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Introduction top

Hi, I’m Rudy Maxa, ready to cast you under an enchanted spell! This trip we’re conjuring a bit of magic as we quest for Camelot, Georgian elegance, and wild Welsh beauty. Next, it’s Bath and Southern Wales on Smart Travels.


Once upon a time there was a magical land...where Roman legions lounged in steamy baths, where King Arthur freed Excalibur from a stone, and where noble knights sought the Holy Grail. It was a place of brooding castles and pious abbeys, rolling pastures and inviting forests. And it was a land of chivalry, romance and adventure.

I’m standing on the border between England and Wales. A place where history, mystery, and legend converge. We’ll investigate some of the stories that surround this intriguing area. We’ll sift through the facts behind the fiction...And, just maybe, even ask for a bit of guidance from Merlin himself!

The south of Britain holds some terrific sites that are easily accessible from London. We’ll savor Georgian loveliness in Bath, and delve into the legends of Glastonbury. Then it’s off to Wales and the Wye River Valley for castles, country fairs and more.


Bath: Its Roman Origins top

To me, Bath is England’s most mesmerizing city.

It made a name for itself thanks to a bubbling natural spring at its center. Two thousand years ago, as the great Roman Empire spread across Europe, Roman legions invaded Britain. And they built a temple and bath here at the springs.

These ancient sites are truly a "must-see". Here Roman soldiers came to socialize and soak in the soothing mineral waters.

Soundbite: We’re looking at the Great Bath which is the largest of the series of pools that made up Roman site. It’s fed with hot spring water flowing through directly from the spring. And the water is 116 Fahrenheit, so if you dip your elbow into a hot bath at home and put a thermometer in, you’ll probably find it’s about that temperature. The Roman baths at Bath are unusual not just because of their exceptional size, but simply because Roman baths didn’t normally have so much hot water in them.

In those days, hot water was expensive to create, but here at Bath they had an unlimited supply—over a million liters a day coming out of the ground. The Romans used this plentiful hot water supply to their best advantage, and created one of largest bathhouses north of the Alps. After the fall of the empire, these walls fell too, and the bath was buried. In the late 1700s, excavators stumbled across these Roman ruins.


Bath's Sacred Spring top

The Sacred Spring is at the very heart of the baths. The Romans built a grand temple next to the spring dedicated to the goddess Sulis Minerva, a deity with healing powers. After Roman rule ended, Bath spent centuries as a quiet religious center.

When Queen Anne visited here in 1702, the town suddenly became the “in” place of fashionable English society. Just as it was years ago, the “Pump Room” is a wonderfully elegant place designed to serve Bath’s stylish patrons.

Not only did people come to soak in the baths, but they also drank mineral water from this indoor pump. It was thought to have curative properties. It’s very warm and has a bit of the eau d’sulfur about it, but I’m feeling better already.


Bath: Playground For The Wealthy top

At one time, these tearooms were the social hub of the 18th century spa community.

Bath transformed itself into a playground for the wealthy, with “Master of Ceremonies” Richard “Beau” Nash at its helm.

Soundbite: He was the person who would have overseen all of the events taking place, ensured the entertainment was appropriate. But he also produced a set of rules and ensured that they were enforced and these rules, for instance, forbade the wearing of swords, forbade dueling, ensured that ladies did not wear aprons. And if you didn’t observe these rules than you did so at your peril.

In the Assembly Rooms across town, writer Jane Austen attended glamorous balls. She wrote vividly of the flirting and social intrigues that went on here in her novels “Persuasion” and “Northanger Abbey”.


Georgian Style top

As Bath’s popularity grew, it was rebuilt in an almost entirely Georgian style. On the Royal Crescent, 30 stone houses stand in a graceful arc. Some consider this the loveliest street in Britain. It was actually Bath's popularity that led to its decline as a fashionable resort. As the middle classes descended on the city, it was no longer the exclusive playground of the well-to-do, who abandoned it for seaside resorts. Bath settled into life as an inexpensive yet refined retirement community. But its grand heyday left an extraordinary architectural legacy.

