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Part 6: Tallest Spire in 21st Century England to a 2800 B.C. Stone Circle—All in a Single Day’s Travels
Leaving the Heathrow Airport area, we took the motorway M3 using a 1990 atlas that Ami and Ken had loaned us. It held fond memories for them because that’s the atlas they used when taking Ami’s father on a road trip through England. It was a huge help to us because it had magnified maps of every part of England.
We were heading to Salisbury, known for its cathedral and interesting history, which goes back to the Bronze Age, perhaps as early as 500 B.C. It later became a Roman town called Sarum. The current city of Salisbury was started when the old settlement outgrew the space on a nearby hill, and the people moved to this site on the river valley below the hill.
We knew we wouldn’t have a great deal of time to spend in Salisbury (population 45,000), but we wanted to visit the cathedral featuring England’s tallest spire (404 feet) and largest cathedral green (80 acres). First task upon arriving was to find a parking place, and took quite awhile. We ended up finding a space on a side street on a hill, across the street from the youth hostel, and a few blocks away from the town center.
I had my photocopy from the guidebook of the town’s layout, and we started walking downhill toward Market Square, since this was Saturday, and a market day, we could have found it without my map by just following our ears. It was a very festive, lively and noisy scene.
Since we were hungry, we decided to eat first and found a pub listed in my guidebook, but they were not serving lunch that day, and they directed us to The Ox Row Inn. We enjoyed a lunch of vegetable soup and bread with a side order of chips (the tastiest chips we ate in England), and Dave had a glass of London Pride bitter, which he very much enjoyed. Then it was off to find the cathedral. Again we probably didn’t need the map because of the tall spire rising in the sky, along with the signs posted at intersections.
About halfway to the cathedral, Dave realized he’d left his camera at the pub; so, I anxiously waited on a side street for his return, hopefully with his camera. After a short wait, he was back, with his camera, which was still lying in the booth in which we’d dined. After more walking than our legs appreciated, we were at the cathedral green and glimpsed the magnificent structure situated on it.
Completed in 1258, this Gothic cathedral took only 38 years to build, extremely fast construction for the Middle Ages. My guidebook says they have a wonderful tour, ending with climbing the 330 steps to the tower, but we didn’t have the 1-1/2 to 2 hours of the tour to devote here, as our goal was to sleep in Bath that night, and we had three other stops along the way.
But it’s easy to do a shorter self-guided tour, with help from a good guidebook and the volunteers inside. Visitors won’t want to miss what is said to be the oldest working clock in existence (dates from 14th century), and in the Chapter House one can see one of the four original copies of the 1215 Magna Carta, which limited the monarch’s powers, and is comparable in English importance as the Constitution is to Americans.
Leaving the cathedral we walked back to our car, the last few blocks were uphill. I still remember feeling quite relieved to be seated and no longer walking uphill. We were on the road again.
With the help of our friends’ atlas, we quickly arrived at Old Sarum, only two miles north of Salisbury. We’d read the book Sarum by Edward Rutherfurd and knew we wanted to make a brief stop here. The Bronze-age human settlement (from about 500 B.C.) on this hill was later followed by the Romans, Saxons and Normans through A.D. 1220. Then it was moved to the present-day Salisbury. Seeing the foundation ruins here and viewing the Salisbury Cathedral spire in the valley below gave us quite a sense of history after reading Sarum. We both highly recommend reading that book, whether or not you plan to visit England. It really does make ancient history come alive.
Next stop was Stonehenge, about 15 minutes north of Salisbury, and the roads are well-signed. The parking lot held many cars and several buses, and more tourists than we were used to seeing. Having seen so much on TV regarding this site and being short on time, we did not purchase the audioguide here, which my guidebooks say is excellent.
Stonehenge (built in phases between 3000 and 1500 B.C. and as old at the pyramids) is unique among England’s hundreds of stone circles because it is the only one that has horizontal lintels spanning the vertical stones, and the only one where the stones have been made smooth and uniform. Visitors here see what is a little more than half the original circle.
It still functions as a very accurate celestial calendar, which helped the ancients know when to plant and harvest, and it is built at the precise point where six ley lines intersect. These are theoretical lines of magnetic power that crisscross the globe. You can ask one of the guides here to demonstrate the ley lines with a pair of divining rods and decide for yourself.
Another unusual feature here is that two different types of stone were used. The tall ones (most weigh around 25 tons) and lintels (about 7 tons each) are sarsen stone, a type of sandstone, which is found about 20 miles from the site. The middle, shorter “bluestones” came from the south coast of Wales (240 miles away). Why did they want stones from 240 miles away? How did they get those to this site, or the 25-tons and 7-ton ones from 20 miles away? Mysteries still abound regarding Stonehenge …
We left Stonehenge headed for Avebury, about an hour north. You may remember that this was Dave’s first day of driving on the English side of the road and shifting our manual trans, rather than automatic, car with his left hand, rather than the U.S. right-handed shifting. This went very well, as long as we were on a major motorway. But the drive to Avebury had some startling moments in it!
The rural roads in England are VERY narrow, and they have no shoulders. What they do have are short curbs, and since Dave was instinctively driving more to the left of the center line on these very narrow country roads, he bounced us off of the curbs a few times and tree branches hit my window a few times, as well. A little gasp would escape from me, when that happened, which annoyed Dave, but it was a natural, spontaneous reaction on my part—it was my side of the car that was bouncing off the curbs and having tree branches hit my side window!
But we made it to Avebury with no major mishaps. When parking in Avebury, the only option is to park/pay at the National Trust Parking Lot, which is about a three-minute walk from the tiny village. There is no public parking in the village.
Unlike Stonehenge, Avebury is a pre-historic, open-air, stone circle museum, where visitors can walk and actually touch the stones, and Avebury dates to 2800 B.C., six centuries older than Stonehenge, and 16 times the size! We had a hard time getting our heads around 2800 B.C., six centuries older than Stonehenge—it’s tough to grasp…
We arrived there late afternoon and were soon overwhelmed—this felt like we walking on land where we could almost “feel” the ancient Neolithic people’s presence. We walked through a portion of it and rubbed the texture of the stones with our fingers. (We did have to watch where we stepped, since there are sheep roaming in this fenced-off area circle of stones.)
Dave and I were immediately entranced, and we didn’t even get to the Ritual Procession Way to the “Sanctuary” (thought to be 1,000 yrs. older than most of the sights here and the beginning of Avebury’s huge stone circle), Silbury Hill (more than 4,000 yrs. old and the largest man-made object in pre-historic Europe), or West Kennet Long Barrow (the best-preserved Stone Age chamber tomb in England).
It was late afternoon, when we arrived there, and we both strongly considered spending the night there, because there is so much to learn/experience here. However, there is very limited lodging, and if we were unsuccessful in finding lodging, that would put us much later in terms of traveling on.
So, we left Avebury, heading for Bath and wishing we had scheduled 5 days in a rental car, rather than four.