Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Wrap Up

We arrived into Sydney just after 6 am on the 6th of May. A perfect time of day on a beautiful mild autumn Sunday. Dark enough that the lights of the city shone with a diamond intensity. Light enough for sunrise skies to be painted in a rich red across the horizon, against a brilliant blue sea and paler blue sky.  It was nothing short of spectacular. Sydney is a beautiful city to fly into and so different from Europe at this time of year. Having had our sensibilities aligned to a different aesthetic for 6 weeks returning home was like flying to a whole new world visually. What born and bred Sydneysider would not almost burst with pride.

So, the reporting is done and it's almost time to put our mammoth trip to bed... I guess the general thing people do is pick their favourite experiences.... but honestly, we both agree that we would just be listing everything we did, including the hail at Lochnagar crater. We had an amazing time from start to finish.

What worked well? What experiences will inform our future planning?

1. Having a theme was great. We chose family history and worked in "must do" general sights and destinations around that. There is just so much to do and see, so it was helpful to have the theme to help you choose.

1a. I guess it's a variation on point 1 but seeing the great icons of Royal history and such in the one trip, or lots of different cathedrals, was excellent. I had wondered if we would get tired of it and it would get a bit samey, and towards the end, for example before we went into the Royal Pavillion Brighton, we thought we were getting there, but in fact, seeing them all in the one trip was brilliant because they all cross-fertilised.  What we learned at one was useful at another, so as we went along we just got more and more out of each visit.  We understood more.  Case in point. Versailles and Blenheim.  Before the trip I had figured it might be better to do them on separate trip. No no no.  It was much much better to see these two properties in close succession.....and it was brilliant to have done Versailles first of the two.

2. Having variety was great. Especially in such a long trip.  Our holiday was like 5 different holidays strung together. So I guess what I mean is you need a balance to keep you fresh. We saw big palaces but on the other extreme we wandered into a dusty shed in rural Somerset and bought cider brandy..When you're choosing your activities you do need to mix it up too.

3. Tomtom is absolutely positively essential (if driving). Probably the most important point of all.. Oh my goodness.  Make sure you are old friends with your tomtom before you go.

4. If you're arriving long haul early morning. It's easy to keep travelling the same day. Arriving early morning local time after long haul and hopping straight on a coach and travelling even longer to start the trip out of London worked really really well. We'd do that again no worries.

5. Walking tours are brilliant. absolutely positively the best way to experience a place you don't know is with a guide.(actually  that's a lesson we learned in Napier NZ).  Do NOT, Do NOT skip the free walking tour of Bath... skip the Roman baths if you have to, but do NOT skip the walking tour. Do the big London institutions (V&A, British Museum etc) with London walks. I cannot emphasise enough how much more we got out of our experiences there due to having taken the London Walk.

6. Take the human led tour of wherever it is you're visiting. Prioritise places that have a tour led by a human. Much much better than any audio guide. More information is provided and its easier to absorb and you can ask questions too.

7. Don't assume that Cathedrals in small towns or cities are less magnificent than Cathedrals in big cities. Often the reverse is true. Wells Cathedral is a case in point.

8. Allow more time when visiting the home villages of great icons. We did flying visits to Helpston (John Clare) and Chawton (Jane Austen) to visit the museums dedicated to each.  Both villages have associated walks to do around the village but we didn't have time to do that in either case. Both villages were very lovely. Next time I will be trying to plan more time for those things and looking for the associated walks.  In the case of Helpston, if I had my time over, I would still go to that area and stay a couple of nights, as we did, but I would prioritise Clare Cottage and Helpston over Burghley.

9. Do the pre-trip reading. We got more out of Amsterdam because we read the history of the city. I got more out of the Anne Frank House because I re-read her diary..I definitely got more out of visiting Helpston even having read only part of the biography of John Clare... thought the museum is really great and very accessible for children too

10. Do try to keep some nights free to do nothing...especially if you have chosen to stay in an awesome B&B ... you might not succeed in the end.. but do try.. :o).  Over six weeks more resting time would be good too... but I think with me.. well.. I would just fill it up with something when I got there. Four weeks it's not so much a problem! It's very unlikely we'll take 6 week trips in future.. that's for a range of reasons not just the fatigue management.

11.  ah yes... DO try chains that have outlets absolutely everywhere.. my brother did tell me about Pret a Manger.. but I completely forgot and was put off by it being a chain... MISTAKE.

12. Don't assume that a town destroyed in war is all post war in style... especially in Europe... those battlefield towns in France and Belgium are worth visiting if only to marvel at the fact that they just gathered up the rubble and reassembled their city, even though in some cases it took them decades to complete. Amazing.

Hubby agrees with the above and he adds:
13. Make sure you factor in lunch. It's no good going around seeing things on an empty stomach.. like we did at Windsor Castle.

14 Travel lighter. Snodge comments: It's almost hard to say it's a learning because EVERYONE tells you before you go... but really. Pack and then take half of what you packed out and leave it at home.. Even for a long trip. You need to head out with your luggage half empty.

16. MY man bag* was great. It's important to carry your rain gear with you all the time, and not just for rain.. for wind and cold reasons too.

*Emphasis added by Snodge.

.. and that's it. I guess we spend a few months reading and fleshing out leads of interest we got on this trip and then start planning for the next one.

It's now 8 months later and the gloss has not dimmed on our trip. It was a truly fantastic experience. Every time I read I can't wait to get back for another instalment   I am SO glad to have spent the time recording my journal in such detail. Reading it is like reliving a surely untoppable holiday and I am reminded of so many things that would have otherwise faded away in pale memory.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Day 39 - Blenheim and flight out.

