Peugeots and Stone Circles:
A Drive from Salisbury to Bath
I had never driven in another country before, and it was a big surprise to me when the Hertz guy just handed the keys over. I had a detailed scenario in my mind where the guy would say, “Okay, I see that you’re American. Here’s the thing – we English drive on the left and the steering wheel is on the right and you should really know aboutï¿½” But, he didn’t. He did very politely (we were in England) show me how the little black Peugeot’s lights worked and how the windshield wipers turned on, but that’s it. He walked away, and my wife and I were on our own.
We were on the second day of a three-week trip to England, having arrived in London the day before and taken the train down to Salisbury in England’s southwest. After spending the previous afternoon nosing around Salisbury (a small market town with great architecture and the spire of Salisbury Cathedral, well worth seeing), we were using the first of the three driving days we got with our BritRail “drive and rail” pass to drive to Bath, stopping to see Stonehenge and Avebury along the way.
“I’m pretty sure we go that way,” my wife told me. The only problem was that “that way” put us directly into busy 9am workday traffic. “Oh boy,” I thought as I fumbled to shift with my left hand and eased into a gap in the traffic. After a few blocks, it was going okay – I thought I was getting the hang of it – stay on the left, make sure to look right. Then I saw my first roundabout from the perspective of a driver. It was small, fast and scary. “What do I do?” I asked. “Just follow the guy in front of us,” my wife replied. Yikes! I followed the lorry in front of us, whipped around in a circle and somehow ended up on the A435 – the road from Salisbury to Stonehenge. We were on our way.
Once we got out of town and on a straightaway the driving got much easier. In fact, it got sort of fun tooling around on the “motorway.” As we zoomed along we started seeing road signs for Stonehenge, and soon enough we were upon it.
It’s funny actually seeing Stonehenge. Through magazines photos, movies, and travel shows the stone circle has become such a familiar sight to all of us that seeing it in person is almost disappointing. Add to that the fact that the motorway goes right up next to Stonehenge, which has been commercialized to feature all the worst things about European travel – a big car park full of busses, a visitor’s center, and a cheesy gift shop.
However, once we paid the admission and walked under the road to the site any bit of disappointment quickly faded. Actually being on the Salisbury Plain and walking just feet from the stones (you can’t get close enough to touch them) is an incredible experience. Because we had arrived fairly early and the busses of tourists had not yet arrived we had the opportunity to experience Stonehenge with only a few other people and with the morning mist just starting to burn off. We walked the entire loop around the stones and were thinking of going around again when we noticed that the car park was filling up with other visitors and day-trippers from London. We could see that more people was going to equal less fun, so we decided to get out of there and move on to our next destination.
Long straightaways, large leisurely roundabouts, and clearly marked roads make the short drive from Stonehenge to Avebury a delight. With each passing mile I was feeling more and more confident with the Peugeot and my UK driving skills. “This is going pretty good, ” I said. “Keep your eyes on the road,” my wife replied nervously. Sure there were a few tight moments on the way – like missing one turn and ending up stuck in the huge grocery store parking lot and not being able to find the motorway again – but on the whole the driving was shaping up.
Any difficulty we had with the driving was well worth it as we arrived at Avebury. Avebury is a large stone circle that is bigger and less visited than Stonehenge (also harder to get to, you’ll need a car). The circle has a diameter of 348 meters, outlined by 98 large standing stones. Without the push of the crowds and minus the admission fee Avebury has a friendlier, less rushed vibe than its more famous cousin. Here you can touch the stones, walk around, and chat with the other visitors as you dodge the sheep that live among the stones.
An entire walk around the circle will take about 40 minutes and will afford you views of the surrounding countryside including the town of Avebury (which the stones surround) and Silbury Hill, an artificial hill made for unknown reasons around 2500 BC.
As we were finishing our walk around the circle we got a little dose of the eccentric that always makes travel so fun. As we approached a large old craggy tree, we kept hearing a drum beat start and stop, start and stop, start and stop. As we got closer to the tree the drumming stopped and we could just make out the darkened shadow of a figure hidden among the branches. When we passed the drum beat started again, and we could now make out the figure of a man sitting in the tree playing a large drum – stopping as people approached and starting again as they passed. We followed the drum beats back to the Peugeot, ready for the final leg of our journey.
The drive from Avebury to Bath was uneventful and kind of fun (we unexpectedly saw one of Wiltshire’s chalk figure horses on a hillside as we drove past) – and I managed not to stray off the motorway into any large car parks and kept to my side of the road. It was exciting to arrive in Bath by car, giving us an opportunity to see the city’s architecture and street life up-close. However, we were ending our day as we started it: by driving in an unknown city during rush hour traffic. We got a bit turned around (only really lost once) and we were both quite relieved to find the train station that held the local Hertz office and give our little Peugeot back to its owners.
We only had one thing left to do – find our B&B. The Lonely Planet map we consulted made it look very far away from the train station, too far to walk. I had no regrets as we hailed a cab, happy to let someone else do the driving.