Wednesday, June 6, 2012

In the gift shop this morning there is a sweatshirt that reads: “Stonehenge Rocks.” It’s so cold outside that I’m almost desperate enough to buy it, despite the cheap pun.

Almost, but not quite. I have my dignity to consider.

I’m on a Mad Max minibus tour with Sally and Frank, a middle-aged couple from my hotel, and a dozen or so other hearty souls brave enough to face the weather. Stonehenge was our first stop, and an important one at that. After all, it’s Britain’s greatest prehistoric monument, and one of those “1,000 Places to See Before You Die” sites. This is the stuff of bucket lists. Nonetheless, as I stood there gazing at it, I was reminded of what Bill Bryson wrote about Stonehenge in his book Notes from a Small Island: Impressive as it is, “there comes a moment somewhere about eleven minutes after your arrival when you realize your fascination has peaked, and you spend another forty minutes walking around the perimeter rope looking at it only out of a combination of politeness, reluctance at being the first from your bus to leave, and a desire to get £2.80 worth of exposure from the experience.”

We’re scheduled to spend an entire hour at Stonehenge, and I’m not afraid to admit that I’ve squandered much of it here in the gift shop keeping warming and eyeing up that sweatshirt.

Our driver’s name is Tim and he says that most people are disappointed when they see Stonehenge. Because of the notoriety of the site and the fear of vandalism, visitors can only view it from a distance, which means it looks exactly like you would expect it to look from the postcards. He assures us that we’ll be much more impressed once we get to Avebury, which has a larger and far more accessible Neolithic henge surrounding the town.

After a drive through the Wiltshire countryside and a glimpse high on a hill of one of the region’s chalk “white horses,” we arrive in Avebury to a perplexing sight. There are four or five people clustered around each stone, and they’re leaning in to touch the rock with their hands and heads. Tim says that it could be worse. Today, the New Age groupies are fully dressed and holding umbrellas or wearing raincoats with hoods. On the summer solstice, they often show up naked. He waves us on and adds: “Let’s go make fun of some people, shall we?”

We have some free time in Avebury, so after wandering around the stone circle I visit the parish church of Saint James, which has an impressive 11th century Saxon nave. Before long, though, we are back on the road again, heading for the village of Lacock.

Owned almost entirely by the National Trust, the tiny village of Lacock is often used as a film set, most notably for the 1995 BBC production of “Pride and Prejudice,” and the 2007 miniseries “Cranford.” I’ve seen both on television, so the town has a well-worn and familiar feel to it. I’m eager to take a turn about, but for now lunch is in order. I take a seat at the Red Lion pub and order a spinach, mushroom and goat cheese tart, as well as a pot of hot tea. It seems that tea is growing on me. I’ve been out in the inclement British weather long enough by now to understand its appeal.

Feeling fortified, I wander around Lacock, taking in the unspoiled view. Nearly nothing in town post-dates the 18th century, and there are no telephone wires or TV antennas to mar the happy illusion of time travel.

Our last stop of the day is in Castle Combe, once named the “prettiest village in England.” Given its meandering street of honey-colored homes and slate roofs, all dressed in patriotic bunting for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, it’s not hard to see why. We gather around the town’s 14th century market cross and then tour the medieval church of St. Andrews, which contains an effigy to Sir Walter de Dunstanville, a Norman knight who died during the Crusades. Tim also treats us to a story about a local resident named Pat. He says that for months after Osama bin Laden was killed she would come out of her house whenever the tour bus pulled into town, hoping there would be an American on board. If there was, she would shake their hand and say “thank you, thank you, for getting rid of that obnoxious man!”  

It’s been a good day, but a long one. By the time we arrive back in Bath, I’m too tired to go out to dinner, so I walk around the corner to my ever faithful Pret a Manger and pick out a sandwich and a Bakewell tart to take back to my room at 3 Abbey Green, where a warm bed and a mug of hot chocolate await.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

I’m back in Castle Combe this morning, but given the pleasant surroundings I can hardly complain. I’m spending a second day with Mad Max and today’s “Cotswolds Discovery” tour overlaps slightly with yesterday’s itinerary. As our driver, Chris, tells the story of Sir Walter in the Crusades, I slip outside of the church of St. Andrews to photograph the deserted street, just as it arcs away from the old court house towards the post office. Yes, it’s raining. Again. But I’ve decided not to care. There’s a cool mist rising above the trees in the distance and the macadam of the road is glistening wet. There are lush green vines growing up the honey-colored stone of the houses along the street, and there are pennants and Union Jacks and an RAF ensign hanging from the windows. It’s charming, really—both the town itself, and the experience of being here to see it dressed in its patriotic best—and that picture will become my favorite of the trip.

By the time we reach Bibury, it’s already mid-morning and we stop for a cup of tea before walking past the trout farm and along the river to Arlington Row, an historic collection of weaver’s cottages. We follow a path through the woods and emerge in front of Arlington Mill, and listen as Chris tells us its long history, and its connection to the Custis family and Arlington National Cemetery just outside of Washington, D.C.

For lunch, we make a long stop in the market town of Stow-on-the Wold, where the six of us from the tour dine together around an old plank table at the Queen’s Head Inn. After finishing off a hot dish of cottage pie, I head out alone to explore the shops in town. I’m excited to find a peridot lavaliere for a reasonable price at Grey House Antiques and I snatch it up as a worthy souvenir.

We spend the rest of the afternoon walking about Upper Slaughter in the rain, and browsing gift shops in Tetbury, all the while listening to Chris’ lively stories in the car. He tells us about Prince Harry’s drunken exploits as a teenager at Highgrove, about James Dyson, the inventor of vacuum cleaners and Airblade hand dryers, and about Barbara and Ian Pollard, the “naked gardeners,” the latter of which brings peels of laughter at the very thought of pruning rose bushes in the buff.  

Back in Bath, I opt for dinner at Sally Lunn’s, just around the corner from my hotel. When I last visited the city in 2007, I took a picture here since it is purported to be the oldest building in town, but I did not stop in for one of their famed “Sally Lunn buns.” The photograph I took that day was later published in a Bradt guide to the Cotswolds, so I this time around I feel a sense of obligation. The waitress shows me to a comfortable, if rather overstuffed, dining room upstairs, and I order a traditional “trencher” meal served on bread, a medieval custom before the advent of plates. Afterwards, I walk to the Pattisserie Valerie nearby for dessert. They’re closing for the night just as I pull open the door, and the kind young man behind the counter offers me two leftover pastries free of charge.

The wind is kicking up and the night air is wet, but for some reason I am loathe to head indoors. I walk around the Abbey and then down to the weir and back, past an ornamental crown in the parade gardens, marking the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. The shops have all closed for the night, and for a moment I stand in front of Jacks of Bath, its lit windows crammed with all manner of bric-a-brac: pillows and tea sets and Paddington Bears. It’s nearly 10 PM. I turn and head back to my cozy, little room at 3 Abbey Green, knowing that there will be time to see more of Bath in the morning.