Spring Break Diaries: Day 3, Wiltshire

A philosopher once asked, “Are we human because we gaze at the stars, or do we gaze at them because we are human?” Pointless, really… “Do the stars gaze back?” Now *that’s* a question. – First lines from Stardust

Usually when I write my blogs I take readers through a timeline of my day. I give my schedule more depth with add ins of history, my thoughts, and interesting tidbits. This format is easy and keeps my thoughts organized and makes reading easy to follow, but this time around I have decided to try something new. I will work backwards and tell a story of the places I saw, but first some background to set the scene.IMG_8310

Today I left Bath and took a day tour with Mad Max Tours. They have nothing to do with the fabulously famous film franchise. The day tour leaves from the Abbey Hotel in Bath at 8:30am and returns at approximately 5:30pm. My tour was incredibly interesting and I highly recommend it, so thanks Kevin for being an awesome tour guide.

Stop #4: Castle Combe
Many, many years ago there was once a castle on top of a hill surrounded by a dense forest. As time passed the castle fell to ruin and disappeared. What stones were left of the old castle were given a new life as part of a stately manor nestled besides a peaceful and cozy village. The village came to be known as Castle Combe. A weary traveler taking their first steps on the streets of Castle Combe may think that they have been transported back hundreds of years. An imposing Saxon church, with a still working 15th century clock, stands proudly at the center of the village. The 14th century Market Cross fills the central square and faces the old court house. It is a village stuck in time.

In Castle Combe nothing has changed since the 17th century. It is a beautifully preserved English village, and is known for being the most beautiful village in England. This traditional Cotswolds village was once tied up in the woolen industry like the other villages and towns in the Cotswolds. And the village prospered. The soil was fertile, the river flowed, and the sheep (aka the Cotswold Lions) were abundant. Then one day the river dried. Economic disaster struck the village. With no river and quick transport the villagers shortly abandoned their homes, and the abandoned Castle Combe was left, preserved in its 17th century status.

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The Manor at Castle Combe
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Castle Combe Village

Interesting Facts to Know about Castle Combe:

  • War Horse spent 10 days of filming here for the village scenes.
  • The original Doolittle was all filmed here.
  • The village scenes from Stardust were filmed here (hence the Stardust quote).
  • So were other films, TV shows, and specials.
  • A home here costs around ½-3 million pounds.
  • Combe means narrow valley.

Stop #3: Lacock Village
Lacock was a small, overlooked town. Sleepy townspeople walked the streets and peaceful went about their mundane lives until a great Countess decided to intervene. In 1229 Ela, Countess Dowager of Salisbury, founded the Abbey standing proudly by the village. Ela was an extremely influential woman. She had inherited her title and lands upon the death of her father and she was married to William Longespee, the illegitimate son of Henry II. The Abbey was built upon the death of her husband, and William was the first to be buried in the Salisbury Cathedral.

Lacock was on the rise. Important people had taken interest in the town and traders would stop here when traveling between Bath and London. The King even had a hunting lodge there. But as has happened to many a noble family there were no male heirs left to inherit all the lands and holdings, so the Abbey reverted back to the kingdom. Years passed and Henry the VIII took the throne. He later passed the Acts of Supremacy and he was looking for ways to cement his power in England over the Pope. The monasteries in England were overtaken and dissolved, but the Abbey in the small village of Lacock was overlooked for its small significance. Henry sold the Abbey to Sir William Sharington with the stipulation that the chapel was to be destroyed. Sir William followed through with Henry’s order and in place of the chapel he built a brewery and turned the Abbey into his home. Lacock stayed a booming woolen village until the fall of the woolen industry. In a town with just 4 streets there were three poor houses, the largest housing 147 people.

