50th Durham and York

I shall begin with a disclaimer….By now you are aware that Eric and I have visited a number of places of worship starting with Stonehenge, then Salisbury, then Glouster, then the temple at Hadrian’s Wall. There was no place of worship at Carnarvon Castle or we probably would have gone there. While getting to these auspicious places we drove through the most astonishingly beautiful countryside. Yes, the USA is beautiful and I am patriotically going to say that it is more beautiful. But…the countryside around Hadrian’s Wall and that around Haltwhistle and somewhat beyond, Northumbria I think, was hills beyond hills, valleys and streams, just breathtaking vistas.
Another guest at The Gray Bull in Haltwhistle told us we must visit the cathedral at Durham witch is on the way to York….so we did, consistent with our policy to go where the locals point us. Durham Cathedral is Norman architecture, not ornate. The architect who designed it tried a new roof style that allowed this stone roof to sore many stories about the floor of the nave. Columns six meters in circumference and six meters in height supported somewhat smaller columns going up and up. The wider bases were all decorated with carving, rather simple but effective. The thing is, no photos were allowed inside the cathedral ….none at all…so I got a couple on line. You can see the carving on the posts and the pews for size comparison. No photo can do any justice to these immense churches. There was no charge to go into the building either as there mostly is in these big churches. The national lottery gives money to help these cathedrals…and smaller churches. It is the only way to preserve them as it costs so much to run them (18,000 pounds a day at Salisbury and 20,000 at York). Even British people are surprised at this cost. We do our bit here just as we do at First Parish.
Besides being stunning, Durham holds the earthly remains of St. Cuthburt and The Venerable Bede. Maybe you have heard of them. Both were ascetics and both were heads of their church’s..more than one. Cuthburt was a pious, gentle, generous man, a true friend of the poor and did much to spread Roman Christianity in Anglo Saxon times and also ministered to the Danes who came to English shores to pillage and stayed to worship and raise families.
The Venerable Bede (his tomb to the left)  is famous in religious and secular worlds because of his extensive writings. Two of these stand out, the famous Historia Ecciesiastica gentis Anglorum…translated as the Christian History of the English People. completed in 731 and that garnered him the title “Father of English History”. He also wrote “De Temporum Ratione”, “The Reckoning of Time”, in which book he delineated the method of determining the date of Easter (first Sunday after the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox) which was accepted at the Synod of Whitby. He also, building on an earlier genius’ work developed our dating system A.D. and B.C. (Now a bit changed but essentially the same) because before that it was a mishmash of dates according to the reigns of various kings. He also, based upon his belief that the earth was the center of the solar system, developed an entire computational apology for the phases of the moon, tides, eclipses, etc.. A bit misguided but a man of great intellect. And for the record, a man who did his best to bring harmony to the fractured times he lived in. I met this guy in seminary so I was amazed and filled with wonder to be standing before his grave.

Then on to York (which I am always trying to spell, “yolk”) which has the magnificent York Minster. Called that because originally it had no cathedra, Bishop’s chair, and therefore was not a ‘cathedral’. The official name is The Cathedral of St. Peter but people still use the older name. This cathedral, like all the others, was a center of learning and employment.

