Having just returned from a 3 weeks packaged holiday in USA, travelling West-East from San Francisco to New York, we have become acutely aware of how much we are all often in the hands of the tour operators to decide where we go and what we see. Too much time on a bus, not enough time in a city, an unbalanced schedule, can all spoil a trip completely.
Mostly we plan our own city trips around Europe, a week in Prague, a week in a Budapest, a week in Madrid …… easy! But trying to see a WHOLE country as big as the USA or as small as Belgium can confront us with so many problems. We have seen this with American tourists coming to the UK; London, followed by Stratford, followed by Edinburgh, and that’s it!
So here is a suggested itinerary for Americans who want to discover England, not the whole UK, just England. We are small but perfectly formed with history and culture from the Neolithic, Roman, Medieval, and Victorian periods. You can see everything described below in 15 days or so choosing your own transport and accommodation and we have provided links to inform you of each area:
1. The Greatest Capital City in the World.
The great city of London should be on everyone’s Bucket List; here you can take in 2000 years of history, art, architecture, Shakespeare, pubs and restaurants 300 years old, the mother of parliaments, the prime meridian, museums of every genre, cathedrals, the monarchy, the list just goes on! The issue is what to fit into a short stay and get a flavour of the greatest capital city in the world. Here is our “must do” hit list:
• Begin with a complete circuit in The Big Bus Tour, we do this wherever we travel in the world to get oriented and to hop off and on for a few short sight-sees.
• Spend up to a day in the area of Westminster; Parliament, Big Ben, Westminster Bridge, Westminster Abbey, statues of Cromwell and Churchill, Millennium Wheel, a boat ride on the Thames. If you’re still standing, take a walk down Whitehall past Downing Street, The Cenotaph, and on to Trafalgar Square. Now turn down The Mall and straight on to Buckingham Palace. Overall, if you are on a budget you can “see” all of this for free!
• Probably the best “walk” in London is along Embankment, but which part? Easy, start near Waterloo Station, get down to the river and walk in the direction of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. All along the way there are artists, street food, coffee stands, so no need to starve! Cross over Millennium Bridge to visit St Paul’s Cathedral, come back over to visit The Globe. Maybe pre-book for a performance and stand at the front and join in! Can you make it to Tower Bridge?
• Eating experience? How about trying something classy, historic too. The oldest restaurant in London is Rules, absolutely classic experience, just do it! Or, while you are along Embankment take a look at The Oxo Tower Brasserie with a restaurant and bar having stunning views across the city. Neither are cheap though, but hey you’re on holiday!
2. From Neolithic to Magna Carta.
So much variety in one area of the South West of England with often only one of my list below visited by tourists.
• Base yourself in Salisbury and spend maximum time at and around Salisbury Cathedral; building work began in the year 1220 AD and is a perfect example of early English architecture. It has the tallest spire in England and sits in the middle of an expansive green rather than the city centre. Inside you will find one of the surviving Magna Carta on which the American Constitution was initially based. Take a short bus ride up to the site of the original Roman city of Old Sarum built in a hilltop fortified position. You might also like to read the novel Sarum by Edward Rutherford.
• Stonehenge is rightly on everyone’s list so go ahead and enjoy this amazing Neolithic monument just a few miles away.
• Less well known by tourists is the Neolithic area of Avebury but a tragedy to miss if you are in the area. There is no doubt that this area was in some way connected to Stonehenge but there is so much more here; multiple stone circles, The Avenue, the mysterious Silbury Hill, and the burial chambers at West Kennett Longbarrow.
• At Avebury do visit the Wagon and Horses pub, quintessentially English beer and food AND connected to Charles Dickens Pickwick Papers!
3. The Place That Caused a World Revolution.
The Industrial Revolution changed the world from cottage to factory based manufacturing. This is the area where it all began south of Telford in Shropshire. Your visit will centre on the Ironbridge Gorge Museums of which there are TEN! The whole area is a UNESCO Heritage Site and I have selected areas to visit based on ironmaking, pottery, Victorian life, and the Ironbridge itself.
• Ironbridge was the first cast iron bridge in the world. Built by Abraham Darby in 1779 it is recognised as one of the Industrial Revolution and still dominates the small town of Ironbridge. Step on to it and visit the Tollhouse.
