|Day 10: Saturday, June 2nd, I was up at 5 AM. I got about 7
hours of sleep. It was a bright Bristol morning, full of the sound of...
whistles? Looking down from the fourth floor, it looked like some teenage
girls were walking down the street randomly blowing whistles. I later heard
some fire trucks rolled by about 3 AM, but I slept right through that.
We had a very nice room at the hotel. There was even a balcony, although
it was barely big enough for one person to stand out there. The shirt I
washed in the sink the night before dried off nicely. The TV news had been
running a story about a reality show where the winner got a new kidney
transplant. That morning, it was revealed the reality show was a hoax.
I liked the BBC News theme music. One newscaster pronounced conservatory
"con-SERVE-a-tree." At breakfast downstairs, it was the usual fare, except
they added salmon to the buffet. I noted the pepper was very finely ground–
almost like dust. We sat with Alan & Mary, from Canada, and Brien &
Elaine, who mentioned there were no snakes in New Zealand. They do, however,
have white tail spiders.
Apparently, all the elevators in Britain talk. As the door closes,
it says, "Door closing." When it goes up, it says, "Going up."
I think that was the day the elevator doors stuck. They'd almost close
all the way, hang for a minute, then open back up again. "Going down,"
the elevator said. "No, we're not," I replied. I took the stairs.
It was a bright, clear morning as we got on the coach. We were on our way
by 8:20, headed for Bath. We saw boats on the River Avon. Lots of civil
servants live in Bath. Public transportation makes Bath a virtual suburb
of London, which is only an hour away by train. Charles Dickens lived nearby,
as did composer George Frederick Handel. Jane Austen used to visit Bath.
Our first stop in Bath was the Royal Crescent, a row of 30 magnificent
Georgian buildings constructed in the 1700's. Wealthy shipowners from Bristol
were it's first residents. Many of the houses had since been split into
very expensive apartments, and one was a hotel. Actor Omar Sharif was a
favorite visitor. Rooms at the hotel inside the Royal Crescent went for
200 pounds a night in the off season. Donna noted that was about the same
rate as the Four Seasons in Manhattan.
We went through the Victorian entrance and into the Roman Baths. Much of
the original stonework is still in place, two thousand years after it was
built. Hot spring water still bubbles up from underground into the ancient
pools. The stones around the big pool itself are uneven, and you have to
watch your step. Brien asked me if I wanted to go for a swim. "You first!"
I said. The Romans used the Baths for social, religious and health reasons.
Inside were several rooms that were used as saunas or washing rooms. One
pool, off to the side, was built for the Roman gods, so no swimming was
ever allowed in it. There were lots of exhibits on Roman and ancient British
life. Going back out through the Victorian building, we were offered a
glass of Bath well water. I'd been warned the water tasted awful, but I
grew up on a farm with an artesian well, and it wasn't so bad. The surprise
was that a glass of Bath well water cost 50 pence. The gift shop sold "Bath
water" in bottles. I got a refrigerator magnet. Donna and I walked around
downtown Bath. A young man approached us to sign a petition, and was disappointed
we weren't British. We passed yet more camping supply stores. Street performers
were delighting tourists with music, song and puppets. In a city square,
a man was playing a beautiful Mozart composition on a big xylophone. Donna
and I shared a Cornish pasty, which had lamb in it, I think. I got a Dr.
Pepper. Back at the coach, there was a big music store next to where we
were parked, but it was closed. As we were boarding the bus, a groan rose
from the group: the music store was opening. "Two minutes!" Nick allowed,
and several people bolted off the bus. Annisa came back with some tea towels
she'd seen through the windows. She was flying to Amsterdam the next day.
Shortly after 11, we pulled away, and circled around the block (possibly
unintentionally) before leaving downtown. We saw a hillside of row houses,
apparently stacked one on top of each other. We also passed the school
where Winston Churchill made his first public speech. Churchill's pet parrot
was still alive? That didn't seem possible. We drove over a viaduct and
onto the A36, into the Cornish hills. Miles away, through the trees, we
could see the Cherhill White Horse carved
into the side of a hill. Unlike the Uffington White Horse, which dates
back to the late Bronze Age, this one was created in 1780. It's about a
half hour drive from Bath to Salisbury, traffic permitting. Fields of ripening
strawberries were on our left. We were in Somerset (pronounced "Zomerzet"),
and entering Wiltshire. Twisting roads took us past tall trees. A field
of poppies covered a hill. One farm had about 10 acres of pig pens.
