Help us plan a trip to the English countryside
January 10, 2017 3:49 PM   Subscribe

My wife and I (early 30s) are interested in touring England the last week in May. More specifically, we'd love to experience the English countryside, including the Cotswolds, Bath, etc. Additionally, we'd like a bit of time in London. We're considering approx. 13 days, including travel (from Atlanta).

We've mostly settled on the areas West of London but if we should seriously consider a different part of the country, open to opinions, advice, suggestions, etc.

One of our initial questions is, what is the best way to get from London out to the Cotswolds, do day trips, and then get back to London? One idea I'd heard was from my aunt and uncle who visited about ten years ago. They didn't have the specifics, but they said they had a man who picked them up in London, took them out to his home/bed and breakfast, and also took them out on day trips. This sounds like a great way to do it and I was hoping to find some additional info on this sort of thing. It checks off several boxes, primarily not needing to rent a car, deal with public transportation, find hotels/places to stay, and makes day trips easy, along with the added benefit of getting to talk to locals who know the area well. Does this seem reasonable? Any and all info you have on this aspect (including specific people who do this or could point me to others who do) would be great!

My wife put together one idea for a proposed itinerary - any feedback as well as must-dos as far as hikes, walks, restaurants, sights, experiences, etc. is welcome. We don't love museums (I do love history, though) but plan to do a couple while in London (British Museum, for one) and also don't particularly enjoy touring churches either. Does this seem doable? Too much time in one place? Too little? Thanks so much in advance for any feedback!

24-May - Arrive London-Heathrow from Atlanta train from airport to Bath. Overnight Bath
25-May - Overnight Bath
26-May - Hire a car and drive to The Cotswolds. Overnight in either Cheltenham or Evesham (or other? open to suggestions here! We enjoy walking and the outdoors, and want to see sheep and quaint small town things)
27-May - Overnight in either Cheltenham or Evesham
28-May - Overnight in either Cheltenham or Evesham
29-May - Drive to the Lake District. Overnight in Windermere
30-May - Overnight in Windermere
31-May - Overnight in Windermere
1-Jun - Drive to London and turn in Hire Car (or back to Bath to turn in car and train back to London?) Overnight London
2-Jun - Overnight London
3-Jun - Overnight London
4-Jun - Return flight to Atlanta
posted by rbf1138 to Travel & Transportation around Manchester, England (28 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Painswick in the Cotswolds is one of my absolute favorite places. I like the Cardynham Guest House.
My husband and I had once planned a trip much like you are planning. We loved Painswick enough that we rescheduled the second half of the trip and just stayed there.
posted by susiswimmer at 4:25 PM on January 10, 2017

Near/within the Cotswolds, I thought the prettiest and most quintesentially "Ye Olde English" towns were Upper and Lower Slaughter, and Painswick. Also visit Broadway Tower which is a cool little folly.
posted by trialex at 4:27 PM on January 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'm not a huge fan of the stereotypical Ye Olde English villages, with thatched roofs and Miss Marple tending her geraniums and so on.

But what I did love was the New Forest, which is one of the few bits of wilderness left in striking distances of London I think. It felt quite strange and wonderful, like you might meet a pixie on his way to the Magic Faraway Tree.
posted by dontjumplarry at 4:40 PM on January 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

You should be aware that the weekend of sat 27 to Mon 29 May is a bank holiday weekend. This will impact travel time to touristy places on Fri/sat and away from them on Sunday quite badly. Windermere would let be pretty bad over that weekend, Cheltenham or Evesham perhaps less so.
posted by biffa at 4:45 PM on January 10, 2017 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Out of curiosity: any feelings on going to Wales (Brecon, for instance) rather than the Lake District? Will the Lake District be a nice differentiator in scenery and experience or is it not worth driving there to only spend 2 days, rather than go somewhere closer, like Wales?
posted by rbf1138 at 5:29 PM on January 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

You should certainly seek out somewhere rugged and imposing and a little bit bleak and bracing as a contrast to the rolling leafy green countryside. Nowhere south of Scotland is quite like the Lakes for that, though interior Wales has a lot to offer: Snowdonia might be a closer direct substitute.