Friday 4th May 2012
So this is our last day.  Our flight departs London Heathrow Terminal 3 at 9:30 pm.  We have indicated that we’ll drop the car off at the Heathrow depot of Enterprise Car Rentals at 5:30 pm but I am not too fussed if we cop an extra payment for being late.
Hubby’s not been well overnight and stays in bed as long as he can. He skips breakfast. Seriously. You know he’s really ill if he skips brekky.  I run down and just grab a simple breakfast of cereal and fruit and a little bit of grapefruit juice.  Wolfgang is lovely and offers chamomile tea for the patient.  The juice is worth commenting on… it was really good and really red.
Athole House has been splendid and absolutely deserving of every good review.  Like many of the properties we’ve stayed in we are sorry to leave.  In this case it really feels like a privilege to stay. I actually think that Athole house would be as much a reason for my return to Bath as anything we’ve seen in the town.
I’ve been doing some research for outlets for tea pigs tea.  I want more white tea and I can get it Bath no doubt, but I’d rather find a smaller centre.  This I do and I scribble some addresses in my notebook.  We’re quite late leaving Athole House.  We’ve left the room about 11 am and are driving away at about 11:30. Hubby’s feeling a bit better and insists he’s fine to drive though I do offer to take the controls very happily.
So, what today?  The weather is rainy and we’re not up for more around town. OK. I’ll confess it now. I have a burning desire to go to Blenheim or die trying.  This may be my only chance to see it.  I want this badly enough that I’m prepared to risk not seeing anything but rear bumper bars all day and then hop on a flight.  I’d also rather go via backroads to get there.  Am I sounding crazy?  It’s perhaps as well no one tried to dissuade me.  I have palace fever.
We have luckily missed the worst traffic around town by this time though we do strike a warning of peak hour queues as we head down Brassknocker Hill.  We’re heading for Bradford on Avon and a little shop listed on the tea pigs website called Growing Needs.  The threatened queue is nothing much. The views from Brassknocker Hill are glorious and I wish in vain that the queue was longer and slower!  Tomtom is doing a stirling job. She’s been a good girl since she recovered from her tantie, but hubby misses a turn.  Nice work, that’s quite handy, just pause here for a mo while I get a photograph of Brassknocker Hill.  Done.
Brassknocker Hill
Bradford on Avon is busy but so lovely and it is packed with shops that would be lovely to poke around in.  We’ve got no room for additional souvenirs though so palace fever is unabated.  Growing Needs is a store for pregnancy and childrens things. What the?  I gingerly wander in and say “ah.. this feels like a really stupid question but do you stock tea pigs tea?”  The young man seems lost for words.  I go on. “You are listed on the tea pigs website as selling it?”  Turns out his wife runs some sort of side shoot to the shop, but no, no… definitely no white tea in stock..  Oh well.  Gee they have good toys in here.  Oh I like those magnetic wooden letters.. I pick up the pack and bounce it up and down testing the weight.  Shall I risk it?.. hmm. Oh what the heck. I take a chance, quickly pay with some of my remaining cash and I’m back out the door as hubby pulls up and I hop back in the car.
Right. I’m not wasting any more time on royal goose chases for white tea.  Lets go. We’re heading for Blenheim now. It’s not like we’re making an early departure.  Tomtom is duly instructed.  Oh tomtom…. Have I told you lately.. I love you.. do do do do do.  ..and I mean it from the bottom of my heart… shut up Lionel!
Tomtom takes us across country, down a few one lane roads which these days cause us no angst whatever, through green fields and rain swept landscapes to join the larger roads which are happily congestion free.  The M4 impresses with it’s chevron markings and signs for drivers to keep apart two chevrons.  What a great idea.  Our route is a perfect compromise of large roads and small.  Just what we want today… and another reason why I decided that a start from Bradford on Avon would work best. .. yeah.. I checked it on google maps first. . :o)
We arrive at Blenheim without incident at about 2 oclock.  No need to factor in lunch neither of us is looking for it. We just need to see the house.  Clearly not time enough to see everything, but so long as I see enough of the historic stuff and formal gardens I’ll be happy. We pay our £20 entry and park. It’s a long walk up to the archway into the inner courtyard and I occupy myself with wondering what the go is for people with mobility issues. No doubt there is some sort of system.  The walk is also nice as we can look out across the park to the column of victory which stands proudly a mile or so in the distance across the Capability Brown landscape.  They describe this park as a “naturalistic Versaille”. It LOOKS like nature just conceived this beautiful outlook. Nope. The lake is constructed, mature trees were carted in and placed carefully for maximum effect.  It is magnificent and much more to my taste than the gardens at Versailles.
The Gates of Blenheim
We pass through the elaborate gates and pause again in the courtyard where you enter and admire the view.  Hubby instructs me to take a video because a still photograph simply can’t capture this place.  We’re dragging our feet. Best get on with it.  As we enter the palace – through the front door into the main hall mind you.. we are assisted by a trio of ladies who having ascertained that we have not visited before, and who are keen to give us some advice about our visit.
The coutyard of Blenheim Palace
We decide that we will start with the exhibition on Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill and follow up with the tour of the State Apartments as has been suggested.  Throughout our time in the Churchill exhibition there is an audio recording loop of excerpts of famous speeches and statements of the great war time leader. The exhibition gives a run down on his life and displays artifacts relating to it. Mostly these are letters between interested persons. Winston to his parents; his nanny to his mother;  that sort of thing.  Naturally it also covers his service in South Africa, his marriage and roles in public life. It also covers his relationship with his paternal grandmother and his relationship with Blenheim.  Eventually we come to the room where Sir Winston was born.  It’s all interesting enough, but it’s largely not new information for me and it’s not blowing my socks off… yet…
We’re not quite through this exhibition when a lady comes through indicating that the tour of the house is about to begin.. we loiter.. then hurry to the start place.  Some preliminaries are undertaken which involve introductions to portraits hanging around us and some background information on the palace and the Dukes of Marlborough and we are handed over to a dapper little man who is clearly expert on the things we are about to see.   Like the Chateau de Versailles, Blenheim Palace is a world heritage site.  We had a superb guide for our tour at Versailles and we get another today.
Everything about Blenheim reflects the context of it’s creation.  John and Sarah Churchill were already well established and close friends of Queen Ann when the Duke was responsible for achieving victory at the battle of Blenheim.  This battle was fought against Louis XIV – the sun king, builder of the Chateau de Versaille – and we are here told that this critical victory put paid once and for all to France’s ambition to dominate Europe, paving the way for the following growth of the British Empire.  It was huge basically.  It’s huge for me today too. The pennies don’t drop, they cascade in my mind as I can now slide the Sun King into place within my existing knowledge of English history.
So back to Blenheim.. the Queen and parliament were duly grateful. But how to reward John Churchill? He’s already a Duke. That’s the highest rung in the ladder.  The reward?  These lands which had been royal hunting grounds, and money, lots of money, to build a wonderful palace.  The lands aren’t owned though. They are subject to a nominal rent. Every year the Duke of Marlborough must present a flag covered with the fleur de lys of France to the sovereign or the land reverts to the crown.  We see such a flag at Blenheim. We’ve seen them at Windsor Castle too, nicely closing the circle.
The architecture also betrays the purpose of this palace. It is a victory palace.  Atop the clock tower archway, sculptures of the lion of England assaulting the cockerel of France speak of England’s triumph.  No grand staircases as would ordinarily be found in the reception hall, you enter through a triumphal archway into the main reception rooms. .  The column of Victory is not so subtle either, though it was erected after the 1st Duke’s death by his grieving widow. Theirs was a true love match.
The tower of Victory under magnification 
The art work in the State Apartments is primarily portraits of the family.  We meet pretty much all of them and they are all interesting paintings and people.  In later history one of the Dukes managed to trade a position in the aristocracy for the hand in marriage of young Consuela Vanderbilt. Not a love match. Not a happy match. They ended up divorcing, but no doubt it was also not a match that was regretted from a financial point of view by the Marlboroughs. 17 year old Consuela came absolutely overflowing with dowry money. Millions upon millions of lovely dowry money.  The Marlboroughs were good at the selection of rich American brides. Winston’s mother was Jenny Jerome and she too came equipped with a handsome dowry.. enough to buy the hand of the second son of the Duke. First sons are more expensive.
The first Duke and his wife were well known for having simple tastes in decorations.  There is for example, existing correspondence about how the Duke did not like the gold and silver thread in a tapestry they were given.  The current gilded decoration of several Hawkesmoor ceilings would most definitely not have met with their approval. 
There’s no point me writing a thesis on the tour and it’s content, but it is very well done. The route is taken in a way that makes each new room more amazing than the last.  The main reception hall which is now used for a long banquet table and used once a year at Christmas is set to show that for our visit. It is an awesome space and simply fabulous to see. It does it’s job of impressing the visitors with the might and wealth of the house very well.  The whole palace is tasteful. This is somewhere that I will return to if I am lucky enough to get back to England. This is a fabulous place.  Perhaps best of all is that I did see it in the same trip as Versailles and each property has informed the other, representing as they do a grand tussle between great houses and great nations. 
Everywhere one looks in Blenheim Palace there are references to the legacy of the first Duke.  It’s pretty much a place of worship to his achievements and his position as one of the great men in British history.  There are the 10 tapestries he had created to show accurate details of the various battles leading ultimately to success at Blenheim for example.  Our guide describes them as the glory of Blenheim.  Even historians come here to study them to learn about the battles, being as they are the record created with great care by the Field Marshall himself.  I can’t help but chuckle at the items the agents of the Duke picked up in the fire sales after the French revolution.  The only portrait in the house not of family – a huge one placed centrally over a fire place – the sun king himself. One of several copies of the same portrait made for the French King. In another room… see all this furniture. It’s French.. Originally in Versailles. This furniture in this bit here.. more from Versaille.  And here.. look… over at this side of the room a bust of Louis XIV. Opposite side of the room bust of John Spencer 1st Duke of Marlborough. Not looking at eachother. They seem perhaps to be looking at the tapestries.
Blenheim being what it is, it is not hard to see why Winston Spencer-Churchill grew up with an unshakeable conviction that it was his destiny to save his country. How could you not?
Our tour brings us out of the palace via a look at the grave of the 1st Duke in the chapel.  To do the next aspect of the interiors you need to re-enter, but we have a priority on having a look around the gardens before we have to leave.  
The lake is man made and part of the landscaping

