*** Check out the first post of our trip to England/France and read them in order! ***

We arose on Friday morning and quickly packed up our belongings. The manager was not yet awake when we left so we followed his instructions to lock the door behind us and stick the key back through the letter slot. On the way out of town, we swung by the grocery store again to pick up some pastries for breakfast, which we ate during the relatively short drive to the Stonehenge Visitor Center.

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Good picture of us…not such a good picture of Stonehenge.

The parking lot was quite empty when we arrived and we got a great spot near the front. That said, there was already a small line at the ticket office, even for those of us with pre-purchased tickets and a specific entry time. At 9am, the line began to move and by 9:06 we had our audio guides and were power walking to the bus stop to get a ride over to the actual site. We could have walked the mile and a half instead, but we figured riding the bus would get us there sooner (first group of the day, in fact) and we could enjoy the site with fewer people around.

The ride only took a few minutes and we stood up in our seats to move into the aisle and exit the bus. Just as we were about to step out, a German guy pushed past us and started speed walking ahead of everyone towards the site. This guy epitomized the stereotype of bad tourist throughout our visit and possessed an alarming lack of general self-awareness and common decency.

We walked towards the stone circle and began a counterclockwise (or anti-clockwise…we are in Britain after all!) walk along the path circling the site. For very valid reasons of preservation, tourists are no longer allowed within the center circle, but the path does go within a few dozen feet of the outer ring of large stones in places. The path also does not quite complete the full circle, stopping short so as not to cross over the historical “avenue” that was the original entry way to Stonehenge.

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Stonehenge!

At the far end of the path, we stopped for more pictures (we’d been taking lots the whole way around). We were about to take one of our patented extended-arm selfies, when a friendly guy offered to take it for us instead. Not sure who he was but he just seemed to radiate a general happiness for being alive.

On our way back around the path, we stopped frequently to listen to our audio guides. Unfortunately, some of the numbered placards did not seem to align with the commentary, but we were able to figure out where to look with relative ease. In addition to information about Stonehenge itself, the audio guide also told us about other features off in the distance, particularly several small hills, which are actually burial mounds from 3000+ years ago. It also talked some about the “ongoing renovation” to alter the car park and build a new visitor center. Ongoing is in quotes because the audio guides were from 2014 and this work had long ago been completed.

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The lighting got noticeably better during our time at Stonehenge and we were able to get this beautiful picture.

On that note, English Heritage has done a nice job of making the site a nice place to visit. Apparently, in the past, the car park and visitor center were located very near to the stone circle and the enchantment of the ancient place was severely degraded. By the time we visited, this was gone and the stone circle is once again surrounded by nature and a simple walking path…and a highway a few hundred yards away but there’s really nothing they can do about that one and it really isn’t as distracting as we had feared.

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Two happy travelers checking an item off their travel bucket list!

We also found it interesting to hear about some of the preservation work that has been done on the site. Several stones that were leaning dangerously in the past have been righted and their bases reinforced with concrete. For the most part this is completely invisible, though there is one stone that has suffered some severe wind erosion (we assume) near its base and there is some visible concrete there to shore things up.

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Many of the stones at Stonehenge have been reinforced with concrete, though this is one of only a few where the concrete is visible. For the most part, they just reinforced the base beneath the ground.

At one point, we noticed a large group of school children led by an adult teacher that had appeared just outside the fenced area. As far as we can tell, they had walked in across a large field and were bypassing the ticket office. Realistically, they were only about 50 feet further away from the stone circle than the paying guests, so perhaps this was a shrewd move.

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A group of school kids outside the fence at Stonehenge. It seems that they walked across the field to visit the site rather than pay the entrance fee.

After a while at the site, we walked back towards the bus to head back to the visitor center. Just as we were about to climb aboard, an elderly woman rushed past us and jumped on ahead. As there was plenty of room still onboard, this wasn’t too big of a deal but yet again we are often amazed at the inconsiderate behavior of some people. Back at the visitor center, we were “conveniently” routed through the expansive gift shop, though we quickly escaped without purchasing any tacky souvenirs.

