English and Welsh Countryside (Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwick, Bath, the Cotswolds, Wye River Valley, Chepstow, & Cardiff)


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September 19th 2006
Published: February 13th 2009
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After spending a full week in London, Mike and I headed out of the city and spent six days in the English and Welsh countryside visiting Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwick, Bath, Stonehenge, Avebury, and the Cotswolds. During our one day in Wales, we managed to see the Wye River Valley (Tintern Abbey and Chepstow Castle) and Cardiff.

Lodging: We stayed at three different bed and breakfasts during this part of the trip. Each of these bed and breakfasts are described throughout the entry.

Blenheim Palace: A massive country house located in Woodstock, this building is the only non-episcopal country house in England to hold the title "palace". The house was built as a gift for John Churchill, the 1st Duke of Marlborough as thanks for his role in beating the French at the Battle of Blenheim in 1704. The gorgeous Baroque building is still lived in by the 11th Duke of Marlborough, John Spencer-Churchill. Mike joked during our visit that we were visiting "his family home". It is quite a long story, but although Mike's last name is Churchill, it should actually be Dunnihoo, so no, much to his own disappointment, he is not related to the famous Sir Winston Churchill. After paying the entrance fee, we opted to participate in one of the guided tours, which departed regularly throughout the day. The tour took us through the formal state rooms and the gorgeous Long Library. After touring the interior of the palace, we walked outside and wandered through the formal gardens before heading out towards Woodstock Park. This area of the property was filled with dozens of sheep and miles and miles of walking paths. We didn't venture too far into the park though as we had to get going, but we were lucky enough to get some great shots of the palace as the sun was setting.

Stratford-upon-Avon: While Stratford is incredibly famous for being the birthplace of one of it's former residents, William Shakespeare, aside from visiting his houses, wandering through the streets of the town, and stopping by the River Avon to enjoy the views, there wasn't too much more to do here. As a result, we only spent 1/2 day exploring the town before we headed out to Warwick Castle.

The Emsley Guest House in Stratford-upon-Avon: We spent one night at this most amazing bed and breakfast; in hindsight, we wished we would had stayed longer! The owners (Keith & Val) were very friendly, kind, and helpful. After assisting Mike park our rental car, they sat us down in the lounge to give us an overview of Stratford-upon-Avon, and provided lots of recommendations for nearby restaurants. We stayed in the York room, which was extremely clean. We were very glad to see a shower in the bathroom, as some of our other accommodations in England had bathtubs instead. The breakfast, though, was the most enjoyable part of our experience at the Emsley! It was delicious and the best breakfast we had throughout our two week stay in England and Wales. The location of the B&B was great; we were within walking distance to all the major sites in Stratford. When we go back to England, we definitely plan on staying here again!

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust: Part of this organization's responsibilities are to oversee and care for the properties relating to Shakespeare in and around the town of Stratford-upon-Avon. Of the multiple homes that are owned by the trust, we chose to visit Shakespeare's Birthplace, Hall's Croft, Nash's House and New Place, and Anne Hathway's Cottage. Shakespeare's Birthplace was a beautifully restored half-timbered Elizabethan building furnished as though it would have appeared
The beautiful exterior of Hall's Croft in Stratford-upon-AvonThe beautiful exterior of Hall's Croft in Stratford-upon-AvonThe beautiful exterior of Hall's Croft in Stratford-upon-Avon

This house was owned by William Shakespeare's daughter, Susannah, and her husband Dr John Hall whom she married in 1607
when the Bard was growing up. After touring the house (which was surprisingly small) we walked through the gardens in the backyard. Hall's Croft was probably our favorite Shakespearean property, which was the home of his daughter and her husband, who was a doctor. When the Tudor style house was built, quite a bit of money was spent, so the house was lavishly decorated, for it's time. What we enjoyed about this house the most was the guides in each of the room. Because Hall's Croft was much further from Shakespeare's Birthplace, there were much less tourists, so the guides had more time to give us information about the house. We also stopped in at Nash's House and New Place, which was the home where Shakespeare retired. Nash was the first husband of one of his granddaughters. Originally, New Place once stood next door to Nash's House, but was demolished in the 1700's. It now remains as an empty garden lot. Finally, on our way out of Stratford-upon-Avon, we visited Anne Hathway's Cottage. Anne was the wife of Shakespeare, and her family home is a quaint thatched 12 room farmhouse that provides great insight to life during that time.

