Magical History Tour, Day Four (Continued): And Onward!

After many wrong turns, we finally made it out of the gardens (and it wasn’t even¬†supposed to be a hedge maze!), and managed to find our way to the two museums devoted to the stones– the Keiller-focused museum, and the museum in the barn, whose charming thatch roof was being restored, served a dual purpose as a museum/interpretation center and a bat habitat! Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see any bats ūüė¶ Maybe next time.

It was strange being the only visitors in the museums– the audio from the interactive exhibits boomed sharply through the silence. It was a little awkward. Maybe a lot awkward.

We stopped for a quick bite in the tea room before heading out to the stones. The rain had finally stopped, and the low rays of twilight provided a lovely glow by which to explore the stones… although it was less than ideal to spot the various droppings that littered the field. (File that under things the guidebooks don’t tell you– many historical sites are also grazing grounds, so you have to watch where you step. That is– if you don’t want poo on your shoes.)

Although Joe didn’t want to drive in the dark, nervous as he still was about driving on British roads, by this point it was clear that would be unavoidable. We would have to find our way to Trowbridge in the dark.

 

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Magical History Tour, Day Four: Avebury Manor

I’ve previously covered¬†the main reason we went to Avebury: the stones. If we had just gotten there in time to check out the stones, I still would have chalked our visit up as a success. Anything else would just be an added bonus.

And we got our added bonus. We arrived in Avebury in plenty of times to tour the two museums dedicated to the stones and their restoration as well as Avebury Manor itself.

Touring old stately homes and their gardens is a popular pastime [if you ever read any old Austen novels, this should be quite familiar (recall Elizabeth’s tour of the countryside with her aunt and uncle and their eventual visit to Pemberley, the home of the illustrious Mr. Darcy)]. Indeed, during my student days in the UK, we had the opportunity to tour a few different stately homes. I don’t know if it’s more proper to actually know something about the house and its history before your visit, but Joe and I knew very little of Avebury Manor when we got there. Still, when in Rome…

As it turns out, Avebury Manor has stood for hundreds of years and was recently featured in a BBC special in which they restored the manor, taking each room and outfitting it in a different period style. One room, for example, was Tudor-themed; another was modeled in a kind of art nouveau theme, recalling styles popular at the time that the stones and the sites around them were being excavated by Alexander Keiller. Far from being “stand off and observe” kind of museum, the rooms are interactive, for the most part, with period costumes and laminated sheets to aid in your exploration and interpretation. In the kitchen, there were even signs encouraging visitors to open drawers and examine what they found inside. Although it wasn’t very crowded overall, each room seemed to have at least one family whose children were excitedly exploring the objects. It was an interesting, immersive way to teach children (and adults!) about history.

The rain, it seemed, kept everyone inside. With no clear signage on how we were supposed to get back to the other museums, Joe and I found ourselves lost. A steady mist made it difficult to see [glasses are a pain sometimes] very much at all, and the tall, sculptural hedges complicated matters even further. The weather having drawn people inside, the only sounds we heard were the hush of precipitation and our own. Rather than let it get us down, we seized the opportunity to explore the gardens. If you ever read “The Secret Garden” and wondered how a garden could be secret– well, just visit an old English manor garden with quadrants walled in by stone and impenetrable 12-foot hedges. ¬†I wasn’t sure if I should watch out for the Red Queen or for Jack Nicholson.

Magical History Tour, Day Four: The Stones

The stone circle in Avebury was the first wholly new thing for both of us that we visited during the trip. London we’d both visited, even if some of the specific spots we visited within the city were new to one of both of us, and Bath I’d ¬†been to before, but Avebury was totally new.

Avebury, like Stonehenge, is a ring of large stones erected in prehistoric times. Only Avebury is relatively less well-known. ¬†Also unlike Stonehenge, the stones sits amid the village of Avebury (or rather, the village sits amid the stones). Stonehenge, by contrast, is surrounded by fields and fields and fields (and, as we’d later discover, tank proving grounds of some sort), with any villages miles away. ¬†Avebury’s stones lack the lintel stones of Stonehenge, but the circumference of the stones is much larger and you can walk among them and touch them.

