Great Sidetrips From London
See more travel details for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.
Hi. I'm Rick Steves, your globetrotting guinea pig, inviting you to travel with us as we explore some of England's greatest sights. Thanks for joining us.
This time we'll use London as a home base and take some of the best and easiest side-trips out of the big city. First in London we'll do a bus tour blitz of some of the big sites. Then we'll head to the Cotswolds for a scenic dose of English countryside. My family then joins me for daytrips to Ye Olde England of Shakespeare's Stratford, the medieval England of Warwick Castle, and the upper crust England of Cambridge.
Using London as a starting point and base from which to explore, we'll first head West to the Cotswolds, then up to Strafford–upon-Avon and Warwick, and finally we take a short side-trip to Cambridge.
But first, we're surveying London's blockbuster sights on a double-decker bus. This blitz tour drives by the most famous attractions. With England's on-again, off-again weather, the ride is sometimes rainy, sometimes sunny, always windy, but a stress-free way to catch a glimpse of some of Buckingham and the biggies. Even if you've been here before, it's a fun way to get your bearings.
You can "hop on or hop off" at any of the two dozen stops. It's like a city bus running a route made to order for sightseeing that comes complete with a guide.
We're using it to get to a few of London's premier sights. Our first stop — Westminster. From here you can look for the Prime Minister at #10 Downing Street, take in the Houses of Parliament, and duck into Westminster Abbey.
Most English Sovereigns have been crowned and buried in the Abbey. From the soaring arches to the tombstone-paved floors, this Abbey is steeped in English history. Over the centuries, burial here has been the greatest honor the British crown could bestow.
Sir Isaac Newton and David Livingston are just a couple of the non-royals resting here.
One of the events to profoundly shape the 20th century is brought to life several blocks from Westminster Abbey at the Cabinet War Rooms Museum. From this World War II command center, Churchill led England through its darkest days to final victory over the Nazis. Sensing the winds of war in 1938, the government began modifying basement storerooms for a bunker.
Then, in the early days of the war, with German bombers attacking nearly nightly, Churchill and his cabinet moved underground to do their plotting and planning. The map room was the hub of the site. It was closed down the day after VJ Day in 1945, and left almost exactly as we see it today.
The blackboard kept a daily tally of enemy aircraft shot down during the Battle of Britain. Sept 15, 1940 was the turning point of these battles to stop Germany's intended invasion. Five officers answered the constantly ringing telephones as reports from the battle fronts came in, and decisions had to be made.
Now back to the bus. Our next stop is across the river for the Globe Theater. To see Shakespeare in an exact replica of the theater for which he wrote his plays, we're checking out the new Globe. Opened in 1997, this thatch-roofed, open-air re-creation of Shakespeare's theater stages the plays as intended: No theatrical lights. No microphones. Cheap seats out under the sky — rain or shine. And for tours, a Shakespearean actor tells it like it was.
Curator: You've got 500 people milling around down here in the yard, being groundlings. In Shakespeare's day we think maybe they doubled that number — roughly 1000 people. It's more like a rock concert than going to church; let's put it that way. This is the best educated guess we have as to what Shakespeare's theater was like.
For a stage exactly like this, Shakespeare created plays that have us laughing and crying four centuries later.
Now it's time for our first great –side trip from London. We're taking the train to the Cotswolds. But once you arrive, there are better ways to explore this beautiful area.
Walking is a fine and very English way to see the Cotswolds. English law guarantees everyone the right to walk across the land –that's people, not farm animals. All kinds of clever fences and gates are designed to let only people pass.
Can you imagine why this one's called a kissing gate?
A serious walker could follow the Cotswold Way from Chipping Campden to Bath along 97 miles of well marked paths, through countless film-gobbling villages. The towns are close together — cute towns with cute names. Lower Slaughter is a favorite of painters and ducks.
The English love to walk these peaceful footpaths, and just when your weary body needs it most, a village seems to appear complete with tea and scones.
The Cotswold Villages that dot these hills are the classic image of small town England. Snowshill is a good example. Travel writers tend to over-use the word "quaint." In my guidebooks, I save quaint for the Cotswolds.
Some towns seem to be built by, for and of the tourists. If you can catch it, your hotel will cook it in popular Bibury. And even such a popular little village can still offer a peaceful stroll to its visitors as our producer Pat and I discovered.
