Joint Federation visit Bath-Wiltshire and the South Cotswolds – 15th to 19th April 2013
by Larry Breen, FLHS
It was a very early start for most of our group not least of all George and Bridgeen Rutherford who had travelled from Derry in the early hours of Monday morning to join the group in Dublin. Such was the measure of the enthusiasm of the merry band of local historians who had travelled from all corners of the country to meet in Rosslare for what was to be a memorable journey to the south of England. We had a marvellous turnout with people from fifteen counties representing twenty four different Historical/Archaeological societies.
Counties represented were, Kildare, Laois, Mayo, Meath, Dublin, Tipperary, Derry, Antrim, Down, Tyrone, Westmeath, Louth, Clare, Wicklow and Kilkenny. Societies represented were, Strabane, Westport, Carrickfergus, Naas, Durrow, Rathcoffey, Clontarf, Navan, Tipperary, Knocklyon, Athy, Foxrock, Rathmichael, Raheny, Mullingar, Banbridge, Drogheda, Fassadinin, Kilkenny, Clare, Rathdangan, Clondalkin, New Buildings and West Belfast.
We had an eventful first day with the Fishguard ferry being cancelled, having to take the Irish Ferries boat to Pembroke instead and experienced some “rocking and rolling” on the crossing. However we managed to recover and after our journey through the Welsh country side we managed to reach our hotel in Bristol a little weary but safe and sound.
After breakfast on Tuesday morning we left early and picked up our guide, Alison Levy, in the beautiful city of Bath on our way into the ancient county of Wiltshire. This was our first glimpse of Bath and it was resplendent in the early morning sunshine making our planned visit to the city on Wednesday all the more exciting. We travelled south skirting along the Salisbury Plains, a unique landscape and not geographically unlike our own Curragh of Kildare. Like the Curragh, the area was and still is used by the army for manoeuvres and other military activities. Our guide pointed out some army barracks which had been significant during and after the war. Stonehenge was beckoning and we were not to be disappointed. This ancient monument is simple in design but sitting alone on the bleak plains is awe inspiring against the horizon and proved to be a special experience for all of us. The self guided tour was most informative and interesting. Even after 5000 years its true meaning is still a matter of conjecture – is it religious, an astronomical clock or a bronze age burial ground ? – you can take your pick. !
Wednesday morning, we were all up bright and early with the exciting prospect of visiting Bath. We were met in the city by our two guides for the day, Val and Cheryl, who turned out to be a revelation in the best sense of the word. The guided walking tour of the city was excellent with our two guides not only showing their great depth of knowledge with regard to the city’s history but who delivered it with a passion, warmth and sincerity that touched all of us. On our travels around the Crescent, the Circus, the Roman Baths, Queen’s Square, the Assembly Rooms, Sally Lunns’, the Jane Austen Centre and much more we learned from Val and Cheryl so much about the social life and fabric of this unique city down through the ages. The morning concluded with a visit and guided tour of the famous Bath Abbey. Again accompanied by our excellent guides we learned of the history associated with this building which has been a site of Christian worship for over 1000 years. The imposing west front and its beautiful stained glass windows were a sight to behold. We then stopped for lunch after which all were let loose to explore what they could of this most beautiful city. An extraordinary feature of the city, which in fact Jane Austen herself did not like remarking it was too white, is the brightness of the stone in the buildings. It is a beautiful light cream and radiates a great colour and warmth when lighted by the sun shining on it. We all spent the afternoon exploring Bath in our own special way but regardless of what we did we all agreed it was indeed a unique and beautiful city.
Our plan on Thursday was essentially to explore the Southern Cotswolds but before we headed up north in that direction we took an opportunity to taste a little bit of the flavour of our adopted City of Bristol. Our guide from Tuesday, Alison, rejoined the group and gave us a most interesting walking tour of part of the City Centre around the floating harbour area. This also included some of the older streets and a visit to the Market House where we heard the story of how the saying “paying on the nail” came into use. Although now a modern European City it is also a historic port with a spectacular 1,000 year old history. Waiting for us alongside the Quay was our boat for the tour of Bristol Harbour which was appreciated by all. We had an excellent captain who elucidated eloquently on the history of the port through the years as we glided over the waters of the river Avon on our way around the harbour. We had the added excitement of having a harbour bridge opened especially to allow us further up river and much to the delight of all. On our way back to the quayside we were able to have some particularly stunning views of Brunel’s SS Great Britain as she sat in dry dock. This was the first great Steam Ship Ocean Liner and a tribute to the great engineer. As we headed north in the direction of the Cotswolds we were able to have a good view of another of Brunel’s engineering triumphs, the Bristol Suspension Bridge.
As we said last year this was a wonderful trip which will not only be remembered for the wealth and variety of the history we encountered but by the warmth, friendship and hospitality of all the people in our group and also those we had the pleasure to meet on our memorable journey.