British Isles- Day 2- Windsor Castle, Bath & Stonehenge
Thurs. July 14, 2011- London, England
We were up early at 5:00 A.M. The time differences, and the need to get ready for a 7:10 A.M. shuttle to our tour today, got us in early motion. We got ready for the day, made some coffee in the room and appeared in the hotel lobby for the shuttle from “Golden Tours.” For $141 ea. the tour would take us through Windsor Castle, Bath and Stonehenge.
The bus collected us and then stopped at a few other hotels to gather other passengers. We got an early tour of central London as the buses, taxis and cars all made their way to the start of a new work day. We were deposited at Victoria Station and asked to stand in one of several lines, all clearly marked with the various destinations for the day. Our early start had placed us first in line. This would get us favorable seats on the bus for the long day’s tour. This was a strategy we were to employ daily on the many cruise shore excusrions aboard the Crown Princess. There was always considerable jostling and hurrying among passengers to get the best seats for viewing on board the various buses.
Tony Randall, our guide for the day, collected us and at 9 A.M. we set off through central London, headed for nearby Windsor Castle, about 23 miles from London. The facades of many of the taller buildings were shrouded in screening. London was beginning the one year run up to next year’s summer olympics. Many of the buildings were getting face lifts for the event. Knightsbridge shops, Harrod’s Department Store and the Buckingham Palace area were all abustle with activity as we sailed by in our huge land cruiser.
Tony gave us a brief history of the Windsor Castle and its grounds enroute as we drove. William the Conquerer triumphantly arrived in England in 1066 after defeating Saxon King Harold of Essex in 1066. He began to build a series of fortifications in Southern England to consolidate his rule. The central tower of Windsor Castle with its deep moat was one of these fortifications.
The bus disgorged us below the castle. We walked up several series of steps to get to the level of the castle. The train station stopped here amidst a large collection os shops, cafes and boutiques that service the large crowds of visitors.
We got our tickets, stood in line to the castle. We were required to walk through an electronic security grid to gain entrance. Off in the distance we could see the fabled playing fields of Eton and the building and grounds of that venerable school. Walking up the ramps to the castle area, we viewed a detachment of the storybook British soldiers in their colorful red coats and black balaclava fur hats. The grim visage of their sub machine guns heralded a note of reality. These weren’t toy soldiers, but elite combat troops who had drawn the ceremonial duty of guarding her majesty when in residence at the castle for about two months each year.
We hadn’t much time as we wandered through the various state rooms of this wonderful palace. Oak paneling had been installed in the 1700’s along the length of the halls. Portraits of British Royalty vied with suits of armor, battle flags, broad swords and many other eye catching items displyed artfully. It was early, but the crowds were still considerable. The Formal Reception Hall and The Waterloo Room are festooned with banners and ceremonial flags. Paintings by Colbein, Rembrandt, Da Vinci and Reubens decorate the walls in a colorful array of ceremonial decor that catches the eye. We wandered through the King’s ornate bedroom and other colorfully decorated official rooms, enjoying the full panoply of the British Raj. It reminded me of Versailles, only the decor is both more subdued and tasteful.
Outside of the state rooms we could look across the fenced courtyard to the Queen’s residence and the ornate chapel, all buildings that had been added to the castle complex over the last thousand years. I find the orderly continuity of the last millennium on disply here an attraction as we wandered amidst the eras of British history.
The Castle was already crowded as we made our way back to the train station and the bus area. The small town beneath the castle was awash with tourists who were having lunch or an early pint or shopping in one of the cloroful botiques. The imposing statue of Queen Victoria, high on a pedestal, looked over the town square reminding us of where we were. The sky was a brilliant blue and the sun shined brightly overhead. It was a gorgeous day. I wish we had more time here. The castle and bustling town of Windsor deserve a day or more to spend and appreciate all that is here. Next time, we will take the train out from London and spend the day.
Back at the bus, all the passengers had made it back on time. The driver passed out a boxed lunch that was surprisingly good. We ate it as we drove through the very green and bucolic English country side. We were headed for the medieval Town of Bath and the ruins of the fabled Roman baths there.
