The air was chill but the rising sun surprisingly bright as we reached Stonehenge at a much-too-early hour when any sensible person would have still been in bed. Everything around us was still; no coaches, no crowds, not even an open gift shop. This was Stonehenge as you imagine it to be, standing alone in the Wiltshire landscape as if the builders had abandoned the stone circle for us alone to find.
But sadly the Stonehenge experience isn’t always like this. A couple of years ago I had visited with my blogging friend Barbara – she wrote about our day here. Although we were lucky enough to be first in the queue as Stonehenge opened and had the monument to ourself for a brief 5 minutes, it wasn’t long before the perimeter of the circle was flooded with other visitors. This is one of the major tourist ticklist sites and a convenient coach tour destination for day trips from London, so by the time we left, the experience was far from magical.
On a typical visit to Stonehenge you can skirt around the stones and photograph them from a distance, but without walking among them. This time our early morning tour allowed us to walk into the circle and hear our excellent guide Pat Shelley of Stonehenge-Tours.com tell us all about the stones and the stories and myths that surround them. But first a warning; don’t touch the stones, don’t kiss the stones, don’t hug the stones, don’t lick the stones! Those of us who visited Stonehenge as children will remember that this was once an open monument where you could walk among, sit upon and even picnic by these stones, but these days they are now treated with almost religious care for their preservation.
The stone circle was a masteriece of engineering with the sarsens weighing up to 50 tons being brought on rollers from the Marlborough downs and the smaller blue stones used in the inner circle being brought by river from the Preseli Hills 150 miles away in Wales. The lintels that sit balanced on the top of the larger stones are held in place with interlocking joints and were slightly curved to make the circle – you can see the bulge on top of some of the stones and the hole on others that have fallen. While it is clear that Stonehenge was built to be aligned with the sun and is part of a wider landscape of other stone circles and burial barrows, no-one really knows why it was built or exactly how it was used. Our guide Pat confided that Stonehenge is believed to have been built for ceremonial and ritual purpose which is archaeological code for ‘we’ve absolutely no idea!’
If you’d like to visit on a special sunrise or sunset tour of Stonehenge that will enable you to have that magical experience without the crowds, you need to plan well ahead. The early morning visit including access to the stone circle can be requested in advance at a cost of £30 per person via the Stonehenge website (this does not include a guided tour or even an audioguide) but guides like Pat Shelley also offer the special tour including transport from Salisbury and a guide for £98 per person. Twice a year you can walk within the stone circle during the winter and summer solstice but you will still be sharing the experience with thousands of other visitors. The normal entry price is £14.50 and is bookable in advance, by timed entry. A free audio-tour is available for download on iTunes here.
While you’re in the area there is plenty more to visit, so I would make a weekend or few days to stay in Salisbury while you explore the surrounding area – more information on the Visit Wiltshire Website.
On the road from Stonehenge to Avebury you will pass Silbury Hill, which at 40m high is the largest man-made chalk mound of its kind in Europe. The flat topped cone shape is too regular to be natural, yet no-one knows why it was constructed and no burial chambers have been discovered. There’s no public access to the base or top of the hill but on the opposite side of the road you can walk up the hill to West Kennet Barrow. This Neolithic long barrow or burial mound has a stone chamber at one end that you can enter and you are free to walk along the top of the barrow, with the wind blowing in your hair.
A more personal experience of the stones at Avebury
If you were disappointed at having to share Stonehenge with crowds of other visitors, I recommend that you drive 40 minutes north to Avebury, a larger site of standing stones that is also managed by English Heritage. Visiting Avebury is a much more personal experience and while the individual stones are not as impressive as Stonehenge, you can wander among them, touch them and hug them at will. The stones are well spaced out, making large stone circles across the landscape and a village has grown up in the midst of them, making for a pleasant visit, since you can wander freely around the stones, banks and ditches and then finish off with an excellent pub lunch at the Red Lion.
The beautiful cathedral is as much a living place of worship and community as a tourist attraction, and the spire can be seen for miles around as you approach the city from any direction. If you are spiritually inclined I’d recommend attending evensong or the Sunday morning service to hear the beautiful music and choral singing. The cathedral has undergone a major repair programme over recent years and you can read the cathedral blog to find out what’s been going on behind the scenes. You won’t find a crypt or hear a peal of bells here, since the cathedral is built on shallow foundations due to the high water table and too much vibration could make it unstable.
