Our last day of this stay in London was a bit short as we had to be at Gatwick to pick up our rental car in the afternoon. We ended up taking a nice long walk up into Kensington and across Kensington Gardens/Hyde Park. London continued with its hot sun/cloud and cold wind switches in five minute intervals so this walk ended up being a lot putting on my jacket, taking off my jacket. The gardens themselves were beautiful, though we missed the dogs as we saw any number of pups enjoying the park. We passed Kensington Gardens where Will and Kate will be living when in London then walked down the park checking out the gorgeous Albert Memorial as well as the rather silly Princess Di moving necklace of water thing. I can only imagine what living near the park costs, but I couldn’t help but imagine living in London as we sat by the serpentine and enjoyed a slice of cake and a bevy.
Sadly it wasn’t going to be long before we had to head to Gatwick so we began a circuitous walk back via Notting Hill where we had a quick look at the markets but things were bonkers and it was time to head back so we walked down to the tube station… and found that to go anywhere we had to hop back to Notting Hill gate station. Once we arrived back at Notting Hill Gate to transfer we found a massive crush of people that wouldn’t let us get off the train. I practically had to shove my way in while yelling at them to let people off before they boarded. Sadly though, the reason that the central platform was so crowded was that the proper line wasn’t running from that station beginning that morning. This was particularly lovely as it forced us to walk what we’d already walked and put us a little behind schedule, but eventually we got back to the hotel to grab our bags and hopped another tube for Victoria Station.
It marks me as a giant nerd, but there is something incredibly romantic to me about taking a proper train out of London (Gatwick is a fair ways out for those who haven’t been there.) As the train heads out into the country the industry of south London fades away fairly quickly and soon you’re passing through residential neighbourhoods that again look like something out of a brit-soap. Yet there are so many points where you can only see the false tudor tops of houses, or perhaps a farmhouse on a ridge further out. At these moments all signs of modernity disappear from the view and you can easily imagine yourself in any number of old novels or movies. For me it was the scene from the opening of the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe when the Pevinseys are being evacuated from London during the blitz. All too quickly though we were back to reality as we picked up the rental car and my father reacquainted himself with driving a manual while at the same time driving on the left, always fun. Eventually we managed to get on the right road and on our way. I’ll never understand the brit fascination for the roundabout. Don’t get me wrong, they absolutely have their place, but they show up far too often over here on what should be major uninterrupted stretches of road. Instead there’s a roundabout for every podunk back lane you cross.
Intellectually I know Europeans are used to tiny distances for everything, but I couldn’t help but be amazed at how close to the coast we actually were. Just driving down the highway for 20 minutes to get to the road we’d use to head west we ended up all of 15 miles from the English Channel. All the time in Australia I’d hear brits and other euros whine about how far of a drive it was to make it all the way up the coast, small wonder when driving across half the country is like driving to Brandon for us. The truly scary part of the journey wasn’t dad failing at roundabouts but instead nutso drivers (particularly motorcyclists) passing on blind corners and trying their damnedest to cause head-on collisions. At least twice we were in serious danger of a crash if dad hadn’t slammed on the brakes.
Our B&B turned out to not be quite in Salisbury but instead a few miles south in the New Forest. Driving into the narrow lane we ended up seeing some of the famous free roaming ponies just as we reached the turnoff for our place. Apparently there are absolutely tons of them, I can believe it since in the one small clearing by the pub there were probably 15 ponies and several foals grazing. We left them behind until later and found our home for the night where it turned out that our B&B “room” was actually a small contained suite with a bed and bath, kitchen, tv room and sunporch. As I write this the next night I’m sitting in a powered recliner on the sun porch and watching horses from a riding school nearby graze on the downs back towards Salisbury. We couldn’t believe our luck, especially at 90 pounds a night. The place was perfect, the surroundings were gorgeous and there’s a lovely pub within walking distance with a lovely Somerset cider on tap and delicious food on the table. Bliss.
The next morning we got up and were treated the second B of the B&B, a proper full English breakfast made to order like I hadn’t seen since Australia (including the baked beans and grilled tomato of course.) The plan for the day was to visit the city of Bath, famous of course for the ancient Roman bath complex as well as some gorgeous architecture. We did the full tour and explored the baths and accompanying frigidarium and caldarium (hooray for putting that art history course knowledge to use) as well as the temple finds. My parents say they’ve vastly increased the accessible area since their last visit 30 odd years ago. I loved the place, especially sitting in the main pool area, looking around at the ancient stones and imagining just how incredibly different Britain was back then. The juxtaposition of Bath Abbey rising above as you look up only reinforces how much history is concentrated in this little area. The abbey itself is a bit odd looking (being a 16th century restoration of an earlier 15/16th century catholic restoration of a more ancient cathedral.) It does have some beautiful stonework and what seems like a massive surplus of flying buttresses.
After a quickie late lunch at a sandwich/pasty shop we wandered around the rest of the old town enjoying the architecture and views of the river Avon until our parking was just about done. Since it was still relatively early and the site was on our way home we ended up heading to Stonehenge. It was a bizarre experience. Being from Canada I was honestly expecting a somewhat more involved experience with a big visitor center well back from the site itself and paths leading out to the point of interest. Instead, you come over a small rise and boom, there it is, more or less next to the road with the tiniest of gift shops and potties under a tunnel across the road. As you drive up it essentially looks like a car park in a farmer’s field (and basically is.) I later found out that they’re trying to raise the funds to do basically what I described… close that road (which actually bisects a chunk of the site) and move the visitor center well back with a shuttle to the site itself in a controlled manner. I hope they get their wish. The stones themselves are every bit as impressive as I expected. Somehow bigger AND smaller than I thought they would be there is a permanence about them that is intimidating. It makes you feel very aware of your insignificance… these stones have been standing here since 5000 odd years before you were born, and will likely still be there when you’re worm food twenty times over. While it may be crowded, the site is still big enough that you can find many a spot to take in the stones without 80 other tourists right in front of you. According to my parents you can also get much closer than you used to be able to (though they were here at a hot point in the Troubles so there was even barbed wire.)
We headed back to the New Forest for dinner, this time running into more ponies, pigs both tiny and enormous, a peacock and some sheep all crossing the road. I can’t really fathom driving down that road any later than we were, at least not without doing 5mph with a giant spotlight on the roof.
Tomorrow’s plans aren’t set yet, we’re likely heading into Swindon to inspect some family history and visit with someone before moving on to Cornwall. Pictures should be following shortly, I really should have uploaded some tonight while I had a decent connection but to be honest I’m a little too tired and I still want to write a postcard.