After two-and-a-half weeks, we’re back from England. Our trip was amazing. My head is still filled with thoughts of England, and we took almost 5,000 photos, so you’ll be hearing from me about England for a good while to come. Here’s a quick review of the places we visited and the things we did each day, along with some tips for a better experience if you are visiting.
- Bath Abbey: An impressive church in the heart of the city. If you are in Bath, it’s definitely worth going in and having a look, especially since it’s free. Be sure to take a close look at the beautiful stained-glass windows.
- Walking around in Bath: The city is very walkable and has a plethora of interesting, historic buildings. The giant lawn in front of the Royal Crescent is great for picnics, rest, people watching, and, for at least one couple while we were there, making out. The shopping is all down by Stall Street and the train and coach stations, and that area tends to get very crowded on the weekends with tourists and day-trippers all converging on it, but walk a few blocks away and you get into some much more peaceful residential neighborhoods that still boast interesting features. Don’t try driving into the city. Parking is a pain.
- Tintern Abbey: One of the most underrated attractions in Britain, perhaps because it’s a little bit out of the way of the typical tourist route that revolves around London. As you approach it by car, you turn around a sharp bend and there it is, seemingly popping out of the ground. When you step on the grounds, there’s an eerie silence except for the wind caroming through this skeletal remain of a once-glorious church and the occasional sound of pigeons and doves flapping their wings. It all combines to make the place hauntingly beautiful. It’s not hard to see why this place moved Wordsworth to verse.
- Cardiff: The capital of Wales has some urban sprawl, but it’s still a neat town. Cardiff Castle sits right in the middle of town, and next to it, the Central Market and the surrounding shops and arcades are worth checking out. Also, the whole city seems crazed about its rugby team.
- Jane Austen Festival: This annual September event is a must-do for all Austen fans who are visiting Bath. And if you’re not an Austen fan, it’s fun to just show up for the Grand Promenade (always on the first Saturday of the week-long festival) that marks the beginning of the festival to snap pictures and gawk at hundreds of nerds dressed in Regency attire. The promenade starts in front of Bath Abbey and ends at Queen’s Place Square.
- Fashion Museum: This was mildly interesting and probably would be more so if you were interested in fashion. Otherwise, it’s an easy attraction to skip.
- Jane Austen Center: The center’s exhibits have received mediocre reviews on TripAdvisor.com, but even the critics on there agree: The tea room on the third floor of the center serves great afternoon tea. What’s more, you get to sip that tea under the genteel gaze of a big painting of Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy. That face, by the way, is plastered everywhere in the center, from the welcome sign at the entrance to the cans of shortbread in the gift shop.
- Stonehenge: A definite must-do for any visitor to England. However, instead of just looking at the stones from behind the ropes from a few hundred feet away, shell out a bit more cash and get the Stone Circle Access, which lets you actually walk between the rocks (though you’re not allowed to touch them). They offer this special access at certain times of the year and for one to two one-hour sessions each day either before or after regular visiting hours. Suck it up and go for the 6:45 a.m. session. Once you watch the sun rise over Stonehenge from amidst the stones, you’ll never see them quite the same way again.
- Avebury Stone Circle: If ancient stone monuments are your thing, then this is worth a look since you are actually allowed to touch the stones. In fact, they are just strewn across a giant tract of pasture land in the middle of the nowhere. There are chalk walking trails (the area used to be an ancient seabed) going right to and past the stones, as well as flocks of sheep that graze in their shadows. It’s about a 45-minute drive from Stonehenge and the route is very scenic, though a bit narrow at times. We also got a surprise view of the white horse hillside carving along the way. The village of Avebury, which sits right next to the stone circle, is pretty cute and worth a quick walkthrough, though the gift shop and the National Trust facilities in the village are a bit touristy.
- Lacock: An extremely adorable village that has served as a filming location for numerous movies and TV shows set in adorable British villages. It’s also very touristy as every other shop sells photos of movie stars on location. The Red Lion serves some pretty good food. On the drive to Lacock, keep an eye out for scenic views of the valleys and hills.
- Lacock Abbey: Another old abbey that has also appeared in movies. The bottom floors are more interesting as they consist of construction from various older periods of the abbey’s 800-year history. The upper floors, which were renovated in the 1800s and which now serve as the Fox Talbot Museum, are a bit more a jumble of styles and artifacts.
