Diane & Paul Return to the UK Day 3; Stonehenge & Bath


Stonehenge Rocks, Bath Awash in Our Walking


Up at 6:30, having shared half a whole grain bun and the horrid instant coffee everyone seems to drink here (I mean really? Instant? Pah!), we greeted a Premier tour guide outside the door, much to his surprise as he was five minutes early and often has to chase people down. We rode his bus to Victoria Station, where we had to get out and find our tour bus. A long line had already formed for ours, and I was feeling sorry for myself as I had read Trip Advisor complaints of being at the end of the line and getting crappy seats, when a short man in a seersucker jacket said to a handful of us, “Tour eight? Follow me,” and he led us to a second bus. Little did I know that we had won the lottery of tour guides, Paul Metcalfe.

Paul Metcalfe, our tour guide

Now Paul Beauvais and I are not great tour participants to begin with. We tend to do our own little side trips, and when we are on a brief tour, we feel pinched and rushed and stuck with unpleasant people and corny tour guides and when we are going through, say, The House on the Seven Gables, we behave badly, snickering with our own little puns and side jokes about Red A’s and ministerial veils. (“I gather you have read Hawthorne,” our Hawthorne guide snarled on a one-hour trip through the house.) Still, I wanted a day when we could do something outside London we had not yet done without juggling the Tube or the train or a car, or all the other vehicles that tax our brains the day after jet lag, or actually jet leap. Several tour with several companies included Stonehenge, which I was medium-interested in, combined with (in varying combinations) Windsor Castle, Bath (with and without seeing the baths), Laycock (something to do with Shakespeare and a glass of champagne), or one called “England in a Day,” a sort of horrifying idea, that. So I chose one that gave us the most freedom: an hour or so in Stonehenge, set loose with audio, and then three hours free in Bath. We could have had a tour of Bath and of the Roman baths there, but we were looking for other things. Three hours to walk on our own would be great. My intrepid second cousin Julie, who lives in Germany, did this tour with two young sons and recommended it

So we boarded the bus up front and met our bus driver, Lester, and Paul Metcalfe, our guide (referred to here as Paul M. and our Paul as Paul.) introduced himself with a patter I found charming, fast, quick, and fairly original (though it may not seem so to him). “So sorry we had to get you up at stupid o’clock,” he said, “And on the solstice, I am doing the sunrise tour and have to get up at even stupider o’clock, 3 a.m., be at Stonehenge by 6 a.m.” He promised to be quiet once we were on the road, but would point out sights for the first part of the trip. And he did: Buckingham Palace, various businesses and governmental buildings, and a pub called “The Three Great Kings” with its sign bearing caricatures of Chas I, Henry V, and, between them, Elvis. He pointed out Harry Potter settings, which he said he could field questions on, but he would refuse to talk about Harry Stiles (but not before ranting a bit good-naturedly about how he didn’t like Stiles.)

Out in the suburbs, he pointed out Chiswick with its Edwardian housing. In Shrewtown, he pointed out the smallest and oldest jail I have ever seen (& you know I have seen a lot), a concrete space the size of a phone booth. He pointed out a very large pig farm and said his parents got him a book on pigs for Christmas so he’d know all about them. He poked fun of his parents, saying that they thought he gave pig tours, but I suspect the truth may be more that he does study up on these things, seems to take the job seriously and his parents were supporting him. Many of the details he shared were not so shop-worn as the tales one hears in, say, the Tower of London, but about things he has dug up in a book (real or imaginary) titled, What Is It. Perhaps it is the lack of history, but U.S. tour guides don’t seem so professionalized in the U.S. as they are here. Ours tend to be kids, given a script they know by rote, or re-enactors, who do know specifics, but only at one place. All the tour guides we saw that day (from 5-6 different companies) were all grown men in suitcoats or jackets. Not a single woman in sight in the job, which is a shame. Paul M takes the job seriously, with a great deal of humor, though not the old corny stuff…though there were his sheep jokes on the ride home through through the Cotswolds:

1)      What do you call a sheep with its legs cut off?  (A cloud.)
2)      How do you tell a male sheep from a female one? (You look for its “Bah code.”) 

Canola (yellow) crops

My Paul noticed that Paul M pointed out a badge he wore that he said took him 18 hours to earn, and I have since learned it means he is a "Blue Badge Guide," a professional organization of guides formed in 1950. If Paul M is any indication, they are really professional. If you'd like to know more about him, see his Facebook site, Paul Metcalfe, Blue Badge Guide.

