We had an absolutely spectacular weekend weather-wise with the temperatures in the low 20’s both days. People were talking about summer having arrived at last. It seems that prior to our arrival, they have had one of the wettest & coolest summers on record. We have therefore been very fortunate since we have only experienced rain on one day, and we spent most of that on the train from Edinburgh to London.
Before we left home, our friend Janet Wendland (who proudly hails from Sheffield), was very interested to hear what our plans were for visiting England. When she heard the amount of time we had allocated to London, she gently made her case that there was far more to England than just London.
Well Janet, you were of course right, and after two days on the road this past weekend, I managed to expose Mary to other parts of England that brought back many fond memories of my teenage years visiting and staying with relatives throughout the country.
Mind you, in the scheme of things we didn’t venture any further than about 100 miles away, and primarily to the north and west of London, but even still, it was a dramatic and delightful change.
Before I tell you where we went, I should also tell you we traveled in two completely different manners – prepackaged and do-it-yourself, which has historically been our preference.
Saturday’s journey was to Stratford-on-Avon, and then on to Oxford, via the Cotswolds – and we booked a day trip with one of the largest tour operators in the U.K, and for now at least one that is still in business; Evans Evans Tours.
You know about the Zoom collapse, and since we have been in England, two large tour/charter companies have also declared bankruptcy. The latest “dent” in the traveler’s arsenal is that it now sounds like one of the world’s largest airlines, Alitalia, is on the verge of packing it in. So now you understand why I qualified my comment about Evans Evans. And yes it is a double name, and not me stuttering on the keyboards.
In any event, the trip price at £64 per person ($128) seemed quite reasonable, and we thought let’s see what these tours are like. I think our main reservation was, would we have enough time to see what we wanted to see, and would the presence of a (presumably) knowledgeable guide compensate for the loss of freedom.
Our day started out on the right note, when we awoke to the afore-mentioned blue sky, and we set out a good 1 1/2 hours before we actually needed to get to Victoria coach station in central London (it should have been no more than a 35-40 minute trip on the DLR and the tube, plus about a 5 minute walk so we were told).
Our first sign of trouble occurred when we arrived at the Bank underground station, which is where we changed from the DLR to the tube. There were announcements saying that due to “planned maintenance”, the Bakerloo, Victoria, Northern, Metropolitan, and District lines were all essentially out of service for the weekend. Planned maintenance according to two pissed-off Londoners who were standing beside at Bank is a veiled way of saying, we’re working like stink to upgrade the system in time for the 2012 summer Olympics. Sound familliar?
No worries though, we thought, with 12 different underground lines we were confident we could patch together a route to Victoria station. As an aside, if you have never been to London, the underground system is truly remarkable in it’s coverage of the city and suburbs in all directions, and perhaps the most amazing thing is that in some places, you have 5 different lines plus British Rail, all stacked on top of each other. Incredible!
In any event, we did manage to work out a route with 4 transfers, but we had now begun to cut into the “grace time” we had allowed ourselves. Once we finally made it to Victoria station, we still had to find the coach station and it was more than the 5 minute walk that had been advertised. Once there (at 8:40 for an 8:45 departure), I still had to find the Evans Evans counter to pick up the tickets we had pre-ordered. Mary took a place in the bus line while I took off to find the tickets, and I swear with 30 seconds to spare, I arrived back in the line-up and Mary and I boarded the bus.
I was totally wound up as the morning commute had been far more stressful than it should have been, and I think it took a good 20 minutes for my blood pressure to settle.
After that, the rest of the day unfolded quite nicely. The coach was only half full so the tour itself wasn’t overly crowded, and our guide was quite knowledgeable, and much to our amazement spoke very fluent Japanese. He had 6 female Japanese tourists sitting closest to him at the front of the bus, and he translated to them throughout the day. It was quite remarkable to hear the Japanese language flying out of the mouth of a very “white” Londener.
