The latest update from Aunt Jane and Ian in the UK.
On Tuesday, we set out very early for our trip to Bath and Stonehenge, destinations west of London. I booked the tour using Viator.com, which is a great resource for walking tours, excursions, day trips and foodie activities in cities worldwide.
Our tour was promoted as a small-group outing (max 16 people) to Bath and Stonehenge, with a brief stop on the way in Lacock, a charming village that was the filming location for the Harry Potter films and several Masterpiece Theatre mini-series. The reviews of the tour were good, so I signed us up.
We met our group at a hotel near Marble Arch. Our guide for the day turned out to be an American, Chicago Mike, who identified all of us either by our home town or some other designation. Consequently, we never learned anyone’s first name.
Our group wound up only being 11 people: there was, Mumbai, a nice woman traveling on her own. “Connecticut” were a father and teenage daughter (he would later on be known as “Lebron”). “Tampa Bay” were a retired couple visiting relatives all over England.
“California,” or “The Ladies”, were a teacher and healthcare worker, visiting London. The teacher was also interviewing for a job at an International school in Leeds, helping kids prepare to apply for admission to US universities. “Hong Kong” were a couple that suspiciously kept to themselves. When they did speak to anyone, it was to assert that Stonehenge was created by aliens, which Chicago Mike didn’t like at all. I was NY and Ian was Schenectady or Pitt, until later when he became “Cider Head,” but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Of course, no one questioned that we were together but from different cities because we were obviously brother and sister. Or maybe cousins.
One of the advantages of the small group was that once out of London, Chicago Mike could take our little Mercedes executive “motor coach”, or what we in the States call a “tour bus”, on backroads that the big coaches couldn’t navigate. So, before we even arrived at our first destination, Mike treated us to a bonus drive-by at Avebury, which is another ancient stone monument that no one really knows who built or why 2600 years or so BC. It’s not as well known as Stonehenge, so one can get very close, including sheep.
Lacock (pronounced “Lay-cock”) was our next stop. I actually visited this tiny hamlet back in ’86. There is a beautiful former Abbey outside the town that we visited when I was a student. It was also used extensively in the Harry Potter movies. One of the houses in town was also used as Harry’s parents home, and another was Professor Snape’s house. I’ve never seen the movies, so I’m taking Chicago Mike’s word for it.
More my speed, however, several Masterpiece Theatre mini-series have either been filmed or set here, including “Cranford” and “Pride & Prejudice.” And it’s easy to see why. The town is oozing with charm. It takes a total of about 7 minutes to walk around it, which we did. And then had a little refreshment, and away we went.
Bath is a proper city. Built from creamy yellow limestone mined from the surrounding hillside, it’s a Georgian masterpiece. The Romans established a spa there in AD 60. Later, during the 18th century, it became a popular and fashionable resort town to “take the waters.”
Our tour included admission to the Roman Baths, and then we were on our own. So we headed to the Baths first. Ian very much wanted to jump in, but I persuaded him that the fluorescent green water was not lime Gatorade-flavored. We did both enjoy a glass of the spring water in the upstairs Pump Room before exploring the town.
Chicago Mike had advised us to get out of the very center of town and explore the side streets and alleyways around the town, which we did. We could have easily spent an entire day there (in fact, back in London, a cab drive chided us for not spending the night in Bath). Chi Mike also recommended that we pop into a pub and try some local cider.
Because we do everything Chi Mike tells us to, Ian and I found what looked to be a “non-tourist” pub off a little side street. We asked the friendly barmaid for her recommendation and she offered to set up a tasting of different ciders for us, all produced around Bath.
Ian and I proceeded to taste six different ciders as she explained the differences between each and information on the producers. I definitely liked some more than others. And while it’s an interesting change, I think I’m more of a beer girl. I’ll let Ian give you his impressions.
We met back up with our group after stopping for “pasties” to eat on the bus on our way to Stonehenge (think big empanada). A few quick twists and turns down a few country lands and then 45 minutes later we were at Stonehenge.
Apparently, they’ve made some major improvements and changes to the site over the past several years. They have a new visitors complex that’s about a mile away from the actual monument. Chi Mike parked our “motor coach” and we boarded a shuttle to take us up to the actual monument.
While there were many tourists, the actual Stonehenge site didn’t feel crowded. One can walk around Stonehenge and feel at times that you are nearly alone. Chi Mike had instructed us earlier to take time out and contemplate the monument, how long it had been there, our own place in the universe, etc. In other words, we were supposed to “have a moment,” which Ian and I dutifully did. Then we took a bunch of pictures.
Ian decided to forego the shuttle and walk back to the visitors center (1.5 miles), and while I’m always looking to get my 10,000 steps, at that point I was already over 9,000, so I felt pretty safe taking the shuttle. Plus, I wasn’t going to miss an opportunity to spend some time in the Stonehenge gift shop.
Back at the “car park”, that’s what we call a “parking lot” in ‘merica, Ian appeared with a big bottle of cold cider in hand to quench his thirst from his walk back from Stonehenge — thus, he was known as “Cider Head” for the rest of the trip.