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The super modern visitor center at Stonehenge.

In front of the visitor center are a handful of example dwellings (simple tent like structures) that might have been used by the people who built Stonehenge. There was also a rope attached to a large rock where one could test their pulling strength and see how many of them would it take to pull one of the large stones on rollers. Philip of course had to try this for himself and, despite his svelte physique, it would still take 100 of him to move the stone!

We stopped next at the attached museum, which mostly contains miscellaneous artifacts found around the site or in some of the nearby burial mounds. The coolest part was a circular room with projectors in the center showing a 3D view from the center of the stone circle and changing with the seasons and time of day.

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Our visit to Stonehenge. A->B: Walk to the bus. B->C: Bus to the stone circle. C->C: Walk around Stonehenge! C->B: Bus back to the visitor center. B->A: Explore visitor center and back to car.

After a quick walk through the handful of rooms, we returned back to the parking lot (much, much fuller now than when we arrived) and set off for our next destination. Our original plan for the last two days of the trip was rather geographically inefficient and we fortunately figured this out in our hotel room last night. Thus, we now headed west to the town of Wells to see its impressive Cathedral.

Along the way, we made a stop at a service station to purchase some much needed window washing fluid (known as windscreen fluid). Yes, not only did our rental car agency do nothing to prepare us for the regulations of driving in France, but they also gave us a vehicle that was bone dry in the windshield fluid department. We were shocked by the price of a small bottle of the fluid (roughly 5 pounds) considering we can buy a full gallon at home for less than 3 US dollars. Nevertheless, it was a necessary purchase and made the remainder of our driving much more enjoyable.

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The large lawn in front of Wells Cathedral was packed with school kids eating lunch during their visit to the cathedral.

Wells Cathedral has an enormous grass park in front of it, which is rather unique in the cathedral’s we have visited. We found parking on the street adjacent to the park and stepped out of the car. Our first sight was of hundreds (if not a thousand) school kids on the lawn enjoying their lunches. A bit overwhelmed and concerned about what might be awaiting us inside, we walked into the ticket office and got two tickets for entry. Technically, it is free to enter the cathedral, but they strongly recommend a 6 pound donation per person and we were more than happy to comply.

The inside of the Cathedral was a bit reminiscent of that in Salisbury with a very open feeling, relatively few adornments, and the use of multiple bands of stone. Unlike Salisbury, though, Wells still does have is choir screen separating the nave from the quire and altar. There was also a large modern projection screen set up in the nave, which was not ideal for taking photos. A docent informed us that it was kid’s day at the cathedral and they would be having a service starting at 1pm (about 20 minutes away). This explained the plethora of children on the lawn and also gave us a bit of urgency in our visit.

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Beautiful scissor arches inside Wells Cathedral.

The highlight of the physical architecture of the main cathedral space is certainly the large scissor arches. Here, a normal arch sits on top of an upside down arch to beautiful effect. The cathedral also features an ancient clock, which features jousting knights moving around in a circle with the passing of each quarter hour. While in the same spirit as the magnificent clock we saw in Beauvais, this one just cannot compare in complexity or beauty.

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The animated clock in Wells Cathedral. Not as cool as the one in Beauvais but still fascinating.

We stepped out of a door to the side of the quire and saw a beautiful sloping set of stairs leading up to the chapter house. Philip has come to realize that he really love chapter houses and could happily spend a long time just hanging out in these peaceful spaces. Below the chapter house sits the stronghold of the cathedral, a secure room that was easily defensible and thus housed anything of value. Today, it serves as a small museum, though we found it relatively uninteresting compared to the magnificent architecture around us.

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The magnificent ceiling in the Chapter House of the cathedral in Wells.

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These are the beautiful stairs leading up to the Chapter House in Wells Cathedral.

We proceeded around the back of the apse, where there were several chapels, each devoted to a very specific prayer purpose. We also stepped into the quire area featuring original wooden choir stalls from the middle ages. From this side, we could also see that the choir screen separating the nave from the quire is actually an enormous pipe organ.

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Looking along the massive interior of Wells Cathedral.