The bus wound it’s way westward out of London, past the newly refurbished Wembley, the Queen’s personal airport (I didn’t know she had one), then NW on one of motorways for about 90 minutes before reaching Stratford. Our first stop was Anne Hathaway’s Cottage
The fact that descendants of the Hathaway family (13 generations) lived in the house until the early 1900’s has helped preserve it in much of its original state, and there are still many original artifacts inside. The home itself has quite a significant thatched roof on it, that has just been completely replaced over the past two years to the tune of £80,000 pounds. More minutia for you – the roof consists of 20 tonnes of hay! The “cottage” lies on the edge of a 90 acre orchard that has been part of the family holdings going back to Anne Hathaway’s time in the mid-1500’s. Throughout the property you can find a little thatched hideaways where you can sip on a cider and listen to one of Shakespeare’s plays voiced by some of Britain’s most famous actors. A pretty cool start to the tour!.
Back on the bus and on to the town of Stratford-on-Avon, where we were set to visit possibly the most famous and most visited literary landmark in Britain – the house where it is thought that Shakespeare was born and spent his formative years. I had visited this home back in 1969 with my parents and My Auntie Doris (Gage), and while it was a tourist attraction at the time, it was nothing then compared to what it is now.
The house is now approached via a Visitor’s Centre which houses a comprehensive exhibition about Shakespeare’s life. The Birthplace is then reached via a charming and meticulously tended garden which back in the Bard’s day, was used by his father for curing leather as part of the family’s successful glove-making business.
Very little remains inside of what the house was like back in 1564 when Shakespeare was born, with the exception of the polished stone floor in the main family room. Everything else was a recreation.
I found Shakepeare’s birth-home to be an interesting stop but actually preferred Anne Hathaway’s cottage, since it was more authentic, and in many ways it remains as it was back in the 1500’s.
We had enough time to pick up toffees, turkish delights and marzipan (important souvenirs that will not make their way back to Canada I’m afraid) at a high street Sweet Shop before heading back to the bus.
The next part of the trip was a 90 minute meandering bus-ride through the Cotswolds, which is a particularly pretty part of England, and one that holds fond memories for me when I was a boy. The Cotswolds is a region to the North and West of London known for gentle rolling hills, and small towns and villages of a 1000 people or less. It was also known back in the 18th and 19th century as an area that produced some of the highest quality of wool in Europe, and the money that was generated from the sale of the fleece went toward the construction of countless wonderful churches, actually still referred to today as “wool churches”.
My paternal grandparents, Maurice and Kate (see below) moved to the small village of Stroud in the early 1960’s and I enjoyed a wonderful week with them in late May of 1968, when my parents were about to celebrate their silver anniversary and my grandparents were celebrating their golden.
The Stangers from Canada (all 3 of us), were joined by the Riches from Camberley, (my dad’s sister, brother-in-law, and their two sons), and alas, it is the only time we were ever together as a family. I have very, very fond memories of that week – playing soccer with my cousins, playing dominoes with my grandfather in the midst of a thick cloud of cigarette smoke as he chain-smoked one after another right down to his lip. I can actually still hear his cackle every time he played a double.
My absolute favorite memory of that entire week was sitting down in front of the TV with Grandpa Stanger and watching Bobby Charlton and Manchester United defeat Benfica of Portugal to become the first English team to ever win the European Cup.
Ironically, Sir Bobby Charlton has recently written his memoirs and I picked up a copy early on in this holiday and have been reading them during our various train-rides. I digress.
As the bus made its way through small villages with names like “Chipping Campden”, “Stow-on-the-Wold” and “Bourton-on-the-Water”, and in a few cases on roads that were really only wide enough for 1 1/2 vehicles at best, I think Mary finally saw the beauty of the English countryside that had first struck me some 40 years ago, and has remained with me ever since.
Hey and did you know that there isn’t an Oxford University per se? Oxford is the “management company” if you will, that oversees 38 independent colleges that make up the University.
You graduate with a degree from Oxford (as has Bill Clinton, Chelsea Clinton and Mick Jagger – surprised about that one? I was), but you actually attend one of the colleges within it. And apparently Cambridge is exactly the same.
