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England

Country:
Great Britain
Dates:
Saturday October 10th, 1998 to Monday October 19th, 1998
Author:
noah

After an uneventful flight across the Atlantic, I landed at Stansted airport around noon and discovered the great scam that the airport has going on. Stansted is considered a London airport, but flights that arrive there tend to be significantly cheaper than those that arrive at Heathrow or Gatwick. I understood why when I found that the only reasonable way into the city (about 60km away) is by shuttle train, which costs about 20% of what my flight from Toronto had cost.

An hour later I arrived in London, where I wandered somewhat aimlessly (more than a little jetlagged) until I arrived at St. Paul's Cathedral. Standing in front of this very impressive building, I saw a sight that would stick with me and help to shape the rest of my trip: an open-topped tourist bus drove up, slowed slightly to allow passengers to take pictures of the cathedral, then sped off, presumably on its way to drive past another world-famous historical landmark. I couldn't help but think that these people could get a better impression of London (not to mention better pictures) for a lot cheaper if they just bought the right National Geographic magazine. This spectacle reinforced my resolution to take my time while I was travelling, and to try to experience places rather than just look at them.

It was by then getting toward late afternoon, and I decided that I had better start looking for a place to sleep. There is a hostel near the cathedral, but it was full; as it turned out, all of the official hostels in the city were full except for one, Rotherhithe, which was quite a ways out from the downtown area. Unfortunately I tried to follow the directions in the London hostelling pamphlet rather than the (much better) directions in the Lonely Planet, and I ultimately ended up having to take one of London's famous black cabs in order to get to the hostel. As interesting as the ride in the black cab was, the expense hurt a little; this expense was nothing, however, compared to that of staying in the hostel; I ended up paying more to sleep in a room with 9 other people than I had ever paid for a private room at a hotel in North America.

I was quickly learning an important lesson about the United Kingdom: money in the UK has an unusual ability to leap out of one's pocket. There are so many amazing things to see in England, Scotland, and Wales that it is very difficult to leave, but they are unbelievably expensive places. I was fortunate to find a significantly cheaper (though somewhat dingier) private hostel after a night at Rotherhithe, but I was still spending more than the total of my projected daily budget on accommodation alone.

Altogether I spent nearly a week in London being a tourist. I skipped some of the more expensive attractions (the Tower of London for example), but visited many of the city's famous sites. Highlights included high mass back at St. Paul's (as far as I can tell, the only difference between Catholic mass and Anglican mass is the fact that the latter is occasionally said by a woman), evensong at Westminster Abbey, the National Gallery, and the British Museum (a brief history of the world in one building, and almost enough to make one an apologist for the colonialism that gathered such an incredible collection of artifacts — almost, but not quite). In between visits to internationally famous sites, I spent many hours simply wandering around various parts of the city soaking up the abundant atmosphere.

I was once again amazed at the stupidity of tourists while watching the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. An American couple with a young daughter stood next to me during the event; the mother and daughter watched, but dad was so busy trying to get perfect footage of the event on his video camera that I'm sure he didn't see one moment of the ceremony through his own eyes. I suppose he was able to watch it on tv when he got home.

London is a city that can probably only be truly appreciated over the course of months rather than days (I probably could have spent a week at the British Museum alone), but at the rate that money was jumping out of my pocket I knew I'd be on my way home very soon if I didn't get out, so I bought a bus ticket to Oxford.

I arrived in Oxford in the early afternoon and spent the rest of the day wandering through a breathtakingly beautiful setting of medieval buildings, cobblestone walks, and green lawns. At one point I was standing in a silent courtyard, marvelling at the buildings around me, when I heard a muffled sound behind my back; I turned around and realized that I was standing near an open window on the other side of which a girl was seated at a desk in her dormitory room; I was revelling in my brief moments in this 800 year old courtyard, and she looked out on it while she did her homework.

I have never seen a place that better represents the romantic notion of academic life, and when I was there I found it impossible not to envision such quintessential academics as C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien wandering about the place. As idyllic a place as it is, however, I would imagine that the students get tired of being observed like animals in zoo by the millions of tourists who visit the place each year.

I spent the night at a hostel in Oxford, and the next day headed out to try my hand at hitching. I was hoping to make it to Avebury (a prehistoric site larger and less commercialized than Stonehenge) in time to have a look around and then continue on to Bath. My first ride was an elderly gentleman who said to me "I've always got time to pick up an Irishman" before he so much as heard me speak; even after I spoke I had trouble convincing him that I wasn't Irish.

I gradually made my way through the countryside; I didn't have much trouble finding rides, but people were rarely going very far, and it soon became apparent that I'd be lucky to make it to Avebury by sundown. Since the only accommodation in Avebury is a very pricy inn, I resigned myself to spending the night outside; I had what I though would be plenty of protection from the elements, and the weather had been quite pleasant for the preceding few days, so I envisioned a reasonably comfortable night.

I arrived in Avebury in the late afternoon and had a look around the small museum. Aside from the stone circle, which is basically in and around the village, there are a few other prehistoric sites in the area. I set out to have a look at the West Kennet Long Barrow, an ancient burial chamber located about 2km from town across farmers' fields and sheep pens. The barrow itself is isolated, with nothing but empty fields visible on every side, and it was more than a little spooky being there at dusk by myself. Following a good look into the barrow (with a flashlight — it was pitch black inside), I headed back towards town just as the wind started to come up.

My plan was to have a beer in the local pub and then spend the night sheltered by some trees in field on the edge of the village. By the time I had walked back to Avebury, however, a genuine storm was in progress. There was no way that I could afford to stay at the inn, and it was by this point too dark to hitch, so I resigned myself to an uncomfortable night and decided to have 2 beers instead of 1 in hopes that the rain would pass.

The rain, of course, did not pass, and although I wore virtually every piece of clothing and rain gear that I had with me (including a plastic bag over top of my rain suit), it was a cold, wet, miserable night. At one point I briefly considered returning to the barrow, where it would be dry, but I couldn't bring myself to spend the night in a tomb, so I remained in the inadequate shelter of a tree.

The rain let up toward dawn, and by 7am the sun was up. I spent a few hours visiting the various prehistoric sites in and around the town, gradually drying out. Avebury is actually quite an amazing place (the complex dates from about 5500 years ago), so I didn't regret too much the unpleasant night I had spent.

From Avebury I headed on to Bath, stopping at a pub along the way for lunch. Bath is a very beautiful place, but it gives the impression of having gone to seed a little. England can seem quite idyllic on the surface, but in Bath I was fortunate to be able to spend some time with some locals (whom I had met while hitching) who provided some insight into the social and economic problems that exist; it is more than likely that this insight coloured my judgement of the town a little.

Bath gets its name from hot spring baths developed by the Romans over 2000 years ago; the baths are still there, and they have long attracted people to the town. Bath reached what was perhaps its peak as a vacation destination in the 18th century, and the architecture that dates from that period is as now as much of a tourist draw as the baths themselves.

Despite the high price of admission, I decided that it didn't make much sense to go to Bath and not see the baths; although the museum that now surrounds them is a little kitschy and over-developed, the baths themselves are quite impressive. I spent another day simply wandering around the town looking at its justifiably famous Georgian architecture before heading for Wales.

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