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Published: September 15th 2013
The Water Terrace at the surprisingly impressive Blenheim Palace.
A trip to the open spaces and fresh air of the Cotswolds probably could not have come at a better time. I had just had a really difficult week at work and big city life can get to you sometimes - this was the perfect opportunity to get away and clear my head.
England has some of the most beautiful countryside you will see and you don't have to travel far to escape to it.
I could've done without the early start though.
I booked our hire car to be picked up from Heathrow because it was far enough out of the city to avoid the horrendous London inner city traffic and because there was a lot of rental car choice and availability out there.
The catch was a 6.30am start as I tubed into the airport to meet up with my old flatmates Loren and Rangi aka "Longi".
Longi used to flat with me back in Auckland in my first flat, the first time I had ever lived away from home. Longi provided me with a couch to sleep on when I first arrived in London almost six years ago and they're still kicking around the place like I
With great views across the Cotswolds.
We used to talk about the travels we would do back then but we never got round to it. Having caught up with Loren recently, I thought it was about high time to finally fulfil those promises.
Another catch about picking up the car from Heathrow was the fact that we had to make our way to the Holiday Inn to pick up the car. This involved jumping on the "Hotel Hoppa" which took passengers from the airport, around to all the different airport hotels. At £4.50 for 10-minute ride, it was a complete rip-off but our only option.
Once we got there, the process to pick up the car was so...slow. Our patience was rewarded with a new, clean, Nissan Qashqai, a 4-door SUV/hatchback crossover that was bigger than I was expecting.
It was a smooth drive too and I really enjoyed driving for the first time in a year and a half - in fact it was the first time I had ever driven in the UK and so I didn't know you had to submit the "green piece of paper" that came with your UK drivers licence to the hire company. I also had a
Classic Cotswolds Cottage
A classic example of the cute cottages of which there are an abundance in the Cotswolds.
bit of trouble with the manual transmission - although I learnt to drive in a manual, most of the driving I have done since has been in an automatic. It has been a while since I had to think about which gear I should be using other than "drive" and each car is different in terms of which gear you should be using at which time so it took a while for me to figure it out.
At least I was driving on the left hand side of the road - my natural side, since we drive on the left in New Zealand too.
The English country roads are a scenic treat and after about one hour forty five minutes we had arrived at our first picturesque Cotswold village - Chipping Campden. A cute, dinky name for a cute, dinky town.
The beigy-clay colour of all the old buildings were reminiscent of nearby Oxford
. The buildings are all authentic however, as attested to by the low ceilings of them all. People must've been tiny back in the day. Chipping Campden's main highlights were the old Market Hall and the big church, St James's.
It was all rather
On the way up to Broadway Tower.
relaxing and nothing emphasised this more than when we stepped inside a cafe/restaurant for lunch, only to be told that they stopped serving lunch at 1.30pm! I couldn't believe my ears.
The lunch we had was OK once we finally found a place that wasn't either closed or full, although my steak was a bit overcooked.
The next town on our Cotswold hit list was Broadway, a few miles down the road.
Similar in look and size to Chipping Campden, the highlight here was a walk through the paddocks and up a hill to Broadway Tower, which had magnificent views across the Cotswolds. An 18th-century "rook" of sorts, it was used as an observer tower during World War II. As a sight though, it was fair to say it was pretty average - you go up there mainly for the fresh air, the exercise and the view. It was a decent workout too, as Loren will tell you!
On the way down we stopped by at the 12th-century Church Of Eadburgha before having a well-earned drink at the ye olde pub, the Crown & Trumpet.
When it came time to get some dinner, it seemed that all the pubs
Looks like the sort of generic landscape scene you'd expect to see on painted onto a set of place-mats you'd buy for your dining table.
and restaurants in Broadway was full and it was impossible to get a table. To be fair, in a town of 2,500 there isn't a lot to choose from so we drove on to Winchcombe, where we managed to find a pub with a cool and charming ambience. I had Beef Wellington for the first time which I have to say was quite bland, and had a Bakewell tart with perhaps slightly too much almond essence served with Cotswolds ice cream that perhaps wasn't sweet enough. I didn't seem to be having much luck with food in the Cotswolds.
It had been a long day so we made our way to Cheltenham after dinner, where our accommodation was.
The "hotel" was actually a house where the rooms had all been turned into self-contained studios. Earlier in the day, I was texted the front-door and room access codes which got us into the room. Not dissimilar to the hostel I stayed at in Bergen
, there is no reception or staff and all the studios share bathrooms and toilets.
It was all clean and functional and I was impressed with the bathrooms - they were new and spotless and they had
The prettiest of all the villages we visited in the Cotswolds.
a proper handtowel. More shared bathrooms should have proper handtowels.
