in the thatch to stay warm. This may also be why 4-poster canopied beds were created. Those animals hiding in the thatch were definitely not potty-trained, so the canopy kept the animal urine from dripping down on the people below.
The hills in the area are chalk hills. There are horses embedded in the hills known as white horses. We were able to see two of them. Richard pulled over so we could take pictures of the first one we came to. He had a nice little surprise for us; there were some beautiful gypsy caravan horses in the field as well! Richard gave us each some carrots to feed the horses. We all enjoyed the visit!
By now we were approaching Avebury. Once again, Richard played a recording of historical information about the stone circles here. This is the largest set of stone circles (there are 3 here). It was constructed about 5800 years ago using 60 ton rocks. Unlike Stonehenge, the stones here were not shaped.
A 100 meter long burial chamber was located here. 47 sets of bones were found here; they have been tested and it was found that there were 6 families represented. Everyone over the age of 30 had arthritis; there were five cases of spina bifida.
There is also a white chalk pyramid created and then covered with earth. No one has the slightest idea what its purpose was, but it was not for burial. This is Silbury Hill and is the largest man-made mountain anywhere.
Avebury is an actual henge. The ditch surrounding it is 1 mile in circumference. Its inner walls are 9 meters tall and its outer walls were 7 meters tall. These were dug using deer antlers. There is no astronomical alignments here, however the stones were all equidistant. At some point, the church decided the stone circles were evil and tried to destroy them by burying some of the stones. These stones have been replaced with markers.
Our group all walked to the stone known as the barber/surgeon stone. A skeleton was located underneath it; it has since been moved to the British Museum. Richard pointed out another famous stone located across the street (a road goes through the stone circle) known as the Devil’s Chair. This is considered to be a lucky chair. Legend has it that those that sit in it will be given great fertility. And, if you are of a certain age, like I am, that fertility extends to your younger family members. Uh-oh! And, if you run around it in the counter-clockwise direction 100 times, you will summon the devil.
We were given an hour to explore Avebury. There is a town there so after viewing the stones, we walked down the main street. We found the local church; apparently it is a dog-friendly place! We explored the churchyard, finding many graves from the early 1700’s.
We loaded up the mini-bus and headed toward Lacock. We saw another of the white chalk horses. There is a theory that these horses may have been the neon signs of their day. They are located near towns, so as people traveled in the area would see the horses and know that they were near an inn or pub.
Lacock was originally a Saxon village that is over 1000 years old. The first thing we saw was the abbey. The abbey here was founded in the 13th century by as a nunnery. It was off-limits to us because the new Harry Potter movie, “Fantastic Beast and Where to Find Them”, is being filmed here right now.
The village was a very prosperous village from the 13th to the 18th century due to the wool trade. During the 18th century the wool trade went into decline and the village became poor by the 19th century. It had 3 poorhouses (and it is a very small village!).
Henry VIII sold the abbey to a family when changing the country from Catholicism to the Church of England. They replaced the cathedral with a brewery. Eventually it passed to a family named Talbot. If you are a photography buff, you may recognize that name. The earliest surviving photographic negative was taken here in 1835 by William Henry Fox Talbot. In 1944, the lady of the manor gave the lands to the National Trust; it was too expensive to take care of.
Since the National Trust owns all of the town, no gentrification has taken place here. No one can own a home here; all are rentals. Some of the residents can trace their family history back to the 15th century!
We had lunch at the Red Lion Inn, one of several pubs in town. This particular pub was what Richard called a tied house, so named because they are affiliated with a particular brewery and must serve the brewery’s beer. Other pubs are free houses which are privately owned and can serve whatever types of beer they want.
After lunch we met back up with Richard and he took us on a walking tour around town. The newest building in this town was built in 1824! The oldest is 700 years old. We went into a 14th century Tithe Barn. Everyone had to tithe 10% to the abbey for rent, but they did not pay in cash; they paid in whatever product they produced. The beams are solid oak which is very heavy, so the walls are exceptionally thick. The building has a limestone tile roof as do all of the buildings in town.