There is a dragon in York Minster that is actually a balance beam lift.  The diagram of how it works is on the left and the dragon on the right and they probably used it to lift the lid off the baptismal font…they had some really large ones. 
I love this cathedral. I wanted to see Salisbury Cathedral but it didn’t capture my heart and York Minster did. (The refurbished window in the Mary Chapel). 
We have been at Evensong in Salisbury and in Glouster and now in York Minster. If I lived in York I would be there then as often as possible. The service was just as lovely as the others, (the choir master in Glouster was better) but the organist! He did not stint with stops. The postlude was the Allegro from the Sixth Symphony by Widor. You can google that but your speakers won’t do it justice. It shook the cathedral! I could almost feel it in my bones and I had the fantasy that the sound waves were penetrating my body and reverberating there.   The organ loft…Since I was there last, in 2007, they refurbished the window in the Mary Chapel. (The quire is behind the lecturn…we sat on the left). (Wall memorial to the men of Patton’s army with whom Eric’s dad served as Chaplin in WWII). All the cathedrals are putting thermal glass on the outside of their windows to help preserve them. Some of those stained glass windows are around a thousand years old and rebuilding them and saving them is, besides expensive, difficult and time consuming and so worth it. Durham is a World Heritage site just as Stonehenge is. There are the ruins of a Roman garrison beneath York Minster and the surrounding old town. This garrison held an entire legion of 5000 men, five times the size of the fort at Hadrian’s Wall. This was a major Roman center from which they deployed men to various areas to ‘keep the peace’, which, until they were recalled to Rome, they did admirably. These remains were found when, back in the ‘50s, they excavated to find out why the central tower was sagging. It was built on the remains of previous foundations which were not adequate to hold up any part of York Minster. (Here is an archeologist in the ‘50s finding the rubble holding up the tower and a picture of what they were saving). Under that they found the garrison, which in its hay day was many times bigger than the cathedral enclosure.
It was getting late and we were hungry so we walked down to a street called The Shambles, which is the oldest intact street in the country. It is narrow, the buildings are small and I can see it being used for movie scenes. We ate at an Italian place and I have to tell you that Papa Razzi and Maggiano’s are both very much better…and this place wasn’t all that bad. We’re just spoiled.
Then we drove back to our room to sleep so we will be rested for our long drive tomorrow to….

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50th Hadrian’s Wall

To begin some perspective, Stone Henge is five thousand years old and people proabably worshiped there or whatever they were doing for a long time before that. The oldest pyramids are also around five thousand years old and graves in the Valley of the Kings could be older….not going to check this. The Great Wall of China was built around fourteen fifty and the Great Wall of Groton finished in 2018. So, as things go Hadrian’s Wall is in the middle of all the grandiose building projects. However, the wall was built to delineate the uppermost limit of the Roman expansion into the British Isles and they never did get to Ireland. It is easy to check the history of the wall and Roman lands but the thing that interests me is how they came, they conquered and they went back home. We were in the Roman villa in the Cotswolds which was a very inviting, clement place. Not so at the wall. We were there on the Solstice and the wind was whipping around and chillingly cold. It can’t have been a welcome post to men from warm, dry Italy. The Scots….the various tribes that would some day become the Scots, were always trying to take back their land and overthrow the invaders….I can’t imagine why…and the wall was built to keep them confined. And it was very effective for several hundred years. It took only six years to build and in addition to the wall every mile along it was a small tower with living quarters that was manned and there were larger fortresses along…several of them, also manned, and that wall was patrolled every moment of every day.

Their cisterns were morticed with lead and some of that is still intact. You can see it, gray, between the big stones. They had to haul everything up that very steep hill to the garrison including water but they had locals working for them. It would have been a hard life for those workers. Now there are sheep there….hundreds of them as there are everywhere in the north. 

England is very narrow there and the wall is only seventy three miles long but it spanned the country…much like the Ice Wall in Game of Thrones.

The foundations of the Roman military garrison and the small village that grew up outside its walls are still there, snug up against the wall. We had a tour guide who explained the purpose of the rooms that would have been there and most especially their water, latrine and sewage systems. For the next two thousand years or less, people would empty their slops into the street or a cesspit if they were lucky but the romans up there on that windy hill had the equivalent of flush toilets. In some ways it is sad that Rome could not keep it together and due to internal fighting had to leave Britannia. In many ways they really did bring peace and prosperity to Britain. They allowed people, men, to become Roman citizens after twenty five years of military service and all their decendants  were then citizens. Citizenship brought many benefits not the least of which was a pension. The reason more of the buildings are not standing is that in the next fifteen hundred years the locals took them to build houses, churches, etc., because they were already quarried and shaped saving thousands of hours of labor. One stone which was inscribed with a commanders name was taken out of a hearth in a private home and donated back to the museum.

We visited the military museum and they had a half hour film taken above the wall along its entire length. As the camera went along they superimposed views of what it would have looked like in AD 150. They know what the buildings looked like because they have many examples of Roman architecture. The Roman Empire did not build by half measures.

The wall is truly impressive, high and thick and couldn’t have been easily scaled. It is a thing here in Britain to walk all over the country and walking the wall is very popular. I was surprised at how many people were there with us.