A perfect photography spot can be found from the footpath that runs in between the water meadows, leading to the Mill House Hotel at Harnham a pub and restaurant where we had supper, in a 15th century building with a garden, with views of the river and mill pond.
800 years of Magna Carta
In the chapter house of Salisbury cathedral you can see the best preserved of the four original copies of Magna Carta, sealed in 1215 by King John in an agreement to preserve the constitutional rights of his nobility. The ‘Great Charter’ guarantees certain rights, including the right to a free trial and copies were sent around the kindom after King John made peace with his barons at Runnymead, to ensure he didn’t change his mind (which of course he did).
The interactive exhibition has been created within the Chapter House to commemorate the 800 year celebrations with films and displays about the charter’s history and volunteer guides on hand to explain everything. Within a darkened enclosure, you can see the actual Magna Carta, written on vellum and with the mark where the seal would once have been, which signified the king’s approval.
Salisbury Cathedral Close
The cathedral is enclosed in a grassy close of 80 acres, surrounded by the houses that were constructed in the middle ages to house the clergy but have since been enlarged and beautified with grand Georgian facades. The houses, walls and gatehouses form a barrier that was designed to separate town from gown in troubled times – normally when the church was charging to local people too much in taxes. There’s plenty to see within the close including Mompesson House, an elegant Queen Anne style town house that is open through the National Trust, The Rifles (Berkshire & Wiltshire) Museum that tells the story of the County infantry regiments and the Salisbury Museum that houses local archaeological collections found in the area.
Visit Arundells, home of Sir Edward Heath
While you’re in the Salisbury Cathedral Close, be sure to visit Arundells, the former home of British Prime Minister, Sir Edward Heath who lived here from 1985 until his death in 2005. The Grade 1 listed house has all those ingredients that make a perfect country gentleman’s residence; the gravelled courtyard with wrought iron gates, the honey stone Georgian frontage and the gardens leading down to the river. Inside the house is preserved as it was when Sir Edward lived there and reflects the passions of his later years. In the hall you’ll see models of his yacht, Morning Cloud and he described the rich man’s sport of ocean racing as ” like standing under a cold shower tearing up £5 notes.”
In the sitting room is a grand piano which visitors are invited to play, covered with silver framed photos of the great and the good, while the terracotta formal dining room, filled with Chinese artworks, saw many a Sunday lunch with everyone from pop stars to royalty. As you walk up the stairs you’ll admire the hand painted wallpaper depicting Chinese fables and stand behind Sir Edward’s desk in the study looking along the length of the garden towards the river. This is certainly a house that oozes the personality of its owner.
Stay within the cathedral close at Sarum College
I stayed at Sarum College while attending the Social Travel Britain conference and highly recommend it if you are looking for tranquil and comfortable accommodation right opposite the cathedral. Parts of the college date back to the 18th century and it is now used as a Christian study and conference centre, but anyone is welcome to book one of their 40 rooms. This is the only place that you can stay within the cathedral close, so you can drink in that cathedral view in the early morning, before other visitors are allowed in. The en-suite bedrooms are fresh and simply furnished and there is a refectory that serves excellent home cooked meals using local ingredients. Should you wish to venture out of the cathedral close to eat at one of the nearby restaurants, you can borrow a key to get back in after the gates are locked at 10.30. Probably not the place for party animals though.
More places to visit in the South of England
You’ll also find our sister blog with tips on how to build a successful travel blog at My Blogging Journey
The first part of our hike on the Dry Stone Route in Mallorca had taken us from the pretty artist’s village of Deia to the busy resort of Port de Soller and up into the Tramuntana mountain range. Read about Part 1 of the walk here. Reaching the Cuber reservoir we took the bus to the monastery at Lluc, since the Refugi de Tossals Verds where we’d hoped to stay was closed for rennovation. After a night in the simple monastery guest accommodation overlooking the front of the church, we decided to attend Sunday mass at 11 o’clock to hear the famous Blauet choir sing, since we would be spending two nights at the monastery and didn’t have to walk on anywhere that day.
Mass with El Blauets
The children of the choir school filed out to a packed church, wearing the bright blue robes that give the choir its name. As mass began a painted screen slid back to reveal the small statue of the Madonna known as La Moreneta or little one above the altar, wearing her crown. When mass was finished the screen closed and the statue turned around to face the opposite direction where she could be seen in the prayer chapel which is reached by the stairs running up beside the altar.
