9 July 2012
Today was one of those amazing days. Two things crossed off my bucket list. To be honest, only one of them was on my list before it happened; the other was simply a once-in-a-lifetime event. The day included seeing the Olympic Torch relay, visiting Highclere Castle (where they film Downton Abby), experiencing Stonehenge, and enjoying Avebury.
THE OLYMPIC TORCH RELAY
Clare had mentioned that the Olympic Torch Relay would be happening right in front of the rental car agency and train station, so there would be no way to pick up the car on Monday. It turned out to be very handy to have it for the whole weekend anyway. We watched the weather, but it was a nice English day, with clouds and the possibility of rain, but also some sun rays. We drove to Bletchley (the town I still can't say...) and walked down to the route. The path of the Olympic Torch through England allows 95% of the country to be within a 10 mile drive of its path. It was a very festive atmosphere where we were. The children were told to come late to school and go see the torch. Where we were standing was a short walk from 2 elementary schools, so there were lots of children and young families. We got there around 9am and were standing on a curb on the side of the road, but after 20 minutes or so, they closed the street so we could stand right in the intersection. It was a lot like the anticipation of the Rose Parade and an equally enthusiastic crowd. The road to our left rose up a hill which meant we could see quite a ways down the road. One of the torch handoffs was on that rise, so we could see that also.
There was an older woman to our left who had an iPad that she was using as a camera. At first, she was holding the cover above it, so it blocked a huge amount of both our view and the view of those around us. Clare was close enough to ask her to turn it over so the cover was down, which helped a lot. The funny thing was that once the torch was coming, she had switched the camera and was recording herself and us (behind her), but a kind man walked over and showed her how to switch it. The screen was big enough that, if she was in my way, I was just going to record her screen;-)
Every time a car would go by, everyone would get very excited and then realize it was not it. There was someone standing near us whose sister was at the Bletchley Park (an old code-breaker center from WWII--think a "Beautiful Mind" because that man was from here) in the center of town and we knew from them texting that the torch hadn't left there yet. There were lots of busses from sponsors that came through: Samsung, Coca-cola, Lloyds. Eventually, it was time. The camera I have has a decent zoom lense, though it is hard to hold your arms straight up in the air and hold them steady. We could see the hand off, the runners dance a little jig together, and then it was off in our direction. Clare and mom got some great pictures and I got pretty good video tape. Each runner gets to keep their torch once the flame is passed on. It was a far more exciting moment that I thought it might be. Can't wait to see the torch get to the opening ceremony in London.
HIGHCLERE CASTLE (Downton Abby)
When I told my mom that I really wanted to see Stonehenge, she said that she wanted to see Downton Abby. She had been watching the series on PBS and had seen a show about the people who own the real castle. Clare is a super-slueth when it comes to internet research and planning an event, so I let her know and she had completely taken charge. She found out it was called Highclere Castle and that they do tour and on what days and times, etc. It was also fairly close to Stonehenge, so we put it on our itinerary for the day. On Sunday night, we looked it up again to see if we could buy tickets ahead of time and realized it now said "Sold Out" for the day we were planning on. We figured we would just go anyway and play ignorant. Worst case scenerio, we get a photo of the outside and move on.
I did a lot of the driving because Clare was navigating. There were many small roads and it took a fair amount of concentration on my part. Most of the day was spent on the country roads and there was no way to count all the roundabouts we went through!
When we got to Highclere Castle, there were several tour busses and cars. We parked and walked up to the entrance and asked for our tickets. I was the only adult all day...apparently any special rate is called "concession" here so Clare had a student concession and my had a senior concession and I was the only "adult." That was a nice feeling;-) Turns out they pre-sell a certain number on the internet and then have tickets for those who just show up. Fortunately, those were not sold out, so we got in. The first thing we did was go to the cafe to get some lunch. We had quiche and potatoes (the Brits are big on their potatoes) and a salad or veggie. We ate outside between the rain showers and then went into the castle. The tour is self-guided and, in certain rooms, there are small placards that say which DA character uses this as a bedroom or study, etc. There was no photography or cell phones allowed in the castle and it is stilled used by the family that owns it.
