LONDON DAY FOUR: MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR

Exhaustion hit last night, so when some sort of alarm went off at 1:45 AM that quickly turned off again, I couldn’t be bothered. Like a cat in a bath, Sandy instantly levitated from the bed, evidently concerned about fire or some such and kept talking to me and waking me back up until I asked her to look out the window and see if people were exiting the hotel. When she reported in the negative I sank back to unconsciousness without a worry. Today we discovered an alarm in the kitchen went off, but all was fine. Which is good, because I wasn’t going ANYWHERE at 1:45 AM. Somehow in the hub-bub, our clock alarm became unset, so, had we not ordered a breakfast delivery for 7:45, we would not have awoken until the call from our delightful tour guide, Jannine.

Breaking all records for showering, make-up and hair styling, Sandy and I staggered into the back seat of the van and fell prey to the soothing tones of what can best be described as a blonde Emma Thompson. I could swear our guide sounded just like her in “Love Actually.” I just hope she introduces us to her brother, the Hugh Grant look-alike.

Our tour today was laid out in a sort of triangle. We headed for the first stop, Avebury. The village of Avebury has a ring of standing stones running right through it. Many are missing, but small pedestal type rocks mark the places where they are missing. Here, unlike Stonehenge, we are able to touch the stones. A large ditch surrounds the inner circle. These are Neolithic ruins, and the process for raising them involved a great deal of ingenuity. Also unlike Stonehenge, these stones are not shaped to specifics. They are more organic looking, as if boulders rose to stand at attention. One third of their length is buried in the ground.

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As we left the field and made our way out the gate, Sandy took a misstep. By the time I whipped around, it appeared she had tumbled head over arse down the three stone steps. I have since been informed she merely SLID. There was no flipping involved. Although slightly damaged, she bounced to her feet and carried on. Bully for Sandy! I could not have recovered with quite the aplomb.

Next stop was Glastonbury, reputed burial ground of King Arthur and Guinevere. On the way there, Jannine pointed out the hedgerows lining either side of the road and told us many are being destroyed to take advantage of as much planting field as possible. There is actually a group now named “Save the Hedgerows.” I envisioned Hugh Grant earnestly speaking to me on the telly saying, “Join me and Save the Hedgerows.” I’m in, Hugh, I’m in.

At Glastonbury we visited the thorn tree, reputedly from the crucifixion of Christ that Joseph of Aramathea planted when he stuck his staff in the ground. (Joseph was an uncle of Jesus’ and helped him carry the cross.) According to legend, the tree weeps blood at Christmas. This is confirmed by a friend of our tour guide, who claims to have a cutting. How said cutting was acquired has not been answered.

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We also saw the spot where the bodies of Arthur and Guinevere were found. The woman had long flaxen hair, but when the priests touched it, it turned to dust. They moved the remains to another spot near the high alter, where a marker sits today.

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Next, we ventured on to Stonehenge. Approximately a jillion people were in line. Buses unloaded hordes of Japanese tourists and elderlies. Jannine skipped ahead to speak with the ticket agents, purchased two passes for Sandy and me, and we happily pushed our ways through the jumble to enter the walkway that leads to the stones, no doubt cutting half an hour off our time.

Awesome is the only word to describe this mystery. TV, movies and photos do not reveal the amazing sensation of being in the presence of the stones. Every angle reveals a new perspective that must be photographed. The stones are aligned so on the day of the summer solstice and winter solstice, the sun is perfectly aligned with the structure. Jannine said the people who constructed it must have watched for two years. They are fitted together like giant Legos, with knobs on the standing stones allowing the cup of the top stones to seat. Also, the stones used were not from this area. each portion of England has very distinct strata layers and within a fifty mile radius, you could have villages and fences made of gray stone, cream colored stone, chalk, etc. These stones, which weighed tons, came from Wales and another location approximately 50 miles from the site. Why haul stone from such a distance when they could use local stone? Who knows. However, you can tell why people are not allowed to tough them anymore. The green lichen are visible on the upper most part of the stones, but are non-existent on the lower 2/3rd.

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After snapping a ridiculous amount of photos and remarking on the way the clouds in England make us strangely happy, we left for the hotel. Our assumption about the clouds is that we see so few in Texas in Summer they seem romantic and mystical now.

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To entertain us on the way back, I asked about tourist behavior. Having experienced a number of obnoxious tourists at the site, I tried to get our guide to reveal the worst country of origin in her experience. As I determined, Germans are among them, as are the Italians.

Told ya’ so.

Tomorrow we go to “Buck House,” Buckingham Palace, and on the The Globe to see The Tempest. I look forward to viewing a play by Shakespeare in the exact manner Elizabeth I would have viewed it. Unless I fall asleep, which is possible.

By the way, if you visit, make sure you get a blue badge guide. They are certified by the government. Apparently around 1,000 apply each year and they are weeded down to 200, many of whom speak multiple languages. They are graded on knowledge, entertainment, and presentation ability. It is well worth it to get a good one and maximize your experience. Sandy and I were lucky enough to be able to book ours for a private tour, but group tours are available as well.

