Saturday, November 6, 2010

Stonehenge and Winchester

Epic, epic day. That's all I can say. One of my "must see" destinations before coming to the UK was Stonehenge, and today two friends and I made it happen! We found a bus tour heading out from Oxford for the day - to Winchester as well as Stonehenge - and proceeded to leave the Oxford bubble far, far behind.

Stonehenge is one of those iconic places you see so often in books and pictures, but let me tell you - pictures do not capture the experience of being there. Not. At. All. The stones were bigger than I expected them to be, and their striking arrangement against the sprawling English landscape made all of us gasp and stare the instant our bus rounded over a hilltop and they came into view. Walking around the stone circle, I couldn't get over my feelings of wonder. How and why this monument was built remains a mystery, but a magical one at that. (Just to convey how huge these stones are, the guidebook said that the largest one weighs several tons, as much as seven elephants. How these prehistoric people moved such enormous masses over such a distance and then arranged them so precisely in the ground is mind-boggling, to say the least.) In the end, the aesthetics of it bowled me over: the sky streaked with clouds, the stones weathered and moss-covered but still stolid and commanding... simply wow.

After a wonderful hour of gaping at Stonehenge, we were off to Winchester, home to many medieval buildings and to Winchester Cathedral,
the second-largest cathedral in all of Europe. We took a walk around the walls, beside the river, and wound up in the main city square before heading up the High Street for lunch (delicious pasties and tarts and scones, which we ate atop a stone pillar overlooking the street). Then the three of us headed to the ruins of Winchester Castle, complete with some very cool dungeons and underground tunnels and the great hall, where we saw the original round table. That's right, as in King Arthur and the knights of the round table! Sir Launcelot and all those chaps. I think we were all a bit giddy at seeing this bit of medieval history/legend in person.

In the afternoon, we spent some time in Winchester Cathedral itself - very impressive for the length of its nave, as well as some original medieval tile floors and some amazing old books, including some intricate and well-preserved scribed Bibles. It brought back many memories of high school history class and learning about the medieval clergymen who spent their whole lives copying and illustrating Bibles... They were very beautiful, even though they're nearly a thousand years old. Another highlight of the Cathedral: the spot where Jane Austen is buried. The literary nerd in me was beside myself at standing on this spot, especially since Winchester also hosts the house where Austen spent the last days of her life (we passed it earlier in the day). There's almost too much history in England for me to take in!

Tired but happy, we all made it back to Oxford in time for the annual bonfire and fireworks display for Guy Fawkes Night - but, to do that justice, I'll write about it in another post...

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