Trip report: (hidden) gems of England

Old Aug 6th, 2008, 07:36 AM
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Trip report: (hidden) gems of England

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.

(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:

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.
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.” (

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.

“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.
traveller1959 is offline  
Old Aug 6th, 2008, 07:56 AM
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Excellent report; I love the way you write.

"Meeting a lorry on an incline was a special experience." This just cracked me up.

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Old Aug 6th, 2008, 08:00 AM
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Looking forward to the rest of your report, particularly because - as you note - there haven't been that many trip reports on the area.

I suspect that if you picked up food at a gas station in the U.S., you would find the same kind of sandwiches. I like Boddington's, maybe I've built up a tolerance over the 20 some years I've been travelling to England. It's not my favourite beer, but I'd pick it over a watery Bud. It's quite common to use beer to combat slugs, even in North America.

Too bad you had to miss Stourhead. I think you would have loved it and there is a great little inn there, called the Spread Eagle, where you can get great food. Personally, I don't think you missed too much bypassing Wilton House.

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Old Aug 6th, 2008, 08:07 AM
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traveller 1959 - are you by any chance related to Bill Bryson? Your humor reminds me of him, esp I am currently reading his book "Notes from a Small Island" and just done with the section of Stonehenge and Salisbury!

I have to respectfully disagree with rickmav regarding Wilton House. I visited it in May '08 and absolutely loved the place. So many treasures and lots of history too!

I haven't been to Stourhead, but I recently watched a show on it (National Trust Gardens). I don't think I'd enjoy it, considering it's a landscape garden rather than a formal garden (which I like, with lots of flowers etc).
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Old Aug 6th, 2008, 08:49 AM
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Well, we missed Stourhead because we had to reach our destination.

But later on our trip, we visited some equally fine English gardens. Be a little patient - now dinner waits for us, in a Japanese restaurant: sashimi will be appropriate at the end of a hot day.
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Old Aug 6th, 2008, 10:39 AM
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I also detect notes of Bill Bryson in your writing style, this is a good thing!
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Old Aug 6th, 2008, 12:41 PM
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Brilliant trip report, traveller1959!

Lee Ann
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Old Aug 6th, 2008, 12:50 PM
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In the style of Bill Bryson? Perhaps a little way to go.

If you expected anything beyond total crap from a service station, well, you've learnt a lesson. Real Cornish pasties are glorious beyond imagination but you need a native Cornish person to make them, they are not available commercially. And you also now know that Stonehenge is worth no more than a few minutes of your life. Please pass it on to your countryfolk who seem preoccupied with the place.

There's nothing wrong with Boddingtons, it's a pleasantly light lunchtime beer, wasted on slugs and snails.

Just one question - you did drink it chilled and in glasses didn't you? Otherwise anything might have happened. Canned Boddies is noteworthy for its "widget" which goes off when you open it and gives the beer texture. I almost said gives it a head but thought better of it.
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Old Aug 6th, 2008, 01:07 PM
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Wonderful start! What do you mean &quot;<i>Be a little patient - </i>&quot; We are waiting here

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Old Aug 10th, 2008, 01:48 AM
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Really enjoying reading about your trip, and glad I was able to help in some small way with your planning. More please!
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Old Aug 10th, 2008, 04:23 AM
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Day Two: Natural Beauties

We got up early in the morning and started with a swim. In the pool, we met an amicable English gentleman of about 90 years. I liked him immediately, because he was a good breaststroke swimmer and wore a European-style swimsuit (what the Americans call “speedo”). We chatted a bit about seawater temperature, how to keep a lawn clear of daisies and the similarities and differences of the concepts of civilian duty in the works of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Dante Alighieri.

Later, for breakfast, I had smoked haddock with a poached egg and some vegetables. Smoked haddock, which is cooked in milk, is delicious, just slightly salty and with a delicate smokey flavour. The portion was big enough to prevent half Rwanda from starving.

Since it was a beautiful, sunny day, we decided to leave the car in the car park and to explore the coast on foot. I have seen many coastlines in my life, but North Devon is one of the most beautiful ones. North Devon coast is very diverse, with a little bit of everything - wide sandy beaches, high dunes, steep cliffs, bizarre rocks. The enormous tidal range, amplified by the funnel effect of Bristol Channel, makes the coast appear totally different at different times of the day.

A well-maintained coast path leads along the coastline, and the most beautiful sections, e.g. at Morte Point, are National Trust wilderness areas, with an abundance of wildflowers and lots of leisurely grazing sheep.

