Time played a major role in my day trip from London to Stonehenge and Bath. It meant getting up early, for a start, an activity that has never been one of my strong points. But such is the allure of Stonehenge and Bath that I made the effort to roll out of bed in time to join the tour at Victoria Coach Station in central London for a tour that would cross the country and take us back roughly 5000 years.
Clutching my complimentary ticket from experiences company Tinggly, I made myself comfortable, secure in the competence of our gruffly affable driver and formidably knowledgeable guide, a veritable font of information. The sun was shining as we headed west, leaving the city behind and heading out into the countryside. Snowdrops and gorse lined the motorway, tantalising hints of spring. It may have been early, but I had clearly chosen a good day to travel.
The first sight of Stonehenge is always a marvel. For a site that has been so long studied and speculated upon, it retains its air of mystery. Situated on Salisbury Plain, this World Heritage Site dominates the landscape as it has done since it was first built some 5000 years ago.
Recently, the site has had a long overdue revamp. Its increasing popularity over the years meant that the visitor facilities were not adequate to meet the demand, while the A344 road passed so close to the Heel Stone you could practically touch it. The road cut the monument off the ceremonial Avenue, accentuating the false impression that Stonehenge existed in splendid isolation.
After much controversy, the old facilities were demolished in 2013 and the A344 was closed and grassed over. In December that year a new visitor centre was opened at Airman’s Corner, about a mile and a half from the stones. Stonehenge has been reunited, not only with The Avenue, but also with the wider landscape, which is home to a large complex of Stone and Bronze Age sites. It’s an archaeologist’s heaven.
The new Visitors’ Centre houses a fascinating museum and exhibition space, and is also home to reconstructions of Neolithic dwellings. These round houses with their thatched roofs are based on finds made at recent excavations at Durrington Walls, the remains of a huge wooden henge to the north of Stonehenge, and may have been the place where those who built Stonehenge lived. They certainly ate well, if the amount of animal bones discovered is any indication.
If you have some time, it is possible to walk to the stones from the Visitors’ Centre, but you can also take a shuttle bus. On this occasion the bus afforded welcome shelter from the wind. Bright and sunny it may have been, but warm it was not. Stonehenge is situated in a very exposed spot, and the wind can be fierce. I would advise wrapping up warmly.
Now that the A344 has been grassed over, the site is amazingly peaceful. If you can ignore the faint murmur of traffic from the more distant A303 and the occasional thunder of helicopters – Salisbury Plain is also a military training area – it is possible to imagine what this region must have been like all those millennia ago. Bronze Age burial barrows, eroded by the wind and the march of time, dot the surrounding landscape, as do the occasional haystack and flocks of sheep, the latter more interested in munching grass than pondering the mysteries of the stones.
Stonehenge has been the subject of all manner of theories and speculations, involving a wide variety of actors, including the Druids, the Romans and even the Vikings. The stones may have been erected thousands of years before such figures existed, but some ideas remain impervious to the facts. While the sheer physical reality of Stonehenge is striking, the many layers of myth and fantasy that has been woven about it over the centuries have added yet more layers to its fascination.
After Stonehenge, we moved on to Bath, a compact city of around 80,000 people. Built of distinctive Cotswold stone, the city is also a World Heritage Site, thanks to its exquisite architecture. While there is little left of its Roman heyday, apart from the reconstructed Roman baths, the city is awash in fine Georgian buildings. If Jane Austen were to return to the city there is little doubt she would still recognise it. The grand sweep of the Royal Crescent looks like a stage set for a film of one of her novels.
The Romans appreciated the site’s thermal waters, and quickly established a city named Aquae Sulis, in honour of the native god venerated here, who became conflated with the Roman goddess Minerva. While you can no longer take the waters at the old Roman baths, you can do so at the new Thermae Bath Spa, which opened to the public in 2006. Here you can relax as the Romans used to, although I am fairly sure they have plenty of lockers, so you don’t need to bring a slave with you to guard your belongings.
The city had moments of greatness after the Romans left, as a glance at Bath Abbey, just across from the Roman baths, will testify. There has been a church on this site since 757 AD. King Edgar, the first king of a united England, was crowned here in 973.
If the Romans and the Georgians don’t tempt you, Bath has a number of other attractions, including museums devoted to fashion, the Fleet Air Arm, east Asian art, astronomy and the Masons. If you can’t find something to interest you in Bath, you simply aren’t trying.
Night had fallen by the time we returned to London, windswept and pleasantly fatigued. We had covered a lot of ground during the day, voyaging from the Neolithic, Roman and Georgian eras, and as I made my way home I pondered on the nature of time travel. In the absence of the Tardis, my day in the West Country was probably the next best thing.
This post was sponsored by Tinggly, where you can give the gift of a great travel experience.
Written by and photos by Paris Franz