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.
By the way the only remnants were literally the earthwork.
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.
While waiting for the Bath Abbey to open with its angels climbing Jacob’s Ladder:
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)
and the Christmas shoppers (jam packed through the holiday stalls).
Soon the Abbey opened its doors and in we went.
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.
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:
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).
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.
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.
We walked through the cow field that contained some of the Bronze Age burial sites called the Cursus barrows.
This is how historians believe these burials appeared when in use:
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 so. And, 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.
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.
By zooming in we could see how the lintels (horizontal pieces) joined to the standing ones with ‘bump’s to hold them in place:
A 1.7-mile road called Stonehenge Avenue connected Stonehenge to the River Avon.
Although we didn’t walk it we saw faint outlines of it once we arrived at the stones themselves.
The Heel Stone (formerly upright) was part of the sight-line for the winter solstice sunset and summer solstice sunrise:
With only a week to go until December 21, winter solstice, we checked out the markers supposedly used for celebrating the lengthening days.
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!