The coast is excellent for swimming, surfing, all kinds of beach activities, hiking, leisurely strolling along the beach through shallow water, sea-canoeing, paragliding… whatever. Woolacombe is a tiny resort town, with a few shops, ice cream parlours, restaurants, hotels etc., but without any ugly high-rise building or concrete structure. The Watersmeet hotel is a 1 km pleasant walk away from the village, and the Esplanade is lined with Victorian doll’s houses, with a few modern buildings which, however, blend in harmoniously. Traffic is no nuisance, and the loudest sounds are the cries of the seagulls and the baaing of the sheep.

How did we find this piece of Garden Eden?

Believe it or not: with Google Earth. Originally, we wanted to see the Cotswolds. Being in the area, we wanted to include a visit to Bath. Being in Bath, we thought about spending a few days on the beach. Where is the nearest beach? I flew with Google Earth over the coast, starting in Bristol and proceeding in western direction. The first nice beach I saw was Weston-super-Mare (whose wooden pier burnt to the ground during our stay in England). I proceeded further westwards and found a spectacular cliff line. Right in the middle of the steep coast, there is a tiny harbour named Lynmouth. We considered staying there, but the beach there is rocky and not good for swimming. Proceeding further westwards, the cliffs began alternating with sandy beaches, and the most beautiful of those beaches is Woolacombe, and from the aerial view I saw a beautifully located hotel and this was the Watersmeet.

In the afternoon, while we enjoyed ourselves sitting on the balcony and sipping a bottle of sparkling wine, there was some noise and excitement on the beach below us. A hawk darted out of the sun and caught a seagull, screwing with his prey in his claws high up into the sky. Eventually he dropped the seagull in order to catch it again. Do hawks toy with their prey like cats?

Anyway, we immediately got hungry and considered having poultry for dinner. But instead, we decided to honour the unfortunate seagull by eating seafood. The scallops, served on fennel mousse, were excellent, and so was the monkfish, prepared Mediterranean style with chorizo, tomatoes and olive oil. For dessert, we ordered, guess what, pudding with clotted cream.

After dinner, I went out for a stroll together with my 18-year-old sons. Since it was weekend, there was a small party having a barbecue in one of the secluded bays on the beach. In another bay, a young man tried to impress his girlfriend by undressing and diving into the waves within seconds. On the coast path, we met a young couple, he was carrying a bottle of vodka, she a bottle of tequila. After sharing some gulps with us, they happily continued. On the way back, we passed one of those Victorian beachhouses. In the windowframe, a young beauty was sitting, hardly dressed, and invited us (or at least, my sons) to party with her. England is a beautiful country.

To be continued.
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Old Aug 10th, 2008, 04:42 AM
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I was in Woolacombe for a wedding four years ago - and, yes, you are right, it is a beautiful part of England. I am waiting to see if you went to Lynmouth or did any wandering through Dartmoor.

Meanwhile, you are making me laugh a lot. Thanks. Especially liked the comment about Magna Carta and written constiutions.
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Old Aug 10th, 2008, 04:58 AM
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Great fun, thanks for sharing your impressions. Immediately got hungry and considered poultry, love it.
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Old Aug 10th, 2008, 04:59 AM
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You English is excellent are you German or Danish?

Petrol station food is famously avoided. Beer in a can called draught is merely marketing for the &quot;Belgians are coming&quot;. Boddingtons with widget best avoided.

Keep going, by the way how did you find the fine weather for the rest of Britain it has rained since April
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Old Aug 10th, 2008, 05:24 AM
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Thank you all for your comments.


I am German.

At the coast, you have often better weather, especially during high tide. Indeed, during our first days, it was raining in the hinterland, while we had blue skies at the coast.

When we left the coast, we had blue skies all over England. When we returned home, it started to rain in England.
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Old Aug 10th, 2008, 06:54 AM
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traveller1959 - What a lovely read!
You are totally brilliant in the way in which you picked out your 'holiday spot'! Well done - I've got to give this a try.
I can see you are in the same frame of mind when it comes to clotted cream - I am busy writing my trip report and still to tell of our second delicious cream tea! Keep it comin......
Oh, about Cornish pasties: We went to Padstow one year and had the famous pasty - it was just awful, so you are not alone!
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Old Aug 10th, 2008, 07:23 AM
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traveller1959- I started reading because our family had done a similar trip about 7 years ago. But I must say I'm continuing (and anxiously waiting fo the rest) because of your writing style. I love your discussion with the man at the pool - Please continue!
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Old Aug 11th, 2008, 03:39 AM
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Day Three: England’s Most Beautiful Village Or: the Faustian Pact

