After our weekend in Paris, we were ready to explore England, and we began by venturing just a little beyond London with an all-day tour to Stonehenge and Bath. I had visited both of these locations in my school days and I enjoyed them and Kalen said he would like to see them too. We reviewed our options for visiting each of these locations separately and decided that an organized tour was the best choice for us. If that’s not your jam, obviously both of these visits can be done on your own either by renting a car or taking a train. We opted to play it safe and easy and chose a tour we found on TripAdvisor hosted by Premium tours.
The nice thing about booking a tour like this is that the travel accommodations are all coordinated. We left from Victoria Coach Station in the morning and returned to London at Gloucester Road Station that evening. Another benefit of a tour like this is the presence of a tour guide. While we were set loose to explore the stops on our own, we really appreciated the information shared by our guide, Richard, about the interesting sights and landmarks along the way and upon arrival at each of the destinations, which we certainly wouldn’t have had if we had taken the train or rented a car.
The only real downside to taking a coach tour like this one is that the time table for visiting each site is less flexible as we had to be back at the coach bus by a specific time (and they’re serious about it; we almost left a family with a baby in a stroller at Stonehenge). Of course, this is still something to consider with the train, but is less of a problem if you rent a car and take yourself (although that comes with the side quests of finding parking and successfully driving on the left side of the road).
I was a little concerned that revisiting these locations might prove predicable and dull or that I would feel like I was wasting time that could be otherwise spent on things neither of us had seen. They were good to see once, but were they worth seeing a second time? In short, yes. Apparently even ancient and prehistoric monuments can experience significant change in fourteen years, and I was wonderfully surprised to find significant improvements in the visitor experience at both Stonehenge and at the Roman Baths for which the city of Bath was named.
When I visited Stonehenge before, there was a small gift shop and a very brief display of researchers’ current ideas on how the stones were brought to Stonehenge from Wales. It was just enough for a bathroom break and a staff member to pass out audioguides. I don’t remember much about the audioguides, even, just that we had them, and a few numbered plaques around the stone circle indicated which audio track to dial to listen to. Stonehenge itself was cool but the experience was very easily summarized as “Big rocks in a field surrounded by sheep. Please don’t touch the rocks or the sheep.” I silently lamented being born after visitors were barred from walking right up into the stone circle.
The visitor center and grounds surrounding Stonehenge have been completely overhauled to allow for a wider look at the history of the monument and parking has been situated further away from the monument to allow visitors a more peaceful and undisturbed experience. We still couldn’t walk right into the circle, but the quality of the visit and information presented has been vastly improved. We were also very excited to find that the audio guide was available to download to our phones rather than having to collect and return a physical device. We had activated unlimited data and international day passes on our cellphone plans before we left to allow us to use our phones like we would at home for a small daily fee. If this isn’t an option for you, however, or if for some reason you don’t have good service at Stonehenge, the visitor center offered free wifi so you could download with no trouble, although I don’t know what the options are for anyone without their own device.
The audio guide was a free app and even over cellular data, the app and its audio files all downloaded very quickly for me, and then worked without any problems. The best part of having the guide on our phones, though, was that we could share our wireless headphones and listen to the same track at the same time while also still having an ear free for our surroundings. Visitors who didn’t have headphones could play the informational audio either on the ear speaker (like taking a phone call) or aloud, like on speakerphone. We were very happy with sharing our AirPods, though, and this was the best audioguide experience we had on our entire trip. Other historical sites and museums should look to Stonehenge for guidance. The content itself was also engaging and informative, but the convenience (and hygiene) of having on our own devices to use our own headphones was *chef’s kiss.* Also, my arm didn’t get tired from holding the phone up for that long. (“Whose arm tires out from holding the phone?” You ask judgmentally; me. Mine does. I don’t talk on the phone much, ok? It’s just not for me).
All that to say, I was very pleased with the visitor experience, even if we still couldn’t get very close to the stones or go into the circle. I mean, if you were brave and ready to be tackled, I suppose you could; they just have a little rope around the circle and it’s only about knee high, but I don’t think you’d get very far because there are guards keeping watch, and if you ask them nicely, they’ll answer questions for you.
I don’t know that I’d qualify Kalen or myself as “birders” or “birdwatchers” per se (I clearly don’t even know what they’re calling themselves these days), but we do enjoy observing birds around us and often use the Merlin Bird ID app developed by Cornell University. Before our trip we had downloaded the files to help us identify birds in much of Western Europe (just for funsies), but before we could pull out the app and try to identify a large bird milling about the crowd, I decided a better approach would be to just ask the guards, “Hey, what kind of bird is that?”
The bird was clearly a regular in the area as it wasn’t overly bothered by the crowd of people, and it was the only one of its kind around. The guard didn’t even need to look at what bird I meant before answering in a thick Scottish accent, “Ah, it’s a grey bastard.”
If you’re a bird person, maybe you’ve already caught it, but I didn’t. I kind of laughed and said knowingly, “Ah, okay.” There must be a story about the trouble this bird causes. Maybe it poops on tourists or steals the guards’ lunches. Maybe it chases people with goose-like fury. But I appreciated his honesty, because it was exactly the kind of answer my dad would give when asked about something troublesome but with an official name he hadn’t yet found, like a pesky insect of sorts. I’m sure he’s called some unknown biting bug a “southern swamp sumbitch” or “persistent shithead fly.” The other guard saw me trying to hold back my politely confused laughter and clarified, “Great Bustard, B-U-S-T-A-R-D.” Apparently the bustards had been extinct in the area and reintroduced not terribly long ago and this specific bird always comes back to Stonehenge and just chills. Which is pretty cool in terms of conservation, but not as great of a punchline.
