Monthly Archives: January 2016

Our Winter Ride: FINALE

Monday, December 14 (continued…)


In spite of being a bit cathedraled-out we nonetheless felt the need to see this city’s famous building. And, we truly lucked out when we met John O., a guide who answered our questions and offered a tour. With him this cathedral became illuminated with treasures and connecting points to other historical facts and figures.


As one would expect of a building this size, the grounds on which it sits ensures the cathedral maintains a prominent position in the city.

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When approaching the entry both Max and I noticed the face carvings that on closer inspection displayed tortured contortions. Welcome to Medieval Christianity.

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Once inside, the cathedral opens up into a huge central area (nave) leading to the choir area (quire) and ending at the altar with Trinity Chapel behind it. Sitting in the middle of the nave between the north and south transepts (perpindicular to the nave) is the spire, the largest of all of Britain’s cathedrals.


For the holiday season a huge tree stood at the entrance to the nave, which made the space less austere in its Gothic grandeur.

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Before we met our guide we began looking around and noticed a detailed model of the cathedral under construction. The display provided an excellent lesson on the coordinated activities required for each construction phase, helping us understand how these remarkable medieval craftsmen could create such a magnificent cathedral with relatively simple yet clever tools.

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We wandered towards the center of the aisle to a large modern fountain. The plaque identified it as a font commemorating the 750th anniversary of the cathedral in 2008. And, this leads to the truly astonishing fact that this impressive structure was built in only 38 years (1220-1258). What a feat considering most cathedrals at the time required up to 100 years.

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The font also provided a great photo op.

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When we met up with John we began our informative tour at the medieval clock, considered to be the world’s oldest working mechanical one (1386) and still running today. It keeps time by only striking the hour (no clock face with minutes is displayed).

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From there we saw the tomb of William Longespee (1176-1226), the first person to be buried in the cathedral.

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It retains some of its original color, painted over 800 years ago.

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What’s more interesting, though, is Longespee’s history. As the recognized illegitimate son of Henry II (the one of Dover Castle and husband to Eleanor of Aquitaine… the 1968 movie THE LION IN WINTER provides an interesting take on the history of these two), Longespee’s half-brothers were King Richard I aka Richard the Lion-Hearted (ruled 1189-99) and King John (ruled 1199-1216).

Through his marriage to the Countess of Salisbury, he became an Earl (3rd one of Salisbury). He served under both of his half-brothers, fighting alongside Richard in Normandy and later holding appointed positions under John. He was John’s advisor during the 1215 Magna Carta negotiations and one of the reasons one of the four original copies resides at this cathedral.

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In spite of John’s putting his seal on the Magna Carta June 15th 1215, he renounced clause number 61, which provided 25 barons the power to over-rule the King. This set in motion the First Barons’ War (1215-17) to which the French added their two cents. John died during the war and his son, Henry III, was crowned King. I won’t go into any more detail but the lead-up to the Barons’ rebellion is fascinating. As one writer put it, there was a perfect storm composed of land, power, women, religion, and money (

William Longespee supported the young king and continued to wield influence both in administrative and military positions. He was rumored to have been poisoned by Hubert de Burgh (as chief political and justice official for Henry III perhaps he was jealous of Longespee’s influence over the young king?) and upon opening his tomb in 1791 remnants of a rat was found inside his skull carrying traces of arsenic. Lovely story but could be just a story as opposed to a true story.

During our time in the cathedral a boys choir was rehearsing,

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and, at one point, John asked us to sit and just listen to the singing. He mentioned it was his favorite carol, “Abide with me”, one of Max’s favorites as well.

Continuing on we entered a small chapel where the only remaining carved symbol (the pomegranate and the rose) of Katharine of Aragon and Henry VIII still rests on the ceiling (all others in the country were replaced by Anne Boleyn’s falcon). Tucked away in a little side chapel evidently it wasn’f found by Henry VIII’s smashing squad.