Another view of the water gardens
Enticing avenues lead from the water gardens
The Water Gardens and palace
We stroll through the water terraces and wander around the side of the palace passing acres of grass that is manicured to glow like velvet.  We peer over into the Italian garden which is still a private space.  The Duke and Duchess still live in the wing of the palace that the Duke and Duchess always have. State Apartments have always been the public spaces and places where guests are accommodated and impressed. It’s not a case of the Duke having had to “vacate” as it were.  We take a truncated stroll through the area where the secret garden is located.  Then our time here at Blenheim must draw to a close.  Just the gift shop to navigate now. I look for a DVD but they don’t do one. It will have to be the book. At least they have made it quite light, while still covering what we’ve seen today.
Returning from the secret garden
Blenheim Palace is fantastic.  Absolutely a must do.  We’ve loved it.  As we explore the palace and grounds I am struck quite forcibly by the outcome of the competition between the house of Marlborough and the Sun King.  Blenheim Palace is the ultimate tangible evidence of who was victorious.  Blenheim is no dusty relic. Blenheim is immaculate. Absolutely immaculate.  The first Duchess of Marlborough, Sarah formerly Jennings, was famously frugal with her money.  When they moved into the palace and were decorating she was chuffed to have scored the painting of the main reception space for a bargain.  They were the antithesis of the Sun King in the level of extravagance.  They certainly have had the last laugh.
By now it’s 4:30 and we tear ourselves away.  There is a lot to see we haven’t had time for but our visit was more than worth while. Considering our over all trip Blenheim has been a perfect ending.  We’re ending on a high note.  I got far more out of our visit here even than I expected.  Everything we’ve done has informed other things on the itinerary. It’s been fantastic.
We have an uneventful drive in to Heathrow.  About 10 minutes out from our destination we hit a bank of traffic at a stand still. "Here we go" I think.  Just as well we’ve got plenty of time… but it turns out (luckily) that this was only a short term problem and the delays are on other junctions, not ours.  It is a long weekend and I guess people don’t travel long haul for a holiday weekend.  We have no difficulty finding Enterprise. They have a very efficient service for drop off and at 6pm on the nose we are happily settled in the shuttle to take us over to terminal 3.  Some weighing and simple rearranging of our luggage ensues.  No major drama but we are over in our weight allowance, by several kilos overall.  It is nothing that cannot be dealt by slight of hand with within our hand luggage.
Bags now dropped, what about something to eat. Hubby is still fasting but improving. In a fit of desperation I just head in to Pret a Manger.  A chain.  We’ve seen these freakin’ everywhere and it’s put us off.  I bought a chicken and bacon sandwich with salad on dark bread. They look fresh. They look popular.  Reasonable price too. I’ll give it a go.   I say what the?  That sandwich was absolutely sensational! Talk about yummy. Why didn’t we try this stuff sooner?  Why don’t we have this chain in Australia.  Hey. You there… Pret a Manger people… get yourselves down under for goodness sake…  I’ve since read something about them not being as healthy as they look.  Sheesh. Who cares. Bet they’re no worse than Maccas or KFC. Probably better.  Definitely twenty times yummier.
And so we end a fantastic day. A fantastic trip. The trip of a lifetime. No regrets. We have met wonderful people, experienced wonderful hospitality. We have seen some of the world’s great wonders.  We have visited the home towns of some ancestors and found them more delightful than we could have imagined. How privileged we are.  How very very privileged we are. 