||Driving through the streets of Bath, we passed the offices of the Bath
Chronicle and a pub called the Bath Tap. One business had the sign Adventure
Café Bar; I wondered if adventure was the name, or one of the services
offered. Part of the movie "Vanity Fair" was filmed in Bath. Lots
of the buildings in Bath are hundreds of years old. Some of the older buildings
had bricked-in windows. We were told that was done in protest of the "tax
on light" imposed by William Pitt the Younger in the late 1700's. Pitt
found innovative ways of taxing the British people to help pay for the
Napoleonic Wars. It is said that's where we get the expression "It's the
We rode through the circus and parked near the Bath Cathedral. Loud
seagulls were everywhere. The cathedral at Bath has a couple of interesting
features. Over the entrance is a statue of King Henry VII, who didn't get
many tributes. The facade of the cathedral shows angels climbing up and
down Jacob's Ladder. We peeked inside– the place had a magnificent vaulted
ceiling. From there, we walked down to the Roman Baths. Before going inside,
everyone took a "loo break." The sign on the restroom said "Gentlemen,"
but they let me in, anyway.
There was an army base nearby where they practiced tank maneuvers.
Some of the little country roads had signs: "NO TANKS." The trees gradually
thinned out into wheat fields. Rolling hills of peaceful farm land began
to flatten out. Off to the side we saw bumps in the landscape: Aubrey Holes,
ancient burial mounds. Green grassland spread out on either side of the
road. We came over a small rise... and there it was, straight ahead. Stonehenge.
We pulled into the car park and came to a stop. The lot was full of cars,
busses and RV's. The sky was a brilliant blue, with some white clouds off
to the west. Many people were lying out on the grass having picnics. A
vendor was selling hot sandwiches out of a trailer. We all followed Nick
to the gate. The path led down below the surface, past the gift shop, and
we found a tunnel under the road. The ramp led up, and we emerged on the
other side. Stonehenge appeared rising before us. I'd waited my whole life
to visit that place. The effect was overwhelming. The path wound up alongside
the stones. It only goes so far, then you're walking on grass. I'd been
told there would be a fence around the stones, but that day there was only
a single string circling around on stakes. I listened to the audio tour,
which had pre-recorded messages you activated at various places around
the stones. I could see a traffic jam on the road just over the next hill.
The first impression I got was that the whole place is smaller than I'd
imagined. All the pictures I'd seen made the stones look monstrous. The
stones were still freakin' huge. There were hundreds of visitors that day.
Even with all those people around me, I felt at peace. There's a calm that
comes over you when you're in a sacred place, like a cathedral or chapel,
and that's what it felt like. There was an elegance in the simplicity of
the stones, and it created a feeling of reverence.
I found myself looking at the people around me. They were all walking quietly,
respectfully. Nobody crossed the string. What must it have been like for
some Neolithic man, hunting for game, to come over a hill and see the stones
emerging from the morning mists? He must have felt he was in the presence
of gods. Did he pray at the base of the stones? If he had any extra game,
did he leave it behind as an offering? The literature and books all speculate
about Stonehenge being an observatory, or a religious site, or a place
for important ceremonies... but what was it like the rest of the time,
when no ceremonies were going on?
I imagined the ancient Britons walking around the stones, just as we were
doing. Did they step as quietly, as reverently as we did? Did they peek
at one another through the stones, or step back to see them framed in distant
clouds? Did they pick up some flower at the base of the stones to take
home with them, something to remember their visit? I wondered. Stonehenge
was the stuff of dreams.
I finished listening to the audio guide. I looked around... and I didn't
see anybody in our tour group. I thought, Uh oh. I hurried
back down the ramp and under the road to the gift shop. Nobody was there,
either. I came to the gate, and realized if I went out, I couldn't get
back in again. I turned my back on Stonehenge and went back out the gate,
hurrying back to the car park. It turned out I was the next to last person
to return to the coach. I felt kind of sheepish. There was a huge traffic
jam on the highway as we headed out for Salisbury. Poppies dotted green
fields to either side.
||It was mid-afternoon when we got to Salisbury. We could see the spire
of the cathedral from miles away. At 404 feet, it was the highest church
spire in the country, and pretty daunting to look up as you walk towards
the cathedral. Inside, we saw people taking photos. Every other cathedral
we'd visited prohibited photography. Donna asked one of the priests if
photography was allowed or not allowed. "We encourage it," the priest said.