After pointing out fields of canola (which I had just told Paul B. were weeds) and going past Chiton, where the British film, Return to Oz , was filmed, we passed through Minster, where Paul G. gave us many of our etymology lessons: Cities with “minster” in the name had monasteries “before Henry VIII shut them down,” place endings with “set” (as “Soerset”) are Roman names. And then, near Cley, with its Celtic hill fort, he pointed out after Cley and its hill fort and the town of Wolverine (and a lesson on place named for animals),then further out, a spot in the road called “Dead Maidens,” he told the legend of the maiden whom two men were to dual for. One killed the other in the back as he walked in the woods with his black dog, but when he returned, he told the maiden that he had won the duel fair and square. And she immediately keeled over dead, clearly her Truth o’ Meter set pretty high.


On the way on the path

Paul G. gave us awhile of silence till we arrived near Stone Henge. Then he told us that Stonehenge was nearly sold off to an American business man in the 19th c. but Dickens and others campaigned against it. Then there were decades where people arrived with picks and chipped off pieces to carry away, then in 1978, they shut it down. Now they actually allow visitors to get fairly close, but not close enough to touch. So we arrived, and got through fairly fast and picked up out accompanying audio cassette, and roamed amoung a hoard of bugs and people. The bugs were quite pesky and surprised even the people who worked there who said they had just attived. But constantly shooing them and dodging the crowd, I couldn’t really concentrate on audio and just heard, “Blahblahblah, lintel……mystery…we don’t know….blue rock….Brought from Wales, then dragged across land somehow….” I just looked, rather amazed at how open of a space it is in, how close we were, how many very different people were there. Most people were polite and everyone took photos of families and couples. I did hear a very British-accent say, “Of course, there isn’t anything to see in Ohio,” and I said, “But there is the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame! I.M. Pei design!” but he was long past, left in the dust of ignorance.  

Out in the grass
I was surprised that after the path, we could walk to the back of Stonehenge by walking through the grass, which isn’t worn down yet. And what is most amazing to me, past the mystery of “what is means” and how it marks the solstice, is what a fat lot of work it was and how thought out, to have the uprights topped with a point and the lintels with a slot so it fits in there and stays upright for centuries and centuries. And you know it wasn’t the businessmen doing the work, all that quarrying and dragging and shipping and lifting. Whew.

We saved time to visit the gift shop, where we did not buy t-shirts that say, “Stonehenge Rocks” nor mugs nor bags bearing the Stonehenge official logo, just four postcards and stamps. We shared a cup of slightly better coffee and a raisin scone and climbed back on board.

I wish I could say more of Stonehenge, but it was sort of like being in Paris my first time, effing amazing to be there, but sort of boggling too, can’t make any original observation, just the photo of us together, saying here we are, together as the stones.

Most of our fellow passengers were bearable, some even nice, like the couple behind us from near Seattle with their two teenage daughters ahead of us. And a young couple from Houston who thought it was terribly funny that people kept saying it was the warmest day of the year (75 degrees or so) where they had left 90 plus degree weather. One 75-year old couple fro L.A. (who kept saying they were 75) held hands the old way out and fought the whole way back. When Paul G. tried to tell them to take the Tube to their tour the next day, she said, “We really are more taxi people than Tube people,” and I empathized because we have taken many more taxis this trip than ever because of Paul B.’s sprained ankle and two weeks’ luggage.


So anyhow, we got back on the buses and rode out to Bath, where I thought often of Mary Diaz, our former student who so loved Jane Austen. The approach is “quite lawv-lee” as they say here, as Bath is surrounded by seven hills and tons of limestone “And 90 percent of the buildings are honey-colored stone.” The bus set us down just a block from the Information Center, where Paul M. gave us an overview the option to go with him or mosey on our own, and Paul and I set off looking for Queen’s Square, where the Jane Austen Centre was, but unmarked, would be an apartment where Shelley lived.

Plaque, "Circus"
We found the Jane Austen Centre and looked over the gift shop but decided not to do the tour. When we headed up the street, we bumped into Paul M., who was pointing out the real Jane Austen house, privately owned (“by a dentist, couldn’t get him to sell,” so the Centre was not where she really lived. (WHAT would one see on the tour then???)  We followed Paul up the street to the Circus, which would be a Rotary in New England and a Traffic Circle in the Midwest, but in fact, is more amazing for 

circus trees
 the building erected around the whole circle. There Paul M. gave an excellent architectural lecture on its outside features: no signs of technology, all the doors painted white, and each floor marked with a set of columns: one floor Doric, one Ionic, and one Corinthian. In the center, was a circle of ancient trees.