Behind the tithe barn was a small room with no windows which turned out to be the town lockup. Don’t confuse this for the town jail! The lockup was used for drunk and disorderly residents. Essentially, it was one of the town’s drunk tanks. Since there were no windows, when the drunk was let out in the morning (after sleeping it off), they were temporarily blinded by the brightness of the day. The room was known as the blind house. This is where the term “blind drunk” comes from!
This town has been used as the setting for several famous movies and tv shows. Pride and Prejudice was filmed here. If you are a Downton Abbey fan, you may recall the scene where Marigold gets taken. Yup, filmed right here.
Richard pointed out a feature found on many of the houses here. There are 3 gables on the house. If you look carefully at the gables, there is something that looks like a triangle at the point. If you were flying over the house, say on a broomstick, these look like crosses. The feature was known as a witch’s cross and was supposed to keep witches away. The last witch execution in England was in 1727 so houses built after that time do not have this feature.
We stopped briefly in St. Cyriac’s Church (built in the 13th century); home parish to Camilla Parker-Bowles. Her daughter, Laura, was married in this church. There were many royals in attendance, so was a big deal to the local folk. In the fence of the church was something known as a sheep stopper. A sheep could easily pass through this device, but apparently they don’t like the feeling of the wood on their wool, so don’t go through.
Just past the church was one of the former poor houses and a tannery. Around the corner is the house in the Harry Potter movie where Voldemort killed his parents. And, down the next street is the town of Budleigh Babberton where Professor Slugworth lived in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. The fountain seen at the end of the street in the movie was dubbed in.
We walked past the George Inn, a 14th century pub made famous by its use of a dog wheel. A dog wheel is essentially a large hamster wheel. A hot stone was placed in the wheel and a terrier was then placed in as well. The dog would run to get away from the hot stone which would turn the meat on the spit that was being cooked over the fire.
Like many towns we have visited in England, there is a war memorial in town. This one is from WWI, the Great War. During that war, the British encouraged their young men to join up with their friends. Whole villages of young men joined; whole villages of young men were wiped out in single battles. In the entire country, only 53 villages did not have any killed; they are known as Thankful Villages.
Our final stop of the day was the most beautiful village in England, Castle Combe. Really, it was voted the most beautiful village in England in 1962. In 1967, Dr. Doolittle (the original) was filmed here. It really is the most charming place! The village was built for the wool trade. The women would spin the wool (ever heard of a spinster?) and the men would weave it. The town’s stream dried up, so the economy of the village dried up. And, the village essentially became frozen in time because of that economic disaster.
In front of the town’s church is the market cross, where perishable goods would be sold. The church is dedicated to a knight from the crusades, Sir Walter deDunstanville. His effigy is in the church, near the altar. At the back of the church is a faceless church clock. Normally, these are in the steeple of the church but this one was moved down to floor level so people can see how it works. These clocks were used to ring the church bells so the local townspeople could tell what time it was.
The churchyard has stone benches in it, a common feature in the old cemeteries. In the 17th century they were running out of space to bury bodies so started to dig up bones. One in 25 of the coffins were found to have scratch marks in them, meaning the person had been buried alive. To keep this from happening, a string attached to a bell would be tied to a corpse’s finger so that if the person wasn’t really dead, when they moved, the bell would ring. Of course, if there was no one around to hear it, that wouldn’t really help! So, benches were installed in cemeteries and townspeople would take turns sitting on the benches 24 hours per day. This gave rise to a couple of common terms: saved by the bell and dead ringers. And, those that sat on the benches all night long gave rise to the term “graveyard shift”. Who knew?
We had a half hour to wander the town, which was plenty of time given how small it is. It was now time to head back to Bath. We had been lucky all day with the weather. It only rained once, and we were in the mini-bus at the time. We did have to walk back to the hotel in the rain but didn’t really mind. What a fabulous day!
If you are visiting London, it is well worth touring this area (it’s only an hour or two away). We really liked Bath, but if you can’t spare the time for a side-trip there, at least get out of the big city for a day to visit the Cotswolds; you won’t regret it!