• Coalbrookdale Museum of Iron highlights Abraham Darby’s furnace using “coking coal” to make iron and you can trace the history of ironmaking at this time and how it powered Britain’s Industrial Revolution.
• Coalport China Museum showcases the important pottery founded by John Rose in 1795. Coalport Porcelain became famous worldwide and the factory eventually became part of the Wedgwood company. The village of Coalport also has a famous cast iron bridge worth seeing too.
• Blists Hill Victorian Town is a complete working replica, “full sized” of Victorian life. You can easily spend a whole day here as you experience the sights, sounds, smells, tastes from 150 years ago. You really are transported back in time in the bakers shop, the fish and chip shop ….. This is the ultimate historical experience for an American tourist!
4. From Roman to Medieval.
Chester is the single most accessible and compact English city for Roman to Medieval history and architecture. The old city is encircled by the complete Roman Wall, the town centre is dominated by the black and white Tudor buildings, the pubs, restaurants and shops all are blended into the medieval architecture, go boating on the River Dee, have a beer in pubs 400 years old, learn how the city was a Royalist anti Cromwell stronghold in the English Civil War.
• The Roman Walls provide a magnificent aerial walkway in a complete circle around the city. Set high above the canal and moat, as you walk take in The Water Tower which was an original ship control point when Chester was a port, King Charles Tower where he watched his army defeated by Cromwell at the battle of Rowton Moor in 1645, and a fine view of the “new” cathedral. Pause above the Eastgate to plan your shopping before continuing alongside the River Dee.
• The Chester Rows are very difficult to describe, but they are ingenious! They are continuous half-timbered galleries which provide sheltered walkways along and into shops above street level. Very handy if it’s raining, they were built into the Tudor buildings down all four main streets from the Chester Cross; Eastgate Street, Northgate Street, Watergate Street, Bridge Street. I fear my description hasn’t done them justice but you won’t find anything else like this anywhere in the world.
• Chester’s original cathedral is about a quarter of a mile away from the current St Werburgh’s Cathedral and was reputedly founded by King Aethelred in the year 689AD. (It is quite rare to find something dating back to Saxon times because the wooden buildings didn’t last.) Built in sandstone much of the interior is from Norman times and it is well worth a visit probably in addition to your main visit to the cathedral of modern times.
• The Boot Inn on the Rows of Eastgate Street opened in 1643 though it is not the oldest inn in Chester! But it has meticulously maintained its “typical English Pub” tradition selling English ales and without piped music, games machines or plastic furniture. There is a cathedral-like atmosphere about the place with locals meeting and chatting over a pint or two, so do pay a visit if only for half an hour. And if you feel like a pub crawl then just walk down Northgate Street and see how many you can get through!
5. Where Travel Tourism Began.
You don’t need to be an artist, a writer or a poet to appreciate natural beauty. The Lake District is England’s most varied, compact and tourist oriented National Park. What many won’t realise is that until the poetry, writing and painting of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey, De Quincy, Ruskin and many others, people were afraid to venture into the dark and foreboding mountains or to travel far from home. The Lakeland Poets can therefore be said to have “created” tourism, so why not widen your perspective and visit the places that these great Victorians described?
• Grasmere is the place I have selected for your stay. It is quite central to the Park and on a bus route to travel North-South between Keswick to the North and Ambleside to the South. Lots of visit opportunity close by including Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount the two homes of Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy and the famous Grasmere Gingerbread Shop.
• Walking, fresh air and the wonderful scenery are another important reason for choosing this location. Two walks with good footpaths and clear signs are easily taken; a circuit of Rydal Water, the small lake, and the mountain valley path up to Easdale Tarn, also a small lake. Both are flat and quite safe and great for picnics if done on a fine day.
• Beatrix Potter and John Ruskin are also both associated with this area, the first at Hilltop, Hawkeshead and the second at Coniston. Both look close on the map but you would need a car to visit these places due to the mountain roads meandering quite a bit, but these are places worth seeing and you HAVE come a long way. But don’t despair, just spending 3 days in Grasmere itself will be extremely rewarding.
Everything above is a personal view, we have visited all of the places listed, have lived in three of them, and currently live close to a fourth. Transport between and around the five sites is a matter of choice, but car hire is undoubtedly the best option. Public transport is possible but will take some complex planning and will slow you down. Distances are small but awkward.