After finishing our path back along the nave, we stepped out into the cloisters. The cloisters at Wells Cathedral are entirely enclosed walkways, rather than the covered yet open air walkways that are more common. Also unique is that the area in the center of the cloisters is a cemetery rather than just a small garden.

By this time, we were getting hungry and decided to take advantage of the 10% discount at the cathedral café we had earned by purchasing entry tickets. Rose got her first scone of the trip (shocking it took this long) and Philip went for a large slice of ham and cheese quiche. Satiated, we made a quick trip to the bathroom before heading back to the car. When we entered the bathrooms, the area was more or less deserted. By the time Rose emerged 3 minutes later, 30 girls were piling into the bathroom in a scene of general chaos. As we walked away, thankful for our fortunate timing, we talked about the signage we had both seen at the sinks. In both bathrooms, there are signs warning that the water coming out of the taps is incredibly hot and can cause burns. In America, we would have fixed the water temperature…here, apparently, a sign is sufficient. And the water was definitely uncomfortably hot. Rose had to move between three different sinks in short bursts to avoid scalding her hands!

We exited out into the park in front of the main façade and walked around a bit to get some pictures. It was here that we noticed that the cloisters attach at the very front of the church as a direct extension off of the façade. Typically, the cloisters sit further back towards the apse and aren’t quite so prominently visible from the front.

We also made a quick walk around the corner to check out Wells’s other main attraction, the Bishop’s Palace. The walk was actually longer than necessary because Rose let Philip navigate again and we definitely missed the direct passageway next to the church that would have had us there in 30 seconds. We spent just a few minutes outside but didn’t have time (or significant interest) to pay the entry fee to see the interior. The walk back to the car was much more expedient and we set off towards the area of Cheddar.

The drive to Cheddar (yes, it is where cheddar cheese originated) was a bit of an adventure. Construction caused some serious traffic jams and, at one point, we decided to bail down a very narrow hedge-lined road to try and get around. We weren’t the only car that had made this decision, which was good for us because we didn’t have to worry about passing anyone coming the other direction. We did feel a bit bad for the car coming the other way that was stuck in a pull-off area waiting for all of these cars to come through the single-lane road.

Our detour was a success and we reached the entrance to Cheddar Gorge without further incident. Our plan was to drive through the gorge first to see it in its entirety, then back track to a car park to visit the caves there. As we drove, the road just kept descending further and further in what was both a very cool and somewhat eerie feeling. We snaked along the bottom of the deep ravine (spotting some rock climbers) and, after a few miles, the walls opened up and we saw the town of Cheddar ahead of us. We made a U-turn and returned back up the gorge a mile or two to a car park on the outside of a bend in the road.

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Looking across Cheddar Gorge at the steep hillside on the other side.

As we walked from the car towards the entrance of the Cheddar Gorge Caves Ticket Office, we saw several people rock climbing on the cliff wall across the road. As we walked past, we noticed that there were artificial hand holds installed into the rock, like what you would typically find at a rock gym. Usually you get either natural stone or fake walls with handholds. It was weird to see the combination of artificial features installed into a natural cliff face.

At the ticket office, we showed our pre-purchased ticket confirmation and were given two paper tickets for our cave adventure. The tickets gave us access to five different attractions (2 caves, a staircase up the cliff, a lookout tower, and a hiking trail). We were informed that our tickets were good for 10 years, so it was ok if we didn’t get to everything today. Not sure how many of their visitors would ever take advantage of the ticket longevity but they were definitely excited to offer it.

The first attraction on our visit was Gough’s Cave, which we entered right next to the ticket office. We were given audio guides, which were again very cheesy in their presentation (narrated supposedly by Gough himself, the guy that discovered the cave) but they did have a lot of really interesting information. Gough’s Cave is a series of several cool caverns and also features the “Cheddar Man”, a skeleton from the time before Stonehenge discovered a few dozen feet inside the cave’s entrance.