Back on the road, Chicago Mike asked if we wanted one last unplanned side trip, which everyone was up for. He took us for quick stop at Woodhenge, which Chi Mike said predates and lines up perfectly with Stonehenge.
Woodhenge is the outline of a former circular monument that was made with 30 foot wooden poles, now holes filled in with cement posts.
As Chicago Mike was asking us to contemplate again the universe and our place in it, Hong Kong unwisely brought up their theories of aliens constructing these ancient sites. We thought Chi Mike was going to lose his prehistoric $#*!. Luckily, he remembered his role as paid guide and held it together.
We loaded back onto the Mercedes Executive Motor Coach and sped off to London, this time on the major “motorway,” or what we call “highway” in the U.S. It took roughly two hours to get back to London. As we were going right by our flat, Chicago Mike dropped us off almost on the corner of our street and we were home around 6: 30 pm.
After a rest, Ian and I were definitely ready to be back in the 21st Century, so we decided to check out the SoHo neighborhood, which is in central London. It’s a lot like the Village, part artsy, seedy, cheesy, trendy, it seems to have something for everyone. We wandered around for a while past bars, boutiques, sex shops, and lots of restaurants, before finding a french bistro, Cotê, that served great steaks.
Later, I discovered that the restaurant is one of a chain throughout the UK (there’s one in Edinburgh). We noticed that a lot — the chainification of London eateries. I couldn’t get over how many places we thought were local to our neighborhood, were in three different locations (or more) in London.
Dinner was a lot of fun and our waiter took a liking to us, giving us some kind of yummy apple digestif with his compliments at the end of dinner. A great end to a great day.
This trip was one I was looking most forward to. I’ve heard so many great things about Stonehenge and its mystical history so I was really excited to see it for myself.
Chicago Mike was a great guide he provided great commentary throughout our entire journey. It did not take long for him to take a liking in me especially when I found out he was a big Pittsburgh Steelers fan. That led to a great high five in a bathroom in Lacock after I told him I was going to the University of Pittsburgh at the urinal. Turns out he spent his summers in Oakland, the neighborhood surrounding Pitt.
Our stop in Lacock was pretty quick, I think some people enjoyed it more than others. It was a nice town but there weren’t too many things I found that interesting. Nonetheless we were on our way to Bath which I was excited to see because my father had told me about 17 times prior to the trip to make sure we visit. I can see why he was so enthusiastic about the city because it truly is an awesome place.
The tour of the Roman Bath’s is obviously the highlight of this place because there were tourists all over. The main bath was pretty interesting (and green). Some of the greatest Roman emperors are lining the top part of the structure (see photo). We didn’t have that much time in Bath so after admiring the bath and cleansing myself with the safe drinking water we headed to a nice pub that had a great selection of ciders.
I enjoyed most of the ciders, some were sweet others tangy, each brewed in farms nearby. It definitely put me in the right mindset for the highlight of the day: Stonehenge.
One funny bit before that though; Chicago Mike had a headset that would act as a PA system on the bus which he would talk to us through during the trip. On our way to Stonehenge he was talking on his headset about what we need to do when we get there as far as where to meet up afterwards and what time we needed to return to the Car Park. Well Mike was busy guiding the motor coach through the windy roads and he didn’t realize that everyone except the teacher from California and I were the only ones awake on the entire bus to hear him. I took notice of this fairly early but Mike talked for about 15 minutes longer before I let him know that it would be a good idea to repeat his instructions when we got there because it seemed like some people had a little too much at lunch and were snoozing.
Once we arrived we didn’t have to wait very long to get on a shuttle and get to the site. I know everyone has seen pictures of Stonehenge on TV or the internet but there really isn’t anything quite like seeing it in person. Seeing some of the stones that weigh 45 tons and knowing they were brought over 100 miles to the “henge” or ditch is really mind boggling.
I got some great pictures (did you see my selfie??) and I made sure to have my moment before I started my mile and a half trek back to the lot. Many people were doing this but boy do people walk slow so it was a nice walk by myself. I had to reward myself with a cider afterwards which I finished before we got to woodhenge– I was thirsty!
Woodhenge was very cool especially since you could walk right up and touch it plus knowing it was erected during the bronze age is fascinating. We started our journey home and after a nice nap I realized we were about 20 minutes from London and, like my aunt mentioned, we got dropped off minutes from our apartment which made me quite happy. Dinner was excellent, as usual, I got a sirloin and frites and shared a delicious bottle of red wine with Jane. The staff at the restaurant was extremely pleasant which always makes the meal better. It was the perfect ending to a long but memorable day. Until next time! -Rico
One final thing, I’ve been combing YouTube for a video of the Nigel Tufnel/David St. Hubbins classic, “Stonehenge”, as documented in the rockumentary, “This is Spinal Tap.” Sadly, I couldn’t find that. However, I will leave you with another choice selection by Ylvis. This is for mature audiences, but I believe is artistically on par with Tufnel and St. Hubbins contribution.