The Travels of a Journalist—6 -ON TOURING ENGLAND WITH A 10-YEAR-OLD: FIRE AND JOY
Posted on January 9th, 2010

By Shelton A. Gunaratne©2010

Patrick Bennet, an Englishman, was our tour director. David Price, a Welshman, was our coach driver. Trafalgar Tours had assigned them to take good care of us and show us the best of England and Scotland over 11 days beginning June 12, 1990.

If we add up the motorway distances between the cities where we were scheduled to stay overnight, Price had the enviable task of driving us though a distance of at least 2,520 km. My hunch was that he did more driving than that because a sightseeing tour cannot always stick to the shortest or fastest distance between two points.

My son Junius, then 10 years old, and I submitted ourselves to the mercy and care of Bennet and Price at the Victoria Station in London that morning. With Yankee Doodles making up the majority of the tour group, our coach headed southwestward to Devon.

Bennet was a proud raconteur of English history. As we approached Runnymede, about 35 km from where we started, he gave us a vivid description of the water-meadow on River Thames where King John in 1215 most likely sealed the Magna Carta, not too far from Windsor Castle.

More than 100 km further, we stopped at Stonehenge, the center of England’s most dense complex of Neolithic and Bronze Age monuments, including several hundred burial mounds. But these stone monuments are not as old as those found in Newgrange in the Boyne Valley of Ireland. The Stonehenge monuments are believed to be 2,500-3,000 years old. Pagans and Druids have made Stonehenge a site of pilgrimage.

Our stop for lunch was Salisbury, about 15 km to the south, the location of the Anglican cathedral with the tallest (123 m) church spire in England. Built by Bishop Richard Poore in the 13th century, the cathedral also has one of the four surviving original copies of the Magna Carta. Junius still remembers the “Church mouse” lunch of grilled cheese and tomato soup we ate at the cathedral. Because my brother-in-law Martin’s mother lived in Great Wishford, near Salisbury, until her death, we subsequently got to know the area quite well. Junius was literally bitten by a white boy during a visit to see the old lady!

Price patiently drove the coach for another 180 km southwest to reach our resting place for the night, the Valley of the Rocks Hotel, in the cliffy coastal village of Lynton, adjoining Lynmouth. We got there via Taunton and the northern boundary of Devon’s Exmoor National Park along the Bristol Channel. Coincidentally, we passed by Minehead, the birthplace of the late Arthur C. Clarke, the science-fiction writer who made Sri Lanka his country of residence, on the northeast corner of the park.

After dinner, Junius and I walked to Hollerday Hill to enjoy the breathtaking views of the Valley of the Rocks. Content with our adventures, we fell asleep

I took Junius with me on this tour because I thought his was the right age to start hobnobbing with inveterate cosmopolitans so that he too would aspire to be a global citizen. He left Queensland, where he was born, at the age of 6, and came to Minnesota with the rest of the family in 1986. Now, in 1990, I brought him to England to stay with his youngest aunt (my youngest sister) and her two daughters, Camilla and Georgina, for the entire summer.

Junius and I had already visited many of the London landmarks prior to joining the tour of the rest of England we were now on. Although I had studied European and British history both at Ananda College and Peradeniya University, most of the historical tidbits that Junius learnt from Bennet and the sites we visited gave him a sort of education-on-the-go.

Junius had already expanded his knowledge of British history and culture after our visits to the British Museum and Library, the Tower of London, the Hampton Court Palace and many other sites in and around London. As well, the coach tour enabled us to enjoy the countryside and get to know the British hoi polloi at close range, thanks to our good driver Price.

Fear of a fire

Hearing cries of arson, we got up from our cozy sleep about 2.30 in the morning. We saw the building adjoining our hotel on fire. Deadly smoke buffeted against the window of our hotel room forcing Junius and me to eject ourselves from the room into the lobby.

Luckily for us, the fire brigade was able to control the rogue fire. But the shock that engulfed us failed to put us back into sleep.

Bennet and Price, our gardiens temporaires, were highly apologetic about what transpired. They joined us for breakfast at the hotel and got us ready to leave Lynton about 9 a.m. promising to relieve us from our fire scare with a scenic tour of the coast of Devon and Cornwall. [When Junius and I interviewed Sir Arthur Clarke at his home in Colombo in August 1993, we told him about this incident that scared us only a few miles away from his birthplace.]

Leaving Exmoor National Park, Price drove along the enchanting A39 route southward from Bideford all the way to Tintagel, a distance of 116 km from Lynton.

Bennet told us the story of the legendary King Arthur, who was born in Tintagel. Legend has it that this noble king was born to the beautiful Queen Igerna and protected from evil by the magician Merlin, who lived in a cave below the mighty fortress. The ‘Arthnou’ stone, a 1400-year-old inscribed slate discovered at the site, supports the contention that Tintagel was a royal palace for the Dark Age rulers of Cornwall.

We stopped for lunch at the picturesque town of Looe, 58 km southeast of Tintagel, on Whitesand Bay. We walked on the beach while eating genuine Cornish pastry from Kelly’s.

