The only reason I usually get up at daft-o’clock in the morning is when I am going to climb a mountain. Not to sit on a coach for two hours heading out of London into deepest Wiltshire. But there was a special reason for the early start.
The first time I came to travel and live in London, many years ago, one of my first sightseeing expeditions was to Stonehenge. I had always been fascinated by this prehistoric circle of standing stones and seeing this particular World Heritage Site ‘in the flesh’ was a priority for someone visiting England for the first time.
When I first visited Stonehenge my English friend regaled me with tales of having sex with his girlfriend on one of the stones, having joined a party that was able to go inside the stone circle. Having sex on a stone with a load of other people around doesn’t really appeal but I did really want to get up close to those magnificent sarsen stones. You see there’s this rope; low and unobtrusive but preventing everyone from getting anywhere near these precious artefacts. This is the view from behind the rope:
Unless you belong to some Wikkan cult the only way to get past the rope and see Stonehenge from the inner circle is to join a tour with premium access. Which means getting there very early in the morning, before the regular visitors are allowed in. So I booked a day tour from London with Veltra.
Only 26 people are allowed into the circle at a time so we had to split our group in two and take turns – each group got about half an hour to enjoy being in the inner sanctum. To hear the baby crows cheeping from their nest tucked high under a lintel; to examine the graffiti from across the centuries carved into the sarsen stones; to see the shapes formed by erosion and the colours of the lichen encrusting the ancient blocks; to watch the wind ripple across the chalk grassland of Wiltshire.
I did hear a bit of moaning about the new visitor centre and how much the whole redesign cost but I think the result is magical. The new visitor centre is one-and-a-half miles from Stonehenge and tourists are ferried up to the stones in ‘land-trains’ or shuttle buses. So it is goodbye to the carpark and the noise of the road and hello to the bleating of baby lambs in the fields. I think it is a gift to be able to experience the stones on the empty plain as they once were.
We left Stonehenge at around 9am and drove half-an-hour through the lush countryside of Wiltshire to Lacock. This tiny village is probably one of England’s most famous, even if you have never heard of it. Because it is mostly owned by the National Trust and kept almost entirely free of modern eyesores like powerlines and satellite dishes, it has become a very popular film location. Over the years it has played a role in all sorts of period dramas, from An American Werewolf in London to Cranford to various Jane Austen novel adaptions and Harry Potter films.
This delightfully unspoilt village has architecture from pre-Domesday book times through the Middle Ages when it became a market town and up to the 18th century. There is a 15th century pub, a 14th century tithe barn and the medieval church of St Cyriac. Probably the quaintest building is the Blindhouse – a tiny lockup used for inebriated villagers to sleep off their excesses.
Before exploring Lacock with the knowledgeable Steve we had a quick cooked breakfast and welcome cup of tea (efficiently pre-ordered by our guide) at The George Inn. Here the publican proudly showed off an ancient ‘dogwheel’ – where in medieval times a dog was made to run (like a hamster) on hot coals to turn the spit roast in the fireplace. There was really nothing romantic about life in the Middle Ages!
From Lacock it was about a 20 minute drive through more lovely countryside to another World Heritage Site – the city of Bath. The city we see today was built in the 18th century from the fabulous golden oolithic limestone of this region and is a delightfully homogenous collection of elegant Georgian buildings and piazzas. I have wandered the streets of Bath before, in search of Jane Austen, but the most famous attraction is the reason a town grew up here in the first place – the Roman Baths.
Aquae Sulis the Romans called it and back in 60AD they were over-the-moon to discover the only hot spring in Britain. They created a plumbing and drainage system that is still working after 2,000 years and a town grew up around what was essentially an R&R destination for Roman soldiers. It was also a centre for the worship of the goddess Minerva – have a look at this mesmerising golden head of the goddess. Imagine her with a magnificent helmet in pride of place in the temple here.
After visiting the Roman Baths museum and a bit of wandering around the lovely streets of Bath the coach picked us up and it was time to return to London. We made good time and reached Kensington and Victoria in around two hours. It was time to reflect on everything I had seen and heard on a very interesting day tour from London. But first our guide Steve had a few more entertaining tidbits to share.
The politest way to describe Steve’s jokes might be ‘out-dated’ but he is certainly a born tour guide with the gift of the gab and a wealth of experience (not least his 15 years as a paratrooper). He kept the day running smoothly in a fun way, never sergeant-majorish. Although it was a very busy day, covering a lot of ground, I didn’t really feel rushed and certainly felt it was good value! He had a genuine enthusiasm for our destinations that was undimmed by, no doubt, having led this tour many times before.
Upon reflection my favourite thing about Steve was his amazing gift for observation – I guess that appealed to the travel writer in me. He was constantly pointing out details of landscape or architecture – things that you would never notice yourself – and filling them with insight into English history and culture, often with an entertaining story attached. More stories than I could ever begin to share with you here – so you will just have to go on a tour yourself!
By Natasha von Geldern
If you only have one day to do a tour from London I would recommend the Stonehenge, Lacock and Bath tour. It gives such a broad sweep of English history, architecture, landscape and culture in just one day. Plus two World Heritage Sites!
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