Wednesday, January 14, 2015

London Day 6

For our 6th day in the UK - Thanksgiving in America - we made our way out of London on another bus tour. We started the day by basically running to Victoria Coach Station even though we thought we left ourselves plenty of time to get from our hotel to the bus. Ha! I was just over two months post-surgery at that point so while I was able to walk around London all day taking stops here and there, running from the train station to the coach station was a whole other bag of potatoes. We arrived and I felt so sick to my stomach - I thought I was going to puke and then pass out. It turns out that we had plenty of time because the tour company overbooked the number of passengers that the bus would hold and they had to call another coach to pick up everyone else.

Our first stop of the day was Windsor Castle and I wasn't really into it. I'm sure it was perfectly fine and lovely - in fact it *was* lovely - but I still felt really exhausted and sick to my stomach. I was so uncomfortable and just ready to get out of my clothes and curl up in bed. My memory is a little foggy of all of the particulars since it has been nearly two months since we were there (BAD BLOGGER!), but my recollection is that the state apartments were really similar to those at Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh. That makes sense when you think about it since both are homes for the Queen.
The original castle was built in the 11th century after the Norman invasion by William the Conqueror. Since the time of Henry I, it has been used by succeeding monarchs and is the longest-occupied palace in Europe. The castle's lavish, early 19th-century State Apartments are architecturally significant, described by art historian Hugh Roberts as "a superb and unrivalled sequence of rooms widely regarded as the finest and most complete expression of later Georgian taste."The castle includes the 15th-century St George's Chapel, considered by historian John Martin Robinson to be "one of the supreme achievements of English Perpendicular Gothic" design. More than five hundred people live and work in Windsor Castle.

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Like our previous bus tour, this was more of a highlights visit so we didn't have much time at either of our three locations. As we were arriving at Windsor our tour leader told us that we should grab food to eat on the bus on the drive to Stonehenge, but that it should under no circumstances be hot food. Of course you know that means that about half of the bus totally disregarded that directive, including the Japanese girls sitting across from us (which of course made me super sick to my stomach). Since I didn't have much stamina for touring the castle, we actually got food at one of the cafes, and because it was Thanksgiving I went with a turkey and cranberry sandwich. (GOOD AMERICAN).

I ended up sleeping the majority of the way from Windsor to Stonehenge, and I'm so glad I did because when I woke up I felt much better. Prior to leaving Windsor I had considered telling Alan that we should just hop on the train back to London, but arriving at Stonehenge, I'm so glad that I didn't. It was beautiful. I know there's a lot of controversy about whether it is worth the visit or not, especially for those who aren't into archaeology or history, but I'm really glad we stayed with the tour because I felt like it was definitely worth visiting.
One of the most famous sites in the world, Stonehenge is the remains of a ring of standing stones set within earthworks. It is in the middle of the most dense complex of Neolithic and Bronze Age monuments in England, including several hundred burial mounds. Archaeologists believe it was built anywhere from 3000 BC to 2000 BC. Radiocarbon dating in 2008 suggested that the first stones were raised between 2400 and 2200 BC, whilst another theory suggests that bluestones may have been raised at the site as early as 3000 BC. The surrounding circular earth bank and ditch, which constitute the earliest phase of the monument, have been dated to about 3100 BC. The site and its surroundings were added to the UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites in 1986 in a co-listing with Avebury Henge. It is a national legally protected Scheduled Ancient Monument. Stonehenge is owned by the Crown and managed by English Heritage, while the surrounding land is owned by the National Trust. Archaeological evidence found by the Stonehenge Riverside Project in 2008 indicates that Stonehenge could have been a burial ground from its earliest beginnings.[8] The dating of cremated remains found on the site indicate that deposits contain human bone from as early as 3000 BC, when the ditch and bank were first dug. Such deposits continued at Stonehenge for at least another 500 years.

I should note that we had a really light crowd at sunset and I'm sure if it had been crawling with tourists I might have felt differently, but given that we always travel to major cities during the shoulder or off seasons, we've always been able to visit historic monuments with little fuss. This time was no exception. I didn't really know what to expect - some people say it's just a big old pile or rocks, while others say it is simply otherworldly - and truthfully, I didn't feel either of those things. To be sure, it's a marvel of early engineering, and I would love to know the story of how it came to be, but I didn't feel any sort of mystery or wonder. I was, however, cowed by it's grandeur.

