Saturday, November 22, 2008

Stonehenge and Bath (Tue 18/11, 8pm)

We arrived at Stonehenge, and could still hear the Army firing off artillery on the plains. Then again, we were only 5 miles from the campsite.

I wasn't really ready for Stonehenge. I was expecting a bunch of rocks in the middle of an English field, but once we were there, and came out from the subway passage to see them for the first time... it took my breath away.

Unfortunately, you can't get up close to the stones. There's a pathway marked out around the henge: at its closest, it was about 20 yards. (There was one of those 'new Druid' loons who had set up a protest outside the entrance, demanding the fences be taken down around his sacred site. There looked to be half-a-dozen of Wiltshire's finest keeping an eye on him.) But even then, the sense of age emanating from the place... you couldn't help but be awestruck both by its age and the engineering that was involved in moving the stones hundreds of miles, then assembling the massive jigsaw puzzle with mathematical precision.

We stopped by the gift shop, and picked up a few souvenirs (the first ones of our trip, apart from photos). Grabbed a bite to eat from the Stonehenge Cafe, and headed for the van.

The next stop was Bath. The Lonely Planet guide warned of Bath's horrific traffic problems, and its notorious one-way system. Fortunately, our AA map showed the locations of several Park + Rides (places where you can park your car for free, and catch a bus to the city). When we found the P+R to the south of Bath (at a place called Odd Down), the entrances were all protected with barriers preventing vehicles over 2.2m from entering. Unfortunately, the van is 3m tall. We ended up parking in a suburban street (creating a bit of a traffic bottleneck), and walking back to the P+R.

We sat on the top deck of the P+R double-decker, and had a good view of the city as we approached it. The bus dropped us in the middle of the city (and I'm really glad we didn't try to drive in!). While trying to find the Roman Baths, we stumbled across a pet shop... so now the dogs, the cats, and the fish all have pressies from the UK.

As a tourist centre, Bath's pretty well sign-posted, and we fairly quickly found our way to the Roman Baths. Our Great British Heritage passes were handy again, as they gave us free entry into the baths (and into Stonehenge, too). The baths also have a 'route' through the building. Along the walls were plaques with numbers: you punch the number into the audio wand you pick up at the entrance, and you can listen to a description of the history and meaning behind what you're looking at. You go in across a gallery overlooking the Great Bath. There were several statues of famous Romans, and I'd already photographed Julius Caesar and Claudius before I saw the plaque telling how the statues only date back to the late 19th century.

After a lap around the gallery, you descend into the museum. Through windows, you catch glimpses of both the Great Bath and the hot spring, in amongst the displays of the various artifacts that they found when excavating the site. As you'd expect of a geothermal site, the smell was pungent and the temperature was on the warm side. We were only ambling around, and I'd started sweating by the end.

Like Stonehenge, the Baths amazed me not only with the antiquity -- no 2000-year-old Roman baths in New Zealand! -- but the fact that the drains still worked, despite being buried around the 7th century CE by rampaging Christians. Without any human intervention, the springs had happily filled the baths, and the overflow taken away to the Avon River.

Another trip to another gift shop, and more souvenirs collected, and we were off to find a shoe shop -- Duo Boots -- that Juliette wanted to have a look at. Fortunately, the woman in the gift shop was able to give us good directions (unlike the woman in the pet shop who thought we meant Boots pharmacy!) Juliette found a pair of the right size, and of a style she liked, and voila! 110 pounds later, and a large box to squeeze into the luggage.

After that we ambled back to the bus stop for the ride back to Odd Down P+R. The bus arrived as we got around the corner, and on the trip back, we amused ourselves by reading the rubbish in a tabloid paper we found on the top deck. Finally, we got back to the van (all secure, no problems) and set the GPS for the village of Wick (near Glastonbury) where we were spending the night.

The trip wasn't too much of a problem -- no more bits broken! -- although we were worried about finding a place to do some food shopping. Apart from a small pork pie and a scotch egg that we'd bought in Abingdon, there wasn't anything aboard. Fortunately, Tesco's annouce their presence with all the subtlety of, well, me and halfway to Wick we pulled into their carpark (taking up two bays). We found all we needed, including a bubble bath in a Dalek shaped bottle (which I was rather proud off, even when the people behind us at the checkout plonked a two-foot high remote controlled Supreme Dalek toy onto the conveyor belt).

On the road again -- Betty (my nickname for the female-voiced GPS, after "Bitchin' Betty", the voice warning system in American military aircraft) didn't even complain too much about the detour -- and we found the campsite (the Old Oaks Touring Park) with only one mishap (turning right about 150 yards too early, and ending up in some farm's driveway).

We're settled in now. The food's stowed away, and the van is starting to feel more homey, though we're really missing the pets at the moment.

Time for bed, methinks...

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