Two GPL Librarians in England, Post #6: Avebury, Glastonbury Tor, Bath, and Tintern Abbey

Prehistoric Avebury

It’s a long trip by car — about four hours — from Haslingden to the region around Bath where we headed next.  Leaving first thing in the morning following our wonderful excursion the day before into the Yorkshire Dales, Gareth had to navigate through the snarls of traffic around Manchester and then Birmingham — the two largest cities in England after London.  Our first destination was to be the stone circle at prehistoric Avebury, where we arrived about midday.

Avebury is of course less well-known than Stonehenge, but I had heard from more than one person that the latter site was a disappointment, mostly because visitors must view Stonehenge from a distance.  At Avebury, on the other hand, the stones are located right, smack in the middle of a little village, and you can go right up and touch them if you like — and I made sure to touch a bunch of them!

Please refer back to this post for a couple of Greensboro Public Library’s holdings on stone circles, if you’re interested.

We lunched in Avebury at an ancient tavern with a thatched roof called The Red Lion.  The lovely barmaid had one of those perfect peaches and cream complexions the English ladies are so famous for.

Glastonbury Tor

After Avebury, we headed for Glastonbury — the famous site associated with Arthurian legend.  Though we had lovely weather, this time of year the days are unfortunately quite short — it was getting dark by 4:00 or 4:30 — and we needed to make it to our bed and breakfast destination near Bath by sunset if at all possible.  Glastonbury was a bit of a detour and Gareth had to endure countless roundabouts to get us there while there was still light, but get there we did and I managed a few nice snaps of the Tor.

I can’t say why I’ve long been so fascinated by Glastonbury Tor.  I’ve frankly never been particularly interested in Avalon, King Arthur, etc., though these are familiar stories from the time I was a tiny boy.  Sometimes I think my interest in the Tor stems from a resemblance to North Carolina’s Pilot Mountain, though of course the tower on the Tor is manmade and the hill has been terraced.  The Tor also dominates the landscape for miles around as you approach Glastonbury, much as does Pilot Mountain from Highway 52. 

If you want to read more on King Arthur and Glastonbury, Greensboro Public Library has got just the book:  Geoffrey Ashe’s King Arthur’s Avalon; The Story of Glastonbury.

By nightfall we had reached our final destination for the day:  Bathford (just a few miles outside Bath) and a mid-18th century manor called “Eagle House,” which presently serves as a bed and breakfast. 

Armistice Ceremony at Bath Cathedral

Next morning, after a light breakfast, we took a taxi into Bath.  Our first stop was a spa that Heidi and Gareth had read about.  While they enjoyed a two-hour treatment, Frank and I wandered about town and were fortunate enough to happen upon the Armistice Day ceremony at Bath Cathedral.  Every year of course, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day (the traditional ending of World War I) the English honor their veterans, just as we do on our own Veterans Day.

Meeting back up with Heidi and Gareth, we spent the rest of the day walking about Bath, enjoying especially the fantastic Georgian architecture — most notably the Circus and the Royal Crescent. 

I also got to visit the home of the famous astronomer Sir William Herschel, whom I remember reading about so much as a teenager, when astronomy was an interest of mine.  Herschel was one of the greatest astronomers of his age.  The discoverer of the planet Uranus, he also excelled in telescope making and succeeded in building Newtonian reflectors which were unprecedented in optical excellence and size.  

Greensboro Public Library has lots of books on the history of astronomy, if you’d like to read more about Herschel.  Try The Age of Wonder:  How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science by Richard Holmes, or Michael D. Lemonick’s The Georgian Star:  How William and Caroline Herschel Revolutionized Our Understanding of the Cosmos.

Tintern Abbey

Following a second night at Eagle House, it was back on the road:  our next goal the splendid ruin of Tintern Abbey, known to many perhaps from William Wordsworth’s famous poem, “Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey.”  The site is actually located just inside Wales in the gorgeous Wye Valley.  Though the situation is not as picturesque as Whitby Abbey’s locale on the edge of a North Sea cliff, Tintern Abbey is better preserved.  In fact, about all that seems to be missing is the roof.

By the way, if you need a travel guide to England and Wales, Greensboro Public Library has usually got some copies of Fodor’s England on hand.

After Tintern Abbey and the Wye Valley, we made our way back to Haslingden.  Next day, we were to catch a train at Piccadilly Station in Manchester for a day in London.

