Stratford-upon-Avon

Travelling in the 90s – Of Stratford peregrines and Welsh cockerels

I’m continuing with my Travelling in the 90s series today… Excerpts from my travel journal kept during my 1993-1994 grand adventure in Europe and the UK.

We pick things up in the Midlands, where H and I have been staying with family friends and touring the region with a hire car. But two is about to become three, as we head to Stratford upon Avon to join up with another of our friends from university…

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[Sunday 9 January, 1994] Yesterday we went back to Stratford-upon-Avon, where we met up with another of our friends, M. We went to Anne Hathaway’s house first – it’s set in a lovely garden complete with orchard. There was also a recently planted tree-garden containing trees mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays.

Anne Hathaway's Cottage

Anne Hathaway’s Cottage

I loved AH’s house, but the pick for me was Mary Arden’s house — primarily because of the falconry display. They fly birds of prey all day (weather permitting, and thank God it did) and the minute we got there I bolted down to see. Lucky I did too, because a man was flying Henry the peregrine falcon. I nearly died (or wept with joy). He was using a lure to tempt Henry, and the poor bird flew around quite a few times before he finally grabbed it. I could get really close for a photo too.

Peregrine falcon at Mary Arden's House

Peregrine falcon at Mary Arden’s House

We watched Henry tear ruthlessly into a baby chicken (dead of course) while we talked to the guy who flew him. He said they flew all the birds each day, and that two were out hunting that day. (They actually take people out falconing for 40 pounds a day!) Apparently peregrines are not the easiest birds to hunt with, as they require large open spaces (expensive to hire) and sometimes take their prey a long way so it’s hard to catch them. The idea is to ride with the bird, so you can steal its prey before it’s eaten. You also need pointers to find the birds (grouse for example) and flush them out. Also, peregrines don’t always come back! Hawks are far more reliable.

After this ever so interesting chat, we watched a woman fly an eastern eagle owl for a while, before deciding our toes were too cold and we needed warmth. Mary Arden’s home itself was also interesting. The tour included all sorts of anecdotes such as the origin of “turning the tables” which derives from the fact that a table top was reversible — the rough side was used for eating, then was flipped so that all the mice and rats could clean up the remains. Also “upper crust” because the most important people got the top of the loaf of bread.

[Monday 10 January, 1994] Sunday, we three headed to Wales. We spent the afternoon in Chepstow, seeing the castle which was rather large and impressive with 5 separate defensible sections. It also featured an interesting video on the use of siege engines and an exhibition dealing with the Civil War in England started by Oliver Cromwell. We arrived at our destination – a dairy farm in St Fagans (near Cardiff) belonging to family friends – in time for dinner.

Chepstow Castle - trying on Civil War helmets

Chepstow Castle – trying on Civil War helmets

Today a promising beginning (early morning farm stroll) turned a little sour when I was attacked by the farm cockerel, Ceiliog. I was saying hello to the horse when Ceiliog (who happens to be a game cockerel) decided to launch himself at my shins, tearing my pants and drawing blood! Pain! I wasn’t too impressed (need I say) and everyone else just laughed. (I wasn’t too impressed with that either!) Anyway, it’s now covered in elastoplast and doesn’t hurt unless I knock it. We then heard the story of Ceiliog who has recently lost(?) his mate and second generation children, and has been deposed by his first generation children who’ve given him the cold shoulder. Now I feel sorry for the poor bird.

Ceiliog

Ceiliog and the barn

We went into Cardiff and wandered around for a while — seeing the highly decorative public buildings and civic centre — before going to see Cardiff Castle, which was very interesting. It has a Roman wall and a Norman keep and a Victorian (?) palace built by a man who was then one of the richest men in the world. We didn’t see the inside but apparently it’s very elaborate. There was also a Welsh army regiment exhibition which was mildly interesting for H and I, but exceedingly so for M, who is keenly interested in all things military.

Cardiff Castle keep

Cardiff Castle keep

The Welsh Folk Museum (where we went next) was excellent. The inside exhibition occupies a modern building and shows historical articles of daily life (laundry, house cleaning, education, sport, music etc). However, outside is an extensive village — full of reconstructed farmhouses, shops, craftsmen’s workshops, and even a “castle” or old manor house. They even had a toll gate and toll house. I wish we’d had more time to spend there.

[Thursday 13 January, 1994]  Tuesday morning we set off for the national mark of the Brecon Beacons. Our route took us from Merthyr Tydful through a green valley of reservoirs towards Brecon. We detoured up to the mountain lodge — a sort of tourist centre for the region. It was drizzling slightly, but we went for a short walk anyway, with rain coats, scarves and gloves on. Our destination was a Roman road, but we also just wanted to get out and walk around some of Wales.

Well, the drizzle worsened dramatically into a vicious downpour and gale-force winds — FREEZING! In all, it was rather a memorable experience; however, we got soaked, and I mean really wet! I’m still not really sure what exactly the Brecon Beacons are, but we did find the ruins of a Roman road.

We surged back into the car — rosy cheeks and chattering teeth — and set course for the nearest pub. Our selection criteria were steak pie (as close to an Aussie meat pie as you can get in the UK) and open fire. We were successful in neither of these (!), but found a pub called “The Wheat Sheaf” where we ate lasagna and chips and coffee. By the time we came out (1.5 hours later) it had stopped raining.

We drove then towards Hay on Wye, passing a fair dinkum toll gate (Whitney on Wye). Thrilling!!! For 50p we had the gate opened for us by a man sitting in his little toll house. It totally made my day.

So did Hay on Wye. It’s a town of a million second-hand bookshops. (Well more than twenty-five anyway.) Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately for our backpacks) we only spent an hour, managing to find a shop that specialised in Sci-Fi Fantasy. Even an old cinema has been converted into a bookshop. An hour was definitely not long enough.

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Thus ends a nice little jaunt into Wales. The next installment will see us heading northwards. Oooh, Hadrian’s Wall… Edinburgh! Can’t wait!

As a side note, The Cranberries’ song, Linger, was massive around this time. We heard it on the radio constantly during our UK road trip, and for me the two experiences will be inextricably linked. (I love that song, by the way.) Here it is for your viewing and listening pleasure…

Travelling in the 90s – Stratford, Bath, Stonehenge…

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.

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[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.

warwick castle

Warwick Castle

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.

stratford

Stratford-upon-Avon: Shakespeare’s birthplace

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!!

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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!)