A Taste of England
Day 1 Friday, 26 July 2013
…or should I say a Taste for England? This long-awaited trip is my first outside of London. Yet, this is a country that I am very familiar with. Schooled in India, I have struggled over its history, pored over its literature and fiction, quoted its poets, admired its artists – why, its language has even become the language of my thoughts! It is with a great deal of anticipation that I have planned this trip.
The 750 kms drive to Calais seems interminable. This is our first experience of the Euro Tunnel and we are very impressed with the efficiency with which hundreds of travellers are briskly taken across the channel.
On the other side, my husband keeps muttering ‘Drive on the left’ to himself and I feel a sense of panic sitting on what should have been the driver’s side. The roads are busy and I am glad when we reach the little village of Bletchingley where we are to stay tonight. I had chosen it purely because of its proximity to the motorway. We check in to the pub where we shall be staying and enjoy a nice walk beside the fields before dinner.
For iphone users, I have a recommendation : City Maps 2Go is an excellent ap which you can buy at a small price. Maps are free. It works offline and therefore doesn’t cost you an arm and leg in roaming costs. I pinned all the hotels, tourist offices, parking spots and places of interest before we left. It is extremely useful and accurate even in the footpaths by the fields in the middle of nowhere. Great when you arrive at a new town and do not have your bearing. And no, I am not in their pay!
I am surprised by the variety and quality of the food at the pub. In fact, I am to find a variety of vegetarian choices in the menu almost everywhere we go, from the smallest of country pubs to the more expensive places. In the 27 or so countries I have visited, next to India, this has been my best experience as a vegetarian. Our room is just about adequate but it is quite noisy till late in the night. But I am dead to the world.
Day 2 Saturday, 27 July 2013
We leave early to drive to the station where we are to meet our son who will train it from London. In his last year of undergraduate studies in Medicine in Australia, he is doing a 6-week project at King’s College. I haven’t seen him for nearly 6 months so I am delighted to see him again. We head out to Salisbury which we reach by noon.
We grab a quick meal at the Cathedral Hotel (mediocre meal) and walk to the Cathedral. I am bursting with suppressed excitement! A long time back I had read a book called Sarum by Edward Rutherford. Amongst other things, it describes the building of this Cathedral. Since then, it has been an ambition to see it for myself. What a stunning achievement by those long-gone builders and masons! I am spellbound!
I wander inside in a state of wonder. There is lot more light inside that I had imagined. I feel such a strong pull of the stones, such a reluctance to leave. Ah, a wonderful place!
Stonehenge is not far. The traffic however is terrible and it takes ages to reach. The first glimpse from the car is eerily impressive. Just as we park, the skies open up and despite our umbrellas, we are drenched to our skins. However, we doggedly continue, listening to the audio tour and doing a leisurely circuit of the site. I am interested to hear about its orientation with the sun. Were they worshippers of the Sun God, I wonder, thinking of Surya, the Hindu God. I am very annoyed at not being able to take photos to my satisfaction, I had been so looking forward to this!
Sogging wet, we reluctantly abandon our intended visit to Avebury. Instead, we drive straight to Bath and find our B&B without difficulty. Our rooms are lovely and our host very hospitable. Highly recommended. After drying and refreshing ourselves, we set off to the city. My husband enjoys Jamie Oliver’s cookery show on TV so I surprise him by leading the way to Jamie’s restaurant. We enjoy a wonderful evening together over a delicious dinner.
Day 3 Sunday, 28 July 2013
After breakfast, we stroll down to the Abbey Yard to join the walking tour at 10:30am. A free tour offered by the Mayor of Bath’s Corps of Honorary Guides, it is an excellent introduction to the city. Highly recommended.
The site of the Abbey has a long history. The Anglo-Saxons built a church here in 757 AD. This was pulled down by the Normans who built a Cathedral at the same site 1090. This fell to ruins by the 15th century when the current Abbey Church was built. The guide points out the ladder of Angels in the facade with an interesting story of a Bishop and his dream. We hear all about the history of Bath from Roman times to the story of how Richard Beau Nash developed it as a resort town.
The guide points out historical places and architectural details in his tour. We pass by Abbey Green, a pretty square with a historical pub called the Crystal Palace (extreme right above). In this beautiful and shady square, there is no hint of the executions which took place in the past but the tree is still called the Hanging Tree.
The Royal Crescent built by John Wood the Younger between 1767 and 1775 is a spectacular sight, There are 30 residences, one of which is a museum. I think about visiting it later but it doesn’t come about.
The Circus is another architectural marvel! It was designed by John Wood the Elder and built by his son of the same name between 1754 and 1768. We are interested to learn about the celebrities who have lived here.
