If you've been surfing my travel pages, you may know that I spent a year living and doing volunteer work in Ireland, from September 1999 to August 2000. I found the fact that I was in Europe, and the work that I was doing, to be completely and amazingly surprising - and yet most enjoyable and rewarding. And I used the opportunity to travel in the area as much as possible. I had already made one short trip to England in April 2000, but I had the opportunity to come back for two weeks in early August - my last trip before returning to home and real life in South Africa at the end of August 2000.
I didn't have much money left, and had to do everything as cheaply as possible. I travelled by coach and overnight ferry with Bus Eirann from Carlow, Ireland, to Oxford, England, for only 58 Irish Pounds return, which was a real bargain. And I stayed with Shauna's uncle while in Oxfordshire and her cousin while in Stratford-upon-Avon (once again: Thank You!), so, apart from my time in London which turned out to be rather expensive, I managed to get by on surprisingly little - just the cost of groceries, transport and museum entries, really. And I still had my unused British Heritage pass from my earlier trip, so I managed to save a little on museum entries as well. But, be warned! I had bought the one week British Heritage Pass (over the internet) for US$54. I did save money on this, but only just, and it did mean having to schedule as many BH properties into one week of my travels as possible. When I arrived at Stonehenge I found that one can also buy an English Heritage Pass (i.e. for all the British Heritage properties that are in England, as opposed to Scotland, etc.) for only 28 pounds - AND it is valid for one year, as opposed to one week! I would certainly recommend this.
I arrived in Oxford very early in the morning of the 4th of August - incidentally, this was the Queen Mother's 100th birthday. I was pretty tired after spending the night on the coach and ferry, but I wanted to see some more of Oxford before heading out to Ewelme, where I was staying. There is no official left luggage office in Oxford, but the Pensioners' Club on Gloucester Green does keep bags at a pound per item - I killed some time in an internet cafe at Cafe Costa while I waited for it to open, left my bags, and prepared to spend some time in the town. It was a pleasant morning, and I went on a walking tour of Oxford, including a visit to one of the colleges, and then spent some time browsing through some of Oxford's museums. A highlight was seeing Alice's dodo :) By early afternoon I was exhausted, and I headed off to Ewelme, stopping at a riverside pub in Wallingford for a drink on the way.
I stayed in the same place as I had stayed on my earlier trip to England, in the cloisters of the old church in Ewelme. Ewelme is a tiny village, and surprisingly off the beaten track! It has one shop-cum-post office and one pub, the Shepherd's Hut (which has delicious, very un-pub-like meals, but isn't cheap!), and not much else. But it is set in the most beautiful countryside I saw in England, around the pool in which Ann Boleyn swam with Henry VIII, and has a manor house (not open to the public) which I am told contains the swing where Elizabeth I played as a child. Not far from the village is a tiny, eleventh century Crusader Church, which I had visited previously. And the village church has some fine brasses and a rather exceptional effigy tomb.
The next day, I took it easy. I slept late, spent some time with my friend's uncle, had a drink at the riverside in nearby Benson, did some grocery shopping - basically just recovering from the journey and building up some strength for the days ahead - I had a lot of ground I planned to cover in the next two weeks!
On Sunday, we went to Dorchester-on-Thames to see the lovely old church there. And then we went on to have Sunday Lunch (roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, of course) at the Barley Mow. This is a really special place, between Clifton Hampden and Long Witterham. This ancient pub (the date outside reads 1352) was originally a stagecoach stop, and it is just wonderful. The old building is filled with nooks and crannies and winding staircases - the dining 'room' is a maze of rooms leading off each other. The sense of history is quite superb. In fact, Jerome K Jerome wrote in his famous "Three Men in a Boat" (1889): "If you stay the night on land at Clifton, you cannot do better than to put up at the 'Barley Mow'. It is, without exception, I should say, the quaintest, most old-world inn up the river." By the way, I would strongly recommend this classic to anyone planning to do any boating or walking along the Thames.
