Purely by coincidence, we visited King Arthur’s fabled Avalon on the 19th and then Stonehenge on the 20th, the two days preceding the Summer Solstice, when already the druids were staking their campsites and dressed in full cape, long hair, wigs and hats, staffs, sparkles and whatever they believe will turn heads and beliefs. According to the van driver who shuttled us to Stonehenge, Avebury Stones, and the Cotswold villages, the two yearly solstices are the only days the government opens its gates free of charge to allow the druids and hippies to camp close up to, around, on, and within the stones of Stonehenge, Glastonbury, and any other stone circles around England. This wasn’t granted out of the goodness of their hearts, but as a result of enormous costs for a police presence and barricading, until they conceded the fight and simply allowed peaceful gatherings. We were quite relieved that we didn’t end up at one of these sites on the actual solstice, whose worshippers would definitely get in the way of our picture taking possibilities.
The village of Glastonbury lies an hour’s drive southwest of Bath, two hours by bus, and is the most likely setting, based on textual evidence by historians, of a factual King Arthur’s home base. The Glastonbury ruins, a complex comprised of an Abbey, a chapel, a kitchen and other buildings now only marked by foundation, is now a protected, fee-required visitor park, whose grass is kept soft, green and manicured. Whether from the verdant surroundings, the peace from the busy village streets, or from the point of worship for so many for so long, the park created in both of us a sense of strength and calm. It could be that whatever we felt, the yoga teacher and her participants felt, secluded around an outcrop of bushes, practicing their pranayama, or the tai chi dancer, who moved to his recorded music beside an abbey wall; what two people felt who decided to lay down and face the sky at the place marked “high alter,” a cordoned area indicating such; what compelled two women to walk around the park, each separately, each with a yellow rose sticking out of their backpacks; or what initiated a circle of eight to hold hands and quietly worship. We walked through the park, complete with fish and lily pad ponds, large, old shade trees and flowering bushes, sat at a couple of benches and simply enjoyed the afternoon.
We transferred buses back at Wells, where we had stopped earlier on the outward journey to visit the Wells Cathedral, which seems to just spring up from the ground as tall and as gothically as Chartres in France. Known for this, and it being called the smallest village in England, we thought it might offer something other small villages forgot to include, but we couldn’t find anything. In fact, we lucked upon an open air market whose aromas, tantalizing samples of cheeses, sausages, ingenious mixtures of foods in new ways kept us longer than we had intended. Not just food vendors offered their goods – there were jewelry, bags, leather, clothes, a fantasy author hawking his books, and a pet vendor all out there. We had lunch on a bench, and then walked to the bus after. Now once again in Wells, we decided to stop off here to eat supper, as Wells appeared to be more happening than Glastonbury. But when we returned, around 5 or thereafter because we missed the crucial bus stop and had to backtrack by foot, not only had the market folded up, (thereby opening up to view the old 1700s masonry and building facades) but nearly every store and business.
A worker mopping up his store directed us to Fossi’s, one of the most eclectic restaurants in decor, menu, and clientele we’ve ever seen. The walls are lined with busy, paisley wall paper, over which hangs framed artwork of all and any genre and time period. Dogs, kids and families all gather as if they were at home in their own dining areas, menus offer something for everyone’s tastes and diets, self service water and newspapers beckon on a side buffet; couches, comfy chairs, regular tables, and not just mini votive, but large, lit candles were placed on each table. It was the place in town where everyone met, ate, and socialized. The waitress made sure she got us the right time for the last bus back to Bath after asking several employees.
One particular cultural difference we’ve noticed across the English countryside is the early closing time of nearly everything, except for one or two pubs on either ends of the town and maybe one small hole-in-the wall convenience store. What was once a bustling market and tourist town will be a shuttered, ominous, hollow echo by five pm. And as a result of the sudden vacuum, the buses will respond in kind. We arrived at the bus station, determine there are three busses going to Bath, each taking a different route. The last one running is over an hour away, Despite wondering whether he will accept our return ticket which was for a different line, we were grateful the waitress took us under her wing. We have since learned to check the departure times before we leave the bus stop.
