London is a great city to spend your weekend in, to learn the ins-and-outs of and to explore all the hidden, tucked away places. But, in the spirit of all those Jane Austen-era stories about seeking refuge from the big city in the countryside, last weekend I found myself exploring Stonehenge out in Somerset, Bath and Oxford.
The day we travelled to Bath and Stonehenge was on a formal tour, and honestly, half the fun of taking tours in England are the guides; our guide was a very friendly man named John, and let’s just say if you took a shot every time he called the group of us “chaps” we would’ve been long gone before we even got out of the city. On the way to Stonehenge, the group of friends I was with all reached a general consensus: this iconic landmark is overrated and underrated at the same time. By all accounts it’s overrated; the fact is, some people don’t think it’s worth driving two hours out of London in most likely rainy weather to see a bunch of rocks in the middle of nowhere. But that, we agreed, is what makes Stonehenge so underrated: we did get to the middle of nowhere very early in the morning after a very long night out, and it was rainy and foggy and cold and slightly miserable. But this was my second time to Stonehenge, and it was truly just as cool as the first time. The fog adds this mystical quality to the place, and the more you learn about the potential spirituality of these stones that are assembled, and the more you look at the vast fields that have seemingly no end in every direction, the whole setting becomes very fitting. Stonehenge, then, is only overrated to those who have never been, because if you have, you’d know what a seriously impressive site it truly is.
That same day we left Stonehenge and drove another hour west to get to Bath, famous for its early start by the Romans hundreds of years ago and the Roman Baths that were created there around their natural hot springs. It also was once the home of Jane Austen, so it seemed our countryside retreat was more fitting than we realized. Now going into it, I had no idea what to expect from Bath. When I pictured it, I thought it would be a small, quaint, centralized English town with a general square near a church where our tour group would meet, with maybe some shops and restaurants to explore. With these admittedly low expectations, I was enamored with Bath before we even made it fully into the city. That’s also what partially surprised me, because it really is a city, a sprawling city that’s partially built into a hillside and along a river. It looks like a slightly Anglicanized Italian city, reminding me forcibly of when I visited Assisi four years ago, with its own distinct area and the fact that it’s incredibly old but very, very beautiful. We got an hour to ourselves, wherein we stopped to eat and had possibly the best sandwiches ever (would highly recommend The Crystal Palace in Bath if you’re ever in the neighborhood), took another hour with John for a walking tour around the main parts of the city, and another hour exploring the absolutely gorgeous and fascinating Roman baths. Despite the museum workers’ warning that “it may not be, like, the best idea to touch the water” due to the lead lining of the pool, we knew we all had to, and we did, and we definitely don’t regret it. Bath was a really special city, and is somewhere I will most definitely be returning to before my time is done here.
The very next day we were up bright and early again to go to Oxford, the famous college town about an hour train ride from London. There is a temptation to compare Oxford and Bath, but they’re both so different it would be unfair to either to try and say which one was “better.” Oxford is ancient and traditional in that very English way, with imposing stone churches and museums and university buildings everywhere. It was the coldest I’ve been during the time I’ve been here so I probably could have appreciated it more, but we definitely made the most of our day. Our guided tour toward the end was especially interesting and entertaining; in between the older, historical facts we were given, our tour guide Kate threw in Harry Potter facts for people like myself who were fans, showing us various locations that were used in the filming of several of the movies, which only increased my love for this place.
Visiting these places made me realize just how much exploring I have left to do, that it’s not only London that’s worth the discovery but the off-the-beaten-path locations of England as well. It made me excited going forward to see where I could visit next, and made me feel like I’m truly making myself at home here.