I’m sitting in the sweetest room in an equally charming property, The Noel Arms Hotel, in the middle of Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire – one of many gorgeous little villages in the Cotswolds.
The three-course dinner served downstairs this evening was nothing short of superb; and I have to admit the company was equally as good. Our four-day Heart of England tour (the first for 2012, and in a brand new vehicle, no less) commenced this morning in London.
Our Back Roads Touring guide, VJ, met our travelling troupe at Lancaster Gate Hotel at 8.30am, packed our bags into the mini bus and whisked us away from the city.
As anyone who has been to the UK knows, there’s nothing quite like exploring the lush English countryside – rolling green hills, old stone walls as far as the eye can see, and even some famous literary and film locations dotted along the map. Have to mention particularly for my mum that we drove through Midsomer Murders country – Chiltern Hills (Buckinghamshire) on the way to our first stop major stop, Oxford. Sunny spells throughout the morning meant we were able to explore the university town with ease and relative warmth.
Oxford is a small city of around 155,000 – known of course for its university and education industry, but also for publishing (Oxford University Press) and motoring (there’s an important Morris Motors factory in area). The university itself has no ‘exact founding date’, however there is evidence of teaching there from around 1096, and it is evidently one of the oldest surviving universities in the world.
VJ guided us through the beautiful grounds, famous Christ Church (or ‘the House’) and cathedral, grand Great Hall (well known now to a new generation of fans who love Harry Potter films), covered market (brimming with ‘distractions’, as VJ called the colourful shopping options), through colleges, libraries and monuments to all those who have lived, died and sacrificed for the development of this prestigious institution. VJ is an informed guide who expertly explained all the mysteries, myths and legends surrounding the development of many of the great buildings of Oxford, as well as reminding us of some of the most renowned graduates of the university.
It would be easy to spend days discovering and learning more about this beautiful ‘city of dreaming spires’ (as described by poet, Matthew Arnold), but the few hours spent with VJ on site was insightful and offered an ideal overview of the university hub.
Our next destination, Blenheim Palace, is also another location where days could very easily be spent exploring (and it’s similarly recognisable as a popular filming location in England).
The magnificent property (located in Woodstock, Oxfordshire) is home to the 11th Duke and Duchess of Marlborough and is the birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill. Lavish, beautiful architecture, art, sculpture and tapestries adorn each internal wall and room; The grounds and gardens are immaculate and stretch for miles – literally.
The scope of the property is monumental, as is the collection of historical Churchill memorabilia – letters, photos, objects. The palace’s history dates back through Winston Churchill’s family, among a few other dignified British names, and the property itself is well maintained and boasts many helpful guides who know the history inside-out. We were all a bit awe-struck by Blenheim and its beauty and this stop was a highlight of ‘day one’.
Following our spectacular stop-off at Blenheim we meandered through nearby back streets and lanes, some so narrow that VJ had to expertly dodge on-coming vehicles because locals actually park ‘on’ the road. He pointed out some interesting features, buildings and stops on the pretty drive through the Cotswolds, and we were fortunate enough to take a peek at the Rollright Stones – a single stone, the King’s Stone, located on one side of the road (hidden from view behind trees, but positioned on a mound overlooking valleys and villages); and on the other side of the road we discovered a circle of stones, named The King’s Men Stone Circle. Thought to be around 5000 years old, this site was particularly intriguing for me – I love a good mystery steeped in ancient English myth!
No tourists, no barriers (ala Stonehenge), just us and a scene dating back thousands of years. Legend has been passed down that if you count the number of stones in the circle three times and come up with the same answer each time, you’ll either die or find the love of your life. Needless to say we didn’t feel the need to test the theory, although one brave soul (and popular American author!), Kay Moser, did give it a go… she’s still here so we’re going with the ‘love of your life’ theory playing out in her future. We also drove through a little place called Moreton in Marsh, reportedly the safest town in the UK because all the emergency services train there – they even have their own motorway for accident and emergency drills, and ladies, there’s a fire-fighters academy too! Who would have thought, in the middle of England?!
