We went west. We had no real plans, apart from an urge to see and experience something a little different. In the course of three days, we would find a starling church, see lions and tigers (but no bears, oh well), fall in love with a dragon and meet a god. Not bad for England in September.
We rode out early on the first day, fearing heavy traffic on a road we had travelled before that had always slowed us down. Somehow, our timing was perfect for once, and the grim weather and slow movement we had feared never materialised. The sun broke through the clouds as we reached Stonehenge.
We had driven past the stones plenty of times before, but had never stopped. It was a good time to do it. We were between coach parties, and just past the school holidays. It wasn’t empty, but there was room to manoeuvre. A bedraggled Druid and his muse manned protest signs as we went under the path to the stones. They wanted better access, and a chance to use Stonehenge in the way it had been intended – as a church. As no-one’s really sure what Stonehenge’s true purpose is, I couldn’t sympathise.
It was a warm afternoon, and flocks of starlings swooped overhead, tying knots in the air. Then, as we watched, this happened.
For half an hour the starlings roosted quietly on the stones, getting the kind of access that the Druid across the road could only dream about. I couldn’t help but feel that they were using it as a meeting place, a point of community. In their still intensity, I couldn’t help but think of them at worship.
They were gone as suddenly as they’d arrived, and we walked back to the car, thinking that we’d witnessed something a little special. It will colour the way I look at the place from now on. I have a lot of respect for the major stone sites of England, and I always leave them knowing a little less, and feeling a little more wonder.
Our next stop was an unplanned one. Stourhead is a rambling estate laid out by banker and art patron Henry Hoare in the early 1700s. The gardens are extraordinary. They’re laid out to replicate some of Hoare’s favourite paintings, and there are plenty of rolling vistas, and follies and temples peeping into view.
While walking around the lake that forms the centrepiece of the grounds, we came across a spooky tunnel carved out of the rocks. We wandered in, to be confronted by …
The statue seems to glow, somehow, although there’s no obvious source of light. It’s a great bit of theatre, and a neat surprise in a place that’s full of tricks and playfulness. Loved it. Thank you, Henry.
We stayed at The Bath Arms, a short drive from our next spot. It’s a place I can solidly recommend. Good beer, great food, sharp service and well-priced. Plug over, but really, worth a stop if you’re in the area.
The next day was a simple pleasure. A trip to the zoo. Not just any zoo, of course. Longleat. I’d never been. The famous monkey jungle has been closed for a while due to a nasty case of monkey herpes. I was a bit relieved, to be frank. I’d heard enough horror stories about how the little buggers would rip off anything on the car that wasn’t bolted down. We weren’t too keen on being attacked by rage monkeys.
However, there were enough surprises waiting for us to make the lack of monkeys a distinct no-biggie.
Once out of the car finally, we took the rest of the day exploring the ground, and found a couple of memorable places.
The cheap-looking Old Toms Mine doesn’t look like much from the outside, but it’s home to a colony of bats. Unlike most bat enclosures I’d seen, there’s no barrier between them and us. It’s basically a big dark room full of bats. And it’s wonderful. They whizz past your ears, fluffing your hair as they zip around. They perch upside down, chirping at you. They dangle from fruit laden skewers. Sometimes they fall off, landing in a comedy heap. They’re goofy, sweet and hilarious. We walked out with big grins on our faces. Anyone that has a fear of bats needs to check these little guys out. They’ll change your mind in a moment.
We went to the petting zoo. Yes, alright. We’re soppy. But we fell in love with someone completely unexpected. I had an encounter with a Giant Hissing Cockroach, so friendly and used to people that he couldn’t be goaded into hissing for me.
And then we saw him. Our eyes met across a crowded room. Our new best friend. The Bearded Dragon.
He’s dry and cool to the touch, with the softest belly. He laid in my hand, and promptly rested his chin on my thumb and dozed off. I think it may have been love at first sight.
Heading back the following morning after good food and splendid beer at the Bath Arms (seriously, try the Horningsham Pride. I could drink it all night. Ok, I did.) we headed east, stoping off at Lacock, home of a stunning medieval abbey, and the place where William Fox Talbot made the first photographic negative in 1835.
This was a spur of the moment visit, but a big thing for both of us. TLC and I are both taking more photos these days, and although we’re digital, every shot we take owes a debt of history to Fox Talbot and his pioneering work. He took inspiration from his surroundings, and it’s completely understandable. The Abbey and it’s grounds are places where pictures jump out at you. By accident, and without foreknowledge, TLC managed to replicate Fox Talbots original photo.
As we headed for home, we felt sure that we’d done everything that we set out to do, and more. Every time we spend a couple of days touring this country, we find sights and experience that fill us with wonder and joy. This is a good place, and it’s good to be here.
For LOADS more pics of our adventures, hie thee to Flickr, where TLC has a fine set of our day at Longleat.
4 thoughts on “Way Out West”
When I first visited Stonehenge, in 1980, you could still circulate amongst the stones, which was pretty special, but also meant that there were muddy, scuffed trails all around and lots of writing on the stones. I have to admit, somewhat grudgingly, that it was better on my next visit, in 1986. Since then, I have been there several times and never fail to soak in the wonder. But no starlings, not ever.
They did pep up an experience that up to that point had needed a nudge of wonderment. I like the fact that they’ve kept the barriers as unobtrusive as possible, but I love being able to get up close to stones. Avebury seems to do it right, and the circle is pretty free of scrawls. One place where graffing is very much not welcome, I think!
Avebury, yes. I went there (also in 1980) and had a windy picnic; I think we got hit with a (dried) flying lamb-pie, of which there are/were many just lying around.