Wouldn't it be nice to drive through the English countryside in the sunshine, stopping off to visit some of the country's most famous sites? Well, that was the idea, anyway. Needless to say the weather didn't always co-operate (the sun frequently shone while we were driving about - just a shame about the rain, which generally set in the moment we dared step out the car...) Ah yes, our trusty car, Derek the Ford Fiesta, named after Derek Smalls of Spïnal Täp fame, as Fiestas are small and one of the stops on our tour was Stonehenge... where the demons dwell and the dwarves dance... etc.
Here's Derek, posing with Ian. Yes, Ian wore a Mediaeval coat on a campsite on Salisbury. It's warm, apparently. Whatever...
Anyway. We set out two weeks ago to circle England, hop across the border to South Wales, and then nip back up to Scotland. Here's the story of our travels, in pictures and somewhat random words...
We started our tour staying with my parents in Cheshire. Cuz we're adventurous like that. Whilst there, we visited Biddulph Grange Gardens (left) in Staffordshire. Enormously interesting and inventive, the gardens are pure Victoriana, full of mad statues and follies.
Check out the crazy Chinese garden (below), which comes complete with an enormous gold cow shrine (seriously). It rained of course, but then again, according to my dad, it always rains in Biddulph.
We also visited Little Moreton Hall, the most photographed building in Cheshire. I must have been here a hundred times, but this picture perfect black and white Tudor house never loses its charm. Here's another photograph to add to the collection...
Next stop Wiltshire, with one night in a hotel in Salisbury followed by two nights camping on Salisbury Plain. The Stonehenge Touring Park turned out to be, well, not that near Stonehenge, but was a nice, friendly place and made a perfect base for touring the surrounding area. Of course Salisbury Plain is entirely made of chalk, which doesn't make for comfy sleeping in a tent. And it's bloody difficult getting tent pegs into the ground too...
Built in the 12th century, Salisbury Cathedral is a masterpiece of gothic architecture, all soaring spires and delicate stone tracery. Particularly interesting is the Chapter House, which features a wonderful frieze of stone carvings depicting stories from the books of Genesis and Exodus, including Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel and Noah's Flood. Shame you're not allowed to take pictures of it, really! You can also see one of the four surviving copies of the Magna Carta on display there. Goodness knows how anybody ever read it - the script is eye-wateringly small!
The Salisbury Cathedral website has some proper pics of the exterior and interior.
On the way out of Salisbury (nice one way system by the way - not!), we stopped off at Old Sarum, the site of the original city of Salisbury, before it outgrew the space. You can see the remains of the old motte and bailey castle, and the foundations of the original cathedral. A serious amount of digging must have gone on to create those earthbank fortifications!
Find out more about Old Sarum at the English Heritage website.
Stonehenge is the reason we went to this area of the country. I hadn't been there since I was a child and really wanted to see it again. And yes, I know it's not like the good old days when you could walk right up to the stones and touch them and hug them and chip bits off them with a hammer, but the barrier put up around the mighty monument is very unobtrusive and no matter how much you fence it in, you can't destroy the power of the Henge. We visited Stonehenge at about six o'clock in the evening, in order to avoid the tourist hordes. It was still fairly busy, but nevertheless there's an immense sense of peace and stillness about the place. As the sun prepares to set, the stones cast long shadows across the grass, and it's amazing to think that for 4,000 years, people have stood on this spot and stared in awe and wonder at Stonehenge...
See more Stonehenge pics at stonehenge.co.uk - and about a million other sites on the internet...
The next day we set off (in the rain) in search of the white horses of Wiltshire. Although the carving of figures into chalk hillsides goes back to ancient times, the horses of Wiltshire were all made over the last 300 years. In order to see a truly old horse, you have to hop over the border into Oxfordshire, to the Vale of the White Horse on the Berkshire Downs.
The first horse we visited was in Pewsey. A fairly recent horse, it was cut in 1937 to commemorate the coronation of King George VI, and replaces an earlier model cut in 1785. It's rather a cute, perky wee thing, bless it, with a swishy tail and great big grass eye (below). And as you stand above it, you can see crop circles in the fields below. Wiltshire is big on its crop circles. Books called things like Crop Circles and why they really are made by aliens, honest abound in the hippy dippy bookstores of Salisbury and Avebury - check out the Weird Wiltshire website if you don't believe me. But I don't think the circles we saw were made by aliens. The paths are a bit of a give away. Signs? Only that some people have too much spare time on their hands. (Sez she...)