I know folks back home wondered why we would go all the way to England to visit Hadrian’s Wall…after all, it is just another stone wall. A funny thing, as we crested the hill and could look down upon the wall snaking its way across the country side I said, “Is that it then?” Everyone laughed…they probably thought I was unimpressed but it fact England has a surfeit of stone walls and I was just making sure! Being at the wall was to me like being in one of the great cathedrals and I had the same shivery, otherworldly feeling. (The fallen columns are the temple) (The floor of the hypocaust warmed room was tiled with stone…not wood as I earlier surmised). 

Haltwhistle, the town we stayed in, calls itself the ‘Center of Britain’. The town is situated half way between the coasts of the Irish Sea and the North Sea and half way up(or down) the country from north to south. Kids keep moving the sign and I can understand that…very tempting. We wandered into the local church which was built in the 1300s and lo, they were having choir practice. We were invited to come in and view the church and we stayed to listen to them and Eric couldn’t stand that the bases were sharp and he kept chiming in with the correct note (softly) but someone noticed and invited him to join them. I think the choir mistress was getting fed up with them not hitting the right note. That experience is not unusual, everyone in this country has been gracious and welcoming.

There are defibrillators everywhere in this country! They put them in the old red phone booths and stick them on walls sort of willy nilly and you have to call the police station for the unlocking code and then I guess just follow the instructions and wait for help to come. The thing is, you have to have your heart attack next to one of them and hope you are not alone.

And last…here are two not very intrepid travelers on a windy hill with the past spread out around them. 

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50th Beatrix Potter….and The Lake District

Beatrix Potter wrote those charming books about the little animals and her cat, her rabbits and her duck with whom she lived. She also had a husband. And a brother who painted and who drank himself to death.  She used her house and buildings in the town of Sawrey in some of he illustrations as well. I have always loved her stories, especially the story of Jemima Puddleduck because she was a gullible woman who went off with a smooth talking, nicely dressed, very elegant gentleman, like so many other women. And I have always liked Samuel Whiskers because he rolled Tom Kitten in dough and was going to cook and eat him. It is hard to find villains in Ms. Potter’s stories…I don’t include Farmer McGregor as I find him a kindred spirit, not a villain. But the thing I love most about Potter’s books and other works is her art work. There is something gentle and real about her pictures and when we had the opportunity to visit her home, a National Trust property along with four thousand acres of other farms she donated, we jumped at it. 

The door to her house is made of several huge, thick slabs of local slate. You can see this in the picture. This looks out on what was once a vegetable patch and I can imagine her standing there regarding maurading birds and small creatures in her garden.

Inside the house we saw the desk where she likely wrote the stories, her furnishings, her intricate fireplace and much more that was charming and comfortable. We also visited a ‘roadside attraction’ that was geared toward children but had enough charm for all. There were tiny mice in their houses, Peter Rabbit coming to grief and many other characters. One can get the flavor of the scenes represented by these photos of Peter’s downfall.

Also, I am sitting on the window seat with a picture from one of the books of that exact place. And those two old women? One of them is me and the other is a wax version of Beatrix. The little spinning wheel is sitting on top of a regular one and it is a spun by hand, an early version of the electric spinning wheel which sits on a table. It was a wonderful visit and I’m glad I have the photographs to remind me. We also visited Wray Castle that day which was notable only for the beautiful views and was otherwise just a castle. And tomorrow we are on our way to….

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50th..Death and Destruction and Royalty at Caernarvon

Our hostess in Bala, Wales has the fabulous job of helping farmers in the surrounding counties develop value added products to enhance their incomes and retain their farms and their way of life. You can imagine how happy we were to hear this. They have one product, Welsh butter, that could sweep the world if they chose to market it. The Irish have Kerrygold and this is better. Things close in the late afternoon, except for restaurants that serve dinners…and pubs. All other shops and many restaurants are closed by six. This has two advantages, first the people who work in the shops get to go home and have a life and the second is that it is quiet in the evening. There is almost no traffic on the streets. In addition, they have signs up in places informing people there is to be no rowdiness, no public noise, no bad behavior, really nothing obnoxious and the it is the listeners, not the perpetrators, who get to decide if something is untoward.