But yeah, Windermere on that bank holiday weekend is going to be heaving; it'll also be half-term week for a lot of schools. While remoter parts of the Lakes won't be as backed up and elbow-to-elbow, especially towards Keswick, you'll need to scope them out and make reservations. Somewhere suitably craggy in the Peaks, perhaps? Or maybe . (But again, holiday weekend.) And since you're basing yourself out of Gloucestershire and environs, you should consider a trip to the Forest of Dean, which is its own place entirely.
posted by holgate at 7:29 PM on January 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

With regard to Wales vs. the Lake District: I loved Wales about as much as the Lake District. We spent several days near Snowdonia (Betws-y-coed). Great walks, small cozy towns, beautiful views.
posted by Ochre,Hugh at 7:33 PM on January 10, 2017

(Finishing my thought: you can get rugged moorland around Haworth or Hebden Bridge, but those places will also likely be busy on a bank holiday weekend.)
posted by holgate at 8:25 PM on January 10, 2017

My experience is limited, but if you're taking 3 days in Cheltenham you could consider a stop in Worcester (cf. Gunpowder Plot, among many other historical features), which is close to Great Malvern (many sheep here!) and the Worcester Beacon, which is a nice hike with its own history. There are also parts of the Roman Walls near there.

The Malvern area is also where Edward Elgar was from and is buried, it's where Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce is made, as well as Morgan cars (makers of the longest-produced automobile). It's no Lakeland, but if I was going up that far I'd be doing a Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield musical history tour anyway.
posted by rhizome at 8:31 PM on January 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

The Mechanical Music Museum in Northleach in the Cotswolds is a hidden gem - definitely worth dropping in for their tour.
posted by simonw at 9:04 PM on January 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

Are you wedded to the idea of Windermere? I'd strongly suggest trying Keswick (pronounced Kezzik) instead, which is (slightly) less busy but more agreeable – compact, nice shops, superior surrounding scenery. Arguably Borrowdale, just south of here, is the most beautiful part of the Lakes, and Castlerigg stone circle is a must.
posted by mushhushshu at 9:25 PM on January 10, 2017

If you want the full quaint Cotswold experience, I’d consider staying in a country pub in one of the villages rather than Cheltenham. That way you can go for a hike straight from the hotel, as well.
posted by Bloxworth Snout at 12:53 AM on January 11, 2017

As well as May 29th being a public holiday, that whole week is a half-term (1 week school holiday). The roads will be busy (especially so on the weekend of 27-29 May), anywhere touristy is going to be rammed with families, and lots of hotels etc will cost 5x more than normal. Can you reschedule your trip?
posted by EndsOfInvention at 1:22 AM on January 11, 2017

Regarding somewhere more rugged, Dartmoor could also fit the bill. The itinerary sounds fine but I'd have a reservation about going all the way from the Cotswolds to the Lake District just for a couple of days; I think it's worth looking into either Wales (aforementioned) or further southwest (e.g. Dartmoor, Exmoor) as alternatives.
posted by plep at 1:46 AM on January 11, 2017

Just as a curve-ball - a quick look at the easyJet website suggests you could fly from Bristol to Inverness for £40 on 29 May and enjoy proper ruggedness in the Scottish Highlands.

Scottish school holidays
are different from English so you'll avoid the hell on earth that will be Windermere at half term (on that link, you want Highland council for the Inverness area school holiday dates but looks like Scotland generally isn't on holiday that week).

You could then fly Inverness to London.
posted by penguin pie at 2:24 AM on January 11, 2017 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I live in the Cotswolds. Near Painswick/Slad actually.

You mentioned a car tour. If so, this is a common thing to do. The way it works is that you stay at a B&B in some picturesque village and the driver picks you up and takes you around. Here's a list of them. A friend of a friend used Kooky Cotswold tours and was happy with them.

Unless you have a compelling reason to, I wouldn't stay in Cheltenham (or Evesham). It is a big town that is difficult to get out of. I'd stay in a Cotswold village. There are B&Bs a plenty.

Driving is the way to go in general. The Cotswolds is very unfriendly for public transportation.

There are really hundreds of great walks to do in the Cotswolds. Most involve picturesque scenery, farms, forests, cute villages and welcoming pubs. The official Cotswolds board gives free guided walks by wardens every few days. These might give you an idea of the breadth of options available.

I wouldn't go up to the Lake District. That is quite a bit of driving. It does make sense to head into Wales, especially the East Brecons. Wales will feel like a different landscape. You could drive up via Ross-on-Wye to the book town of Hay-on-Wye and head into the Brecons from there. Or hit the southern edge and go on a waterfall walk.