Having visited a lot of caves in several different countries during our travels, we have seen the different ways they can be explored and are presented. This cave was a bit different, primarily because of its focus on showmanship. In fact, the audio guide told us about the history of Cheddar and the presence of these “show caves”. Proprietors competed to attract visitors to their caves and Gough told us (on the audio guide of course) all about how he used lighting and even artificially constructed reflecting pools to bring out the best in what the cave had to offer. It’s likely that other caves we have visited have had the same consideration paid to lighting and water reflection, but this is the first time we have thought about it specifically and we found it very interesting.

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One of the man-made reflecting pools in Gough’s Cave.

Midway through the cave we also saw a metal rack off to the side, where hundreds of wheels of cheddar cheese were going through the aging process. Despite its heritage, Cheddar Gorge does not play a major role anymore in the production or aging of cheddar cheese and these wheels are the only product still made in the gorge (though we assume there is more cheddar cheese made in and around the city of Cheddar). The metal racks with tight metal mesh surrounding serve to protect the cheese from rats during its aging process.

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Wheels of cheddar cheese aging inside Gough’s Cave. The metal rack protects the cheese from unwanted rodents.

Touring the cave took the better part of an hour, primarily due to the length and quantity of audio guide presentations. When we returned to the surface, we accidentally routed ourselves through a Costa Coffee shop before exiting out to the street in front. We walked down the gorge and stopped at a small shop to buy a pasty as a snack. The girl that served us was quiet but very nice and had never heard of Colorado before. We got the impression that she had grown up in Cheddar and has rarely seen life beyond this area and the nearby city of Bristol.

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Though smaller than Gough’s Cave, Cox’s Cave was cool because it was lit up in beautiful colors.

We next ventured to Cox’s Cave, which was discovered by Gough’s uncle before Gough discovered his cave. Cox’s Cave serves as an experiential journey called Dreamhunters, which is a story of early man on the hunt presented on the cavern walls using projectors and colored LED wash lighting. We were on our own as we ventured through the various rooms. When the show in each room finished, we were able to “follow the running man” projection (white figures running frantically across the wall) leading us towards the next space. The caverns themselves are not as impressive as Gough’s Cave, but it was cool to see a cave lit up in this unique way. The projected story itself was a touch on the gruesome side as the hunters fought off wolves and eventually took down a buffalo.

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One of the projections inside the Dreamhunters exhibition in Cox’s Cave.

The exit of Dreamhunters led us back into the bright sunlight, which was a bit of a shock to the senses after the cool darkness. A few dozen feet away we saw the starting point of Jacob’s ladder, a staircase climbing directly up the side of the gorge. Thankfully, it has a few landings cut in to offer rest points, though a switchback design may have been even nicer. We climbed up, pausing a few times at the landings, and commenting on how different the climb felt compared to the spiral staircases of church bell towers. There was a young couple climbing up with us who seemed to be on their honeymoon (as evidenced by their giddy laughter and puppy dog eyes whenever they looked at each other…as well as the baseball caps they were wearing that appeared to contain the other’s name). At one point, she got tired so he picked her up over his shoulder and kept on climbing.

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Jacob’s ladder…a daunting staircase straight up the side of Cheddar Gorge.

At the top of the staircase, we walked a hundred yards to the right to a lookout tower. We climbed the 4 flights of stairs and were rewarded with beautiful views over Cheddar and the rest of the surrounding countryside.

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The lookout tower on top of Cheddar Gorge.

We learned from the information pamphlet attached to our ticket that both the tower and Jacob’s ladder were built for the sole purpose of attracting visitors by Roland Pavey, a rival of Gough and Cox. Pavey desperately wanted a show cave of his own, though never discovered one. Instead, he built the stairs, original wooden lookout tower, and even put a roof over part of his rock quarry to make it look like a cave. It was very obvious during our visit that Cheddar Gorge has always been a place of tourism, even back in the late 1800’s.

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The view of Cheddar from the top of the lookout tower.

After coming back down from the lookout tower, we began a walk (more of a hike, actually) along the top of the gorge. The path supposedly follows the east side of the gorge before crossing and coming back down on the west side. We had brief intentions of walking the whole thing, but quickly changed our minds when we realized that “crossing the gorge” meant descending back down to the bottom and then climbing up the other side. Instead, we hiked to a point just shy of the summit and then turned back towards Jacob’s ladder.