Then we stopped for a walk along the Thames in Adington, where I suddenly decided that what I wanted most in the whole world was carrot cake! So we had to stop at the riverside tearoom in Benson on the way home. They had no carrot cake, but a banana loaf did quite nicely, thank you.
On the Monday, we had a great adventure. Well, it may have been a little peaceful to qualify as an actual adventure, but it was a first for me and a lot of fun. We made an early start and hired a canoe for half a day, and paddled up the Thames. It took us a couple of hours to paddle up from Benson to the spot where the Thame joins the Thames, near Dorchester, and there we stopped for a picnic brunch. Then about an hour and a half downstream to Benson - where they DID have carrot cake, this time. And then by car to Wallingford, where I spent an hour or so wandering the town before we headed home to Ewelme.
Early on Tuesday morning, I caught the Oxford Tube bus (much cheaper, more comfortable and more frequent than the train) into London. I was to spend three days and two nights, staying at the Romany House Hotel near Victoria Station. I had stayed in this same hotel on my previous trip, and I can recommend it for its cleanliness, friendliness and good fried eggs for breakfast. The hotel is fairly basic (shared bathrooms, etc.) but it is surprisingly cheap for its convenient location, treats single travellers well, and has a lot of character - part of the hotel was originally a house where highwaymen and thieves met to plot their exploits and hide their loot!
There were a few things that I planned to do on this trip to London, but my overriding objective was to see some of the shows that play in London's West End.
After checking in to the hotel, I set out to do a morning's walking past some of London's sights. I had seen a lot on my first trip, but hadn't seen either Lloyd's Bank, famous for its post-modernist architecture, or St. Paul's Cathedral. On the way to the bank (with which I would have been more impressed if I hadn't already seen the Centre Pompidou in Paris), I passed the monument commemorating the Great Fire of London - I tried to find Pudding Lane, where the fire started, but couldn't - I wonder if it still exists? Anyway, I think I came pretty close to its original location. Then on to the bank, and a walk to St Paul's Cathedral. It started to rain - lightly at first and then more heavily, but there was nothing for it - I just had to walk. I saw the Cathedral - from the outside. Time was short and I have visited hundreds of churches and cathedrals - I decided to head for Leicester Square to the Halfprice Ticket Booth to see if I could pick up any cheap tickets for the shows I wanted to see.
Leicester Square was a bit of an experience - it's a tacky place, filled with agents selling tickets to London's many shows. Those in the know say one should only buy from the official Halfprice Ticket Booth - buying from the other agents is likely to cost you as much or more than you would pay in the theatres themselves. But none of the three shows I was determined to see had tickets for sale at the Booth, and I decided to simply pay full price for them at the theatre box offices. By the way, in Leicester Square I was handed a posy by a woman, who then asked for money - shameless begging I know, but shades of Eliza Doolittle and I was pleased to give her something.
I walked to the theatres and bought tickets for Les Miserables, that night, and for Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap, that afternoon. And then I went on to a Mexican restaurant for lunch. Once again, the rain came down in a torrential downpour - I had to take refuge in a doorway (where I was surprised to see one of London's 'black' taxis come past, emblazoned with our colourful South African flag). But I was too hungry (and late) to wait much longer and I headed off in the rain. I arrived at the restaurant drenched and cold and with a deep scrape on my wrist - the work of a pair of nail scissors that I had carelessly left in the pocket of my backpack. The margarita was lovely, but the food wasn't that good. But at least it was hot, and filling, and I felt well fortified for the performance of The Mousetrap.
The Mousetrap is famous because it is the longest continuously running show in the Western World. My parents talked about going to see it on their trip to London ... oh, it must be almost twenty years ago. I wonder if they did - I wish I could ask them. And I was privileged to see the 19 850th performance. It was quite charming - very British, with an excellent cast and a good set. And I DID guess whodunit - but only a few minutes before the truth came out. The cast swore the audience to secrecy after the performance, so I can't tell you ...
