Friday, July 27, 2012

Our Trip to Europe: Historical Sites in England (Part 4 - Really Old Stuff)

It’s one thing to look at medieval sites and think, “wow, that’s old.”  It’s a whole different kind of old when you find yourself looking at Iron Age or Bronze Age sites.

That’s old.

We visited several of these while we were in England, and quite possibly saw many more, though it’s hard to tell with most of them because all you’re looking at is patterns in the hillsides.  Few sites that old have survived as anything other than mounds or ditches, and unless you know what you’re looking for (i.e. you’re better informed than I am) you will probably miss them.  Fortunately Julie and Richard know about these things, and so we learned.

Of course, Stonehenge is fairly obvious.

Stonehenge was one of the things that was on the girls’ short list of things they wanted to see while they were in England, so we took a ride out there one day.

The first thing you notice about Stonehenge is that it is right by the road.  Seriously – from the center line of the A344 (a two-lane highway) to the first stone that is considered to be part of Stonehenge is about twenty feet or so, and to the main circle of stones it is maybe three times that. 

The second thing you notice is that it is crowded.  Stonehenge is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the UK, and unlike the US – where it would be surrounded by multi-story parking garages, fast food joints, and shopping malls – it is pretty much out in the middle of nowhere, with one fairly small parking area and an English Heritage gift shop on the other side of the highway.  When we initially drove by we couldn’t get in, so we continued on and spent the first part of the day visiting Salisbury Cathedral, not too far away.

We scored on the return trip, though, and found parking.  We paid our admission and headed off through the tunnel underneath the A344 to get up close.

You can’t actually go up to Stonehenge anymore.  There are simply too many idiots even for the British to cope with – and they cope with idiots far more effectively than most cultures, from what I can tell – so there are ropes and such too keep you back.  Nothing too obtrusive, mind you – just polite reminders that really, you should stay back a bit.  Thank you.

The other thing you notice about Stonehenge is that it is surprisingly small.  The whole circle is only about 25 or 30 yards in diameter, and you can walk around it at tourist speed, taking photographs the whole way, in about 45 minutes.  If you just wanted to circumnavigate it at normal speed it would probably take less than 5. 

That said, the stones themselves are huge and very impressive.  And it’s nice to have them there, out on the Salisbury Plain, by the highway, where you can see them.

The ironmongery that you see in the photo above is from an Artist, whose crew was setting up for some kind of fire-intensive midnight show a couple of days later.  We thought about going back to see it, just briefly, but decided that would be too silly even if we didn't already have other plans.

Afterward we retired to the gift shop, as was our usual custom for historical sites on this trip.  We found a few things that we wanted, and then went over to the cafe where we snacked and hung out for a while.  Eventually things got silly.

That’s Lauren doing her “Deaf Pirate” imitation.  For the benefit of those of you who are unfamiliar with American Sign Language, that symbol she’s making with her left hand is an “R.”


If you really want to get up close to a standing stone circle – a big one – you need to go to Avebury.

Avebury is a large area filled with sheep poop, out of which rise several different standing stone circles.  The largest is maybe half a mile across, more or less, and there are at least two smaller, non-concentric circles (as well as a good-sized chunk of the modern village of Avebury) contained with in it.  Leading off to the side are two different avenues of parallel stones extending quite a ways.  It’s really very impressive. 

The white building in the background of that last photo is the pub where we had lunch.  It advertises itself as the only pub in the UK that is wholly within a standing stone circle, and my guess is that this is correct.

We spent much of our time there debating theories of how the stones could have gotten there, and most of them revolved around sheep.  Most of those, in fact, concerned variations on sheep poop, because that’s the kind of fun we have.  My favorite, though, was suggested either by Richard or Magnus and held that these stones were ancient carvings of sheep, made by sheep, that have been weathered by time into unrecognizability.  They’re the ovine form of the Easter Island statues, really.

The neat thing about Avebury, as opposed to Stonehenge, is that you can go right up to the stones.

We got there on a rainy, blustery day – one of only two days where we didn’t get any real break from the weather and the only one we spent mainly outside, as it was our last tourist day in England and we figured we'd dry off when we got back the US – and we hiked around the stones, going up to them, weaving around them, and generally doing our best to avoid the sheep, as we were specifically instructed to do.  Really, it was the only specific instruction we received from the folks there.  "Mind the sheep!"  You have to open and close a number of paddock gates to see the whole thing and the sheep wander fairly freely throughout.  Apparently they get annoyed at the tourists sometimes (who can blame them?) and can charge.  They’ve got horns.  They know what to do with them.

Part of the trail takes you up onto a small ridgeline of chalky soil.

The chalk makes a mud that is less slippery than normal mud – we were connoisseurs of mud by this point – and therefore the trail was a welcome break.

We then wandered down to see the avenues of standing stones, which were impressive and rather more bovine than the circle area.

Avebury is more than just standing stones, however.  Not far away – a good walk in nicer weather – is Silbury Hill. 

Now, to me, this looks like … a hill.  But it’s not a natural part of the landscape.  It was built sometime between 2400 and 2000 BCE and is surprisingly complex for a hill – there’s a central mound of gravel and clay, covered by a thick layer of turf and soil, covered by another thick layer of chalk and soil, covered by even more layers – the whole thing is now 37 meters (121 feet) high, with a top that is 30 meters (98 feet) wide and a base that is 500 meters (half a kilomoter, or roughly 1600 feet) in circumference, making it the largest prehistoric mound in Europe.  Nobody really knows why it was built or what function it might have served, but one presumes that there was a reason - that's a lot of work to go through just for kicks.

You can’t really climb it, and it was raining too hard for us to hike up closer, but you can get a fair sense of it from where we stood.  It was quite impressive.

Our final stop that day was the West Kennet Long Barrow, an ancient grave site that again would have been a nice walk on a sunnier day.  The Barrow sits about half a mile uphill from the road, and you just get out and walk – no tickets, no guards, no nothing except an informative sign at the top telling you that you’ve just walked to a 5500-year-old gravesite.

By this time the rain was really beginning to hammer down on us.

So we went inside.  You can do that. This never failed to amaze me, how easy it was to go right up to and inside such things.

It was snug and dry in there, and we explored a bit while the rain slowly slacked off.  There are no bones there anymore – they’ve all been moved out – so you could just look around without worrying about disturbing anything.

Eventually the rain stopped, and we went back home.

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