Final leg of the journey – Western England
Our return flight from Spain arrived in the early evening, but after dark. So we decided to stay at a little hotel near the airport. It was new, clean and of a modular construction – it appears that the entire bathroom unit was pre-built and just dropped into place!
In the morning when we went to the car rental to pick up our car, we discovered just how smart we had been to wait until daylight to start driving. Not only was the steering wheel on the right (ie., wrong) side, but it was also a stick shift! Of course that meant that the gear shift lever was also on the wrong (left) side. Add to that England’s solution to eliminating traffic lights by putting in a “round about” (traffic circle) at most intersections where we would normally expect a traffic light, and driving was challenging enough without trying to do it in the dark also. But driving got easier (for me, the driver) as the miles rolled past on the M-4 (an Interstate-type highway that goes from London to Bristol.) Still, every time we got in the car, we’d say to each other “Drive on the Left!”
Our new center of operations was a lovely little Bed and Breakfast in Bath. While we knew that Bath had history (what part of England doesn’t?), we quickly discovered that the original streets that were layed out when the Romans occupied the area were the basis for the streets today. While they had been paved, they were just as narrow and haphazard as they had been 2,000 years ago. Almost every street was one-way, often dead-ending into another one-way street taking you away from your target. But we did find our bed and breakfast, run by a delightful lady, and found parking on the street (no guest parking was provided).
Bath is an amazing city. As I already mentioned, much of the city dates back to the period of the Roman Conquest of England. Historic buildings and churches are everywhere! But of course, the “jewel” of all this is the Roman Baths. This structure, statues, etc. really do date back to the time of the Roman Conquest! We were standing there looking at the handiwork of artisans from 2000 years ago! As you can tell, we were really impressed with this – and we spent half of a day there. In the evening we took a “history walk” with one of the guided walking tours – part history, part legend, part just plain fun.
The next day was a driving, sight-seeing day. This took us off the big motorway and onto regular two-lane highways, on our way to Stonehenge. Road maintenance on English secondary highways does “not” include trimming the trees and bushes along the roadway – they let the boxes of trucks do that for them. Of course, that means that the trees and shrubs grow right up to the edge of the road. They also preserve their historic homes, even at the cost of the road right-of-way! The roads are narrow, and everyone drives “too” fast on those country roads. Finally, with the bushes were whipping just inches away past Judith’s side of the car, she finally “lost it” and told me we HAD to slow down!
Being accustomed to Americans advertising of points of interest over and over again (“Rock City – 157 miles ahead”), we were amazed when we rounded a curve, came out of a wooded area, and, “Holy Shit, its RIGHT THERE!” There Stonehenge sits, no prelude, no warning, just this colossal monument sitting on the edge of a sheep pasture. Most amazing is how this was constructed about 5,000 years ago, especially when one considers that these huge rocks were transported more than 150 miles to this site.
From Stonehenge it is only a few miles to Wilton House. However, along the way was the site of Old Sarum, reported to be the oldest known Royal Palace – dating back to 1130. The entrance was through a narrow cut in a very tall, steep, wooded embankment. We looked at one another and said, “Let’s just look around a little; if it doesn’t look very interesting we’ll just go on.” Well, three hours later we finally were leaving. Who knew that castle walls were 10 feet thick? Or that they had “indoor” toilets?
Then on to Wilton House, home of William Alexander Sidney Herbert, 18th Earl of Pembroke, 15th Earl of Montgomery, and at that time one of England’s most eligible bachelors. The house and gardens were fantastic! More “old master” oil paintings than many museums. And the grounds and gardens were wonderful! We wandered through the various formal gardens, the Japanese garden, and even met a friendly pooch who was hanging out with one of the gardeners.
With a fair amount of daylight remaining, we decided to get onto the Motorway (M-4) and drive over to Bristol to visit the Cheddar Gorge (the very same area for which Cheddar Cheese is named! Love that cheese!). Unfortunately, we missed the turn-off for the by-pass of Bristol – instead we drove through the heart of the city during 5 o’clock rush hour (in a stick shift vehicle with the stick and the steering wheel on the wrong side!) But we survived that and finally reached the open countryside. The gorge was a rustic delight. Who would have thought there were Mountain Goats in western England? We even met some in the middle of the narrow, winding road!
It was getting late and was well past dinner time as we returned to Bath. Along the road was an interesting pub, the Wheatsheaf Inn. We were hungry and it looked like the only likely food for miles; besides it looked like a traditional, rural pub. The food was really good, and we sat next to a pleasant young couple from Australia visiting England as part of one of their Doctoral research. For desert we had “Spotted Dick”. (Look it up!)
As we returned to our lodging in Bath I said, “Please, let there be a parking place!” We had been in the car all day (yes, we had lots of fun – but enough is enough!) As we approached our Bed and Breakfast there it was – JUST ONE empty parking place. I was tired, had driven through Bristol rush hour traffic, and now was facing parallel parking, up-hill, with the space on the wrong side, the manual gear shift on the wrong side, the steering wheel on the wrong side, and the car on the wrong side! As I pulled up next to the spot, I yelled to Judith “Get out and hold that spot!” (Understand, I NEVER yell at Judith!) But with Judith’s help, guidance, understanding, and patience, we got the car parked.
Thursday was our last full day in England. When we got up the weather was overcast and foggy – the first time throughout our vacation that the weather was not beautiful. Even still, the scenery and villages were wonderful. and we found a delightful little bakery for a morning snack.
Then it was on to Windsor Castle. We stopped for a quick bite and to catch up on some email before going into the castle. So there we were, sitting in a McDonald’s and looking across the street at the Windsor Castle – it was literally right across the street!!! The castle and its grounds were spectacular. We spent the entire afternoon touring the castle and investigating the grounds. In fact, we spent so long that St. George’s Chapel was ready to close by the time we got around to it; and they were closing the gift shop around us as we were browsing there.
As we were heading to our car after leaving the castle, we stumbled upon The Church of John the Baptist – just down the street from Windsor Castle. Throughout our travels we found so many old, interesting churches – and this was another one.
Then it was down the M-25 at rush hour, and on to our hotel close to Heathrow Airport. We had a good trip and good weather, and I didn’t crash the car while driving on the wrong side of the road, with the steering wheel on the wrong side, and the MANUAL gearshift on the wrong side.