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There were other tombs such as the Shrine Tomb of St. Osmund, the first Bishop of Salisbury, who died in 1099 and was made a saint in 1457),

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the tomb of John, Lord Cheney (1442-99, served as bodyguard to Edward IV, Richard III and Henry VII during the War of the Roses),

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and Edward Seymour (1561-16120 and wife Lady Catherine Grey (1540-68), younger sister of the nine-days-queen, Lady Jane Grey (both Grey stories are tragic). I won’t go into Catherine’s life story here but did discover there’s an Ipswich connection:  because she married Edward secretly without her cousin Queen Elizabeth I’s permission, Catherine tried to get help in pleading her case. The place she did so was in Ipswich (!) when the court was on progress (when a ruler toured his/her realm).


Our tour with John ended in the Chapter House where Salisbury’s original copy of the Magna Carta resided.

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John also pointed out the intricate needle-pointed cushions sitting atop the stone seats against the walls , several of which were created by his wife.

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We left the Chapter House walking out into the open-air corridor surrounding the Cloisters, the largest of the British cathedrals and designed for processions.

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Must say our tour of Salisbury Cathedral was another major highlight of our Winter Ride thanks to the considerable knowledge and warm welcome we received at the hands of our gracious guide John. He certainly added some wonderful Christmas spirit to our December in the UK.

Our Winter Ride finale ended with candlelit singing in St. Martin’s Church, reputedly the oldest building in Salisbury (mentioned in a 1091 document). Named after the earliest settlement of Salisbury, the Sarum Voices choir beautifully highlighted ethereal notes with their a cappella singing. sarum voices

May there be peace on earth and joy in everyone’s lives.


Our Winter Ride: PART IV

Sunday, December 13, 2015


We left Stratford-upon-Avon and headed to Bath, another historical city. On the way we noticed an English Heritage sign touting the Roman Cirencester Amphitheatre. Thinking it’d be worthwhile to stop, we did, but not before driving right past the poorly-marked location. However, it was worth the hunt just to chuckle at the site’s opening hours.

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By the way the only remnants were literally the earthwork.

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So, back in the car towards our original destination. Locating a parking spot in this crowded city was quite a feat, but find one we did and began our brief tour of Bath.

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While waiting for the Bath Abbey to open with its angels climbing Jacob’s Ladder:

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we wandered around the square off of which stood the Roman Baths (expensive so we looked at the posted diagram and called it good enough)

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and the Christmas shoppers (jam packed through the holiday stalls).

Soon the Abbey opened its doors and in we went.

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Like many of these church buildings the present Bath Abbey (dating from 1499) actually stands on a former religious site, a Norman cathedral. A plaque lists not only the Christian leaders from the 11th century but also those from as early as the 7th century when abbesses led the local community.

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One of the key historical events that took place here was the 973 C.E. crowning of the first king of “All England”, Edgar, by the Archbishop of Canterbury, an event depicted in one of the stained glass windows:

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Must say of all of our Bath touring the most fascinating was a busker posing as a silver-clad, wind-blown cyclist.


Returning to the car we saw a notice stuck on the windshield. Sure enough, the parking space we gleefully squeezed into was evidently not a valid one. We had checked the other cars to see if any paid & displayed parking stickers (no); checked any parking signage (yes, touting no fees for Sundays).

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Evidently we don’t know what to look for because, in spite of our scouting out parking requirements, we still got a ticket. Anyhow, Max as a Bath (Maine) native son has emailed Bath (UK) parking powers-that-be to plead our foreign innocence. We’ll see what comes of it as we were able to get another ticket earlier this year revoked.

Then we were off further south to Salisbury where we landed, once again, in a parking lot scrounging for a spot only to discover it was for day trippers only (no overnighters, which is what we needed). Great.

This time, however, parking gods bestowed upon us a gracious and kind shop owner. He must have noticed our frantic ‘what-now?!’ looks when he said the lot was truly only for day trippers for he then told us to use his personal space behind his shop (he was leaving for the night and would return at 9a the next morning). A true gift.

We lugged our backpacks to our hotel and settled in.

Monday, December 14


Knowing it’d be a good time to view Stonehenge due to fewer visitors at this time of year we hopped in the car for the thirty-minute drive north.