Spectacular architecture is abundant throughout the city of Oxford and, in particular, within the University grounds themselves – like the Bodleian Library (pictured below). Mary and I would really like to have spent more time in Oxford, but by the time we had walked to Christchurch, had a quick peak at Hogwarts Dining Hall (its not really called that), and strolled past the library , we had 20 minutes to buy a couple of souvenirs and pick up a cup of tea, for the bus-ride back to London.
We saw enough of Oxford to make a mental note that we need to make a return trip in the future on our terms and our own time.
And we were off, back to London, where we essentially reversed our tracks past many of the same landmarks.
Perhaps you’ll remember my earlier blog about “was it worth the money”? Well in this case, it was. Pretty good value I’d say, considering it includes the guided commentary on the bus, and admission to 3 sites along the way.
Would we do it again? Probably not. We really prefer plotting our own journeys (we’ve gotten so darned good at it), and we like taking the time that we want, to explore, to wander, to poke around, and soak up the ambiance of wherever our travels take us. You can’t do that with a canned tour. That said, Evans Evans are awfully good at it, and if that is your personal cup of tea, I would highly recommend them.
That was Saturday, and when it came to Sunday, we still had the travel bug, but this time we wanted to set out on our own. We picked Salisbury and Stonehenge for our target, and while we had breakfast in our cozy apartment (we are so happy with this place and at least once every two days, one of says “boy we made a good decision to rent an apartment”), I went on-line to the British Rail site and worked out which train station we needed to head to and what time.
A SouthWest rail train from Waterloo station will take you right to Salisbury which is 9 miles from Stonehenge (£26 return per person). The Stonehenge web-site told me that upon arriving at Salisbury station we could catch a cab or a bus to the site. That was all we needed to know and we were off.
We targeted the 10:15 train (leaves every hour on the 15’s), and once again got skuppered (token talk like a pirate day reference here since we missed most of it on Friday) by planned closures on the underground. In the words of Maxwell Smart – “missed it by that much”. No matter, it meant we had an hour for a cup of Earl Grey and a scone, and we settled down to people-watch at one of London’s busiest train stations till they posted the platform number for the 11:15.
I was armed with two Sunday tabloids (nice page-three girls!) to catch up on Saturday’s football news (West Ham 3 Newcastle 1) and Mary was ready to tuck into Bill Bryson’s “Shakespeare” (could we have had two more extremes in reading materials?).
Just shy of 90 minutes later, we pulled into Salisbury and after making note of the return times to London, we ventured outside the train station.
Sure enough, sitting right there was a double-decker bus, nicely decaled with signage advertising “the Stonehenge Tour”, leaving every hour on the hour. We purchased a bus ticket which included fast-track entrance to Stonehenge, and as first ones on, we whipped upstairs and grabbed the front seat – big kids that we are!
As the bus pulled away, we were treated to a really well-done (pre-taped) commentary that pointed out buildings and sites of interest as we wound through the narrow streets of Salisbury and eventually out onto the highway (if you can call it that) leading to Stonehenge. It took about 25 minutes to get there, and as the bus crested one of the many rolling hills that lead us there, we had our first glimpse. My giggly companion piped up with, “oh I expected it to be a bit bigger dear”, and we both snorted at that comment.
In fact, one’s first reaction can’t help but be, “it’s not as big as I expected”, but I had been fore-warned by friends who had previously been here so I guess I wasn’t quite as surprised.
Nevertheless I was absolutely taken by this strange collection of stones, and could not wait for the bus to park, so we could get a close-up look at them.
As you probably know, Stonehenge is one of the most famous pre-historic sites in the world and with carbon-dating tests, archaelogists believe that the oldest stones date back to about 2200-2400 B.C. There continues to be much debate as to what the original purpose of the stones were. A burial ground? A temple? In fact, on tonight’s BBC news there was a report that based on some recent digging at the site, one group of archaelogists now believe that Stonehenge was a healing place.
