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Very belated Trip Report -- England, Scotland & France (Sept. 03)

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My apologies for the late posting. I've spent years lurking and months procrastinating in fear that I'll be bashed for either my spelling - which is abysmal, gramatical errors -which are inevitable, length - I'm sure you see my point already, or something else I'll probably get wrong. However, I have used this board extensively and can't, in all honesty, continue to gleam gems without giving a little too. After all, my greatest enjoyment is reading everyone's trip reports. Hopefully someone out there will enjoy ours.

Just so you know where we went and can bail if this doesn't interest you, here's the short version of our itinerary:

Arrive London
*Bath (3 nights Holly House B&B)
*Stow-on-Wold (2 nights South Farm B&B)
*York (3 nights Regency BW)
*Edinburgh (3 nights Turrett Guesthouse B&B)
*Paris (3 nights Hotel Muguet)
*Bourges - 1 night on way to Dordogne
*Beynac ( 4 nights Hotel Bonnet)
*London (4 nights Phoenix BW)
Fly Home

So, on to the lands we came to call the "Three C's" - Castles, Cathedrals & Cholesterol. Due to a medical emergency we were forced to abandon our earlier plans for a trip to Italy. Now, for only $1,000 more, we were able to salvage our airline tickets and ended up flying to London instead of Rome. As you can imagine this was a major change! While I was busy mourning the lost trip to Italy, my DH took over all the planning for the England and Scotland segments. I reluctantly agreed to be responsible for France, which is how I found myself flying to London with almost no idea of what I would be doing for the next two weeks until we went to Paris.

My first clue came the day before we left as we were packing. In went enough clothes for four weeks, out went all the clothes for three weeks. Didn't I remember we had a weight limit on Easyjet? Not. However, I felt decidedly superior while waiting for our rental car at Gatwick. A young couple came into the office heaving four large, and obviously heavy, suitcases. How long will you be here, I asked. One week was the answer, how about you? Four, I replied sitting near my one compact 22" bag. Oh, has your husband already packed the car? No, we travel light these days. Hmmmmm....didn't tell her that wasn't my idea the day before.

So, off we were from Gatwick in our cute little car with everything on the wrong side...including the shifter! My smug mood continued as I relished the thought that it was my poor DH who had to cope with driving on the left side. All I had to do was navigate and enjoy the scenery. Little did I realize then how nerve wracking it would be to not have my own set of brakes. Wow, those mirrors were close!

In a rash of planning, DH decided that a straight drive to Bath after our 14 hour flight would be too short. So, we found our way into Salisbury in order to see the tallest spire in all the land....or at least I think that's what it's known for. This is when we discovered that the Church of England expects visitors to make a donation - per person - each time they visit. It wasn't much, but boy, did it add up over the weeks! A decidedly unanticipated expense....

We were very impressed with the Cathedral and glad that we stopped by to look at every little nook and cranny. After much yawning while walking, we got back in the car in search of Stonehenge. A few stops later for directions, we ended up down a narrow little road with hordes of people staring through a chain link fence. When we discovered how much the tour cost, we joined the viewers at the fence. This is definitely a site that is much more magical in pictures than in real life. Perhaps if we'd seen on more than two hours of sleep, we might have felt differently. As it was, I thanked the heavens we didn't take a tour and weren't going to be stuck here for the obligatory two hours. A half hour was sufficient for our needs. Now, on to Bath.

Holly House B&B was beautiful. Just what we imagined, a perfect place to stay just outside the central part of the city. Our room was lovely, although on the top floor, and the location couldn't have been better. A short walk and we were in the center of the old city, which had all the magic that it seemed Stonehenge lacked. Perhaps it was the tea at Holly House that perked us up, but our first night in England was certainly one to remember. The beautiful gardens along the river, the old architecture and the lovely Cathedral were a joy to view. Our dinner at Sally Lunn's was memorable and we strolled home at 11:00 ready to turn in and rest up for an adventurous day to Wells & Glastonbury.

More to come....unless I'm forced to cease & desist by my fellow Fodorites.