Too late we realized guaranteed entry was only via online, advanced booking; but, since it was off-season, we lucked out. And, with our English Heritage membership entry was free. (FYI:  this is a great organization to which we belong. By visiting just a few sites your membership fee is easily covered and then some. There are even short-term membership fees available depending on the focus of your visit to the UK)

The first mention of Stonehenge or “Stanenges” was in a 1130 C.E. archaeological study by Henry of Huntingdon. By 1610 “Stanenges” morphed into  its current name “Stonehenge”. By the beginning of the 20th century more than ten excavations had occurred. Fortunately, an effort was made to ensure the protection of this historical site with the lobbying of the site’s owner, Sir Edmond Antrobus, by the Society of Antiquaries. With funds for preservation, this landmark was ensured longevity; and, a new visitor center opened in 2013 hosted us as we wandered through the various exhibits.

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There’s a jitney taking visitors to the actual stones 1.5 miles away; so, we hopped aboard for the short jaunt. We probably should have gone the full ride so we’d be the first of only four tourists at the site; but, we opted to walk the last half of the trip.

However, the bonus of walking (through what turned out to be a cow field) was our gaining a broader view of the area’s offerings via a large plaque.

Neither Max nor I realized the existence of extensive earth and stone structures built in addition to Stonehenge. During the Mesolithic period (8,500 to 7,000 B.C.E.) pine poles had been erected in the area, possibly used as totem-poles. These holes are called Aubrey holes after the 17th century antiquarian who found them.

During the Neolithic or New Stone Age (4,000 – 2,300 B.C.E.) and Bronze Age (2,300-800 B.C.E.) people used this location for both burials and pilgrimages, with Stonehenge being the most prominent.

Archaeologists defined the constructions as cursus (rectangular enclosures with an external bank and internal ditches) and barrows (earth-covered burial mounds). I won’t go into the definition of henge except to say, when applied to this monument, it means hanging – as in suspended – thus ‘hanging stones’ or Stonehenge.

Their chosen location, now called Salisbury Plain, would have provided a prominent view of any monuments due to the wide open space.

You can see the red dot positioning us on the map below.

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We walked through the cow field that contained some of the Bronze Age burial sites called the Cursus barrows.

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This is how historians believe these burials appeared when in use:

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The first and last time I had visited this iconic formation was in 1971. This 4,500-year-old site happened to be part of an American Youth Hostel biking tour, which a high school friend, Annie Bommer, and I joined (it was during that trip I envied dogs whose heads stuck outside their owner’s four-wheel vehicles as they whizzed by our two-wheel mounts). Forty-five years ago one could picnic on the stones, which we did along with tossing frisbees about.

No more. After reading about the limited access I feared we’d be peering at these monolithic stones from way far away; but, happily we could get to within 100 feet or soAnd, due to being winter, we were some of the first and few people there compared to summer traffic when as many as 5,000 visitors daily tour this site.

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During its use as a monument, Stonehenge went through various reshufflings of two types of stones:  smaller blue stones from the Welsh Preseli Mountains (150 m. NW) weighing about five tons each; and, larger sarsen stones (local sandstone blocks, 20 miles north) weighing over 27 tons each. What we currently see is the last of three stages of stone formations at the site.

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By zooming in we could see how the lintels (horizontal pieces) joined to the standing ones with ‘bump’s to hold them in place:

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A 1.7-mile road called Stonehenge Avenue connected Stonehenge to the River Avon.

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Although we didn’t walk it we saw faint outlines of it once we arrived at the stones themselves.

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The Heel Stone (formerly upright) was part of the sight-line for the winter solstice sunset and summer solstice sunrise:

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With only a week to go until December 21, winter solstice, we checked out the markers supposedly used for celebrating the lengthening days.

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By the time we had finished touring the site and the center the sky was beginning to spit rain, so we scurried back to the car for a picnic lunch prior to returning to Salisbury.

Whatever the purpose of these megaliths, staring at those huge stones sitting in the middle of a hilly, windswept plain is pretty awe-inspiring.

As a darkening, overcast sky began sweeping across the plain, I recalled again my visit 45 years earlier in the sun and warmth and realized how today’s weather felt more like the true dressing for these majestic stones.


Onto more history!