I had a few hours before Les Miserables was due to start, and I spent it by wandering through Chinatown, past Piccadilly Circus, to the theatre where Phantom of the Opera was due to play, and buying tickets for the following night's performance. For the other shows I had bought cheap to middle-of-the-range tickets, but for Phantom - ah, for Phantom - I decided to spoil myself by buying the most highly-priced seats in the house. I walked on to Fortnum and Mason's - a name which is a childhood memory for me from the Wombles books - where I browsed their foodstuffs and tried on their hats. And then I walked back through Trafalgar Square, pausing to look at South Africa House and imagine the decades-long demonstration that took place outside its doors during our apartheid years.
And then back to the theatre, where I experienced the most riveting performance imaginable. Les Miserables is breathtaking - absolutely breathtaking. I sat on the edge of my seat throughout. The acting was superb, the music stirring, the revolving set was so unexpected - so simple, yet so effective. I was exhausted, but the hours flew by. After the show, I walked up to Piccadilly Circus where I soon caught a taxi back to my hotel - something I had been a little nervous about as I am a woman who doesn't like to be out alone in the dark, but, of course, all went well. I fell asleep the minute my head hit the pillow.
The next morning I headed out to be at Madame Tussaud's by the time it opened. Take a tip from me - book a timed entry ticket through their website or their telephonic credit card hotline - the queues have to be seen to be believed, but with a pre-booked timed entry ticket you can just waltz on past. Madame Tussaud's was most enjoyable - some of the waxworks are incredibly lifelike, although I was a little disappointed in Nelson Mandela - Madiba just didn't look his usual dynamic self. But it was good to meet Desmond Tutu! He was the chancellor of my university, and he should have been the one to confer my degree upon me. But he was absent for my first graduation ceremony (it fell within Easter Week and he had religious commitments, so I suppose I'll forgive him), and I didn't attend my second. So it seems that the best I can do is to meet him in the wax ;)
For not much more, one can buy a combined ticket to the waxworks and the London Planetarium, and if you're not pushed for time, the show is well worth it.
After Madame Tussaud's, I stopped in at Harrod's. I was curious. And while I was there I tried on two dresses. The first was actually surprisingly cheap, 239 pounds for a dress that wasn't a wedding dress but could have been. I don't particularly think that I will be getting married in my lifetime, and if I do I really DON'T want to do the whole wedding thing. For me, that is just not what the celebration of a marriage should be all about. And I certainly don't want to have to flounce around in a wedding dress, looking like a big wedding cake. So it was fun in a kinda novel way to try on this almost-bridal gown. But the other dress - form fitting, black, spaghetti straps, falling down into a front-slit, shocking pink and black flamenco like effect, with a short train - I know, I know, it sounds terrible, but you should have seen it! I felt like a movie star attending my own premiere. The drawback? It cost 1 399 pounds!
And then I went on to the National Gallery - twice, in fact. The second time, I saw something precious that I had previously missed. Canalletto's series of early eighteenth-century paintings of Venice. I gazed at them until I had to leave for the show - astounded that Venice looked almost the same in March as it did 250 years ago. I could almost pinpoint the building in which I spent the night.
The final stop was the theatre - the moment I had been waiting for. Time to see the Phantom of the Opera. And it was good. But the experience was seriously marred by the fact that my seat - my expensive seat - had such poor visibility that I had to perch myself uncomfortably on the edge to see much of the performance. It was ironic that, the night before, I had been on the edge of my seat because I had been spellbound by the performance of Les Miserables. On this night, my irritation, combined with my tiredness, combined to lessen my enjoyment of the Phantom of the Opera, considerably.
I once again caught a taxi home from Piccadilly Circus - this time, I had to wait for ages. But, again, I eventually got back to the hotel safely.
My last day in London - I headed for the infamous Millennium Dome. I had to see what all the fuss was about. And I must say, I agree with a lot of the criticism - the whole Dome experience was a bit of a letdown.
The highlight of the Dome is, supposedly, the Body - and I was looking forward to touring the inside of an anatomically correct body - something like ...um...what was that movie called...Innerspace? And it started out well, but soon became bizarrely strange. When I was inside the skull and found a row of plastic brains telling each other bad jokes, I gave up.
