We visited so many cool places today, it's hard to even begin to write about them. We got a fairly early start as we had an 8:00am time frame to get to Stonehenge for our special Circle Access visit. The hotel was only about 5 minutes from Stonehenge, and it was really neat to drive up to the rocks. We parked and we a little confused about where we were supposed to be, but figured it out and approached the area blocked off by cones. A friendly security guard let us through, and then we were escorted to the stones by another security guard who talked with us along the way about the weather and where we were from, general chit chat, but she seemed nice. We passed through a tunnel under the road and then emerged at the rock site. We were told the rules (No chanting, no dancing, no open flames, no touching the rock, etc) and then let into the restricted zone to explore as we wanted. It was pretty amazing to gain access to an area that not everyone gets to any more. We slowly worked out way up to the circle, taking pictures along the way and getting a general layout for everything. The structure itself is pretty interesting, the layout is five rings of stones, but only two of them are the larger stones that everyone knows. There are three other circles of smaller, shorter stones, about shoulder height and maybe as big around as a person. As we studied the graffiti (some from the 1600's, probably earlier too) I realized that there were several mounds in the distance that appeared to be man made. They seem to form somewhat of a ring about Stonehenge, most of them are probably 3/4 of mile, or more, away. It was really difficult to take it all in, and simply awing. We stayed around for about 45 minutes, until it started to become really cold, and we then headed out.
We returned to the hotel for breakfast, to pack, and to check out, and then we went just a little ways to Woodhenge. It's considered a sister site to Stonehenge as it was built during the same time (about 2000BCE), but it is different in it's construction. The layout of the sites is similar, but instead of stones propped up, there are holes that had timbers placed into them. The timbers have all rotted, but the holes have been filled with concrete pilings of the same size to preserve the locations. This site was not nearly as exciting, but it was still intriguing.
After our quick visit to Woodhenge, we hit the road, headed to Southern Wales. Our first major stop here (after crossing the Severgn River on a pretty cool bridge with a pretty steep toll) was to be Tintern Abbey. Tintern Abbey was built in the 1100s to be used by Cistercian monks and was used for over 400 years until King Henry VIII took complete control of the church. It was used as residence for local workers for a while during the early 1700s but mostly fell into ruin during it's unoccupied time. It became a popular destination in the late 1700s after it was mentioned in a book, and "wild travel" become popular.
Unfortunately for us, the site had experienced freezing rain before the snow came last week, and the ice was exposed yesterday, so it was not open for touring. The gift shop was open and the ladies working were very helpful and nice, but we were pretty bummed. We still got a TON of photos from outside the wall, and had a pretty good view of a large chunk of the structure. I was actually more blown away by Tintern Abbey than I was by Stonehenge. It's hard to imagine standing in a place that was the home of so many people for over 400 years, and still stands to this day, 900 years since it was built. Pictures cannot do this place justice. It is so hard to explain how awesome it is.
After seeing as much of Tintern as we could, we hit the road, off toward Raglan Castle. Driving in Wales, or even the new counties in England that we did today was better than Oxfordshire, in my opinion. The roads seemed wider (possibly due to melted snow and me being more comfortable with the car), and people weren't in quite the rush as I had experienced before. Southern Wales and West-Central England is gorgeous. It's actually quite green right now, grass on the ground, and small amounts of snow on the tops of the hills. The valleys that people live in are charming as hell.
Raglan Castle is probably the most famous castle in Wales, and it's also the newest. It's new enough, built in 1400s-1600s, that it has gun ports in addition to arrow ports for defending against attackers. It's pretty remarkable, and easily identifiable by it's 6-sided towers. It was very wet on the grounds, and a bit slick in places, so we didn't visit every open room, but we did a fairly thorough tour of much of it. Behind the main hall, you could see the various levels of apartments with highly appointed fireplaces, surrounded by elaborate carvings depicting what I believe was the people who hired the building of the fireplace. It was rewarding to tour my first real castle, I can't wait to see more. We saw some from the roadway today, but this was my first true medieval castle to visit.
The rest of the day was spent driving the remaining distance to Llangollen where we are staying tonight in Northern Wales. Wales has two official languages, English and Welsh. When we arrived at the hotel, we entered into the wrong door and there was a gentleman there to tell us that reception was the next door down, but he first said it in Welsh and then in English. It caught me completely off guard. Nearly all signs in Wales are dual language, and while just over 20% of Wale's citizens speak Welsh, the bulk of that is located in Northern Wales, mostly on the West coast. It's pretty wild to see such a strange language that a large percentage of the population can speak, but it's nice that English holds equal status. Many of the signs at the Bangladorian restaurant we ate in this evening were in Welsh. Pretty cool!
Tomorrow is going to be a long day, we've got about 4 hours of driving today to, and that's not counting a planned detour through the Lake District in Northern England. We will be in Southern Scotland tomorrow night! 2 days with a 4 hour trip, and then 2 days of 3 hour trips. Not bad, I just have to remember to check on Karen more often, she was not happy when we rolled into town tonight. It was dark when we got to Northern Wales, but I can't wait to see the area tomorrow.
Here are more pictures from today: http://s290.photobucket.com/albums/ll256/sandalscout/GB%202010-2011/Dec%2027-Stonehenge-Tintern%20Abbey-Raglan%20Castle/?start=all