We went to Caernarvon where there is a huge castle where Prince Charles was invested , the last in a very long line of princes who were invested there. In 1969 he knelt in that castle and with his mother’s hands around his promised to be her liege man, then she gave him the kiss of fealty and gave him an ermine robe, a scepter and a ring and he was the Prince of Wales. We might not think too much about this but they sure do here in Wales. The English have been trying to dominate the Welsh for a more than a thousand years but the country side makes it a bit difficult. That Elizabeth II is the head of this country is simply graciousness on their part, I think if they wanted to engage in guerilla warfare they could make it plenty difficult. But that’s just it, they are too well mannered! The picture of the chessboard looking room is actually showing the Princes of Wales, the larger they are the more power they had. The gentleman in the top hat is watching the castle burning, it burned or was destroyed by war numerous times. It was restored by some very rich man in the 1800s. 
The castle has a museum of the Welsh

Royal Fusilliers which I think are the equivalent of our special forces and they are clearly tough. These men have fought in every war England has fought it. The people from the British Isles are, as I have stated before, in no doubt that their freedom was dearly won. Here is a picture of a chart The Royal Fusillers had in their museum. (Eric is standing where Prince Charles was invested in 1969).

The thing is, living in Caernarvon would have been quite unpleasant and cold. It is right on the water and made of stone…huge stones with walls fifteen feet thick and with passages in the center of the wall to get to the fighting areas. Just about everyone wanted to attack this castle and I am wondering if maybe they shouldn’t have built it at all because it attracted so much attention. I think that the Roman villa was more technologically advanced, easier to live in and certainly easier to keep warm. But then, it was in the Cotswolds and not on the edge of an estuary heading to the Atlantic Ocean. The river next to the castle is subject to tides. The sail boats have fins for rudders that keep them upright during low tide. Here is a picture of that.

We drove through part of the Snowdonia National Park. It is rugged, it is big, it is steep, it is cold and it has a clouds on top of the mountains. We drove in the usual way through the river valley and many times we were perched right out there where only God and birds could see us. People actually live on those steep banks and their driveways come from the road we were on, they have narrow bridges fording the river and steep driveways and somehow they live through this. Remember the speed limits are really high…sixty on the road we were on…except when they wanted us to slow for a curve. We never went that fast. We always hunt for the turnouts  so we car pull over and let the traffic pass us. I tried several times to photograph the mountain but I couldn’t get enough of it into the frame to make any sense of it. So I photographed a bit of one of the streams coming off the sides of the mountain.
Coming back from Caernarvon we drove oven a high mountain, 1700 feet at one point, and for miles at the top it was a plateau. Not flat but lots of meadows and sheep folds. We were inside the cloud the entire way and the view might have been spectacular but we could see nothing, the visibility was practically nil and Eric said he was only going to drive what he could see..very sensible. The thing is, the sheep are all around there and we realized that the fences we had seen containing them down hill were not here! Sheep were feeding on the sides of the road. White sheep are the same color as the cloud and we had a few short moments as they dashed across in front of the car. We had to recognize faintly darker patches of cloud to know that we were to be attacked by fluffy leapers. We needed to stay awake so we didn’t count them.

Leaving Bala we drove through a valley, no more than a thousand feet up and the views were lovely. The road was mostly wide and easy to drive and at no time did I think we were driving off into space. This countryside, like the Cotswolds is relentlessly beautiful. It is impossible to photograph and do it justice so I am sticking to things that might be more interesting than gushing equally relentlessly about the scenery. And we are on our way to….

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50th Rome, England

On Friday we went to Rome. Or some of what is left of it in England. In the Victorian era the game master of a Lord Elton was hunting and his dog followed a rabbit and in the scramble and digging the dog unearthed some tesserae which a friend of the Lord’s later identified as Roman floor tiles. Much vigorous Victorian vandalism ensued. Many walls were uncovered and rooms identified and they had the good sense to do two things, they covered the walls with little stone caps and they reburried the mosaic floors under several inches of dirt. They did take many artifacts which today would enable the National Trust to be more precise identifying the rooms. And they lost a lot of the finds.

This villa was the property of a wealthy Roman…but not likely a real Roman. The locals were more than encouraged to adopt Roman language, customs, everything, so the owner of this grand place was really a Brit. The first buildings were built in 150 AD and continually refitted and made very grand until it declined after the Roman Empire withdrew its troops form Britain in 403 AD. Most of the troops were withdrawn before the actual fall so those left in Britain simply as assimilated. The wonderful Roman archaitecture fell into disrepair helped along by people who dug into the mosaic floors to build storage pits  and put fires on the floor for cooking and heat. The standing stone posts in this picture, unevenly uprighted by the Victorians and left, are what held up the floors. I do not know but suspect that wooden cross beams and planking constituted the subflooring. The villa would have been comfortable in the patritician’s family rooms with the hot air heat. Not, however in the servants quarters. 