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Two GPL Librarians in England, Post #3: Humber Bridge, Wilberforce House and Rudston Monolith

Humber Bridge

Frank and I have now made our way to the North Sea Coast, thanks to our able companion and guide, Heidi’s husband, Gareth Schachtschneider-Williams.

Our first stop Saturday was to see the port city of Hull’s Humber Bridge, said to be the fifth largest single-span suspension bridge in the world. 

If you’re also interested in the great bridges of the world, Greensboro Public Library’s holdings include the recent Bridges:  The Science and Art of the World’s Most Inspiring Structures (2010).

Wilberforce

Later, in the old part of the city, we visited the William Wilberforce house and museum.  Wilberforce was of course the English politician who fought relentlessly to abolish slavery in England during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. 

His efforts were the subject of the recent film Amazing Grace, and the library also has an excellent biography of Wilberforce by William Hague called William Wilberforce:  The Life of the Great Anti-slave Trade Campaigner (2007).

Rudston Monolith

After Hull, we proceeded north up the coast, but took time to visit the parish church of the tiny village of Rudston where one can see a giant neolithic monolith (26 feet high) that was erected over 4000 years ago.  Our stop in Rudston also included an excellent lunch at a local tavern where the barman regaled us with amusing stories.        

If you’d like to read about megalithic monuments like the one at Rudston, try  Bronze Age Britain by Michael Parker Pearson (2005) or Great Stone Circles:  Fables, Fictions, Facts by Aubrey Burl (1999).  

By evening we had just made it to the splendid seaside village of Robin Hood’s Bay, which is quite simply one of the most picturesque places I’ve ever had the good fortune to see.  But more about that in our next post.

Two GPL Librarians in England, Post #2: Bonfire Night at Manchester

Bonfire Night at Heaton Park, Manchester

For Americans it’s Halloween, but for the English it’s Guy Fawkes or Bonfire Night. 

Though Bonfire Night originated as a tradition of giving thanks for the failure of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605, when a group of Catholics led by a man named Guy Fawkes conspired to assassinate King James I, historians and anthropologists also find in the annual observance of Guy Fawkes parallels with the Celtic, or more exactly Gaelic, harvest festival of Samhain — which under Christian influence was later transformed into All Hallow’s Eve, or what we know as Halloween in the United States.

Anyway, on the evening of Friday, November 5th, Frank and I were able to participate in the Guy Fawkes celebrations held at Heaton Park in Manchester.  Thousands milled about the fairgrounds there enjoying rides and food, while others assembled on a hill above to watch a fine fireworks display followed by a bonfire during which an effigy of Guy Fawkes was burned.

Greensboro Public Library has got a couple of books on the history of Halloween, if you’re interested.  These are Nicholas Rogers’ Halloween:  From Pagan Ritual to Party Night, and David Skal’s Death Makes a Holiday:  A Cultural History of Halloween.

As I write, we’ve just started on the road to Humberside (the North Sea Coast) to visit Hull, our main object there being to see the William Wilberforce home and museum — Wilberforce of course being the English politician who fought relentlessly to abolish slavery in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Two GPL Librarians in England, Post #1: Fantastic Manchester Libraries: John Rylands, Deansgate, and Chetham’s Library

Chained books, Chetham’s Library, Manchester, UK

Frank Barefoot and I are now on holiday in the UK visiting former Greensboro Public Library colleague Heidi Schachtschneider-Williams and her husband Gareth, and yesterday we were lucky enough to see two very fine libraries in Manchester:  the John Rylands Library, Deansgate, which houses one of the UK’s finest manuscript and rare books collections, and Chetham’s Library, which has the distinction of being the oldest public library in the English-speaking world.

The Chetham’s Library is particularly ancient-looking.  Dark and even a little foreboding, its shelves are filled with thousands of old leather and vellum tomes.  A reading room display even included a bookcase in which books were chained down so as to discourage theft, a practice which was apparently common from the Middle Ages until the 1700s.  Crude but effective, I would say!     

The John Rylands special collections are housed in a magnificent example of gothic Victorian architecture built about 1900.  The collections include important incunables (or examples from the first century of printing, 1455-1500) such as the Gutenberg Bible and the work of William Caxton, England’s first printer. 

In the Rylands exhibit area, I was lucky enough to see the second edition of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, printed by Caxton in 1483.  There we also saw a tiny piece of Greek papyri from the 2nd century which is believed to be the earliest surviving fragment from the New Testament.