"Bourton on the Water" is called Little Venice. I don't know if that's because of its canals, because of all its tourists, or just to make a little more money.
Unpromoted towns, barely have a postcard.
The town of Chipping Campden makes a good Cotswold homebase. Chipping means market town. You'll notice market towns have a wide main drag — for the market — and are located about 8 to 10 miles from each other. That's close enough so any herder can herd his sheep into town for the day, and enjoy some market town fun.
The local Morris Men jump at the chance to perk up any town gathering. Chipping Campden's main street claims to be the most beautiful in England, lined with well pickled 300 year old buildings all made with the honey colored Cotswold stone.
It was born out of wool wealth. Even the name, Cotswolds, comes from wool. Cotswolds: it's an old Saxon phrase meaning "hills of sheeps' coats." For centuries, Britain's wool industry drove her economy.
Always a center of wool production, the cloth itself brought the greatest wealth. Towns like Chipping Campden grew up as manufacturing centers of cloth.
When these villages were in their prime, woolen cloth was the nation's leading export. From the 15th to the 17th centuries, her rich wool merchants showed off their wealth by building impressive churches, homes, and markets.
But this cottage industry collapsed during Britain's industrial revolution when workers and capitol alike moved to mills in the large cities. These towns languished — and are cute, prospering holiday retreats today because they were too poor to modernize.
Chipping Campden still has its old wealth. For a fragrant whiff of England's aristocratic flair for gardens, peak into one of several elegant backyards just off the town square. They're open to the public for a donation to the owner's favorite charity.
And the lords and ladies share the same market, church, and sunny days with the more common folk — and tourists.
Jane and Frank Kennedy run a bed and breakfast and an antique shop.
Frank: "Are you looking for anything in particular? Righto! Just wasting my time eh? The usual, the usual. There we go."
Any Englishman can recommend a good local pub. Ask the locals for tips. Frank's been coming here for years.
Remember pub is short for "public house." This is not the equivalent of an American tavern. Teetotalers are right at home, children are welcome if they're with their parents for a meal, the atmosphere is cozy, and conversation is the order of the day.
Stow-on-the-Wold is another good Cotswold homebase town. Located in the heart of the region, any Cotswold site is within easy striking distance of Stow. Eight roads converge on Stow, but none interrupts the peacefulness of its main square.
The town has no real sights other than itself, and these old stocks...This little "Town Trail" walking tour brochure is typical of England's tourist industry — always helpful in making a visit fun and informative.
Just follow the map and learn about Stow.
So, this narrow lane was for the sheep on their way to market. Coming through here one by one they'd be easy to count.
Buried deep in the Cotswolds is a reminder of England's Roman Past. Cirencester. In Roman Britannia, it was known as Corinium and today the town is home to the Corinium Museum.
They say if you scratch Gloucestershire - this part of England — you'll find Rome. Corinium was a provincial capitol — the local administrative center. The museum models and artifacts help visitors understand a little about Roman provincial life — from the lowly mosaic maker to the upper class family whose villa he decorated.
These provincial cities were tenuous fringe of Roman "civilization."
Man explains to son.
Back in our home base of London, my wife Anne and kids Andy and Jackie have joined me for some more sidetrips. First, we're daytripping on the train again out to Stradford-upon-Avon to see the hometown of the bard. For many, staying in a central location and taking day trips can make family travel easier.
With England's passion for what they call "cheap day returns", round trip tickets cost about the same as one way. And children get a half price discount even beyond that. With England's great train system, side tripping from London to cities like Stratford, is not only fast and easy, it's inexpensive.
For Shakespeare, his hometown was a hard two-day carriage ride from London. For us it's just two easy hours by train. Stratford is perched on the banks of the Avon — Stratford upon Avon.
The river has an idyllic yet playful feel, with parks, paddle boats, and more than a few swans.
And to cross the river how about this old, two-kid-powered crank ferry? The Royal Shakespeare Company performs some of the best Shakespeare on earth in this theater.
But with kids, we're playing dress-up at the costume box.
Shakespeare's birthplace is the big draw in this touristy town. This half-timbered Elizabethan building, furnished much as it was when young William grew up here, is filled with bits about his life and work.