This round pool was a temple to a dryad, a water nymph and would have been revered because that is who brought clean water. The pool is spring fed still but only trickles as most of the water is diverted to the visitors center. In Roman times this little temple would have been pillered, painted, tiled, the works. The phesant is drinking from the water intake for the pool that the peasants must have cleaned.  This bird was not at all afraid of our group.


The Romans liked to eat snails so they imported their favorites from Italy and fed them on milk until they were too fat to get back into their shells. Those that were left in Gaul (France) became the fancy 🐌 escargot. Some enterprising snails escaped the kitchens and went native and today their descendants roam the Roman villa’s grounds. In 1600 years they have only extended their range by ten miles proving once and for all that a snail’s pace is truly slow. Here is a picture of one so slow it barely made it out of the room. The creamy white and brown streaked shell is typical of them. They are reported to be very tasty if you like snails (and I do) but they are protected and we were warned not to put one in a pocket for a snack. This snail was not afraid of our group, either.

The baths of the villa took up a much space since the villa was used as a place to hunt and entertain and many guests would have been invited and much influence brokered. The baths are still intact and they had pools of increasing heat until the final frigid plunge bath. I took a picture of a picture showing the baths as they would have looked in all their glory. They have excavated the baths, put in an elevated walkway and covered the whole thing…looks very good, sturdy and handles many people. All this was many feet underground when it was discovered as it is at the base of a hill and the dirt washed down over the centuries.

We also visited a stately home and the grounds were very nice, six really large redwoods on the long drive. It had a plain exterior but the inside was beautiful and full of art. The family has collected art for a long time.But…it is a private home, the family still lives there and we were not allowed to photograph inside. However, here is a photo of some random sheep on the way to the Roman villa.  Saturday we leave Cheltenham and head for…..


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50th….First the Ridiculous…

We took a side trip to an animal park and garden that is near Cheltonham because I wanted to see the garden. It was pretty neat, all sorts of tropical plants, temperate ones and all sorts of desert pleants. Then we went into the Madagascar area which was fenced and roofed with strong wire and had airlock doors on each end because these guys were roaming free. The picture on the right is a baby clinging to its mother. Not something one useally sees. We were warned about those tails…they can give one quite a swipe. They have a number of different species of lemur in the park, as well as birds and flora from Madagascar. 

The leaf Eric is standing by is easily four or more feet across and not the biggest one we saw.

And this spiky tree would make a good Christmas tree. The lemurs eat most of the vegetation in their compound but the guide also gives them food at certain hours so the touristas will congregate and hear about the lemurs and that the animal park and others are helping the Madagascans reforest and retrain to sustainable agriculture. 

Here is a common sign around here. You will notice how quickly this deer is running to get to the other side of the road and out of the line of fire. This is in stark contrast to the deer in New England which stand in the middle of the road with their eyes gleaming evilly waiting for you to smash into them and send you both to Kingdom Come.

I can’t help saying more about the roads here. They have other interesting signs like the one that looks like a tuning fork and means that the two lane road you are on is soon to become a one lane road. There will be little divots at the sides of the road and these are just large enough to accommodate most of a car to avoid the oncoming car, or bus, or tractor…I was surprised by a 14% grade but I’m an old hand now as we went down one that was easily 18%. Besides the insanely high speed limits these back roads twist and turn and a favorite here is the little hill you cannot possibly  see over that has a left hand curve just beyond the sight line and vegetation right up to the car. Eric has gotten really good at driving but we still mutter…tight left, wide right.

Now the Sublime…..

After the animal park we traveled to Bourton-On-The-Water which was lovely. There is a river flowing through the center of town with charming stone bridges one walks across. The stream is spring fed not too far up stream from there and perfectly clear. We had the best scones I have ever tasted there and that includes Sophia’s cherry scones and Sarah’s cream scones…really. Theadora told us that the ‘cream tea’ is available pretty much everywhere, a pot of tea, two scones, a small jar of jam and an ounce or so of clotted cream. Delicious.  Then we drove to Lower Slaughter and it was the quintessential Cotswoldian town. Old buildings, water feature, no place to turn around.