Day 38 - Minor Wedmore, Bath, Dinner at Menu Gordon Jones

Thursday 3rd May 2012
Raining again today. Steady grey and wet. Hubby up and showered ready for brekkie at 8:30. I was up and journaling from just after 6 am.  Feeling hungry. Hopefully also feeling better when I get to eat something.  We just cannot get over the width of the elm floorboards at Nut Tree Farm. Perhaps the best proof of the age of the building. 
A slow and friendly leave taking as Melvyn offers advice about our route to Bath.   Our first priority this morning is to stop in Wedmore and take some photographs.
Wedmore is a lovely village and I have to say I’m glad to be able to claim a connection to it. My 3rd great grandfather, George Popham (a thatcher) was born in Wedmore.  It’s no good focusing on the C of E church our lot were non-conformists.  Perhaps the Methodist church is more appropriate.
I laugh with delight as I notice that there is a field of black sheep and lambs adjacent to the churchyard.  I was regretting not taking a photo of baa baa black sheep when last we saw some and here is an even better opportunity.
To some extent we retrace steps of yesterday and head first of all for Cheddar.  The weather being less amenable to walking the crowds are less and the gorge more attractive.  Water is sheeting on the road and splashes extravagantly as we drive through.  A beautifully horned bronze age ewe leads her young lamb along the grass by the road. Brown wool showing a wet luster. Low dry stone walls are richly blanketed in moss as the canopy closes overhead in a tracery of bare branches. The fine veil of rain smooths rough edges.
Emerging from the gorge it is no hardship to drive through the Mendip Hills once more with it’s fields separated by stone walls and an occasional shepherd’s hut providing variation from time to time.
Hubby and I don’t agree on the interpretation of Melvyn’s instructions that will take us on some fun sounding back roads to some great views before heading into Bath.  Hubby has the wheel. Hubby has the final say obviously.  Hubby was wrong.  Consequently we take the route that tomtom favours.  There’s no hope when those two gang up on me.
Our route takes us through Chewton Mendip and a series of pretty little villages which we can now regard as just one of so many in this country. Despite the weather we pass a couple of cyclists flaunting their bulky thigh muscles.  There is a sudden shocking spinning in the passenger seat as I spot a bird that looks like a bird of prey sitting with its wings akimbo.
Arriving at Athole House we find that it is grand with stunningly beautiful gardens.  It is much bigger than I expected.  Big wide staircase with low comfortable risers.  A very friendly welcome and despite the early hour our room is ready.  Did I mention the gardens? We drove the car to park where indicated. I had been imagining that this would be a cramped little courtyard. Ha!  No sir.  This is a big comfortable parking bay at the edge of the garden. A big beautiful garden dominated by two principle spring features.  Bluebells. Beautiful well nourished bluebells. Carpets of them and don’t they make a stunning show.  “Oh they’re a weed and have to be culled or they take over” modestly explains Wolfgang. I’m finding it hard to feel sympathy for the problem. Over the way a bit is a pergola covered in a beautiful pink clematis.  These are popular round the place and at the peak of flowering.  I find the gardens enchanting.  It doesn’t hurt either that out in the street in front of Athole house is a mature copper beech just getting its leaves.  Oh I could settle down here and never move today.  What a joy this place is.
Our room is huge. Huge and has beautiful views over the gardens.  It is simply decorated, but not poorly.  A nice leather lounge suite. A reasonable sized TV. A huge bed. I think they call it super king size over here.  Pretty much equivalent to King Size in Australia. A beautiful ensuite bathroom.  We were given a tour of the facilities before we came upstairs. Downstairs we are welcome to use the conservatory where breakfast is held and where comfortable sofas and magazines are arrayed for our enjoyment.  The conservatory too is of generous proportions.  Bath is going to have to work hard to compete with this when we’ve been travelling for 6 weeks.
Wolfgang has asked about our dinner plans and I confess I have been slack and not rung Menu Gordon Jones to confirm our reservation for tonight.  Does Wolfgang have the number?  They can do better than that.  Our hostess gives the restaurant a ring for us and reports back that 7pm tonight is fine. We will love it. She is jealous. Menu Gordon Jones is great.  We feel so welcome.
It’s hard to keep on day after day, maintaining enthusiasm, maintaining energy.  Trying to top untoppable sights and experiences. The credit goes to the venues of course.  I am relying today on the enthusiasm of, well, of everyone I’ve ever spoken to about Bath.  To be honest I’ve never been that interested. I’m here because everyone, simply everyone, says I must, it is magnificent. It is world heritage.  On balance over the years I have learned that such ravings should not be ignored, so here we are.  The end of the marathon is nigh.. break through the pain.
We don our raingear. Hubby slings his manbag. We double check that we have the map Wolfgang gave us. Yes? No. Oh yes! I knew I must have it here somewhere.  It’s a 10 mins or so walk across the river and into heart of bath. Some of the route is not terribly inspiring, and we take a little longer than average seeing as we’re quite tired and not feeling entirely the full quid.  We pass the new Southgate Bath shopping centre. New, but indistinguishable in style from the old. Very impressive.
As we walk through Bath bells are playing tunes. I can’t put a name to the first but a short while later we are treated to a snippet of Amazing Grace and I find myself wondering whether there is a connection between John Newton and the city of Bath, somehow that rings a bell (oh honestly that really was no pun intended..haha).
Also impressive is the array of shops fronting the street. We check our map and move on. Lunch is in order.  Hubby hangs back as he buys a Big Issue.  Nice work there dear. I’ve been feeling bad because we passed these guys without buying while we were in London.  We pause again to consider our plan for the day.  At some point we will take the free walking tour and of course the roman baths are essential. We consider a bank of cafes indicated on our map but notice that we are right outside the Pump Room.
Vague flickering in the memory bank.  I am drawn magnet-like to the entrance.  Hubby questions "where are you going?"  “In here”. I’m not always verbose.  We peruse the posted menu. Options and prices both tempting. Not very busy. Live piano music is a classy touch.  The sign directs us to walk to the opposite corner of the room to be seated.  Yeah. Why not. This looks awesome. This looks like it might take longer than the 40 odd minutes we have before the walking tour.  Hubby is concerned. We’ll take a chance. If we don’t do the walking tour today we’ll do it tomorrow.  The girl who seats us seems unhappy, but she goes through the motions.  Perhaps she’s had some bad news or something. We’ll give her the benefit of the doubt.
