UK travel

My mother and I (she is 70, I am 50) would like to travel in England June 2014. We would like to visit the Cotswolds area (with Stratford-Upon-Avon, Oxford), Stourhead Gardens, the Lake District, Snowdonia area in Wales and possibly Edinburgh. We have been to London before and do not have an interest in visiting again.
We also do not have in interest in seeing other sights commonly on bus tours, such as Stonehenge. We enjoy small towns much more than large cities. I have been cautioned about driving in England. People have told me that I will spend so much energy trying to get from one place to the next that I will not enjoy the trip. My mother will be no help in navigating! Is it possible to travel between these areas via train? Will it be arduous for us to travel this way with our luggage? Should we compromise and just sign up for a bus tour?? (None of the tours visit Stourhead Gardens!) Thanks!

Posted by Laurel
Arlington, WA
880 posts

Janette, Driving in the UK is not that hard. My sister and I (both in our 60's) alwlays get a car for our travel outside of larger cities. We have a road atlas to tell us where we are going and a GPS to tell us how to get there. AND get a car with an automatic transmission. Needs booking further in advance and costs a bit more but it's one less thing to worry about. The GPS will say something like "take the 3rd exit" (from the round-about) and we count them outloud. All you have to do is pay attention and be mindful of your surroundings, like which lane you're in. If you miss your exit you can go around again. And again if you have to. Often even the lanes are marked so you know which one to be in.IMHO its really the only way to see the Cotswolds and the other areas you mentioned because you can stop whenever and nearly wherever you want to. If you fly into Heathrow you can take public transportation to Oxford and when you're ready to leave pick up your car there and hit the road. Hey, if my sister and I can do it so can you. Really. My first trip to the UK we depended on trains. While I like riding train I did not like schlepping my luggage around .. and it takes too much time. We stay at B&B's, drive ourselves, make up our own itinerary and stop for tea whenever we want. My one caviet (is that how you spell it) is that parking in the Cotswolds comes at a premium and I'm sure other posters will have more information to pass on about that. I'll stop talking now.

Posted by Philip
London, United Kingdom
2639 posts

It's possible to travel between those regions by train, but you'll find a car useful in the Cotswolds, the Lakes and Snowdonia. I'd never heard of Stourhead but looking it up online public transport appears to be pretty limited and you'll definitely need a car unless you can find some kind of garden-fan tour. Depending on how happy you are on motorways you might want to take a train from the Cotswolds to Snowdonia, from Snowdonia to Cumbria and from Cumbria to Edinburgh. Please don't try to drive a car into central Oxford, though: leave it at one of the Park and Ride car parks and take the bus.

Posted by david
837 posts

I would agree with those who say that you might travel between areas via train or coach but would want a car to explore each area. I also concur with the driving advise. My primary question would be whether Stourhead Gardens are worth the digression. Yes, you could head in that direction on your arrival, then up to Oxford/Cotswolds, on to Snowdonia, and then up to Edinburgh. However, you are making a large swing south only to visit one garden. If it were me, I would skip that and follow the suggestion to train to Oxford. Pick up the car after the Oxford visit, drive the Cotswolds/Stratford area, then on to Snowdonia, and the Lake District. Turn in the car and train to Edinburgh. You don't mention it, but I would fly open jaw, into London and out of Edinburgh.

Posted by Nigel
East Midlands, England
12886 posts

I agree with the above posters too. However, caution - multiple small car rentals will be way more difficult and much more expensive than one longer rental. Stourhead Garden is a magnificent landscape garden laid out by Capability Brown and is one of a kind. However, as much as it is one of a kind, there are many fantastic and special gardens where you will be. If you want a Capability Brown landscape garden - lots of shrubs, lots of temples and follies, not many flowers - Stowe Landscape Garden is one such. Also opened by the National Trust, like Stourhead and most of the rest I will speak of here, it is quite close to Oxford and the Cotswolds. If it turns out that you'd like to see flowers then the original Garden of Rooms is Hidcote Manor Garden right in the centre of the Cotswolds. Just a couple of miles from Chipping Campden and something like 8 from Stow on the Wold it is the one garden that my wife does somersaults for. We spend many many days in the summer (when there is one) visiting National Trust gardens and stately homes all over the bottom half of England. As my wife says, consider limiting your garden visits to those near you and you will still run out of days long before you run out of spectacular gardens. Most National Trust properties are significantly easier to visit by car than any other way. Parking is not always so tough in the Cotswolds. We were at Hidcote yesterday along with having lunch at the original Fleece Inn, and tea in Stow on the Wold. I had no trouble parking at any of those and didn't have to go around. What do you and your mother look for in a garden?

