A few final thoughts on our travels to England. Apologies to those of you who have been there many times. For those who might be considering going, here are some thoughts (click thumbnails for larger views):
1. They must be lying to us about their weather, saying that it’s wet and cold most of the year. Perhaps they even pay organizations like the Weather Channel to repeat these lies for them. I can reveal to you, however, that England has the same weather as Southern California. We hiked in the Cotswolds, for example, for eight days and saw not one drop of rain. From the conditions of the trails, it hadn’t rained for a couple of weeks before we showed up. Temps in the mid-80s. Be prepared for anything, in other words.
2. Sherpa Expeditions arranged our hike for us. They made the hotel / B&B reservations, transferred suitcases between hotels, and sent us detailed maps and instructions for each day’s trek (“Go through the kissing gate, turn right along the fence line for 50 meters, then take an azimuth of 81 degrees across the field for 300 yards. Look for a stile gate next to the big oak tree near the end of the stone fence.” Etc., for roughly 100 miles.) Will bring back those old land navigation skills that you still brag about to your spouse and kids. This is our second tour through Sherpa, and we recommend them highly. If you’re of the retired persuasion, ask them to schedule a day off about midway along the route.
3. Our itinerary started just outside the Cotswolds in Stratford-upon-Avon, then to Mickleton, Broadway via Chipping Campden, Blockley, passing by Stow-on-the-Wold to Bourton-on-the-Water (do they have a committee that makes up these names?), Guiting Power, and Winchcombe.
4. The Cotswolds make for generally easy hiking, albeit with some vicious descents, as into Broadway from the Tower and down the ridge into Winchcombe. The region lies about a 2-hour train ride due west of London, consisting of rolling hills, stone fences, and
thatched-roof cottages. You wouldn’t be shocked to see Gandalf waving to you from his garden. The region is criss-crossed with well marked trails including the Cotswold Way from Chipping Campden to Bath. Our route occasionally followed the ‘Way but also included other trails like the Monarch’s Way, Warden’s Way, and the Heart of England Way and often just “public footpaths” through fields and farm buildings. England has strange rules about these things.
5. I had assumed that those thatched roofs date back to Shakespeare’s day. Actually, they don’t last all that much longer than shingle roofs. For a typical American-sized 3-BR ranch, plan on shelling out about $200,000 to have one installed. Speaking of which, Anne Hatheway’s house was delightful.
6. All of our inns and B&B’s were memorable, and I’d go back to any one of them. Two, though, stand out. The Volunteer Inn in
Chipping Campden sits over a boisterous local pub, and when we saw it, we went OMG! We’re not going to get any sleep. But they put us into a clean if Spartan room well away from the bar. After dinner at the Lygon Arms, recommended by Rick Steves — as I’ve mentioned before, always trust Rick — one of us needed some urgent medical care unrelated to the Lygon. The bartender at the Volunteer Inn called NHS, then a cab and we were off to the local clinic about 10 miles away. Because of this little problem, one of us couldn’t walk for a couple of days, so the Volunteer Inn volunteered a ride in their luggage car (they actually move the suitcases for Sherpa).
7. The other extra special inn was the Guest House in the hamlet of Guiting Power (“on Post Office Lane, formerly Cow Pat Lane”). The GH excelled at all the usual B&B ambience and is right next to the Farmers Arms pub, with homemade vegetarian chili
on an extensive menu and featuring Donnington’s Ale!! But what made it special was the length Robert and Barbara went to to accommodate our wounded hiker. The next morning, for example, when the Volunteer Inn’s schedule didn’t mesh with a follow-up appointment at the local clinic, Robert substituted with his own car. It’s about a 20 min trip, and gas over there runs something like $8.50/gal. Many, many thanks, Robert!
8. So what about the NHS? Two data points: First, they took care of us. We were expecting long lines, perfunctory service (if we got any at all), and maybe even a big bill since we’re foreigners. Sorry to disappoint all my GOP buds out there, but we experienced none of the above. We got in on time to both appointments, care was excellent, problem was solved, and when we asked how much we owed, they just laughed at us. The first time would have been a trip to the emergency room here in the US, to give you an idea. When the incident happened, I called the TRICARE emergency number in the UK. They told me to use the local “minor injuries unit” and not to worry. They were right.
9. Second data point: We visited an American friend who has lived in the UK for 6 years. This friend, whom let’s call “Bob” since I haven’t asked permission to use real names, is over 60 and knows how hard — impossible — it would be to get insurance in the US at his age, not to mention pre-existings. Bob’s putting off moving back until he turns 65 so he can stay on NHS. He certainly doesn’t enjoy paying 45%
income tax, but would enjoy paying for a stay in an American hospital even less. He could well afford it, by the way, but feels that the NHS is doing the job for him.
10. The absolute highlight of the trip? Walking along the Gustav Holst Way between Bourton-on-the-Whatever and Guiting Power, listening to his two suites for military band on my iPhone. These two pieces, particularly the second, weave in many English folk songs, so the experience was magical. Again, visualize Gandalf & hobbits. The final movement of the first has been a favorite of mine since we played it in high school band, and I’ve been using it as my ring tone for the last several years.
11. After the walk, we hit Bath, Portsmouth, Eastbourne, Canterbury, and London. But you know all those places, so I’ll skip the details, other than to mention that Eastbourne is a short hop from the battlefield at Hastings, 1066 and all that. The train “system,” a conglomerate of private “train operating companies” using a national, not-for-profit rail system, all tied into a unified reservation system, has been criticized in the UK. We rode it on eight occasions, though, and it did work for us, including making two 4-minute connections in Brighton.
[We brought one of our daughters’ friends along with us. For his pictures, check out http://thefrogexpeditions.com. Best to start at the bottom and scroll up.]