We left off our last blog post with the realization that one reflective writing session was not nearly enough to recognize the fullness of our time in the British Isles. As Judy has often said since, it felt like we had at least five quite different adventures – just one of which was our 160 Kilometer walk along the Cotswolds Way, though this was what drew us to the journey in the first place. After our first post, Nicky also explored our photos and crafted a visual entry of our awareness of the various surfaces we were walking on. We are now ready to return to some of the other significant encounters (inner and outer) that we had.
We had planned some time to experience large stone circles after our Cotswolds walk – not realizing that we’d actually have our first experiences with Neolithic dolmens earlier on in the trip, while on Jersey Isle (there are at least 8 sites there that we learned of, and we spent time exploring two). We also encountered one on the Cotswold walk itself, along with a couple of other passage graves.
In a rare choice for us, we decided to ride out to Stonehenge and some other ancient sites with a small tour company, leaving from Bath (the endpoint of our Cotswold journey). It turned out that we really loved Stonehenge, even though Judy had it firmly in her mind that she’d be disappointed with its commercialization. We were lucky to arrive around 9 am, prior to most other vans and bus tours. So even though about 10,000 people visit on any given day, there were only maybe 20 others there when we were walking around the stones. The experience was quite a profound one for both of us, with each step revealing an entirely new perspective.
A surprise for us was that there was more than one circle in the Stonehenge site. The outer, visually dominating stones (sarcen), fall within an earlier earth bank and ditch and hold inner arrangements of other stones (bluestones) that may originally have been horseshoe shaped or concentric circles. We did some reading about it all and it appears there remains debate (scientific and spiritual) about how it came about and how it served the changing needs of successive peoples, but for us it had a power undiminished by the presence of people or the passage of time. Many of the publicized images of the site are focussed on the stones themselves, and particularly at the solstices. Our sense of the stones – the large ones seeming like portals or thresholds, with the more ancient bluestones of the inner horseshoe shape holding a completely different energy – is that they were a part of a greater wholeness that extends for miles in all directions; the circles interacting with the openness of the Salisbury Plain that falls away from them.
This was an incredible contrast to our experience at Avebury – another lesser known (though still World Heritage recognized) stone circle site that many had told us we’d enjoy much more than Stonehenge, as we could wander freely among, and even touch, the large stones. Judy had been looking forward to having this access, as she wanted to feel their age and spirit (and this was wonderful!). But it turned out that one of the reasons there was easy access is that there is a small village right smack dab in the middle of the stone circle! So you could touch the stones — even climb on them. However, the power of the site as a whole was lacking (for us). There was no overview of their placement and relationship to one another or how they extended into and interacted with the rest of the landscape. Though we managed to get to higher ground as we walked the surrounding henge, and were astounded by the fact that the ditch was once 30 feet below the earth mound, we just couldn’t see or “feel” the fullness of what these circles once were. Even though our driver had shown us a diagram of the site, which is the largest megalithic stone circle in the world, we couldn’t get a real sense of it, so it was a much less engaging experience for both of us. Likely, due to its size and expanse, this is a place to spend more time with than a tour would allow. It merited a day and not an hour or so – and a greater understanding from prior exploration before arriving. We were also pretty “done” after Stonehenge and most of the rest of our time with the day-tour had a sort of a stop and see and go feel to it. We enjoy taking our time and really being in and with the places we travel to, and we had bitten off more than we could chew with the multiple offerings for the day. Not only did we go to Stonehenge & Avebury on this day, but we also paused to see several of the Wiltshire White horses, carved into the white chalk hills, and walked through a Cotswold village (which we had already done for 160 kilometers!), and had lunch in a National Trust Village, “unchanged” for over two hundred years. A good reminder of why tours, in general, are not for us!
It turned out that being in Bath – the end point of our 160 kilometer walk – was a significant experience in itself and in totally unexpected ways, also. We found ourselves walking through a pretty large city as we followed our instructions to our room in the Hillhouse B & B, reserved for us for the three days we would be in town. We were reminded of our many stairclimbs at the ends of a number of our Camino days as we scaled the hill for which the B & B is aptly named! As she was whining (just a wee bit :)) about her aversion to uphills, our hosts announced to Judy with glee that our room was on the third floor (up a series of stairs!). Despite this inauspicious beginning, we loved our “home” here. We loved our hosts, Harry, Douglas and their dog Jasper. We felt “held” in so many ways as we prepared to transition from 11 days of walking. They made special efforts to meet our vegan needs – both in-house and with recommendations of special vegan restaurants and other ordinary places to eat out. We had wonderful, meaningful conversations together about world events, local politics, and even about tiny houses! We certainly didn’t expect to talk about tiny houses — after all that’s what we do at home — and we hadn’t mentioned Tiny once to any other people we met on the walk. And yet Harry wanted to see the video and before we knew it he was sharing it with other guests! We are quite sure that we would all be fast friends if we weren’t separated by the 2,604 miles that Google says lie between us!
