I know that originally, I really thought I'd be up for actually DRIVING around the southwest of England all by my lonesome. And I'd like to say now, to those of you who wrote in to tell me I'd be freaking out of my mind and that I should just take the trains: YOU WERE RIGHT. OK? Are you happy now? You were right.
The trains were a piece of cake. Mostly on time. No problems, even at the Eurostar passport control going from Paris to London (where they can be super-strict -- but where the official told me "You look like a trustworthy person!"). I even remembered how to get around the London Tube, where I had to go from:
... and from Paddington Station, I got on a train to Oxford.
I had prepurchased all my train tickets from Paddington until my return to London via TheTrainLine.com, and it worked out very well. You can look for the cheapest fairs for each leg of your journey, if it's important to save money, or you can just choose the schedule that works best for you. For a small shipping fee, they get them to you in very quick order, too. I could have opted to pick them up in London but I didn't want to deal with that; that's why I had them mailed to me in Paris.
Of course, sometimes train travel can be boring. The "scenery" around most train tracks is the least attractive in most cities, and if you happen to pass something photo-worthy, it will probably flash by in a blur and you won't get the shot.
And then sometimes, you've got urban "scenery" that ticks ALL the boxes:
Sometimes, the most interesting things to look at are at the stations themselves, such as when this young duck came looking for a snack in Oxford station, early in the morning (I was on my way to see Shakespeare).
We're all used to seeing pigeons at train stations, but ducks? That seems very English to me.
The train stations themselves were sometimes interesting. In one small town where I had to change trains, the ladies' toilet had a little sitting area with this coal fireplace in it, a throwback to days gone by before modern heating.
I have to say, the train station toilets were remarkably clean and well cared for (check out the good condition of those herringbone-pattern wood floors!), not to mention convenient, at every station I saw; usually they're located right on the platforms!
In three towns -- Oxford, Stratford-upon-Avon and Bath -- I got around using City Sightseeing Tours double-decker open-roof tour buses. Touristy, I know, but I had minimal time at each place. In Stratford, where two of the major attractions -- Anne Hathaway house and the Mary Arden farm -- are both miles outside the town, you have no other choice but to take one of these buses unless you have your own car. And in Bath, which proved to be on a fairly steep hill in places, it was also a way to get around without wearing myself out.
You don't need to reserve in advance, just show up at any one of the stops, climb aboard and pay the driver. You can hop on or hop off all day long, and they give you your own headset so you can listen to audio in your language. It's easy, it's relaxing, and it helps you see a lot in a short amount of time, if you're traveling on the clock as I was.
I got very, VERY lucky on this trip: the weather was really quite good overall, and on the day I was in Bath all day on the tour bus, it was actually sunny and hot, and I got a bit pink on the shoulders and face! The one day when it rained, it was at the end of a mini-coach tour just as we were leaving our last stop of the day. I got drenched walking to my rented room in Bath on the way back but that was the extent of the rain. Some days were cloudy or windy, but none of my sightseeing got rained out, and considering this was springtime in England, I'd say that was just perfect enough.
The mini-coach tour was another awesome way to get around and see things, and leave the driving to someone else. We took all sorts of winding country roads through villages filled with thatched-roof stone cottages, and passed many canals and rivers with colorful canal boats:
Only in Salisbury and Winchester (and again in London) on my last day did I take a taxi anywhere. When I arrived in Salisbury, I had been thinking I could walk from the train station to the Cathedral. Unfortunately, I had not counted on my having bought WAY TOO MUCH CRAP so that not only was my backpack too heavy, but I was toting two additional shopping bags full of souvenirs. So much for traveling light.
So, I hopped in a cab at the station and what luck! The driver was a lovely older gentlemen, and when I asked him how far it was from Salisbury center to Old Sarum (which I've been reading about in Edward Rutherfurd's historical novel, Sarum) he said, "About 6 minutes away. Want me to take you out there?" And off we went. He was a wealth of information about the area and its long history dating back to prehistoric times (Stonehenge is only a few miles outside Salisbury, but I'm saving THAT for another post). He waited while I got out of the car at Sarum and walked around for about 5 or 10 minutes (yes, the meter was running) and then he took me to the Cathedral. It was a bonus I hadn't been expecting, to be able to go out and walk around this hill fort site that started before the Romans and which was used for generations, including by William the Conqueror.
Winchester was my last stop on the trip before heading home, and I opted to walk from the station to the Winchester Cathedral, with all my bags, which was probably a mistake. A taxi would have helped me conserve what little energy I had left. Because after a lengthy visit in the cathedral and paying my respects to Jane Austen (more on that in another post, too), I walked out of the church and decided I was done. As in: I want to go home now. I didn't even have the oompf left in me to walk the two or three blocks to take a picture of the house in which Jane Austen died. (It's a private home so I would only have been able to see the exterior; I decided I could live without seeing that since I'd just seen her grave and memorial.) I also skipped going to a big medieval hall that has King Arthur's Round Table. It's a shame I was so tired and overburdened with bags on that last day, because both Salisbury and Winchester look like absolutely delightful towns, well worth taking some time to stroll around and explore. Oh well, now I'll have a reason to go back some day.
So, I found a taxi (see that taxi in the photo above?) to take me back up the hill to the station, and I headed back to London on an earlier train. It went direct to London Waterloo instead of to Paddington via a change of trains in Reading, so that was a plus. Only glitch there was that the Tube is less direct between Waterloo and St. Pancras stations, so one last taxi was my smartest option, especially with the heavy bags.
Which left me four hours to kill waiting at the Eurostar station, instead of the 1 1/2 or 2 I'd planned on. I tried to get an earlier train but my tickets were not changable and to buy a new ticket would have cost more than twice what I'd paid for the original. At least they had good shopping, restaurants and even live music in the station.
The long and short of it is, I am SO glad now that I didn't try to drive. It might have been fun for, like, a DAY. But all day, every day? I must have had a moment of temporary insanity when I thought that me driving around England in 2013 was a good idea just because my dad did it in 1956 while touring there with my grandparents.
So thank you for talking me out of it. You know who you are.
Next up: Rubbing elbows with Will Shakespeare in Stratford.