Mystical stones attract all
Even the livestock
At Snowshill Manor
A lifetime of odd trinkets
For our final stop in the UK, we headed down to the Cotswolds to visit Donna’s friend Suzanne. It was great to see her and she was a wonderful host, taking time to show us around some of the more interesting sites in the area – like having own personal tour guide. Thanks Suzanne!
Our first full day was focused on visiting Stonehenge as well as other neolithic sites around Avebury. While a bit crowded and touristy, Stonehenge was nevertheless impressive to see in person. It struck me as being somehow smaller than I imagined (though not in a Spinal Tap kind of way), but it was still pretty majestic. It does boggle the mind thinking of the effort people put in 4,000 years ago to collect and arrange these massive stones.
From Stonehenge, we continued to the Avebury area and set out on foot to check out the many sites. We parked not far from the man-made Silbury Hill and hiked up past a rapeseed field to take a look the West Kennet Long Barrow. I found the stone entrance and interior rooms pretty interesting, as apparently did some local Wiccans who were busy meditating/praying and burning incense inside the barrow. We hiked back down the hill, across the road and through the countryside to reach the hamlet of Avebury, which was literally built half within another stone henge. On the way to the town, we also walked along an avenue of huge stones, kind of a linear Stonehenge. On the way, we passed a hawthorn tree that had many ribbons and trinkets tied to its branches. Turns out that this was a wishing tree. Finally, we hiked back towards the car, taking a route that led us around the base of Silbury hill. All in all, a very impressive day of neolithic structures.
On our second day, we headed to the Snowshill Manor to check out the gardens and collections of Charles Paget Wade. Turns out he was a bit of an eccentric (and obsessive?) collector of hand-made items. While he did little traveling abroad, he managed to collect tens of thousands of items (many viewable online) from across England, which he kept in his manor house on display for guests (including the Queen of England). In fact, his house was so full of stuff that he lived in a separate detached building. Fascinating.
Sticking with the approach of choosing a base town from which we could explore a larger area, we next headed to the Shropshire town of Church Stretton. Originally, we were thinking of doing day trips to Wales (perhaps Snowdonia National Park), Chester and the Ironbridge Gorge area. However, due to the questionable “summer” weather, we ended up staying a bit closer to our base and skipped Wales and Chester.
One of the main attractions in this area is the great variety of walking trails. On our first full day, we struck out on a nine mile loop walk from Church Stretton to the village of Cardington and back. The marked trail was quite scenic, cutting through farmland, pastures, wooded areas and up fairly substantial hills which afforded great panoramic views. I was also looking forward to hitting the village at the halfway point and enjoying a pub lunch. Being lazy (we’re on vacation after all!) we got a late start and made it into Cardington around 2:45. This was bad news as it turns out the pub closed after lunch at 2:30! Dejectedly, we trudged on for the remaining 4.5 miles – though the views were still enjoyable, even as it started to rain…
The next day had a forecast full of rain, so we planned to drive into the nearby larger town of Shrewsbury to get lunch and perhaps catch a movie. However, once there, the weather seemed to be holding up, so we headed into the center of the old town to see the sights. It turns out that Shrewsbury is where Charles Darwin was born and grew up, so there were quite a few Darwin-related locations. We enjoyed following the Darwin-centric walking path we found in a brochure, plus we got to check out some of the old city walls.
Finally, on our last day, we headed to the Ironbridge Gorge historical area. It consists of a cluster of related sites that are collectively a UNESCO World Heritage site due to their contributing role in the Industrial Revolution. The key contribution was that this is where coke was first used to smelt iron, resulting in an economical way to produce large quantities of the metal, thereby enabling the Industrial Revolution. An interesting site was the namesake Iron Bridge, which was the first bridge constructed of cast iron. We also checked out the Museum of Iron, which provided further context on life and industry in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Given that we needed to work our way south and the fact that I don’t like to travel all day, we needed an appropriate location for our next stop. After doing a little research, we realized that Hadrian’s Wall ran across the middle of Britain, just four hours to the south. Unfortunately, there were no reasonable AirBnB apartments to be had, so we went with a hotel in the Scottish town of Gretna Green, just over the border from England (and on the barbarian side of the wall). More about Gretna Green later.
On our travel day, we made a point of heading straight south to check out a site at the eastern end of the wall – Chesters Roman Fort. It’s billed as the best preserved Roman cavalry fort in Britain and was fairly interesting. However, having seen Pompeii earlier in the trip, subsequent Roman sites have been a little anti-climactic. That said, we also wanted to check out Hadrian’s Wall because it would give us a good excuse to get out for walks in the countryside. In fact, after checking out Chesters, we did a quick three mile loop walk we found described on the Hadrian’s Wall Path National Trail website.