Fun things to know about Lalock:

  • In the 1800s William Henry Fox Talbot became the owner of the abbey. He studied the arts and sciences, and in 1835 made the first known photographic negative using a camera; which was of the small central window on the exterior of the Abbey.
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    The Abbey
  • The village and Abbey have been used for many film productions such as Moll Flanders and Emma.
  • One such production was BBC’s Pride and Prejudice. Filming was done outside the Red Lion Pub.
  • Many scenes from the Harry Potter films were also captured here.
    • The Abbey was used for Hogwarts’ classrooms, hallways, and the mirror scene in the first film.
    • The home of the Potters for the first film was filmed here.
    • In the Half-Blood Prince the scene where Dumbledore and Harry walk down a road side by side is in front of the local Sign of the Angel pub.
    • Professor Slughorn’s house is also located in the village.Other popular productions like.
  • Downton Abbey had filming done here and a few days ago a new period drama, Whit, about William Shakespeare was filming.
  • Lacock is popular for films requiring an authentic background; such productions include: The Cranford Chronicles, Larkrise to Candleford, and Lost in Austen.
  • The village church of St.Cyriack is featured in many.IMG_8343
  • One of the last Fords (a river crossing) in England is located in the village.
  • The stable called, Tithe Barn, was owned by the church and was used for collecting and storing taxes from the villagers.
  • Next to it is the village lock-up. It is a small, dank room with no windows and drunks were thrown in it (it also separated people in bar fights). Once the door was closed and locked there would be no light in the room. This is where the term ‘blind drunk’ (i.e. really drunk) originated.
  • There were taxes on how many windows a home had, so to pay less people would fill in and cover windows.
  • Today around 400 people live in the village.
  • In a nearby town between Castle Combe and Lalock is Tiddlywink. It consists of one street and 9 cottages.
  • The roads between towns were heavily forested and made a good place to hide for highway men. The most famous group of highwaymen in the area of Wiltshire was the Cherhill Gang. The Cherhill gang was famous because they held their victims at gun point completely naked (except for masks, boots, and a pistol). People speculate that they were successful because their nakedness shocked and frightened travelers. It is also thought that the reason that they were naked was because they were extremely poor and only owned one set of clothes, and if they were to wear this they would be easily recognized and captured.
    • You can see a painting of them at the Black Horse pub in the town of Calne.

Stop #2: Avebury
Thousands of years ago wanderers reached the shores and settled in Britain. Their beliefs and rituals are covered in mystery. For reasons unknown to man today these Prehistoric people created a 1 mile circumference of a hundred stones and a surrounding ditch and hill reaching 9 meters high. Avebury Henge and the stone circles were built and altered during the Neolithic period (2850 BC-2200 BC) making it into the largest stone circle in Britain.

No one can really say what these stones were used for. In excavations nothing was earthed up to give any understanding. What were found at the site were antlers and cow shoulder bones. Archeologists believe that these were used as tools to dig the deep ditch. The impression that this landscape leaves is that the circle was shaped for rituals. Some say that was a public ‘theater’ for rites and ceremonies, rituals for the people within their order and their relationships with each other and their gods (be it spiritual or political).

But what is known is that the purpose of these ‘rituals’ changed over time. The gap of time over which the Great Henge and the two avenues were built is large that it is believed that the community’s relationship with the environment gradually altered over time. These changing rituals led to new mysterious monuments and are the most likely reason for their abandonment of the henge around 1800 BC.

By the time the Middle Ages the reason and purpose for the Great Henge and like monuments had vanished into the mists of time. These sites were seen as places for pagan and devil worship, and the good Christians attempted to destroy the stones and like monuments at Avebury. Today the henge survives as huge circular bank and ditch, surrounding part of Avebury village with a number of original stones remaining.

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Part of the great stone circle at Avebury

Interesting facts about Avebury and the surrounding area:

  • Avon comes from the Celtic word faon which means river, so the Avon River translates to River River.
  • En comes from enid which means duck and ford is a Saxon word for river crossing, so Enford means duck river crossing.
  • There are still homes with thatch roofs (owners are forced to have thatched roofs for historical preservation). These roofs last about 35 years.
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    There is an owl placed as a marker on the roof
  • Roofers in villages used to work on a trust system. So if a customer wasn’t paying, a thatcher wouldn’t leave their mark and everyone in town would know that the family under the roof was not good for their word.
  • It takes 8-10 years of apprenticeship to become a master thatcher.
  • The oldest monument in Wiltshire from Prehistoric Britain is a burial chamber.
    • This housed the leaders of the time.
    • 47 people were found and dated to cover a 1000 year period.
    • Through DNA analysis and observation all the leaders were discovered to be from the same 6 families (It is pretty amazing to think that this small group ruled for over 1000 years).
  • Silbury Hill is the largest manmade Prehistoric object.
    • It covers 5 acres and is 135 meters tall.
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      Silbury Hill
    • It is a 6 tiered pyramid made of white chalk using antlers and cow shoulders and once finished it was covered with earth.
    • No one knows what it was used for but it wasn’t for a burial site or for defense.
  • Phone boxes are losing their purposes with everyone today having a cell phone, but villages don’t want to get rid of them. So they have been converted. Some have been reinvented to be libraries and cash boxes.
  • Two famous stones at Avebury are Devil’s Chair and the Barber Surgeon Stone.
  • In Wiltshire there are 8 white horses carved into the hillside (there used to be 13). They were made between 1770 and 1805, but there is one that is over 3 ½ thousand years old.
  • The stones at Avebury Henge can move nonmagnetic copper wires. (I tried it and its true!)