The Royal Crescent

From there, we walked to the left, up a short hill to the Royal Crescent,  another very old building of apartments in a big swooping crescent-shape. One good story there, though I most regret not getting a photo: As with the Circus, all apartment doors are to be painted white. One is yellow. It sees the woman there painted it when the city painted the edging bricks of the drive yellow because traffic had become a problem. She was told that she could not paint her door as it was a historical building with rules. She pointed out that the road too was historical and not to be painted. So far, both road and door remain yellow.

We walked to the Assembly Rooms, hoping to have tea where Jane Austen did, but the “tea room” was a snack bar, so we found some locally made gifts in the gift shop and a postcard for Mary and headed to find Shelley’s apartment—which we did, we think. Unmarked, and numbers do change, but I think we  were spot on. We went to the Sally Lunn shop for lunch, but we ended up getting Sally Lunn buns and tea and a very refreshing Elderflower drink at the Sally Lunn Shop. I was told it was sort of a brioche, and is was, a very large one, and then read that Sally was a Huegenott in 1680. I had one with lemon curd and clotted cream, Paul B had clotted cream and jam. In a bakery, I bought a “bath bun,” and I have to say the Sally Lunn bun (ahem) was much better.

We decided not to see The Baths. This may sound terrible, but after living in Segovia, I am sort of done with Roman architecture in general. So sorry! Paul B. and I separated to shop instead. I found a postcard of the “Pigs of Bath” for Paul G. I got fudge made with clotted cream in a box that said, “Thanks for taking care of my dog” for Judy in a wonderful wonderful penny candy shop and thought of Matt Lichter at the Tobacco Shop across the way. The Houston couple says smoking is illegal in any public place in Houston now, even the streets, so maybe Matt has quit with the cigars. I don’t think so, think I saw a mention of them on FB. Matt, keep the smoke out of Amanda’s lungs! I found two very cheap jokey things for Paul.


We boarded the bus and rode back, with some of Paul’s patter, like pointing out when we were in the Cotswolds and telling his sheep jokes.

Cotswolds, meaning
"Sheeps' Hills"
The bus crawled back to London in a snarl and stop of traffic, and finally set us down at a Tube stop where we finally got an Oyster card and took the tube back to the Tavistock Hotel. Along the way, we saw another blue plaque marking the home of a famous person. Paul liked this one:

A Secret Agent lived here

We weren’t there long, got an address and set out for Ciao Bellaan Italian restaurant that the man in the pub told us about the night before. Let me begin by summarizing my review: some of the best Italian food I have ever had in the very loudest space I have ever sat in:

We got a table smack tight in a line of tables, on my right a pair of young women, on our left, a middle-aged couple so happy I thought they weren’t married (after the couples I had been seeing the past two days). I ordered tuna, sliced thin and fanned out on a bed of rocket (argula, to us Gringos(, Paul ordered pasta with an Arribata sauce so spicey hot I couldn’t even taste it & he sooo loved it.. We were both very happy with that. Finally, I turned to the couple on my left and said, “Is it always this noisy?” He laughed and said, “No, it’s usually louder!” Then we talked quite a while to them. They are foodies who had drive three hours to eat there and they occasionally fly to Italy just to eat. She had been to NYC twice and loved it. They have two teenage daughters, “Twins who share the same DNA but are so different. One is working as a waitress on Lesbos, the other has applied to get a job as an elf in  Lapland during the holidays.” The husband seemed more of the outdoors type and when I told him my sister had lived and taught in Antwick, he said he had bought his fly fishing rod there.  

I also got up and spoke to a table of six women, three young ones on my left, three older ones on y right, who were passing around two fans and waving them. I told them I had been working on a poem about the painting, “Woman with a Fan” and was curious about their using them. I learned the three young women (from the U.K., Indian, and Greece) were best friends who had brought their mothers to meet for the first time. Both the Greek and the Indian woman had memories of their mothers carrying fans everywhere, and they were all sharing stories about those memories. They said they would send me a photo of them, but so far, they haven’t.
Fed and full, our ears literally ringing still with the din and  with a train to catch by 10 at Paddington, we walked back to the hotel and went to bed right after that very filling supper.

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