Monday, October 31, 2011
On Friday I celebrated my four year anniversary of living in London. Throughout my time here, I have made an effort to see as much of the country as I can. One way I have gone about it is to take day trips from London to other parts of England. I always do so independently, either by train or car. Until Saturday, that is. On Saturday GetYourGuide invited me to take an organized day trip from London to the Cotswolds, Warwick Castle, Stratford-upon-Avon, and Oxford.
It was an ambitious itinerary. The 12-hour tour from London left Victoria Coach Station at 8:30am and wasn’t scheduled to return until 8pm. There were three major stops on the trip and a fourth for lunch. I wasn’t sure I was going to survive.
That was party because I’m not a big fan of organized tours. I find that group travel puts frustrating limits on my freedom and that tour guides put me in a coma of boredom. When several of the 27 other people on the tour held up our departure by making last-nanosecond trips to the bathrooms and coffee shops, I had a feeling I was in for an arduous adventure.
However, shortly after we departed, our guide, Alan, welcomed us on board and entertained us with some tantalizing tales about London. Despite my misgivings, I found myself cracking a smile. His style was far from the dry recitation of historical hodgepodge that characterized most tour guides, and I appreciated it.
Alan’s anecdotes made the two hour drive from London to Warwick Castle pass by quickly. We arrived in Warwick around 10:30am and had the next hour-and-a-half to explore the castle. The best part for me was that we were able to explore it on our own.
I took off down the path to the fortress, which was conceived in the 10th century and built up over the next few. I stopped at the rose garden and the historic mill, headed across the idyllic River Avon, and visited the birds of prey. Afterwards I entered the castle walls and climbed up to the top of the towers. The views were stunning.
From there I walked through an exhibition about castle life. Warwick Castle is owned by the same group that owns London’s most overpriced tourist attraction, Madame Tussauds, so naturally it was heavy on the human replicas and unnecessary glamorization of menial chores like mending underwear.
Still, the small exhibitions about the involvement of Richard III and other important personages were pleasantly informative for my inner history nerd and Shakespeare fan.
Speaking of whom, we departed Warwick Castle at noon and headed to the birthplace of Shakespeare in Stratford-upon-Avon. It is worth noting that we actually departed on schedule, too, which was the first time in all of my organized day trip experiences that that has happened. I was happy.
We arrived in Stratford-upon-Avon after a short drive. Skipping the queue at the entrance to Skakespeare’s birthplace, we filed into the small home on Henley Street to see the bard’s abode. It was crowded, but I slowly made my way through the dining room, living room, bedrooms, kitchen, and other parts of the house. It was large for its time, and there were several exhibitions about Shakespeare and his home along the way.
After the visit, I had about 30 minutes to explore the town. I started by walking down to the river and past the theatre where I had seen my friend in Romeo and Juliet on my last visit to Stratford-upon-Avon.
I also walked around the main shopping streets, which were filled with restaurants, pubs, tea rooms, high street shops, and boutiques. I was more interested in the facades of the beautiful historic buildings than their contents, and ran through the rain to see as much of the town as I could before heading back to the bus.
Once there, we had another on-time departure. Our driver, Keith, drove us into the countryside for lunch at a place called the White Hart pub in the Cotswolds. It was around 2:30pm by the time we got there, and I was famished. I thought it would have made more sense to stop for lunch before traveling to Stratford-upon-Avon, but I enjoyed the mushroom stroganoff and conversation with the others at my table all the same.
After lunch we drove through the idyllic Cotswolds as Alan entertained us with stories about thatched-roof cottages and pointed out everything from deer and llamas to a witch’s house.
An hour later we arrived in Oxford. The bus dropped us off right outside of Christ Church, the college that is famous for its rich history and—let’s be honest—its role as a filming location for the Harry Potter movies.
We waited in a long line to get into the Great Hall, a stunning room lined with portraits of famous personages like John Locke and John Wesley. Sadly, I think I was the only person that was more interested in the actual history of the building than the Harry Potter history. One woman had such an encyclopedic knowledge of the films that she pointed out every minor difference between the actual Christ Church Great Hall and the Hogwarts version.
Once outside the hall, Alan took us on a short tour of Oxford. Starting on the grounds of Christ Church, we walked by Oriel College, where friends of mine had shown me the world’s largest portrait of the queen on my last trip to Oxford.
From there we continued along to Radcliffe Square, past the Bridge of Sighs, and alongside the Sheldonian Theatre, where I had been to my friend’s graduation from Oxford awhile back. The tour ended outside of the Ashmolean Museum, where the bus was scheduled to pick us up 40 minutes later.
I spent the remainder of my visit to Oxford walking through the famous Covered Market and along the bustling shopping streets. At the end of the day, I boarded the bus for the hour’s drive back to London.
We arrived in the city at 7:30pm and the bus made several stops to let us all off as close to our hotels and homes as possible. As predicted, I was completely exhausted from the day and ended up getting 12 hours of sleep that night.
When I woke up the next morning, I had time to reflect on my epic tour. I had enjoyed it a lot more than I had anticipated, owing largely to Alan’s ability to mix history and hilarity, traveling with a good group of bus tour companions, and getting a nice balance of guided tours and free time.
However, I thought that doing a day trip to so many places in just 12 hours was a bit ambitious. I felt rushed in Stratford-upon-Avon and Oxford, two cities that deserve an entire day just for themselves.
Then again, not everyone on the tour lives in London and has the luxury of being able to take separate day trips to the Cotswolds, Warwick Castle, Stratford-upon-Avon, and Oxford. If I were only traveling in the UK for a week, I would probably want to pack in as much as I could in every tour. To be honest, I live in the UK and I still feel that way sometimes. Maybe that’s the problem. There is entirely too much to see in this country.