The tour finishes in front of the Assembly rooms. We stop in its cafe for tea and scones of very disappointing quality. Don’t eat here! I think about visiting inside but my dear man is not interested. My son suggests the Jane Austen museum we passed by before. I have my doubts and they are proven right – this is a Tourist Trap with a capital T. For £8 a person, we get to see a house which is ‘like’ the house Jane Austen lived in and display boards about her books. Not recommended.
We then go back to the Abbey to listen to the Evensong. The music is lovely. Unfortunately photography is not permitted during the service so I cannot show you how beautiful the Abbey Church is inside. The music is interspersed with lessons and I am very uncomfortable when they go on about idolatry. As a Hindu, I think very fondly of my idols! I remember all the idols I have seen in hundreds of churches I have visited and am puzzled by this..for the first time, I feel out of place and rather disrespected in this alien world I am visiting.
Finally we head to our last destination of the day, the Roman Baths. The site is very well organised for visits and the audio tour is informative. I have been fascinated by the Romans, more so after I read Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series some 15 years back. My mind is full of times I have never witnessed, of the Romans and also of the Regency period from other books I have read. A lovely site! It takes us about 1.5 hrs for the visit.
We walk our boy to the station. I am saddened by our goodbyes even though I shall see him again next weekend. My life seems to be so full of goodbyes from those I love the most..
I have looked up a well-rated vegetarian restaurant called Demuths and my dear man kindly agrees to eat dinner there. The food is mediocre but the prices are not. When the young girl who serves us stops to chat for barely a minute, the manager comes to hurry her on to someone else, without so much as an apologetic look at us. Are we invisible? Or not worth being polite to? Not recommended.
Day 4 Monday, 28 July 2013
It is another rainy day to which we wake. Tired from the long day yesterday, we have a leisurely start to the day. As we drive to Glastonbury, I am surprised at how flat the landscape is. I had imagined a more hilly country.
Glastonbury is quite busy this morning. We park at St.John’s square and check to see if the Tourist office provides any guided tours. The times don’t suit so we set off to see the ruined remains of the Abbey. The £6 admission includes a guided visit but the young guide is more concerned about getting wet than about showing us the site. The exhibition inside is far more informative and interesting. The ruins themselves are very atmospheric and I enjoy the visit very much. In 1191, based on hints in some books and rumours, the monks dug out a coffin with two bodies, supposedly that of the legendary king Arthur and Guinevere. I am sceptical but interested. The visit takes more than an hour. An interesting site.
We look in some of the shop windows. Many of them are related to the occult, given the connection of Glastonbury with Avalon and King Arthur. I find such shops exploitative, selling charms and spells to people who may genuinely believe in them. I myself believe in parapsychology and the mystical and have some skills as a palmist. My two bits: Be suspicious of anybody who charges you for these things. Those who have the gift will know that it is a blessing and think it a privilege to help those they can. So I ignore the shops and decide to go on to Wells.
We park at the Waitrose mall, grab a quick meal there before walking 10 minutes to the Cathedral. Even the facade takes my breath away. How beautiful it is! So many carvings! It is hard to take it all in.
I am even more awed by the interior! I am sorry but I have to gush, this is a truly gushworthy site! The elegance of the fan vaulting, the proportions of its columns, the light which fills it – simply glorious! Luckily, we are just in time for the last guided tour of the day at 3 pm. Our guide is excellent. Her knowledge is astounding and her passion infectious.
Just as we finish, the choir start practising. Their voices soar up effortlessly and my heart soars even higher. This is a place of beauty. It will remain with me for a long time.
I had intended to visit the Bishop’s palace and its gardens. But my dear man complains of a stinging pain in his foot. My heart drops; a few years back I had suffered terribly from Plantar Fasciitis and his symptoms ring a bell. Poor man! We walk back slowly to the car and return to our B&B in Bath. A local newspaper in our room has an article on a successful Indian restaurant which we had seen on the way to the city. My husband is keen so we eat dinner there. It turns out to be reasonably good.
Day 5 Tuesday, 29 July 2013
We enjoy a bit of a lie-in and a leisurely morning as our bodies seem to need a recovery time. After breakfast, we check-out and say goodbye to our host. It has been a comfortable stay here. Our plan is to weave our way through villages to our destination for the night in the Cotswolds.
Our first stop is Lacock, not far from Bath. It is another rainy day and the streets are deserted. BBC’s Pride and Prejudice used this village as one of its locations but I cannot quite spot where or when. It is quite a charming village but the rains have dampened my spirit. There is an Abbey open for visits but we skip this.