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TIPPING AND TOWERS

Today’s plan went a bit wonky, but we easily caught the train to Caerphilly and toured the castle there. The weather is crazy gorgeous, so there were a few more folks out and about, making photography without people wearing fanny packs in the shots a bit more trying on our patience. We succeeded pretty well, so here are a few shots of Caerphilly. You may notice the giant leaning tower. I had the urge to pose either pushing it over or holding it up, but controlled the urge. (Thank you, Sandy, for giving me THAT LOOK.)

This castle was built mostly for defense, rather than as a royal holding, so it is definitely less glam than others, but it does make one wonder how anyone could get in if you didn’t want them to. Some reproductions of the war engines were also on display. I had a Monty Python moment, imagining cows being hurled at the siege army, but recovered before shouting, “Run away!!”

Instead of traipsing on to Abergavenny, we headed back to Cardiff Bay and the surrounding area for a few trinkets, then settled in for champagne and tea service. Sandy has been drooling for scones with clotted cream and strawberry jam, so she is now content.

Aside from a fit of the giggles, we carried it off with some dignity, and no injuries. Why they kept playing Gladys Knight and the Pips’ “Midnight Train to Georgia” is anyone’s guess. That, and “Me and Mrs. Jones” were on quite an impressive loop.

Also, not to be an uncouth American, BUT, we seem to be dining in France these days, as achieving the check for the meal takes longer than the meal itself. (And we are taking our time at it.)

The staff is lovely, so I do hate throwing myself in front of them to beg for the check, even though we’ve told them we have finished. Hours ago.

I believe I explained we’re only here a couple more days, so we’d like to do more in that time than stare at empty plates and glasses. They are so sweet, though, with their, “loves” and “lovies,” I forgive them immediately.

Meanwhile, despite reports of tips not being expected for cabs, pubs, etc., Sandy is single-handedly determined to tip everyone with whom we come in contact. Cabbies are stunned and grateful, bartenders are bemused, and wait staff blush discreetly. She’s told several young men to “Have one for yourself,” which has been well received. One added on a whopping 1.75 for what must be the cheapest ale in the place.

I am afraid they will all be quite downhearted to see us go.

Tomorrow we visit the coast. Gower, Swansea, Mumbles (how cute is that?) and Rhossili via See Wales Tours. (I always think “Sea Whales” when we say it.)

This is going to require that we wake up and actually get ready on time. (Which has been challenging. We like sleep.)

Since the temperature seems to be hovering near the 80s, we are definitely overdressed for the beach. Pack coats and long sleeves for the 50s, you get a warming trend. “That’s the way baseball go.”

Until tomorrow, then! Or as I like to call it, “When we finally get the check.”

FROM MAX TO MAXIMUS

Good news! We went to bed an hour earlier last night.

Bad news! We got up an hour earlier to get in a cab from the hotel to the station, to catch the train to Newport, to catch the bus to Raglan. Once in Raglan, we walked and walked, and found the dirt road that led to the castle. And some cows. Say hello to my little friends.

The “incident”of the day, in which we are reminded we sound like hicks, occurred just after this picture. A car pulled up and a woman with a lilting British accent asked if we were locals. Sandy answered, “Unfortunately, not, no.” The woman’s eyes got big and she exclaimed, “Oh, no…no…” as if it had been made abundantly clear with those few words. They drove on. Sandy turned to me and said, “Really?”

“Nails on a chalkboard to them.” I said. “Definitely lacking in sing-songy quality. Although I, for one, adore you.”

Our excitement returned as we approached our destination. Sandy is attached to this particular castle due to her love of the show, Merlin. Apparently they shoot at Raglan on occasion.

Here’s the view upon arrival.

Now, THAT’s a castle. Once inside, we were speaking in hushed tones as we wandered about snapping pictures. The silence was suddenly broken by a little boy with a sense of the dramatic as we heard him call out in his best Gandolf voice, “YOU. SHALL. NOT. PASS!”

Max was his name. We know this because his mother called it repeatedly – perhaps several dozen times, trying to slow him down, or locate him. I believe Max made it up and down the first spiral staircase about four times by the time we’d made it up once.

We were snapping more photos from the top of a tower when we heard him explaining, “If you fell from here, you’d go SPLAT.”

Thank you, Max. I never would have thought of that.

From Raglan, we walked back to the bus to head toward our base camp in Cardiff, but stopped at Caerleon to see the Roman ruins. We visited the museum, the baths, then the amphitheater and barracks.

We actually ate today, which was novel, and had great fun with all our various bus drivers, who were extremely helpful.

Also, we were the youngest people on the bus by at least 30 years, which made us feel quite jaunty.

Tomorrow, Caerphilly and possibly Carmarthen or Abergavenny, again, on our own. Thursday is the official tour day, so all we have to do is make it to the bus and let others worry about getting us where we are supposed to be.

The good thing about going around at this time of year, and without a group, has been the lack of others at the sites. Castle and ruin pictures look so much better without tourists rambling about in them.

Cheers! (See, I’m getting this lingo business down.)

Say goodnight, Max.

“YOU SHALL NOT PASS!”

Shut up, Max.