Also, believe it or not, there was a book on exhibit in the John Rylands reading room which had been bound by a designer bookbinder from Greensboro!  This was a copy of Andrew Marvell’s The Garden and Other Poems; the exhibit included work by bookbinders from around the world.    

Frank and I are having a great time.  More posts from our journey will follow, including some pictures from Manchester’s Guy Fawkes or Bonfire Night,  a huge event at the city’s Heaton Park which was held on Friday, November 5th, and attended by thousands.    

Discovery of Bluestonehenge, a “Mini-Stonehenge”

Stonehenge

This past week, archaeologists announced the discovery of a miniature version of England’s Stonehenge, and located just a mile or so from the latter, which is of course the most famous megalithic stone circle in the world.   

The new discovery is called “Bluestonehenge,” owing to the color of the stones used to build it — though the stones were actually removed around 2,500 BC and incorporated into Stonehenge, leaving only traces at the old site.

The actual purpose of Stonehenge still remains a matter of considerable debate.  Gerald Hawkins’ argument that it served as an ancient astronomical observatory caused quite a stir when he first published his ideas in the 1960s (see his Stonehenge Decoded in the reading list below).  Hawkins described the monument as a sort of “neolithic computer,” designed to predict eclipses, among other things.

The discovery of Bluestonehenge comes thanks to the University of Sheffield’s Stonehenge Riverside Project, which has been involved in fieldwork at the site since 2003.  Archaeologists with the Riverside project have concluded “that burials were a major component of Stonehenge in all its main stages.”     

Occult, New Age and counter-cultural interest in Stonehenge continues, and in recent years modern-day Druids have regained access to the monument for solstice ceremonies and the like (which had been denied for some years).          

If you’re interested in reading further, Greensboro Public Library has a number of books on Stonehenge and other stone circles, though some of them are a tad dated.  These include:  Stonehenge by Rosemary Hill; Stonehenge by Catherine M. Petrini (juvenile); Great Stone Circles:  Fables, Fictions, Facts by Aubrey Burl; Rings of Stone:  The Prehistoric Stone Circles of Britain and Ireland by Aubrey Burl; Stonehenge Complete by Christopher Chippindale; The Enigma of Stonehenge by John Fowles & Barry Brukoff; Stonehenge and its Mysteries by Michael Balfour; Stonehenge:  The Indo-European Heritage by Leon E. Stover & Bruce Kraig; The Pattern of the Past by Guy Underwood; and Stonehenge Decoded by Gerald S. Hawkins in collaboration with John B. White.

Fantastic Anglo Saxon Treasure Hoard Discovered in England

Experts in the UK announced this past week the discovery of a fabulous hoard of objects from the Anglo Saxon period — many of which are made of solid gold — which may well revolutionize scholarly understanding of these people of western Germanic origin who ruled England for some six centuries.

Archaeologists and other scholars have literally been stunned by the size and quality of the treasure.  “[T]here were 5 boxes full of gold items of the highest Anglo Saxon workmanship,” stated an antiquities official named Duncan Slark.  “It was absolutely staggering, . . .  individual items that I’ve never seen the like of before. . . .”   

Believed to date from the 7th to 8th century AD, the quantity and workmanship of these artifacts are said even to surpass the famous royal Anglo Saxon burial discovered at Sutton Hoo in 1939.

They were found this summer in Staffordshire by an amateur named Terry Herbert using a metal detector.  The hoard includes at least 1,300 items, and it is expected even more may turn up as excavations on the site continue.

According to the BBC, a museum display of some these objects which opened last Friday attracted over 10,000 visitors in three days.  You can also view many of the items at the Staffordshire Hoard website.

If you’d like to read more about the Anglo Saxons, Greensboro Public Library has a number of books which you may find helpful, including:  Finding Merlin:  The Truth Behind the Legend of the Great Arthurian Mage by Adam Ardrey; King Alfred:  Burnt Cakes and Other Legends by David Horspool; Quest for a King:  Searching for the Real King Arthur by Catherine M. Andronik; The Anglo-Saxons by James Campbell, Eric John and Patrick Wormald; Celtic Painting and Anglo-Saxon Painting:  Book Illumination in the British Isles, 600-800 by Carl Nordenfalk; An Introduction to Anglo-Saxon England by Peter Hunter Blair; The Formation of England, 550-1042 by H. P. R. Finberg; The Age of Arthur:  A History of the British Isles from 350 to 650 by John Morris; and Arthur’s Britain:  History and Archaeology, AD 367-634 by Leslie Alcock.