Sally Lunn's Restaurant A short stroll from the Roman Baths, you’ll find the oldest house in town—Sally Lunn's. This small restaurant was built on the foundations of a kitchen dating to Roman times. Sally Lunn was a young french refugee who came to England more than 300 years ago and set up a pastry shop here. She began baking a rich, round bread now known as the “Sally Lunn Bun”, which became a popular delicacy in Georgian England.


Bath Spa Hotel top

You can recapture the city’s elegant Georgian spirit here at the Bath Spa Hotel. Although the hotel is far enough from the energetic city streets to be a peaceful retreat, the famous baths and modern spas are within easy walking distance. This was originally a private residence and still retains the charm of a traditional home, but with all the amenities of a luxury hotel.


Out of Bath top

For such a small country, England has an amazing concentration of historic and cultural sites.Driving here can be a lot of fun. And you can’t go more than a few miles without stumbling upon one fascinating site or another.

We’re making a day trip south to Wells, and then on to Glastonbury.


The Town of Wells top

The cathedral town of Wells is a medieval gem. Long before the arrival of William the Conqueror, this town was an important player in the Saxon kingdom of Wessex. Today it’s England’s smallest cathedral city.


The Cathedral at Wells top

Most visitors come to see the magnificent cathedral that was begun in the late 1100s and took more than 300 years to build. Along with the other towns in the area, Wells prospered as a center of the wool trade in the Middle Ages. The cathedral nearly met with disaster when, late in construction, the foundations began to sink. But when cleverly designed scissor arches were added to the nave, the beautiful structure was saved. Today the cathedral is home to the Bishop’s seat and looks after the faithful of both Bath and Wells.


The Town of Glastonbury top

Our next stop is the town of Glastonbury.

Many different elements of mysticism and religion intersect here in Glastonbury. Shrouded in legend and revered by pilgrims, Glastonbury has a wonderful, otherworldly quality. This is the reputed birthplace of Christianity in England and a center of Arthurian myth.


Glastonbury Abbey top

Soundbite: Glastonbury Abbey is probably the oldest religious foundation in England, going right back possibly to Roman times. According to legend, the first community here was founded by Joseph of Arimathea. He comes into the gospels as the rich man who supplied the tomb in which the body of Christ was laid. Well, there certainly was a church on this site so old that nobody knew who put there, and the stories really grew around that.

Glastonbury is linked with several King Arthur stories, including one in which Guinevere was carried here by a rival noble.

Soundbite: But the more famous story is that Arthur was buried here. His body was brought here after his last battle and laid in a grave in the graveyard at Glastonbury Abbey.


Chalice Well top

The water at Chalice Well has a mysterious red tint. One claim is that it’s the resting place of the Holy Grail and the water is infused with Christ’s blood. Researchers have shown that there are rust deposits at the bottom of the stream, but many people still believe the water has healing properties.


Glastonbury Tor top

The striking Glastonbury Tor can be seen for miles around. Tors are natural hill formations; this one is topped by the remains of a 14th century church. Some believe that Glastonbury Tor is Avalon, where King Arthur sleeps.

Each year thousands of tourists tromp happily through the little villages in England’s countryside. Charming as they are, those little thatched towns can get pretty crowded. But we’re heading off the beaten path to check out the sumptuous scenery and friendly people of southeastern Wales. Here there are fewer tourists and some wonderful, lesser-known sites.


The Royal Welsh Show top

England and Wales meet here in the beautiful Wye River Valley. The Welsh and English scuffled hard for control of this territory and the warfare left a rich and regal history.