There were a couple of really good ideas. For example, I liked the section of the Dome which asked questions and recorded answers about visitors' daily lives. And I was very favourably impressed with the time-out zone (I have forgotten what it is called) - a large, quiet, white room, with no corners or visually hard edges, peaceful, whale-song-like melodies playing and gentle patterns of colour projected onto the roof. It was crowded, but almost perfectly quiet. People lay on the floor - even toddlers were serenely silent. I had suffered a massive people-and-stimulus-overload on my visit to DisneyWorld, and I truly appreciated this initiative at the Dome.
And, of course, it was a great thrill for me to stand at the Greenwich Meridian - one foot in the eastern and one in the western hemisphere.
Finally, I took a bus drive through Greenwich to see the Cutty Sark (I had a dog called Sarkey Cut once - it's a long story), and then back to London, and back to Oxford, and back to Ewelme.
Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwick and the Cotswolds
The next day, Friday, I caught a bus from Oxford to Stratford--upon-Avon. Stratford in the early spring is beautiful. Of course, it is also somewhat of a tourist mecca - which means crowds and commercialism. But, it is still lovely and I am very pleased I went.
On arriving in Stratford, mid-afternoon, I grabbed a burger at McDonald's. A group of five heavy bikers, four men and a woman, sat at the table next to me. ZZ-Top beards, tattoos, dirty denims and black leather - they looked really mean. It was rather incongruous to hear them discussing kids and grocery shopping. I was later to see hundreds and hundreds of bikes and bikers in Stratford - again, somewhat incongruous - until I found out that a major bike race, the Bulldog Run, was being held nearby that weekend.
I went on to Shakespeare's birthplace. It was interesting and thought-provoking to walk in the rooms in which the Bard lived as a child, but it was very crowded. It seems that I wasn't the only tourist to make this my first stop. Before heading for 'home', I booked a ticket for the following day's matinee performance of the Comedy of Errors.
Afterwards, I went on to stay with Shauna's cousin and her husband, Ianthe and Mark. Ianthe went to school with my sister, but she had never met me before, and it was most generous of her and her husband to allow me to stay in their home for the weekend.
On the Saturday morning, I went into Stratford, and then went walking to Anne Hathaway's cottage, just outside the town. It took about half an hour to get there, and the pathway, while hardly rural, was almost deserted. It felt good to get away from the Stratford crowds. The cottage where Anne Hathaway grew up is charming - as a building, far more interesting than the Birthplace.
Then, a walk back to Stratford and an excellent performance of The Comedy of Errors.
I got up early the next day and caught a bus into Warwick. Warwick Castle may just be the finest in England - it is certainly an excellently presented heritage centre, run by Madame Tussaud's. The castle is huge, and different sections have been restored and presented to represent different era's in the Castle's, and England's, history.
The displays are imaginative, excellently executed, entertaining, educational and well-staffed. But that's not all (I sound like one of those infomercials, lol). On the day I visited, it hosted a large mediaeval festival, apparently a regular event. Story-tellers, jousters and food stalls abounded - I ate a delicious roast pork and apple sauce sandwich, listened to a wonderful archer - oh, okay, a good archer who was a wonderful storyteller - and, best of all, watched the jousting.
Around lunchtime, Ianthe and Mark picked me up and drove me through the Cotswolds to a very touristy but rather fun village called Bourton-on-the-Water. It was raining, but we wandered around it's many attractions - two highlights were the model town of Bourton itself (fairly accurate to what the town looked like a few decades ago, I'd say) - with a model village within the village, and a crudely modelled village within that one; and the Dragonfly Maze, with clues.
On Monday morning, Ianthe and Mark went back to work and I headed for Stratford again, where I wandered around the town, found Shakespeare's gravestone in the church, and visited Hall's Croft - the house in which Shakespeare's daughter and her doctor husband lived. I gorged myself on delicious white
chocolate double cream mints, and headed back towards Ewelme.
