UK 2019 Day 1: Stonehenge, White Horse

Posted June 15, 2019

May 9, 2019

My wife and I, after a couple of years of saving and a lot of planning, made a trip to Bristol, England to stay with friends for a couple of weeks. They took vacation (“holiday”) too, and we spent a lovely, if hard paced time, around southwestern England and Wales.

Staying at their flat and having them drive us around (2000 miles!) saved us money, allowing us to make this trip of a lifetime. Thank you Ruth and Darren, we can’t say enough about your generosity and kindness.

After flying to Gatwick, and feeling only a little bit jet-lagged, we stopped at Stonehenge [map] on our way to Bristol. It was almost surreal after reading and seeing so much about this ancient site, to actually be there. Buses take groups of visitors to the site from the nearby visitor center every few minutes. Even though one can no longer walk among the stones, the footpath allows for close views, and one can walk around the ditch that encloses the site on all sides.

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Face to face with an icon of history. Stonehenge at last!

The weather was cold, windy, and rainy – a proper English welcome – but the awe and delight at being there did not dampen our spirits. It’s hard to put into words, but the site is impressive yet somehow appropriately scaled. One can tell it took a monumental effort to move these stones in place, but somehow it seems easy to imagine humans building and using the site.

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The stones at Stonehenge are weathered and lichen covered. There is evidence of some vandalism, going back hundreds of years. That the site remains so intact after over 4000 years is a testament to the toughness of the stone and the skill with which is was created. 

Although it is severely weathered and aged, one can still marvel at the skill evident in crafting these giant stones and the engineering that went into the design. The lintel stones don’t just lie on top of the uprights, but are fitted using a mortise and tenon design.

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The top of an upright sarsen stone showing a tenon that would have fitted into a mortise hole in a lintel stone.

This trip was primarily for seeing the England our friends live in. While I had some bird outings planned, almost every bird I would see even incidentally would be a life bird for me. Three of the five resident corvid species were evident at Stonehenge: Rooks, Eurasian Jackdaws, and Carrion Crows.

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Rooks have distinctive bills and facial skin, but are otherwise similar to most corvid (crow) species – conspicuous, gregarious, and intelligent.

I was also pleasantly surprised as a boldly patterned black and white bird landing right among the feet of a group of Japanese tourists. The White Wagtail is fairly common in Britain (I saw them in many places on this trip), but was a delight to see. This particular bird is probably used to handouts or getting food that people drop while marveling at Stonehenge.

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Each subspecies of White Wagtail have distinct patterns. The UK subspecies is called White-faced. Locally, the bird is often called the Pied Wagtail (as in piebald or bi-colored).

As we rounded the henge and faced into the wind and rain, it did become a bit uncomfortable, so we made our way to where the bus would take us back to the visitor center. There are additional historical exhibits there and (of course) a gift shop. But it was all very respectful of this ancient site. We saw a few barrows in the surrounding fields and nearby fields of bright yellow rapeseed.

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Farewell, Stonehenge.

We then drove through the countryside, in and out of rain showers, to Westbury – about mid way to Bristol – to see another large landmark. The Westbury White Horse [map].

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This large cliff-side carving dates from the 1600s. Several monuments of this type are known throughout Britain, at least one from late Bronze Age. We first went to the top of the cliff to see it from that vantage point. From above, I watched a Eurasian Hobby (a falcon) hunting below and a Skylark try to fly against the wind. The wind howling up the cliff face was biting and incessant, but the views were spectacular!

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The horse from the cliff top.
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The view from beside the horse looking down on the countryside.

The horse is easily visible from the valley floor for miles. At one lower vantage-point I did get my first Great Tits and European Robin, but the horse was the star of the show, for sure.

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I don’t know who was living in the valley at the time, but imagine coming through for the first time or after some time away, and seeing this!

From this vantage-point we got back on the road and on to Bristol, where we unpacked and settled in for the next two weeks. I’ll post more of our trip through the weekend and next week.

 

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