It was a lovely service with beautiful singing, only marred by those tourists who could not resist taking constant flash photography and a woman who even walked up and down the central aisle to video everything on her phone. One of the young girls from the choir appeared to be making her confirmation and had not one but two photographers taking photos constantly from every angle, even walking right up behind the altar to take close-ups of the choir. Being a Catholic I was quite horrified by the disrespectful attitude of some visitors who seemed to view the mass like a visit to the zoo and could not believe how patient and good humoured the priest was about it all!
After mass we set off along the GR221 to follow it in the opposite direction, the path that we would have come down had we stayed at the Refugi Tossal Verdes rather than skipping part of the route by bus. Not far from the monastery gates we picked up the familiar cobbled stone path from which the Dry Stone Route gets its name. There was a water collection point nearby fed by a spring from the mountains, where people were bringing huge plastic containers to fill up for their week’s drinking water.
Sitges and Ice pits in the woods
Passing through the holm oaks we passed a number of Sitges or circular, stone charcoal burning hearths. Until the 1920s the charcoal burners would live all summer in the woods in simple stone huts with branches and leaves for a roof and we passed quite a few on the walk. Another feature of the landscape were the deep snow pits lined with stones, which in the days before refrigeration, were filled with blocks of ice from the mountains packed down and covered with leaves to keep them from melting.
Views from the Puig d’en Galileu
We emerged from the woodland onto the side of the Puig d’en Galileu on a cobbled stone path with dry stone retaining walls which ziz zagged at a relatively gentle gradient up to the top of the mountain where there was a plateau just below a rocky crest. From here there were wonderful views across the valley, down towards the monastery at Lluc and across towards the coast and the cleft of the Torrent de Parais, a popular walking route along the gorge.
We stopped at the crest and sat on a boulder for a picnic lunch but soon the views were hidden by the cloud cover swirling in and covering the rocky peaks where the path would take us up over the pass. We decided that rather than climb further into the cloud, with the risk of losing our way, we would retrace our steps down into the valley again and returned by the way we had come.
The Museum at Lluc Monastery
We arrived back at Lluc monastery around 4pm, just in time to take a look around the interesting museum with old archaeological artefacts, some beautiful Mallorcan costumes and traditional furniture like the carved and canopied bedstead. I particularly enjoyed the exhibition of paintings depicting scenes from Mallorcan life by the impressionistic artist Josep Coll Bardolet, a Spanish painter whose adoptive home was Valdemossa.
After breakfast the next day we took the opportunity to walk the path with the stations of the rosary within the monastery grounds, which took us up to a rocky pinacle with a huge iron cross overlooking the monastery. The pilgrim’s road took us out of the gates of Lluc monastery, through the fields and up to the Refuge of Son Amer, which like many of the Refugi along the Dry Stone Route, had been recently restored to encourage rural and walking tourism.
The path wound up through pine forest on the slopes of the Puig Ferner and despite the overcast weather this was the best part of the day as we walked amid the pines and past lime kilns and old stone enclosures. The bright green moss made cushions of the rocks and the path was soft with a covering of pine needles which gave off their scent when trodden underfoot. The air was quiet apart from the trill of birdsong and the distant whirr of traffic from the road down below.
Through the woods to Pollença
The way followed the Cami Vel de Lluc, the old pilgrim’s way which turned for a while into small tarmac road between fields with occasional houses. As we descended towards Pollença, the rain became steady and we entered a thick pine forest which sheltered us from the worst of it. The heavy woodland cover would have been refreshingly cool on a hot summer’s day but felt damp and eerie in the rain. It seemed as if we had entered a scene from the Hobbit, where the trees might come alive and turn on us at any moment.
The final stretch was along a river and then a busy road heading into Pollença, where we missed the smaller paths a few times and ended up walking beside the traffic which was both dangerous and unpleasant. Finally arriving in the central Placa of Pollença, we took shelter in a cafe with the tourists from the nearby beach resort, their sunshine holiday being rather spoiled by the rain.
Staying at Port de Pollença
In the cafe we received stone-faced glances from the staff and concluded that our boots and dripping rucksacks were not welcome, so after a coffee we took the bus into Port de Pollença where a much warmer welcome awaited us at the seafront hotel of Sis Pins. This was clearly a haven for the mid-life Brit abroad with plenty of older couples, a cheerful English receptionist and kettles in every room.