You’re not supposed to, but you can even climb on them, like this guy:

Guy climbing the Avebury Stones

The imagery of Stonehenge has been so thoroughly reproduced across the world that it’s instantly recognizable. They were a standard Windows desktop background, for goodness’ sake.¬†¬†It’s almost anti-climactic when you finally see them in person because they look like every picture you’ve ever seen of them. ¬†The Avebury stones, by contrast, feel much less hyped, much more real, more mysterious.

It’s a five minute walk or so from the car park to the small museums which provide interpretation and context for the stones. We decided to see as much as we could. The manor closed first, so we bought tickets in the barn gallery/museum/gift shop and set off toward the manor.

Even in the misting rain, the experience was lovely and otherworldly. ¬†The lack of people increased the surreal feeling,especially compared to the crushing crowds at the Baths and in the cities where we’d spent the previous days.

We were walking through a wonderland. And once we got to the gardens surrounding the manor, the Wonderland.

Gardens at Avebury Manor

It was incredible.

Gardens at Avebury Manor

Magical History Tour, Day Four (continued): Away to Avebury

Roman Baths checked off our list of things to do, Joe and I set off to embark on the next step of our journey: Avebury.

However, our first appointment was with something– anything– to get the taste of “dirty human body”-flavored Baths water out of our mouths. ¬†After a momentary delay in the gift shop– which, oddly, sold rings inscribed with Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings Elvish alongside its Baths paraphernalia– we stopped at a nearby Tesco for the necessary refreshments:

  • A big bottle of water
  • A box of GoAhead Yogurt Breaks
  • Two bags of Walker’s Thai Sweet Chili crisps (my¬†favorite¬†crisps in the world)
  • Two bags of Walkers Thai Sweet Chili-flavoured peanuts (truth be told, these were a bit of a disappointment)
  • A couple of bottles of Lucozade (aka crack-juice)

And we were set.

We braved our way through the spider gauntlet for the last time, piled in the car, set up the SatNav and started our first driving journey of any substantial distance. I was, as ever, the navigator.

Ten minutes in and we’d already learned to dread the inevitable: “In one mile/one half mile/500 feet enter roundabout.”

The roundabouts! We were prepared for narrow roads (at least we thought we were), tiny cars, and driving on the left, but the roundabouts! There are SO MANY. Just when we thought we were out of the woods, having made it safely through the narrow city streets, frequent stoplights and pedestrians, we were set upon by a plague of roundabouts!

And then, of course, it started raining on top of it all. Because, you know, it would.

After countless roundabouts, a few close calls with some curbs, but blessedly no damage, we followed the signs to the Avebury Stones car park, by now an absolute mud pit. A trailer stood close to the walking path into town/toward the stones, providing information about the area. And right next to the trailer?

A Land Rover.

I watched the stress Joe had built up during the drive evaporate as soon as he spotted it. We were supposed to be there.

It was still raining, but we put the previous day’s questionable umbrella purchase to good use and set off for the stones.

It’s Raining!

Wandering through a Wonderland-esque garden at Avebury Manor… in the rain.

It’s practically a holiday whenever it rains in Southern California. Not a great, go-to-the-beach kind of holiday. More like a driving-skills-take-a-holiday kind of holiday. Traffic today was unbelievable.

While we were in the UK, everyone seemed apologetic for the weather. Oh it’s too bad it’s raining.¬†Or,¬†Sorry the weather’s so awful during your holiday.

In reality, the weather here is always so temperate and nice that it was lovely to have a little variety during our holiday.

In the same way, even though the traffic here is going to be complete rubbish tomorrow, it’s nice to hear the rain dripping outside. ūüôā

Magical History Tour, Day Four (Continued): The Baths At Last

So we made it. It was a little questionable there for a while, given the whole ordeal we had to go through, but there we were, at last.

Roman Baths: Mission Accomplished.

