On a recent visit to London, my husband and I took a whirlwind tour through time, experiencing 5000 years of British Isles history in one day. Our tour took us to the prehistoric ruins of Stonehenge, the Roman baths in Bath, and the (relatively) modern royal residence of Windsor Castle.
When my husband and I found ourselves with a day in London before we had to catch a flight back to the states, we decided that this time we would try to sight see outside of the city if possible. Since Stonehenge was near the top of my travel bucket list, this was the opportunity to see it. After some research I decided that while we could get there on our own, this time we would book a tour that would include some other sights as well, and so get more sight seeing bang for our buck. Always on the lookout for great photo ops, I was initially looking for sunrise tours to Stonehenge, but none were available on our date. After some more research, I picked the “Royals, Romans, and Ruins” tour with International Friends because I was attracted by their small group size (no more than 18) and the smaller mini buses that they use. I also liked the fact that they claimed their itinerary took you to the sites in opposite order of the big coach bus tours, allowing for a visit with fewer crowds.
The Ruins – Stonehenge
Pick up for us was before 8 AM at a location near Harrods which was an easy tube ride from the Earl’s Court area hotel where we were staying. The two hour drive to Stonehenge went by quickly as the guide shared stories about his life in London and then gave us background information on the sights we would visit.
We arrived at Stonehenge around 10 ish and indeed, the site was not very busy (no big tour buses in the parking lot yet). We had about an hour and a half to visit the site and the visitors center. Walking around the edge of the stone circle, it’s hard to get a true sense of the size of the stones because you are about 10 yards away behind a rope barrier. The advantage to this is that it is pretty easy to get photos of the stones without people in the picture. The stones in the outer circle are roughly 13 feet high and 7 feet wide and weigh about 25 tons. Archaeologists still debate what the purpose of the stone circle was, but they do agree that the stones were erected between 2000 to 3000 BC.
Walking around the large (108 ft diameter) circle of stones, the view and perspective changes constantly. How were such large stones brought here from long distances without the knowledge of wheels or pulleys? Apparently, the stones were carved with mortise and tenon joinery before being erected. How were they carved? The lintel stones (the horizontal stones that lay on top of the vertical stones) were also carved with tongue and grove joints so that they fitted closely with each other. How did they lift such big stones in place? In one area of the stones, you can still see the lintel stones connected.
Inside the stone circle were placed 5 other taller stones (called trilithons), apparently also connected with intricately joined lintels. Only one of those is still standing with about 22 feet visible above ground and 7 feet buried below ground. How did they do that?
What an amazing sight it must have been to have the complete circle of stones in place. Did people come here to worship? Did they come here for healing? Was it an astronomical sight? Or was it just for funerary purposes? These are all theories that have been proposed for the purpose of Stonehenge. There are a large number of burials in the area, and some of the bones have been identified as belonging to people originating from areas as far as the Mediterranean Sea and Germany. Why did they travel so far to be here? We may never know the answers to all these questions, but it is in part this mystery that makes Stonehenge such an intriguing place to visit.
Stonehenge and other associated nearby sites are on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Included in that list is Avebury Henge, about 30 minutes to the north, which is another monument containing three stone circles. Our visit did not take us there this time, but hopefully we’ll have the opportunity to visit it next time we are in the area.
The Romans – Remains of a Bath House
After about another hour drive, we reached the city of Bath. Bath has many claims to fame-it is also a UNESCO World Heritage site, and with is extensive Georgian architecture, is considered to be one of the prettiest cities in England. But what put Bath on the map and caught the eye of the Romans, are the natural hot springs that are still in use today. Our visit would focus only on the well preserved Roman Bath House. As we drove though the city, we caught tantalizing glimpses of other interesting sights, but they also would have to wait for another time.
The Romans built a temple and bath house complex over the hot springs in the first century AD, on a site that had originally been sacred to the Celts. The Roman portion we still see today is actually below current street level with a Victorian super structure at street level and above it. The centerpiece of the complex is the Great Bath, a 5.5 foot deep pool filled with naturally hot water. For the Romans though, the most important area was the Sacred Pool which is where the 115°F water rises up out of the ground. The Romans believed the goddess Minerva was responsible for the hot water and they built a temple in her honor adjacent to the Sacred Pool. They also threw all sorts of offerings to her into the hot waters of the Sacred Pool, many of which are now on display at the site museum.
For the Romans, these public baths were a complete spa experience. They included a calderium which was a heated pool for opening up the pores of the skin, and a frigidarium which was a cold plunge pool used for closing up the pores. Much of the Roman site under street level has been excavated and can be explored with good displays and explanations of the whole Roman bath process. As always, I couldn’t help but be impressed by Roman skill and engineering, the remains of which are still in existence almost 2000 years later.
The Royals – Windsor Castle
After another two hour drive, we reached our final destination just outside of London – Windsor Castle. And since we arrived there at the end of the day after all the big tour groups had gone, the sight was not very busy.
Windsor Castle has been a continuous home for the English monarchy since it was built in the eleventh century and continues to be the favored weekend residence of the Queen. She grew up here during World War II and continues to consider this her home. With over 1000 rooms, Windsor claims to be the largest and oldest continuously inhabited castle in the world.
The castle we see today is a conglomerate of additions, rebuilds and restorations as 39 monarch put their stamp on this huge complex. In 1660, Charles II had Versailles envy and rebuilt and enlarged the palace to rival that of his cousin Louis XIV. During the Georgian era of the eighteenth century much of the castle was redone after having been neglected, and that is what we basically see today.
The most interesting sight is a tour of the state apartments (no photos allowed inside though). On view are many elaborate and richly decorated rooms that include works of art from the royal collection by such greats as Rubens and Rembrandt. But these rooms are not just for show. The Queen’s Ballroom for example, is used to greet and entertain visiting heads of state. Touring these spaces provided a glimpse into a lifestyle that for most of us exists only in our dreams.
By the end of the day, I had a much greater appreciation for Britain’s vast and very diverse history. The day was also a teaser, providing short, quick experiences that made me want to spend more time discovering and exploring each site and the area around it in more detail. Next time.
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