Wiltshire

Warminster, Wiltshire: Longleat

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And so begins my account of the Easter Bank Holiday weekend, the first of many posts (I may have to start posting twice weekly again at some point to get them all in). As usual, we left the planning of the weekend until the very last minute (almost literally; we booked hotels on Wednesday night for the Friday) which meant we weren’t going any further afield than England.  As it turns out, we began our weekend much like the one two years ago – in Wiltshire, but this time, instead of venturing north, we eventually headed west, into Somerset.  The trip didn’t start off particularly well, as not only was the weather notably terrible (very cold and rainy), we somehow drove over a large bolt, and spent a sizeable portion of the first day trying to find a tyre shop that was open on a bank holiday, and then waiting to have the tyre plugged.  However, we still made it to Longleat, albeit quite a bit later than we originally planned, meaning we missed our chance to see Lord Bath’s erotic murals (which was obviously extremely disappointing).

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As we do not have children, we reckoned we could safely skip the whole adventure park/safari thing and just go see the house (though sadly, as I just mentioned, not the murals), as it was about half the price that way (still over 15 quid), though we did get a glimpse of the safari park whilst driving through the massive estate, and it looked more like a farm park to me, quite frankly, unless all the exotic animals were hiding somewhere (all I saw were some deer and sheep).   The house is a real Tudor pile, and in good stately home tradition, is reputed to be quite haunted.  Because the Marquess of Bath clearly doesn’t like to disappoint his visitors, he has guaranteed that you will see a “ghost” through the use of special effects throughout (I don’t want to ruin it for you, but keep your eyes and ears peeled)!

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If you’ve heard of the current Marquess of Bath (the 7th), you will probably know that he is something of an eccentric who is known for his womanising (hence the erotic murals), and his flamboyant dress sense (that’s him dressed like a lion on the left, though presumably that was to advertise the safari park, and is not part of his normal attire).  Being odd myself (though not wealthy enough to fully pursue that oddness), I very much appreciated the special touches his idiosyncrasies lent to the house.  There was a much greater array of fascinating objects than in the average stately home, chief among them one of the coats Charles I was alleged to have worn to his execution (I say alleged, since there seems to be quite a few of these floating around, and even if he wore multiple shirts (according to the legend, to keep a shiver from the cold being mistaken for fear), they still can’t all be real), complete with bloodstains.

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I also liked the way modern portraits of Lord Bath and his family were intermingled with his large collection of antique art, which made for an eye-pleasing mix.

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And fortunately, even though we didn’t get to see the murals of Lord Bath’s many lady friends, there was some of his artwork in the house, including a few slightly erotic pictures.  In fact, the room holding his paintings was probably my favourite in the house, especially that piece on the left.

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I was, however, slightly dismayed to find that children were encouraged to dress up to tour the house, being pulled into a special room upon arrival to do so, but there was no such provision for adults (it was bad enough missing out on the Easter egg hunt).  I mean, to be honest, some of the “children” were quite large, and the costumes they were wearing definitely would have fitted me, so I felt like they could have offered something for adults, even just an amusing hat of some sort (since Lord Bath himself seems partial to amusing hats and robes).

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But no matter, I guess, because his house was interesting enough even without the aid of costumes.  There was some sort of WWI exhibit taking place, which seemed largely to consist of a fact sheet in each room saying how it was used during the war, but one room had a specific WWI display case containing some artefacts from John Alexander Thynne, who would have become the 6th Marquess of Bath had he not been killed in the War (and nicely mustachioed he was, too, poor lad).

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I already mentioned the “hauntings” but there were a few other secret touches throughout the house, most notably a former privy on one of the upper floors, which played hilarious sound effects if you dared to crack the door, and a holographic “spirit” near the site where some human remains had been discovered (holograms do not photograph well).

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Our admission included the gardens as well, and we were excited to see the Lunar and Celestial mazes, but unfortunately they weren’t open to the public as labyrinths until the hedges grew in a bit more (there is what is apparently one of the largest hedge mazes in Britain in the Adventure Park, though it’s meant to take a good 45 minutes to find your way out, which is more time than I would have wanted to spend being lost).

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However, we did venture into the “Secret Garden,” which was apparently secret because it contained so many strange multi-breasted statues (seriously, the one has like twenty baps).  Almost made up for not seeing the murals, in a way.

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I’m not entirely sure where the gardens end and the Adventure Park technically begins, because there were no gates between them and no one taking tickets, so I worry we may have inadvertently strayed into the Adventure Park, though as no one seemed to officially care, I guess it didn’t matter that much.  This meant we got to experience a mirror maze, Lady Bath’s old-ass miscellany room (I honestly don’t remember what this section was called, it was just a bunch of antique-ish crap in glass cases), and most excitingly, the Bat Cave, where bats were just freely flying around, and you could watch them munching on apples inches away from your face.  I love bats, and these ones were particularly adorable (I didn’t even mind dodging the guano).

