England, 1981, Part 6

Stonehenge and Bath, Friday, 3/20/81

We got up early, at six, planning to have breakfast at the Holiday Inn and take a cab to the Royal National Hotel. Instead we had a rather unfortunate beginning. Cheryl was slightly unwell, and we set out for Piccadilly Circus where we were told a 24-hour chemist could be found. When we got there we discovered they had changed their hours and were closed. So we went to the Royal National to make our connection, and left without breakfast. 1’m glad I accepted Diane’s offer of a cup of coffee before we left.

Along the way our guide kept up a running commentary. She pointed out a road that ran virtually straight to Wales, and explained that such straight roads were usually Roman in origin. The Romans entered Britain under Julius Caesar in 55 B.C., but did not come to settle until 43 A.D., under Claudius. They stayed until 410, so for nearly 400 years there was a Roman society here. The Roman roads were a major part of that legacy. I recall that at the Tower of London we saw part of the old Roman city wall, and of course our tour today includes the Roman baths at Bath.

London is a huge city. It covers 638 sq. miles, divided into 32 boroughs. Three boroughs are Royal Boroughs, i.e., they have a royal charter. They are Kensington (location of the Kensington Palace, where Princess Margaret lives), Windsor (the other residence of the Royal Family), and Kingston (where the old Anglo-Saxon kings were crowned).

Stonehenge dates back to 2800 B.C. For the period 2800-2100, it consisted of a bank and a ditch, with 56 Aubrey holes inside. Four Station stones on the perimeter were used to find the center. The Heel stone dates from this time. In the 2100-2000 B.C. periodthe avenue was added, and a double circle of Bluestones was begun, but not finished. The Bluestones weigh 8-10 tons apiece, and were brought by water from Wales, over 80 miles. Around 2000 B.C. they changed their minds, and replaced the Bluestones with Sarsen stones, which were dragged 20 miles overland from Marlborough Downs. The inner sides were ground down to flat surface by rubbing them with other rocks. They were buried one-third into the ground, and lintel stones laid across the top of each pair of uprights. The lintels were curved into a fairly perfect circle. After 2000 B.C. the Bluestones were erected in an oval in the middle. The project was not completed. Finally after 1550 B.C. the Bluestones were rearranged into a circle and a horseshoe.

We walked around the site taking pictures, and then went to Salisbury to see the Cathedral. The Cathedral was built 1220-1258, and is one of the two major churches (the other being St. Paul’s, built by Christopher Wren) to be built in one style in a relatively short period. The Cathedral is noted for its spire, which is the tallest in England (404′ tall). It was added 100 years later. In 1790 the Cathedral was getting a bit run down, so an architect named Wyatt was brought in to sort it out. His work earned him the sobriquet Wyatt the Destroyer. Many items of historic interest were lost forever. The Cathedral houses one of the four remaining copies of the Magna Charta in existence. Nineteen copies were made at the time of the signing and distributed to the Shire Reeves, so that they would know what the provisions were and enforce them. There is also a copy in Lincolnshire in the North, and the two remaining copies are in the British Museum with the original. The saint buried at Salisbury Cathedral is St. Osmund, bishop from 1078 – 1099, who came over with William the Conqueror. The tomb has a space on the side with three wide holes. The holes were so pilgrims could get close to the saint and be healed. If they were small enough they would climb inside the space.

Along the sides of the Cathedral are what are called Chantry Chapels. These were set up and endowed in people’s wills, and priests would come and say prayers for the person’s soul. After the Reformation they were banned.

We then had lunch in Salisbury, which is on the river Avon. This is not the same river as Shakespeare’s home town is on. There are four rivers by this name in England, which occurs because Avon is the Saxon word for river, making the name rather redundant. At 1:45 we headed for Bath.

The Salisbury Plain and the West, through which we drove, is primarily agricultural. Two-thirds of England is devoted to agriculture, which thrives due to the temperate climate. It very rarely goes below freezing and snow never lasts on the ground, so crops can be grown virtually year-round with little protection. The intensity of land use is apparent in the smooth horizon. There are clumps of trees scattered about, but no woods or forests.

Bath is a perfect example of 18th c. Georgian architecture. This is because bath was “discovered” by the Royal Family in the 1700’s, and became the “in” place for the rich and aristocratic. This came to an end with George IV, who took the throne in 1820. George IV had been building his pleasure palace in Brighton, and the smart set deserted Bath to follow him to Brighton. Thus the air of the 1700’s has been preserved in the buildings here. There is a pleasantly balanced feeling to the city, which is largely due to its having been built all at once under the design of “Beau” Nash. It is the only planned city in England.

Bath began with the Romans, who found natural springs producing 2500 gallons of hot water a day. They built pools to contain the water, which were dedicated to Sulis and Minerva. The Roman name for the town was Aquae Sulis. In 973 the first king of all England, Edgar, was crowned here. Prior to that time England was divided into a number of smaller kingdoms (Wessex, Sussex, Cambria, Northumbria, etc.).

The Roman baths were constructed shortly after the Romans entered England in 43 A.D., probably by 60 A.D. It was originally a marsh with a hot spring in the center. The Romans drained the marsh, and built a cistern around the spring. Then they built a series of baths at descending levels from the cistern so that there would be a natural flow. Unfortunately, not too many years after the baths were finished the tides changed and the level of the Avon river rose. Water backed-up into the lowest of the baths, which had to be closed, and the others needed increasing maintenance to keep open. When the Romans left in 410 A.D. the baths fell into disuse, and were first flooded, and then buried by silt and mud. By the time the Saxons arrived around 800, there were only a few pieces sticking out of the mud.

Succeeding groups built their own baths on the site, one atop another, and by the time the Georgian baths were built all traces of the Roman baths had disappeared. They were not discovered until the 1870’s when workmen digging trenches for foundation walls ran across part of the main bath. The city was able to acquire part of the surrounding property. Since then they have acquired a few more parcels, and the site is now partially excavated. They are pretty sure they know the location of the remaining parts of the Roman town, like the Temple to Minerva, but the present owners of the property on those sites have no desire to sell, so there is no way of telling when or if the site will be completely opened.

After touring the baths, we returned to London by the M4, arriving around 7:30. We asked our driver for a restaurant tip, and he directed us to the Yialousa Greek Taverna, at 18 Woburn Place, just across the street from the Royal National Hotel, where we were getting off. The restaurant had a twelve-dish dinner for two, for only £7.50, a phenomenal bargain. The food was delicious, and there was plenty of it. We were so stuffed from the various Greek delicacies that we didn’t even have room for coffee and desert. After dinner we decided to splurge and took a taxi back to Swiss Cottage, which only cost us about £2.

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