After a lot of thought and research, last week I changed my mind about driving on this trip. I still think I could do it, the driving on the left thing, and that once I got the hang of it I would probably have a blast despite the stress of learning to shift with my left hand and trying NOT to turn on autopilot into oncoming traffic. But it seemed to be the most expensive option available to me (add paying for parking along with the rental and insurance fees) and budget is a strong consideration for me on this trip. Also, if I was going to arrive on Sunday and with Monday being a Bank Holiday, I wouldn't even be able to get a rental car until Tuesday. So it was back to doing everything by train or bus or tour bus, and I would need to plan accordingly.
Knowing that I would now spend the last 2 nights sleeping in Bath and would probably plan to spend the first two nights in Oxford, I reworked my proposed itinerary, which now looks like THIS:
- Day 1: Travel day from Paris to London. Then take train from London to Oxford (after first taking the Tube from London St. Pancras to London Paddington), arriving about 7pm. Check into [still undetermined] room and spend evening having dinner and exploring Oxford at night.
- Day 2: Stratford-upon-Avon in the morning and early afternoon, by train. [Still looking at best tour options once there.] Then back to Oxford by train in the afternoon so I can still get out and see more of the town. Wouldn't mind seeing some people rowing 8's or punting on the Thames, and keen to see all the beautiful architecture. Plus: talk about a literary city!
- Day 3: Bath, going by train probably rather early in the day. Spend the day seeing Roman Baths, Jane Austen center, Royal Crescent and so much more (thank you all for the great names and suggestions of things to do here!)
- Day 4: Mad Max Tour of Stonehenge, Avebury, Lacock and Castle Combe! I stumbled upon this tour completely by chance, while doing other research on rooms and things to do in the area. They do small group tours, 16-30 people, and this particular tour not only hits 3 of the places I had been planning to see by car (and where I had thought I might have to give up a couple of them, such as Lacock and Castle Combe, by sticking to the train) but it also includes the Avebury stone circles which predate Stonehenge and which are less touristed, and photo stops at some other ancient sites. I think we'll even see an inn that Charles Dickens used to frequent! Turns out that Rick Steves and Lonely Planet have both recommended Mad Max Tours, and that's good enough for me. I will let someone else do the driving and for £32.50 I can spend a day seeing things I'd never have seen if I were confined to a train. I'll see all of these fascinating places in one day, easily. And I'll be back in Bath by around 4:30, still time to see and do more there on my last night. Send thoughts out for GOOD weather on this day for me, May 8th, so that I can get great photos and really enjoy myself.
- Day 5: Train to Salisbury, where I will see the cathedral and anything else I can squeeze in (will probably have to forego Old Sarum but I'm OK with that because I'll be seeing Stonehenge, Avebury AND Silbury Mound the day before; also decided to skip Southampton altogether since all my family reall did there was arrive, get on a boat to NY, and leave). Then on to Winchester by train, for more Jane Austen/the Cathedral and possibly some King Arthur's Round Table which I am still looking into. Then, it's on to London to catch the 20:01 train back home to Paris! An ambitious travel day by train, but totally doable since I have very specific things in mind that I want to see. As long as I catch my train home on time, I don't care how exhausted I am at the end of it!
Having had such success in 2007 with traveling via Eurailpass around the Continent, I assumed a Britrail pass would probably be my smartest choice, both in terms of cost and convenience. My first round of research uncovered something call the Britrail Southwest England Pass that covered (I thought) all the places I wished to go by train. The problem was that they seem to have 2 different possible agendas depending on your country of origin (and payment). If you're coming from the US they had passes for 2, 3 or 4 consecutive days, but if coming from Europe, I could only find the 2 and 4 day passes being offered, and I was planning to pay with my French bank card since that's where the money is these days.
Then, I learned that Stratford-upon-Avon is outside of the Southwest pass region -- just BARELY. Pfft. Then I found another one, the Britrail London Plus pass, that seemed to cover all the cities including Shakespeare's town, but in order for me to get from Bath to Salisbury, which were both covered, I would have to travel WAY out of my way as their map didn't seem to cover direct connections between those cities.
Despite having had several British nationals tell me how costly it is to travel by train in England (they aren't eligible for the Britrail passes) I decided to see what it would cost me if I planned and pre-ordered advance tickets for each individual leg of my trip, based on the above itinerary. And you know what? I used a site called The Train Line and got quotes for all the individual tickets, and in the process found some super-cheap fares (such as one for only £5.00 to get from London to Oxford that first night!) when you buy the tickets in advance online and are willing to commit to taking specific trains. Britrail and Eurail passes, in comparison, offer more overall flexibility with regard to what trains you can take, and that can be quite nice in case you change your plans during your vacation. But here on the BCLT tour, price is important and I have the ability to plan my time around finding the best fares. So all totalled, my train fares should cost me quite a bit LESS than the Britrail pass, and I will still have all my tickets in advance which will save time at the train stations. I haven't booked those tickets yet, but plan to do so in the next few days to get the best prices. Another win for the budget!
Plus with doing this totally cool Mad Max tour on the 4th day, I'll get a bit of a break from all those trains, something I wouldn't have been able to do on the Britrail 4 consecutive day passes (you pay more for flexible passes).
Next up: where to stay in Oxford -- Airbnb, Guest House, Hotel? And in which part of town? And figuring out tour details in each place I'm visiting: what do I want to see most, and what can I fit in if there's extra time?
Also: putting together a list of all the literary references having to do with the places I'm going to visit. For instance, years ago I read The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester, which was a very bizarre but true story of how the Oxford English Dictionary was written in part by an American doctor who was committed to an insane asylum in England after having murdered someone. It was a selection in a book club I was in at the time and not the type of book I ordinarily would have wanted to read, but I really liked it and may now try and re-read it before my trip. I'm also reading Sarum by Edward Rutherford, and very much enjoying his historical fiction work about the evolution of England as centered on Salisbury -- which was originally called Sarum.