Stop #1: Stonehenge
Six thousand years ago the first settlers of Southern Britain arrived to a wild land. Overtime these hunters and gathers evolved, keeping domestic animals and farming, changing the landscape around them. The dense forest began disappear and give way to tame rolling hills.

A thousand years passed and the beginnings of Stonehenge started to appear. The first stone structure, and second stage of building, was a circle of small blue stones. But the third stage, and most recognizable part of Stonehenge, didn’t come until more than a thousand years later. Huge stones weighing more than 60 tons and the tallest rising 6.7 meters (22 feet) above the surface were dragged by hand 30 kilometers from Wales to Wiltshire. The stones were beaten and shaped with stone hammers, and placed around the circle of blue stones.

Many myths surround Stonehenge, the most popular being that the Druids created it. The Druids in fact came long after the founders of Stonehenge were gone and all but forgotten. What is known is that Stonehenge has no practical purpose and cannot be used for defense. But the farmers who built it would have had significant fear of harsh and dark winters. Stonehenge is built and aligned carefully to mark the changing seasons and the sun’s journey through the sky. But Stonehenge was also a place of the burial for the dead. One theory is that the tall stones represent long dead ancestors. This also led to another myth about the Druids. There is one stone that lays flat on the ground and was given the name of the Sacrifice Stone because that is where archeologists thought Druids would make their pagan scarifies to the gods. The folk lore surrounding the blue stones in the center tells of their mystical healing powers, so these healing inner stones and cold outer stones might have played a significant role in the peoples’ understanding of life and the afterlife. Trying to understand Stonehenge is like trying to explain Christianity from the remains of a ruined cathedral. Too much is left unknown and too much is left up to speculation.

There is so much more to learn about Stonehenge and other historic sites like it, and if you are interested there are many great books and a plethora of information on the net (not all of it accurate of course) for you to look up.

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The front of Stonehenge

More interesting facts I learned during Day 3 of Spring Break:

  • The waters in Bath are full of magnesium which is good for sore muscles (which I need now after all this walking).
  • Pulteney Street was a filming site for the movie Vanity Fair.
  • Horses would walked beside canals to pull barrages up rivers.
  • Counties used to be called shires (hence the name Wiltshire).
  • There is a place on the way to Wiltshire from Bath called Black Dog Hill. The story goes along these lines:

There once lived a maid who courted two gents,
but she told neither of the other.
Then one day they discovered her trick
and decided to duel each other.
They dueled at dawn,
and pistols were drawn,
One was shortly shot dead,
while the later lived on.
But he was shortly done in
by the black dog who saw him
as the vicious murderer of his owner.
Alas the story still doesn’t end
for the maid is still ignorant
to the tragic events of her lovers.
When she hears tell,
she will gasp and yell,
and then she will off herself in dolor.

-An original interpretation by me

  • This area is also the headquarters for the UFO society in the UK.
  • Longleat House belongs to Lord and Lady Bath and is an Elizabethan mansion with over 200 rooms.
    • The 6th Marquess traveled frequently to Africa and started the first safari park outside the actual safari.
    • The current Lord Bath (7th Marquess) is a colorful and flamboyant character. We were told that he looks like an aging wizard.
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The back of Stonehenge

Helpful Hint: You can get in free to Stonehenge on the summer solstice, but there will be around 37,000 people there so don’t go then. Instead pay the fee and get in early so you can have an unobstructed view of the monument. Also make sure to have cash because in small villages many places will not have card machines.