Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel
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Stonehenge. The word conjures up visions of thousands of slaves struggling to set giant stone lintels atop colossal standing stones. Of Druid priests in flowing white robes performing ultra-secret rituals within the sacred circle. Of summer and winter solstices, when sunbeams pierced the precisely spaced stones and fell on the monolithic sandstone altar, alerting priests to the shift of seasons.

I couldn’t leave England without seeing this iconic site and my friend, Heather Cowper, who so graciously let me camp out at her house in Bristol, offered to be my chauffeur for the day. Shortly before the 9 a.m. opening hour we stood at the head of the queue, hoping to get photos before the swarms of tourists descended. English Heritage, the organization charged with managing the site, had agreed to grant us access slightly before the official opening time. We had about a three minute head start on the crowd but by the time we made it around to the far side, where the light was good enough for photos, people were already congregating.

Famous Stonehenge in Wiltshite, England, bars close access to the standing stones

Famous Stonehenge in Wiltshite, England, bars close access to the standing stones

I was disappointed. In addition to the crowds, the walking path is so far away from the site that it’s difficult to conceive of the immensity of the stones or the tremendous undertaking it must have been to raise them. Stonehenge seemed less significant, less imposing than I had expected. Hoping that the audio guide would provide inspiration, I put away my camera, donned the headphones, and retraced my steps to the beginning of the self-guiding tour.

I learned immediately that Stonehenge was never a Druid site. This false belief likely stems from the work of William Stukeley, author of the 18th century book, Stonehenge, A Temple Restor’d to the British Druids. In it, he correctly deduced that the site had been constructed by residents of ancient Britain, rather than Romans or Danes. Read More

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The moment Measha Brueggergosman sang her final note the audience in the ballroom of the Bath Assembly Room erupted in applause. I enthusiastically joined in and prepared to rise for a well-deserved standing ovation when a deep rumbling rose through the soles of my shoes and reverberated off the walls.

What are they doing,” I whispered to the man seated next to me.

It’s like extra applause,” he whispered back. “We Brits stamp our feet on the floor when we’re particularly pleased with a performance.

Bath Assembly Rooms, built in Georgian style in the mid-18th century, hosted Brueggergosman in the ballroom

Bath Assembly Rooms, built in Georgian style in the mid-18th century, hosted Brueggergosman in the ballroom

Brueggergosman has been captivating audiences since she first stepped onto the stage in 1998, but it was her performance of the Olympic Hymn at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games that finally thrust her into the international spotlight. Serendipitously, I was visiting Bath, England on the day that Brueggergosman was scheduled to appear at the annual Bath International Music Festival. I settled into my third row center seat, tingling with excitement to hear this master operatic soprano perform selections from Ravel’s Sheherazade, Britten’s On This Island, Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder, Poulenc’s Chansons, and Turina’s Tres Sonetos.

Brueggergosman climbed the few steps to the stage, revealing bare feet when she lifted her floor-length gown. Once front and center she smiled and playfully arranged the yards of fabric flowing around her feet with her toes, then clasped her hands formally in front of her waist and stood statuesque. Read More

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From the roof of Thermae Bath Spa I looked out over Tudor and Georgian rooftops with row upon row of cylindrical black chimneys as Charlotte Hanna, assistant sales & marketing manager for the spa, gave me a primer on the history of Bath, England. Archeological evidence suggests that humans were visiting and worshiping the hot springs in Bath as far back as 8000 B.C., but it wasn’t until 2,000 years ago, when the Romans colonized Britain, that written documentation began. The invaders wrote of a lush, uninhabited valley where natural hot springs bubbled up from the ground. Locals lived in forts atop the seven hills that surround the valley, descending each day to graze their livestock, fish, and to worship the water. But each night they retreated to their hilltop abodes, leaving the pristine valley to Sul, the pagan goddess of water, healing, and wisdom worshiped by Britons. “Clearly, the ancient people of Britain considered this a spiritual site,” Charlotte explained.