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    Day 2 -- Little Lessons Learned.
    Our trip to Wells was uneventful and we found a car park right away. A quick jaunt down a few blocks and we found a delightful, if small, cathedral. There was an art show going on so we paid the additional "donation" and looked inside. When we left, we noticed that there was a major problem with traffic. Horns were blaring and cars were lined up for what seemed like blocks. All due to a large truck trying to get down a narrow lane where several cars were "carelessly" parked. (Their tires were not hugging the curb.) After much frustration, the driver gave up on trying to back out. He floored the engine and quickly plowed down the lane knocking off mirrors and scraping the bumpers of several cars. Our first lesson - don't park in a narrow lane.

    Then it was on to Glastonbury (sp?) to look at the famed Abbey, which was pretty much in ruins. This is a town with a definite "New Age" bent. We saw many people with orange or purple hair, tie-dye seemed to be the fashion statement, and if you were in the market for crystals, this would be the place to go. As it was, I was thrilled to see the burial place of King Arthur (Yes, THE King Arthur - little did I know at the time that he's buried all over England.) We subsequently saw his grave about as many times as we saw the Magna Carta on display.

    After a lovely walk around the ruins, we went to the gift shop and were amazed to see a picture of the Wells Cathedral. It looked nothing like the small building we visited earlier. Second lesson - get directions for everything. So back to Wells we went in search of a larger building.

    How could we have missed such a massive structure? It made Salisbury Cathedral seem small. The inside was beautiful with the scissor arches making it distinctive. So, after a long visit and a relaxing sprawl on the lawn, we went back to Bath for an enjoyable evening spent eating outside near the river.

    Day 2 -- Those Romans were busy!

    Today was the day for visiting the Roman Baths and touring the city itself. If you go, definitely get the audio tour. It was fantastic. At first we were somewhat skeptical, since we haven't been too impressed with many audio guides. However, this one changed our opinion. We spent almost 3 hours wandering around, which you certainly couldn't do as part a guided tour. Also, it gave us a very good feel for exactly how the Romans influenced Great Britain, which was helpful later on in our trip.

    Since the Cathedral is right next door, we went in there too, after paying the requested donation. Gee, this is getting old already on the 2nd day! My gosh what a busy place. If you like to read plaques to this person or that, here's the place to be. The walls were practically bursting with memorials that go back for centuries. A bit much, but interesting none the less.

    Since the day was absolutely beautiful, we decided to do the walking tour by ourselves so that we could go at our own pace. So, walk we did....for hours and hours...it seemed endless. However, it was very nice to get out of the center of town and see the communities and neighborhoods. We passed a man scrubbing his garage wall and asked him why some buildings were black and others were so white. Country bumpkins that we were, we didn't realize that it all came down to pride. The white buildings were washed of the exhaust that had collected on them and the black ones were the cummulative effect of years of diesel fuel spewing out of all those little cars. Watching him scrub away, I was happy we lived in the country and never had to worry about the effects of exhaust on our home. Can't remember where we ate, someplace not too memorable. After such a long day we were happy to go back to the B&B and plan our next day to the Cotswolds.

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    Day 4 - Why, oh why, can't I live in Wye?

    Today's the day we are finally going to the Cotswolds. This area was just about the only reason I agreed to go to England, instead of Italy, and I never even knew about the River Wye. Of course, my husband is never one to drive in a straight line if there is a longer way with many stops in between. Today I was happy for his wandering nature since I've found the place I want to live forever...or at least until the next beautiful place I see.

    We got up early and after the sticker shock of filling up the car, headed across the Svern (sp? again) Bridge and into Wales. Our first stop was Chepstow Castle along the tidal river. After driving on even narrower roads and trying to get to the castle through a busy town, we were relieved to see the parking area. Hordes of students were posing in front of the castle for a group picture. Thankfully that was on their way out and we had the castle pretty much to ourselves. It didn't seem like there were any guides, or an audio tour, but then there isn't much of the castle left. Perhaps it was our mood, but this castle certainly seemed to have a strange aura of desolation...even though it was sitting next to a bustling town. Reading the memorial dedicated to to a heir that died defending the castle from Cromwell's armies was sobering and made us realize how much history these Welsh lived with every day. Back at home, in a state that's not even 200 years old, we are amazed to find so much as an arrowhead much less a plaque that was erected centuries before.

