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Trip Report Trip report: (hidden) gems of England

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This is a report about an exceptional trip to Southwest and Central England. It was exceptional because, within 10 days, we had not one drop on rain. It was exceptional because we had been able to consume some amazingly decent food – without eating something else but English fare. And it was exceptional because we discovered a landscape of inherent natural beauty which is hardly mentioned in many travelguides and also somewhat neglected here on fodors.

We travelled, as always, with our three-generation family of six, starting with our 18-year-old twin boys and ending with mother-in-law and father-in-law who is 82.

We had 10 days, from 19 to 28 July 2008, and decided to drive a loop, starting in Heathrow, then via Stonehenge and Salisbury to North Devon, spending there several days, then continuing via Wells to Bath, then further to the Cotswolds, with a side trip to Warwick and Stratford, and ending, after a visit to Blenheim Palace, in Oxford.
(We skipped London and Windsor because we had been there.)

We have a more relaxing travelling style and do not maximize the number of attractions per day. Instead, we like hiking and swimming, taking a nap in the afternoon – and good food and wine. However, we still visited three UNESCO World Heritage Sites, a castle, a palace, 6 cathedrals, 2 English gardens, 2 prehistoric suites, Roman ruins, and about three dozen medieval towns.

The trip was most rewarding and we would happily repeat this itinerary if we had to plan such a trip for a second time.

This forum had a great share of the success of this trip. We are especially thankful for hints and tips from (among others) janisj, texasbookworm, mermaid, irishface, alanRow, historytraveler, ElendilPickle, TuckH, Schuler, optimystic, julia_t and flanneruk who even answered my email and gave extremely helpful advice (strangely without the cynical comments which are usually his trademark).

Being a non-native speaker, I apologize for my pidgin English.

Day One: A Slow Start and a Helpful Neighbour

We flew into Heathrow with Lufthansa, supposed to land at 7:25. However, the plane was almost an hour late, due to a shortage of staff in Düsseldorf. The second delay occurred at the National car rental agency where we had our first experience with one of the great British virtues, waiting in queues. Although on a Saturday morning, it took more 90 minutes until we were able to enter our rental car. Fortunately, they gave us a 9-seater VW transporter because DW had insisted in dressing like an English lady each day and had taken an amount of luggage which was similar to that of Marlene Dietrich when she boarded the ocean-liner for her emigration to America.

Well, the understaffed car rental agency would cost us a visit to Stourhead which was planned for the afternoon. We could live with that.

Our first destination was Stonehenge and, vow, the most impressive Stonehenge experience is the almost aerial view when you come over the hill on A 303 and you see the stone circle for the first time.

Otherwise, Stonehenge is one of those wonders-of-the-word-places-to-see-before-you-die which are “done” (as the Americans use to say) within 3 seconds. You see it and that’s it. Well, we parked our car, looked at the unexcavated stone-age mounds in the landscape, walked over to the fence, strolled along the fence to see the stone circle from different angles (which actually didn’t change much) and congratulated ourselves that we saved the entrance fee of 39£ for six adults, because after paying the entrance fee, you are admitted to come 5 meters closer to the stones.

www.stonehenge.co.uk

(Early access and late access are a different story because this allows you to touch the stones – obviously a most rewarding experience – and to watch neo-paganists performing strange rites.) For early/late access:
www.english-heritage.org.uk/server/show/nav.878

However, we lost what we had saved when we went to the street-stand to buy three white, soft and completely taste-free sandwiches, two muffins and a tiny bottle of water for 25£.

We proceeded to Salisbury. Our navigation system led us through High Street, which must have been a picturesque medieval street in ancient times but is now ruined by souvenir shops and busloads of colourfully dressed tourists from all parts of the world.

However, once you have paid the entrance fee for the parking lot within Cathedral Close, you are in another world. Salisbury Cathedral is a fine gothic cathedral, equal to the best cathedrals on the continent. However, the typical English feature is that the tower is built right over the crossing.
www.salisburycathedral.org.uk
However, time hadn’t come yet for visiting the Cathedral. First, we had to deal with the helpful neighbour. We had paid a fee of 6£ for parking right within Cathedral Close. There are marked spaces on the pavement. When I pulled the car on one empty space, a man was showing up, explaining that he lived in one of the adjacent buildings and that the marked parking space was private.

