April 16, 2010

England and Wales part 4: Wales

When I was 12, I took it upon myself to teach myself Welsh. Really. Needless to say, it didn't really stick. But although that obsession faded, I never lost the desire to visit Wales. So when we planned our trip to central England, I insisted we take a day or two to drive into Wales. It didn't look that far on a map - surely it wouldn't be that long of a journey.

Well, never underestimate how long it can take to get around on British roads. Nevertheless, we did get in a few days along the southern coast of Wales.

Our first stop, as it grew dark and dark rainclouds rolled in, was the not-entirely-scenic town of Swansea. Caught in the middle of what seemed like a true gale, we took the first room we could find and spent the night.

The town of Pembroke, from the castle

From there, we drove west. Our next stop was Pembroke, a cute medieval town with a stunning 12th century castle. We spent several hours running around the castle grounds, climbing stairs, walking along the ramparts, and enjoying amazing views from the towers. Like I said in the last post, there's something to be said for historical sites where the visitor can have the run of the place.

We had the castle virtually to ourselves

The British have a thing for creepy mannequin-based historic interpretive displays. Apparently, this is what it's like at a medieval feast.

From Pembroke, we headed south to the seaside town of Tenby. With an amazing, broad beach and a colorful old town, Tenby was a lovely place to visit.

March 9, 2010

England and Wales part 3: Stonehenge and Avebury

I'll keep this brief...no one needs another lecture about Stonehenge, so I'll stick to touristy photos. For more information on Stonehenge, check out English Heritage's webpage. or the University of Sheffield's excavation page. For more on Avebury, again English Heritage has a good run-through and photos. Both sites are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Stonehenge (duh). The site hasn't fared too well over the last few centuries. A busy road cuts nearly through the center of the site and separates the stone circle from other elements of the site and the surrounding plains. When you arrive at the site, you park, buy your ticket, then are funneled into a passageway that runs underneath the road. You pass through a cement corridor lined with large murals depicting the landscape of the prehistoric Salisbury Plain (lots of trees!), but little interpretive material is available. Then, emerging from the tunnel, you immediately see the stones themselves (and lots of sheep!). Turn around, and you'll see traffic and the visitors center.

Once at the site itself, you're essentially confined to a path ringing the stones. You can get pretty close, but no touching. From here you can appreciate the monument up close, if you're lucky enough to have a view unobstructed by picture-taking tourists.

The lack of access to the stones is not a bad idea though, considering how badly the site has been damaged by visitors over the years. The more people tread on the ground, touch the stones, or (god forbid) hack off pieces of the stones, the more irreversible damage is done to the site.

This is Avebury. It's another prehistoric site, and physically it's close to Stonehenge (about 20 miles), but as an archaeological experience it's worlds away.

The site is essentially unrestricted. You can walk along the massive (1.3 km circumference) circular earthen banks and ditches, you can touch the standing stones, and wander around the site with relatively few tourists to contend with. There's something to be said for an archaeological site like this- where a visitor is free to experience the site how he or she chooses.

There is always a conflict (at least in my mind) between the need to conserve archaeological sites and the need to make sites available to the public. While the feet and hands of the thousands of tourists who visit a site like this in a year inevitably do damage to the site's integrity, at the same time this must be balanced by the benefit of allowing the public to experience archaeological sites and the fundamental right of all people to know and experience the world's history.