Next stop Marlborough. Marlborough don't seem to love their poor wee horse much - that or they're trying to protect it from the prying eyes of tourists, because there are no signposts to it at all. Still, we managed to track him down - and were drenched in a downpour for our pains!
The Uffingham Horse is the daddy of chalk horses. Cut into the Berkshire Downs around 3,000 years ago during the Bronze Age, it's an elegant creature, sleek, stylish but with a modest tilt of the head. Our photos don't really show it to its best advantage, but if you go to the Wiltshire White Horses website, you can see it in all its glory.
Just below the Uffingham Horse is Dragon Hill, supposedly where St George slayed the dragon. Don't you just love British traditions?
Last but certainly not least, the Westbury Horse. The oldest of the Wiltshire White Horses, it was cut in 1778 and replaces a much older (and somewhat odd looking) horse which dated from the Iron Age (unless of course it was a fake - no-one is entirely sure). The Westbury Horse is huge, over 100 feet high and can be seen from miles around. During the Second World War, it had to be covered up with turf, as it was such an obvious landmark for enemy bombers! Sadly, the horse was covered in concrete and painted white during the 1950s, when the expense and hassle of maintaining the chalk outline became too much. Still, he's very impressive and well worth a visit.
The Wiltshire White Horses website explains the history of all the horses in the area - there were 13 but only eight are still visible.
If you've seen the film Still Crazy (and if not - why not?) you may recognise Avebury. It's the place where the ageing members of Strange Fruit get together to discuss a reunion tour. We had a drink in the very pub they visit - and were charged £4.30 for a pint and an apple juice for the privilege!
But fiscal considerations aside, Avebury is a really special, even magical, place. The ancient stones stand proudly in a vast semi-circle that stretches out on either side of the little village, and you can walk right up to them and touch them and hug them - as demonstrated here! Like Stonehenge, it manages to be peaceful even when swamped with visitors, and I loved strolling between the stones soaking up the tranquil atmosphere.
Find out more about Avebury at Stonehenge-Avebury.net.
Our next destination was Devon, but on the way we stopped off in Sherborne to visit the Old Castle. Sherborne is roughly the size of our street, and yet it boasts not one but two castles. The first dates back to the early 12th century and became the home of Sir Walter Ralegh at the end of the 16th century. However, the great explorer quickly tired of upgrading the old castle into a fashionable new pad, so decided to build himself a new mansion instead (that'll be the new castle). Elizabethan noblemen 'ey. Pshaw!
With its imposing archways and crumbling ruined walls, it looks like something out of an Ann Radcliffe novel - gothtastic!
The Heritage Trail website has lots of info about Sherborne Old Castle.
Despite visiting the romantic (and haunted) ruins of Berry Pomeroy Castle and enjoying a trip to the beach at Broadsands, all our photos we took whilst staying with my grandmother in Devon are of her dogs and cat.
And then it was time to pop across the border into South Wales, to take part in the Siege of Coity, just outside Bridgend. Well, Ian was taking part in the siege, I was just soaking up the sunshine and showers (in fairly equal measures) and enjoying the organic cider. The event was somewhat marred by the fact that we had to camp in a field full of fresh, smelly cowpats... mmm!... but on the whole a good time was had by all.
Last stop Ludlow, in Shropshire. Home of delicious sausages and hotels with hot running water and comfy beds - bliss! We chose Ludlow because we wanted to go to the magnificent Norman castle... which we then utterly failed to photograph. Check out www.ludlowcastle.com to see what it looks like!
Here's a picture of the hotel we stayed in, the Feathers, 'the most handsome inn in the world'. This splendid Jacobean hotel is gorgeous inside, all dark wood and sloping ceilings. And the restaurant is fantastic!
And so time to head home. It had been a fascinating fortnight, taking in some of the most impressive sights Britain has to offer. Total mileage? 1,435 miles. Not bad, 'ey? Can't wait to tour Scotland now...