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The World Trippers at Stonehenge
On May 4th, we had our last delicious all-you-can-eat breakfast at the London County Hall Travel Inn. After checking out and storing our suitcases downstairs, we set out in the Tube for Marble Arch. There, at National Car Rental, we would pick up our new "home on wheels" for the next month.
As we went to get our new rental car, we felt like we were expecting a baby; we knew that we were going to get something, but we didn't know exactly what it was going to look like (our reservation was for a "small estate car," which is supposed to be the same as an American mid-sized station wagon). We were expecting an Opel Vectra, and what we got was a Skoda Octavia... jet black. Fortunately it has a Diesel engine; and even more fortunately it fits all of our luggage (the boot is actually deeper than that of our previous Renault Mégane, so we can even see out of the back window now). Gail, behind the wheel, had no problem immediately switching to opposite-side driving (those weeks in New Zealand and Australia had paid off) as we drove in London for the first time. After driving back to Westminster to get our luggage, it took us a full two hours to get out of the city -- in addition to the upcoming Queen's Jubilee, it was the beginning of a three-day weekend (the first major Bank Holiday of the season), and there was a major football match in Richmond that had traffic at a dead stop for miles.
The Bank Holiday weekend had caused other problems for us. Our original intention had been to head west from London into Bath. But when Russell called around a few days ago, he discovered that everyone is completely booked up. We considered changing our plans and visiting the Cotswolds instead, but Russell called around and discovered that everything there is completely booked up as well. (We didn't even have the option of staying in London, as the Travel Inn was also full.) Gail used Travel Inn's book-ahead service and got us two nights in central Southampton on the south coast, followed by one night in Weston-Super-Mare on the west coast. While these would not provide the bed & breakfast experience that we had hoped for, they would at least give us a roof over our heads through the holiday weekend. In addition, they would still be close enough to everything that we wanted to see in the area.
So after finally getting out of London, we drove another half-hour southwest to Southampton (famous for supplying much of the crew of the Titanic). Our single room at the Travel Inn was smaller (this Inn is classified as a "metro" as opposed to London's "capital"), and Gail was dismayed to discover that our room had not been fully cleaned. We changed to another room, discovered that it had not been fully cleaned either, but decided to live with it. Russell went out to get supplies, including breakfast for the next morning, and came back with frosted Pop-Tarts -- they were the first he had seen since Australia, and Cameron and Joss were thrilled. He also got KFC for dinner, which we ate in the room.
Southampton was actually quite a lovely town, with a huge park just next to our hotel. On the morning of May 5th, Gail joined Russell on the equally huge Above Bar shopping strip (these days, we are very used to leaving Cameron and Joss on their own in the room). We picked up some groceries, some more books for Cameron, some more DVDs for Russell, and a cheap ice box for storing food. (How cheap is it? It's made out of soft padded plastic, it's bright blue and yellow... and it's shaped like a large fish.) It was almost noon before we finally set out for the day's destinations.
Stonehenge has been regarded as England's number one attraction since the Middle Ages. It is actually the site of several successive monuments, all of unknown origin or purpose. 5,050 years ago, a circular ditch and bank ("henge") were built here. 4,500 years ago, a wooden structure was erected at the center. 4,100 years ago, 80 Bluestones -- each weighing 4 tons -- were somehow brrought over from the Preseli Mountains in Wales, more than 500 miles away. And 100 years after that, the larger Sarsen stones -- each weighing 50 tons -- were somehow brought over from nearby Marlborough Downs. There is speculation that these structures served as anything from temples to calendars, but no one really knows.
Today, much of Stonehenge has been destroyed (many of the stones were removed centuries ago in order to build houses and walls in the surrounding villages). A major road runs just alongside the site. As well, the monument itself is roped off to prevent further damage and vandalism (there are drawing-board plans to build an exact replica next door, as France did at the Lascaux Caves). After driving through Salisbury's immense traffic (and not stopping at its cathedral) to get here, we had a fascinating time walking the footpath around what's left of the stone circles and listening to the audioguides.