Warwick Castle: After leaving Anne Hathway's Cottage, our next stop was Warwick Castle, built by William the Conqueror in 1068, and considered by many to be one of England's finest medieval castles. Unfortunately, the castle has been overtaken by a marketing scheme that was a tad too distasteful, in my opinion. Madame Tussaud's company was hired back in the 1970's to fill many of the interior rooms with it's famous wax figures, which seemed a bit out of place and over the top. Instead of being able to enjoy the design and architecture of each room, we were instead drawn to the wax figures. However, tacky wax figures aside, the castle had quite a lot of different attractions to offer to visitors, including the state rooms, the great hall, armory, torture chamber, mill and engine house, large gardens, and when the weather cooperates, jousting tournaments in the main courtyard. While we probably wouldn't visit this attraction again, I would recommend it to first timers and those with young children, who would definitely enjoy the castle.

Wye River Valley: While planning our trip, I figured that since we were going to be visiting the western part of England, we might as well plan a day to spend in southeastern Wales, which was only a short drive away. I had read many great things about the natural beauty of this area and it's many tourist attractions, such as Tintern Abbey, Chepstow Castle, and further out, the capital of Cardiff and it's castle, along with the Museum of Welsh Life in St. Fagans.

Florence Country House in the Wye River Valley: We spent one night at this characteristic bed and breakfast in southeast Wales. Unfortunately, we arrived later at night than we had anticipated due to getting lost, so we had quite a bit of difficulty finding the B & B as it was located on an unlit country road. Although we arrived nearly one hour later than we had initially told them, the owners of the B & B were quite understanding of our situation. In addition to having the traditional English breakfast, we also paid extra to have a dinner meal as there was a restaurant on the premises. The food was decent and fairly priced. We really liked our room; it was quite large with a modern bathroom. The only drawback was the massive beams that protruded down from the ceiling; I swear that Mike probably hit his head at least 25 times during our 12 hour stay. The best part of the Florence Country House however was it's picturesque location over the Wye River; one of the most gorgeous scenes ever.

Tintern Abbey: Originally founded in 1131 by Norman monks, the location of the abbey on the River Wye in Monmouthshire was specifically chosen for it's tranquility and serenity. Life ran relatively smoothly here for nearly 400 years until the reign of Henry VIII. He decided to end traditional monastic life in England and Wales as a way to take advantage of the monasteries great wealth. The abbey was surrendered to the King in 1536 and lead from the roof was later sold, which led to the eventual decay of the buildings. For the next two centuries, the abbey received little to no attention until 1782, when a book was published on the River Wye area and tourists began to visit the site. Ever since then, people have continued to come and visit these picturesque ruins which look exquisite with the beautiful Wye River Valley behind them. Tintern Abbey is a gorgeous sight that should be visited by all who come to this area.

Chepstow Castle: After visiting Tintern Abbey, we headed down the road to the town of Chepstow, and it's looming castle which is placed atop a cliff that overlooks the River Wye. The building is the oldest surviving stone fortification in Britain, with construction having begun in 1067. The massive complex remained in use until 1690. In the late 18th century, it's ruins (along with others in the area such as Tintern) became a popular tourist attraction and still are to this day. While I was planning our trip, I was unaware that some of my ancestors had actually come from the town of Chepstow to the United States back in the 17th century. Had I known this information prior to planning, I would have added an extra day to our itinerary in order to spend a day researching family history stuff. Because of our tight schedule, we did not have time to explore the town of Chepstow, which looked cute and quaint; we'll make sure to do this on our next trip. Instead, we spent about one hour touring the huge castle. The ruins seemed to go on and on forever and we had a lot of fun walking along the ramparts.