Every so often it sure feels good to do some good old passive travel, and taking a mini tour is one of those times. Without determining schedules, times at places, where to eat, and what might or might not be important is left to someone else to decide. Another benefit is that it can run you around the country side, checking off many attractions in one day, which would otherwise take several with public busses. We chose MadMax Tour company for an all day tour to Stonehenge, the Avebury Stones, and villages Lacock and Castle Comb.
The entry fee to Stonehenge is 20£, which includes entry into the museum and a shuttle bus from the visitor’s center to Stonehenge. With just under a two-hour visit there, I chose to walk to the stones, admire them for a while, and be back for the pick-up time. Straight ahead, out from the center, a neatly defined, bee-line footpath along the road is an easy walk. There’s also an option of taking the public footpaths through the fields. In under half an hour, I arrived at the stones, and immediately felt a beautiful power in their presence. Despite not being able to walk up as close to them as I would have had I payed the fee, I still felt immeasurable joy. It may have been derived from simply the knowledge of being there, of something so famous, of so well studied that surrounds so many theories, of something so precisely astronomically aligned, or that this place is along one of the intersecting paths of energy lay lines crisscrossing England, that I felt this way. It could have been simply the enormity of the stones, the massive feat of engineering without machinery, much less wheels that baffles the imagination and fortifies hopefulness as well as pride in the human race at having accomplished such an endeavor without giving up or conceding that it “would be too hard.” Stonehenge is only one of several stone circles around the UK, but its stones have been chiseled into the familiar rectangular shapes. (Getting them there, all the way from a Western England Wales area, just wasn’t enough labor.) We got there early and beat the crowds. I got a few pictures without the random tourist tainting the frame, as did L. who chose the shuttle, up close option, which also includes a 360 degree access.
Avebury, by contrast, was larger in circumference, with un-chiseled stones; the time the guide gave us there sufficed for a walk through, pictures and toilets.
On the way to Lacock, a Cotswold village where we were to have lunch, the van blew a tire. Conveniently, we had just pulled over to view a site of England’s unique “white horses.” On select hillsides in Englands, is an imbedded impression of a significantly large horse created by people digging into the hillside to the white chalky earth, which is found naturally underneath the vegetation of certain locations. Started in the 17th century, these horses symbolize strength, power and wealth; they all look different, can be seen for miles away, and are cared for in terms of weed removal, etc to keep them pristine. Kevin, our guide, called dispatch for another van to take us on to Lacock village and our lunch destination, and after waiting twenty minutes or so, announced a change of plans. Three taxis were on their way to take us all to the nearest pub back a ways, as the van would take longer than anticipated. Within five minutes, the taxis arrived and hustled us all back to a pub called the “Wagon and Horses,” a wayside establishment for travelers. A fortuitous experience all round: not only paid for by the tour company for the inconvenience, but where Charles Dickens himself frequented, on his way to London from Bath and other destinations, and which he mentions in his book the Pickwick Papers. We sat with two other solo travelers, and enjoyed drinks, pub food (L.’s chips were excellent) and travel conversation for a good hour and maybe more until the replacement van showed up to whisk us away to our next destinations.
The Cotswolds are villages which have been “frozen in time” by the exit of the woolen industries, their main economic engine. As a result, they haven’t undergone any new modern additions of any kind and any regular maintenance, according to the National Trust, needs to replicate the original style with as closely similar materials as possible. As we meandered through, we learned a bit about the thatched roofs, which last about 25 years, are re-thatched by professionals whose apprenticeship lasts eight years, and of which there are four or five varieties. Each professional thatcher has his own signature, which is a thatched animal (rabbit, bird, squirrel, etc) on top of the roof. It was understood, in those days, that if a thatched roof does not have an animal on top, the thatcher was not paid for his work.
Lacock and Castle Comb Villages are such villages, and for many film fans worth a stop over because of so much filming done here: scenes from Downton Abbey, Dr. Doolittle, and Harry Potter. St. Cyriac’s Church in Lacock hosted the royals when they came for the marriage of Camilla’s (wife of Prince Charles) daughter. A few ice cream shops, a restaurant or two and otherwise the locals have it to themselves; but not just anyone can buy property here: dibs are given to those who can prove ancestral lineage to the town they’ve got their eye on.
We return to the closed up, echoed streets of Bath to pack and relax before the 2nd leg of our journey.