Oxford, Ewelme, Woodstock
By the time I got to Oxford I had a terrific migraine - but I stayed to walk around the inside of Magdalene college before I headed home - where I took my poor aching head and body to bed, cursing myself (I can usually get away with white chocolate).
The following day, I still wasn't feeling so great. In the morning I managed, at last, to get a good look at the Ewelme church. Although I had been staying right there for a week, and had stayed there for a couple of days during my previous trip, everytime I had walked up to the church there had been a reason why I couldn't enter: a church service was on, it was late and the doors were locked, etc. But now I finally got to examine its fine brasses and very impressive effigy tomb.
And then we headed out to Blenheim Palace, Winston Churchill's birthplace. After a very interesting tour, a walk through their maze and their butterfly garden, we had a picnic lunch in the beautiful grounds - landscaped by Capability Brown, just like those of Warwick Castle. A drive through the village of Woodstock ended the day.
Stonehenge and Avebury
At last came the real purpose of the trip - to see Stonehenge.
I had had a disastrous day attempting to visit Stonehenge during my last visit to England, and I just HAD to see it. Stonehenge made a huge impression on me as a little child, and, as an adult, I have felt a strong affinity with mystical, heritage-rich sites in the world - I have visited Easter Island; the stone circles in Ireland, like Carrowmore; Peru's Nazca lines - and there are so many of these places that I long to visit. Stonehenge was one of them, and I was devastated when I so narrowly missed seeing it in April.
From what I had heard and read, I had got the impression that Stonehenge was so fenced in and enclosed that visiting it would feel very alienating. Either I had misunderstood my sources or (more likely, I think) British Heritage has rethought its approach. There is a small, calf-high rope barrier which indicates where you can walk and where not - that is all. We got there early and beat most of the other tourists - Stonehenge was lovely.
Relatively close to Stonehenge is a much older, larger stone circle called Avebury. Avebury may be less visually impressive in that it does not have the lintel stones that distinguish Stonehenge. But, as someone said (I will have to check my sources), comparing Stonehenge to Avebury is like comparing a chapel to a cathedral. Avebury is well, well worth a visit - it has such a good feel to it - and far less tourists.
My holiday was drawing to a close, and I had seen everything I had set out to see and a lot more besides. I was tired, and on my second last day we took a short trip to Henley-on-Thames, best known for its regattas, and spent the rest of the day quietly - finishing off with an excellent quiche at The Shepherd's Hut.
Finally, on Friday 18 August 2000, I spent an hour at the Wallingford Museum, and then headed off to Oxford to start my overnight coach-and-ferry trip back to Carlow.
Canalletto's series of paintings of Venice, in the National Gallery.
Seeing Constable's "Hay Wain", also hanging in the National Gallery, the site of which I had visited on my previous trip to England.
Canoeing up the Thames.
Seeing Mr Bean's enemy's car, just parked on the side of a country road!
Meeting Desmond Tutu 'in the wax' at Madame Tussaud's.
Trying on hats at Fortnum & Mason's and ridiculously expensive dresses at Harrod's.
Roast beef and Yorkshire pudding in the 650 year old Barrow Mow.
Watching the jousting at Warwick Castle.
The bad view from my expensive seat in Phantom of the Opera - I had far better views from my cheap seats for The Mousetrap, Les Miserables and The Comedy of Errors.
"Hi, so glad you like the Chilterns and Ewelme, the alms houses and area around the Church are simpley wonderful. Did you know it has the oldest school still used as such in England, tis a wonderous place!!
I have also quafed a few pints in the Barley Mow, and like you love Avebury. Mind you they are all but a few miles from where I live. Great site, just one little comment, you put the caption 'Seeing Mr Bean's enemy's car, just parked on the side of a country road! That it is in fact a car for a disabled driver (not used anymore)the car your thinking of is a Relient Robin, the butt of many jokes, which is somewhat larger than the invalid car, but very similiar! Bye!" David Whittle
To read about my first trip to England, enter here.