    This stamp of history was even stronger as we journeyed through the beautiful Wye Valley to Tintern Abbey. Now, I've never really liked Henry the VIII, for obvious feminist reasons, so after seeing the ruins of this beatuful abbey I'm pretty sure that he didn't do this area any favors. The location is magical, the abbey is haunting and halfway through our day I was wishing we could stay in this valley for longer than a few hours. The drive was beautiful, first winding around near the valley floor, then high up on the ridge where you could see the river far below. I was almost sad when we left the valley and arrived in Hereford.

    However, the Mappa Mundi was high on our list of things we wanted to see and the Chained Library couldn't be missed. I remember studying the Mappa Mundi somewhere in school and hearing about the Chained Library. The map, made around 1300, shows the world as it was thought to exist...remember they thought it was flat then...and it was very interesting to study. The library shows how far we have come from a society in which only a few were allowed access to books which, because of their value, were literally chained to the desks. There were two guides who were very willing to talk about the library and life throughout the ages in Hereford -- and they didn't even charge a fee. Of course we had to pay our obligatory "donation" and tour Hereford Cathedral. I'm beginning to wonder if there are any churches we have missed along the way. Little did I know then....

    Now the day was getting long, and we needed to get to Stow-on-the-Wold before it was dark. DH was getting weary from such a long day of driving, so we decided to make haste and forgo stopping to eat in favor of getting to our B&B. We arrived after 6:00, which was fine with the owners, and we quickly rushed out for the short walk to town. Found the recommended pub and learned that you place orders at the bar instead of waiting forever at your table. Oh, the things we read and forget when it comes time to put them into practice. First time for the proverbial fish and chips, which were wonderful. Strolled around town and then back to South Farm, where we had a large room facing the courtyard.

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    Sounds like a good trip; you covered a lot of ground. When you go back, visit Stonehenge at night--preferably in midsummer, when it's light until nearly midnight: very different.

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    Day 6-8 - Maybe I want to live in the Cotwolds instead.

    Well, I've just realized that this is beginning to be like a book. I'm reminded of endless hours watching someone else's family movies and fearful that I'm guilty of the same thing, only with words. Will shorten up from here on in.

    Anyways, our impressions of the Cotswolds were: wow, are the houses small, aren't the towns beautiful, and how in the world can anyone afford to live here? That came after looking at several real estate listings posted on the windows in several towns. I think this is an area that everyone visiting England should visit since it is so very "english" or at least what we view as "english". Rolling hills, narrow roads boardered by endless brambles, and vistas that no matter where you click look like postcards. Two days here was definitely not enough. Our favorite towns were Upper and Lower Slaughter and Burton-on-the-Water. Don't know why, they were just the ones out of many that we talked about the most.

    Perhaps we liked this area most because we didn't visit any churches, hence no donations. However, our wallet was soon to get another dose of sticker shock when we visited Warwick Castle & Blenheim, Churchill's birthplace. Two sites definitely not to be missed but definitely not light on the pocketbook. Maybe we should have bought that British Heritage Pass...

    York -- How long is this wall, anyways?

    After a quick trip up the middle of the country and over to York, we spend the evening walking the walls around the center of York. Big mistake, or big opportunity, depends on how you look at it. We'll never forget what seemed like an endless walk, since once we started, we wanted to finish. If you go to York, the Minster is a must, but forget Jorvik...it's a bust....felt like we were at a poor imitation of Disney. The York museum was very interesting as was an evening walking tour that included all the gory and strange happenings through the ages. A few days here and it was off to Scotland, via Durham (another Cathedral) and Hadrian's Wall.

    Hadrian's Wall -- Oh, this is why we know about the Romans.

    Yes, all those earlier lessons everywhere we went, including York, helped us understand exactly what was going on when we reached Hadrian's Wall. While the road following the wall across the country certainly doesn't follow every inch, it gives a good feel of how big a project this was. (It also makes me want to visit China) The tours of a few of the forts were very interesting, although I can see why it is suggested that you have a car to tour the area. The area was definitely less inhabited and it became more so the farther north we went. We arrived in Edinburgh in the late afternoon and checked in at the Turrett Guesthouse (sp-not sure if two t's) where we had another lovely, and top floor, room. By this time DH was definitely not driving another kilometer so we took the bus into the city center. A long walk up and down Princes street, the bus back home and then back to bed to rest up for another long day of castle visiting.