We paid the entrance fee and shuffled in. For all the shortness of the queue, it was still impressively crowded. I can’t imagine what Saturday would have been like.

A guided audio tour is included with your fee, so Joe collected one and we proceeded into the first room. As I’d already been before, I opted not to carry one around as I thought it somehow interfere with the¬†feel of the place, but in retrospect I almost wish I had, if only so that I wouldn’t spend so much time waiting around for Joe while he listened to the commentary. While it’s wonderful to see so many people learning about history, there’s just something surreal and disconcerting about walking into a room and seeing a group of people standing stock still, with these devices held up to their ears, gaze stuck somewhere in the middle distance. Rather than discussing what they see and feel with their friends or family on the group, they stand alone and silent. Even though they may be physically close, they go through the exhibits as an island of experience, alone. There’s something just really sad about that.

But I digress.

The route through the Baths first takes you outside to an upper promenade circling the main pool.

Main Pool, Roman Baths

One of the downsides to visiting during the off-season, as we found, was that’s when they tend to do their restoration work, so bits of it were covered in scaffolding, but it was still quite striking. There’s nothing quite like it.

Although what remains of the baths is obviously somewhat different than the way it looked in the era of the Romans, the statues along the rim give it a kind of noble, Roman, Age-of-Gods-and-Heroes kind of feel.

From there, you progress around the pool and back into the building and the museum proper, with the various artifacts and reconstructions, including things they’ve found in and around the baths, like pieces of metal with curses carved in– requests to the gods and goddesses to curse their enemies for wrongs they’ve committed. There’s a good blend of traditional artifacts in cases with nearby placards explaining what you’re seeing and its historical context and more modern interpretations. In several places, looped video showing scenes of typical Roman life and activity at the Baths were projected onto a wall. I ended up watching a lot of these while I waited for Joe to finish with the room. I can read a lot faster than the audio guides speak.

By far, one of the most striking pieces in the exhibit is the reconstruction of a pediment which originally stood at the Baths, way back when.  Very cleverly, a projector slowly shifts from just lighting up the remaining pieces, to showing the missing pieces, and then ultimately the way it was originally colored. It must have been amazing to be around that every day.

Reconstructed Pediment, Roman Baths

The centerpiece is a centerpiece for a reason, clearly.

Various areas of the exhibits give you glimpses into other parts of the baths. The water bubbles as it comes up and you can see the steam just above the surface.

Another Pool, Roman Baths

Once you make your way through the museum exhibits, you find yourself back on the ground level around the main pool.

The waters aren’t roped off, but there are signs every few feet or so telling you not to touch the water as it’s untreated. What the signs don’t tell you is that you can get meningitis and die from amoebas in the untreated water. Oh, and you know, there are those pesky lead pipes. ¬†So this is definitely a bad idea.

When I was there in 2005, my friend and I saw a guy surreptitiously slurping handfuls of water from the main pool. (Hey, it’s supposed to have healing powers, right?)

Apparently that never goes out of style. Check out the guy in the background…

Main Pool, Roman Baths

Gross.

Most of the rest of the exhibits are what remains of some of the old rooms. They’re interesting, but are mostly old, stone, and wet. It’s difficult to appreciate the grandeur of the complete Bath complex nearly two thousand years later.

Piled Rocks, Roman Baths

These held up a floor, I think. 

At the end of the tour, you hang up your audio guide, and there’s a running spigot of authentic [treated] Roman Bath water and some little paper cups in case you want to try it for yourself. No brain-eating amoebas here, and you don’t even have to make your way to the Pump Room upstairs to get yourself a glass. ¬†Joe and I could hardly miss the opportunity, so we filled up some paper cups and toasted to our health.

The water has roughly the temperature and taste of warm, dirty bodies. Not. Good.

Joe (making a face): That’s definitely not Brita.

Let’s just say we weren’t in a rush to fill our Nalgene bottles with any authentic Roman Bath water.

Walking on Water, Roman Baths

Next stop: Avebury.