TRAVEL: OUTLOOK TRAVELLER/OUT OF LONDON


 Photos : Sheila Kumar



OUT OF LONDON

Outlook Traveller, August 2003





A driving trip is a great way to see places. You’re in control of the vehicle and pace. You decide what to see, when to see it, when and where to stop. And, when driving in England, almost everything is stacked in your favour: great motorways, clear signs, well-behaved traffic. Trenchermen’s fare from steak and kidney puddings to game pies, outsized jacket potatoes and fruit tarts at roadside motels. Scenery to feast your senses on, B&Bs that serve hearty breakfasts. Car rental firms are all over London, the most popular being at the airport. Fuel prices are steep but going with people all wanting to see the same places, it can be a budget trip.

OXFORD

The city derives its name from the ‘oxen ford’ that used to cross the river Isis at what is Folly Bridge today. The town has two rivers running through it, the Thames in its avatar as the Isis, and the Cherwell. Cars, we found, are not allowed in the city centre between 7.30 am and 6.30 pm. A good thing, if ironical, considering it was here that William Morris began to build cars in the early 20th century, making Oxford the HQ of the British automobile industry. Walk through Oxford, there really is no better way to do the place. I recommend the Gargoyle Walk. Almost all the venerable buildings have these strange creatures poised atop the balustrades and columns.

Another pleasant walk is along the stretch of the Thames between Folly Bridge and Iffley Lock. There are pubs at both ends. At The Head of the River at Folly Bridge and The Isis Hotel at Iffley Lock one can sit peaceably, doff down a cheese and ham pie, drink ale and watch the river flow by.

Britain’s oldest museum, the hallowed Ashmolean, founded in 1683, is situated in a stately building. Elias Ashmole’s collection, built up around curiosities brought to Oxford in the 16th century, is a veritable hoard of treasures (open 10 am to 4 pm, Tuesdays to Saturdays and 2-4 pm on Sundays; admission free).

The Bodleian Library was set up in the 17th century and is the second largest library in the UK, with over 80 miles of bookshelves! (Only members can enter the main library building but there are guided tours around several of the other library buildings).

The Museum of Oxford tells the story of Oxford with exhibitions covering the town’s religious, academic and industrial pasts. The entrance to the museum is on Blue Boar Lane, round the corner from the Town Hall (Mondays closed, £2.00 adult, £0.50 child).

The Oxford Story is located on the south side of Broad Street, opposite Balliol College. The ‘Story’ is the history of Oxford University told via a journey through time in special coaches built to resemble school desks (open daily; £6.75 for adults, £5.25 child; family — 2 adults and 2 children — £22).


Some of the houses seen in Oxford are quaint in character, even eccentric. Special mention must be made of the red and black brick building, Isis House, built circa 1849, at Folly Bridge, which sports battlements and statues. The Botanic Garden, founded 1621, opposite Magdalen College is the oldest in the world (open daily, 9am to 5pm; entry free, except between mid-June and September).




We found drama in plenty at Oxford. Shakespeare, Rattigan, Forster, Miller, Bernstein operas, ye olde pantos, you name it and it’s playing, usually at the Oxford Playhouse.




BATH 

This city of Georgian terraces and Roman Baths is now a sophisticated English town with a high street full of haute stores.

The ancient Celts who first inhabited this area believed that Bath’s hot springs were sacred but it was the invading Romans who built the famous Baths. In the 18th century Bath became England’s premier spa town and the rich and fashionable, the haut ton, came here to ‘take the waters’ in the Pump Room, and attend soirees, glees and concerts at the Assembly Rooms. It was at this time, too, that architect John Wood started to build this Georgian city using a soft honey-hued stone that gives Bath its ‘hatke’ quality.

Bath is cradled in the Avon River Valley and Pulteney Bridge is the place to stand and watch the swiftly flowing currents of the Avon, and to gaze up at the green hills beyond. The bridge, designed by Robert Adams and built in 1774, is one of only two bridges in the world with shops and restaurants incorporated in its structure.
The 500-year-old Bath Abbey with its stolid towers is the centrepoint of Bath, and the deep tones of the bells waft mellifluously across town. Bath has the only natural hot springs in Britain, and the springs are now open to the public for bathing after a long gap of 25 years. Although they are still buried under Georgian streets, two metres below the present level of the city.




You can get a swig of the famous mineral waters at the Pump Room for a price (to the accompaniment of the Pump Room Trio, the oldest resident ensemble in all Europe) and all I can say is, healing properties or not, the waters are definitely an acquired taste.

Fine examples of Georgian architecture are the Queen’s Square, the Circus (a mandatory tourist gawp-site, with its 33 houses in three crescents behind fluted Doric, Ionic and Corinthian pillars), the Royal Crescent (the first open curved terrace in all Europe), all giving credence to Bath’s reputation as a fashionable metropolis.



