Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Blogging the London trip- Day 4

Two days of our trip (Wednesday and Thursday) were set aside primarily for out-of-London field trips. The first of these was to Bath, then Stonehenge, and finally Winchester Cathedral. It would mean a long day on the bus, since Bath is about two hours from London, situated right about on the western edge of the island. It doesn't overlook the various bodies of water that surround England but it is darned close.

On the ride out, our guide described the agriculture of the British countryside, especially the vast fields of bright yellow plants that are called rapeseed or canola. They are grown for export to make biofuels (canola oil) and currently comprise about 11% of the total acreage under cultivation, if I remember correctly.

The British countryside is absolutely beautiful. Seeing the tiny farms, diverse herds of sheep and cattle, hedge rows and expansive farmlands, it made me think of Tolkien's Shire. It didn't hurt that the weather was incredible, with clear blue skies and cool temperatures; there probably isn't any better way to see the land, unless it's flying over it in a small plane (one of my favorite ways to see landscapes).

If the country is beautiful, Bath is ten times more so. The town lies atop a natural hot mineral water spring; per our guide, the water down in the depths has been there for about 80,000 years and is making its way up through some very hot subterranean spaces. We hopped off the bus and had about two hours to view the ruined Roman resort and wander the town before embarking for our next destination.

Bath was built by Roman occupiers who found the hot springs and decided to make a spa. The construction was elaborate, making great use of the Romans' legendary skill as engineers, and enjoyed considerable popularity until the Romans retreated from England. Once that happened, the natives lacked the skills necessary to maintain the buildings, and they slowly fell into ruin and collapsed atop the springs.

Hundreds of years later (12th century, I believe?), a bishop rediscovered the springs and created a resort for himself. It became popular quite awhile later, when Queen Anne was recommended to the hot springs to ease a chronic discomfort. That assured its rise as a place to be, such that the nobles built elaborate houses for themselves and the townfolk prospered.

Bath fell into decline with the ebb of its popularity, but enjoyed a third rebirth when the Roman ruins were found and excavated in the 19th century. Nowadays, the town enjoys a thriving tourist business, trading on its great natural beauty and history. Tours of the Roman baths are fascinating, and though they tell you not to touch the water fresh from the springs, you do anyway. (It's hot--not scalding but warmer than you'd think.) In the Pump Room, you can actually drink the water... which tastes like hot mineral water. No surprise, hm?

We wandered the streets for awhile. The Starbucks in town made one of the best peppermint mochas I'd ever had, and Kat loved shopping in the maze of streets, side streets and alleyways that comprise downtown Bath. We thought about going to Jane Austen's home but that would have been a trip beyond our temporal means-- we would have had maybe five minutes in the building before having to run back to the bus, which is not enough. We settled for buying postcards.

Once back on the bus, we headed for Stonehenge. Our guide gave us the story of the structure, which is the third and last of three great cycles of construction. The most ambitious, apparently, was the second one, wherein the handful of locals carted stone from Wales (about 300-350 miles away) without the use of wheels. Think about that, hauling multi-ton stones that distance. Let's say this: they were motivated.

Stonehenge may not be vast in size but, considering it was built using Bronze Age (or maybe Iron Age) technology, was torn up to scavenge stone by latter-day locals, and yet has lasted about 2500 years, that isn't bad at all. Kat and I, needless to say, were greatly impressed.

Not so much with Winchester Cathedral, our final stop of the day. We didn't pay to go inside, but instead glanced in the vestibule and then walked around the town for a bit. Kat did a little clothes shopping, then we were on the road back to London. We got off at Knightsbridge and busied ourselves with finding a place to eat (which proved to be a challenge). Ultimately we found a tapas place, then bought souvenirs and headed home by way of Pall Mall (taking a peek at 10 Downing Street), the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Bridge and then along the Embankment.

We were ready to crash by 11pm that night, having had an exceptionally busy day.

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