    Edinburgh -- Can I take this guide home?

    Yes, I fell for the men in kilts gig. They are just sooo cute....doesn't even matter how old or what they look like, the kilts are cute. If you go, take the tour, it was absolutely the best tour we had on our whole trip. The guide had a flair for those little exagerations that make you laugh and I loved his sense of pride as a Scot. (I think he could have wrote that book about the Scots inventing everything in the world.) Finished off the day at Holyrood Palace (sp. again) and then ate at the End of the World. Have you noticed how few restaurants I mention? We don't travel for the food, obviously, and I don't keep notes on what we ate when, but if we have a fun experience, then it goes in the old memory. The best thing about this place was the atmosphere since Scotland was playing Italy in soccer. The whole place, kitchen help included, was watching the telly and either cheering or booing. To say that service was slow would be an understatement, but the experience of watching everything in the place stop for soccer was well worth the wait.

    Lower Highlands -- Is every building a castle?

    This was a three-castle day. First Stirling, which was gorgeous and well worth every dime -- definitely not a ruin either. Then Castle Campbell, which was another ruin and then zipping across the lake in the mist to Loch Leven Castle. We will never forget the trek up to Castle Campbell through the mist. We walked around the corner and the towers of the castle rose up above the trees with the mist of the valley around it. Just like a postcard! Then over to see where Mary, Queen of Scots was banned for several years on an island in Loch Leven. All in all, a day that made us put Scotland on our short list of places to which we will hopefully return.

    Paris -- Now I have to do some work.

    A quick jaunt on Ryanair to Paris for a small price and we were in France. Now it was my turn to get to work. I couldn't just ride along anymore, I was the planner. But where were my maps? Back at home in the closet. All my notes, all my maps, everything was accidently put back in the discard pile when we unpacked my "packed" suitcase. All I had was a vague idea of where our hotel was, and of course, the address. Luckily that was enough, but not having my marked-up map, or my notes, was a definite problem. I'd have to make do from memory, which is shaky at best --ie notice my spelling.

    We spent a lovely weekend in Paris visiting our favorite places, Eiffel, Louvre, Notre Dame, etc. and adding in the Rodin Museum as well as a concert in Sainte Chappelle. We left Mon. morning on the TGV for what we thought was Melun to pick up our rental car so that we could visit Vaux Le Vicomte and Fountainbleau (Are you laughing yet at my spelling?).

    Unfortunately, I "misremembered" and we got on the wrong train. As we are speeding west instead of southeast, I frantically tried to figure out where we were going. We finally stopped practically jumped off the train. No one spoke english, we don't speak french, we still didn't have a map, AND the rental company was closing in an two hours for lunch. A frantic call to the rental company who told us where we were and how to get to Melun and then a long wait for the train. They promised to wait for us, but with just 20 minutes to spare we finally got on the right train. Ran from the station, hailed down a taxi, roared to the rental company just as they were locking the door. They let us in, rented the car, sold us a map, and we re-evaluated. No time for Vaux le Vicomte, go straight to Fountainbleau, which was huge. Although by this time we were a little tired of visiting huge places where no one lived, we enjoyed the gardens and spent a relaxing hour just resting from the whirlwind of a morning.

    Then it was on to Bourges where we spent the night (I forget the name of the hotel) and toured yet another cathedral -- no "donations" in France, although since we were already in practice we decided not to break the run. A perfect evening eating outside, my favorite thing to do in France, and then a slow saunter around the lovely town.

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    Thank you, Underhill for the advice, we'll probably go back and I never thought about the difference at night. I'm sure it's just like many other places, Mont St. Michel, Venice, etc. that are better in the dark...

    Now that I'm sure I've bored some to tears, I'll continue. I'm determined to pay my dues for all the good advice I've used without handing anything back.

    The road to the Dordogne Valley -- Or I'm amazed I'm not divorced!