Cardiff Castle: From Chepstow, we drove west to Cardiff, which is the capital of Wales. While in Cardiff, we visited Cardiff Castle which had a medieval exterior with a Victorian interior. The castle was originally constructed around 1091 but was enlarged in the early 19th century and redesigned in an early Gothic Revival style. Per our guidebook, we chose to participate in one of the guided tours, which provided access to it's lavish interior of the castle apartments. While the tour was somewhat interesting, and the architecture of the apartments much different than other castles we had seen in the past, it wasn't anything that I'm dying to go back to or something that I would recommend as a "must see" sight.

St Fagans National History Museum: From Cardiff, we headed to a living history museum where 40 buildings from all over Wales are set on a 100 acre park. The collection comprises of a variety of building types, including farmhouses and outbuildings, dwelling houses, craft workshops, commercial premises, a school, a workmen's institute and places of worship. Each of the buildings were fully furnished and most had a local guide inside that provided lots of detailed information on the house and it's history. I absolutely love living history museums, and had planned to spend several hours at the sight, but we ended up cutting our visit short because our B & B in Bath had requested an earlier arrival. We will definitely be coming back on our next visit to explore it further.

The Holly Villa Guest House in Bath: We stayed at this bed and breakfast for four nights. Things we liked: The room was very clean, the bathroom was much larger than you would expect for this type of lodging, the gardens of the B & B were well tended, and the location was a quick ten minute walk into the center of Bath. Things we didn’t like: the owner‘s personalities. On the day we arrived, we called to confirm our reservation from South Wales, were we had spent the night. We had already relayed and confirmed via email the time that we would arrive, but over the phone, Keith explained we would need to arrive a few hours earlier, as they were planning out going out to dinner. This was somewhat irritating as we had a whole day of sightseeing planned in Wales, and we ended up having to cut our time short at some of the sights we visited in order to get to the Holly Villa by their required time. However, we never made an issue of this with the owners as we did not want to complain. When we left our room one morning to go sightseeing, Mike accidentally left the fan on. When we came back that night, Jill scolded us for leaving the fan on, explaining that her electricity rates were already expensive enough, and that leaving the fan on didn‘t help. We apologized, but she didn’t seem to care (or realize) that it was only an accident. Due to tours we had signed up for with Mad Max (see below), we missed two breakfast meals as we had to leave quite early in the morning. After the first time occurred, Keith questioned why we hadn’t come to him and let him know that we needed an earlier breakfast time. We hadn’t thought of doing that, as we didn’t really mind missing breakfast. So, two days later when we took the second Mad Max tour, we made an effort to contact Keith the night before to ask if he could have breakfast ready earlier. We knocked on their door for quite a long time, and they never responded. Keith seemed quite offended the next day when we left without eating breakfast. We didn’t really understand what the big deal was. This is probably one of the few places we would not stay at again.

Bath: Aside from London, Bath was the city I was most looking forward to visiting on our trip to England. The entire city became a World Heritage Site in 1987, which is quite an honor and feat. The gorgeous and elegant city is famous for it's plethora of Georgian architecture, most of which was designed using the creamy bath stone. I am an avid history buff, but the time period I am most intrigued by is the Georgian era, so I was barely able to contain my excitement when we decided we would spend a good part of our trip here. We spent one full day touring the city, and two other days taking tours of the countryside with Mad Max Tours.

On our first night in Bath, we opted to participate in one of the free walking tours of Bath, which are put on at no cost by the Mayor of Bath Honorary Guides. The tour departed from outside the main entrance of the pump room and lasted for two hours. Our volunteer guide loved to talk but was also quite witty and provided us detailed information about life in Bath during the Georgian era as we walked through a large portion of the city. I highly recommend this free walking tour for anyone who visits Bath.

Bath Abbey: This church was originally founded in the 7th century, reorganized in the 10th century and then rebuilt in the 12th and 16th centuries. We were able to view the interior of the church for free, which was beautiful and bright inside due to a recent cleaning of the stonework.

