More Travelling in the 90s today… and we’ve arrived at one of the most thrilling weeks of the entire UK road trip. Warwick Castle… Stratford-upon-Avon… Bath… Salisbury… Stonehenge. It doesn’t get much better than this.
[Monday 3 January, 1994] Yesterday we went to Warwick Castle, which is supposed to be the “finest castle in England”. It certainly is rather impressive, and I’m extremely grateful to it for being open at this time of year.
It consists of a large square keep, one side of which is a manor house, set in the midst of vast green grounds on the banks of the River Avon. It is very geared to tourists, and we certainly saw enough of them. Part of the living areas have been made into an exhibition by Mme Tussauds, entitled a “Royal Weekend Party”. As the name suggests, it consisted of wax figures who might have visited the Earl of Warwick in 1898. It was extremely well done.
The other part of the “living” areas consisted of all the state rooms — great hall plus official drawing rooms, dining rooms etc, and even a room which is supposedly haunted by the first man to revive the ruins of the castle back in the seventeenth century.
There was also a rather impressive armoury. In fact some man on duty had a sword and some helmets that we could pick up, and indicated me towards a sheet that lists all the different types of swords which I have copied down. I just wish that samples accompanied. Someday I will enjoy my antique sword collection! The grounds of the castle were also very attractive.
Today we went to Stratford-upon-Avon to visit the Shakespeare properties. We saw Shakespeare’s birthplace, Nash’s house incorporating the site of New Place, and Hall’s Croft. All were lovely Tudor cottages with smooth stone or polished wooden floorboards, and high V-shaped ceilings. I could live in one of these houses!
They were all furnished similarly, but each had a little exhibition to accompany the house: John Shakespeare’s life and times, William’s writing, a history of Stratford from Neolithic times, and medical practice in the time of doctor John Hall (who was the husband of Will’s daughter Elizabeth). Still to go are Ann Hatheway’s cottage, and Mary Arden’s house. We will probably go there on Saturday. Tonight we had our first traditional British Fish and Chips — YUM.
[Wednesday 5 January, 1994] Yesterday was fairly dreary and hardly worth commenting on, save for two things: the first is the Corinium museum — Corinium being the 4th largest city in Roman Britain. The museum was full of Roman mosaics and artifacts and was rather interesting. We were originally going to Goodrich Castle, but as it was raining (and Goodrich is a ruin) we found something indoors. It was ironic that by the time we reached Cirencester (Corinium) the sun was out! We also went to see the Roman ampitheatre in Cirencester, but this was only large grass-covered mounds where wooden seating had previously been.
The second thing worth mentioning was the RSC production of King Lear at Stratford-upon-Avon, which was brilliant, even if slightly long and melodramatic. I do love Shakespeare, and this was a classic. We had really good seats too. King Lear is a rather depressing play though — everyone ends up mad or dead or both!
Today, in contrast, has been wonderful. We went to Bath. We decided to make it a two day trip, planning to stay in the Bath youth hostel, so duly packed our belongings for one night and drove down the motorway. We put the car in a big shed for the day, and then went to explore on foot (the ONLY way to see Bath).
The main attraction is of course the Roman remains of the baths, but these are more complex than I had expected, and include the ruins of a temple to Sulis-Minerva. The whole setup is as follows: The natural hot spring (46.5C) wells up, heated geothermally. In Roman times the spring was considered sacred and served to heat the main “swimming pool” bath. Then a series of east and west baths developed, at first heated by water from the main bath, and later by a Roman hypercaust system (central heating by hot air).
When the baths and the temple fell into disuse, the ceilings etc fell in, until only the original hot spring remained in use by monks as a swimming pool. As time passed, buildings rose up around and on top of the old Roman baths.
The Pump Room, which drew water out of the hot spring, was built around 1790. During the Georgian era Bath became very fashionable as a health resort, so that most of the “city” is of Georgian style. However, Society was in complete ignorance of the Roman ruins, which were not re-discovered until around 1890! They were then excavated and added to, so that what we see now of the baths is partly Victorian. WOW!
We went to the Pump Room and tasted the waters for 35p. Very warm and very hard and very sulphurous — yuck yuck yuck!
We then sauntered off on a walking tour of the town, seeing Laura Place (as one does) before it started to rain and we took ourselves off to see the assembly rooms. These are wonderful! A big ball room, card room, tea room — the perfect setting for Georgette Heyer’s books! It was worth coming to England just to see these. The same building houses the Museum of Costume. This was fascinating, particularly learning how the change in fashion represents the changing thoughts and needs of women of the time. Magnificent!
We were originally planning to stay in Bath, but the hostel was full when we got there, so we went on to Salisbury (booking ahead first). It took us 45 minutes driving around the stupid city before I got a map from the train station — and even then the hostel was tricky to find.
[Thursday 6 January, 1994] Today has been great, even if freezing, and completed an excellent double day adventure. I am now exhausted.
Following breakfast at the hostel, we went to see Stonehenge. I was expecting to be disappointed, since everyone says it’s small and a let down because you can’t walk amongst the stones. This is all true, but it still possesses a mysterious, eerie quality which has to do with great age, and its position on the windswept Salisbury plain. We saw it in the mist of early morning, looking quite ethereal, and I can’t say that I was disappointed.
We had a tricky time finding angles for photography that avoided the ladder, tripod and two men amidst the stones (surveyors?), and all the other tourists. We joined English Heritage (EH) here, as at least we can be sure they’ll be open during winter!
After Stonehenge we set off to find the White Horse carved into the side of the hillside nearby. Just nearing it, we drove into a dense mist, and then the plain was covered in snow. Oh well. We then went to Old Sarum (EH) which is an old Royal fort and cathedral. It was an extremely cold day, and Old Sarum is on the top of a hill, so we FROZE. It mainly consisted of old walls which had been covered by slate and mortar for protection in ~1910 when found.
We then went into Salisbury again for lunch and to see the cathedral, the largest in England. It is certainly rather impressive — high vaulted ceilings, stained glass windows, and an old medieval clock (the oldest still working in England).
We set off back to home base via Avebury, jumping out in the dark to see the standing stones by torchlight! An enormous ring runs right through the village — we actually touched these ones. With a bit of moon they would have looked spectacular — as it was they were barely visible. But, nevertheless!!
Hope you enjoyed this glimpse of some of England’s most iconic sites through my youthful eyes. I certainly look back upon those days with great pleasure.
The Travelling in the 90s series features lightly edited excerpts from my 1993-1994 travel journal. (Once again, please excuse the dodgy photos!)