The next day we drove to Glouster and walked the waterfront, ate dinner but before that we went to Glouster Cathedral, the seat of the Bishop of Glouster, who, I’m mighty proud to say, is a woman. We attended Evensong and why did we do that you may ask? Because it is sublime. The organ fills the church, the service is beautiful and there is sweet singing in the choir. The choir master at Glouster is a master of his craft and the choir, ‘tho composed mostly of young people, ten to about sixteen, was as professional sounding as one could wish. If you really want to get the flavor of a cathedral Evensong is the place to be. And…it happens every day, no waiting for Sunday. Here is a picture of the quire…church for ‘choir’ where the choir sings. Quires are in the chancel at the back and often separated from the nave by a screen or raised area. If you count three gold posts on the right we sat two  rows back. 

No matter where we drive we are struck over again by the sheer beauty of this place. Strangely, when we say we are going to the Lake District to a one they tell us how beautiful it is there. But it rains…they always add that.

What is really strange is that we have had lovely weather every day! It is warm/cool, breezy, sunny…truly, I am beginning to worry about their crops around here and this is a big farming district. Perhaps when we leave it will rain. Tomorrow we head to …..



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Stonehenge: The Continuing Story

Yesterday we drove over to Stonehenge to see if it is still standing and I am glad to report that a good deal of it still is. Over the last several millinia some of the stones have fallen, some have been removed by builders of the past and that is not considering the remodeling that our ancient ancestors did on the henge. The additions and subtractions were discovered by archologists and they made the best guess as to when and how….but not why. The stones do line up very nicely with the solstices and equinoxes and the area in total is quite the astronomical clock but was it religious; or for burial, or just a lark? We spoke at length with a guide who was lounging around waiting for questions and he said that the stones do not care why they were built and people can project upon them whatever they wish. There are nurmerous burial mounds, over a hundred in that area, and the guide was told that stone henges are for the dead and wooden ones are for the living and there is a wooden one, Woodhenge, not too far away, that they have markers showing where the wooden posts, thirty inches in diameter, were placed. How can they know what took place five thousand years ago? Because under the soil is chalk, the same that makes the white cliffs of Dover and once it is scarred it does not heal, the scars remain.

(Notice that on the single stone at top left there is a projection: this shows the mortise and tenon construction of the circle. The stone behind it still has its capstone. Directly above is a possible scene of building the ring, they have found animal bones there. To the left is another fanciful painting based upon archeological evidence.)

Lichen grows all over the stones, seventeen species in all, and some have gotten there by spores blowing across the oceans. Cool, huh? Some patches on the stones are devoid of lichen and that is because they scrubbed off graffiti. These days they are using biological methods, the guide didn’t know just what, to get the marks off. If you have ever wondered why people are not allowed at random into the stone ring it is because even with every caution and admonition people still sneak beyond the guides and write on or chip away at the stones.  Tim told us that at one solstice a man in a hooded robe went aronud and put a bit of oil on every stone. It was dark and they didn’t see what he was doing. The stones looked like a dog had peed on them for months until the natural weathering of the oil. Lots of crappy things have been done in the name of religion but this is just venal. People are allowed up there with guides after hours, limited availability. Now that I have seen it I wish no one was ever allowed up there. The viewing areas go all the way around and are plenty close enough.

The Stonehenge World Heritage organization own over 700 hectares around the stones encompassing the stones, the burial mounds and the Stonehenge Cursus, a 1.9 mile long 450 foot wide design etched into the earth. Two  artificial pits have been found near the east and west ends of the Cursus. It has been found that lines of sunrise and sunset at midsummer through these pits are aligned with Stonehenge. It is interesting to note that the sun at the summer solstice shines through one aperature and the sun sets at the exact opposite at the winter solstice. This is the ancient way of determining the exact dates, sunrise in summer, sunset in winter. 

Here is a picture of some mortal, short-lived hominids. Some of our ancestors built Stonehenge and we are very proud of them and proud to be a part, however brief, of the human family.

Tomorrow….not much, just sightseeing.













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