We peruse the menu.  There is a special of baked fillet of cod with tomato butter, green beans, samphire and a hollandaise sauce for £14.95. Tempting. I’ve wanted to try samphire.. but I really don’t like fish. I need to be in top form to order fish. Up for a challenge.  Not today. I order the smoked salmon tart with dressed rocket salad.   Haha… smoked salmon isn’t fish. You knew that right? Hubby goes for the Devonshire chicken wrapped in bacon with leek and barley broth.  In a minute or two we are delivered a basket of fresh bread and butter.  Almost immediately the bread is on the table, we haven’t even had a chance to have any, our meals arrive.  What the?  They had that ready out the back obviously.  Both meals look great.  My salmon tart and salad comes with a bowl of fresh tomato soup.  Sweet tomato soup. I enjoy it a lot, but it’s too sweet for Hubby. The soup is really hitting the spot. The tart is tasty but not too rich and my delicate tummy is happy to have the meal thank goodness.  Both our meals are delicious, Hubby’s chicken is ever so slightly over cooked, but nothing drastic. It is still delicious. We’ve eaten and paid and are back on the pavement in half an hour.  Fantastic.  Oh and what a happy coincidence. The walking tours leave from right alongside the Pump Room door.
Angels climb and fall from heaven on Bath Abbey
It’s raining lightly. A small crowd has gathered around two men.  We have about five minutes to wait and this is no hardship.  I walk across to drop my remaining coins in the receptacle of a busking guitar player. He’s good. What a perfectly pitched performance for the location.  Thankyou he says. What a pleasure the music is to listen to in such a beautiful street.
The clock strikes 2pm. Literally. The Abbey is just across the cobbles.  The crowd is split between the two guides leaving two nicely small groups.  Introductions first up: Welcome to you all.  This walking tour is a free gift from the Mayor and citizens of Bath to express their appreciation for your having chosen to visit us.  We are very much aware that without the patronage of visitors like you, our beautiful city and home would not exist". What a nice start :o)
Parish demarcation. Each parish was responsible for burying their own dead. It cost  3 pounds. .. that's a lot.. not unusual then that bodies had a tendency to find their way across the border....
The rain is a bit of a dampener (groan) but it is only light and there are some lengthy dry periods as we learn a wealth of information, both the trivial and the profound, about what must surely be the world’s most famous spa town. If I didn’t feel interested and fascinated by Bath before, I do now.  The history of Bath, especially from the more modern periods,  say from the Elizabethan era, is quite fascinating.  We are delighted to hear of the role the Pumphouse played over time and this has retrospectively enhanced our lunching pleasure.  We walk and listen for about 2 and a half hours. There’s a number of hills involved so participants need to be up for some exercise and some brisk walking on an incline. We don’t hang around in one place long.
We learn a great deal about the movers and shakers of Bath over the years and the influential Richard Beau Nash who if memory serves was the self appointed master of ceremonies and arbiter of social conventions during Bath’s most fashionable period.  There was no position. He had no rank, and yet he successfully set out to provide a level of leadership that continues to reverberate in English society today.  Even Royalty deferred to Beau Nash in Bath. What an extraordinary man. 
There's a great deal to explain in this view across the River Avon..nah... go on the tour..
"I say, make that river go away will you".... I think the architect succeeded. 
Then there's the bridge. The brief was to make the river disappear so that property on the other side of the river would seem attractive rather than just on the wrong side of the river.
So this is the famous promenading Ave. Have a look at the rear facade on the surrounding houses... 
The Bath Assembly Rooms. People were conveyed hither and non in  chairs.  On leaving the ball, people would call their transport... this is the origin of today's common leave taking "Cheerio"
This is a very important fence, and it's been very well maintained.  It is a memorial to the Battle of Trafalgar. in 1805.  Notice the shape.. it's modelled on a weapon used at the time with the fringe to prevent blood running down the handle.
You name it, we cover it. Architecture. Town Planning. Coal deliveries. Smog. The symbolism on the Abbey. The saint with a beard stump for a face; how the extraordinary streetscape coherence was achieved.  The sins of the Victorians who planted trees. The promenading place used by Ann Elliott in Jane Austen’s Persuasion.  Motives for dragging dead bodies across the line.  A fashion for watching the hospital stats by all the well to do.  How many are healed, how many are improving, not improving or dead.  Bath was a colourful and interesting place. There is no shortage of stories. I am sure that you could take the free tour time and time again and the various guides will be able to keep you entertained. The two hours or so goes by in a trice. The Mayor’s tour is without question a must do activity.
Coal shute. Coal was delivered into these coal cellars. The household staff would then come through a door out to get the fuel. How very sensible. The houses on either side of the road also extend under the road.
Our walk concluded time is now getting short for the Roman Baths.  Hubby is dilly dallying for some trivial reason… sheesh.. come on…. Oh toilet… sigh. OK.  I pace. I look at my watch. We buy our tickets to the bath house and are cautioned that the recommended time is an hour and a half. We have an hour and twenty minutes. Are we sure we want to enter?  Ah… yes please.  The website of the Roman Baths promises you an audio guide. Newsflash. Audio guides are just so passé.  At the style setting capital of the country one is issued with an “acousti-guide”.  Our acousti-guide encourages us to only listen to what we want to. We don’t HAVE to listen to every item if we don’t want to.  Oh, then that’s OK. I’ll skip most of mine then.
Honestly I find these things tolerable at the best of times. I find ancient cultures to be right up there among the very best treatments for insomnia.  As we progress through the Roman Baths before we get to paydirt in terms of ancient stone and archeological marvels we are led through a number of spaces where we are invited to learn about ancient roman culture. No doubt this will help us to appreciate what we are seeing.  I try. I promise you I tried, but it’s not long before I’m becoming increasing desperate to get away from this stuff. I walk through feeling increasingly impatient.  I saw a board about tours starting on the hour. Don’t ask me what complete shorting out of brain synapses occurred but I fail to twig that we haven’t missed the last one.  The hand of grace reaches out for me as I drown in the tedium of the culture of Aquae Sulis… I have come across an animated human guide who is conducting the free tour. She is talking about how the ancient baths were discovered in the 19th Century and loads of stuff about the more modern uses of the premises. Now THIS is really interesting.  I slide discretely into the group and listen in wrapt attention.  I like this old Bath house now. This is really cool.  I even find some things that I’d like to know more about on the acousti-guide.
