A Great Charter, by Rich Paschall
There are many tour operators in London. Besides the trips they offer around town, you can go out on a day trip that will take you to one or more famous places. On a previous visit to London I took the day trip to Oxford, then on to Warwick Castle and finally to Stratford on Avon. Shakespeare was not home when we arrived at Stratford, but we saw his boyhood home anyway. These trips last all day so you need to be ready for an adventure of up to 12 hours.
While you can reserve a tour at many locations in central London, we chose to book in advance before we left on our journey. A visit to visitlondon.com and other tourist sites will link you to the leading tour companies. We picked the Stonehenge and Bath tour and saved a little by buying in the USA and taking our vouchers with us. Once in London we received an email saying our trip was cancelled but they would upgrade us to the Salisbury, Stonehenge and Bath tour for the same price and on the same day. There was an additional entrance fee at Salisbury we did not have to pay, so we gained a good savings.
The modern charter buses pick up at various hotels around town and take tourists to a central location, where you board your particular tour bus and head out of town. We got a slow start due to traffic but made our way on the road to Salisbury Cathedral. We knew little about it, but learned a lot from our guide who explained everything to the group in both English and Spanish.
The first thing we noticed was the size of the structure. The spire is the tallest one in Great Britain at 404 feet. While the church was finish in the 1258, the massive spire was added later and finished in 1320. It would have long since toppled without additional supports over the centuries, including tie beams designed by Christopher Wren in 1668
The tall nave is impressive in length, with tombs filling the spaces between many of the columns. The Diocese of Salisbury has been in existence since the beginning of construction in 1220. The building houses one of four remaining copies of the Magna Carta, agreed to by King John and rebellious Barons in 1215, basically a peace treaty. Unfortunately, the agreement was not honored by either side initially, but it did lay the basis for English laws in years to follow. No pictures are allowed of the ancient document and it is protected in a small enclosure you can enter for viewing. A full translation of the Latin document is nearby for the true historians.
Just 8 miles north of Salisbury is the iconic Stonehenge. While it is thought to date back to 2000 BC, it could in fact be somewhat older. There is a mound containing burial sites around it which dates back hundreds of years before the structure. In front of that is a ditch which is clearly visible above. No, they do not let you cross the mounds or go into the center, except for four times a year. At the summer and winter solstice and Vernal and Autumnal Equinox. If you are a Neo-Druid or Pagan that may be your time to go. You can get rather close on one side any time.
Yes, there are sheep in the valley alongside Stonehenge. It just seemed to fit appropriately in the countryside. A parking lot that was formerly close by stones has been moved in order to restore the view. A visitor center opened in 2013 which is near the highway and well away from the structure. You can walk up the road to Stonehenge, but take the visitor’s shuttle. It is a long walk.
From there is was back on the bus to travel another 38 miles out to the town of Bath, Somerset. Much of the architecture of the town is distinctive in it golden colored stone. From the spot above (on the extreme right) we entered into the ancient Roman baths.
Dating back to 60 AD it is a popular tourist spot now. Fed by hot springs to this day, the waters are quite warm. While they advise tourists not to stick their hands in the calcium and sulphate ion rich, and possibly disease laden (dangerous amoeba) waters, people do it anyway to see just how hot it is. The site itself is a treasure trove of artifacts from Roman times. A slow tour of the facility is worth your time.
Nearby the Roman baths is the Abbey dating from the early 16th century. While we got to see the building from several angles, there was no time to stop inside. We were approximately 97 miles from London at this point and ready for our long trip back.
Our original intent had been the two stop trip in order to allow enough time at each place. The three stops this far out of our origin meant there was little time explore, especially in Bath where we truly just ran out of time. Nonetheless, we were glad to see Salisbury for its architectural and historic significance.
The tour provided lunch on the bus in order to save time, but some heavy traffic, even in off-season, slowed us down considerably. An alternative plan would have been to take the train from Paddington station in central London to Bath and catch a tour bus to Stonehenge from there. Since our visit to the three stops was relatively brief, it is safe to say we would not mind a longer visit to each one. Perhaps we will return some day in the future.