- Glastonbury Tor: It was a hectic drive to get there, but the payoff was well worth it as this was one of the surprise hits on our itinerary. Once you get up there, you realize that the remnants of the 15th-century St. Michael’s Church at the top of the tor are just decoration, as the best view is down, not up. The view from 557 feet is spectacular, and we were told that on a clear day you can see to the other side of the English Channel on one side and to Wales on another. You can either walk all the way up to the top of the tor, which could take about an hour or so, or take a bus from the Glastonbury Abbey courtyard that will drop you off at a spot about a 15-minute hike from the top. Just to add to your England experience, we recommend taking the bus and then watching the driver negotiate the one-car-wide but two-way road up and down the tor. Watch out for sheep poo on the hike up the tor.
- Roman Baths: This was a good exhibit that strikes a nice balance between being interesting and educational. There are a lot of models and exhibits explaining the history of the baths in the museum portion, and the bathing pool in the center is a good photo spot, especially from the upper railings, where you can get a nice view of Bath Abbey in the background. The free audio tour is excellent, even the kids’ tour. Your ticket to the baths also entitles you to one glass of the hot spring water that has drawn people to Bath for centuries. The water tastes warm and mineraly, which we didn’t mind too much as we finished our glasses. However, if this was in China, you might very well be calling it contaminated and undrinkable. In Bath, though, it’s a tourist attraction. The whole place takes about two hours to see thoroughly, especially if you listen to most of the audio tour.
This stretch of English countryside is indescribably beautiful. Don’t worry so much about getting to your final destination. Just drive, look out for scenic spots, stop, and explore on foot. If you plan on driving, get the excellent directions for the Romantic Road, a particularly scenic route through the area (PDF). Among the places we stopped at:
- Winchcombe Pottery: Blink and you’ll miss their sign on the side of the road. Two potters share this space and they make some very nice pieces.
- Broadway: This is one of the most well-known Cotswolds towns. The town center is pretty and has a number of shops and restaurants. The pay-and-display parking lot at the edge of the town also boasts of a public restroom that apparently is the Cotswolds Loo of the Year.
- Willsersey: The small farming village where we stayed in the Cotswolds. Try The Bell Inn for an excellent dinner, and check out the church and community bulletins in the pub while you wait for your food. The items on there give a glimpse into life in these small villages and towns.
- Biking around Cotswolds: Definitely one of the highlights of our trip and highly recommended if you are at all physically up to it. There are a number of places around the Cotswolds where you can rent bikes, and we got ours from Cycle Cotswolds in Chipping Campden. Just pick an easy route and enjoy the scenery. The roads are pretty safe with little traffic, and drivers here do a pretty good job of respecting cyclists. There are some steep hills, but you can just push your bike up those. We did a 15-mile loop that was called “undulating”, which featured two or three of these steeps hills and took us about four hours to complete, with a lot of stopping and photographing thrown in. The trail took us through Ebrington, Paxford, Aston Magna, Draycott, and Broaden Campden, all with its own unique charms.
- Chipping Campden: A large market town with a happening High Street (the town center in many of these small English towns). The town has several churches, the biggest and most interesting of which is St. Jame’s, which also has an interesting cemetery around it with some very old tombstones.
- Shakespeare’s birthplace, Nash’s House, Hall’s Croft: All three of these houses are way too touristy and it often feels like they are trying to draw some strained connection to Shakespeare in order to turn them into tourist attractions. The building at Nash’s House, for instance, isn’t even the original house that actually had some remote ties to Shakespeare, but rather was just the building that happens to be on the site of the original structure. You can see the building in which Shakespeare was born from the touristy pedestrian-only Henley Street that runs directly behind the building, so you can just pose there for a picture and save yourself money and time by skipping the cheesy, conjecture-filled exhibition inside. Actually, all of the Shakespeare houses are easily skippable without great loss if you are pressed for time.
- Punting on the River Avon: There are several boating places in Bath. Punting really requires good balance, and it takes awhile to pick it up. If you are just looking for a nice, relaxing float down the river, rent a row boat instead.