The next day, we headed out to a central section of the wall for another hike. On the way over, we took a spin through Haltwhistle, which claims to be at the geographic center of Britain (though the truth may be more complicated). Next, we stopped off for a nice pub lunch at the Twice Brewed Inn and then hit the trail. It was a somewhat strenuous hike with lots of steep climbs, but the views of the countryside and of Hadrian’s Wall itself were wonderful. We went as far as the Sycamore Gap, apparently famous for appearing in a ’91 Robin Hood movie – this site has a clip of the scene in question.
While we had a great time hiking around Hadrian’s Wall, our accommodations proved to be a bit of a mix. The B&B we stayed in was great – they even offered a choice of haggis or black pudding with the full cooked breakfast each morning! However, the town of Gretna Green is just across the Scottish border and its primary purpose is as a popular place for English couples to run off to to get married. Kind of like a tiny, damp, no-frills Vegas. Donna’s blog post captures the surreal aspect of the place but omits that during our stroll through town we were actually trying to find something for dinner. If you take another look at those pictures, you won’t see any pubs. Or restaurants. Or grocery stores. So, despite my desire to spend as little time as possible behind the wheel in the UK, we ended up driving to Carlisle for dinner that night. On our second night, we did a bit of research online and treated ourselves to a couple of steak dinners at the local boutique hotel’s restaurant (one of the few dining establishments in town). And guess what was going on there – another wedding!
To Hadrian’s wall!
Like Scotland’s barbarians,
We come from the North
A married couple
Seeking shelter on their trip
Stop in Gretna Green…
In a bizarre coincidence, we found ourselves in York on July 9, 2012. Exactly 800 years earlier, King John had granted York the right to self governance via a city charter. The resulting “York 800” festivities were happening all weekend – there was even a regatta planned along the river Ouse. Unfortunately, the recent heavy rain had resulted in a high river level and some minor flooding, so the regatta was cancelled. There was one strange way that we we impacted by the festivities: when we were visiting the Yorkshire History Museum, there was a huge police presence that developed, including bomb-sniffing dogs. This was a little scary, but then we found out that they were just preparing for a visit by the Duke of York.
We took a free walking tour of the city, which was good for getting some historical context. Later, we decided to walk along the city walls (or at least 2/3 of them), which is always fun and often leads to good views of the city and surrounding environs. And speaking of tours, we also took a spin by the York Brewery. It was small, smelled like a brewery (i.e. good and malty), the tour was fun and the beer samples in the taproom were tasty! Favorite beer name? A bitter called the Yorkshire Terrier – it has a bit of a nip to it!
Finally, we have continued to sample the range of fine British cuisine. With a huge number of pubs, it was relatively easy to find new places to try out. I’m still planning to keep the UK Pubs & Ales dedicated to the beverages, so here are some samples of the food we enjoyed during our stay in York:
In York’s city walls –
Snickleways, ruins and the
Romans, Vikings and Normans
Now bomb sniffing dogs
At North York Moors Park
Heather, peat and rolling hills
The sheep own the place
Time to leave continental Europe and hit the UK! Originally, we were planning on taking the Eurostar train trough the Chunnel from Paris to London and then purchasing additional train tickets as needed to travel around (our Eurail pass does not work in the UK). However, after comparing the cost of the Eurostar reservation as well as the cost of train tickets vs. weekly car rental rates, we decided to instead rent a car and book an EasyJet flight directly to Bristol (near where we’ll be visiting Donna’s friend Suzanne at the end of our time in the UK). With an evening flight into Bristol, Bath was a natural choice for our first stop since it’s about 1/2 hour drive from Bristol’s airport.
Speaking of driving, it’s a bit freaky here due to the cognitive dissonance of driving on the left side of the road and having the driver’s seat on the right side of the car. I prepared a little in advance by reading up on UK driving regulations as well as how to navigate roundabouts. So far, having driven from the airport to Bath and from Bath to York (four hours), it’s not that bad. Unless you consider that one thing I did, which we will not discuss here.
Anyway – Bath! Bath is a scenic and historic little English town. Everything is very Georgian and neoclassical. Due to its compactness, it was pretty easy to cover it all on foot, which we did as part of a walking tour as well as independently a few times. One of the highlights, of course, is the eponymous Roman bath complex. The museum built around it was much more extensive and impressive than I expected. The bath complex was very interesting to see and reminded me a lot of what we saw in Pompeii.
One a different note, at the suggestion of our apartment hosts, we took a scenic walk along a nearby canal. Despite the occasional drizzle, the weather largely cooperated and we really enjoyed the canal views and the surrounding scenic countryside. Conveniently, we even passed by a pub that made for a great lunch stop!
Speaking of pubs and food, they abound! We’re already enjoying “tucking in” to some traditional English fare and I have some odd notion of visiting an obscene number of pubs on this leg of the trip. Donna may have to steer me back from the brink. At a minimum though, I will be documenting my “extended pub crawl” on the new UK Pubs & Ales page on the blog. Stay tuned!
Pubs, meat pies and rain
Steering wheel on the wrong side
Welcome to England
Taking the waters
Is Bath’s historical thing
Tastes a bit funky