6 July 2008: Dragon’s Eye Tour of West Country of England
Arriving by plane from Oslo in the afternoon, I met Christine and the rest of the tour group at Heathrow airport in London. I normally don’t do tours, preferring the flexibility of travelling on my own or with one other person. But the itinerary of this one was too good to pass up – history and archaeology of the West Country of England. I’d met the tour leader, Christine, at a market near home, and she seemed down-to-earth and enthusiastic, so I thought I’d take the chance.
I’m keen on archaeology, mostly that of England and Europe, although I won’t ignore other places if they grab me. The tour would take me back to some places I’d visited before on my own – Stonehenge and Avebury – and to fascinating new places I hadn’t been to. Plus Christine would give me the skinny on the archaeology, history and mythology (King Arthur, the Druids and “pagan” beliefs featured quite a bit in mystical Cornwall).
The group was quite small (eight people), and the van driver turned out to come from my valley at home, a few kilometres away. Good grief. We all leapt (in a jet-lagged sort of way, as some had just flown in from Australia) into a 10-seater bus and hurtled straight down the M3 motorway to Devizes, a small Wiltshire town with an excellent little museum of Neolithic etc. artefacts (ooh aye, just like on Time Team!) and a nice natural history section. Petrol was 1 UK pound 19 pence per litre, about A$2-40, and was that for the whole time we were there, the price not fluctuating daily as it does at home. Currently petrol is A$1-50 a litre at home. The Brits use both imperial and metric units. So petrol is in litres but you buy a pint at the pub (ahem, of beer, not petrol).
The motorways are very wide compared to Australian major roads, but there are a lot more cars on them. As you get further away from the main cities, the roads get narrower, sometimes so much that if you meet anyone coming towards you, one of the vehicles has to back up into a lay-by area, of which there were many. There were also lots of speed cameras on the main M-roads, and in general the standard of driving was good (max. 70 miles per hour on the major M-roads). And they drive on the “right” side of the road – phew!
Then to Avebury and ye olde Red Lion pub (reputedly the most haunted pub in England) for a late lunch – I was to see a lot of these ye olde pubs and a lot of Red Lions. My favourite pub name is The Snail and Lettuce. It was wonderful to walk into pubs hundreds of years old, even if you had to duck through doors as the beams are often low (they must have been short in ye olde days). We just don’t have that kind of history and architecture in Australia. Pubs in England are much more family-friendly than pubs in Australia, which are based on Irish pubs, as I discovered when I visted Ireland some years ago. It was just “not done” for a woman to walk into the bar of an Australian pub (ooh, the glares from the blokes), and women were relegated to the “ladies’ lounge” to drink their shandys (a horrible mixture of beer and lemonade or sherry), and children were most definitely not allowed). In pubs in England, even dogs are allowed inside (not allowed in Australia due to health regulations). Fortunately, pubs in Australia are much more women-friendly than they used to be, although country towns are still a bit of a challenge.
The pubs in England now often serve delicious food (‘gastropubs’ are the best) and each had a range of local beers. I quickly learnt that ordering a ‘half’ (half a pint) was plenty to get a taste (Australian pubs don’t generally don’t have such big glasses). I progressed to cider as we moved to Cornwall, as it is a more traditional tipple there. The barperson would recommend the best one if you asked him or her. I had a Guinness only once (I like dark stouts), and was asked whether I wanted it normal or cold – he must have recognised my accent, probably from watching the Aussie TV soap, “Neighbours”, which is apparently very popular in England. (In England beer is normally sold at room temperature – which is often cold – while in Australia it’s refrigerated. No dinkum Australian would be seen dead drinking “warm” beer.) I said “normal”, of course – when in Rome, etc. But I digress.
There was no time for a tour of Avebury after lunch – the day was getting old and the jet-lagged amongst us were flagging – so we drove to the Holiday Inn, a hideously sterile but efficient modern edifice of an hotel. Christine had been unable to get her first choice of hotels anywhere when she’d booked a year ago. She’d been wanting olde and atmospheric, but this one had all the mod cons and no atmosphere, and moreover was in an industrial estate near the M4 motorway and not in walking distance of anything of interest! Except perhaps half a dozen English hares cropping the verge at dusk. At least they were a new species to me. Tick!
Also staying at the hotel were two large tour groups of American late-primary-school children who clogged up the only internet computer for hours. They must have been there for their summer holidays. Very polite kids.
7 July: Avebury
The breakfast at the Holiday Inn was a massive choice of cereals, toast, jams, croissants, juices, tea, coffee, fruit, etc etc etc, so I got into the habit of squirrelling away as much as my pockets would hold (slabs of cheese and croissants and fruit) to snack on during the day. This saved time (most important) and money on lunches if there was no interesting or historic eating place to be found, or we were out in a field or on a moor somewhere and I needed some energy.