The remains of the roman bath house are extensive. They are the most intact roman bath house remains in the world.  Others that had survived were destroyed in a some sort of cataclysm: a volcano or something like that.  Once I’ve listened to the real person I’m quite enjoying exploring the different rooms and getting the hang of how they were used.  The museum has done an excellent job in presenting what remains in a way to help you imagine how it was a couple of thousand years ago.  I did enjoy the screens where they show you what is in front of you then overlay the full structure and actors running around in plausible roles among the ruins.  There is also an interesting display of relics that they have retrieved from the sacred spring.  Offerings to the goddess were tossed into the waters in abundance. Thousands upon thousands of coins have been retrieved.  The tradition is continued only people today are not so selective. Any water anywhere has coins people have tossed.
By the time we have seen enough the baths are about to close anyhow so the timing worked out nicely.  We just have time for a quick look in the gift shop.  We could use a souvenir gift that has something to do with antiquities but nothing catches our eye. 
The Roman Baths
With our return home approaching the voice in the back of my mind about souvenirs for the kids is becoming fairly insistent.  I have been tasked with acquiring tea.  I have been briefed about the Australian quarantine restrictions.  Another happy coincidence as we find ourselves right outside a tea merchant.  Excellent. What’s this white tea? Where does that fit in the quarantine scheme of things.  I resolve to get one white, one green and one black tea.  If the white is not allowed through it’s not such a big deal.  Turns out on further enquiry white is fine, we can bring it into Australia and really, I should have bought more as daughter has only seen it in very expensive restaurants billed as a delicacy. .. and she likes it.. of course.
We’re dead tired after such a busy afternoon. With our dinner reservation coming up I figure I’m going to need my remaining energy for dinner. I’m not walking back up the hill to Athole House.  Hubby thinks it is fine but I know my limit and I’ve reached it today. Fortunately our map indicates where the taxi rank is and it’s not far away. Lots of cabs lined up and we’re home in a jiffy with time up our sleeve for a pre-dinner rest. Nice one on the cab Snodge.  What a pleasure it is alighting at Athole house from a taxi. When you’ve been flogging shanks’ pony for weeks it is certainly a pleasure to be dropped right at the door. I could easily fantasize about living in this property with this lifestyle.
Menu Gordon Jones is not far away from Athole House.  Easily walkable. Even tired and all uphill its not a problem.  We’re pretty much bang on time and the first of the patrons to turn up.  We are usually the first of the patrons to turn up. We like to eat early.
As we chat at our table the chef sings out from the kitchen and joins in the conversation.  This is an aspect of this restaurant that I particularly enjoy.  It’s kind of a cross between a restaurant and a dinner party.
First delivery is a thick brown paper bag sealed with a colourful fold back clip.  Inside is some warm bread slices.  We can take our choice of potato, tomato and sage or red cabbage bread.  On the little wooden board accompanying the bread is a scientific vial of rich green herb oil and a test tube of balsamic along with a little instrument for extracting the balsamic and applying it in precise quantities to the bread.  In our fatigued state the whole exercise seems like an intelligence test, but we have fun with it.
Soon we take delivery of an amuse bouche served in a beautifully elegant Guy Degrenne cup and saucer. The cup is really fine. Our daughters would love them.  They are filled with “cauliflower cappuccino (espuma) with smoked milk foam”.  We sip and savour.  It is certainly worth the savouring.
The adventure continues with Scrambled seagull egg, Stonnaway black pudding, English asparagus and squab pigeon. The scrambled egg comes served in the olive green seagull eggshell which though very delicate and thin has been perfectly cut across the top to form a little dish.  In one of our chefs little conversational forays we are informed that the seagull eggs have a two week season only and are the most expensive egg you can buy. £4 each and they are collected from the wild.
We are beginning to wonder what extraordinary delicacies we will see in the next course and it is not a long wait until we excitedly tuck in to Roast Sea Bream, crushed jersey royal potatoes and eades baby cauliflower.  Delicious.
As we dine we enjoy the show that is provided by the relationship between the building and the road outside.  Menu Gordon Jones is located on a very busy corner.  The road curves around the shop front and is mirrored by the broad curve of glass picture windows.  It’s not the first place you might think to put a small and intimate restaurant but it works.  Rather than the traffic feeling intrusive it feels like a wall of performance art as vehicles large and small, private and public sweep across our window screens.  The flashing lights of a police vehicle add an additional level of colour and movement.
The meat course is roast rack of spring lamb, curried swede, eryngi mushroom, baby carrot and confit shallot. Lovely, but I generally like my meat cooked a little more than is fashionable.
Blackberry sorbet, marinated cucumber and kale water made for a surprisingly delightful mix of flavours and textures for the pre-dessert.  We can’t wait to see what comes next.
Balsamic Panna Cotta poached red fruit and pink lady apple, vanilla sable. A fine dessert for those that like a bit of tang to their berries. It’s hard to go wrong with panna cotta.
What a great dining experience for our last night.  We have been indulged and entertained by our meal tonight.  Our imaginations have been stretched too by the creative presentation and unorthodox approach to commercial dining.  We wish our hosts the best of continued success for the future and steel ourselves for our foray out into the cold and dark. We are thankful that the return home is all down hill.  What we have missed in Bath in terms of time spent has certainly been made up for in quality.  It’s so good to retire in comfort and sleep. Our last night in England.  We’re heading out on another high note.

