England Vacation 2010: London, Thornbury, Bath & Winchester (Days 4-8)
Originally published in July 2010. Now that I have a blog dedicated to travel, the trip is being republished where it belongs.
Don’t miss the beginning of the trip…read about the trip in order.
Recognizing that my plan to blog & post every day was an utter failure. And then acknowledging that my plan to get the rest of the trip posted in the days immediately following the trip was also unrealistic…you’ll find the rest of the trip much more condensed with quite a few minor details left out.
To see all of my pictures of the trip, visit my Flickr account.
London Trip – Day 4:
Finally caught up on sleep, we got a fresh start and jumped on the tube early in search of the 1/2 Price Tickets office. After only a day of subway travel, we had it down and quickly found our destination.
We purchased some tickets to Jersey Boys, then found a nearby cafe to grab a quick breakfast.
Our next stop was the Tower of London.
This medieval site was where royalty and other famous people were sent in order to be executed. Our tour guide did a great job with gruesome storytelling and seemed not at all embarrassed by the barbaric practices of his ancestors.
We really enjoyed hearing his stories and exploring this amazing site. We then waited in line to go inside the building inside the Tower of London that houses the Crown Jewels.
Like every day in London, we found ourselves in a light drizzly rain for a little while. Fairly quickly it cleared up and the sun came out for the rest of the day.
After lunch we headed back to the hotel to relax a bit, then got ready for our night out.
The Jersey Boys production was great, and we both loved the West End/Soho area that houses all of the theaters. To our surprise, we also discovered that this area seems to be the “adult” part of town. We saw some signs in storefront windows that said we were there during ‘Fetish Week’, which probably explains some of the colorful characters we experienced.
We eventually made it back to our hotel were we stopped in for another nightcap. Here I discovered the Anhueser Busch rival Budweiser Budvar, a Czech beer (which I really loved). We also decided that we had to try the English classic sandwich cheese & pickles. I have no idea what was really on that sandwich, but what they call pickles in no way resembled what I could call a pickle. It had more of a chutney flavor…and not bad I might add.
London Trip – Day 5:
This was our last day in London before we moved on to the countryside, and the plan was to see St. Paul’s Cathedral, walk over a couple of bridges spanning the River Thames and then hit the London Eye.
We managed to get most of it done.
We started with St. Paul’s Cathedral. Another beautiful building that unfortunately does not allow photography inside, we spent some time exploring and then decided to climb an amazingly long spiral staircase to get a view looking down from the upper dome. We were also able to step outside at the dome level and get panoramic view of the city. I highly recommend the climb if you can manage it (I took a couple of rest breaks along the way!).
We then walked across the pedestrian-only Millienium Bridge that leads to the Modern Art Museum (we only went halfway across since we had no plans to go to the museum). On the way to our next destination, Tower Bridge, we stumbled upon an old fashioned candy store, Mr. Simms, and we had to stop in. I bought some great dark chocolate…which looked like it had been formed on bubble wrap…and was appropriately called Chocolate Bubbles, and some lemon drops as a gift to my Mom & step-dad.
The walk across Tower Bridge was great. The bridge was filled with tons of cars and tons of people. We took a bunch of pictures, then headed to the London Eye. Unfortunately, I wasn’t expecting to have to wait 45 minutes just to get in line, then another 30 minutes to get onto the ride and who knows how long the ride would last. My travel buddy didn’t care about going up on the ferris wheel capsule ride, and I decided that the views from the balcony at the top of St. Paul’s Cathedral was a good enough view of the city, so we explored the fairgrounds a bit which had mobs of people and a number of street performers, and then headed back to the hotel.
Another tube ride later, we walked into Punjab’s Indian Restaurant, which we heard was the best Indian restaurant in town. Not having planned ahead, we were lucky that we didn’t have to wait long for dinner without a reservation. The food did not disappoint.