We spent the evening exploring the busy resort of Port de Pollença finding a pleasant Italian restaurant for dinner in the main square. Thankfully the sunshine had returned by the next morning and we took the bus back to Palma, leaving our rucksacks in the lockers at the Placa Espanya above the underground coach station.
Sightseeing in Palma
Since our flight was not until the evening, we wandered around the old quarter, looked in the shoe shops and came across an art museum, the Museo Fundacion Juan March. Housed in an elegant 18th century mansion along one of the main shopping street this was a real find, since it was not only free but housed a world class exhibition of modern painting and sculpture that included Picasso, Dali and Miro.
Next stop was La Seu, the cathedral of Santa Maria in Palma, which dominates the view from the sea and is the number one tourist hotspot. Of course we couldn’t miss it but before going in we walked all around the terrace overlooking the lake and seafront, noticing the horse-drawn carriages ready to take you around the town.
The cathedral is a huge and inspiring structure, which although medieval in origin has gorgeous Modernista influences that were added by Antonio Gaudi in the 19th century. I especially loved the more recent side chapel by contemporary Spanish artist, Miquel Barceló where the ceramic surface was covered with fish and other wriggling, writhing creatures.
After visiting that cathedral we wandered around the old streets near the cathedral, eating ice cream, photographing the two well-known Modernista houses of Can Rei and L’Aquilla and finally stopping for a drink in a leafy square.
Before long our short sightseeing tour of Palma was up and it was time to return to the Placa Espanya to pick up our bags and return to the airport. Our walking break had taken us from quiet mountain villages to busy coastal resorts, from the views of the Tramuntana mountains to the buzzing town squares packed with bars and restaurants and finally to the sophisticated island capital of Palma. Next time I’d love to go back with for a driving holiday to explore even more of the hidden charms of Mallorca away from the coast. For me those mountain paths and quiet villages feel like the real Mallorca.
If you’d like to walk the Dry Stone Route
If you plan to walk the GR221 Dry Stone Route I recommend the guide book that we used Trekking through Mallorca – GR221 The Dry Stone Route by Paddy Dillon published by Cicerone.
To get to Palma airport from the centre of Palma we took the airport bus No 1 which runs every 15 minutes from Placa d’Espana where the train and bus station are located. Cost around €3 one way.
Information on routes, timetables and costs of the excellent regular bus service throughout Mallorca, visit the www.tib.org Mallorca Transport website. We used the bus to get from Palma to Deia, from Cuber to Lluc and from Pollenca to Palma.
You can buy the rather uncomplimentary account of Mallorca “A Winter in Mallorca” written by George Sand about the winter she spent there with her lover, the composer Frederick Chopin.
You’ll also find our sister blog with tips on how to build a successful travel blog at My Blogging Journey
Sir Francis Drake was born on a farm just a few miles from Buckland Abbey in Devon, a National Trust property that we visited while staying for the weekend at the Moorland Garden Hotel. From modest beginnings, ‘El Draco’ had grown up to become a buccaneer (that’s a polite word for pirate), great Elizabethan naval commander and scourge of the Spanish Empire in Central America where he attacked their ships and stole their gold at every opportunity.
Since Queen Elizabeth I was one of his backers, she was thrilled when Drake returned to England in 1580 with his ship, the Golden Hind, laden with Spanish treasure, of which she would take the lion’s share. Drake was knighted as a reward and bought Buckland Abbey with just a small part of his bounty, adopting as his motto ‘Sic Parvis Magna’ – from small beginnings come great things.
Buckland Abbey’s more recent claim to fame is the Rembrandt self-portrait which came to the property in 2010 as a legacy. Until recently the painting was thought to be a portrait of the artist by one of his pupils or a copy of one of his originals. A visit by the Rembrandt expert, Professor Ernst van de Wetering, prompted a reconsideration of the painting and investigations started to see if it could be a genuine self-portrait.
The now confirmed Rembrandt ‘Selfie’ is housed in a ground floor exhibition room at the abbey, with fascinating information about all the detective work that went into establishing that it was the real thing. The portrait has an element of the dressing up box about it, with the artist in a flamboyant cap with ostrich feather, flowing velvet cape and gold chain, using the ‘Tronie’ style of Dutch painting in which people were portrayed as historic or mythological characters.
