I was honestly concerned that I would have no interest in Stonehenge once I got there. Judging by how impressed I was with the Grand Canyon (not at all), I did not think that Stonehenge would be top on my priority list to go back to. How wrong I was. The area itself is beautiful, but it's hard to picture the English countryside as the heavily forested and untamed wilderness it was 10,000 years ago when humans first started using this land for burial and religious (we think) purposes. The most striking thing about Stonehenge is not the stone circles. It's the fact that for 10,000 years, consistently, people have been using this area. Anthropologists can only speculate on what the stone circles were used for. The popular idea that they were built as druid temples is only part of the mystery. Sure, the druids may have used them, but at that point may of the stone circles had already been there for 2000 years. The iconic stone circle of Stonehenge was built roughly 40 years before the pyramids were built, and at that time the site had been used for other various monuments made of stone, timber, and animal bones for nearly 1,000 years.
In addition to stonehenge, I booked a tour that included the Avebury stone circles and the villages of Lacock and Castle Combe. Lacock included the Lacock Abbey, where scenes from Harry Potter were filmed, and is one of the oldest villages in Britain. Lacock is a completely untouched village due to the fact that all the land and buildings are owned by the national trust. The Abbey is not used as a nunnery anymore, as during the Dissolution of the Monasteries by King Henry the VIII, the occupants were given the option of converting the abbey into an estate home. At one point it also served as a brewery for the the nearby town. I was able to have lunch in a pub that has had a license to sell alcohol since 1365. As with many things here, most of the place was older than my country.
Castle Combe, while not a castle, is everything you picture a sleepy British village to be. Cars are few and far between. Population of about 300. A shop selling cakes on the honor system (buy a cake, leave two pounds). The local church dates to the 13th century, and includes a tomb of a knight that fought in the crusades. The effigy of the knight was carved out of marble, and is dressed in full battle dress, with sword and shield. The guide explained that how the Knight is represented on the tomb tells about how he died and his life. Dressed in full battle dress means he died in battle. His feet were crossed, meaning he had served in two crusades. And his feet rested on a lion, meaning he served with a King. An interesting point about the lion. The person carving the effigy had never seen a lion. What he had seen was sheep. Therefore, the "lion" on the tomb is a sheep with longer teeth and a mane. Not very fearsome.
I came to Stonehenge by way of Bath. Bath is a beautiful, iconic British city. The city draws its name from the roman baths that were built over the only naturally occurring hot springs in Britain. In addition to the baths, the city is beautiful. The tall, iconic marble buildings line the streets. Open spaces, a river that runs through town. The rolling hills with 7 story town homes line the tops of hills. A false castle or two in the background. To top it all off, the Bath Abbey in the center of the city is incredible. Stained glass is my new favorite thing. Each group of windows tells a story, often a parable of Christ, or a story of a noble man or woman. Each pane is beautifully colored, and when the sun is directly behind it the colors are vibrant and perfect. The abbey was partially destroyed in German bombing runs during World War II. The main window, showcasing 54 scenes from Christ's life, was partially destroyed and each piece of glass had to be recovered and reassembled. The abbey was easily one of my favorite parts of this experience thus far, mostly because I fulfilled a lifelong dream of listening to a choir in a cathedral. The choir, and orchestra, were only rehearsing, but it didn't make a difference. The acoustics are like nothing I've ever heard before.
The baths appear to be built at a lower level than the rest of the city, but in reality the ground level is now about 20 feet higher than it was during the Roman period. The sprawling bath structure twists beneath the foundations of the rest of the city. It includes a temple, an open square, and the roman baths. The baths were more than just a place to clean yourself. It was the center of social interaction in the city. It was a business center, a restaurant, a place of worship, and yes, a spa. The earliest roman structure, the temple, dates to 60 AD. The bath housings and facilities were then built up over the next 300 years of Roman occupation.
I am really bad at keeping this up, so I am making no promises about when my next post will occur...