Our night ended with a pub crawl around the Seven Dials. The Seven Dials is an intersection with 7 streets radiating from it. Our plan was to hit a pub on each street, but some of the streets didn’t have a pub…so we settled for a pub on the corner of 2 streets a couple of times. After 3 or 4 stops, we were trying to decide where to go next when Pamela realized that it was 11:45…and the tube AND buses all shut down at midnight. A mad dash to the tube station later, we crammed into a packed train leaving the station with only minutes to spare. No wonder almost everything shuts down by 11:30. Unless you have the money to take taxis, there isn’t a way to get home any later!
London Trip – Day 6:
Even though all of the guidebooks advised against it, we decided to rent a car for our last two days so we could explore the countryside and nearby towns without having to be limited to tours and their schedules. So on day 5, we checked out of our hotel bright & early and walked the 5 or 6 blocks to Paddington train station (I can’t imagine doing this trip without suitcases on wheels!).
At the train station, we grabbed a bagel for the train ride and I found my first cup of drip coffee! We hopped on the Heathrow Express train and headed to the airport to get our rental car. A short hour later we were in a MERCEDES rental car with A/C, automatic transmission and GPS, and braved our lives by attempting to learn to drive on the wrong side of the road…with the steering wheel on the wrong side of the car…while our GPS lady instructed us where to go. A few wrong turns later, and we were safely on the motorway headed to Thornbury.
I’ve always dreamed of going to Europe and spending the night in a castle turned hotel. Thornbury Castle was exactly what we were looking for. Thornbury is about 30 minutes outside of Bristol, a medium sized city. We skirted the suburbs of Bristol (never going into the city) and landed in this quaint small town that seemed untouched by tourists.
I can’t explain how stunned we were when we saw our castle. Then we followed a bellboy up our stone spiral turret to get to our room (good thing he was carrying the bags!). Stepping inside, we were both stunned at what we found. Homemade biscuits (cookies), bottled water…in glass bottles, a carafe of sherry (which we discovered that we really liked before we went to bed), a fireplace, light switches that were controlled by ropes & tassels (the kind that were used to call for servants in years past) and skeleton keys for the doors. There were even umbrellas outside our door in case we didn’t come prepared.
A zillion pictures later, we headed to tea in the library. Neither of us have ever had afternoon tea, so we relied on our waiter to guide us a bit and spent a lot of time watching the family of 20 that was one table over celebrating Grandma’s birthday with 3 generations.
After discovering that I absolutely love tea with cream and stuffing ourselves on scones & tiny portions of 4 desserts, we popped into the charity fundraiser swing concert that was being held in the castle gardens. Used to British weather, the audience just pulled out umbrellas when the rain started. We stood in the rain, not willing to miss the concert over some light drizzle even though we had umbrellas in our room just a few feet away.
Since we had tea in the castle, we decided to drive into Thornbury for dinner. We walked around the town, met a very friendly…and very drunk… Brit who ran out of a pub to talk to us as we walked by. We settled on Mezze at the Royal George for dinner and I had one of the best dishes of the trip – stuffed aubergines (eggplant stuffed with rice, pine kernels, shallots & fresh herbs).
Our day had been so smooth. No little mishaps.
Until we left the restaurant and headed to the rental car to call it a night.
May I simply say that you should NEVER park a rental car in a strange country in a lot that has signs that says it is private parking (I figured it was Sunday night and deserted and we would certainly be ok for a couple of hours). Especially if the lot has GATES. Yes, the gates that neither of us noticed when we parked the car were locked when we returned to the spot at 11:30. No other alternative, we walked a couple of miles back to the hotel. It actually was a peaceful stroll in a small town that was completely asleep at this hour. We didn’t see a single soul on the walk back.
London Trip – Day 7:
Thankfully, the gates were unlocked when Pamela went for her run in the morning (she’s training for a half-marathon). She brought the car back and we readied ourselves to checkout. On our way out, we stepped inside St. Mary’s church that was the castle’s next door neighbor. We were the only ones there and got a chance to soak it in without the normal crowds of tourists.
Having missed breakfast, we headed into town in search of someplace for lunch. Based on several recommendations, we chose Blends Cafe. I ordered a lunch portion of homemade lasagna and the plate I received could have been served up in the fanciest restaurant in town.
Bottom line is that Thornbury…the castle, town and restaurants…really impressed us. If you are planning a visit to London and want to experience life in a quaint small town, you should add Thornbury to your itinerary. Yes, the castle was expensive. But it would be worth skimping on some other things to experience it for one night.