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I was mainly lured into the Adventure Park type area by the intoxicating aroma of hot, sweet deep-fat frying, but upon finding it was only those standard grease-bomb doughnuts (I don’t know what I was expecting exactly, since I knew damn well I wouldn’t find funnel cakes or elephant ears in Britain), settled for the largest “regular” 99 Flake I’ve ever seen (actually, my boyfriend got that, and I ordered some malty surprise ice cream, but upon seeing how much bigger his cone was, promptly claimed it for myself).  It gave me a terrible stomachache though, so I guess I got what was coming to me for stealing my boyfriend’s ice cream.

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Anyway, aside from the ice cream stomachache, and not getting to see the murals, Longleat was a pretty good outing.  It certainly wasn’t quite as big of a tourist trap as I was expecting (at least if you stick to the house; the Adventure Park is another story), and Lord Bath’s quirkiness really added a lot to the experience.  (By the way, if you do want to see those murals, get there around 10:45 for the tour of the private wing.)  I’m not sure if it was worth 15 quid, but it was definitely one of the more interesting stately homes I’ve seen.  4/5.

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Bank Holiday Weekend Part 1-Wiltshire and Gloucestershire: Avebury Stone Circle and Dr. Jenner’s House

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Well, for bank holiday weekend, my boyfriend and I were contemplating going somewhere that might be warmish, like Rome, but as we left it until a couple of weeks beforehand, and flights were mega-expensive, we ended up just road tripping it out to the Cotswolds and surrounding areas.  We were anticipating that it might have got a bit warmer at this point, but obviously we were wrong.  Nonetheless, I got loads of good museuming in, so I’ll be posting about it all week.  Installment one covers the first day-primarily Wiltshire and Gloucestershire, as you can tell from the title.

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Anytime I mention going somewhere that involves nature in any capacity, it is almost always because it was my boyfriend’s idea.  I am not at all a fan of the outdoors, particularly if cold weather (or alternatively, hot weather), hiking, or muddy fields are involved.  Typically any visit to the English countryside involves all three, so I avoid it as much as possible.  But I do drag the poor boy to so many places that I’m sure he doesn’t share my level of interest in, so sometimes it’s only fair that I suffer through the perils of nature.  Thus I found myself at the Avebury Stone Circle of a Friday morning.  The man at the carpark made sure to tell us that the site closed at 6:30, which I thought was a bit rich, as we arrived around 11.  Does anyone honestly spend 7 and a half hours there?  Since the circle is just in a random field, I suppose the National Trust felt they couldn’t get away with charging admission (though that doesn’t stop them at Stonehenge), so they get around that by charging 5 quid to use the parking lot.  My opinion of National Trust sites is that whilst I feel they do important work with conservation, their properties are generally middling at best.  They’re good for a rather boring day out, but you won’t find yourself wowed.  The Avebury Stone Circle was no exception.

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I regretted agreeing to come as soon as I stepped out of the car and realised the temperature couldn’t have been much above freezing, and was accompanied by the sort of icy wind that manages to whistle through any kind of hat you might be wearing.  Also, I have a strange aversion to scarves, so my neck completely froze.  Discomforts aside, the stones were still not terribly thrilling.  I’ve been to Stonehenge on the summer solstice, when you’re allowed to walk right up to the stones (and subsequently caught the worst cold of my life after trying to sleep in the backseat of a car without blankets, dressed stupidly in a long skirt and thin sweater because it was my first summer here, and I made the mistake of thinking summer nights here would be warm, like summer nights in Ohio, unaware it would dip down to single digits (in Celsius).), and these stones seemed quite a bit smaller.  Probably, I’m really not a judge of stones (though my boyfriend is a geologist, and he seemed suitably impressed with Avebury).  To me, it just looked like a bunch of moderately large rocks plopped down in the middle of some village.  Rocks that inexplicably had a chalk path running through them, which naturally, was wet, so that my new wellies got a sad, chalky christening.  They also had a museum of sorts inside a barn, but they charged an extra fiver to go inside, and when I peered in, it just looked like a load of posters, so we skipped it. Essentially, I spent an hour alternating between bitching about the cold and my boots, and repeating, “Now, you see the magic of the rocks,” in my best shaman from Temple of Doom voice.  Moral of the story: you can’t take me anywhere that doesn’t involve central heating, because I am an annoying pain in the ass.

Trying to salvage my poor wellies.

Trying to salvage my poor wellies.