- Chatsworth House: This movie stand-in for Pemberley from Pride and Prejudice is a jewel of a mansion set amid a wealth of natural beauty. The interior of the mansion looks awesome, but the grounds really steal the show, whether it’s the rock garden or the maze or the dahlia garden in full bloom or just the rolling hills that surround the place.
- Anne Hathaway’s Cottage: This was the most interesting of the Shakespeare houses as it had a cute garden and more character than the others. One of the guides gave a very nice talk about the kitchen area, pointing out different pieces of equipment and explaining how they gave rise to certain phrases that we commonly use today. It also feels less touristy than the other houses.
- Warwick Castle: “Britain’s Ultimate Castle”, as the attraction bills itself, is torn between making itself a fun place or an educational place, and it does neither well. The castle itself is pretty nice to walk around in, but the exhibitions, such as a wax-mannequin exhibit about the sex scandal the former Lady of Warwick was involved in, and entertainment are too cheesy but not all that “fun”. I would say it’s not worth the price and can be skipped. If you want to see old castles, England has plenty that are less cheesy.
- Food festival: Who knew you could get pulled pork on the streets of Stratford-upon-Avon? And game-meat pie, too! Too bad it’s only once a year.
- Walking around Stratford: The area around the River Avon is very touristy and crowded, but follow the river for a few minutes and you start getting into nice and quiet neighborhoods along the banks of the river. Watch barges sail up and down the river through a series of locks. On Saturdays, the square where the statues of Shakespeare and characters from his plays stand has a number of interesting street stalls selling antiques and miscellaneous knickknacks.
- Changing of the guards: In all honesty, the actual ceremony is not all that interesting, but I guess this is one of those do-it-so-you-can-say-you-did-it things when visiting London. If you are not right up front against the fence, you’re not going to get a great view, and if you are anywhere behind the first couple rows of spectators, you can pretty much forget about seeing anything unless you are 7 feet tall. So get there at least an hour early if you want to be in the front (we got there 30 minutes early and already the first row was filled up). Another option is to position yourself along the road leading to the gates so you can see the guards enter and leave the palace grounds.
- National Gallery: It’s big and it’s a must-see for art lovers. Photography is not allowed anywhere in the building. Don’t eat in the cafe, which serves very mediocre food.
- Trafalgar Square: This looks like a nice space, but it’s also very crowded. In addition, when we went, there was a concert being held at the square, and the stage blocked a good chunk of the space, so we really couldn’t see the square without obstructions.
- Piccadilly Circus: I was underwhelmed by this spot, which is just a big, busy intersection. The island in the middle of the intersection is filled with people taking pictures, but really, this attraction is rather shrug-inducing.
- Regent Street area: I guess this is a fine area if you are into shopping at generic department stores while traveling abroad. And a lot of people must like to do that, since this area is very crowded. However, any foreign destination with five Starbucks locations in a 2-mile radius holds little charm for me. Just imagine your upscale local mall with more people. In fact, skip this area and just hit up your local mall.
- Chinatown: It’s pretty much like the Chinatowns I’ve been to in the United States, except a bit cleaner and neater. Just about every restaurant has a window displaying their roast ducks. It borders the theater district, so this could be a decent place for a pre-show meal if you’re going to watch one of the numerous musicals on stage in London at any one given time.
- Box Hill: The hill is somewhat steep but definitely walkable, and the climb is worth it as the top offers a great view. If you are going by train, get off at the Box Hill and Westhumble station and it’s just a 15-minute walk from there to the foot of the hill.
- Dorking: This was an unexpectedly charming little town with a nice High Street that has some unique shops as well as chain fronts. One of the side streets is filled with antique shops, though most of them are rather high-end. The Surrey Yeoman pub on High Street serves good meals.
- Tower of London: One of the more interesting attractions in London, and it’s presented pretty tastefully, unlike other grand structures such as Warwick Castle. This place is big, so plan on spending more than half a day here if you want to see everything. The Beefeaters tour, which is included in the price of admission and is given every half hour, is a must-do. While walking on the tower walls, be sure to look out and see where the yeoman warders (the guys giving the Beefeaters tour) live — inside the tower grounds.
- London Eye: It’s expensive and touristy, but it does give a good aerial view of London as you would expect from a giant ferris wheel. Book in advance online and avoid the ticket line. You might want to bring some binoculars. The pier area around the London Eye is lined with other tourist traps and restaurants.
