Indeed, Sunday was a trip to Windsor, Stonehenge, and Bath. I haven’t forgotten the Tower, it’s just I can’t seem to find the time to write everything I want to, upload photos, and post, while still getting a decent amount of sleep and consuming enough analgesic to keep the foot demon at bay.
Brief aside: I am loving the UK. I’ve been wanting to come here for years. High school, really, let’s be honest, which would make that more than twenty years. So the truth is that my husband kindly sent me on a bit of a dream trip.
Like many people, I’ve watched a decent amount of television from the UK. BBC fare that features in blocks on PBS, usually Sunday evenings, plus documentaries by the inimitable Sir David Attenborough, and wonderful fun stuff like Dr Who and Top Gear. Television is not an accurate commentator on any society; everything ends up with hue saturation and contrast jacked up to eleven. Trust me, I spend a good bit of time describing the American middle road to my Australian friends.
So it stood to reason that I’d hyped London and Britain beyond hope in my mind for two whole decades. I was aware of the risk, knew I could have been disappointed with the real thing. But that’s not the case at all. I find myself frustrated and delighted at every turn: frustrated at how little time I have here, and delighted with all the things I experience, big and small.
So: road trip. My hostel has a deal with Golden Tours, offering discounted packages for day trips and other similar things. I picked the Windsor, Stonehenge, Bath combo. I really feel I did get good bang for my pound (I probably should have rephrased that), but the drawback is that there’s too little time in each place. It’s a trade-off, and if you’re on a trip that’s less than a fortnight, it’s a good trade-off to make. If I’d had more days, I would have dedicated more time to each place, and I sure as heck would have gone to Dover. Well, there’s next time, can’t be helped.
Anyway, Windsor first. I had no real expectations; it was a bit of a bonus, getting to see Windsor, as my main target was Stonehenge with Bath a near second.
I’m hopelessly fascinated by medieval fortress architecture. Because I’m American, all these structures pretty much live in the realms of fanstasy and RPGs. Our historical societies feel a surge of pride when they protect a building only a mere two hundred years old (and please note that I fully support the preservation of heritage, regardless of its age). Here, these buildings aren’t just important parcels of national heritage, they were historically used to protect, control, and defend strategic locations. In other words, the grafitti is genuine, miserable last words from a real prisoner looking the gallows in the eye. The pocks in the stone walls are from early cannon. People lived and died in noble and terrible ways on every stone I set foot on. Okay, more or less. But this is no movie set.
So I took as many photos as I could before the bitter wind chased me into the safety and warmth of the State Apartments.
I was shamefully unprepared for this part of the trip. While I respect the royla family, I’m not all that interested in them, and in my mind Windsor Palace is a fancy place where certain people live a privileged life. Seeing how interested I am in the minutiae of everyday life, I should have known better than to dismiss Windsor as “uninteresting.”
Particularly since the first thing that blew me a way were the racks of arms and armor on all the walls. I’m a weapons geek, a fully-fledged twelve year old boy living in thie head of mine. I admit it. I spent a good bit of time gawking, but I wasn’t out of place because everyone else was, too. Granted, these days, swords shileds and wheellocks aren’t the top of the line in national defense, but I’m pretty sure many of these arms were up on the walls when they were the mainstay of a military. It’s as if the monarch was pointedly saying, “This realm is so impressively powerful that we can afford to hang hundreds of blades and firearms as mere decoration. Provoke at your peril.” Which I suppose was the point in the first place.
Now, kingly dining halls. They’re supposed to be big, grand affairs, place that impress the power of the king or queen while still making you feel at least a little welcome. And it did. I can’t remember of the wood paneling went above or below what must have been hand=painted wallpaper, but the walls went up what must be three stories, ending in a finely worked ceiling. And so much light!
The smaller chambers were even cooler because you got to get up closer to things. I particularly liked the queen’s tea room, and the ocatgonal dining room. –Speaking of which: in that dining room I saw a door whose knob was only a third the way up from the floor. It’s not the first time I’ve come across such a low handle — the outside entry to Boots pharmacy in King’s Cross St Pancras Underground Station is just as low. There must be a reason for it.
Is it like the low entry in traditional Japanese tea houses, where you’re forced to humble yourself before entering the space? If that’s the case, then what space does Boots now occupy? What was it before?
I had to rush a bit due to the whirlwindiness of the tour, so I moved more quckly than I would have liked through the remainder of the apartments. I did, however, get a chance to see Queen Mary’s dollhouse, a work of art that still blows me away when I think of it. Sadly, no photos of any interior spaces due to camera restrictions.