We timed our visit to coincide with the Royal Welsh Show. This agricultural extravaganza takes place every July near the town of Builth Wells. It’s an unforgettable celebration of rural life in Wales. The show attracts spectators and competitors from far and wide. And contenders in every category vie for top prizes. In the sheep dog trials, highly trained dogs under the guidance of a single shepherd work to control their wooly charges. Here you can tap your toes to some of the best folk music in Britain. And even try your hand at farm life. (Soundbite: City boy milks wooden Welsh cow.) Some of the more adreneline-charged comptitions involve pole climbing, logging and wood-chopping. The Royal Welsh Show recently celebrated it’s 100th anniversery, and year after year visitors keep coming back to join in the fun.


Find out more about the Royal Welsh Show at www.rwas.co.uk. Interested in horses and artillery? Check out The King's Troop Royal Horse Artillery.


Crickhowell top

Our home base in Wales is a little hotel in the town of Crickhowell. From here we can explore the Wye River Valley’s best sites.


The Bear top

Wales is loaded with B&Bs and charming smaller hotels. The Bear, with its cobbled courtyard and lovely garden, is one of my favorites. The building itself dates all the back to 1432. Today it’s warm and full of character, and the restaurant and pub have gained recognition throughout Britain.


Hay-on-Wye: Town of Books top

Hay-on-Wye, a small town on the English/Welsh border, has a rich history dating back to pre-Roman times. But these days it’s famous for one thing: books. In fact, it’s known throughout Britain as the “town of books” and it boasts the biggest second-hand book trade in the world.

It seems that in 1977 a second-hand bookseller named Richard Booth pulled a publicity stunt. He declared Hay an "independent kingdom" with himself as its king and his horse prime minister. The king printed currency on rice paper (so that people could put their money where their mouths are) and issued Hay passports and car stickers.

Well, the bookseller’s stunt paid off. Since 1988 Hay has been the site of a literary festival that attracts names from all over the world. And the many hard-to-find books available here have drawn ever-increasing numbers of book dealers and collectors to the town.


Abergavenny & the Llanwenarth Restaurant top

The Abergavenny area is renowned for regional wine, fresh produce and especially lamb. At the Llanwenarth Restaurant, we went in search of a traditional Welsh meal.

Martin Orbach: This is local lamb.

Rudy: It should be a little bit milder, and a little bit more tender, and it should be very succulent, very sweet and succulent.


The Abergavenny Food Festival takes place in September. Find out more at www.abergavennyfoodfestival.com.


Sugar Loaf Vineyards top

Wine-making has recently seen an upsurge in this area and nearby Sugar Loaf Vineyards have discovered these south facing hills an ideal growing site. Welsh wines are quite under-appreciated and not many people are aware of the quality produced here, especially some excellent white wines.

Louise Ryan: We describe as a smooth blend, well rounded, with a hint of honey. And it seems to be very popular with the visitors.

Rudy: is there something that a consumer who wants real Welsh wine should look for?

Louise Ryan: I would say if you’re looking for regional wine instead than Welsh table wine it will say on the label Welsh regional wine.

Rudy: Which means all of the grapes are from Wales?

Louise Ryan: It means all of the grapes are from Wales and they’re quality assured as well.

Rudy: And at the Sugarloaf winery do we say cheers as well?

Louise Ryan: We say cheers.

Rudy: Cheers.

Louise Ryan: Cheers.


Merthyr Tydfil Steam Train top

A great way to take in Wales beautiful scenery is by steam train. Merthyr Tydfil is the oldest line in South Wales. The train takes us through Brecon Beacons, a national park that covers more than 500 spectacular miles. The Brecon Beacons is one of Britain’s most treasured parks and the locals guard its pristine beauty.

The park’s motto is: “kill nothing but time, take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but goodwill”.


Big Pit National Mining Museum top

At one time iron working dominated South Wales and the world's first steam-hauled train ran from here in 1804. But iron eventually took a backseat to coal as the quest for “black gold”gripped the country.

