My first grand adventure in London wasn’t even in London. Instead, I visited Windsor Castle, Stonehenge, and Bath with Golden Tours.
I found it slightly difficult to arrive at the coach station since I had no bearing in the city yet. Londoners pointed me in the correct direction, but I never processed that the tour company was located inside. Once I found the location, I had a feeling today would be a good day.
Our bus promptly departed from London. Tish, our upbeat tour guide from Northern Ireland, led the way with her yellow, smiling sun umbrella. She pointed out lesser-known London sites on our way out of the city, such as a school choir in red robes making their way to a Scottish Presbyterian Church and homes that were previously stables.
About 45 minutes after leaving London, we arrived in Windsor. It seemed like a simple, yet pleasant, town; as far as I could see, there’s a train station, some shopping, small flats, a castle, and that’s it. The bus dropped us off as close to the castle as possible, which still required a few minutes of walking and several staircases.
Golden Tours must have purchased fast passes because we walked straight onto the castle’s grounds. Unfortunately, the State Apartments were closed for maintenance during my visit. They’re apparently regularly closed during the winter season.
Windsor Castle, the largest inhabited castle in the world, is known as the Queen’s favorite residence. She celebrates Easter and Ascot week at Windsor and also visits for as many weekends as possible. Although unrelated to Windsor, I learned Queen Elizabeth also takes a three-month vacation at a castle in Scotland for the winter holidays. She could never island hop like us peasants; castle-hopping is the preferred royal travel style. I don’t blame her!
The castle is over 900 years old and consists of not one building, but several apartments. When combined, the apartments are large enough to fit 268 tennis courts. A fire in 1992 from mishandled electrical work destroyed hundreds of rooms and nine apartments. All the rooms and apartments have since been restored, at the high cost of 37.5 million pounds.
Despite the temporary closing of the State Apartments, the Doll’s House and attached China Room were still open. Neither exhibition grabbed my attention because, well, I’m terrified of standing in rooms where a plate costs more than I’m worth and I dislike rooms with hundreds of dolls staring back at me.
I thought the Doll’s House story was interesting, though. The room was a gift to Queen Mary, who liked to collect miniature items. Famous artists, designers, authors, and craftsmen contributed to the collection, which is on a scale of 1:12. The Doll House even features electricity, running water, and flushable toilets. After I snapped this photo looking through a window into the State Apartments, I learned no photos are allowed inside. Since it already exists, here it is.
My favorite part of Windsor Castle was not the castle, but St. George’s Cathedral at Windsor Castle. I’ve visited several Gothic-style European churches and left unimpressed, but St. George’s still captivated me because of the uncharacteristic bright and cheery space. Unfortunately, photography was not allowed inside (again).
The stained glass reflected pictures of ordained priests in the light. The stained glass carries the eye to the Nave’s (congregation area) drastically high ceiling that calls you to linger for a while. The ceiling looked like stone pipes growing from the ground. These “pipes” hugged the columns, eventually spilling onto the ceiling. At the end of each pipe was a family crescent, arms of the garter, or religiously significant symbol. There are 275 in total. In the middle of the ceiling, four-leaf clover moldings surrounded moldings of stars. Around the top of the Nave, by the windows, are 250 small angels. Each angel shows only the waist up, as if the angel was peering over a balcony into life below the heavens. Moving on to the actual balcony, stationed behind the pulpit, a dominating black organ hides with vines growing up the gold pipes.
St. George’s Cathedral is breathtaking, something I can’t say about the many other Gothic-style churches I’ve visited. The one bummer? Metal seats. That’s right, church-goers (who aren’t the royal family) sit in cheap, foldable metal seats. Perhaps the designers ran out of money?
If you ever visit during mass, the cathedral is closed to the public…unless you want to attend Church with the Queen. Tell the security or guards this and they’ll likely allow you in. You have to stay for the entire service, though.
At 11:00 I watched the highly-anticipated and ceremonial Changing of the Guards. Expecting I’d enjoy military and royal tradition, I claimed my spot around 10:30. Disappointingly, I thought the ceremony was long, drawn-out, and boring. I would’ve rather stayed at one of the other sites longer than hurry to get a good viewing spot. I recommend you skip the Changing of the Guards and spend more time exploring the castle’s grounds.
After an approximately one-hour bus ride, the group arrived at Stonehenge. Apparently, there are two types of people–those who walk away amazed by Stonehenge and those questioning why they spent money to view a bunch of rocks.
I walked away pleased, but not amazed.
If you’re not interested in a bunch of rocks, but still feel the need to see them, you can clearly see Stonehenge from your car. The busy road has no side lanes so you’d have to view it while driving past.
While at Stonehenge, I asked three strangers to take a picture of me. After three attempts, I gave up. I even pre-set the camera settings, instructed how to take the picture, how to check if the photo is blurry, and described how to place me against Stonehenge. No luck. The photos still make me laugh!