Bath offered us so much more in unexpected learnings. While the Cotswolds Way is not a pilgrimage trail, like the Camino, it does “officially” conclude at Bath Abbey, an active Anglican church that is quite welcoming to all. In the bustle of tourism we missed the Irish Blue Limestone medallion that marked the end for us (you can, of course, make the journey in either direction!) but we returned the next day to find it. Nicky felt quite pulled to the Abbey itself, which is filled with light and many special niches and seemed to reach to the skies with its shell-like arches (we guess they are fans, but they reminded us of the Camino scallop shells). We returned to the Abbey several times for the peacefulness and to further explore its many aspects. One of our favorites was a fairly recent addition: two screens on opposite sides of the church near the choir stalls with carvings of angels, each playing a different instrument and in different positions.
We had planned to visit the ancient Roman Baths and the modern Thermae Spa while reading the guidebooks back in Ross Ferry, NS, but we could not have predicted some of what we learned, nor our responses to these two very different places. We were surprised to read that the source for both is the only hot spring in England, for example. The Roman Baths turned out to be more of a walk-through historical experience that didn’t appeal to us (though probably well-done if you like that sort of thing). Our favorite part of this visit was actually seeing the 95 degree springs gushing out of the rock with steam in the air all around – quite ethereal and real at the same time. This provided a total contrast to the modern version of hot springs experiences in the white rooms and rooftop pools of the Thermae Spa.
Our final nexus of experiences revolved around time with a dear friend of Nicky’s from long ago grad school days, Mark, and his new ladyfriend, Nicky (yes, there were moments of confusion!). They had, quite out of the blue, bought tickets for us to join them at a Ladysmith Black Mumbaza concert in Bath and wondered if we were at all interested in going. Well, we surely were! Nicky loves music in most forms and Judy loved the album Graceland in which the group was featured. (The other) Nicky lived nearby and graciously invited us into her home (which was complete with an Aga stove that kept us warm when we felt a chill and where our meals were prepared. Quite exciting, as Agas have often been featured in books we read. It was an adventure all by itself to learn a bit about how they work and to actually experience one!) A gradual unfolding of a wonderful new relationship began here.
We had a great time together, learning just a bit about how Nicky had arrived in this spot, this country, met Mark, and so on. Nicky had fairly recently moved from Zimbabwe where she grew up and, as we came to know her a bit, she began to share some really thought-provoking first-hand stories of what it was like to live there during the intense political times under Mugabe’s tenure. While showing us photos of one of her family’s favorite places – complete with elephants and lions – she spoke of the “great grey-green greasy Limpopo River” on the border between Zimbabwe and South Africa. Judy had memories come flooding back at these words: of her father’s reading of The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling to her as a child. We must confess that early on we had to quietly remind ourselves (via Google) about where Zimbabwe was. Once Judy read that this country was formerly Rhodesia she made another connection with her reading of Doris Lessing in a completely different time of her life. Now, really, who would have thought that we’d learn much, if anything, about Zimbabwe on this trip or make connections to childhood and young adult memories? Quite an “unexpected”!
We left the Bath area for Mark’s home in Oxford. The last time we had seen Mark was 14 years ago when we had travelled with him to explore the town, looking for a place to live, as he had just taken a new job at one of the universities there. He and Nicky (our Nicky) acknowledged how significant their friendship has been for them both over these many years since grad school. While they don’t see one another often, the connection is deep and profound. One could imagine that this means it’s all seriousness between them, but no, there’s so much ease and laughter. It’s not a relationship that depends on the past, but seems to continually renew itself. It’s a kind of magic, and a real gift.
Mark had also thought that we might enjoy another (and quite different) musical experience after Ladysmith. Oxford’s many colleges have chapel choirs that hold Evensong services open to all, and Mark had figured out that there was one at New College Chapel one night when we were there. It was amazing to compare and contrast the Ladysmith concert and this one: in both cases the singers were all men (or boys), and they were both seriously choreographed – but poles apart – in terms of the type of music and movement they embodied, as you might imagine.
We really didn’t expect to experience music on this trip beyond the song of the skylark (also unexpected). This is just one example of how we felt so “cared for” (either through intention or serendipitously) on each leg of our journey: by Andy and his family on Jersey Isle, by Hikes and Bikes and all the B & B owners along the Cotswold Way, (and most especially Harry and Douglas here at the end), and by Mark and Nicky.
As is always true, we feel so blessed!