I’ve been very busy these last few weeks with my tours but wanted to share a little about one particular tour as it was a first, well at least for me. The last 8 days or so I have been giving a guided tour to four lovely ladies from the USA. I’ve now given over 80 guided tours and several multi day tours before but always starting and ending the day in London. This tour however was all set to be different as we would be staying at different locations around England.
The actual planning of the tour took nearly as long as the tour itself with emails dashing back and forth across the Atlantic for the last few months. There was lots to arrange, hire-cars, hotels, day-trips, even car-parking in the various places we visited. What was especially hard however was actually fitting everything in to their schedule. There really is so much to see in England that even with a week or so, we only scratched the surface. For every place we visited, there were many more just round the corner.
My guests had a good idea of what they wanted to visit and so I put together an itinerary. After a pick-up from Heathrow we had lunch in the beautiful Cotswold village of Minster Lovell and tucked in to some local food and drink in the most picturesque pub imaginable. From there it was just a short drive to Oxford where we spent the afternoon visiting the city centre and several of the famous colleges, courtyards and towers.
At the end of the day as was the case on every day, I would leave my guests at their central hotel before driving out into the country a little way to have a well-earned rest and to prepare for the next day.
Day two saw us leave Oxford at 8.30am and we took the scenic route down past Newbury and Highclere Castle, stopping for a photo-op as my guests were all big Downton Abbey fans. There were several picturesque villages on the way which we stopped to take photos of before arriving at Stonehenge. It wasn’t originally on our to-do list but we were so close so why not? Our early morning start paid off as we beat the queues and by the time we were walking round the stones, a line of traffic several miles long was forming on the A303.
Everyone enjoyed seeing Stonehenge and its new visitors centre but before long we were off once more through Salisbury Plain and its beautiful grasslands and rolling hills punctuated only by the occasional sign warning of tank crossings! Salisbury Plain was the staging ground for the Allied forces before D-Day and it remains the largest battle tank related area in western Europe which ironically helps to preserve its natural beauty from development.
Next up were my favourites, Avebury Stone Circle and Lacock Village where we marvelled at the stones, dodged sheep poop and sampled some of the local delicacies. My guests were huge Anglophiles and had a very long list of foods and ales that they wanted to try. Every single day they tried at least 2 local dishes from fish and chips to steak and ale pies, bangers and mash, cream scones, cornish pasties, sausage rolls and a whole pile of cheeses and cakes. They were happily surprised at just how nice the food was as well as the lack of rain, just two of the very common misconceptions that many people have about the U.K.
Lacock was having a village festival and the tiny village was heaving with people which was nice to see. I’m visiting there so often that the locals are recognising me! Eventually we drove the short distance on to the Roman city of Bath. Obviously the Roman Baths are the famous highlight of Bath but there is so much more to enjoy here including the nearby Abbey, a wonderful collection of shops, pubs and restaurants as well as museums and the architectural wonders of The Circus and the Royal Crescent.
Bath is in the middle of an immense road-works scheme and a succession of road closures led me to taking the only road in Britain that I had hoped to avoid in this epic road-trip to my hotel for the night. Between Bath and Bradford on Avon lies the eerily named Sally In The Woods road. Legend has it that poor Sally was a gypsy girl who was bricked up alive in a prominent tower in the densely wooded hills, ever since her spirit has sought vengeance on hikers and motorists with the isolated road being famed for fatal accidents as Sally jumps out on startled drivers causing them to crash. Happily though perhaps a little disappointedly, I didn’t see Sally that night or the following morning.
Day three saw us drive through the beautiful Cotswolds and the quaintly named towns of Stow on the Wold, Bourton on the Water and Moreton on the Marsh. My guests were continually astonished by just how beautiful and empty the countryside in England is. This is due to us having very tough planning laws to ensure our urban areas don’t sprawl out for miles as they do in places such as Los Angeles. It means when driving along you go from town or city to pristine countryside in just a few feet.
We stopped off to try some local produce at Stow on the Wold and walked around the main square before eating next to the old village Stocks where petty criminals would once have been pelted by the the locals with rotten fruit and vegetables!