(As we're sitting here going over our trip and talking about why Stonehenge was so great, Alan pointed out something that I think is worth mentioning. You often hear places and things referred to as "World Famous" but very rarely is something actually that famous, but Stonehenge is one of those places that you grow up knowing about, and it's in your consciousness from very early on as a place of wonder and awe. It's a place that throughout the ages has endured, and will continue to endure, providing the government in the UK doesn't muck it up. Right now there is a debate on whether or not they should dig under Stonehenge to reroute traffic from the very close motorway into a tunnel, but I can't even imagine how that would work.)

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One of the things I was most excited by with this particular tour was the opportunity to visit Bath. The icing on the cake was that it was the opening day of the Christmas market there. Unfortunately, we were really only scheduled to have enough time to see the Roman Baths, grab some food, and make our way back to the bus. In speaking with the tour guide, we learned that the bus ride back to London would be about three hours! We figured that we could better use that time wandering the market, getting food, and then taking the train back, so that's exactly what we did, ditching our tour following the tour of the Roman baths.
The city became a spa with the Latin name Aquae Sulis ("the waters of Sulis") c. AD 60 when the Romans built baths and a temple in the valley of the River Avon, although oral tradition suggests that the hot springs were known before then. It became popular as a spa town during the Georgian era, leaving a heritage of Georgian architecture crafted from Bath Stone.

Archaeological evidence shows that the site of the Roman baths' main spring was treated as a shrine by the Britons, and was dedicated to the goddess Sulis, whom the Romans identified with Minerva; the name Sulis continued to be used after the Roman invasion, appearing in the town's Roman name, Aquae Sulis (literally, "the waters of Sulis"). Messages to her scratched onto metal, known as curse tablets, have been recovered from the sacred spring by archaeologists. The tablets were written in Latin, and cursed people by whom the writers felt they had been wronged. For example, if a citizen had his clothes stolen at the baths, he might write a curse, naming the suspects, on a tablet to be read by the goddess.

A temple was constructed in 60–70 AD and a bathing complex was built up over the next 300 years. Engineers drove oak piles into the mud to provide a stable foundation, and surrounded the spring with an irregular stone chamber lined with lead. In the 2nd century, the spring was enclosed within a wooden barrel-vaulted structure, that housed the calidarium (hot bath), tepidarium (warm bath), and frigidarium (cold bath). The city was later given defensive walls, probably in the 3rd century. After the failure of Roman authority in the first decade of the 5th century, the baths fell into disrepair and were eventually lost as a result of silting. In March 2012 a hoard of 30,000 silver Roman coins, one of the largest discovered in Britain, was unearthed in an archaeological dig. The coins, believed to date from the 3rd century, were found about 450 feet from the Roman baths.

I found that I enjoyed the baths much more than I had expected to. I knew that the architecture would be stunning, but I was really quite pleased with how the whole experience of touring the site was set up. It never felt crowded or rushed, and as the evening sky descended, it was truly quite spectacular looking. The museum was also incredibly informative, and I felt like we walked away from the site knowing a great deal more than I had anticipated going in. (Oh, remember the two Japanese girls I mentioned above? Yeah, they felt it was necessary, née imperative, that they touch the ancient Roman artifacts that were on display. I wanted to throttle them.)

I'm somewhat sad that we weren't in Bath during the day - or during the summer months - when we could have had some time to explore Jane Austen's Bath, or the city's other major architectural and/or heritage sites like Bath Abbey, the Royal Crescent (one of the greatest examples of Georgian architecture in the UK), Pultaney Bridge, or The Circus.

Still, I'm very glad we stuck with the tour, and then ditched the tour, because I had a fantastic time at the Roman baths and then wandering around the Christmas market. One of the unique things about the Bath Christmas market - unlike, say, Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park, or the market at the Tate Modern - is that all of the stalls in Bath are from British makers, with locally produced wares, foods, and items. In fact, over 70% of the stalls are businesses from Bath and the surrounding region, with 60% of the goods available handmade in the UK. We ended up buying Alan's mom some locally produced spa items as a thank you for watching our beast, Dakota, while we were gone.

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After the market, we ate a dinner that was unremarkable but hit the spot, and then took the train back into London's Paddington Station. I slept the entire way, which was heavenly, and then we walked back to our hotel from the train station and called it a night.