Donna said, "Okay, do you encourage taking pictures or not taking pictures..?"
Photos were indeed allowed. Many visitors wandered through in silence.
The interior was exquisite, and the windows, shining from the afternoon
Sun, were just gorgeous. There were memorials on all the walls and floors.
Found one dedicated to the soldiers of the Burma Campaign in World War
II, and I thought of the China-Burma-India veterans I performed for a few
At the far end of the cathedral, in the space behind the high altar,
was the simple Trinity Chapel. There, I found a simple black coffin, with
a thick candle at either end. It was the tomb of Saint Osmund, who died
in 1099. Nothing fancy, nothing ostentatious, just a couple of candles.
He sounded like my kind of saint. Walking around a corner, I had to stop
myself from stepping on the grave of Edward Heath, who was prime minister
back in the 1970's. It must take quite a bit of clout to get buried in
an English cathedral, near holy places. I thought of the burial mounds
near Stonehenge and decided things haven't changed much in five thousand
years. Salisbury Cathedral was 750 years old. It harkened back to a time
when the Catholic Church had everything figured out, where everything in
the world had its place. It made me think of my days in Catholic school.
The world had order back then– purpose and reason.
A priest wandered by and asked me, "So, what's you're interest here?"
Was that a trick question? I said something about history and culture...
then I confessed that I wasn't nearly the practicing Catholic I used to
be-- but even so, I was finding everything around me very inspirational.
He smiled and patted me on the shoulder, saying, "God bless you." We looked
through the cloisters, and found some sculptures on the grounds outside.
One was called "The Walking Madonna," and reminded me of the Pioneer Woman
statue in Ponca City. Donna and I hit the gift shop, then headed back towards
I noticed that whenever I bought something with a credit card in Britain,
everybody checked my signatures. Most American businesses would let that
slide, so long as the transaction was approved. Heading out of Salisbury,
the road took us through a narrow tunnel cut under some train tracks. A
sign warned, "High vehicles use center of road." It was a beautiful afternoon.
Nearby was an army firing range. They would put up a red flag for the neighbors
anytime they were using live ammunition.
We got back on the highway. It was 70 miles to London. Traffic was
steady, but not congested. That was pretty much the last day we'd be together,
so we all filled out surveys about the tour. My only suggestion was to
have some games or something for everyone to do on the long drives between
places. At 4:15, we passed Heathrow Airport. It was amazing that a plane
lands there practically every 60 seconds. Traffic got heavier the closer
we got to London. We crossed the Thames near where the Magna Carta was
signed. We pulled up next to the hotel on Kensington High Street where
we began our journey. In the hotel, a very nice girl named Christina got
us set up in our rooms. Donna met up with the Trafalgar rep in the lobby
and got the receipt for our Sunday tour of London. I got some maps and
figured out where we were supposed to go. With everything worked out, we
went up to our room, which had a lovely view of a wall. It was a tiny room.
There were scorch marks on the lamp shades. We cleaned up, and headed out
to find some supper. I'd had the idea there would be a farewell dinner
for the group that evening, but there wasn't. We took off walking down
Kensington. Many restaurants had their menus posted outside so people could
check them out before going in. We looked at a couple and settled on an
Italian place called Café Pasta.
"Table for two?"
"Do you take plastic?"
"Yes, we do."
"Table for two."
It was early in the evening, so the place was very quiet. For an appetizer,
we had meze: olives, zuccini, cheese, flat bread, shredded, pickled beet,
and a red mango with a tomato inside, covered with cheese. I had spaghetti
bolognese, with beef and pork, and it was delicious. Donna had a portabella
mushroom pizza. They didn't cut the pizza up into slices– they just left
it for her to tear off in bites. That was really good. I had an Italian
beer called Panini, which had a slightly sour aftertaste but was otherwise
fairly smooth. Everything on the label was in Italian. After supper, it
was still light out, so we went for a walk. We found the Underground station
a couple of blocks up the street. We also looked through a bookstore, and
were sorely tempted to buy some books. On the way back, we met up with
a half dozen people from the tour group. They were looking for a place
to eat, too. We looked through the hotel gift shop and found some t-shirts
for 8 pounds. We relaxed in the room that evening. Donna read while I went
over maps of London and got caught up on my writing. It had been a big