We only had about an hour and a half at Stonehenge so we didn’t get to explore the landscape, trails, or exhibits inside the new visitors center, although I would have liked to, and we went back and listened to the rest audio guide afterward for the fascinating facts about the other archaeological finds, something we wouldn’t have been able to do if the guide had been on a device we had to return upon leaving. We easily could have spent several more hours there, which would make it worthwhile as a day-trip destination all on its own.
Bath was very much how I remembered it, but in all the right ways. Again, we felt the pressure of time keeping us from exploring very far from our “home base” and didn’t have time to explore other sites like the beautiful abbey or Pulteney Bridge which spans the River Avon and has several shops on it, which used to be not uncommon for bridges but is a rarity in modern times. Our tour actually gave the option of visiting the Roman Baths or the Jane Austen Center. On my school trip to Bath, the city had been the sole destination of the day and I’d been able to see the Jane Austen Center, the Baths, the Abbey, and wander around a bit, but for this trip we opted for the Baths (sorry, Jane; still love you, though).
The city of Bath is named for the Roman baths and temple that were built there in the first century A.D. on the site of the only hot springs in the United Kingdom. The water bubbles up at a temperature of 115 degrees Fahrenheit and flows through several different pools in the ancient Roman bath house that also served as a temple to the goddess Sulis Minerva (a combination of the Roman Minerva and a Celtic goddess Sulis who had several similar qualities).
The audio guides for the Roman baths had been updated to newer devices in the past 14 years but were still very similar to what they’d been before, which had a keypad for indicating the audio segment you wanted and then holding the guide to your ear to listen like a phone. Kalen and I did our best to synchronize our listening so we weren’t waiting on one another to finish a track before wandering off, and we did pretty well but it wasn’t quite as perfect as Stonehenge’s audioguide had been.
The display of artifacts excavated at the baths had been vastly improved in the last 14 years with improved display cases and expanded information about more items. The site also employs actors to dress in period costume for re-enactments of Roman life, although this is mostly just sitting on benches to one side for photo opportunities because the water in the baths themselves isn’t really safe to bathe in by modern sensibilities (the large pool is lined with lead, for example, and the loss of the building’s roof means the water hosts a lot of algae; one of those is more harmful to the health than the other, but neither are ideal for swimming).
One of the best artifact displays, on our opinion, was for the temple pediment (the triangular part on the front), which now only exists in pieces. It was displayed on the wall like a puzzle-in-progress, but with a projector fading in a complete image over the existing pieces to show what the pediment would have looked like whole. The projection then added color to show how richly painted and decorated it would have all been. When we were at the British Museum the week before, we had looked at the Elgin Marbles, or Parthenon Sculptures, pieces from the pediments, frieze and architrave of the Parthenon in Athens, Greece, that were severely damaged by an explosion in 1687 and taken to Britain where they remain with some controversy. They are impressively displayed, but there are large portions missing, and visitors are invited to fill in the gaps by looking at plaques featuring artwork by Jacques Carrey who happened to sketch the details of the Parthenon’s pediments shortly before the explosion. Kalen and I had remarked that the pieces should be displayed with the sketch enlarged behind to give a better impression of the whole sculpture. Then we visited the Roman Baths and were delighted to see that our ideas weren’t totally outlandish. Of course, the pediment from the temple at Bath is significantly smaller than the pediment from the Parthenon, but even so, it was exciting to see such an artful display of ancient architecture.
We were also entertained by the curse tablets, lead inscriptions on display with their translations. Ancient visitors brought requests to the temple to cast into the baths, but the requests were not like most prayer requests we think of today. These were all prayers for curses in revenge against people who had stolen something from the person making the request. The requested punishments varied widely in their creativity and our favorites were the ones that fit the crime, for example, “May whoever has stolen my knife cut their hand with it,” or “My cooking pot has been stolen. May the thief be poisoned from whatever he cooks in that same pot.” Other times the revenge was clearly requested in the passion of the moment: “May whoever stole my cloak never have children, and any children he already has die.”
There was a lot to see (and read, and listen to) at the Baths and we were unfortunately a little rushed at the end to make it back to the bus in time, which is a pretty good indication that Bath can easily be an all day destination on its own as well.
All in all, we were very pleased with our coach tour and thought it was a good use of our time and money. I seem to recall an option that visited Bath, Stonehenge, and Windsor, and while Windsor is also worth seeing, I don’t think I would try to pack all three into a single day. We rushed with just the two stops; I think adding a third would have been too much to see in too little time and a lot of the enjoyment would have been lost.
The coach ride back to London was a little over two hours, but we did stop at a very large, nice rest stop on the way to use the facilities and arrived at Gloucester Road Station without any problems. From there we were able to hop on the Tube to go find dinner at a pub before settling in for the evening to recharge and get ready to explore the city over the next week.
Stay tuned for more about how we visited London and made the most of our time in the British capital.