Bath is only 13 miles from the South Coast of England, The guide informed us that Hitler had ordered Bath bombed in 1942, to strike terror into the populace. We were dropped off near the venerable Bath Abbe. Surrounding it are a series of pedestrian malls loaded with shops and cafe’s. The principal attraction of course is the Roman Temple complex and its series of ornate public baths from the 4th century. We got our entrance tickets and wandered amidst the ancient ruins of the fabled Baths. The central feature is a very long rectangular bath, surrounded by a two story atrium. Off hallways surrounding the large pool are several smaller bathing pools and galleries where the Romans could use a sauna and take their ease. The cobbled stone floors were worn from use. I could imagine the various Roman functionaries coming late in the day to take their ease. The elaborate plumbing system could deliver heated water to the various bathing complexes where slaves would tend to their Roman Masters. The baths were part of a much larger temple complex that the Romans had built. The invading Vikings in later centuries would tear down the complex. The Baths were eventually filled in. During later centuries, the Brits would excavate the Baths so that these splendid reminders of ancient Rome were preserved for modern people to admire. From the second story of the Baths, we could get great pics of the Bath Abbe next door. It was built in the 15th century and if picturesque in the extreme.
After we walked through the Baths, we wandered amidst the quaint Town of Bath The area now harbors over 65,000 residents. The Park area and River are pastoral and attractive. We walked along the pedestrian mall and watched the various street performers performing for throngs of young tourists. It seemed like half of Europe was on vacation. Cappuccino, in a small cafe, made for a good break from the throngs. We were on a tight schedule, so we saddled up the bus and set off at 3:00 P.M. through the English Countryside, admiring the pastoral scenery along the way. Sheep, cattle and hayfields made for a restful visage. We were headed for the Salisbury Plain and the fabled rocks of Stonehenge, about a 75 minute drive from Bath on our way back to London.
Our guide gave us a brief history of Stonehenge as we approached the site. Construction was first started by ancient Britons, called “Beaker People,” about 4,500 B.C.. Is it a ceremonial religious site, an advanced astral calendar? Some even posit that Aliens had built the complex as a long ago landing site. No one yet knows. The complex is a series of 15 foot upright stones roughly laid in a large circle. Two smaller rings of “Blue stones “ intersperse with the larger stones. Several stone lintels connect the larger stones., forming a ring of sorts. We obtained our L 7.5 tickets and walked into the fenced-in complex.
The mystery lies in how these huge stones could have been quarried and then erected by these ancient peoples. Most scholars think the Blue stones were quarried in nearby Wales and shipped here along the River, then rolled to the site on a series of log rollers. The big rascals are still a mystery.
We walked around the stones, viewing them form different angles. The sky was a brilliant blue and the sun shining overhead. The bright sun seemed to leech much of the mysticism from the stones. I would think on a rainy day, or in the rising mist of the morning or failing light of the day, they would inspire an eerier feeling. We took our photos and walked amidst the crowds, everyone staring at these ancient stones. Ropes kept people back about 100 feet from the stones. In years past, tourists had not been kind to the stones. Over the centuries various local inhabitants had borrowed some of the stones to use in other construction projects. It is a marvel that they have survived all of these years intact. Whatever the weather, you have to come out to Stonehenge. Something this old deserves a good viewing. And if it is raining or on a misty day, your mind will supply you with a much more interesting picture of what they are and what they might have been used for.
The day was fading for us. It was after five P.M. as we boarded our land cruiser for the ride along the M4 motorway back into London. The road was clogged with traffic into central London. It was slow go all the way in. Finally around 8 P.M. the bus dropped Mary and I off near the entrance to Hyde Park. We found a cab nearby. The driver made a mad dash across central London. The buses and cabs were still aplenty even at this late hour. We sat back and enjoyed the panoply of a busy city as it flashed by us. We got dropped off in Bloomsbury. It was getting late, so we voted for a nearby Italian restaurant for a late dinner. ”Giotto’s Italian Ristorante” is s a small and charming street cafe near our hotel. We sat at a small table and enjoyed a glass of Chianti, then a salad and pasta salmone for L 28. It was delightful. I chatted with the owner in my limited Italian and wished him a Buona Note on our departure. It was a good stop,
The day was waning as we reentered the Bloomsbury Hotel. We had been on a 15 hour oddesy that we much enjoyed. A mixup with the room cleaning engendered another delay before we finally settled in for the night. I wrote up my notes and we crashed, tired but with visions of castles, huge altar stones and Roman baths in our heads. It had been a good day.