- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 27, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Part 1 of a three-part series

The advice was solid: You can’t see it all in a week. But I could damn sure try.

During a week in and around London, The Washington Times was graciously granted press tours of some of the bounty in greater England thanks to Viator, a TripAdvisor tour-brokering firm that creates ambitious-yet-satisfying day trips as well as multiple-day excursions in Europe and around the world. For my purposes, I would take three day trips from my home base away from home in London.

First excursion, run by the extremely professional folks at Evan Evans: the royal family’s “other home,” Windsor Castle, the ancient Roman town of Bath and, predating even the Druids, the mysterious rock sculpture, fashioned over thousands of years, known as Stonehenge.



 

***

Descending to the lobby of my digs at the Novotel London West (1 Shortlands, London W6 8DR, +44 20 7660 0680), I find multiple trip guides gathering their charges for the day. One gentleman asks me if I’m part of his tour; I ask him where he’s going. Apparently this answer isn’t satisfactory, but digging for my confirmation, I produce a number. He finds my name on a sheet, and I’m loaded onto a coach (which means “bus” in the U.K.) and we head down to Victoria Coach Station, where a phalanx of morning commuters and tourists are gathered to await their respective rides to their various destinations.

From there it’s on to another bus, where a pleasant guide with a winning smile named Augusta Harris from Evan Evans checks my name off on a list. Our tour group includes both English and French speakers, and Augusta informs her charges the tour will be given in both languages.

I am feeling ashamed — again — of how monolingual we are in the U.S.

Heading west out of London, the suburbs and bustle quickly fade away in favor of rural settings that seem impossibly close to the English capital. It’s pleasant countryside, and Augusta thoroughly informs us of what we will see when we reach Windsor Castle (Windsor SL4 1NJ, United Kingdom, +44 20 7766 7304) located in the Berkshire countryside.

Originally built by the Normans to protect their conquerings, the castle has been the the “other home” for the British monarchs since the days of Henry I in the 12th century. These days, it’s typically the seasonal home for Queen Elizabeth II and her family.

All coaches are required to discharge their contents at a “car park” (what we Yanks call the far less charming “parking lot”) a bit of a walk from the castle itself. (Note: Wear good shoes, as you will be required to trudge both to the castle and inside it. Remember, English structures are hundreds, or even thousands, of years old, and elevators cannot be taken as a given.)

To get to the royal residence, you walk through the old market town of Windsor and past the Harte & Gardner (31 High St, Windsor SL4 1PQ, United Kingdom, 0844 855 9131) a hotel and pub where a rather prolific playwright by the name of William Shakespeare (whatever became of him, I wonder) once downed his ales while poring over his manuscripts with a fine-tooth quill to ensure they pleased Elizabeth I when she was in residence.

Walking in through the Henry VIII gate, the visitor finds himself in a rather incredible plaza, with St. George’s Chapel directly ahead and the residences and museums to the right.

Walking into St. George’s Chapel, where no photography is allowed, I walk over millennia of English history and her rulers. Entombed within these walls are Edward IV, Henry VI and William IV. Also granted eternal rest in this sacred space are Jane Seymour, Henry VIII’s “favorite” wife, and George III, who sat on the throne when those uppity Yanks across the Atlantic decided they wished to break away from the Crown. The choir loft is a masterpiece in and of itself, and surpasses in craftsmanship nearly anywhere I have sung in the New World.

Time for the royal residences themselves. Words do it little justice, and again, photography is verboten, but if I could sum up this place in one word it would be: opulence. When they say someone is “living like royalty,” this is what they mean. Room after room after room reveals dining facilities, fine china, artwork across history, coats of arms and weapons of every sort, tapestries, parlors and sitting rooms.

I can’t help but be reminded of Michael Keaton’s line in 1989’s “Batman”: “To tell you the truth, I don’t think I’ve ever been in this room before.” Now multiple that sentiment to the eighth or ninth power.

