I love London. And every time I see the logo above, this song starts looping in my mind. It never fails.
The people, the history, the culture, and the Underground. I adore the Underground, and just looking at the map and reading the names of the stations can make me all misty-eyed. The big old city with so much content is just a cheap and short flight away where we live and a practical destination for a weekend or week. And the sheer density of London is incredible, there is so much going on everywhere!
Yet, after a couple of visits a year over the past years it doesn’t seem like such an exciting and obvious answer when the question of where to spend a week of Summer. Maybe some more variety, but selecting from a similar shelf, might be in order?
This got us thinking about another grand old road trip in the UK. Visit places we’d never been to before, places where one of us had been and would like to show the other, cover roads less travelled and stay in less obvious places. And while a patriotic Brit will take you to task for saying it, the United Kingdom is a fairly compact place and with a well-functioning network of roads it is easy and quick to get around.
With Stansted Airport as the starting point, and a car the only sensible way to travel, we set up a rough route. Southbound to Brighton, West to Bristol, North through Manchester and the Lake District, East to Newcastle and then South through Oxford and home. To make it less hectic we decided on spending two night at each stop, and going for bed & breakfasts outside the city centres.
The overwhelming principle of travelling by car is that to get places you go by the big roads and to see stuff you travel by the smaller alternatives. Easy to forget, and I often find myself going for speed over content. One must mellow out and appreciate the journey, not the arrival, to take a more mindful approach to it. And there is something quintessentially British about dashing down the dappled lanes top down in a MINI coupe, taking in the smells, the sounds and the scenery.
Another important point about the UK is the sheer density of it. Think of it like Google Maps, where you can just keep zooming in and zooming further in. Whereas in Norway there will be miles and yet more miles between each point of interest, in the UK you can find interesting stuff everywhere you turn, as long as you start by turning off the main road that is. Along the main roads the most interesting thing you’ll find is a Little Chef and the day you consider that a Point of Interest you are insanely hungry and uncritical, or in need of fuel.
For us, the first stop was to be Brighton, one of the traditional seaside towns and a place we had heard good things about. We’d also heard that parking was terrible there, so we decided on a traditional seafront B&B in Worthing, the next town along. From there it was a slow and meandering bus-ride to the centre of Brighton itself.
The best bit of Brighton is the North Laines area, the vibrant, alternative area of the town with coffee bars, vegetarian restaurants, secondhand and vintage shops galore. We spent a very pleasant day wandering around. Similar to Shoreditch, in many ways, but more earthy, if that makes sense. Oh, and I had my first experience of having my hair cut by a barber, which proved most satisfactory.
After Brighton it was time to hit the road again, travelling Westwards towards Bristol. WDG had a couple of destinations in mind, so first stop was Salisbury. Notable for it’s magnificent cathedral, which contains one of the copies of the Magna Carta.
She was very keen to visit the Mulberry factory shop in the Kilver Court Designer Village in Shepton Mallet, as I imagine any number of other ladies might be. Shepton Mallet is quite like the name sounds, a little village almost in the middle of nowhere. Lovely narrow roads, great views and very much the South of England experience.
And it proved to be well worth the trip, as the shopping village itself proved to be a delightful collection of repurposed old school buildings, and there wasn’t only Mulberry of interest there. Whilst browsing on my own I found the Toast outlet and scored some excellent Harris Tweed trousers at very pleasant reductions. Nothing like some bargain tweed to make me happy!
We spent the next two nights in the delightful village of Pucklechurch, a village of 3 pubs and a large HMS prison facility. Probably a bowls green as well, somewhere. Quiet though, and the pub did serve an excellent and very reasonably priced carvery dinner. Very handy for nearby Bristol as well.
For those of us that have grown up listening to Massive Attack and Portishead, and later appreciating the street art antics of Banksy, Bristol is almost a place of pilgrimage. Not that we noticed much related to the musical history of the town, or really ever felt that we found the heart of the town itself, but it was fun trying to spot Banksy paintings. We did see at least two unmolested original paintings, which I consider a fine score, bringing my total to 3. Many fine old buildings and an excellent cathedral completed the experience.
After a morning of shopping we headed up to Bath for a look around. One of Britain’s numerous towns steeped in Heritage it was not on it’s best on the day we visited. Although parking was fairly easy to find, the town itself was overrun with language school pupils and the town centre was less than charmingly overpopulated by chain stores and dodgy looking eateries. We were looking for the genuine old Bath, and were quite disappointed. We did enjoy a reasonable Afternoon Tea in the building housing the baths the city is named after.
From Bristol on the West coast we headed North on the M5, moving rapidly to our next stopping point, Stratford upon Avon. This was to be our next destination right up until the moment when I saw a sign mention Great Malvern. Synapses sparked and I realised this is where the Morgan motorcar factory lives! It was quickly decided that this could not be missed and we turned off and followed the signs to the village of Malvern. It wasn’t difficult to find the factory itself, even though it’s not large at all. I’ll be doing a separate post on our visit there, suffice to say at this point that it was more than worth the detour and a fantastic couple of hours were spent there.
Onwards to the famous town of Stratford upon Avon. WDG being a bit of a Shakespeare and Oak Island mystery buff we wanted to stop by for a look around and visit the old bards grave. As it turned out, Stratford was quite a delightful place, with lots of properly historic houses and an excellent place to walk around. We did get to visit old Bills grave though, and wander along the scenic river Avon. This was a town with a similar burden of history to Bath, but appeared to have been a bit more restrictive with how much commercial exploitation it could handle, and it was all the better for it.
At the end of the day we found ourself at a great old B&B in Pickmere, near Knutsford. Pickmere is a village so small and inaccessible the even using GPS it’s hard to find. The perfect place for a country guesthouse with more than a hint of the classic British murder mystery.
Read on in part two!