There were lots of family photos in the rooms and there were several pictures of Queen Elizabeth when she was younger because she would visit the father of the current Earl and stay at the castle.
I feel like I've made a pilgrimage on behalf of all PBS watchers...guess I better get caught up on Netflix.
This was on my bucket list. I've been to England many times before (not as many as the Netherlands, but at least 3 times) and I've always wanted to go to Stonehenge. When I was speaking about it with friends in states, one of them said it was great, but that I should also go to Avebury. We had rented the car for this day, so after the castle we headed off to find Stonehenge. Stonehenge dates from about 3500 BC. As we drove over the rise above it, Clare said, "There's Stonehenge." My initial surprise caused me to say, "That's a lot smaller than I thought it would be." (Yes, I had forgotten to take perspective and distance into account.)
It is now a National Trust Site in England. We parked across the street from the site and paid to enter. We were each given a headset with information about the site to listen to on the way around. Clare rightly pointed out that because everyone was listening to their own information about the site, there was not a lot of loud talking. It kept it feeling reverent and spiritual as we walked around the outside of the circle. There were several workers setting up around the monument. They were actually setting up for a festival that is starting tomorrow night. It's going to be a fire festival in conjunction with the Olympic Torch arriving there. I spent several minutes taking photos with the specifie goal of not having any people and/or things that were not originally there in the photo. A good zoom lens sure does make that more possible!
I was interested to find out the a full 1/3 of the upright stones are below the surface of the ground. It is also clear that the "why" of Stonehedge is still the unanswered question. It seems to be clear that it was a type of calendar and there is a clear connection with the summer solsticed. That day is a huge festival and pagan religious ceremony at the site. I enjoyed walking about and learning about the legends and background of the site. I'm glad we went, but I was feeling a bit overrun by people. This is one of the downsides of traveling both in summer and the summer when 1 million people are expected here for the Olympic Games. A truly impressive site, though!
It was getting on in the afternoon when we got to Avebury. We barely made it into the tea shop, but we did make it. We had a "proper English cream tea at a National Trust tea shop," according to Clare. An English cream tea has nothing to do with the tea. They serve scones with fresh clotted cream and jam. There is a bit of history here. I have never been impressed with scones. I don't find it coincidental that they are only one letter away from "stones." I've always been told I've just never had a "good one" and, until now, I would definitely say that is true. Clotted cream is the consistancy of butter. If you leave out fresh milk, the cream rises to the top and that is then left to harden. If you churn it, you get butter. I had a cheese scone with lots of the cream and raspberry jam...YUM! That tea time alone was worth the journey to Avebury.
After we had our tea, we headed out to walk among the stones. The friend who recommended this was right...there is a very different, and even more reverent, feel in this town. The stone rings surround the town and there a sheep grazing among them. We walked around the paths and through the tall grass with the sheep. The large circle is one where you could probably see from one side to the other, but the diameter is well over 200 yards. We followed the stones around and got to walk right up to them. When we crossed the street to the other part of the circle, there way a little boy running around one of the large stones. In the stone was a type of seat and it is called the "Devil's Seat." Tradition is that if you run around it 100 times the devil will appear. The boy was on number 10 or 11 when we approached. I climbed in the seat just for a photo option.
Mom headed back down to the car and Clare and I followed the circle around. The ground around there is all white chalk and, with the rain, was quite slippery. (In the fields around the area, there are several cutouts of horses from 100s of years ago. You can see the shape in the mountains as you drive by. We saw one of them as we left the town.) We headed around the circle and got back to the car where we were supposed to meet Mom. She wasn't there, so we left a note and went to find her. She was back in town and we all headed back to the car.
Overall, this was a truly amazing day. Great sites, spectacular events, and wonderful company. It was the highlight of the trip for me!