In the Queen’s Private Chapel near the “back” of the property, a helpful guide informs me about the 1992 fire, which ravaged many rooms and required £36.5 million in refurbishing. Thankfully it happened at night and no one was injured, but precious fabrics and artworks were lost forever.

Another must-see is Queen Mary’s dollhouses. If you ever thought you had a cool toy domicile your grandpa made, well, just come in here and see what architect Sir Edwin Lutyens whipped up for Mary, with attention to every conceivable detail.

I head back outside in time to catch the 11 a.m. changing of the guards. I’ve never been one for pomp and circumstance, but to see the royal guards come marching in through the Henry VIII gate, instruments blaring, gives me chills. It’s a precisely choreographed dance, with commands, specific steps and marches as one regiment goes off shift and another comes on. Oh, and it’s lengthy! After about seven minutes, I opted to move on, but not before getting my selfie with one of the lads in red.

I grab a quick sandwich lunch back “in town” and head back toward the coach.

On the way toward Bath, we crest a hill and kiss the border between England and Wales. It’ll be the only time this trip that I visualize Wales, so another time I will have to return to see what those Welsh are up to.

 

***

Yep, I admit it, I always thought that the word “bath” was arbitrary. But as my time in the U.K. has taught me, nothing about history is arbitrary — including language.

In the county of Wiltshire is the ancient Roman city of Bath, which the Romans initially called “Aquae Sulis,” or “the waters of Sulis.” It was here that Romans from the first century A.D. onward would come to soak themselves in the purifying waters bubbling up from below ground.

Coming into town we drive by some rather old apartment buildings where celebrities are known to hang out — and, according to legend, one Nicholas Cage sold off to help settle his divorce bills.

Augusta informs us that the entire town of Bath is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Accordingly, coaches must deposit us far from the baths themselves, requiring a walk through some rather old streets.

The baths are no longer available for public soaking, but visitors can come here to explore the subterranean Roman works, see artifacts from both Roman times and later, and read a plethora of helpful exhibits detailing the amazing history of this place.

Across the way is Bath Abbey, first built in 1090, when Christianity had long since displaced the pagan and polytheistic religions of the Romans (who stole it from the Greeks anyway, recall).

Leaving town we briefly touch the Cornish countryside. As in almost every other place I have seen in England, as soon as you get beyond a town’s borders, the untouched nature takes over from civilization’s echoes.

 

***

Augusta hands out a primer on Stonehenge for us to study before we reach our third and final destination out on the Salisbury Plain. Frankly, I’m glad she does, because the cheat sheet allows me to learn as much as possible now, so that when I do arrive at the rocks themselves, I can enjoy being there and take it in without feeling like I’m in a classroom.

One of the most biggest misconceptions, I learn, is that Stonehenge was not in fact built by the Druids — and actually precedes their cultural footprint in Britannia by several millennia.

At the Stonehenge visitor center (Amesbury SP4 7DE, United Kingdom, +44 370 333 1181) you can learn about the Neolithic people who built the site over the course of thousands of years and see examples of their dwellings. Once upon a time, tourists could drive right up to the stones themselves, however, as the entire site is being excavated for historical artifacts, you must now park at the visitor center and take shuttle buses up to the site, where the stones themselves are roped off from tourists.

Not a bad idea to avoid congestion — and hopefully to not do what Clark Griswold did.

Boarding a shuttle coach, we are trucked up to the stones. Descending from the coach, your first natural inclination is to gasp — as I did. The second impression is that it strikes me as appearing far smaller than one expects. But never mind the size as it required Stone Age masons and workers to use primitive methods — namely manpower — in its thousands of years of planning and construction.

Then you walk around its perimeter, which takes but a few moments. Photos are of course mandatory.

Being at Stonehenge is more about appreciating the diversity of mankind’s endeavors and his desire to built shrines to the natural world and/or to his mystical believes. For all of this and more is personified in Stonehenge, whose meaning will be forever debated but perhaps never completely understood. So it shall be.

Or, perhaps, Spinal Tap had it right all along.

Eric Althoff is the Travel Editor for The Washington Times.

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