If I had remembered the bus departure time, I probably would’ve allowed myself to enjoy the site more. I planned to take photos and appreciate the mystery of Stonehenge at the end of the walking path. Once I reached that point, I couldn’t spot other members of the Golden Tours group. I rushed back to the bus, believing it already left. Turns out I still had 30 minutes to view Stonehenge. *facepalm*
Be prepared for strong winds and wind chill. This made my experience a little less pleasant. The land around Stonehenge is relatively flat, thus making the slightest bit of wind 10x stronger. Since technology still can’t control the weather, and probably for the better, bring an extra sweater and a beanie along…especially in the winter.
Despite all this, Stonehenge’s mystery is fascinating. It’s the longest-surviving, man-made structure, yet no one knows its purpose. The site first saw use around 3000BC, but Stonehenge wasn’t built until around 2500BC. Some researchers argue Stonehenge was a sacrificial site because they discovered arrows buried in bones. Others argue it acted as a healing site. These stones, each weighing several tons, were somehow transported several hundred miles to its current location. For many centuries, people would travel far and wide to find herbal medicine or healing sites. Why else would the builders of Stonehenge transport these stones, each weighing several tons, such great distances?
Stonehenge was certainly a holy place and a burial site. It also acts as a calendar, perfectly lining up with the summer solstice and allowing sun rays to penetrate all five archways.
No one knows who built Stonehenge, but researchers call these mysterious people “Beakers.” Some Beakers are buried near the Stonehenge with items, suggesting the Beaker people believed in an afterlife.
Other Stonehenge mysteries include: Did people migrate here for religious purposes? Why this spot? Do the sheep know something we don’t? Will the next invention reduce the farm smells drifting to Stonehenge?
Golden Tours includes a self-walking headset tour in your ticket price. You may skip the headset, but I enjoyed having one to explain parts of Stonehenge’s history to me.
Bath’s discovery goes like this:
A prince in line for the throne turned to pig farming due to leprosy. He brought his pigs to the water one day and had to entice them out with acorns. When they exited the water, the prince noticed all their warts disappeared. The prince bathed in the water and it cured his leprosy. He was welcomed back to the court and the baths were introduced to the Romans.
The Romans loved these baths. They built underground heating and turned the bath into a temple dedicated to Minerva, the goddess of healing. But many years later, Brits didn’t care for bathing and the temple fell into disrepair. The roof caved in and people built over the baths. When King William conquered Britain, the Roman Baths were put back on the map. The royal family visited for decades, believing it improved their health and fertility.
The baths are no longer open for swimming because they are heavily polluted from suffering years of disrepair, but a new spa facility is located nearby. There is also a tasting of the original (unpolluted) sourced water at the end of the tour. Some people love it, and others (like me) hate it. The water is too warm for my liking and has a strong taste of minerals.
I sped through the baths self-tour to leave time for exploring the city of Bath, but a few facts really stood out during the tour. The paths naturally produce 1/4 million gallons of water daily. That’s enough to fill a bathtub in only 30 seconds! The Roman Bath is the only thermal hot spring in England. The water is constantly at a temperature of 46.5 degrees Celsius (115 degrees Fahrenheit).
If you’re looking for a quick snack while in Bath, stop at The Real Italian Ice Cream Co. for amazing gelato. It’s right around the corner from the baths and tastes, as the name suggests, like real Italian gelato.
After your tour (included in the Golden Tours ticket price), strolling the town at sunset is a beautiful and romantic way to end the day. The stone, faint natural light, and glowing streetlights are humbling. Imagine, people hundreds of years ago built Bath and it still stands today.
Golden Tours Review
Tish filled the day with lots of advice, recommendations, and information. She explained the use of Roundhouses, which are small circular buildings where police locked misbehaviors up. Apparently, public indecency (aka, drunk) was the most prevalent crime way back when.
Tish described the outrageous and understandably high insurance and upkeep costs of thatch roofs.
She pointed out a white horse. No, this isn’t an actual white horse. Chalk is very common in Wiltshire. People used to carve horses, an ancient Catholic symbol for fertility, into the hills. There are seventeen in England, eleven of which are in Wiltshire.
Tish was an absolutely amazing tour guide. I do not remember our bus driver’s name, but he smoothly navigated the crazy roads.
No tour is perfect, though. Golden Tours advertised free WiFi on their buses, which I assumed was unlimited. While making plans with a friend, I was cut off from the WiFi after about 20-minutes. Trish lent me her phone, but it, unfortunately, had no signal. I eventually successfully met with my friend, but Golden Tours should advertise the WiFi limit more.
Everyone who booked at least 24 hours in advance received a 6″ Subway sandwich, chips, and water. I appreciated and enjoyed the meal, but several people complained about the sandwich only consisting of lettuce and cheese. I personally believe their complaints are silly, though; the brochure clearly states, “cheese and salad sub.”
At 82.72GDP for a student fare, this day tour is easy on a London budget. We spent about 1.5 hours at each location. At first, I didn’t think this was enough time; 1.5 hours is not enough to see and do everything! But it is enough time to see the main sights, take several photos, and even listen to several segments of the provided audio tours.
Golden Tours is the best London day tour operator. If you’re new to England, a day tour to Windsor, Stonehenge, and Bath is a perfect introduction to the country and its history.
Does traveling with Golden Tours seem like a good option for you?