In the afternoon we went on to Stratford Upon Avon, home to all things William Shakespeare. There are so many things to see in Stratford Upon Avon aside from the Shakespeare related places that we visited. It is a relaxed but friendly town with wonderful streets and a riverside with weeping willow trees, theatres, bandstands and many traditional pubs which after visiting four of the Shakespeare properties and his grave in the local church was where my guests chose to spend their evening.
Day four was a longer day and we were to drive cross-country to the North-East of England. On our way up the motorway we passed the sign for Nottinghamshire – Robin Hood Country which led one of my lovely guests to inquire about visiting Sherwood Forest. Sherwood Forest is a huge place but I managed to find our way to the visitors centre where a 10 minute walk took us to the huge and magnificent Major Oak, said to be the tree that Robin Hood himself would spend much of his time. I hadn’t been here before and was as thrilled as my guests to visit this special place.
Onwards and upwards! I always tell my guests that the best things in Britain are outside of London and visiting London and thinking you have an idea of what the U.K. is like is impossibly far from the truth. It would be like visiting America and thinking everywhere was like New York or Las Vegas or going to China and foregoing all the great historic and scenic sights just to visit downtown Beijing but I always think my original homeland of northern England is the best place to visit.
Sadly the north is too far to visit on a day-trip but visitors are rewarded by even more beautiful landscapes, wild scenery, castles and cathedrals and much fewer people. Could the north of England trump London, Bath, Oxford, the Cotswolds and Shakespeare country? According to my guests, of course it did!
On our way to Chester-Le-Street in County Durham we sadly avoided the beautiful Peak District but did skirt through the edge of the Yorkshire Dales to visit Harrogate on a flying visit. Here were visited the famous Betty Tea Rooms and enjoyed high tea with platters of sandwiches, scones and cakes in a beautiful room with views across the gorgeous town.
Back into the hire-car, we made our way to beautiful County Durham where my guests were to spend two nights in the haunted but magnificent Lumley Castle. I was staying just a mile or so away and was very excited to be meeting a university friend whom I hadn’t seen for 18.5 years! I drove to meet her at the train station and was immediately reminded of just how much friendlier people are in the NorthEast than probably anywhere else, at least in England if not the U.K. Strangers coming up to chat for no good reason except to be sociable. I had three people talking to me in the 10 minutes I waited for my friend to arrive.
Given that we hadn’t seen each other for nearly 20 years, we risked running and hugging the wrong people once the passengers disembarked but happily we still recognised each other and aside from a huffing steam-train, it was rather like a traditional 1940’s train platform reunion. We chatted the night away in a fine pub-restaurant right next to my hotel and talked so much we barely remembered to eat but the food was delicious. We compared our memories of SOAS and talked about writing, work, tours and the world in general. We agreed to keep in touch and not leave it 18.5 years until next time.
Day five saw us with plans to visit Durham and Whitby but before then I used my local knowledge to visit The Angel of The North and pose for photos at this, the largest angel in the world and one of the most seen works of public art as well. Next up we crossed we travelled a few miles further north to reach our most distant point from London. Tantalisingly close to the wilds of Northumbria, instead we stopped for coffee in Grey Street, Newcastle Upon Tyne, sometimes voted the most beautiful urban street in Britain. It leads up to Grey’s Monument which remembers the second Earl Grey who was instrumental in pushing through The Great Reform Act of 1823, abolishing slavery in the British Empire and of course for his famous Earl Grey Tea. We also drove around the quayside getting some great views of the galleries and fantastic bridges on the River Tyne, including the Tyne Bridge, the legendary precursor to its more famous imitator in Sydney Harbour.
Next up we visited Durham City. Durham is famous for its historic city centre and it’s world class university and UNESCO protected Cathedral, high up on the banks of the River Wear. At this point we thought back at just how many UNESCO sites we had visited in a few short days before visiting the magnificent cathedral and the resting place amongst others to the Venerable Bead who completed his Ecclesiastical History of the English People all the way back in 731 AD.