This area was once notorious for its coal-mining industry (maybe you remember the classic film, “How Green Was My Valley”?) Though commercial coal-mining has all but ended here, you can get a vivid reminder of that tough industry in the town of Blaenavon at the Big Pit National Mining Museum.

The miners spent long hours doing difficult, often backbreaking work in cramped spaces.

Soundbite: Men now are still suffering from breathing problems, you get white finger which is your fingers are damaged from vibrating tools, so you do pay in the long run with your health.

The wages were low and the conditions always dangerous.

Soundbite: Well you always had the danger of gases, you always had the danger, how can you put it, of inflood of water possibly. And obviously as you were mining the coal you were disturbing the roof, the strata, so that could cave in as well there was always a threat all the way through.

During your visit to Big Pit, ex-miners suit you up in helmets and safety lamps before lowering you 300 feet down a mineshaft for an underground tour.

Soundbite: First of all I’d like to welcome you all to Big Pit. It is a mining museum but it is still classed a working mine. So we’re not allowed now by law to take any contraband under ground.


No cameras or batteries are permitted on the underground tour. Find out more at www.wales-underground.org.uk.


Caerleon top

Like south England, Wales has some terrific ancient sites.

Caerleon means "camp of the legion", and fifty-five hundred men of the Roman Legion were once based here. The troops had been sent to Wales to crush the rebellious native tribes. The Romans founded a fortress here at Caerleon and they used it to guard over the region for more than 200 years. In the amphitheater, 6000 spectators could cheer on gladiator battles and other bloody sports.

Caerleon’s long and varied history has fostered many legends, and one of the most enduring is Camelot.


Camelot top

Camelot—the very name conjures visions chivalry and romance. Some people say that this is the site where the mighty King Arthur's palace stood. Of course, several other sites in Britain make the same claim. But it’s fun to imagine Arthur and his noble knights, seated at the Round Table, vowing to defend their kingdom.


Tintern Abbey top

In the steep wooded Wye Valley, the magnificent ruins of Tintern Abbey have enchanted visitors for centuries. The poet William Woordsworth wrote a sonnett called “Lines composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey”. He said that the site did “connect the landscape with the quiet of the sky.” The great Cistercian Abbey was founded in 1131 and became one of the richest and most important monastic houses in Wales. But when King Henry VIII broke with the church in the 16th century, Tintern Abbey and other monasteries in Britain were dissolved. All that remains is the graceful beauty of the abbey’s skeletal ruins.

The churches and coalmines of South Wales have forged a special kind of community spirit here, and helped foster one of this area’s most beloved traditions: the Welsh men’s choir. We’ve dropped in on a rehearsal of the Garndiffaith Gleeman choir in Pontypool. You’ll find choirs throughout Wales and many welcome visitors.

Soundbite: Well, the one cup there was given to us by the German choir from the neighborhood of Heidelberg that we do exchanges with. And they presented us with that cup the first time they came. And many of the older members of the choir were quite anti having a liaison with a German choir relatively soon after the war when a lot of them had lost family in the war. But we went ahead with it.. And inscribed on the cup is the phrase: Speak with me and I am your friend, sing with me and I am your brother. And we always thought that was a very good motto.


The Magic of England and Wales top

England and Wales…they work their magic on you. With enchanted castles...mystical abbeys...and romantic scenery...it won’t take some sleight of hand from Merlin to draw you in.

And if you’re looking for a little happily ever aftering, you might want give this place a try. I’m Rudy Maxa, thanks for joining me.


Interested in planning your vacation to Bath or Wales?
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Find out more about the Royal Welsh Show at www.rwas.co.uk. Interested in horses and artillery? Check out The King's Troop Royal Horse Artillery.

Find out more about the Royal Welsh Show at www.rwas.co.uk. Interested in horses and artillery? Check out The King's Troop Royal Horse Artillery.

No cameras or batteries are permitted on the underground tour. Find out more at www.wales-underground.org.uk.