Like all cathedral towns, Bath too preserves its history well. A must for bibliophiles is the Book Museum tracing the traditional Bath craft of bookbinding, along with a section exhibiting rare books. The Museum of Costume below the Assembly Rooms is where history is recreated through clothes (Mondays closed, admission free). The Holburne Museum has some fine Gainsboroughs. The Jane Austen Centre on Gay Street traces the years the author spent in the city.



STRATFORD-UPON-AVON
Stratford is one big tourist trap, albeit a charming one. For lovers of English literature, it is undoubtedly a treat: Will’s house, Anne Hathaway’s house, Will’s tomb inside the imposing Holy Trinity Church, the statue of the jester in the town square, the boats at the pier all named Rosalind, Juliet, Portia,... and of course, the playhouse of the Royal Shakespeare Company.
What of those in the shrinking minority who do not revere the good William? Well, Stratford is a sweet little Warwickshire market town set on the river Avon (‘avon’ in fact means river in Celtic and Stratford means street-ford. In Roman times this was a crossing point, a ford, over the Avon) with the mandatory swans out in full force amongst the tawny reeds and rushes, gabled houses, chestnut-lined avenues and cobblestone paths.







The Shakespeare Birthplace Houses are all cared for by the Birthplace Trust and they do a good job of it, too.... right down to the canny placement of gift shops at the exit of every such house! The house in which Shakespeare was born is on Henley Street, in the centre of town. The eight-roomed house holds 400 treasures including documents, portraits, pictures and old coins.


One mile from Stratford, across what were originally fields, lies the pretty hamlet of Shottery, and the maternal home of Anne Hathaway. The Tudor cottage has a thatched roof, a brook running close by on which mallards swim, and the smell of wild thyme all about.

Yet another of the Birthplace Houses is Hall’s Croft, a lovely gabled house that was for a time the home of Shakespeare’s daughter Susanna and her husband John Hall.

Shakespeare was baptised in the Holy Trinity Church, built in warm beige Warwick stone, and situated alongside the Avon. Now, along with his wife and daughter, he rests in the chancel of the chapel. ‘No photographs’ is the dictum but the churchwarden has been known to indulge students of literature.


Theatre is big in Stratford, as indeed it should be. The Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) and satellite and independent repertory companies are forever engaged in new interpretations of the Bard’s works and experimentation with theatrical traditions, to the delight of the theatre-going public.



USEFUL FACTS
Oxford Getting thereOxford is 90km from London on the M40 motorway (Junctions 8 and 9).
Where to stay
From luxurious historic houses to B&Bs, options are aplenty. Old Parsonage is a 17th century hotel in central Oxford (from £155 per person on twin-sharing, 01865-310210; info@oldparsonage-hotel.co.uk). The economical Oxford Youth Hostel is only 5 min walk from the city centre and has family rooms (£19 per person for B&B; 01865-727275; oxford@yha.org.uk).
Where to eat
Pubs, cafés and tuck shops abound (and decent B&Bs can be found for £25-30). The 16th century The Turf Tavern was famously an Inspector Morse haunt. Freud (Walton Street) is housed in a former church. Aziz (Cowley Road) has been voted one of Britain’s top Indian restaurants. You can also eat on the river on board Rosamund the Fair, Oxford’s cruising restaurant.
More info is available from the Oxford Information Centre, 15-16 Broad Street, 01865-726871; tic@oxford.gov.uk; www.visitoxford.org. Many guided tours start at the OIC.

Bath
Getting there
Bath is 140km from London on the M4 Motorway

Where to stay
We chose to visit Bath at a busy time and budget accommodation was practically impossible to find. Driving onto the charming Chew Valley Lake area in Bristol, a half-hour away, we found an excellent B&B for £25, and used it as a base for our Bath sojourn. Log on to www.visitbath.co.uk for more info.
Where to eat
Food is serious business at Bath and excellent English, French, Indian and Italian fare can be found at the restaurants that line Pulteney Bridge, by the riverfront and around town.
Where to shop
Shopping is equally serious business. Bath is known for top quality women’s clothing, crafts and antiques. New Bond Street and Milsom Street are the premier shopping areas.
The Bath Pass gives you entry into more than 30 attractions in Bath, nearby Bristol and beyond, apart from discounts at restaurants and shops, free guidebook and maps. You can buy the pass on arrival at the Tourist Information Centre, Bath (+44-870-4446442).

Stratford
Getting there
Stratford-upon-Avon is two hours from London on M40 (Junctions 14 and 15), a lovely drive through country lanes hedged by deep woods and stiles, and pretty villages called Tetbury (it won an award for being the prettiest village in all UK).
Where to stay
Stratford has over a hundred hotels, guesthouses and B&Bs but most are pricey.
Where to eat
You can choose from river or canalside settings to 16th-century buildings in town.

Where to shop
Don’t shop in Stratford, unless it’s for Will memorabilia and you get as good a selection at the Globe in London.
Tips
Look for cars at www.carrentals.co.uk or www.rentacar-uk.com. April-May or September-October are ideal for visits. Log on to www.visitbritain.com for more info or call the British Tourist Authority in India (0124-2806180-83).




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