Our place of rest for the night was the hotel Novotel in Plymouth, about 35 km east of Looe. A city of 582,000 people, Plymouth is known for its Royal Navy Dockyard, Plymouth Hoe and Mayflower Steps, among other landmarks. To forget our memories of the fire early this morning, we took a boat ride in the harbor at the mouth of River Tamar. After a hearty dinner, Junius and I walked to the nearby Alpine Lodge to see the steep artificial ski slope.

Arthur and Shakespeare

The following day, Bennet proudly introduced us to more of Arthurian mystery, the glamour of Roman baths, the life and times of Shakespeare, and the titillating legend of Lady Godiva and Peeping Tom.

We left Plymouth in the morning for the 373 km northeastward trip to Coventry in the West Midlands. Price drove on route 38, which runs parallel to the southeastern limits of Dartmoor National Park, and joined Motorway 5 at Exeter. North of Bridgwater, we turned east on route 361 to Glastonbury (in Somerset)””‚161 km from Plymouth.

  • We stopped to see the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey, believed to be the burial place of the legendary King Arthur and Queen Genevieve””‚yes, the same Arthur brought up in the castle at Tintagel. On display here was a leaden cross with the inscription Hic jacet sepultus inclitus rex Arthurus in insula Avalonia (“Here lies interred the famous King Arthur on the Isle of Avalon”) found in 1191.

Our next stop was Bath, about44 km north of Glastonbury (and about 21 km southeast of Bristol). Bath is a city of 84,000 people. The Romans made this city a spa resort in AD 43. It became a popular spa resort during the Georgian era.

  • We visited the Great Roman Bath, which has four main features: the Sacred Spring, the Roman Temple, the Roman bath house and finds from Roman Bath. The Georgian Pump Room is on the ground level. The sacred spring lies at the very heart of the ancient monument. Water rises here at the rate of more than a million liters a day and at a temperature of 460C.  The spring rises within the courtyard of the Temple of Sulis Minerva and water from it feeds the Roman baths.

Junius found the Roman Bath to be one of the most interesting spots we saw on our tour. We purchased a cup of mineral water for 30 pennies, sipped some of it, and washed our hands in the main pool. Later, we had a quick lunch of fruits.

Price then guided us further 136 km northeast to Stratford-upon-Avon, the birth and burial place of William Shakespeare (1564-1616), the famous English bard, through the Cotswold Hills scenic route via villages like Tetbury, Cirencester and Burford in the county of Gloucestershire.

Stratford-upon-Avon (on the banks of River Avon) in the rural county of Warwickshire has a current population of 23,700. The Royal Shakespeare Company provides a full set of programs throughout the year for Shakespeare buffs. Shakespeare wrote 38 plays of varying type: historical romances (Romeo and Juliet, Henry VIII); light, fantastic comedies (As You Like It, The Merchant of Venice, The Taming of the Shrew), and several tragedies (Hamlet, Othello, King Lear).

Although we did not have the time to “Shakespearience” the town, Junius declared his satisfaction with this unforgettable stopover: the thrill of seeing the Bard’s birthplace (on Henley Street), the school the Bard is believed to have attended (on Church Street), and the childhood home of Anne Hathaway, the Bard’s wife (in Shottery).

Two days after his death, Shakespeare was buried in the chancel of the Holy Trinity Church. A curse against moving his bones appears on the stone slab covering his grave:

Good frend for Iesvs sake forbeare,

To digg the dvst encloased heare.

Blest be ye man yt spares thes stones,

And cvrst be he yt moves my bones.

We also learned another tidbit about Stratford-upon-Avon that might interest the fans of Sir Arthur C. Clarke, who served the RAF in the town during the “ƒ”¹…”40s. The plot in Clarke’s short story “The Curse” takes place in a post-apocalyptic Stratford-upon-Avon.

Lady Godiva

Our final destination for the day was Coventry (population 309,800), another 31 km to the northeast, where we visited the Saint Michael’s Cathedral, the city’s best-known landmark. German bombing during World War II destroyed the original 14th century cathedral. The new edifice was opened in 1962 next to the ruins of the old.

Coventry is also associated with the legend of Lady Godiva (fl. 1040-1080), wife of Leofric, the Earl of Mercia. Wikipedia relates the legend thus:

Lady Godiva took pity on the people of Coventry, who were suffering grievously under her husband’s oppressive taxation. Lady Godiva appealed again and again to her husband, who obstinately refused to remit the tolls. At last, weary of her entreaties, he said he would grant her request if she would strip naked and ride through the streets of the town. Lady Godiva took him at his word and, after issuing a proclamation that all persons should stay indoors and shut their windows, she rode through the town, clothed only in her long hair. Only one person in the town, a tailor ever afterwards known as Peeping Tom, disobeyed her proclamation in one of the most famous instances of voyeurism. In the story, Tom bores a hole in his shutters so that he might see Godiva pass, and is struck blind. In the end, Godiva’s husband keeps his word and abolishes the onerous taxes.

We stayed overnight at Leofric Hotel (named after Godiva’s husband), where we saw the Lady Godiva and Peeping Tom recreation under the clock tower.

Next: On touring Scotland with a 10-year-old

(The writer is professor of mass communications emeritus, Minnesota State University Moorhead.)

Figure 1

Route of England Tour (Click on hyperlink below to see map)

[from London to Lynton “¦ to Plymouth “¦ to Coventry]


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