Hi friends, I’ve been out of commission for the last week or so with an unrelenting headache, so when Drew of The Local Traveler NS offered a guest post about his backpacking adventure in England, there weren’t enough words to express my foggy-brained gratitude. Join me in welcoming Drew to the Bite-sized Travel Team of Champions!
If you’re looking for great Nova Scotia travel ideas, take some time to get to know The Local Traveler NS. Drew and his (new) wife Gillian (belated congrats, guys!), share the best and most unique experiences in our province of endless adventure.
As an undergrad studying English literature, I took a class in Arthurian Legend. As a kid I was familiar with the story of King Arthur from books like The Sword in the Stone and Hollywood movies like First Knight, but after taking this class, I was hooked. Over the many centuries since stories of Arthur have been shared, it has become nearly impossible to unravel fact from fiction, and just as difficult to accurately trace all the conflicting versions of the saga. Just trying to accomplish either of these is a fascinating enough endeavour, let alone getting engrossed in the chivalry, the struggle against the Saxon invasion and the quest for the Holy Grail.
Because of this, I have read many versions, both classic and contemporary, of the Arthurian Legend, but my favourite is the Dream of Eagles series by Scots-born Canadian author Jack Whyte. Whyte set his take on the legend in 4th century Britain during the fall of the Roman Empire, removing much of the mysticism that sometimes finds its way into the story. He takes great pains to accurately detail the Roman roads, forts, villas and towns from the period, and, after reading the series, I was determined to take great pains to visit as many of them as I could.
Day 1 London – St. Alban’s – Southampton
The following summer I found myself on a bus from London heading 45 minutes north to the town of St. Albans. During the Roman era, St. Albans was known as Verulamium, and it was here that a great meeting of bishops from Britain and beyond occurred to determine the path that Christianity would take on the island colony of Rome. At the time, the teachings of Pelagius had been gaining in popularity in Britain, but he was to be named a heretic, and the oratory prowess of a bishop named Germanus convinced the British clergy to keep to the principle of divine grace (this is the same Germanus who is represented as the warrior priest in the movie King Arthur featuring Clive Owen). [Krista here: I may have seen that movie for all the wrong reasons.]
Sitting at this amphitheatre, it is easy to imagine the crowds of people who would have congregated to watch a play or hear a speech nearly two thousand years ago. It was overwhelming to consider that the entire course of the dominant religion in what became for a time the dominant nation in the world was determined where I sat.
Near the amphitheatre, you will also find some well-preserved examples of Roman mosaics. These alone would have been worth the side trip.
Of course while I was in St. Albans, I couldn’t resist visiting Ye Olde Fighting Cocks. As if the name isn’t reason enough to stop in for a pint and a fish & chips, this is the oldest existing public house in England, dating back to the 13th century.
I spent a couple more hours exploring the town, including checking out the cathedral, before hopping on a bus to visit my aunt and uncle on their farmhouse outside of Southampton.
Day 2 Southampton – Bath
The next day my uncle joined me to check out Bath. Once called Aquae Sulis by the Romans, Bath is exactly what it is named, a place where people have come for millennia to take baths in the natural springs.
Upon seeing one of the baths in Bath, I felt a very similar overwhelming sense of history as I did in the St. Albans amphitheatre, but for a very different reason. Nothing particularly important (to my knowledge) ever happened in this bath that changed the course of history. However, from street level, you are looking down at the bath, and then you have to descend six metres to be at the level of the bath. 2000 years ago, this bath WAS at street level. That means that over the past 2000 years, the entire town had built up 6m! There is nothing that we have here in North America that compares to this, not even in the biggest cities like New York.
Bath is a lovely town, and my uncle was easily caught up in my enthusiasm to explore its Roman heritage. He took me out for lunch and then helped me find a store that sold camping supplies. I hadn’t booked any accommodations ahead of time, because I wasn’t sure where I’d be going each day. As a result, all the hostels were packed, so I was in need of a tent. To be honest, I was perfectly happy with my situation, as I had fantasies of being a Roman Legionnaire marching the countryside running through my head.
Properly equipped (I also picked up a Swiss Army knife), I hopped on a bus that would take me to a campground outside of town on the way to Glastonbury. There I befriended a couple of English girls who happened to have the same tent as me. The next day they went a little out of their way to give me a lift to Glastonbury.
Day 3 Bath – Glastonbury
Though Glastonbury is never directly mentioned in Whyte’s books, it plays a key role in Arthur’s story, both real and fictional. Historically, it is true that there was a war chief named Arthur who fought the Saxon hordes invading Britain. It is more than likely that he would have stood on Glastonbury Tor to watch his enemy’s movements, as the hill offers the highest vantage point in most of southwest England.
In terms of the legend, it is rumoured that the knightly King Arthur is buried among the ruins of the cathedral in Glastonbury. This is also supposed to be the land of Avalon, the mystical island that some claim gave Merlin his powers. Here is where it is really fun to try to separate fact from fiction, as there are some scientific claims that this region of England was once flooded, and there may very well have been an island hidden in mist.
As if this wasn’t enough, Glastonbury is also the place where Joseph of Arimathea, the uncle of the Virgin Mary, once visited. It is here that the Church is said to have begun in Britain, and the Thorn Tree is said to be a descendant of the walking staff Joseph planted in the ground. You will also find the Chalice Well in Glastonbury, which is supposed to have remarkable healing properties.
Because of all this, Glastonbury has become something of a magnet for New-Agers. I saw many people, men and women, with very long hair and multi-coloured sunglasses. Unfortunately, there are also a lot of kitchy stores pedaling things like crystal balls and magic stones, but the commercialism isn’t enough to take away from the sense that there is something special in the earth here.
I camped near the foot of Glastonbury Tor after picking up some wine, sliced meat, cheese and bread (I was really determined to be a Roman Legionnaire). I took my supper up on the hill with me to witness the most remarkable sunset. I wasn’t alone on the hill, but we were all utterly silent until an elderly woman near me began chanting in a low voice. It was a powerful moment.