Shakespeare, born here in 1564, taught his play-going public about human nature with plots that cleverly entertained the educated elite and common folk at the same time.
This super quaint thatch-roofed farmhouse is my favorite of Stratford's many Shakespearian sights. Anne Hathaway, Shakespeare's wife, grew up in this cottage about a mile out of town.
Six gardeners work full time to keep the gardens looking like they're unkept. Eager-to-teach guides are stationed throughout the house, offering an intimate peek at lifestyles in Shakespeare's day. For instance, back when the Hathaways were here, how the bread was sliced had a lot of meaning.
Guide: Not bread like that, not like we have it. It would be unleavened bread like that. And they would take the tops of the loaves off and give those to the most important people in the room. And that was known as the upper crust. And the burned bits and the crumbs would be given to the servants, who were called the lesser people.
Ten miles north of Stratford lies England's finest medieval castle — Warwick. With its green, grassy moat and fairy-tale fortifications, Warwick is captivating from Dungeon to lookout.
The original Norman castle of 1068 stood on this mound. Below that, a wooden stockade, or "bailey," defined the courtyard, as the castle walls do now.
Today the castle is a 14th and 15th-century fortified shell holding an 18th- and 19th-century noble residence. In the evocative great room you can almost hear the clank of swords on helmets.
Rick: He's so heavy, if he fell off his horse, sometimes he couldn't get back on.
Anne: Not without help.
The earl of Warwick, called the Kingmaker, played a pivotal role in the 15th-century Wars of the Roses. Although defeated and killed at the end of the wars, the earl's daughters married into the royal family; and all his estates became royal properties.
And downstairs the torture chamber taught sorry souls cruel lessons. Escaping to the friendlier year 1898, we're all invited to a Madame Tussaud re-creation of a royal weekend party.
Opened to the public since the 1970's, Warwick castle provides an easy trip into British royal history.
It's another day, and another day-trip by train. Just 60 miles north of London is Cambridge. World-famous for its prestigious university, its alumni include William Wordsworth, Isaac Newton, , Prince Charles, Charles Darwin — and 63 Nobel prize-winners.
While its arch rival Oxford is equally historic, I like Cambridge better — less traffic, a lazy river, and more parks. Cambridge feels like a university town should.
Fortunately, you don't need to enroll to get an insiders' look at the campus. Simply catch the walking tour. Since 1350 the university has grown from 8 to 31 colleges.
Walking tour guide: We have this peculiar system in Cambridge called the collegiate system, and we don't have a campus with all the faculties and the student's accommodation all in one site. Everything is dotted about the city. There are 31 colleges, and each college is its own separate little community with its own facilities, its own financial structures and so on.
Back when these colleges were founded, the Church was in charge of higher education. The 500-year old King's College Chapel, built by Henrys VI through VIII, is England's best surviving example of late gothic architecture; they call it "perpendicular Gothic."
This is the most impressive building in Cambridge — the largest single span of vaulted roof anywhere — 2,000 tons of fan vaulting. Here, you can wander through the Old Testament via the most complete collection of original medieval stained glass in existence.
The halls where students eat, sleep, study and worship are connected by bookwormish cloisters and gardens.
Isaac Newton, who spent 30 years at Cambridge, clapped his hands in a cloister like this and timed the echo to measure the speed of sound as it raced down the cloister and back. (clap) Yep, 1088 feet per second.
For a little levity and probably more exercise than you really want, try renting one of the traditional flat-bottom punts and pole yourself up and down the Cam river.
Rick: OK! Here we go. Jeez, Louise. Close call. Hey, we almost crashed into you guys a little while ago.
It takes a little more skill than it seems at first sight. But once you get the hang of it, punting is a fine way to enjoy the scenic back side of Cambridge. University students have been courting on the Cam for more than a few years. Today in the rain, it's mostly intrepid travelers like us.
Intrepid or not, travelers to London should consider taking advantage of these fun and easy side-trips. I hope you've enjoyed walking through the Cotswold's, exploring Shakespeare's' Stratford, crawling through Warwick Castle, and punting through Cambridge. Join me again for more of the best of Europe
Until then, I'm Rick Steves wishing you happy travels.
See more travel details for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.