Day 37 - Wells, cheddar Gorge, Somerset Levels, Mark and Highbridge

Wednesday 2nd May 2012
It’s about 3 in the morning and I’m awake. The bed is hard. Harder than I prefer and harder than I’m accustomed to in our various accommodation choices to date. I can’t get back to sleep. I do some journaling and just after six I decide I will head out and visit some of the nature reserves. I am on the road just after 6 am. Morning is misty and as I pass down a hill the vista before me is of cloud tops with trees poking out here and there.  If only I could stop safely to get a photograph, but there is a reasonable amount of traffic on the roads this early and I accept that it is simply a case of enjoy the moment wandering the pretty rural roads in the crisp early morning.
There’s not a car in sight as I pull into Swell wood. As the feeding stations were topped up late yesterday I’m hoping to find lots of cool birds coming in for breakfast. Not so. This is a completely different context. Several of the feeders are empty or are on the ground. Just a couple continue to swing from their branches in the carpark. The culprits are clear. Squirrels. Lots and lots of squirrels.  There has to be at least a dozen or more ferreting about on the ground for seed, swinging on the feeders wrestling the larger nuts through the wire mesh. These aren’t British squirrels. These are American immigrants and they’ve been outcompeting the native squirrels. I don’t know whether to be appalled or thrilled at seeing so many getting a free handout. 
The bandits disperse as I reverse into the parking bay best situated between the two feeders with food remaining.  I use the car as a hide which doubles as a way to keep warm. It doesn’t take too long before a few of the more common birds take advantage of the clear space while the squirrels sus me out and decide whether to risk coming back over.  Most squirrels decide that discretion is the better part of valour and stay away. Three or four must have had less success earlier and are prepared to brave the intruder, much to the undoubted chagrin of the tits and chaffinches.  I do love squirrels. They are very cute with their jaunty little tails, and they are active during daylight. Australia’s cute things are almost entirely nocturnal so you don’t see them about.
After watching and hoping in the carpark for a while I decide that it would be sensible to take a walk down to the hide and check out the herons and egrets. Tick. Tick. I do generally prefer the teeny little bush birds, but without binoculars in the kit you do need to be grateful that some birds are impressively large and loud. Not much other action over by the hide.
I can’t devote the whole day to bird watching … or really today it’s bird squinting..and I do want to visit some of the other reserves so I reluctantly drag myself away and head over to Greylake once the obvious regulars in the car park have made an appearance.  It’s eyes on the road but some tantalizing glimpses are had on the way as I relocate.  A woodpecker lands on the trunk of a tree; a smallish tan coloured bird with a white throat descends onto a small twig. I would have enjoyed a longer look but clearly it was not to be.
At Greylake again I’m the only person here. Plenty of birds around though. Goldfinches are easily observed around the car park. I nose around the voice recordings made by local school children and head over to assess the long snake-like tunnel which I guess constitutes a playground for younger kids with bird inclined parents. 
I check the map on my brochure and decide to walk out to the bird hide and see what’s doing.  Thankfully, given that this is a boggy sort of environment a board walk has been provided.  I creep along the birdwalk.. not quite resembling something out of Spy V Spy.  Reed Buntings are cheerily sitting on top of reed stalks and displaying very prominently.  The kids were talking about reed buntings on the recording.  Good to at least be able to see the easy stuff.  On the lookout for something new I’m entertaining myself trying to get some sort of photo to show mum later.  A warbler sits up bold in the open for long enough for me to get a snap. It’s better than the one of the reed bunting I snap in desperation in poor light.
At the hide I fool around opening a window and sitting for a hopelessly inadequate time. I’m dreaming of spotting a kingfisher. I would dearly love to see an English kingfisher, but I am a lazy birdwatcher and today I am also a guilt ridden birdwatcher, seeing as I’ve left hubby to his own devices.  Unable to settle to it I read over the information about the birds likely to be seen here.  I study the illustrations of warblers.  Hmm.  Perhaps it was a sedge warbler I photographed?? 
With nothing particularly interesting hanging around on the water (just coots and a mute swan) I decide I’d better start heading back.  Another warbler. This time it’s clearly a ceti’s warbler, it’s much darker than the other one I saw earlier.  Just in time too. It seems the local birding folk have finished their brekky and arrived with their scopes and enthusiasm.  I nod as we pass. They nod too.  They have been conversing quietly when trying to see something, but as every birder knows, noise or words are unwelcome near a bird hide or when you’re approaching another birder.
Time has slipped easily by as I enjoy the reed beds and make futile attempts to capture an image of the pretty stripey little snails that sit bauble like on the reed stalks. A pair of anonymous ducks fly over in silhouette.  A coot flaps and argues with another and then with a beak of nesting material paddles vigorously away.
The time is moving inexorably on and with increasing guilt levels I find my way to Ham Wall after stopping briefly at Shapwick heath and deciding I’d better not. The car park at Ham Wall is completely full.  Well. That decides it. Time to go home.  All is not lost however. I delay my departure long enough to ask Tommie to remember the location of this RSPB reserve.
As it’s coming on for 11 am I head home.  Breakfast goodies have been left out for me. Muesli, yoghurt, toast.  Above and beyond the call of duty.
Jubilee Green, Mark, Somerset
The day’s activities are at least partially set in stone. We need to go to Mark, just down the road and do a little exploring.  This we do. On arrival in Mark we stopped went for a little walk by the Mark Yeo and took some photos, looking for the most flattering angles.  Mark isn’t the most photogenic place but I did my best. We enjoyed reading the information about the village and the Mark Yeo provided at this little park which we discover is called Jubilee Green. 
As we explore the Causeway and the village we come across an outfit called Popham Saddlery.  It was our Popham forebears that originated in this general area.  My mum’s paternal grandfather Jesse Popham was born and raised in Mark before being recruited to work in the timber industry in Queensland, migrating in 1870.  In due course he met and married the daughter of Harry Skinner aka Harry the Housebreaker and went on to have a strapping family, my grandfather being the youngest of them.  I have no expectation that there is actually a family connection with the saddler Pophams living in Mark today, but it is satisfying to see that there are still Pophams in the village.
There’s not a lot to Mark and we continue on to Highbridge very briefly. It can be hard to tell how old the various buildings are, but today at least the area we drive through has a very different tone and style to the smaller villages we’ve been visiting in Somerset so far.  We could drive on further to Huntspill, where Jesse’s father (Joseph Popham, another carpenter) was born, but we’re not really into it and I’m happy to settle for time in Wedmore where Jesse’s grandfather George Popham (a thatcher) was born.  Wedmore’s the pick of them so far that’s clear.
We have not really finished what I wanted to do in Mark so we double back and in the process discover a new section of the Causeway that we had overlooked earlier. Along this section of the Causeway is a very stinky farm.  We’ve passed a couple of places over the last day or so where the farmyard stench was appalling.  This one in Mark takes the prize though. It is one stinky, stinky farm.  Pity the poor neighbours. Farms don’t smell so bad in Australia. At least not anywhere I’ve been. Mind you farming is much less intensive on the whole too and also it’s drier I suppose… when it’s not flooded. It usually seems to be one or the other at home!
Hubby is being his usual easy going self and letting me call the shots.  I’m over it.  I suggest we drive up to Cheddar Gorge and tomtom agrees.  Along the way we enjoyed lovely views of the Mendip Hills before negotiating our way though the congested streets of tourist facilities.  I suggest a stop to tour a cave, but hubby stands resolutely against the idea.
The gorge leaves me a bit cold on the whole in this bright sunny weather we’re having today.  Australia does a very good line in spectacular gorges. Poor old Cheddar Gorge struggles to compete I’m afraid.  Luckily Cheddar Gorge has something up her sleeve.  Feral soay sheep, that having been isolated on some islands somewhere or other were not subjected to selective breeding and therefore are unchanged from the bronze age.  Coool.  These are worth a stop for a photograph.
Sheep appreciation completed we continue up the gorge and the scenery improves the higher we go.  Dry stone walls creep along under mossy blankets and the trees embrace over the road.  It would be a pretty drive in summer.  Up on the Mendip Hills spring is not so far advanced. Trees are still bare. The fields are divided not by hedges but by dry stone walls.
We turn to make a circuit and head for Wells.  Hubby is increasing in assertiveness and unbidden, parks the car in a signposted cathedral car park.  Come on, lets have a look at the Cathedral.  We come to a very large religious building.  It can’t be the cathedral surely, the grass is mown but it’s a mess.  Nope. Signage confirms we need to keep moving.  We resist the urge to stop at the lolly shop and numerous antiques places.  We note the deep gutters flowing with water completely oblivious to their significance.  “Geez, drivers must hate those” comments hubby.  We’re hurrying now because I know there is a tour of the cathedral at 2pm.  We wiz past the market that is running in the town square.  Wells is a lovely little city. As we are about to find out, it is the smallest city in the nation.
There’s just no substitute for a tour at any cathedral.  Each Cathedral has it’s own particular symbolism incorporated into the design.  They each represent a particular form of architecture and many have some unique aspects within a particular style.  Wells Cathedral is no exception of course.  It was the first in England to be completed entirely in the gothic style: the pointed arches and ribbed ceiling are diagnostic features.  You get the feeling that the architect didn’t quite trust this new style. The pillars and walls are much thicker than they need to be.