Castle Combe is our next stop. It is delightfully quaint. The 14th century market cross above was built when the village was granted the privilege of holding a weekly market. I understand that this village has won the title of the prettiest village in England a few times. I am not surprised.
The street above is very charming and the Manor House Golf Hotel at the end of it is so pretty that my dear man thinks about returning for a stay here one day. The rain is sporadic and I am happy to be able to click some pictures.
We drive on to Tetbury, recommended in the Lonely Planet guide. We pass a posh girls school on the way and an arboretum which is said to be interesting. We were told that we would be passing Prince Charles’ home but do not spot it.
Tetbury is a busy town and has a number of antique shops. After Castle Combe, this town does not appeal to me at all. We have a very nice lunch at the Snooty Fox pub. Then we head to Painswick, also recommended by the Lonely Planet. This is a small village but again, I cannot see it as charming. In spite of not having done much, we both are quite tired so we abandon the pursuit of more pretty villages and head to our hotel in Broadway.
The Lygon Arms is a traditional inn referred to in a parish register as early as 1532. Oliver Cromwell stayed here in the 17th century. The public areas are charming and old-worldly with rafters and beams and old-fashioned fire places. Check-in is a slow process and I stand in line for a long time. Glad when it is finally over, I look forward to relaxing in our room. My heart plummets when we are shown in (room 90). There is no other word for it, the room is just shabby. We soon find out that the TV doesn’t work and the wifi doesn’t reach our room. We are both very unhappy as we unpack reluctantly. I go back to the reception and demand another room before we go out for a walk and dinner.
We dine at the Swan, a pub nearby. The table is dirty and nobody bothers to clean up, even after we have sat a while. My husband says that his burger is too dry but my dish is ok. I am depressed, thanks to our room. We have paid decently well for it, surely we can expect better? When we return,we are told that we will be moved to room 70. This is much better, evidently refurbished recently. But I still feel resentful for having had to go through the stress.
Day 6 Wednesday, 30 July
We have slept reasonably well. I peep out of the window to look at the sky and make a moue of disappointment to see that it is another rainy day. I want a couple of sunny days for some photography..sigh!
After breakfast we wait for our daughter to be free to facetime from Australia. She is travelling interstate for her examination in Paediatrics. The six cases that she will present tomorrow will determine whether she can call herself a Paediatrician at the end of next year. I am anxious that it all goes well. The wifi still doesn’t work in our room so we wait in the lobby for her call. At last the call comes, we wish her well and then set off for the day.
It is almost noon when we reach Moreton-in-Marsh. It looks to me much like Broadway; a big market town with a broad street and many nice limestone buildings. But I do not find these as attractive as the smaller villages with cottages and lovely little gardens, I tell myself.
I am proven wrong in our very next stop, Stow-on-the-Wold, I think it very charming indeed! There are some interesting shops, many nice eateries and quite a few galleries. My dear man, a cricket fan, spots the Cotswold Cricket Museum. For £3.50, you can see memorabilia of cricketing greats such as W.G.Grace. He enjoys his visit while I wait outside clicking pictures. We then take a pleasant stroll through the town. I spot the Cotswold Galleries which has a lovely collection of old fashioned paintings. I have a happy browse and a delightful chat with the friendly proprietors.
We head next to the kind of village I like – Lower Slaughter. It is a quiet and very charming with a real rural feel to it.
We stroll past the mill and have afternoon tea in a little terrace next to the river. It is beautiful and peaceful.
The walk to Upper Slaughter would have been just a short one. But it has been raining on and off all day so we just drive. This is even smaller than Lower Slaughter. There are a few tourists like us but it is mostly very quiet. It has a stillness about it which appeals very much.
My theory about my tastes for small villages is again tested at Bourton-on-the-Water. This is an unashamedly touristic destination; based on the little canal above they call themselves the Venice of the Cotswolds!!!! But I still find it very charming. There are some nice shops to browse and benches to rest by the water and watch the children play in the shallow waters. We do a little shopping and then find a Chinese restaurant which has enough vegetarian choices to tempt me. The food is inexpensive and tasty, I am happy to recommend the China Town Restaurant.
Day 7 Thursday 31 July 2013
At last we are to have a rain free day! Pleased with the weather report, we set off enthusiastically towards Stratford-upon-Avon. We are well in time for the 11 am walking tour which starts at the swan fountain above, close to the Royal Shakespeare Company (in the background above).
Our guide David is very good and takes us for an interesting two hour stroll around town. Almost everything we visit is Shakespeare related; as the guide says, the town ‘milks Shakespeare for all he’s worth!’. We see sites related to him, his wife, his granddaughter and even his grand son-in-law.
