Bright and early, well, it was early but not very bright, approximately 45 students, plus Bill Sheasgreen, Sarah Davies, visiting professor Linda Heyne and I boarded a coach – in the States we say “bus” but the proper term in the U.K. is “coach” – and headed west, to the beautiful spa city of Bath, with several stops on the way to and one stop on the way back from Bath.
I write that it was not bright. Both days of our journey hovered between foul and fair (with apologies to the Scottish play), and while the sun broke through on a few occasions, I’d describe the weather for most of the trip as overcast and threatening with a cloudy scowl. I’m familiar enough by now with weather in England that I was fairly certain this would be the case. We were drizzled on a few times, mostly in Bath itself, but for the most part the weather was not nearly as bad as it could have been.
Our first stop was to a roadside combination of places to get fast food, to gas up, and to relieve oneself. It was the mecca of this kind of stop, with all sorts of food options, including a tiny Waitrose grocery store, and of course souvenirs for tourists. It was the only such stop we would make on this trip for the express purpose of food, gas and relief, and it was welcome.
But the first real stop was at a place called Avebury. Ever heard of it? No? Ever heard of Stonehenge? Yes? Well, Avebury is not a site as immediately stunning and sculpted as Stonehenge, but it is larger by far (in fact the largest in all of Europe), of a similar age (both sites are nearly 5,000 years old) and around this ancient Neolithic site of worship a village and farms sprang up.
Both Avebury and Stonehenge have been named World Heritage Sites by UNESCO, but whereas Stonehenge is flooded with tourists, roped off and inaccessible, at Avebury one can walk right up to stones, sit on them, climb a few of the larger ones. The stones also seem part of the greater environment, with sheep grazing around them, a church steeple in sight, the village only a few hundred yards walk away. Avebury was not included on the similar trip I took with ICLC back in fall of 2005, but I’m glad I got to see it this time around. I was impressed by it, not in the same way that I am with Stonehenge, but as an equally historic but markedly less commercialized spot.
In the excellent guide packet for this trip provided by ICLC staff and written by them as well, it is pointed out that John Aubrey, the well-known seventeenth century writer, compared the two thus: “Avebury surpasses Stonehenge as a cathedral doeth a parish church.” While I’m not certain I’d agree wholeheartedly, I can understand why he wrote these words.
|Bill and students at Avebury -|
Hannah appears to be holding up the sstone!
From Avebury we headed to another –bury, this time preceded by Glaston. This very hip town is associated with the world famous music festival that happens every year in late June, and that gets doused with rain nearly every year as well. No rain on our trip to Glastonbury, which we visit not for rock ‘n’ roll, but for two purposes: to see the ruined abbey and to climb Glastonbury Tor. There are of course ruined abbeys all over England, thanks to Henry VIII, but while many are picturesque, this one is special as it is associated with the Holy Grail, the mythical Avalon, King Arthur and his knights of the round table, Lancelot and Guinevere. In fact, if you believe the legend, Arthur and Guinevere were buried here.
Only a partial shell of the abbey remains, but that makes the legend seem to some at least at least somewhat more real. Climbing the 531feet high Glastonbury Tor only enhances this feeling, as it is said that Guinevere was imprisoned on the Tor. Considering the climb it is a tough place from which to rescue a damsel in distress. Thank the gods it wasn’t me that had to do it, as a wheezing, out-of-breath knight errant such as I’d have been could easily have been pushed back down from the height easily. There is a tremendous view of the countryside from the top, as the Tor is an anomaly in the midst of fields and rolling hills well below it. One feels almost giddy on the top, and many of the students began to act in a giddy manner, laughing and screaming and posing for silly pics. All good things come to an end, and down the hill they trod.
|Descending from Glastonbury Tor|
We moved on to our next adventure, the cathedral town of Wells. Wells Cathedral is the first in England to have been built in the full Gothic fashion. This thirteenth century beauty is imposing on the outside,
imposing on the inside,
|Nave of Wells Cathedral, with scissors arch|
above, the exterior of the cathedral
with a few features that make it unique as well. The scissors arch is one of these, an improvised fix to hold up the sinking foundations of the cathedral. The astronomical clock is another, with miniature knights jousting as each hour is rung, a ready audience standing by to watch. Particularly in so small a town, this mighty cathedral towers over the rest of it, but the town itself is a charming and very traditional English place, nothing like multicultural, bustling London. And so a very smart choice to show students on their first trip away from that cosmopolitan center, highlighting the differences between London and much of the rest of the U.K. In 2005 we did not see Wells, so it was another welcome addition for me on this trip.
From Wells we traveled to Bath or Aquae Sulis as the ancient Romans called it, our destination for the evening and the site of many of the next day’s activities. Everyone was pretty exhausted by the rigors of the day. Bill, Sarah, Linda and her friend Joan and I went first to a pub, then to dinner at a restaurant known for its fish, where I had a good bit of wine. Bill then took us on a brief walk of Bath at night, which is quite a beautiful sight. I then went to bed and fell into a deep sleep. Most of the students did the same, but Bill informed me at breakfast that a few who shall remain nameless stayed out until 3 am and came back rowdy and noisy – tsk, tsk. Next morning we toured the Roman Baths.
|Roman and Medieval Bath: the Abbey above, the Baths below|
Next he took us on a walk of Georgian Bath, designed by John Wood the elder and the younger, and popularized by the likes of Beau Nash, gambler, dandy, icon of high fashion.
|The Royal Crescent, in the rain|
Georgian buildings abound, but the two standout areas are the Royal Circus and the Royal Crescent, which clinched the third reason for UNESCO to honor the city. After that about two hours of free time. Some used it to go to the costume museum, others to the Abbey, yet others simply to stroll the elegant streets, others to shop and eat. Then back on the bus and off to the last (but not least) site: Stonehenge.
|Amanda Abernathy, Gabriella Napoli &|
Sam Gates form a human henge!
This was my second visit to the amazing collection of stones from the Neolithic era, I am returning in January with next semester’s group, and I already look forward to that. One of the students was not as enthralled as I, grudgingly calling it “a fairly impressive collection of large stones.” To me they are a work of art as well as a symbol of ancient religion and of the stubbornness of humans to do that which is seemingly impossible. Like Skara Brae, the Ring of Brodgar, the Standing Stones of Stenness (all of which I saw for the first time on this visit to the U.K.!), Stonehenge as well as Avebury are monuments every bit as interesting to me as more recent and sophisticated wonders. When I am in their presence I am overwhelmed, and it’s not often I get such feelings. It’s impossible for me to explain, probably because such awesome and ancient structures are inexplicable. The attempt to explain, to get whatever creative impulse was at work down on paper, is to diminish them in a manner. I prefer to be overwhelmed and awestruck in face of the mystery of such places.
That’s the end of my blog and that was the end of our journey, except for a very smooth coach ride back to South Kensington. More to come. Paris next. Ciao tutti!