Thermae Bath Spa in Bath, England

Thermae Bath Spa in Bath, England

The Romans erected a temple to Minerva, their own goddess of wisdom and healing, but acknowledged the pagan goddess by naming the site Aquae Sulis, which means waters of Sul. By the first century AD they had constructed the Roman Baths, a five-foot deep rectangular basin lined with 45 sheets of lead and topped by an enormous barrel-vaulted hall. People from all over the Roman empire flocked to the the site: Germans, Italians, the Gauls (French), Spanish, northern Africans, some as slaves but many as travelers determined to visit what had by then become one of the most important destinations in the Roman empire. Read More

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The young man was so intent upon spray painting the brick wall that he didn’t notice me. He was tall and willowy, wearing baggy jeans and checked shirt, but with a respirator covering his nose and mouth it was hard to tell much more. His mural, on the other hand, screaming out in blood-red block letters, was anything but nondescript.  I interrupted to ask why he was painting a mural on a brick wall when he knew it would likely be covered over within days.

He paused and swiped at beads of sweat running down into his eyes. “Just for the love of it. It’s the way I express myself,” he replied. He didn’t much care that other street artists would paint over it. “There’s sort of an unwritten agreement that we don’t paint over other work when it’s brand new, so at least I know it will be seen for a little while. And when it’s gone I’ll paint another one.”

Local graffiti artist adds his touch, even though it will be painted over by another artist within a week

Local graffiti artist adds his touch, even though it will be painted over by another artist within a week

Travel blogger Heather Cowper and I had embarked upon a walking tour earlier that day, specifically to view street art in her home town of Bristol, England. We’d begun on Nelson Street, home to See No Evil, the UK’s largest permanent street art project. Inspired by large-scale street installations in Melbourne, Australia and Lisbon, Portugal, street artist Tom Bingle, better known by his street name Inkie, began looking around for a location in Bristol that would be appropriate for such an installation. Read More

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One of the first things I noticed upon arriving at the house of my friend, Heather Cowper, was the framed reproduction of a postage stamp hung in her family dining room. The illustration features a sea captain at the wheel of a ship passing beneath Bristol’s famous Clifton Suspension Bridge. Steering one-handed, the captain grips an unfurled banner in the other, upon which the words “Gert Lush” are prominently displayed. When I asked the meaning, Heather explained that it’s a term exclusive to Bristolians.

It means very good or lovely,” she said. “As in, ‘That’s really Gert Lush!‘”

Her kids promptly made fun of her accent; Heather is a transplant from London and may not have quite mastered the local dialect, but in every other way she and her family are true Bristolians who are passionate about their city. After two weeks of wandering around Bristol, it was easy to see why.

Poster displays the Bristol motto "Gert Lush," meaning "very good"

Poster displays the Bristol motto “Gert Lush,” meaning “very good”

Though archeologists have found evidence that the area was inhabited 60,000 years ago, the city of Bristol is believed to have been founded around the year 1000. It was known as Brycgstow in those days, an Old English word meaning ‘the place at the bridge.’  With its stone bridge and location at the confluence of the rivers Avon and Frome, by the 12th century it had become an important port city with a strong presence in shipbuilding and manufacturing. Because the River Avon was plagued by high tides that left the banks a muddy, nonnegotiable mess at low tide, the town built a “floating harbour” to remedy the problem, however despite their attempts to hold onto the number one position in shipping the industry gradually migrated to Liverpool where better port facilities were available. Fortunately, over time Bristol has become well established in other industries, including aerospace, defense, information technology, and financial services. Read More

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Oh my GOD! Look at that one,” I said, pointing to a dull grey stone lying at the bottom of a crumbling wall of limestone. Heather Cowper, who writes the ever popular travel blog Heather on her Travels, and I scrambled over the boulders that littered the beach to get a closer look.

It’s the reverse impression of an Ammonite fossil,” I explained. It was huge and definitely not a specimen I was going to collect. Notwithstanding its size and weight, which would have cost me a fortune to ship, I no longer have a home in which to display it. This one was meant for a local who is as addicted to rockhounding as I am.

Giant Ammonite fossil on the beach at Lyme Regis (center of photo, on the ground) awaits a collector

Giant Ammonite fossil on the beach at Lyme Regis (center of photo, on the ground) awaits a collector

Heather and I were headed for the Ammonite Pavement, a geologic formation I had learned about the previous day from the friendly owner of a rock store in the town of Lyme Regis, in Dorset, England. Best seen at low tide, this flat shelf of dull grey limestone, located on the western reaches of Monmouth Beach, is famous for the thousands of fossils it contains. Most prevalent are Ammonites, an ancient sea creature related to our present-day squid. During some cataclysmic event, the details of which are unknown, there was a mass die-off of Ammonites. They sank to the sea floor and were embedded in the mud, where their tentacles and soft body parts decomposed, leaving only their coiled, Nautilus-like shell. Read More