After lunch we were ready to move on to Bath. Oh, at this point I should mention that Pamela had done all of the driving the first day. I decided to give it a try on the short drive from the castle into town…no more than 7 or 8 minutes at most. When I parked the car, I handed her the keys back and announced that she could do the driving the rest of the trip. Driving on the wrong side of the road is ok…but ending up in the correct lane when you make turns takes serious concentration.
So with Pamela driving, we moved on to Bath. Pamela had gotten pretty good at the roundabouts at this point, which is probably the hardest thing other than gauging if you are in your lane when oncoming traffic is approaching. We arrived safely in Bath, checked into our hotel and then went exploring. The only place that we had planned to go inside was the Bath Spa and Pump House. We did walk over to that area, but decided to save it for the following morning.
Staring at a map trying to decide where to go next, a nice man approached us, shared with us some history of bath and gave us suggestions for a pub (at our request). At the pub, we met Tom, a young man about 20 years younger than us who is a composer and was out celebrating by himself just getting hired by the BBC (he had only moved to Bath a week before and didn’t know anyone). We had a few beers with him, shared some stories and educated each other on vocabulary differences between British and American English. Then Tom walked us to a restaurant for dinner (he was worried we wouldn’t be able to find it on our own).
It’s fun eating dinner at a restaurant owned by an HGTV star. Jamie Oliver’s restaurant definitely lived up to expectations.
A little worried about the choice of neighborhood for our hotel, we decided to walk back before it got dark.
London Trip – Day 8:
Our original plan had been to spend our last day in Bath before heading back to London for a 6 pm flight. The problem was that neither of us were all that impressed with this town. Maybe it was our choice of hotel that felt like we were staying in the seedier part of town. Maybe it was because neither of us had any desire to shop in expensive stores or dine at fancy restaurants. Maybe it was because it couldn’t compare to bustling urban London or quaint Thornbury. Regardless, we decided to skip the Spa & Pump House and make the most of our last day.
We had done our research before the trip and I had read that Winchester was a quaint unspoiled town. It was a little out of the way but we had plenty of time to drive there, spend a few hours and then get back to the airport.
One of the advantages of heading to Winchester was that we ended up on rural 2 lane highways instead of major interstates. The English countryside is beautiful. We drove by a ton of sheep and cows and farm fields.
Whenever you take a trip like this, you always have to make some hard choices. One of the things we decided to skip was Stonehenge. Even though we both wanted to see it, everything we read said that it took about a half day and most people found it to be disappointing up close.
You can’t believe how stunned we were when we glanced into a farm field while driving down a 2 lane highway in the middle of nowhere and discovered that Stonehenge was only a few feet away. We turned off into a gravel road leading to some farmer’s house, and the car behind us…with two women from Japan (and speaking no English)…pulled off right behind us. We all proceeded to take a bunch of pictures, using pantomime to ask them to take our picture with Stonehenge in the background. Satisfied, we hopped back in the car and continued on to Winchester.
We only had a few hours in Winchester, so after we managed to find a public parking lot and figure out where we were on a map that I had brought with us, we headed to the Great Hall to see King Arthur’s Round Table…the REAL round table. It’s been hanging on the walls of this 13th century castle for 700 years. We got to take lots of great pictures of the Great Hall and both of us felt it was one of the highlights of the trip.
We finished up the day by wandering around town, then grabbing a traditional snack (and early dinner) of pasties. Pasties are similar to Mexican empanadas, but made out of pie crust and not deep fried. They are stuffed with all kinds of things. I got one that was a traditional meat pasty…imagine beef & potatoes in pie crust, and we split a chocolate banana one for desert. Yum.
It was also a great place to end our travels…very European with a second story dining room with a ceiling only about 7 feet high (I had to duck under the HVAC ductwork and I’m only 5’2″!).
Completely satisfied, we headed back to the airport for the trip back home.
I’ve never before taken a trip and felt immediately that I would love to move there. But life doesn’t always allow you to do what you would like to do.
I’m not sure when, but I will definitely be back.