English hotel breakfast is pretty much the same, wherever you stay. Usually, there is a buffet with croissants, Danish pastry, fruit, juices and cereals and a menu with cooked-to-order items like eggs, ham, sausage, black pudding, haddock, kippers, potatoes and vegetables. This morning, one of our sons took all his courage to take a special English item from the buffet which is called “Weetabix “. The wrapper looks pretty, but once you have unwrapped it, a thing appears which looks like dried sheep dung and which tastes like dried sheep dung. Well, we gave it to the birds, and I enjoyed my fried kippers.

This day, we visited Clovelly, a fishing village which could easily win every “England’s-Most-Beautiful-Village”-contest. The name “Clovelly” is celtic and developed from 'cloh' and 'Feli' (a personal name), meaning 'Feli's dyke’.

Clovelly is located within a narrow recess in the cliffs of North Devon Coast. It is a special place in many ways.

Firstly, it is completely free of traffic. The (almost) only access is an incredibly steep winding road of cobbled stones which can be managed only on foot, with donkeys or with sleds (to carry heavy good, e.g. the luggage of those tourists who choose to stay overnight in the village). Thank God, they offer a Landrover shuttle service over a back road for 2&pound; per person. Of course, you HAVE to walk one way in order to see the village. We chose to walk downhill and to take the shuttle service to bring us back uphill. Never invested 2&pound; so wisely.

Secondly, Clovelly is very picturesque, partly because it is nestled into the narrow canyon, partly because of the pretty cottages and the abundance of flowers in the gardens. The little harbour is the epitome of a romantic fishing port. You can visit a typical fisherman’s cottage (dating from 1930), a modest chapel, a small museum, devoted to a novelist who lived there, two pubs and several souvenir shops. The views of the coastline from the slope above the village as well as from the harbour are breathtaking. All in all, a very nice place to spend a lovely morning.

Thirdly, it is historic. I overheard an American lady who, full of awe and admiration, said to her travel companions, “This is medieval!” Actually, nothing is medieval in Clovelly. But the cottages are built in a traditional way and look indeed as if they were erected just shortly after the dawn of time.

Forthly, Clovelly is a slick business model. The whole village is privately owned by one family, the Hamlyns. This privatisation of a village was, however, not Margaret Thatcher’s achievement (as you would expect), but happened already in 1738. Amazing, that feudalism still exists in England. However, feudalism has been modernized. The Hamlyns opened their village to visitors, however charging an entrance fee of 5.50&pound; per adult and directing them through a highly commercialised visitor center including a giant gift shop. BBC writes: “It seems, however, that these villagers, or at least the owners, have made some sort of Faustian pact with the devil of tourism.” Well, we have seen worse pacts with the devil of tourism in the world and also during our trip through England. And certainly, the entrance fees help to conserve this gem.

The afternoon, we spent on the beach. Low tide revealed most bizarre, sharp-edged rock formations emerging from the sand. From a close angle, it looked like Mordor. My son even found Sauron’s whirlpool – a tidal pool in one of those rocks, filled with multicoloured algae.

At dinner, the hotel’s chef exceeded himself. The main course was fillet of Exmoor beef, prepared to our tastes (which is usually half alive), and garnished with onion marmalade and lukewarm foie gras on roasted blini.

Our after-dinner stroll led us in the other direction, towards Morte Point, where we wanted to watch the sunset. Right behind the hotel, we passed a gate and found ourselves, according to the restaurant’s dress code, with jacket, tie and leather soles, right in the middle of a herd of grazing sheep.

To be continued.
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Old Aug 11th, 2008, 03:53 AM
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I love the Weetabix story.
Weetabix is a breakfast cereal.
You pour milk over it and sugar if required.
As yours went to the birds, I assume that your poor son tried to eat it dry like a biscuit.

BTW, Cornish pasties can vary enormously. You are better getting one from a small local baker.
The best I hove had was in a pub on one of the Scilly islands.
The landlady baked them herself and they were enormous. We had to share one.
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Old Aug 11th, 2008, 04:19 AM
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I've had great Cornish Pasties. However, I've tried Weetabix even with the aforementioned milk and sugar - and it still tastes like sheep dung
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