Moving on…  We then headed up to Dr. Jenner’s House in Berkeley, Gloucestershire, which being largely indoors, and related to medicine, was far more my cup of tea.  It was quite crowded when we got there, since we had inadvertently arrived on a “Free Friday,” which was apparently a new idea they were trying out.  I would have had no issue with paying the admission, since I’d wanted to visit it for a while, but free entry was a nice bonus.

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I really really wanted to love Dr. Jenner’s House, since it was a cute little cottage, smallpox is one of my favourite diseases (to learn about, obviously, not to have), and I like Dr. Jenner (though not as much as I love Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, but Ol’ Eddie couldn’t hope to compete with her Turkish Embassy letters), but I thought it was just OK.  The ground floor had a room full of cases of Jenner’s stuff, and told you all about his work with smallpox, and I thought that was great, so my hopes were high for the rest of the museum.  Behind it, they had preserved his study, which looked very much how I would want my study to look (only mine would have more books, since they aren’t exorbitantly expensive like in Jenner’s day), so still good going.  However, the upstairs was kind of a letdown.  They basically wasted two entire rooms by putting up posters about immunology around them.  The posters were certainly informative, but it was way more science than I could comfortably take in at once, and I felt like it would have been much better if they had just turned the info in the posters into one of those laminated pages they had hanging around the room, or maybe a little booklet people could buy in the gift shop.  I think most people who come to the Jenner House want to learn more about how the man lived, so they could have either restored the rooms, or just had more facts about his life in there, as biographical details seemed strangely lacking in the museum, save for a passing mention about his passion for hedgehogs.  The third room was devoted to telling the story of the eradication of smallpox, which was fine, since it’s an important story, but again, it seemed strangely impersonal. In one of the other rooms, they had many random fact sheets laid out on a big table, and one of them featured the memories of a woman who had smallpox in her youth.  Now, that was fascinating, and I wondered why they couldn’t have included more of that sort of thing in the museum.

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Dr. Jenner’s House also included his garden, which, excitingly, was home to the “Temple of Vaccinia,” where he vaccinated townsfolk, and likely performed the first vaccination.  It was awesome to be able to go inside, even if it was cold and dank.  That was pretty much all there was to his house, and I left feeling sort of glad that we didn’t have to pay admission.  Not because I don’t believe they need the support, but I think what they’re charging relative to what they actually offer is way out of line.  Normal entry is £9, but I think a more fair price would be half that.  I really don’t want to begrudge them the money, because I’m sure they need it, but I think they need to get some better exhibits in there if they want to encourage repeat visitors.

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Last up, if anyone has actually managed to make it to the end of this massive essay, was a brief detour into Bristol to see the Clifton Suspension Bridge (again, boyfriend suggestion).  We first stopped by the Young Ones house and the Kebab and Calculator, since I used to love the Young Ones, but we literally just stopped and took a picture, as it is just a normal house.  I was actually quite surprised by how nice Clifton was, which I don’t mean at all in an insulting way; it’s just that I was really into punk as a teenager, and I used to watch UK/DK all the time, so I pictured Bristol as being this massive punk hangout that was full of grimy squats and people with stupid hair going to shows and then sitting around drinking K cider all day.  When in actuality, Clifton was one of the most pleasant bits of a city I’ve seen in Britain, full of huge houses, gorgeous views, and a nice little shopping district.

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‘The bridge was pretty alright too I guess.  It was still cold outside, but at least a city isn’t really nature, as such, and offered the prospects of food and ice cream, so I wasn’t nearly as cranky about it as I was about Avebury.  The gorge was pretty, even if you had to do a long uphill slog to see it, and there was a cool little tower thing on top the hill that offered a camera obscura and cave that sounded like total tourist traps (of which we unfortunately didn’t partake, as we were out of cash. Besides, we’ve been to Camera Obscura in Edinburgh, and you couldn’t really see much except blurry shadows, so I didn’t think this one would be any better.).  I’m disappointed we didn’t get to see the Glenside Museum, which is about psychiatric medicine, and includes wax models, but it was it’s only open on Fridays (and I think Wednesdays?) from 10-12:30, so we would have had to left at some insanely early time in the morning to have made it there in time.  I guess it’ll give me a good excuse to come back to Bristol and try out this trendy looking little pizza place we saw as well. We then headed up to Tetbury, where we would be spending the night, where I’ll continue in part 2.

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Scores, (though I really, really doubt anyone has made it this far) 1/5 for Avebury, because it was expensive for some stones, and I hate being outside (it’s my blog, I can make my ratings system this subjective), and 2/5 for Jenner’s House (please, please get some more exhibits!  I want so much to love you, Dr. Jenner’s House!).