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Goats confidently clinging to the hillside at Cheddar Gorge.

The highlight of the hike, other than the views, was the plethora of mountain goats in the area. We saw several kids (baby goats, not humans) traipsing along with their mothers on terrifyingly steep terrain. In spots, the goats came up onto the top and were hanging out in the middle of our walking path! We did our best to keep a safe distance as we walked so as not to anger mommy goat and give her no reason to turn her large horns on us.

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One of the adorable goats we saw while hiking on top of Cheddar Gorge

The descent back down Jacob’s ladder was significantly easier and faster than the ascent and we exited out to the street through a turnstile we had not noticed previously. We had actually joked about our ticket and how three of the five attractions (the steps, the tower, and the hiking path) were seemingly wide open to the public. While not perfect, the turnstile does at least discourage unticketed people from using the stairs, though there are other valid ways to get to the top of the gorge and the lookout tower.

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A fascinating “gate” to a pasture on top of Cheddar Gorge.

As we walked back up the gorge towards our car, we noticed that the entire area had shut down for the night, much like Salisbury had felt the day before. This area is clearly driven by tourists and when the buses leave for the day, everything comes to a stop. We drove north back out of the gorge, stopping a few times due to goats on the road. We also noticed some people walking along the road back towards the car park whom we recognized as people we had seen on the path atop the gorge earlier. It seems they had bailed on the hike at the halfway point and were now resigned to the somewhat dangerous stroll down the narrow road with tight turns back to their cars (glad we weren’t among them!).

With Samantha’s help (our GPS), we made our way to the outskirts of Bath to the small town of Peasetown St. John. Actually, Samantha was only somewhat helpful and she took us on what seemed to be a very unnecessary “scenic route” near the end of the drive down some very narrow roads. She also made it seem as if the hotel was located directly adjacent to a roundabout, which was clearly not correct as there were no buildings anywhere on that intersection.

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Our path around Cheddar Gorge. ->A (white): Driving through the gorge and back to a parking lot. A->B: Walk to entrance of Gough’s Cave. B->C: Walk through Dreamhunters and up Jacob’s Ladder to the lookout tower. C->D->A (green). Our abandoned hike along the top of the gorge. E is where we think the descent would have been back to the bottom so it looks like we only made it about half way. 

A bit confused, we drove a half mile into town and stopped for directions at the grocery store where the clerk quickly set us straight. It turns out that Samantha was not that far off and had we gone just a hundred yards or so beyond the roundabout, we would have seen the entrance to our hotel.

Like last night, we were again staying in a combination bar/restaurant with rooms above, though this time missing the biker hangout outside. We checked in with the owner and relaxed in our room for a while to go through pictures. When hunger started to set in, we went back down to have dinner in the restaurant. For some reason, lasagna sounded good to Philip and Rose stayed true to form with some steak and ale pie. The food was adequate and filling, though nothing special. Rose did also enjoy a kiwi-lime hard cider, which isn’t something we’ve seen in the US.

After eating a lot of food, we set off on a walk around town to stretch our legs and help our digestion. Peasetown St. John was quiet, though there were some kids (humans this time) out playing soccer in the cool air of evening. After a few miles, we made it back to hotel and quickly fell into bed. Tomorrow is our last full day in Europe 😦 We’ll make our way back to London via Bath before heading back home and back to real life.

Summary

  • The iconic site of Stonehenge
  • Well’s Cathedral and way too many school kids
  • Some cool caves in Cheddar Gorge
  • An abandoned hike and lots of goats

Stats

  • Distance on Foot: 9.01 miles | 19,298 steps
  • Distance in Car: 80.2 miles
  • Distance on Bus: 2.54 miles
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Our path for the day. A->B: Drive to Stonehenge. B: Explore Stonehenge. B->C: Drive to Wells. C: Explore Wells Cathedral. C->D: Drive to Cheddar. D: Explore Cheddar. D->E (red): Drive to Peasetown St. John. E (green): Evening walk around town.