Roman Baths: The city of Bath is fortunate enough to be sitting upon natural mineral hot springs. These springs were first used by the Romans who would travel from Londinium (London) to Aquae Sulis, as the area was once called, to take a bath. The term bath was used so often to describe the area that it finally became known as "Bath". The beautiful creamy colored building that sits at the street level and provides entrance to the baths was built in the 19th century, but the actual original Roman Baths are located below the street level. The tickets we purchased included an audio guide tour which covered the four main areas of the bath: the Sacred Spring, the Roman Temple, the Roman Bath House and the museum which contained many artifacts that were found when the Roman Baths were excavated. We were both surprised to see the dark green water in the baths. Apparently, the water that flows through the Roman Baths passes through some of the original lead pipes, which turns the clear water into a dark green, and thus makes it unsafe for bathing or swimming. Instead, those interested in swimming in safer and more clean waters can go to the nearby Thermae Bath Spa, which finally opened in 2006 after years of planning.

Costume Museum: This amazing museums that is housed within Bath's Assembly Rooms displays over 400 years of fashion. Our ticket included an audio guide, which did an excellent job of explaining in great detail much of the clothing on display. I was practically drooling while we were in the 18th century section; I loved the beautiful court dresses with their side hoops (also know as panniers) which made it difficult for women to walk through doorways as their dresses were incredibly wide. While I absolutely enjoyed every minute at the museum, Mike did not quite share my opinion, and stated that he was "bored".

Royal Crescent and the Circus: The Royal Crescent is a residential road of 30 houses laid out in a crescent shape. The Georgian buildings were constructed between 1767 and 1774. Most of the houses in the Crescent are privately owned, with the exception of the Georgian House (see below) and a hotel. The Circus, another example of Georgian architecture, is located near the Royal Crescent. These buildings were built between 1754 to 1768 and were designed into three equal parts, together which form a circular pattern. While beautiful architecturally, both the Royal Crescent and Circus were somewhat disappointing in terms of cleanliness; some of the exterior buildings were quite dirty.

Georgian House at No. 1 Royal Crescent: This is the only house in the famous Royal Crescent that is open to the public as a museum. This period house is decorated in similar style to how it would have appeared back in the Georgian era. There were volunteers sitting in most of the rooms of the house, more than happy to answer any question we had regarding the home or about the Georgian era. Out of everything we saw, the most interesting was probably down in the kitchen. It was there that we saw a kitchen treadmill that was powered by a dog to turn the rotisserie; quite fascinating and a much different use of a dog than compared to today's standards.

Mad Max Tours: As this was our first trip to Europe together, it was also the first time we had experienced driving in another country. As a result, instead of touring the countryside (and it's small and narrow roads) on our own, we decided to sign up for two tours through this highly recommended company. We chose the Stonehenge and Avebury Stone Circles Full Day Tour and the Cotswold Discovery Full Day Tour. The company was easy to communicate and work with, informative, and extremely accommodating. For instance, one of the couples on our tour was planning to spend the night in one of the Cotswold cities. The tour guide rearranged the driving tour so that the couple could be dropped off at a later point in the day, instead of in the morning, which was when that specific city was normally visited. The only negative to the tour was that we realized that we could have easily done it on our own, which would have resulted in a better use of our time (i.e. more time in the places we really enjoyed, and less time in those we didn't care for as much). On our next visit to the Cotswolds region, we will probably end up spending two days in the area visiting many more of the cute towns all on our own.

Stonehenge: England's most famous stone circle, we visited the site as part of the Mad Max tour we had signed up for. After much research, archaeologists have said that the stones were erected around 2500 BC; however, other research has indicated that the stones were not erected until 2400-2200 BC. Whatever the true date may be, one cannot deny the impressive and dramatic sight that the stone circle creates from a distance. However, as we approached Stonehenge at a closer angle, we began to feel somewhat disappointed as the monument was roped off from being accessible to any of the visitors, so we were unable to see or feel any of it up-close. While it is nice to say that we have seen Stonehenge ourselves in person, neither one of us has a desire or need to see it again.

