5000 Years of History in Southern England

After leaving London, I took a short train ride west to visit the town of Oxford, which is home to the oldest English-speaking university in the world. The University of Oxford has nearly 1000 years of history, perhaps most notably a brief stint by my brother as a post-doc in the Physics department. Unlike London, Oxford is relatively compact, and all of the sights are easily reached on foot. However, be prepared for crowds, as Oxford is a very popular tourist destination, especially for day-trippers visiting from London.

One of the most impressive sights in the university is the Bodleian library. The Bodleian is one of the oldest and largest libraries in all of Europe, and houses many books that are several hundred years old. Parts of the Bodleian were used for filming the Hogwarts Library in the Harry Potter films. The nearby Divinity School is very beautiful as well, and was also used as the Hogwarts Infirmary in Harry Potter. I would recommend shelling out a few pounds for a short guided tour of the library, although keep in mind that photos aren’t allowed inside the building.

Aside from the library, definitely pay a visit to one of the many colleges on campus. Perhaps the most beautiful and well-known of these is Christ Church college, which was originally founded in the 16th century (and later renamed as Henry VIII’s college for a short time). Much of the college is off-limits to visitors, so a visit shouldn’t take more than an hour or so, but be sure to check out the historic cathedral (where philosopher John Jocke is buried), the Tom Quad, and the massive dining hall, which has been in continuous use for nearly 500 years!

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The Quad at Christ Church College in Oxford

Aside from walking around the university itself, there are a number of additional worthwhile attractions in and around Oxford. These include the Ashmolean Museum, which is the oldest public museum in Great Britain and like a smaller version of the British Museum in London (but still quite large!). Also check out the Eagle & Child pub, which is known as a favorite gathering spot for authors J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Finally, if time allows, take a short bus ride outside of the city to visit the magnificent Blenheim Palace, which is a World Heritage Site and the childhood home of Sir Winston Churchill.

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World Heritage Blenheim Palace

After spending a few days in and around Oxford, I headed further west to the city of Bath, which is one of my favorite places in England. Bath has two notable periods in its history, the first being the ancient Roman era and the second being the much more recent Georgian era. Because Bath sits on top of mineral hot springs, it was visited by people all over the Roman empire to take advantage of its supposed healing properties. The ancient Roman baths are the premier attraction in the city, as they are massive and very well preserved. In fact, it is thought that only small portion of the baths have been excavated thus far, so who knows what future excavations will reveal. Also, if you like, you can try a sample of the water, which is supposed to have healing properties (although it’s not exactly tasty). One other interesting thing to ponder: It’s thought that the water from the baths was stored underground for about 10 thousand years before finally reemerging to the surface. So the last time the water that you see (and possible drink) there was above ground, England was primarily inhabited by Celtic farmers.

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The Great Bath with Bath Abbey in the background

Keep in mind that the Roman Baths are one of the most popular tourist attractions in the whole country, so try to visit earlier or later in the day if you don’t feel like battling the crowds. If you want to kill some time before the crowds thin out, pay a visit to the nearby Bath Abbey, which is the last Gothic church built in England. Climb to the top of the tower for great views over the city, including the Roman Baths. Also, don’t forget to check out some of the crescents that the city is known for, in particular the Royal Crescent and the Circus. These are long, picturesque semi-circular rows of houses with a common facade, which were built during the Georgian era in the 18th century. Finally, I would definitely recommend taking a 2-hour free walking tour given by the Mayor of Bath’s Honorary Guides. Unlike other “free” walking tours that expect a tip at the end, the guides for this tour will not accept a tip even if you offer them (and they mention this right at the start of the tour!)

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Bath Abbey at night
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The Royal Crescent in Bath

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention some of the amazing attractions within an hour or so outside of Bath. The most famous of these is undoubtedly Stonehenge. Many people who visit Stonehenge remark that it didn’t quite fulfill their expectations. That’s probably because most people visit during the day, when you’re competing with thousands of other visitors and can get no closer than about 30 feet from the circle. I can imagine that this probably doesn’t contribute much to a peaceful or authentic experience.

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An empty Stonehenge at sunset

A much better alternative, which is what I chose, is to visit the site during the evening. At this time, they limit the total number of visitors to about 25 (so make sure to reserve your spot well in advance!), and you’re allowed to walk about freely among the stones (although you’re still not allowed to touch them). When I visited, the sky was clear, the weather was perfect, and there was a great sunset. Combined with the fact that there was hardly anyone else around, the atmosphere felt very peaceful and serene, and I was able to experience an almost magical feeling similar to those who visited the circle 5000 years ago must have felt. As a short aside, if you happen to be around during the summer Solstice, they hold a huge festival at Stonehenge, during which time more than 10000 people attend and the circle is open to everyone.

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Not far from Stonehenge is another ancient stone circle in the village of Avebury. Avebury Stone Circle is very different from Stonehenge in that its diameter is massive (it is the largest stone circle in Europe), and the circle actually passes through the town that bears its name. In part because of its massive size, Avebury draws many fewer visitors than Stonehenge; so if attempting a daytime visit to one of the circles, Avebury might actually be a better option than Stonehenge.

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A short stretch of Avebury Stone Circle

Finally, a couple of other worthwhile trips from Bath include Glastonbury, whose ruined abbey presumably contains the burial place of the mythical King Arthur and his wife Guinevere; also, Wells, home to a spectacular cathedral which contains (among other things) a 1000 year old baptismal font that is still used today, as well as the second oldest clock in the world (and the oldest one with a face). Be sure to stick around for the hourly chimes, as the clock puts on a cute little performance. Right behind the cathedral is the Vicar’s Close, which dates back to the 14th century and is the oldest residential street in Europe.

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Ruins of Glastonbury Abbey
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Wells Cathedral

 

Overall, the towns of Bath, Oxford, and the surrounding area probably deserve close to a week to do them justice. All things considered, that’s a pretty short amount of time to view over 5000 years worth of history.

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