We had lunch in Durham City as my guests had a bit of s hopping list of English products they wanted to take home including such things as bone china, tea bags and wool and it was here that by chance I bumped into another old friend that I hadn’t seen for around 25 years and is now the Deputy Mayor of Durham. I wouldn’t have recognised him with all his medieval finery on but he obviously had no problem with me. Having now met the Deputy Mayor or Durham, a Grandson of Churchill in Lacock Potter a few days earlier, my guests were dreaming that maybe, just maybe they would get to meet Prince George back in London but sadly on my tours, have so far merely seen Prince William at Windsor Castle.
It was early afternoon when we headed off to Whitby on the East Coast of Yorkshire. About 80 minutes away by car, we headed off other the Yorkshire Moors with their foreboding and yet beautiful rugged vistas. Whitby is a place that I had always wanted to visit home as it is to the Captain Cook museum, a picturesque harbour and the ruined Whitby Abbey perched high up on the hillside. On top of all that, Whitby is home to all things Dracula as it is here that the Romanian Count first arrived in the U.K. following his sea voyage from Transylvania (well Transylvania isn’t by the sea but Brahm Stoker fans will know what I mean). Whitby is a beautiful little town with lots of narrow streets bursting with shops and pubs.
By now our tour group was one incredibly happy family so as two guests decided to do some shopping, I took two others up the 199 steps to Whitby Abbey which for the last 500 years or so has been left as a magical ruin after being deliberately destroyed around 1539. For the first time rain was threatening so we ended our brief excursion with a meal at the Marine Restaurant which tastefully merges and boutique restaurant with quayside fish and chips whilst somehow fitting in a bar and piano lounge. Nice! We returned to County Durham at the end of the day all ready for our big trip back to London.
Day six and we had already reached 1,000 miles on our England Grand Tour before we had made much progress south and after 90 minutes we stopped off at the ancient city of York. York has more than enough to see to spend a week here but we just had a few hours and so we explored the medieval streets of The Shambles, saw one or two Roman Viking sights and then went inside the wonderful York Minster where some of us shopped, others visited the undercroft museum and myself and one other explore the vast Cathedral itself before taking Holy Communion.
With one last meal to be had in a very old and haunted pub, we took an ice-cream as we walked back to our car and the final longer leg back to London. Returning to London was a culture shock for all of us but the next day I led a walking tour around some of the many historical sites. From Parliament and Westminster Abbey past Downing Street, Trafalgar Square before visiting Covent Garden, Leicester Square, Piccadilly, Soho and Buckingham Palace as well as a few other places such as the famous Metropolitan Police sign at New Scotland Yard. We ate at the St. Stephen’s tavern right opposite Big Ben which is a place I seem to spend quite a bit of time at these days and we’re you’re always likely to bump into somebody famous or infamous. Finally we finished the day with a walk through some of the Royal Parks, Horseguards Parade and a visit to the Churchill War Rooms.
Day Eight was to be our final day and we were all ready feeling a bit sad the previous day that this wonder tour was coming to an end. You can tell what fun was had by all as my guests gave me a lovely card and gifts and I sent them on their way with some chocolates and copies of some of my books. We visited the Tower of London and the Crown Jewels in the morning and then walked along the Embankment through a terrific craft and street food market to Aldwych to visit the Old Curiosity Shop, as mentioned in the famous works of Charles Dickens. Two of my guests got the Eurostar for an onward trip to Paris whilst the other two treated me to another meal out before we did some shopping and found a theatre which they would be seeing a show at that night. Then the tour was over but what a time we had had.
I think it is fair to say my guests had a holiday of a life-time and I throughly enjoyed sharing some of the lesser visited sites of our beautiful country. I always enjoying meeting new people and my guests last week were a lovely bunch of people who embraced all our foods, places, weather and old English slang. It was also nice to visit some places myself for the first time and to meet up with some old friends.
I’m going to come up with some new tours that give more prominence to outside London and the South East but if you or anyone you know is coming to London, England or the U.K. do send them to Ye Olde England Tours!
If you like history then don’t forget my new book 101 Most Horrible Tortures in History.