And I think to myself, what a wonderful world!
My Holiday in the UK (Part 1)
In August, I went on a holiday with my family to England and Wales. We brought our car across on the ferry from Ireland and drove around, staying three places: Stratford-upon-Avon in England; Cardiff in South Wales; and a tiny place called Dyffryn Ardudwy on the west coast of Central Wales. In this week's Notes, I'll talk about the English part of our holiday.
Day 1 – The Journey
Four of us set out early one Saturday from Dublin— my wife, who I'll refer to as Mrs G, my two daughters El and Iz, and myself. We drove to the ferry in Dublin Port, and almost immediately were directed onto the massive ship. After parking the car we proceeded to the deck where all the seats are, only to find that all the good seats were gone. We eventually found somewhere to sit on another deck, where it was somewhat stuffy, but it was only for 3 hours. Soon we were in Holyhead, and driving once again. The journey from Holyhead is a lot easier than it used to be. In the past the road went through a lot of
tiny towns, with a traffic jam in each. Now there is a high quality dual carriageway within a mile or so of the port. Soon we were leaving the island of Anglesey, crossing the Britannia Bridge (built from the ruins of Robert Stephenson's bridge) and onto the mainland of Great Britain. We had a choice now of driving along the north coast of Wales or up into the mountains.
We reckoned the mountain route would take only about 20 minutes longer and would be far more picturesque. Sure enough, the
drive through Snowdonia is as spectacular as it gets. We stopped in a little town called Bethesda for coffee.
From the mountains of Wales to Stratford-upon-Avon, the road descends into England and then rapidly becomes a motorway, which goes around Birmingham. Mrs G's aunt lives there, so we called in to see her. She left Ireland more than 50 years ago but still calls it home. She gave us a ‘little food': an enormous dinner with gallons of tea.
From her house to Stratford was only another hour's drive, and then we reached our home for the next few days— a converted barn about two miles from the town, the loft of which has been turned into a little apartment with two bedrooms, a bathroom and a general purpose room with sofa, table and chairs, kitchen and television. There's a great view out over the fields, and after a short walk in the forest there's a meadow with hundreds of rabbits grazing.
Day 2 – Hidcote Manor
Since the sun was shining, we decided it would be best to see one of the sights in the vicinity of Stratford, rather than heading into the town. We drove to Hidcote Manor, a house with beautiful gardens, surely among the best in England. The gardens were the work of American horticulturist Lawrence Johnson. They are now managed by the National Trust. Johnson divided the estate up into a whole collection of small gardens which are separated by hedges, so each one is a self-
contained little world. There's one which is just a plain lawn overshadowed by a huge tree. Another has a rockery; another a
giant pond; another has a river flowing through it— the list goes on. Each is fascinating. There are occasional long vistas, but most of the gardens are the sort of thing you could do yourself with a bit of imagination, time and money. Hidcote had a good café where we could get food, so we lunched there.
After lunch, we drove to Stratford and had our first view of the town itself. We've been there before, but it is as delightful as ever, with its half-timbered houses, monuments to Shakespeare and general friendly atmosphere. After a break for coffee, we returned to our ‘loft' in the countryside, heated up a few pizzas and downed a bottle of wine.
Day 3 – Warwick and Stratford
We started our third day by visiting Warwick Castle. This must be one of the best places around for anybody interested in castles, knights and mediaeval shenanigans. The castle is huge and has been restored so that all of it is in working order.
There is a large residential section which has a number of exhibitions on different aspects of mediaeval life, including a history of the castle and the Earls of Warwick, a bloody dungeon, and other such interesting things. In the central courtyard there are demonstrations of falconry and of hand-to-hand combat. Fully armed knights fought for us with flaming maces. The battlements are all open to the public and a walk around them is a strenuous way of getting a bit of exercise, with hundreds of steps to climb. Outside the walls are archery demonstrations, and two enormous machines, a trebuchet (the biggest in the world) and a ballista.
All in all, there's enough in Warwick Castle to keep you busy for a whole day, but we had seen a lot of it last year, so we just sampled the highlights. Admission is quite expensive, but we had got Tesco vouchers which got us in a one quarter price, so it was well worth it.
We now hurried back to Stratford and got something to eat, as the main event of the holiday was about to happen: a Shakespeare play performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Their main theatre is still being rebuilt, so the performance we attended was in the Courtyard Theatre, a temporary building which looks a lot like a box. But once the lights went down, the appearance of the theatre was forgotten and we were lost in the magic of Shakespeare.
The play was ‘The Winter's Tale', one I hadn't seen before. It is an odd play: the first half is a classic tragedy, with a rich man suspecting his wife and his best friend of having an affair. He evicts the friend, and exposes the wife. His wife dies in sorrow and to top it all, his little son dies too. The second half is a comedy, in which various forces combine to rehabilitate the man and restore him to reason. There's an unexpected ending, too. The staging was just superb. I'd recommend it to anybody.
Day 4 – Pottering around Stratford
Our last full day staying at Stratford was spent pottering around the town. Unfortunately, the weather broke and it rained lightly for much of the day, but we were able to shelter in the shops. Stratford has a good selection of both the standard and the quirky. We found a very nice Italian restaurant where we were able to have a delicious early dinner.
Day 5 – On the Road Again
Now it was time to say goodbye to Stratford. We packed up and set out on our way to South Wales. Rather than going the most direct route, I decided to travel along the old Roman road, the Fosse Way, which goes roughly in the direction we were going. After an hour's drive, we reached Chedworth Roman Villa, a wonderful excavation dating from the 4th Century (I think it was). This was one of the biggest villas in Britannia, as the Romans called it. It was fascinating. There are still some of the original mosaic floors; the remains of two bath houses; a sacred well, and even a special species of Roman snail brought by the Romans 1,600 years ago and still living happily around the sacred well.
Eventually we'd seen all the sites and it was time to get moving again, down the motorway and across the enormous suspension bridge over the Severn River, into Wales and on to Cardiff.
Part Two of the Holiday will be in the next edition of The Post.