Arriving in Bath, it was rainy and warm. Orderly parcels of pallid grey Georgian buildings spread out before us. The city was surrounded by verdant green hills speckled with leafy trees and pastures, and I could not help thinking about how I'd rather be up there on the hills, admiring the twinkling street lamps from afar. We marched our way up the uneven stone sidewalks to the YMCA hostel tucked away in a cozy courtyard which also happened to be a local hangout for the working class set. The room was sparse but not unwelcoming, and though the bathrooms down the hall reeked of body odor and some foreign disinfectant, all was as advertised.
In the early afternoon, we made our way through the mist to the Roman Baths museum. Included in the ticket was a handy audio tour that offered an educational track, a track by author Bill Bryson, and a special track for kids. The museum was incredible with an in-depth focus on Roman religion, culture, and engineering. In the interior rooms, holographic men and women chatted, bathed, and dressed. To walk in and stumble upon these figures going about their lives was exhilarating, like looking into a crystal ball. The musty smell of old things, the sulphurous steam filling the air, and the stony darkness enveloping you. For a moment, history was before you like book opened by the wind. Public baths were an important part of Roman daily life, and to discover this pagan temple surrounding a hot spring must have felt serendipitous to the homesick Roman conquerors. I also found it interesting to see Roman syncretism first hand. They welcomed and absorbed the local Celtic goddess of the hot spring, Sulis, comparing her to their own Minerva.
At the end of the tour, we got to try the mineral-rich spring water, famed for curing all sorts of ailments and other vexing conditions. Unfortunately, it could not cure Britton of his flair for the dramatic.
The next day found us in a small bus with wide sightseeing windows. A persistent drizzle filtered our view across fields so singularly beautiful, I felt I was dreaming. In fact, the gentle sway of the bus, the calm monologue of our tour guide, and some unaddressed jet leg were rocking me to sleep. I bit my lip hard, not wanting to miss a second. Our first stop was Stonehenge, the great henge of stone! I have to admit this was one of Britton's leaning tower of Pisa adventures. I didn't really want to go, but once I was there - Wow! Sometimes you can see a really old thing and know it is old without feeling its age. These stones, even from many yards away, radiated primordial energy. The tallest thing across the Salisbury plain, they dominated your view like a skyscraper with all the force of time.
Our next stop was the Avebury Stone circle, and it took me completely unawares. At first the village of Avebury looked like any little village we'd seen along the road: clean and tidy with a pub, a bakery, a gift shop, and a small chapel. As we began to walk around, I noticed people, mostly women, sitting quietly at the base of the stones. Their eyes were open and alert, as if they were listening. Low and behold, when I get back and do some research, I discover the stones have a sound. They have a voice. Does it sound like the high-pitched fizz when you put your ear to freshly poured glass of red wine? Is it a guttural rumble rising up from the flinty earth? I don't know - I wish I had stopped to find out.
A brawny old woman in a green velvet robe sat at the base of a stone with a tall wooden staff. Feeling increasingly wrapped up in the mystery of the place, I couldn't help myself. I had to speak with her. "Are you a practicing pagan?" I asked, not really knowing what that meant. She identified herself as a shaman, talked about her bet with a friend and physics professor working at CERN about the nature of the universe, and invited me to experience the stones for myself. Holding my hand on her wooden staff, she told me to move my mind from one plane to another - down, up, the past, the present - and with each turn of her staff, I felt a change in the frequency of the vibration of the wood as it connected to the earth. Britton looked on curiously. How could I really explain this to him? It was the strangest sensation, and as much as I love to have evidence for things, I've got none for the way Avebury felt and for the vertigo I felt when I finally left to continue our tour.
Our tour took us through The Cotswolds, an area of enormous wealth for centuries powered by sheep's wool. The growing desire for rare fabrics from India combined with the invention of the cotton gin in the U.S. in the 1790's spelled the end of big wool for The Cotswolds. Bankrupted, they could no longer make repairs or updates to their lovely villages and manses. Sitting unloved and untended for many years, they are now an "AONB". It takes a British mind to create an acronym for the phrase "Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty", but it was without a doubt, outstandingly beautiful.
Stay tuned for my next post in the United Kingdom series where we visit The Village from England's 1960's sci-fi classic, The Prisoner!