We casually checked in to the hotel late afternoon, freshened up, some explored Chipping Campden village, and then we met around 7pm for a drink and dinner get-together. So far the tour has been interesting and easy. Back Roads Tours have thus far proved to be small, comfortable and personal, with an intelligent calibre of travellers attracted to the program. Our group is a savvy, fun team of smart and well-travelled women (and two men, including VJ) – mostly Aussies, with a sprinkling of Americans and Canadians. Time for bed – Shakespeare’s country tomorrow.
VIEW THE PHOTOS HERE / and HERE.
WHERE: Oxford, Blenheim Palace, Rollright Stones, Cotswolds.
HOW: Back Roads Touring UK and Escape Travel Australia.
STAYED / DINED: Noel Arms Hotel, Chipping Campden
You know you’re in the UK when you hear a BBC weather report that states it’s going to be “sunny, windy, cold, rainy with a chance of hail”! knew I should have bought a brolly yesterday!
Not even the weather report can put a ‘dampener’ on my spirits. I woke up early this morning – even too early for Starbucks! At least McDonalds is open and thriving. More keen for a half hour of internet (and a hash brown) than brekky, because I wanted to pop a mini update online before we head off. Stayed at the lovely Lancaster Gate Hotel last night – a brilliant option because it’s only minutes walk from Hyde Park, Kensington Park, Bayswater and Queensway Tubes and shopping precincts. My room was clean, comfortable and I was very happy to have a chance to unwind from the flight in a warm bath yesterday afternoon. Will definitely add a positive review for this property on TripAdvisor. It’s also conveniently the pick-up point for our Back Roads tour this morning. Speaking of which… better eat my porridge (yes, I did make a sensible breakfast choice after all) because I’m boarding the coach soon. Have a great day / night wherever you may be in the world. SB x
Is it wrong to order a beer at 11am on a Monday? I have reasoned pretty well that it’s not. Firstly, it’s actually 8.30pm in Australia and (I’m telling myself) obviously my body clock is still on Australian time. I only just landed at Heathrow, after all (well, that was a few hours ago, but…).
Secondly, I did peer in the windows of The Black Lion (opposite Queensway Tube) to make sure there were indeed others partaking. Of course, it’s London – and there were. Some have suitcases, others are writing in diaries… I fit right in.
I wasn’t going to stop, but this morning’s sun just disappeared, it’s raining, John Farnham’s You’re the Voice is sounding from the stereo inside (it’s a sign!), and a sign (a real one, this time) popped out from the pub at me – Free WiFi. Sold!
It would be rude to use the free internet without buying something, right?
Bizarrely it feels like I never left England. Walking down Bayswater Road this morning I couldn’t help but smile. I actually can’t believe I’m back here. Kensington Park looks as lovely as ever. The morning was glimmering under English sunshine – crisp and delicious air. *love*.
Cooper called and busted me – spending money already – right as I was at the counter of Starbucks – my first scheduled stop. You can ridicule and say I have no ‘coffee etiquette’ – why am I spending my GBP at a chain? Well, Starbucks is more than just coffee to me. It’s where I spent time looking for jobs when I moved here; it’s where I sat for hours on the internet, meeting other travellers and finding out about life in London. For me, Starbucks has sentimental value, and remains a big part of my adventures and memories abroad.
With the first stop complete, I promptly nipped across to Tesco and bought some sushi, yummy. Another daily ritual I got used to in my ‘past life’ here.
It was shortly after this that I realised something.
It’s bloody freezing! I swiftly walked down to Whiteleys where I knew chances were high that I’d drop some coin on a hat and scarf (any excuse for a purchase from one of my fave shops, Accessorize). Unfortunately (and Cooper will love this) I’ve found that every shop here is stocking ‘summer’ gear – so my beloved hats and scarves aren’t in stock. That’s bad. Maybe I should have packed some warmer clothes! I was browsing H&M looking for similar attire when I heard a familiar accent ask where their hats are because it’s “freezing outside”, and the shop assistant told my fellow Aussie traveller, “it’s not the season, try Zara”.
We both went next door to Zara but alas, no hats either. I did buy a scarf though (had to spend my money on something, sorry Cooper!), and will be back later in the week… wow their new season looks are gorgeous!!!