Afterwards, it was about another hour to Stonehenge. I tried not to fall asleep; I wanted to see the countryside. Now, I’ve seen it on TV in both American and British shows. I thought maybe it was just a particular region that was this amazingly green and partitioned with ancient hedges.
Turns out I’m wrong. England really does look like this. I have never seen grass this particular shade of green in my life, and I know my camera will not do it justice. Shakespeare meant everything he said about this “emerald isle” very seriously.
Because I was so keen on watching the countryside, I was rewarded with two things: I got to see a chalk horse, high on a distant hill. That gave me goosebumps, I readily admit, and immediately brought all kinds of XTC songs into my head (I have that album). I was also rewarded with seeing Stonehenge emerge from behind a shallow hill as we approached.
I’d been told it was in the middle of a plain with roads running right by it. I hadn’t really believed it, but sure enough it’s in the middle of a field with a road running right by it and sheep grazing so close they need an electric fence to keep them off the grounds. Not kidding. Also, I have not been as cold as I was on that windswept plain in a very long time. And I was in New York City for almost 14 years before moving to Oz. My fingers went numb working the camera; the wind bot through my layers and into my bones. I thought it was hyperbole but I assure you it is not.
Now, I’m not one to believe in ley lines or druid healing or mystical things of a mean and base nature. My brain just doesn’t work that way (anymore). But there’s something about the stones that disquieting. They’re there, and they shouldn’t be there. What process brought these monoliths here? We still can’t figure it out. I know it’ll be something blindingly elegant and simple — I’ve found that a lot of neolithic solutions to problems we find complcated are like that — but until we hit upon it, these stones sit there and dare you to figure out what they mean.
I recently saw a documentary talking about new theories on Stonehenge, how it was a place where tribes met, a central location where the most important people were buried, where timekeeping and religious observations went on. More than just a calendar or observatory, more than just a temple, more than just a burial ground. I like this theory. It makes sense to me. I’ve found, as I’ve grown up and older, that for the really important things in life there’s no one simple reason for being. It’s a confluence of things, in which the absence or difference of just one of them would have led to a very different outcome. Airliner crashes are like this, too. I’m looking forward to hearing more about what archeologists learn at the site in years to come.
Finally, Bath. I know it a bit better because I dislike Jane Austen. Before anyone jumps down my throat, I dislike Jane Austen because when I was in the sixth grade in a brand new school because we’d just moved, I ended up in an English class led by a woman who was deeply Old Southern in her ways. And I was a filthy newcomer. I could have been a welcome newcomer if I’d played the little political games, the propriety games, done some sucking up and worn a dress once a week, maybe. But I didn’t. And what galled her the most was that I was smart and made good grades despite her best efforts. She once gave me a B for a project on which I did twice as well as my partner, who was one of her favorites, and who got an A.
So what does this have to do with Jane Austen? She was the author assigned to me for a research project. It could have been any author of English literature. And to this teacher’s credit, it was a great way to introduce the class to a lot of authors we wouldn’t have heard about at the age of 12. But I hated her, and she didn’t like me very much, and I held that grudge against Jane Austen, too. Completely unfair, but there it is.
On the way down the hills, I remembered my old enmity and dropped it the moment I saw the city from hillsides. It’s astonishing. Now I know why the city is used in period dramas all the time: the architecture stopped advancing after King George IV. I wish to everything I could have had more time just to walk the city, but our goal was to see the baths that gave the town its name.
I’m accustomed to Roman ruins; I spent ten days in Rome, and ten days in Spain another time. This isn’t to say I’m jaded, but Roman ruins aren’t a first-time thing for me. This said, the facilities around the bath are fantastic and well maintained. I got to see the overflow chamber, where water that doesn’t fit into the bath itself pours off with little puffs of steam. And I started to get a better sense of how the Romans changed society in Britain, and how their withdrawal from imperial lands left not only a power vacuum, but a technology vacuum as well.
I finished off the tour with a glass of the famous water of Bath. It’s quite warm, and very heady when you take a sip. It’s not unpleasant, it’s just unexpected and heavy with minerals. It doesn’t have a metallic or sulfurous taste, which was my worry, but you definitely know you’re drinking mineral water.
As an aside, my foot bgan to heal after that day. I’d touched a stone at Stonehenge, and drank of the waters of Bath. Of course, it would have just been the diligent disinfecting and application of blister plasters I’d been doing for a couple of days, but who knows?