Avebury: A massive stone circle that is comprised of over 100 stones, Avebury is 16 times as big as Stonehenge, and far more interesting, in my own opinion. The stone circle is surrounded by the quaint village of Avebury. I was initially shocked when we first saw the Avebury stone circle; it was much larger and more spread out that I had anticipated it would be. Unlike Stonehenge, we were actually able to walk right up to the stones and touch them, so it was a much more enjoyable and interactive experience than the one we had at Stonehenge. After walking through the fields and posing with the stones, we headed into the town, which was filled lots of cute buildings and homes.

Cotswolds: We visited several small towns in the Cotswold Region with Mad Max Tours, including Upper and Lower Slaughter, Bibury, Castle Combe, Lacock, Stow on the Wold, Tetbury, and Cirencester. All of the towns were tremendously cute and quaint, but we had a few overall favorites.

Upper and Lower Slaughter: These two small villages are easily connected by a walking path that takes you through gorgeous scenes of the English countryside. Of the two, Lower Slaughter was probably more beautiful with a working water mill and lots of ducks floating through the water.

Castle Combe: Probably one of the smaller Cotswold villages we visited, Castle Combe was definitely the most peaceful and quiet, with our group being the only tourists in the town at the time we visited. Castle Coombe is also home to the Manor House Hotel, which is a 4 star hotel that was built in the fourteenth century, contains 48 rooms, and spreads out quite nicely over it's 365 acres.

Bibury: The most picturesque of all the villages we visited, Bibury was unbelievably beautiful and extremely photogenic. The small town is famous for it's row of old weaver's cottages, which have been photographed numerous times, and also been featured in several movies. The River Coln flows through the village, alongside the main street, and was filled with birds of all types during our visit. Bibury truly fits the definition of what one might expect the Cotswolds to look like and is the town I most want to return to.

We truly enjoyed every moment of the time we spent in the countryside of England and Wales. In the end, I was so pleased that we had chosen to rent a car, even with the stress it created at times. It allowed us to get off the beaten path and explore the places and areas that were of the most interest to us. Although I knew it would be beautiful, the landscape of the countryside we saw was so much more picturesque than I had imagined it would be. Of everything we encountered, I felt I was most captivated with the Wye River Valley in Wales, the Cotswold region, and city of Bath in England.

The natural beauty we encountered in the Wye River Valley was so incredibly stunning that it literally took my breath away. While we had heard much about the beauty of the English countryside, we had absolutely nothing about Wales. I supposed that is because Wales is off of most people's radars as it is not as frequented by as many tourists as England. However, we can both attest that this specific part of Wales we visited was probably more beautiful than any part of England we saw. There is something truly magical and special about Wales that I just can't place my finger on, but whatever it is, it is wonderful.

The villages of the Cotswolds were all filled with so much charm and were more quaint than any other place we had ever seen; walking into a small Cotswold town was like walking into a fairytale as the buildings were ridiculously cute and appeared as though untouched by time.

Bath, on the other hand, was obviously much livelier than the Cotswolds, but had such a wonderful and calming vibe, even when it was inundated with tourists. It was also, hands down, the most beautiful city I've ever laid my eyes upon, in terms of architecture and color. All of the buildings seemed to fit together so harmoniously with perfect elegance and sophistication.

Lastly, I loved how this area of England and Wales was filled with countless castles, palaces, and stately homes. These are not the type of things I have for my viewing pleasure at home in the United States, so it was incredibly fascinating to be able to see so many of these places sprinkled throughout the countryside wherever we went.


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13th February 2009

Cardiff and Bath
I was born and raised in cardiff so I know a lot about the city and I agree with your statement about the castle. I know that a lot of the locals haven't even been inside as there are so many other experiences in the capital. I have also recently moved to Bath university and know how beautiful the city is.
8th April 2009

Beautiful
Beautiful pictures of the Cotswolds!

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