I confess that I am not much taken with this town though the tour is very nice. My favourite part of the town is the river above.
My husband is keen to see a play. I had checked their schedules earlier and not been attracted by the plays on offer. But we still buy tickets for the 7 pm show of All’s Well That Ends Well (£35 each for upper circle). Not being a die-hard Shakespeare fan, nor wanting to spend such a sunny day indoors, I tell my husband that I would rather skip the visits to the museums. He agrees happily.
We drive out first to Chipping Campden. It has a nice Market Cross but otherwise I admit I do not find it interesting.
I then demand to be driven to see the Lavender fields near Snowshill, close to Broadway. I am just looking for photo opportunities on this warm and sunny day. That I get in plenty. I am very happy!
Next we drive past a little village called Stanton, not yet in the tourist train I think. It is entirely charming. We are surprised to see that it has such a large cricket ground! We drive past an even smaller village called Stanway before returning to the Lygon Arms for a rest. Changing into our travel best, we head back to Stratford upon Avon and have a meal at the Pen and Parchment, a pub close to our parking. We have left it a bit late but the folks here are very good and hurry with our order. The food is reasonable.
I am worried about our seats in the upper circle. Will we see well from up above? It turns out to be fine though the stalls would have been better of course. The play is not bad; some of the actors are very good indeed. It finishes after 10:30 pm and it is almost midnight before we get to sleep. It has been a long day.
For those considering a shorter stay in this region, I recommend visiting Castle Combe, Lower & Upper Slaughter, Bourton-on-the-water and Stow-on-Wold. This is achievable in a day. Include Stratford-upon-Avon if you are a Shakespeare fan, in which case you need an extra day.
Day 8 Friday 1 August, 2013
This is the eighth day of travel and our energies are flagging. We are lethargic this morning and take our time in departing for Oxford, our next destination. The landscape is lovely and we enjoy our drive. At the hotel, our room is not yet ready. We leave the car and head out to the city. It is a 17 minute walk which we enjoy.
My plan is to spend the afternoon in the Ashmolean Museum. We take audio guides (£3 each) but we hardly use them. The descriptions on the exhibits are good enough and we spend a happy afternoon examining objects from many cultures and times.
We then stroll around town, more or less aimlessly. I enjoy its youthful atmosphere and grand buildings. Satiated for the day, we walk back to our hotel. On tired feet it takes 30 mins instead of 17. Both of us are limping a bit with our respective feet problems. Tourism is hard on one’s feet! Flopping in bed, I am reluctant to get up and go out again. But we have promised to have dinner at our young friends’ home. We stir ourselves to finally drive out and have a very enjoyable evening.
Day 9 Saturday, 2 Aug 2013
I wake up cheerful, our son is coming to meet us again today! We get ready and are at the tourist office by 10:15 am. Our son joins us soon after. I have pre-booked a tour from the tourist office at 11 am. We have some free time so we pop into the History of Science museum. I am delighted to see Einstein’s black board from a lecture in 1931 and Marconi’s first tuned transmitter! ‘Yes!’, I proclaim to my family, ‘the geek in me is alive and well!’. There are a number of treasures here for the scientifically minded but the display is rather dry; it would have been nice to have a guided tour.
The guide is informative but not entertaining, there is no passion here. We first visit Exeter college. The guide tells us about the college system and talks about famous students from various colleges. Our son is pleased to know that Tolkien studied right here!
We then walk to Radcliffe Square, past the Bodleian Library, under the Bridge of Sighs, past the Turf Tavern and back to tourist office. The tour takes about 2 hours though we do not cover much distance.
Our son is keen to eat lunch at Jamie’s, to repeat our Bath experience. We enjoy the meal and a nice catch-up with him. I want to see at least one more college. I drag my family to Lincoln, which is closed. We try New College, Trinity and Christ Church only to meet more failure. It seems to be a ceremonial day with many young ones in their graduation robes. Perhaps that is why everything is closed. My husband and son are now displaying signs of rebellion so I finally give up.
We walk to the Folly Bridge where the first Ox crossed the Ford to come to Oxford – or so I tell myself! We enjoy a short rest by the river and then walk back along the Christ Church Meadows, finally to trudge back slowly to our hotel. This is the end of our trip. We say goodbye again to our son and drop him at the station to head back to London. As for us, it is a drive of 200 kms to get to our night stay in a small pub just 7 kms from the Euro Tunnel. It is adequate for our needs but is too noisy to recommend.
Day 10 3 August, 2013
Our holiday is over. We get to the Tunnel in time, cross the channel and then drive 750 kms back home in about 7 hrs. All that is left is the pleasure of sorting through 800 or so photos and ruminating over the holiday as I write my blog….