A few miles north, the stone circle at Avebury is much larger and more accessible (it's also free). The stone circle here is a good 16 times larger than Stonehenge (1,400 feet wide) -- the town was actually built around it, and a main intersection even runs right through the middle of the circle. Again, most of the stones have long been carted off by villagers for their own uses; but we were able to walk right up to the ones that are left and even climb around on them. Cameron and Joss had a wonderful and entertaining time running up and down the huge ditch that surrounds the stone circles, having adventures, and hiding from the adults. As sheep grazed among the stones, we wished that we could have stayed here longer (we actually called Avebury's B&B after Bath was full, but had no luck here either).
Avebury's stone circle
We took a meandering route back to Southampton so that we could investigate some of the chalk horses that have been carved into the hills and mountains throughout Wiltshire. Most of the hills around here are composed of solid chalk topped by a thin layer of turf, so figures carved into the ground are visible from miles away. (Interestingly, all of the horses had to be covered up during WWII to avoid being used as navigational aids to the Germans during the Battle of Britain. After the war, they were recut and restored.) We saw four of the eight horses in the area, at Broad Town (1864), Hackpen (1838), Cherhill (1780), and Devizes (2000). (Unfortunately, we missed the oldest and most famous chalk horse at Uffington -- listed in the 14th century as the "second wonder of Britain" after Stonehenge -- as well as the giant kiwi at Bulfordd carved by New Zealand soldiers during WWI).
The chalk horse at Cherhill
On May 6th, on the way from Southampton to Weston-Super-Mare, we took a detour southwest to Glastonbury. On the way, we stopped at Dorcester to see the Cerne Abbas Giant, yet another 300+ year-old chalk figure carved into a mountainside. It is huge -- 180 feet high and holding a club 120 feet high -- and very obviously male.
When Gail and Russell were in England 12 years ago (our last pre-child vacation when Gail was pregnant with Cameron), one of our favorite destinations was Glastonbury, a place indispensable to Gail's passion for King Arthur. According to legend, the disciple Joseph of Arimathea brought vessels containing the blood and sweat of Jesus to Glastonbury, and Christianity came to England. He also supposedly brought the holy grail to Chalice Well at the foot of Glastonbury Tor, causing the water there to perform miracles of healing. Glastonbury Tor itself, an immense hill (518 feet high) topped with the remains of an AD 179 chapel, is believed to be the actual site of Avalon (when the surrounding area is covered with water or fog, the Tor and its tower rise like an island out of the mists).
Gail climbing Glastonbury Tor
Glastonbury Abbey, a mile away from the Tor, is where the remains of the historical Arthur and Guinevere were discovered in AD 1191. They remained entombed there until AD 1539, when King Henry VIII decided to do away with the Catholic Church in England. He was particularly harsh on Glastonbury -- at the time the most powerful abbey in England. He had Abbot Richard Whiting hung from Glastonbury Tor, drawn and quartered, and his remains dispersed to four different cities in the area as a warning to others. After confiscating everything of value for himself, he destroyed the abbey and its surrounding buildings. (Lesson: do not get on Henry VIII's bad side.) Today, the remains of the abbey -- still huge and awe-inspiring -- stand wwithin a 360-acre park surrounded by peaceful trees and grass.
The ruins of Glastonbury Abbey
Gail and Russell were amazed at how much Glastonbury has changed. The area still has its gauntlet of spiritual and New Age souvenir stores, but it has been built up incredibly. The long path up the Tor is now paved and even has steps (the incredible wind that we had last time -- even stronger than the one at Sydney's Opera House -- was nowhere to be felt today). The Abbey itself has been completely developed, with a pay parking lot, a museum, and paved walking paths throughout the site. (Lesson: you can't go home again.)
Our transition back to modern times was completed when we arrived in Weston-Super-Mare and checked into our third Travel Inn, where our room was even smaller than the last one (this Travel Inn did not even qualify for "metro" status). We treated ourselves to a full dinner out at the Beefeater Restaurant next door, where even Gail, Cameron, and Joss working together couldn't eat more than half of the Ultimate Chocolate Challenge dessert.
A great finish to a great day: the Ultimate Chocolate Challenge
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