Posted by Thomas
Hermosa Beach, CA, USA
117 posts

My wife and I (in our 60s) did fine driving around the Cotswolds, a touch of Wales, and southern England for 17 days last summer. The biggest issue was the width of the roads. I was never fully comfortable, but loved the freedom to pull into the smallest of villages and go at our own pace. I would recommend getting a car with an automatic transmission (rarer than in the U.S.) because it's one less thing to think about. We also got a car with navigation built in. We picked up the car at Heathrow and never drove closer to the center of London than there. At the end of the trip, we left it at the London City Airport and took a taxi to our B&B in Greenwich. The "M" highways are like freeways, but the "A" highways are unpredictable. Sometimes they're nice and wide. Sometimes, the vegetation or hedges make it narrow. Also, people tend to park wherever is convenient which can make a two lane road into a one lane road. English drivers are very considerate and just take turns as is needed. At times, if a big truck (lorry) was coming the other way, I would pull over to the left edge and slow way down or come to a stop. The lorry driver always managed to pull past me. No one ever honked at us to was anything but polite to us. Of the hundreds of round-abouts we encountered, we went off at the wrong exit twice. Another two times we made an extra lap around the round-about because we missed our road. I only plan to take buses or trains when I'm too old to drive.

Posted by Janette
Jackson, MI, USA
9 posts

Thank-you all for your replies! They are very helpful. I typically am not much of a garden person. I recently visited Muckross House/Gardens and Kylemore Abbey in Ireland. They were nice, but not the highlight of my trip. I had a calendar with a picture of Stourhead Gardens that made me interested in it. Though I did wonder if it was worth the journey. I really appreciate your comments on the gardens. I believe I will remove it from my itinerary. Thanks again for replies! They were very helpful.

Posted by j.c.
NC, United States
868 posts

Janette, if you can manage to travel with one bag for each of you, train travel will be more pleasant. The hassle factor goes way up, for me at least, when I've lugged multiple bags around. (Got one stuck in a turnstile at King's Cross once. That was fun.) When you travel by train, life is more relaxing if you budget for taking a cab, when necessary, to and from the station. Some stations are right in the center of town, some a few blocks aways, and some a long way away. Driving on roads aways from cities and congested areas should not pose an insurmountable problem. Just be aware, especially on the first day, that you will need to be aware of everything, rather than trusting to habit and instinct. It will quickly become much easier. Frankly, I think the fact that road signs are usually very different than in the U.S. confuses more American drivers. If you are going to be doing the navigating solo, just have good maps and plot out the day's itinerary in advance. GPS, of course, is great. I'm over 60 and spent three weeks in my last trip meandering solo around Scotland. Was great fun. I'd recommend staying off the motorways. Like American interstates, they're fast, except where they are congested, and they are not very interesting. Trucks, too.

Posted by Janette
Jackson, MI, USA
9 posts

While thinking about the replies I thought of another question.
If we used train travel between cities, and then cars in areas such as the Cotswolds, Snowdonia and the Lake District, are the rental agencies at or near the train stations?

Posted by Thomas
Snyder, Texas
504 posts

Janette, In reference to renting multiple cars at train stations: You will have trouble getting an automatic at smaller venues. Your best bet is an airport, and then only if you have reserved ahead. I drive a stick shift, and switching to my left hand doesn't bother me. In fact I enjoy it. However, if you are not a stick shift driver, the UK is not the place to take it up. So, I would try to nail down an automatic and keep it for the duration. They will also try to give you a big car. Get the smallest one that will accommodate your luggage, which is another reason to take a small amount. Driving on the left is easy for me, but some people hate it. I will say that it would be more difficult without my wife's excellent navigation. You say your mother would be no help, so that could be stressful. Also, there are speed cameras everywhere, so stay under the speed limit. That's another benefit of the GPS. It shows you the speed limit. It was also tremendously cheaper to rent a small car than train tickets would have cost. Train tickets are like plane tickets here. They vary widely in cost. You have to buy as far ahead as possible to get a reasonable fare. You can try to get an idea of prices.
Also, I like taking our own GPS because we are already familiar with how it works. We love having a car in rural England because of the freedom to explore. You do have to be careful though. And you need to know a few road rules before you go.

Posted by j.c.
NC, United States
868 posts

Are car rentals available in or near rail stations? Often, but not always. But... if a rental shop will provide transportation to and from the station, then that's the equivalent. Don't be shy about using the phone to ask. That said, I don't recall ever being at a station that did not have a taxi rank outside. You can always take a cab to and from the car.

Posted by Laurie Beth
Was MN, now TX
646 posts

Several years ago I rented a car in Manchester to do a 'literary' tour with my English teacher Mom (Haworth, York for Herriot country, Lake District-Wordsworth & Beatrix Potter, etc. My Mom was directionally challenged and not good at reading maps, so each night I made a list of the major towns/villages we were looking for to get where we needed to go. This allowed her to tell me which town we were looking for before we got to a round about. It really helped her feel she was helping and she actually got better at finding where we were on a map because she could concentrate on just finding towns in a specific area. It also served to help me remember where we wanted to go in pre GPS days.

Posted by Toni
Charlotte, NC, USA
3098 posts

I think you will find that trains (with maybe a few buses) will serve you well. We LOVE traveling by train in the UK. Neither hubby or I are interested in driving on vacation- especially in the UK. Neither of us drives 'sticks' and driving on the 'other' side of the road would drive both of us nuts (especially me- dyslexic). I really enjoy being able to look at the scenery as we ride. Hubby usually listens to his music, and I read or sketch some, too. With 1 carry-on size suitcase each and one day bag between us, we manage fine. We like Rick's 'convertible' suitcases, and one of the few times we actually use the back-pack straps is when we have a tight train connection.

Posted by Janette
Jackson, MI, USA
9 posts

Thanks so much for your replies!
It really helps with planning our trip.