Let me know if you have any other specific questions. I know the Cotswolds really well as my wife and I usually find new small roads all the time and go on walks most weekends.
posted by vacapinta at 3:37 AM on January 11, 2017 [9 favorites]

I've done a fair bit of tourist travelling around SW England, both flying and hiring a car, and taking my own car on the ferry.

I agree with various people above that travelling at a busy time from the Cotswolds to the Lake District just for a couple of days is a bad idea. If you want the contrast of more rugged countryside, then heading from the Cotswolds over to Wales is a good idea. If you go by way of Hereford you can see some of the Black and white villages which have a different style from the very prettified Cotswold stone villages.

If you are going to hire a car, it actually makes sense to take it from Heathrow - going west by car from Heathrow is actually fairly straightforward since you're already very close to the M4 and M40; on the way back once you drop the car at Heathrow you have all the standard Underground or Heathrow Express connections to central London.

If you hire a car, check the parking situation at your accommodation carefully: a lot of B&Bs have very limited parking in tight spaces which can be a bit unnerving in a strange car.

Some places in the Cotswolds and nearby that I would particularly recommend:
Hidcote Garden If you're really into gardens, there are plenty more, but this one is a classic of garden design.
Chedworth Roman Villa The villa and mosaics are interesting and it's a very scenic drive on back roads to get there.
Corinium Museum in Cirencester. Even if you're not normally keen on museums, this one is nicely focused on the Roman history of the area and doesn't take too long. (If you visit the Roman Bath museum in Bath, I wouldn't do this as well unless you're very keen on ancient Rome.)

Seconding the recommendation above for the Mechanical Music Museum: it's a long time since I was there, but I remember finding it fascinating.
posted by Azara at 5:35 AM on January 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

You've planned a very popular trip. I'll second recommendations to change the dates to a non-holiday time, if possible.

There's no direct rail service from Heathrow to Bath. (Bus service is available.) What you do is take a train from Heathrow to London's Paddington Station, which is the departure point for trains to Bath. You have a couple options for trains into Paddington. Heathrow Express is the fastest -- 15 minutes or so -- and the most expensive.

I recommend booking and purchasing rail tickets online prior to your arrival, and reserving seats. Not only is this probably going to be cheaper than buying on the day of travel, but the westbound trains out of Paddington are often crowded, especially on the weekends and during rush hours. You can run a Google search for "Paddington-Bath" or "Heathrow-Bath" and see option that include a link to buy tickets. (Also a number to phone, which might be simplest.)

Also like the idea of booking your overnight accommodations in advance, rather than trusting to luck, especially if you travel during that holiday week.

My experience renting cars in the UK: It's just like renting cars in the U.S. *except* that when I wanted to use my own insurance to satisfy part of the company's requirements I was asked to provide written proof of that insurance coverage. This hasn't always happened but it is worth a phone call to avoid disappointment (or large insurance fees). Before you try this ask the rental firm about their insurance requirements and ask your insurer what kind of coverage, if any, your policy provides for rentals in the UK.

Advertised rental prices usually apply to standard shift cars. Unless you really want manual shifting, book and pay for an automatic.

The cheapest prices are for the smallest cars, which can be pretty small. The real issue with tiny cars is the potential that all of your luggage won't fit.

*Don't* drive in or anywhere near London. Just not worth it. Pick up the car in Bath and return it in Bath. Then go by train back to Paddington and grab a taxi to your hotel. The rental firm likely will shuttle you over to Bath station, or you can call for a taxi.

Heed the advice to arrive at Heathrow well in advance of your departing flight time. Heathrow Express will take you to the specific Heathrow terminal you'll fly out of, so, of course, know what that is.

(BTW, wait time getting through passport control at Heathrow on arrival can be 45-60 minutes or more. Visit the bathroom on the plane or on the trek from the gate.)

The Lake District and Wales (especially the north and west) would both provide some interesting contrast to the gentleness of the Cotswolds. Ditto Devon, Dorset and Dartmoor in another direction. Oxford is close, too.

Driving in the UK: Shouldn't be a problem but be sure to stay alert and think ahead. Don't assume your automatic responses will be correct. UK road signs are not the same as U.S. signs, either.

Avoid the motorways unless you're really in a hurry to get some place. On the other hand, the local roads are the roads you want to be on, but you'll find yourself meandering around at some slow speeds.