- Parliament and Big Ben: Two obvious must-sees that are overrun with tourists. They are just across the bridge from the London Eye, so you can take care of all three in one stop.
- 10 Downing Street: Do you enjoy straining your neck to see a modest two-story building standing a good distance behind a metal gate patrolled by security guards? If so, then the prime minister’s residence is for you. Otherwise, it’s not worth a special trip just to see it. If you happen to be in the neighborhood, just stop by for a minute. It’s really as dull as it sounds.
- Play at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre: You can either go see the Globe Theatre when it’s not in use, or you can see it the way it’s meant to be seen — with British actors on stage performing Shakespeare. Tough call, right? Seriously, this was a terrific experience, especially since we had good weather. You can either reserve a seat or pay just a few pounds to stand in the yard area in front of the stage. Standing in the yard has its charms, especially since the stage is set up to allow the audience down there to get very close to the actors. But consider whether you are willing or able to stand for three hours like at a rock concert. Also, the yard is uncovered, so you might get rained on. As for seating, there really didn’t seem to be many bad seats in the house, as the place is pretty small so even the upper levels get a good view. The seats are backless wooden benches, and you may want to spring a couple extra pounds to get a cushion since you will be sitting for a while. No photography is allowed during the performance, but it’s fine before or after the play and during intermission. As for dress codes, there were certainly some people who were dressed up, but the atmosphere is pretty informal with a lot of informally dressed tourists, so casual clothes would fit right in.
- British Museum: You can’t miss this stop. It was probably the most interesting attraction we visited in London. Plan on spending most of a day here if you want to see everything. The ancient Egyptian and Greek rooms are the best, and the Assyrian reliefs are impressive in their fine details. And it’s all FREE!
- Portobello Road Market: A lame, uninspiring street of antique and touristy shops. Don’t go if you are not into antiquing, and even then, the stores aren’t all that interesting. The antique stalls only come out on Saturdays. The other shops on the street are just a waste of space as they seem to sell mostly touristy knickknacks.
- Hyde Park: It’s a nice big green space, but a giant park is still just a park. Go on a nice day if you want to people-watch. The streets around the park are a zoo.
- Service at Westminster Abbey: Unless you are violently anti-religion, you should definitely try to attend a service, or at least evensong, at Westminster Abbey as a cultural experience if nothing else. The boys’ choir is excellent, and the interior architecture is impressive.
- Touring Westminster Abbey: It’s very neat to walk around and see the final resting places for famous people. It also made me think about the Egyptian mummies at the British Museum: If you’re relatively famous and accomplished in your time and you’ve been dead for a few hundred years, you are honored with elaborate tombs that are paid homage by millions each year. If you are extremely famous and accomplished in your time (say, being a Pharaoh) and you’ve been dead for a couple thousand years, your tomb gets hacked open and your body yanked out of its coffin and put in a glass case for all to see. Will people be digging up Queen Elizabeth’s tomb in a couple thousand years and putting her remains on display in a museum?
- Tate Britain: This is a nice, manageable gallery that can be done in 1-2 hours.
- River taxi from Tate Britain to Tate Modern: This is neat to try and a quick way to get from one side of the river to another. It’s a cheap substitute for a full-on Thames cruise, though the Thames’ banks are not all that scenic anyway. The route does take you past the London Eye, Parliament, and Big Ben.
- Tours at the Globe: Be aware that only the morning tours let you into the theatre itself. The afternoon tour, which we did, is a walk along Bankside with a knowledgeable guide who tells you a bit about the history of the area. The tour includes a stop at the Rose Theatre, a predecessor to the original Globe Theatre where Shakespeare acted and had his plays performed and an eventual victim to the Globe’s success after it lured the Bard away from the Rose. What remains of the Rose Theatre is just a small portion of the foundation, and that’s all kept submerged for preservation purposes, so you can’t really see much. The tour also takes you to the spot where the original Globe Theatre stood, now the site of a plain-looking but apparently historically significant building — one of the earliest examples of concrete being used in a building. The tour takes about one hour and is kind of interesting for history buffs, though you can see the original site yourself since it’s just on the side of the street and there’s a plaque in front of it.