The only bad mark was for my bed, which was a fold-down leather sofa. I don't like sleeping on leather as it just doesn't feel right, and the sheets and mattress cover were sliding all over the place all night. Otherwise it was a good experience and good value at £65 for the night between three.
Longi hires cars quite regularly - regularly enough for them to invest in their on sat-nav and thank God they brought it with them. With its Kiwi accented instructions ("let's get going and find ourselves a mean steak and cheese pie") our Tom Tom probably saved us a sh*tload of time by mapping out our route - even calculating the fastest route after taking into account real-time traffic information - and telling us exactly when to turn and when. It even warned me if there were speed cameras ahead. How did we ever cope without them?
Our first town of the day was Bourton-On-The-Water, a town which Lonely Planet says has sold its soul to tourism. Not expecting too much then, we were pleasantly surprised when we saw how pretty it actually
Old Cotton Mill
The old mill cum museum and tea shop in Lower Slaughter.
was. With a stream running along the high street and beautiful old footbridges crossing over it, Bourton was definitely the prettiest town we had seen, despite the incessant number of tourists.
Parking the car in Bourton's massive tourist carpark, we then strolled through the town and crossed some paddocks before arriving at Lower Slaughter.
A three-time winner of the Bledisloe Cup - for being Gloucestershire's best-kept village as opposed to being trans-Tasman rugby champions - Lower Slaughter, with its golden brick cottages and old cotton mill, was a postcard picture of the quintessential English country village.
We then walked through another paddock and a meadow to reach Upper Slaughter. The Cotswolds are famous for their cottages and Upper Slaughter had them in abundance - they were exactly the sort of cottages that were illustrated in your old nursery rhyme books. It is all rather Wind In The Willows.
We lunched back at Lower Slaughter in the old cotton mill cum museum / tea shop where I finaly got some luck with the food as I enjoyed a ploughman's platter, complete with scotch egg and pork pie. Sitting in an old country house with 40s jazz playing out the speakers, it
Another classic Cotswold cottage although you'd be fined £2 if you left the gate open at this one. Would be interested in how they police the fine.
was like a nostalgic trip back in time - to a more simple time without all the stress of modern life, a time I was almost yearning for, at the time.
We walked through Bourton one more time, splashing out on the delicious local Cotswolds fudge while we were at it, before we made our way to our next destination.
I must say that while I enjoyed the driving, I am not a fan of British roads, which keep you on your toes.
The British seemed to think that roundabouts are the answer to every junction problem and there seems to be one every hundred metres. You don't even realise some of them are actually roundabouts until you are halfway round them, what with some having a petrol station right in the middle of it. The road markings are poor and confusing in a lot of places - there were some roads where the lane markings suddenly changed and I had no idea whether I was still in my lane, was driving on the median barrier, or was driving straight onto oncoming traffic., Some turn-offs also look like the continuation of the road - it is as if maze
Dining Hall At Blenheim Palace
Probably the most impressive room in the palace.
designer had been let loose on Britain's country roads, deliberately trying to to fool motorists at every turn.
Anyway, having spent all weekend so far in cute rural villages, we went from country cottages to aristocratic palaces, as we rocked up at Blenheim Palace.
I got a bit of a shock at the ticket office; "that'll be £22 each please". What? This better be good.
It was. For a palace I had never heard of, it was as surprisingly impressive as it was surprisingly expensive. The grounds and gardens were immaculately kept and some of the rooms inside were as majestic as any of the palace rooms I have seen throughout Europe. Having seen so many palaces though, you do get the feeling that if you've seen one old grand palace, that you've seen them all.
Built in the early 18th century as a gift to John Churchill, the 1st Duke Of Marlborough and national war hero, the palace had many stories connected to it and some of them were told as part of the "Untold Stories Of Blenheim Palace", a 40-minute tour of the palace's second floor where the history of the palace was told through dressed-up, robotic
A dinky village with the dinkiest name.
mannequins on purpose-built sets. I was pretty tired and not particularly interested to be completely honest, so didn't really absorb much of it.
There was also an exhibition in the palace on Winston Churchill - I'm no British historian so I was surprised to learn that Blenheim Palace was indeed the birthplace of Winston Churchill and that he was born from aristocracy.
While not quite Versailles, Blenheim Palace was still grandiose in its own right.
And with that came the drive back to Heathrow and the end of a quiet, relaxing weekend in the English countryside. Special shout out to Loren and Rangi for the great company.
My next entry will also be coming from the countryside - the French countryside this time, as I report from Kelley and Penelope's wedding.
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