October 10, 2013

The Best of Britain

“You can always count on Americans to do the right thing—after they’ve tried everything else.”  Sir Winston Churchill

Carol writes:
BLENHEIM:  Ever since we toured Chartwell, our first British National Trust site at the country home of Winston Churchill, we have been looking forward to seeing Blenheim, Sir Winston’s birthplace and, for centuries, the home of the Churchill ancestors. 

Winston Churchill never actually lived at Blenheim, but he was born there.  The room where he was born has been nicely preserved.

Blenheim Palace was built as a gift from Queen Anne

to the First Duke of Marlborough (John Churchill), famous for his victory at the Battle of Blenheim in 1704.  The queen’s gratitude showed no bounds, as every room and its furnishings were conceived in a style befitting royalty.

The state rooms were filled with treasures and family portraits of many generations of Marlboroughs.  One of the most impressive features was a series of 10 custom-made Flemish victory tapestries commemorating the military campaigns of the First Duke of Marlborough, including the Battle of Blenheim.

BATH:  The fame of the town of Bath revolves around its remarkable Roman baths that are perhaps the best example of a restored Roman bath house in all of Europe.  Add to that unparalleled 18th century Georgian architecture throughout the historic sections of the city and you have a very fun and interesting day out.  We decided to take in a free 2-hour Bath walking tour led by one of the mayor’s honorary guides.  This turned out to be an excellent choice to help us appreciate the history and architecture of Bath.

The Georgian (mid-18th century) condos of the ‘Royal Crescent’

and ‘The Circus’

were quintessential Bath.  The curvature of those large housing complexes was stunning. 

However, the main reason for visiting Bath was to see the excavated Roman bath complex.

The bath complex was a wonderful glimpse into what was basically a Roman spa built 2000 years ago over natural thermal springs.  The bath pools have been restored to their Roman-era level.  It was fun to lounge poolside while listening to the audioguide commentary. 

Two thousand years down the road and gases could still be seen bubbling to the top of the pool.

An extensive museum collection was part of the tour and included some remarkable finds, such as this beautifully carved stone head,

this very rare gilded bronze head of the goddess Sulis Minerva,

and a cryptic stone face that was once part of a temple pediment.

We finished our tour just as the doors were closing for the day, happy with our choice of how to appreciate the best of Bath.

AVEBURY STONE CIRCLE and STONEHENGE:  Britain is home to approximately 800 stone circles, and two of the most famous are at Avebury and Stonehenge.  Avebury dates back to 2800 B.C. and thus is six centuries older than Stonehenge.  It is also a massive 16 times bigger than its more famous neighbor at Stonehenge.  Maybe its gigantic size is the reason why we had difficulty appreciating the geometry of it all.  The fact that Avebury’s massive circle was bisected by country roads—both north to south and east to west--contributed to our disappointment.  Despite the drizzle that was falling, we took a stroll along one of the more intact stretches.

The Avebury stone circle was surrounded by a ditch that was 30 feet deep; incredibly, this could still be appreciated!

I remember vividly the first time I ever heard mention of Stonehenge.  I was in high school and I was having trouble coming up with a subject for a term paper.  My mother casually suggested I write about Stonehenge, and my response to her was, “What is Stonehenge?”  Thus was born my intense curiosity concerning prehistoric rings of stone, stone temples, kivas and all ancient structures that have been constructed with significant astrological alignments.  After sufficient library research for my high school term paper, I became well acquainted with Stonehenge, and my fascination with the facts of its existence has never lagged.  I never really thought I would ever see Stonehenge, and here I was about to visit the actual site! 

What makes Stonehenge unique among standing stone circles is the fact that it is the only one with lintels (horizontal stones) sitting across the massive upright monoliths. 

Like other standing stone structures, many astrological alignments have been discovered, the most famous being sunrise over the ‘heel stone’ on the longest day of the year (the summer solstice) and sunset over the ‘heel stone’ on the shortest day of the year (the winter solstice).

The ‘heel stone’, the speckled stone seen through the window-like opening between two monoliths in the center of the picture above, is actually located some distance apart from the rest of the structure, so it took a lot of ingenuity, planning and a working knowledge of astronomy to place the massive monoliths in just the precise location for the annual midsummer and midwinter shows.  Stonehenge was so fascinating and mysterious that it was hard to refrain from taking pictures from every angle as we strolled along the circular pathway.  It was impossible to take a bad picture…

We liked the fact that the massive stone structure was cordoned off from all tourist traffic by means of a knee-high rope.  Al and I both felt that Stonehenge was a very special place and an awesome sight.  In my ear I could almost hear congratulatory whispers from my mother.
“The important thing is not to stop questioning.  Curiosity has its own reason for existing.”   Albert Einstein


  1. where is stonehenge?

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