Thursday, August 14, 2014


 "The Best of Devon and Cornwall" tour map courtesy of Trafalgar Tours

To paraphrase Forrest Gump, “Tours are like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.” So it was with a tour I just took with Trafalgar Tours called “The Best of Devon and Cornwall”. Never having traveled with Trafalgar before, all I could do was cross my fingers and hope the trip would live up to its advertising.  And, it did! In fact, I was very pleasantly surprised—it was excellent!

The tour centered on the southwestern regions of England and the rugged and romantic coasts of Cornwall and Devon. In six days time, we toured historic Stonehenge, Bath, Salisbury, Tintagel (where the legendary King Arthur called home), Polperro (a picturesque fishing village clinging to the sides of a rocky cliff), Plymouth (in whose docks the Mayflower and Mayflower II were built and launched), Wells Cathedral (the oldest Gothic church in England), Cheddar Gorge (cheese, yum!), Lacock (a perfectly preserved 15th century Cotswold village), and Windsor Castle, just to name a few!

Day One: Stonehenge and Salisbury Cathedral

Forty expectant souls clambered aboard the massive tour bus outside our hotel in London on what promised to be a spectacular day. We were greeted by our guide, Stephen Morris, and our driver, Michael Sinclair. I could tell we were in good hands with both of them, especially Stephen, a seasoned tour guide veteran who knew how to keep a few dozen people happy and corralled at the same time, which isn’t easy. His charges, the majority from Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, had already been on vacation for weeks and were primed for a good time. We few Americans aboard knew from their infectious laughter that it was going to be a great trip!

Stonehenge, The Second Time Around

Our first stop out of London was Stonehenge. I'd been there before in 2012 and had been so disappointed to find that no one could get any closer to the famous monolith than a few hundred feet. At that distance, I felt no connection to it at all. Roped off and inaccessible, it might as well have been just a pile of stones as far as I was concerned. Of course, I could understand the necessity of protecting them, but that was ridiculous. I almost needed binoculars!  

 This was as close as we could get to Stonehenge in 2012. 

The keepers of Stonehenge must have heard that complaint loud and clear because this time we were allowed to get much closer, about 15 feet from the western side of it. I was thrilled!  The stones weren't close enough to touch, however, they were close enough for me to get an idea of their sheer size and mass. This time I felt what the builders intended: that this is a place of great importance, a place that commands respect and reverence. Thankfully, I can say that I experienced the wonder of Stonehenge, at last!

 Stonehenge up close and personal in 2014!

Another improvement in the last two years is the addition of a new Visitor’s Center. Located a mile or so from the monoliths, it houses a gift store and café on one side, and a museum with a wonderful virtual reality display of the monument on the other. I’d heard so much about the “virtual tour” I couldn’t wait to see it, and I wasn’t disappointed. Projected on 360 degree floor to ceiling screens, a recreated Stonehenge seemingly ages through centuries of seasons, and from spring into winter, and solstice to solstice. I stood in the middle of it for a long time, trying to imagine what it must have been like to have seen Stonehenge in its prime when it was used as a place of ceremony and celebration.
 The virtual tour of Stonehenge in the Visitor's Center

 Stonehenge: Granddaddy of All Standing Stones.

What I find fascinating, is that there are “standing stones” all over England and Europe. Obviously, there had to be something about hoisting huge stones into an erect position and arranging them in a circular pattern that was important to prehistoric people. Stonehenge is unique because it is the biggest, most elaborate, and possibly, the last of the standing stones in the UK. What its actual use was is still debated, but it is generally agreed that it was a place of burial and worship, as well as for calculating the solstices and seasons. And, let's not forget about the celebrations that took place after all the serious business of sacrifices and funerals were out of the way. I'll bet the parties that followed would make Woodstock look like a Victorian picnic!

 Fields of poppies and thistle brighten the landscape. Recreated huts located outside
 the Visitor's Center are an example of the dwellings the builders of Stonehenge used.
 Bottom right is a model of a shaped stone with a "tenon" on the top. The lintels
 (horizontal stones on top) were fitted onto the standing stones using the woodworking
 joints of mortise (the hole) and tenon (the peg).
 The lintels were locked together using a tongue and groove joint.
 This monument was meant to last forever.

We stopped just long enough in Salisbury to get a quick view of the Cathedral and the very important document it houses: one of just four copies of the Magna Carta. The Magna Carta was the first document imposed upon a King of England by a group of his subjects in an attempt to limit his powers by law and protect their rights. It’s considered an important part of the historical process that led to the rule of constitutional law in England and beyond. In Washington D. C., it is often displayed next to the Constitution of the United States and the Bill of Rights. 

 Salisbury Cathedral

(I actually visited Salisbury Cathedral twice on this trip. The second time was a couple of weeks later after joining up with my good friends Tom, Kay, and their granddaughter, Sutherland, in London. We hadn't been there long when a wedding party drove up to the front door in two matching 
Rolls-Royces! I would love to know who got married!)

 A Salisbury Cathedral wedding. Congratulations!

Scenes of the town of Salisbury.

Next Time: The Cornish Coast!

Good Reads: “New Forest” by Edward Rutherfurd. A grand historical novel centered around Salisbury and nearby New Forest. The book is a painless and enjoyable way to understand England’s history.

"London” by Edward Rutherfurd: A great read full of engrossing stories and English history. I’m on my second reading!

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