Won’t ramble too much more (can you tell I have been on a plane for the best part of 20 hours with little sleep, on my third Starbucks latte and as of 20-minutes ago, first beer?). Am still getting used to travelling on my own, and must admit to being envious of the other adventuring couples I’ve met on the plane(s), here in the pub… Usually I’d be with Cooper. While I was waiting for a train at Brisbane Airport though, I made friends with a lovely little Italian girl who, like me, was sad to be leaving her love. Or rather, he’d had to leave her to come home to the EU while she stays on in Australia. We both chatted about travel, life and love and I gave her a hug to wish her well for the rest of her journey. She’s only 19 but was such a sweetheart – I’ll probably run into her in Cairns, if irony has its way.
The Qantas flights were smooth, staff lovely… only complaint is regarding a child who screamed at the pitch only a one-year-old (and Mariah Carey) can reach – ALL night AND into the wee hours of the morning. Actually, on that note, I feel completely justified enjoying this cold beer (yes, cold… in England – never had a warm beer here, by the way) at…. oh, would you look at that, it’s midday. Time for another, perhaps?
Today: check-in to hotel, charge camera (my shiny fabulous new Nikon S9300, no less – thank you, Duty Free) and computer. Sleep.
Tomorrow: Board the Back Roads Touring coach for an exciting English tour – I’m the Back Roads blogger for a moment in time, after all.
I am the luckiest girl in the world. SB x
Ready for my big journey. Said goodbye to mum, dad, the dog… and Cooper of course. Being on my own, have to say I’m loving my luggage from American Tourister – it’s easy to get around with and looks great. Can you believe – and even Vincent thought this was completely amazing – I checked in with just over 10kg of luggage! *record*.
Anyway, update you all more on the other side… well, hopefully in Singapore at some ungodly hour tonight ;-)
Thanks for this exciting opportunity, Escape Travel!!
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It’s finally here. I’m sitting at Cairns’ airport waiting for the flight that will take me on the first leg of my journey back towards the UK. I’ve been so excited about it for weeks but about an hour ago I must admit to feeling a little teary. I’ll let you in on a secret. I’ve never been on my own this far from home before. While many of my friends went travelling when they were younger, I was pursuing career opportunities. I’d always felt I missed out on travel; that was until we had the chance to go and live + work in the UK because a school there required Cooper’s teaching skills. That was 2010. Of course I’ve been lucky enough to do quite a bit of travelling since then, but here’s the second part of my secret – I’ve been through everything major in my life with Cooper by my side since I was 21. I’m now 33 – actually I’m 32 but turning 33 this week… while I’m away (don’t think I’ve ever had a birthday alone either). He’s been there to help me lug bags, waits patiently for me to deal with the occasional ‘Sarah freak-outs’ (usually when I’m lacking sleep), guides me through my ‘blonde moments’ and makes me laugh when I’m worried about things. I feel a little like a kid off for their first day of school – which is ridiculous because I’m too old to be worried about being so far away from home on my own for two weeks with all manner of things that could go wrong – aren’t I? Mini freak-out no.1.
Then there’s the ‘Harry factor’ – the dog-child who for some reason since I’ve been home has clung to me for dear life and looks for me when I’m gone. I fret that he’s 10-years-old, fragile and sensitive. Actually, he’ll probably be right if Cooper just keeps feeding him bones – the answer to all life’s dilemmas – in a dog’s world, anyway. Consequently I did a last-minute dash to IGA this morning to stock up on frozen, crunchy treats for him.
I will miss my boys, and yes Cooper, although I am irritable at times I do very much appreciate you (especially now I have to lug my own bags). As I sit at the airport de-stressing with a Corona at The Coffee Club (as one does), I stop to take a breath and look forward. Soon I’ll be back in London – not my second home, but my ‘other’ home. For this travel blogging opportunity (thanks Escape Travel!) I’m beyond grateful. I must have done something good in a past life, I reckon. I accidently-on-purpose forgot to pack a hat and scarf – oops! First stop, Accessorize. I will be tired when I get there too and therefore will require sustenance – Starbucks and Tesco it is! It is funny how you miss some seemingly small, insignificant things that are part of daily life – Superdrug, Boots, Sainsburys, Camden Market and Broadway Market… London Bridge, The Thames, St Pauls, Angel and London Fields. Hey…there’s that little skip in my heart again! See you all on the other side x
Listening: Nicki Minaj, Pink Friday, Roman Reloaded.
Reading: Issues? What Issues? -Alli & Genine.
Carrying: American Tourister.
Sleeping: Silverbridge mini boomerang pillow.