We watched a video explaining the reasons that the portrait was agreed by art experts to be genuine, such as the fact that the signature had been made when the rest of the paint was still wet, rather than added afterwards. It also appears to have been written rather carelessly, with the artist running out of space so that he left off the D in his name, something you might not dare do if you were a forger.
Xrays and infra-red photography showed how the shape of the figure was blocked out on the canvas, which was a typical technique Rembrandt used and an analysis of the pigments showed they were consistent for the period.
After painstaking research, analysis and cleaning, the self-portrait was found to be genuine and now takes pride of pace in the centre of the exhibition room, where you can see the back with original labels and markings, as well as the front.
On arrival at Buckland Abbey we walked down into the Ox Yard, where old farm buildings now house craft workshops and a room where you can see a video about Sir Francis Drake. The shop and restaurant are in what was once the old monastic guest house.
Buckland Abbey was, as the name suggests, originally founded in 1273 as a monastery by Amicia, the Countess of Devon, in memory of her son who had been murdered. She endowed the monastery and large estates in Devon to the Cistercian order who divided their time between spiritual devotions and agricultural labours, especially sheep farming.
The Great Barn, which sits right beside the main house, was built at this time and is one of the largest of the period with oak roof beams arching 60 feet above you as you enter. It was built to store the farm produce, its sheer size indicating the wealth and productivity of the abbey estates and is often used for workshops and events like carol singing at Christmas.
Since we were there in the late autumn, we found that apples from the estate were being pressed to make cider, the group of volunteers only taking up a small space of the huge barn.
After King Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in 1539, the abbey buildings and estate were sold to Sir Richard Grenville whose heirs converted the monastic buildings including the church into a private home. Sir Francis Drake moved to Buckland in 1582, the same year he became Mayor of Plymouth aged 39, already famous for his 3 year circumnavigation of the world and his exploits in the New World.
We enjoyed a look around the various galleries in the house where portraits and objects from the house’s history are on display. Pride of place in the Treasures Gallery on the first floor is taken by Drake’s Drum, which he took on his naval voyages and is said to sound whenever England is in danger. To the side of this main display room was the oak panelled Drake’s Chamber, filled with oak furniture and portraits of the period, just as it might have looked in Drake’s day.
Along the corridor we moved on 200 years as we walked into the Georgian Dining Room, while up the stairs to the top floor was the Long Gallery, dominated by a huge statue of Sir Francis Drake. This long, open space was used in Tudor times for the inhabitants to get some indoor exercise and we found information about life on board the ships that Drake might have sailed and the lives of the Cistercian monks.
Back on the ground floor were the Tudor kitchens, laid out with 18th century cooking utensils and foods as if preparing for the dinner party upstairs. The final part of the tour was through the Great Hall, created in 1576 by Sir Richard Grenville when he converted the monastery into a house. Apparently the nave of the old church where the monks were buried sits under the pink and white tiled floor of the Great Hall.
Our tour finished, we came out of the house and back into the beautiful formal gardens, inspired by Tudor knot hedges filled with roses and a small orchard of apple trees. If we’d had more time, we could also have taken a walk around the Buckland Abbey estate through the great deer park and woodland where wild garlic and bluebells bloom in the spring.
If you are on the western edge of Dartmoor visiting Tavistock or Plymouth, do stop in to Buckland Abbey for a big slice of Devon’s history and to find more about Sir Francis Drake and the Rembrandt selfie.
If you go: Buckland Abbey, Yelverton, Devon, PL20 6EY, Tel: 01822 853607
Closed in January, re-opens 14 February 2015. Open daily 11-4 in winter, 10:30-5:30 in spring/summer. Admission Adult £11, Child £5.50. (check website for more details) Follow on Social Media: Twitter @BucklandAbbeyNT | Facebook | Instagram |Thanks to the National Trust who gave Heather and Guy complimentary admission to Buckland Abbey.
Where to stay:
Heather and Guy stayed at Moorland Garden Hotel which is close by at Yelverton – read my review here. The hotel is an ideal base for those wanting to explore the area for walking on Dartmoor or to visit the Ocean City of Plymouth. The rooms are all decorated in colourful style using a garden and moorland theme and the award winning Wildflower restaurant is highly recommend for lunch, dinner or cream teas overlooking the lawns.
You’ll also find our sister blog with tips on how to build a successful travel blog at My Blogging Journey