(This column was published in the Rapid City Journal on June 13, 2010. Some of the photos have changed.)
We were just off the transatlantic flight, feeling tired, disheveled and not a little grumpy. All we wanted to do was collect our rental car and drive to our cottage for a shower and a little nap. Without killing each other. Our mood miraculously transformed the second we tuned into BBC Radio and heard tomorrow’s weather forecast: “sunny, bright and warm with periods of rain, clouds and cold”. Where else but England??
We’ve returned to one of our very favorite travel destinations, this time with the goal of exploring counties and shires that we hadn’t done justice to in the past.
Our first week would be spent in Somerset, in western England; a hilly and charming area known for it’s remarkable archaeology. It’s here that you’ll find the ancient stone circle of Stonehenge and England’s first spa – the bubbling pools of water transformed by the Romans into elegant baths, now to be found in the city of Bath. Cheddar cheese also hails from this area; the skeleton of a 9,000-year-old man (likely felled by high cholesterol) can be found in the Cheddar Gorge caves.
We’re staying in a historic cottage* once owned by Oxford University in the medieval hamlet of Hinton St. George – a one-street village dominated by a pub and a mom and pop grocery with the charming moniker of “Personal Services Store”. Beyond the national newspapers, free-range eggs and homemade marmalade, it was hard to discern exactly what personal services they were in the business of providing. We were hoping they’d offer to drive us around for a day, or pick up the dry cleaning, take out the trash, but, alas, no.
We made a beeline for Salisbury, home to one of England’s grander cathedrals. We are drawn back to this city time and again for two reasons: the ancient cathedral and Shah Jihan, one of the best Indian restaurants in the UK. The cathedral, which was begun in 1200 and built in 38 years, has been undergoing refurbishment for the past 35 years. This is the first time we’d seen it without a shroud of scaffolding and it does look brand, spanking new. As only something that’s nearly 800 years old can.
Inside the cathedral is an original of the Magna Carta along with the oldest working clock in Europe (dating from 1386) and a dollhouse sized model of the cathedral under construction. If you’ve ever wondered how these feats of architecture were achieved when the only forms of power were muscle, wind and water, read Ken Follett’s book “The Pillars of the Earth” and then come to Salisbury. Even armed with information, you will be awed.
On another one of the sunny, warm, cold, rainy days, we strolled the “Coast Walk”, a path that literally runs along the southwestern coast of England. On one side of you: England, green and lush. On the other: the English Channel, blue and vast. Look straight south and you’ll see (if you have incredible distance vision) Spain, Morocco, the Ivory Coast and, ultimately, Antarctica. The mind boggles.
If walking is what you like to do, England will more than satisfy. There are public walking paths everywhere (through farmer’s fields, castle grounds, national parks) as well as coast to coast through the North Country. We wondered why we seemed to be the only couple heading west while the rest of walking England was headed east only to find that walkers ‘in the know’ always stroll west to east to take advantage of the prevailing winds. The eastern end of England must be getting very crowded indeed.
Touring gardens of note is a very popular pastime in England and you can spend hours and a small fortune at this pursuit. I recommend investing in The Good Gardens Guide the second you step off the plane to help whittle down your choices, if gardens are your passion. You will quickly become conversant with the major influencers in historic English gardens (Capability Brown, Gertrude Jekyll, Sir Edward Lutyens among others) as well as the endless variety of flora that grows in this fertile soil. Even if gardens aren’t your ‘thing’, you owe it to yourself to experience one or two of the jaw-dropping landscapes such as at Stourhead, Chatsworth or Blenheim Palace, home to the young Winston Churchill.
Our personal favorite is a compact jewel in Holt, a village in Wiltshire near the fairy-tale town of Bradford on Avon. Like many gardens, the grounds are open to the public (for a fee) while the residence is inhabited and not open to prying eyes. I can never help but wonder about the families inside these grand palaces; do they cower inside all day, peeking through the drapes, while waves of strangers tramp around their ancestral lands? At closing, do they throw off their lap robes, put down their cold cups of tea and venture outside, alone, to ‘tut-tut’ about the condition of the lawn or to celebrate the beauty that they no longer have to pay for?
Another thing to do nearly the moment you step on English soil is to invest in a membership with The National Trust or English Heritage. (This is more applicable if you’re traveling outside London in the English countryside, which I strongly urge you to do.) These two organizations are the conservators for nearly all of England’s historical sites, from prehistoric stone circles to castles to famous battlegrounds and ruined abbeys. Admission prices are individually rather steep; a membership gives you access to all of these sites for one reasonable price.
Next: Lolling around in the Lake District
*Cottages are again rented from Rural Retreats. Their website is a vacation by itself: www.ruralretreats.co.uk
For more info about historic sites, visit: www.nationaltrust.org.uk. And www.english-heritage.org.uk. The National Trust also rents 360 outstanding and historical cottages: www.nationaltrustcottages.co.uk.