    After a good rest, we started the next day with much less fanfare...until we got to Tulle. For some reason I forgot how to read a map. After the third trip through the same wrong route, we finally found a TI and asked for help. They gave us a beautiful large map of the city showing how the river ran through it, since it was the bridges which were causing us problems. Now we were cooking. No troubles here, it was even marked up in green by the nice attendent. Unfortunately, I still didn't have my map reading skills back. After the fourth time across the same bridge - an old guy on a bench even waved to us! - my DH stopped the car, grabbed the map and got out, leaving me stranded in the middle of traffic while he went to ask for help. Much hand waving, a few honking horns and he got back in, said not a word, and then buzzed out of town like he'd lived there forever. Since it took us over an hour to get through a fairly small town, I stayed quiet and pondered the state of my marriage. All was rectified when I located the directional sign to Gouffre de Padirac and we made our way there without another error.

    I wasn't sure about visiting here since there were two very distinct thoughts about it on this board. First, some said it was too touristy...it was. And then, others said it was very beautiful...it was. We absolutely love caves and at first I was disappointed to be just going down endless steps to a hole in the ground. Then we hit the elevator and the mood lifted. When we saw the boats, we were loving it....until we saw how closely we were packed in those boats. Sardines have more room than I did between two very large frenchwomen. But, the short ride was fun, even if the guide did not speak english, and the caves were beautiful. Our only complaint was not being able to take our own pictures. It was well worth the time to find, as well as the entrance fee.

    Now, on to the Dordogne and Hotel Bonnet in Beynac. What a beautiful river, and a lovely setting for a hotel. We arrived late, dropped our bags in our room, which overlooked the river, and rushed down to the outdoor dining area to eat. The food was perfect, the night was gorgeous and we were finally in the Dordogne Valley for three days. Just where I've been wanting to visit for years!

    Overall, it is a wonderful place to be. We spent the next days visiting all the major villages and castles (of course). If you go, don't miss Domme, certainly don't pass by Castlenaud for the military information, and take time to just wander and get the feel of the valley. We spent a lot of time deciding where to stay and when we saw Sarlat le Canada, we were glad that we had decided to stay along the river instead of closer to Sarlat. The town was more commercialized than we had imagined...although we knew it was a market town...and while the old city was wonderful, the atmosphere of the river was a better fit for our preferences.

    If you are reading this, St. Cirq, thank you so much for your wonderful advice. Even though I left it at home, after reading it so many times and looking at the map, I could remember your cirle tour through the Lot Valley to St. Cirque Lapopie, the Grotte du Pech Merle and back through Rocamadour. That was an amazing day that made us realize why we love visiting France.

    Clermont Ferrand -- Or why did we decide to leave from here?

    Perhaps it is old age that makes you less willing to miss a flight or perhaps it was our two major mistakes with the train and the map, or perhaps it was that we were both sad to be leaving France. In any case, we were leaving for London from Clermont Ferrand and let me tell you, other than the big black cathedral, there's not much else to see in that blasted valley. It was hot, it was boring, and we were at the airport 5 hours early. I couldn't remember the distance correctly and we raced through the park with the volcanoes just to have the opportunity to sit around an unairconditioned airport. I really am amazed that I'm still not divorced! Our trip to London was quick, and cheap, although, as warned we paid steeply for the train from Luton. Finally my job was done and I wasn't responsible for the plan anymore. (I'm sure DH breathed a great sigh of relief.)

    London -- It feels like we've been here before.

    Has anyone else visited London for the first time and felt like they've seen it already? Not that it was bad, just that around every corner was another thing I'd seen before. How many times have you seen the House of Parliament on the Nightly News? Or the London Bridge, Nelson's monument and so on. Our stay at the BW Phoenix was kind of blah, it was a fine place, the breakfast was good, but the air wasn't on and it was hard sleeping with such hot weather. Twice we saw people racing down the middle of the street with a suitcase over their head. That made me hang on to mine with a vengence! We saw all the sights and especially loved the exhibit at the British Library about the Lindesfarne gospels.

    I had been reading Longitude by Dana Sobel on the flight over and had a burning desire to see Greenwich. My only complaint is that two efforts later I still haven't straddled the Prime Meridian. We didn't know the hours it was open the first time and the second time we got on the wrong subway and arrived five minutes late. A picture of the clock through the gate is all I have, which makes a good excuse for us to have to schedule another trip to London. Like Paris, London seems to be a place that is always bustling making each visit seems like the first one.