I thanked him and pulled the car on another marked space for parking, carefully observing that there was no sign or other indication of parking prohibition. Again, the helpful neighbour approached us and explained, at length, that parking was forbidden there. When I answered that I could not detect any sign of parking prohibition he explained that exactly this space was prohibited because it was reserved for the car of the General of the British Army in case the French would attack Salisbury Cathedral and it had to be defended. I wanted everything but not to be responsible for the destruction of Salisbury Cathedral and started the engine to clear the place when the helpful neighbour showed up for the third time and apologized that he had mistaken our parking space for another one and that our space was unrestricted and available. Well, I thought, the helpful neighbours are all the same all over the world and you can feel like at home, even on the British Isles.

Finally, we were out of the car and inside Salisbury Cathedral (20.5£ donation for a family and two seniors) which is a fine example of an English gothic cathedral indeed. Most remarkable is the unity of style which comes from the fact that it took only 160 years to complete Salisbury Cathedral (completed in 1380). The chapter house displays a copy of the Magna Carta Libertatum, one of the oldest written constitutions granting civil rights (which is amazing, especially since some of the British Fodorites have developed an allergy to written constitutions).

When we left Salisbury, time had come for lunch. As ever, we intended to have a picnic. Surprisingly, no village could be too small for a pub, but we could not find any grocery store.

Finally, we ended up in a petrol station where we bought an undefinable substance whose label read “bread”, a brownish liquid in a yellow can whose label read “Draught Bitter” (which was, as we read in the fineprint, brewed by a Belgian company) and some meat-flavoured jello in baked cardboard whose label read “Cornish pasty”.

Since you shall go through hell in order to reach heaven, we had or worst culinary experiences right in the first half of or first day in England.

Obviously, we foreigners had made some mistakes: The first mistake was to buy in a filling station shop. The second mistake was to buy the wrong liquid. Later we learned that “Draught Bitter” is not intended for human consumption. In the internet, I found following description:

“Boddingtons Bitter. 3.8% alc. vol. This beer was used to fill our beer traps, which will ensnare the slugs and snails that are ravaging our garden. Beer traps are the most humane and environmentally-friendly method of controlling gastropods.” (http://www.flickr.com/photos/git/536163960/in/set-72157594528316751/)

I am not sure if it is exactly “human” to let slugs drink a liquid which is brewed as skilfully as the English national team plays football, but at least, it did not kill us. (Although we DID well a little bit like slugs after munching the baked cardboard, but probably our English friends will tell us that pasty is not intended for human consumption but for poisoning rats.)

Since we had spent so much time for thorough sightseeing of the National car rental agency, we skipped Wilton House and Stourhead and sped on those fabulous dual carriageways to North Devon. Did I praise the English roads? After Barnstaple, we found ourselves on hedged single-track roads which were so narrow that the hedges scraped our exterior mirrors on both sides. Meeting a lorry on an incline was a special experience. The estimated arrival time on our navigation system kept on proceeding with considerable speed.
Finally, we arrived at Woolacombe, the spot on North Devon coast that we had selected. More on this tomorrow.

So far, a few words about dinner. We chose to stay at Watersmeet Hotel, which is a nice, old-fashioned resort hotel directly on the coast. AA awarded Watersmeet Hotel three stars and a rosette for good food.

www.watersmeethotel.co.uk

“Good food” means, they have a dress code for dinner: Either jacket or tie, collared shirt, no jeans, no trainers. Sounds very British – and is certainly required when you see how British (and American) people dress when there is no dress code.

It was a pleasant surprise that the food was really good. Fillet of mullet on fennel as a starter, rack of Devon lamb as a main dish (from our table, we could see the Devon lambs grazing), and a rich chocolate dessert with clotted cream from Devon were more than a compensation for the filling station food we had for lunch.
Another surprise: They had quite a winelist with many decent wines for 15 to 20£ per bottle. Not bad.

Conclusion: English cuisine is like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. You can get really good fare, with excellent regional ingredients or some of the worst food which is available on the planet. For the rest of our trip, we had learned to find the better side of English cuisine.

To be continued.

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