The great scissor arches and the triforium arches are another of the special features here. The triforium arches run in a horizontal band above the pointed arches, leading your eye to the great scissor arches at the end. This horizontal emphasis is a design element that is particular to western England.  The scissor arches were not part of the original design. About a hundred years after the cathedral was built, the foundations began to sink under the tower.  The experts were called (master masons) and a solution was devised. A very beautiful solution. These scissor arches are a form of bracing and are best observed from the area near the Saxon font.
The painted ceiling retains the original medieval designs.  Covered over for centuries a refurbishment revealed the original decoration under layers of whitewash and the original pattern was restored.
Still considering the nave of the cathedral we look at the two chantries where prayers were said for the benefit of the soul of the deceased.  Later and at different times you can see the development of the architectural style, the latter construction being more elaborate. Along the way to understanding the chantries we hear about some particular personalities and political changes over the centuries.
Around the exterior walls of the nave is a bank of stone for seating.  When cathedrals were built there were no chairs in them. The congregation stood to hear the sermons, sometimes for lengthy periods.  The elderly or infirm could sit on these seats around the walls, giving rise to the saying still in use today that someone has “gone to the wall.”
One particularly entertaining feature at Wells are the stone capitals. These are carvings at the tops of the pillars and they illustrate scenes of medieval life. In the course of the work it appears that the skill of the masons increased. On one pillar the four carvings tell the story of some grape stealers and their capture and punishment.
The saxon font pre-dates the Cathedral itself and is about 1000 years old.  Similarly it has recently been revealed that the cope chest at Wells also predates the Cathedral and is singular in that it is so old and still in use, though it contains other things these days, not copes.
We have seen some beautiful features in quires of various cathedrals. It is hard to compete with the magnificent set of misericords at Norwich for example. Here at wells the quire reflects the ongoing life of the church community.  At each stall in the quire a beautiful tapestry has been placed.  These tapestries were a project that was undertaken during WWII and if memory serves, something like 100 people worked on the project.  They are certainly a striking and colourful element.
The ceiling above the quire is beautifully decorative.  At the moment the glass window which would normally be a major feature in this area is covered in preparation for cleaning. Nearby part of a panel is there to see close up.  The pollution in the air is pitting the glass so the project that is being undertaken will lightly clean the glass and then a layer of protective glass will be installed to protect the historic stained glass from the elements.
There is some remarkable stained window effects at Wells also.  If they are not maintained, the stained windows, made up as they are of many hundreds of individual pieces held together by leading, bow out and eventually collapse.  This occurred to some of the windows here and at some point down the centuries the little pieces of broken glass were collected and assembled like a crazy kaleidoscope of colour.
Continuing with the recent theme of adding to the treasures of the cathedral through beautiful textile works for the millennium the cathedral commissioned a set of works for use across the religious seasons.  Theatre designers were tasked with the job and they came up with some very striking decorative panels which are changed at the appropriate time creating spectacular effects.  The Christmas set is said to be particularly impressive.  One shouldn’t judge them by my photographs, they are not only better in person, they are better under particular lighting set ups which were not operating during our tour.  I guess they provide an initial incentive for people to attend an actual service!
One of the most incredible features of the Cathedral, must surely be the two story sarcophagus.  There are two representations of the deceased.  On the upper level is the usual sort of thing, but underneath is a sculpture of a thin, wasted, corpse, somewhat reminiscent of a wraith.  It is thought that the idea was to incite pity on the part of the passer by so that they said a prayer for the soul of the person.  The chantry and multiple people to pray in it wasn’t enough. The mind boggles what that bloke had been up to that he was so obsessed with having help out of purgatory.
Through to the lady chapel, where the kaleidoscope glass is located we here some more about the windows. One artisan was so thrilled to actually get paid that he threw in the painting of the ceiling as a thankyou!
We move to the chapter house via an imposing and well worn stair case.  Along the side of the stairway are seats where tenants or others with business before the powers that be would sit and wait. Royal palaces have aspects designed to impress and intimidate. The same was true of the Cathedrals and the administrative areas attached to them. It must have been very intimidating for the average joe to be hauled in here to answer to the council.
Inside the chapter house itself we find an extraordinarily lovely space in very good condition. The guide book claims that it is one of the most striking and perfectly formed chapter houses in Europe and that’s not at all hard to believe.
The acoustics are an extraordinary feature. Our guide explains that if you put a group of chairs in the chapter house for a meeting when people speak the acoustics of the space create an unintelligible noise.  However if you sit around the outside you can speak without raising your voice and everyone in the room can hear you clearly.  Witnesses to enquiries held here were kept in the room seated on the benches around the centre pillar so that they could not go out and tip off other’s soon to be called.
Time approaches for the real party piece of this cathedral.  Here at Wells is a very very impressive very ancient clock.  It dates from the 14th century and is similar in it’s working to a clock at Salisbury Cathedral but the clock at Wells has a face. The clock is amazing.  Perhaps best to quote from the guidebook:
First it is a full twenty four hour clock: the hour hand (a golden sun) moves from twelve noon at the top through midnight at the bottom back to the twelve noon again. A second circle tells minute in similar fashion. The third inner dial indicates the number of days since the last new moon.  Close to the centre a painted disc changes to show the waxing and waning of the moon.
The attention grabbing performance piece though is that every quarter hour, the knights above the clock gallop around as a figure known as Jack Blandiver (no one knows why) rings the bells.  It is absolutely delightful to see and incredible that this whole thing is so old. 
The follow up to the clock is a prayer, which is said to take advantage of having everyone in the church here assembled together to see the clock perform.  Pretty clever really.
Hubby heads back to the car to extend our time on the parking as I admire the front of the Cathedral and the extraordinary collection of carvings which are such a striking feature. 
We’ve left our lunch very late, but we duck into a bakery in the town square and hubby picks up a chicken pasty and a custard slice.  The custard slice is similar to such things in Aussie but it has a layer of jam which really dominates the flavour.  They’re better without the jam.  The pasty is pretty good. Just like a pie in Australia but the pasty shape and handle makes them much easier to eat.  I sample hubby’s food and it’s pretty good and I’m feeling pretty reasonable so we get another one that is pork with apple and stuffing.  The pork one was OK but the chicken was better.
Now that hubby’s not hungry any more we head to the Bishops Palace which has been recommended to us.  The gardens are beautifully kept and make artful use of the ruins of around the site as well as a series of lovely sculptures.
My favourite of the sculptures was “The Pilgrim”, but the Somerset Willow dragon is pretty special too.  Oh.. I guess I should mention that at the Bishops Palace you also see the springs that are the source of the vast flow of ancient water that has filtered down through the Mendip Hills… meh. 
As we wander the grounds of the Bishops Palace we can hear the choir in the Cathedral, preparing for a service and apparently rehearsing. As we near the end of our wanderings they burst into  Zadock the Priest.  It was worth being in Wells this afternoon just for that! Oh how I would love to be in the Cathedral to hear that performed. One Day.
We decide to skip the interior sections of the palace and make our way to the car and home.  Most things are closing so we’ve missed our chance for the lolly shop. Never mind. It’s not as though we don’t eat enough as it is.
We pass by the City Arms which is impressively old and was once the gaol here. It seems quite a large complex given that it only had one cell.
We set off just after 5pm and Tomtom is diligently leading us home when it occurs to me that we will be passing very close to Ham Wall RSPB Reserve.  Hmm. Do it now or do it tomorrow?  How about now?  I change tommies instructions and in no time we’re pulling up in the still busy carpark for the reserve.  It is a 400 metre walk to the entrance of the reserve but it’s not without entertainment as I spot a linnet singing happily on a branch.  It’s a very popular pathway for people riding bikes and walking dogs through the levels.
As we reach Ham Wall the bitterns are booming consistently and our effort in coming here is amply rewarded.  We stop at the hides for a while and then take a very slow and fairly short walk around the recycled tyre boardwalk.  We don’t see much on the walk, but when we come back to the hides a grebe is displaying nicely and I am quite pleased to see a pochard diving and later climbing up onto the pontoon. You know that Australians are quite prone to understatement don’t you.
 We wander about in the evening light until about 7pm then it’s off home.  We’re not the last to leave the car park. Ham Wall has excellent infrastructure and there’s things for the kids to do too.  Even an area that is tailor made for pond dipping.
I’m doing OK well-being wise so long as I avoid eating. We skip dinner given that lunch was taken rather late in the afternoon.  It’s nice to just chill out and have an early night.