The real awe in it is that these stones weigh anywhere from 4 to 50 tonnes, and if some of the smaller stones were brought to the area by water, (as is believed), they had to be moved 19 miles inland to their current site. The largest stones come from about 25 miles away, and modern calculations show that it would have taken 500 men using leather ropes to pull one stone, with an extra 100 men needed to lay the huge rollers in front of the sledge. Incredible.
Then there are the multiple theories as to how they were able to raise and elevate the stones so that they could be placed horizontally on top of other stones.
As Mary and I have begun to travel extensively in the past 9-10 years, I’m continually struck by man’s ingenuity, since most of the buildings, cathedrals, forts etc, that we have seen were built without the aid of any of today’s materials, tools, and equipment. I’m pretty sure that has something to do with why I am such a history junkie.
While there were crowds on the path at the beginning of the circular route around the stones, the further away you got from the starting point, the more you found yourself with lots of space around you to just stand and stare. I told you earlier that Greenwich had been on Mary’s must-see list. Well, Stonehenge had been at the top of mine, and I was not disappointed.
There is something special about the place that I’m finding difficult to pin down. Suffice to say it was pretty cool to be standing within a short field-goal of one of the world’s great heritage sites.
Reluctantly we moved away, and queued up for the next bus back into Salisbury. We got dropped off in the centre of the city as we wanted to visit the Salisbury Cathedral – which (another factoid coming at you), has the tallest spire of any church in England. And the spire is nearly 800 years old! How could they have built something so magnificent. And here’s another cool factor about visiting the cathedral. It houses one of only four remaining copies of the Magna Carta – which is essentially the British equivalent of the Declaration of Independence, only about 550 years older! In fact, there are significant blocks of text in the American Declaration of Independence that are almost word for word lifted from the Magna Carta.
We had seen Scotland’s constitution in Edinburgh 10 days earlier, and 5 years ago we were in Washington D.C. a week after they opened the National Archives and had just put the American Declaration of Independence on display. Now we have seen the Magna Carta.
We consider ourselves to be very lucky to have seen all that we have seen.
As I said earlier, Salisbury Cathedral was magnificent as you can see from the pictures, and equally wonderful was the Close, essentially all the green space around the Cathedral itself. It was clearly a place for friends to meet with friends, for young people to court (I’m being polite as there were a couple of couplings that needed to get a room), and for old marrieds like us to walk around hand in hand and just soak up the view.
We really liked Salisbury a lot, and we spent about 2 hours just criss-crossing the streets. Mary found a kitchenware store where she picked up a couple of new items for the Stanger abode back home, and we also dropped a few quid at the Waterstone’s book store, located on one of several pedestrian malls.
If I harbour romantic notions about living in England, they all relate to cities that look and feel like Salisbury.
With a check of the watch, and the realization that most of the shops were closing, we sauntered back to the train station and caught the 5:26 back to London.
We had a great weekend.
So yes Janet, there is a another England, one that has nothing to do with London, and it is one that I too am very fond of. Having just about completed our London list, and having been forced by the Chunnel fire to trade our Paris days for some extended time here, we are now putting together our destination list for the remainder of the week. We’re thinking perhaps Bath on Wednesday, Canterbury and Dover on Thursday, and Friday is still up for discussion.
I see by the lemon pie and the Twinings “lemon and ginger” that is time again for me to shut down the computer.
Oh but before I go, I can’t help but mention that we have faithfully kept track of the B.C. Lions (3 in a row and two against the Green Riders – sorry Thom and Lynn), the Blue Jays (there’s always next year), the Canucks (training camp is open and I have secured my Nucks-Leafs tickets), and the Federal Election (no comment), thanks to the Internet.
Kathryn, you were right when you wrote in the DSA website “I love new media, and I’m so lucky I get to play on the Internet everyday”. Thanks for continually opening my eyes to its possibilities, and for creating this opportunity for me stay in touch with everyone back home.