I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of food in general in England – much improved from my last visit 25 years ago. The exchange rate between Aussie dollars and UK pounds was such that things cost about the same there as here, e.g. a regular cappuccino 1 pound 95 (about A$3, but I never had a good one); 3 pounds 50 for a soup and bread (A$8); 6 pounds 95 and up (A$15) for mains, and a sizeable amount, too – it was good we did so much walking every day, as we certainly did a lot of eating. I could have had half the size of serves and been very well-fed.
I ate as many seafood meals, plus traditional and non-traditional Cornish pasties in Cornwall. In South Australia where there is a Cornish heritage, especially on Yorke Peninsula with all the remains of Cornish tin mining, I was used to eating pasties as snacks. We call them ‘pasties’ as in “pah-stees” (long “a” sound) whereas in the eastern states they are pronounced with a short “a”. I thought the crow-eaters (South Aussies) had to be right because of the association with Cornwall there, but not so – in Cornwall it’s a short “a”. Pronunciation aside, they are about three times the size I am used to, for UK1 pound 95 to 2 pounds 45, and a handy quick snack when walking around interesting villages. Apparently the traditional miners’ ones have thick crusts at the ends as handles, and you don’t eat those bits, just chuck them away (down a handy mine, if possible). My mother’s family came from Cornwall, and I was looking forward to going there, but we were still in Wiltshire – I’m getting ahead of myself.
After breakfast we drove back to the Red Lion pub car park in Avebury, where we met our two local guides, Maria and Busty (a bloke, despite the name).
Maria and Busty knew the archaeology and history of the area very well, and expertly guided us for the whole day around the stone circles, Silbury Hill and the West Kennett Long Barrow. They are also into ley lines, about which I am cynical but others in the group were interested. They had fun dowsing like mad for energy lines. I won’t go into great detail about these sites as there is plenty of information about them on the internet.
Three stone circles, a ditch and bank were built 4,500 to 5,000 years ago, and the outer circle originally had about 100 stones in a 2 km circumference circle. The village is built inside and around the circle, though many of the stones have been knocked down, crushed and re-used for building houses and field or village walls. Some that have fallen down have been re-erected over the years.
The next shot doesn’t seem much but it shows an important archaeological feature – a bank and ditch. From the air (using, say, Google Earth), you can see the bank, ditch and the stone circle within them.
Just imagine living in a place where this scenery is taken for granted …
Silbury Hill is a short walk from Avebury and is the largest artificial mound (40 metres high) in Europe, and was built roughly around the time the Avebury stones were put up. There is no tomb inside and no one has much of an idea why it was built, although it is the only place where you can see outside the valley. Stabilisation work was finished in 2008 (before we arrived), filling in the holes and tunnels with tonnes and tonnes of chalk, the base material of the land thereabouts. There had been collapses, making it potentially dangerous to walk on it.
West Kennett Long Barrow is a shortish walk from Silbury Hill, and it is a burial chamber built about 5,500 years ago. Skeletons and grave goods have been excavated there. It is part of the many, many archaeology sites in this area. I was excited to find small meteorites scattered in the field there. They are deceptively heavy little objects.
It’s quite dark inside, except for dim light coming from the artifical skylight. The camera flash makes it look bright.
What some might call a “folk religion” is still alive and well in this part of the country. We visited a lovely spring, with lots of clooties – small offerings and cloth strips tied onto branches with the intention to bring good luck or say “thank you”. You always know you are in a place that the some of the locals view as special when you come across clooties.
Avebury was also fabulous for its excellent archaeology museum, great lunch at the vego/vegan cafe near National Trust shop, the National Trust Shop itself (where I bought about AUS$200 of books on Stonehenge and archaeology in general – gotta get this stuff when you have the chance!), the Henge Shop which has more mystical artefacts (dowsing rods, fairy stuff, crystals and so on) – and didn’t our group love it, swinging into credit card action! – and St James’s church, which was first build around AD1000 in Saxon times.
The church was initially locked up but Christine nosed around until she found someone to open up for us, and it was worth it. The font, large enough for total immersion of the baby, is Saxon and has carvings of Norman origin …
and there is a rare medieval rood screen (the decorated wooden thing at the top) …
I love these old, old churches – they are in every village and still in use. There is such a sense of age and history about them. Each era has added more rooms or more furniture or more decoration to each church, even the most modest.Of course they are in constant need of repair, and I always put something in the donation box to this end.
There were fantastic stained glass windows, tapestries, furniture and stone carvings in just about all of them. It was difficult to park close to many of these places, and expensive too, as they like to make tourists pay (and fair enough too).
On the way back to the hotel and modern times (alas) we could see a hill figure in the shape of a giant white horse scoured out of the side of a hill (the Hackpen horse). Scouring away the vegetation reveals the white chalk of the “downs” (actually “ups”, hills). There was a crop circle there too, but not very clear due to the recent rain and wind. Crop circles are most definitely built by people, who have admitted to it, and some are incredible works of art.
There would be more archaeology the next day at the White Horse of Uffington, Uffington Castle and Wayland’s Smithy – yippee!