    So, it was with sadness that we boarded the plane after 5 days in London, however, we were happy to be heading home. I still keep thoughts of Italy in my heart, but after visiting Scotland, I'm not sure where we will travel next. An Ireland/Scotland trip sounds like heaven...but then there's always France too. It's a quandry I'm glad to be able to ponder and I thank everyone who has lasted through all my meanderings about Great Britain and France. I would be happy to answer any questions from anyone who's made it this far in this "tome".
    Thanks,
    Annie

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    Thanks Annie for the wonderful trip report . . . you have a very entertaining writing style . . . I'm sorry your trip is over, I was enjoying it immensely.

    Thanks for the great read,
    Sandy (in Denton)

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    Annie:

    You seem to have got rather worried over this business of entrance to Anglican churches. In so doing, you've missed one of the great joys of the the English countryside.

    It's true that the major Anglican cathedrals, and one or two of their major other churches, actually exact an admission charge from non-worshippers.

    The 8,000, mostly rural, medieval Anglican parish churches often have a sign up requesting donations. This really is at your own discretion. The churches do have a real financial problem (few Brits go to church, most of them go to Catholic churches or mosques, and 800-year old churches need a lot of repair and maintenance), but you really are under no pressure to pay.

    Most of us would much rather you visited and didn't pay than that you didn't visit them at all. And ultimately, it's up to the people of Britain, and not our tourists and not not just our dwindling band of Anglican churchgoers, to find a way of keeping this wonderful heritage in decent nick.

    If you ever visit Hererford again, you really must visit the parish church at Kilpeck. Warwick parish church makes its Castle look like the tourist rip-off it is. Touring the Cotswolds loses half its point (IMHO) if you don't go inside churches like Chipping Campden or Burford. And there's infinitely more to be learned about England from Bladon and Coombe parish churches than from John Churchill's neighbouring, bombastic, theme park at Blenheim.

    These, often spectacular, churches have been the repository of ordinary people's piety, and successful people's benevolence, for close on a thousand years. They demonstrate the continuity of our history - the stuff real people actually do, and not just the ostentation of monarchs - in a way that's almost unique to England (even Scotland, Wales and Ireland have very little to compare for age, continuity and the exuberance of their artefacts).

    Don't keep away from the parish churches for financial reasons. If you feel a cheapskate by not donating (and you absolutely shouldn't), find some other way of economising. Avoid Blenheim or Warwick Castle. Don't go round Oxbridge colleges (they've just about the world's richest alumnus base to tap, and they're utterly incompetent at it). Don't make the mistake many visitors do, and feel you're under an obligation to donate to our free-entry museums (you're not. We've taken the political decision to make them free, and it's our problem, not yours, if that leads to their being under-funded).

    However you do it, do visit those churches next time. And don't believe everything you read in estate agents' windows. The area is surprisingly affordable.

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    Sandy B - Thanks...say is that Denton, TX? We are going there in August, of course when its the hottest.

    Flanneruk: Good points regarding visiting the lesser known churches and donations. I'd like to say that if we could get in, we visited just about every church possible, I just didn't mention them all. It seems like we have pictures of what looks like avery Nave in England and watching the architectural styles change as we moved north was very interesting.

    However, it was heartbreaking to see the condition of some of the churches, which is why we continued our donations even while in France. These buildings have a value that reaches far beyond the community and after learning that many local parishes are responsible for the upkeep, we were only too happy to donate. I hope I didn't sound too negative about the cost, it was just something that we hadn't budgeted for and was surprised to see.

    ALso, we were glad to hear that things are more affordable than they looked in the real estate office window. We couldn't believe that some of those small (but cute) places were near a half million dollars and were wondering where do all the people who work in service industries live. One of the residents we met mentioned that a high proportion of the population rent property their entire lives because homes were so expensive, which is why we stopped to look in the window. It is true that far fewer people own than rent? Just wondering since it's not something that you run across in the tourist brochures. Thanks again.

    Thanks again.

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    AnnieMake, to answer your question, most people buy rather than rent in the UK. We just have very large mortgages :) I'm not sure I entirely agree with Flanner's comments about things being cheaper than they appear in the windows. You've got to remember that (a) we live in smaller houses than the US because of cost and space (less space on a crowded small island drives up prices) and (b) the Cotswolds are a particularly expensive part of the country, because property there is so desirable (let's face it, we'd all love that country idyll).

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