(You get what you pay for in the UK as much as any place else. Hotels/B&B's with rates significantly below their competition usually have a reason.)
posted by justcorbly at 5:45 AM on January 11, 2017 [1 favorite]


Your U.S. credit card will be accepted in the UK but be sure to call the card issuer and tell them when you'll be using it in the UK. This will prevent their system from flagging your first UK use of the card as fraudulent and blocking the account.

Check your daily ATM withdraw limit and ask for a temporary increase if you think you'll need it. Also tell the bank you'll be using their ATM card in the UK, just to be sure.

Finally, arrive with 100 pounds or so in your pocket in case things go wrong and you have to pay for a cab into London, etc. ATM's are available in Heathrow if you look but it's easiest, if not cheapest, to just buy the pounds at the Atlanta airport.)
posted by justcorbly at 5:52 AM on January 11, 2017

Don't go to Eversham, it's a bit of a crap-hole, especially at night. Worcester is not much better, but it does have an impressive cathedral and a civil war museum. Malvern, suggested up thread, would be better than Worcester if you want to walk on some hills. If you want to get out into the Cotswolds, one of the bigger towns like Stow-on-the-Wold would work, as would Chipping Camden.
posted by fatfrank at 6:22 AM on January 11, 2017

Response by poster: Thanks so much to all of you for the great info. Biggest takeaways: we’re gonna pick a different week and check for bank holidays – likely earlier in May or early June. We’ll also probably skip the Lake District and explore some of Wales. To go as far as Snowdonia, though, would be just as far as the drive to the Lake District…but still a possibility.
posted by rbf1138 at 6:49 AM on January 11, 2017

One of the most glorious vacation days we've ever had was a day walking in the Cotswolds. We started in Bourton-on-the-Water and hiked to Upper Slaughter and Lower Slaughter, then back to Bourton. We brought a picnic lunch and ate by the most picturesque stream, and the whole thing was just amazing. We stayed in Brize Norton, which is a little bit out of the way for the rest of the Costwolds. Burford was a cute little town if you want some Cotswolds experience that isn't in all the guidebooks.

I don't know how committed you are to 2 nights in Bath, but if you want a night in a place that's a bit unusual, The Red Lion Inn in Avebury is awesome, you can stay in a room above the pub, it has a nice spooky ghost story, and Avebury itself is surrounded by standing stones. We easily drove from Avebury to Bath in a morning.
posted by banjo_and_the_pork at 7:03 AM on January 11, 2017

There's no direct rail service from Heathrow to Bath. (Bus service is available.) What you do is take a train from Heathrow to London's Paddington Station, which is the departure point for trains to Bath.

Those of us who live in the West will usually catch RailAir - a dedicated shuttle from Heathrow to Reading.
Reading station is on the Bath-Paddington line. It is about an hour from Reading to Bath so you have saved yourself a lot of time and expense.
posted by vacapinta at 8:01 AM on January 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

School/bank holidays this year:
10th-23rd April
1st May (1 day)
29th May - 4th June

"You can run a Google search for "Paddington-Bath" or "Heathrow-Bath" and see option that include a link to buy tickets. "

This might work, but personally I'd use National Rail to check times & prices. Once you've decided on tickets it links you to a site to buy them from.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 8:13 AM on January 11, 2017

Google links to the company operating the train and to National Rail.
posted by justcorbly at 11:53 AM on January 11, 2017

Good posts here with some excellent ideas. Two things, remember to see the Rollright Stones. And definitely don't go from Heathrow into London and then out to Bath via Paddington. That's crazy: just look at a map.

Instead book the coach to Bath from the bus station to Heathrow. You will save a lot of time and certainly bother.

Definitely book this far in advance, the seats get taken quickly.
posted by einekleine at 12:50 PM on January 11, 2017

Personally I'd go with vacapinta's initial travel option -- shuttle to Reading, train to Bath -- but wouldn't rule out the National Express coach. A typical flight from ATL is going to land you early in the morning, and taking the coach will require less mental energy and be easier in terms of hauling luggage, while the shuttle/train should give you the chance to stretch your legs and gaze out at something other than the M4 for an hour.
posted by holgate at 4:19 PM on January 11, 2017

Sent you a memail with some specific London advice. I'm another Atlanta person who just spent a few days touristing around London.
posted by kovacs at 7:12 PM on January 11, 2017

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