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London, Oxford, Bath, Stonehenge: June 2019 Trip report

While a few years have gone by since this pre-covid trip, I had fun writing a report for a more recent Italy trip (https://community.ricksteves.com/travel-forum/trip-reports/tuscany-and-bologna-summer-2022-honeymoon-trip-report) and thought it would be worth submitting this one as well. Beware, it will be LONG--but I have tried to break it into sections for easier navigation.

Summary
- Travel Preferences/Context
- Motivation for this trip
- Itinerary
Weather
Accommodations
Transportation
Favorites
- Tours
- Experiences
- Views
- Food
Things we wouldn’t do again

SUMMARY
TRAVEL PREFERENCES (same as my other post)
My partner and I are in our early 30s and both prefer to take vacation travel slow, trying to stay at least two nights in any given location and building in flexible time for surprises. We take a “we’ll return” approach to travel, so don’t pack in activities: I usually schedule one major planned/prebooked activity per day and many optional activities in the neighborhood to add on as we like. We’re naturally frugal people, but based on our preferences and careers, days off are more precious than dollars spent while traveling, so we’ll pay for convenience and memorable stays/experiences if the value feels right to us.

My partner is a homebody and probably wouldn’t do a lot of international travel without me, however he LOVES food. Therefore, I plan our vacations around unique/memorable food experiences, and he’ll happily go along on any history/art/nature activities (my interests) make sense between eating. However, he has joint conditions that make extended walking difficult, so I plan in downtime to avoid being on our feet an entire day and try to balance heavy walking days with something like a travel day where we are more stationary.

MOTIVATION FOR THIS TRIP
I planned this trip last minute, as I turned out to have a little time between my grad school spring semester ending and my summer internship beginning.

Usually, planning a trip is half the fun for me, so I took this as a challenge to be a bit more flexible in my planning–literally, I think I put together two pages of notes over maybe 5 hours of planning, and prebooked the sites I knew I had to go to. I wanted to see if I could still have a wonderful trip with that little prep. The answer is yes! But I am sure it helped that 1) I’m an experienced traveler and 2) I’d long dreamed of going to London (former English Literature major and huge bibliophile here) and already had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to do. This was a dream trip for me, and my skeptical partner (“Good food in England?!”) even enjoyed it. Mostly because of my clever over-indexing for afternoon and cream tea experiences–ha!

But the truth is, we both had such a great time, that we now try to arrange a transit through London for a few nights on any European trip. It’s just such a great city, and there’s so much more we haven’t seen.

ITINERARY
This trip was 10 nights, arriving the afternoon of May 27 and departing the morning of June 6. We easily could have done 10 nights in London, but I really wanted to go to Oxford (for Tolkien), Bath (for Austen), and Stonehenge. We ended up renting a car to facilitate that loop out of London.

Our itinerary was:
- Arrive morning in London. Stay 3 nights.
- Pick up rental car in morning; drive to Windsor and see the castle; drive on to Oxford. Oxford 1 night.
- Drive on to the Cotswolds. Stay Moreton-in-Marsh 2 nights.
- Drive on to Bath. Stay Bath 2 nights.
- Drive back to London, stopping at Stonehenge on the way. Stay London 2 nights.

Overall, this division worked really well. If I were to do it again, I would probably skip Bath and give one more night to the Cotswolds and one more to Oxford. Bath was fine and I’m glad I experienced it, but we just didn’t enjoy it as much as those other two places. I don’t think this was only weather-driven (see below), but I’m open to that having been the case!

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WEATHER
We arrived late May and were blessed with perfect, clear weather for all but two days. The first day was on our transit to Bath, and the second was during our full day in Bath (though it was in the afternoon, so we managed to get a short hill walk in before the rain started). This may have impacted our experience of Bath, as we didn’t get as much of a chance to explore the town as we might have otherwise.

ACCOMMODATIONS
In our first London leg, we stayed at the GOOD Hotel at the Royal Docks and would stay again. The rooms were small but the price was excellent, and the location is quite good for the price. The ethos of the hotel is also nice (it’s a social hotel, with 100% profits going to good causes around the world), and it’s a barge, so there’s that for a cool experience! We’d stay again. Note that there aren’t minifridges in the room; the staff allowed us to put some leftovers in their fridge one night because we hadn’t realized this, but it’s something to keep in mind if you’re a traveler who likes having some food items with you. There’s a continental breakfast for a fee, but we skipped that to save our pounds for cream tea. ;)

We stayed at an airbnb in Oxford that was a perfectly fine budget option (individual rooms and showers, but shared kitchen and other amenities). I don’t normally opt for shared Airbnbs, but I was a grad student pinching pennies, and it gave us more funds for activities and other experiences.

I am sad to give out this best-kept secret, but we stayed at a place called the Costwold Grey in Moreton-on-Marsh. It was BEAUTIFUL and at least at the time, silly affordable for an accommodation like that. We still dream of going back and staying longer.

In Bath, we stayed at an Airbnb that was the same house Jane Austen stayed in during her short periods in Bath. However, it was in the servant’s quarters (basement), so I had to accept the fact that Jane was probably not bopping around down there having tea. Still, it made my Austen-loving heart so happy, and there is nowhere else I would have stayed in Bath. It even came with a parking pass!

On our return to London, we stayed at a nondescript airbnb in Vauxhall. Location was fine, but the airbnb seeme overpriced for the quality. In retrospect, the Good Hotel was a better choice, but I try to mix up neighborhoods the first few times in a city, so I don’t regret it.

TRANSPORTATION
We took the train to and from the airport and will do it again. So much more affordable than a cab, and easy even with carry-on luggage (at least at the times we were on it).

We mostly walked in London, but rode the tube whenever needed.

We rented a car from Hertz near Marble Arch in London. I had zero problems getting out of London, but the way back into town to the Hertz was a little frustrating, as I wasn’t totally confident of the route we got in Google. This is an area I would put more planning time into next time, to ensure I know exactly where to go based on what direction I’m driving in from. However, we never did get a ticket, so it worked out. We really liked having the flexibility of a car, especially in the Cotswolds, but this trip would have been doable by other means of transport.

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FAVORITES

Tours
Winner: Tower of London. So much history, and they do a really wonderful guided tour. I'd even do this a second time.

Runner up: Westminster Abbey. You cannot not feel humbled by a place with that much history, and the audio tour was quite good.

Experiences
Winner: Walking around Oxford, including stopping into the botanic gardens. Most of the time I spent on research was devoted to creating a walking tour of Oxford based on JRR Tolkien’s old haunts, and that was well worth it. Getting dinner at the Eagle and Child, where the Inkling’s used to meet, was a highlight of my travel life. Also, we walked along some part of the River Cherwell to get from our Airbnb to Oxford’s campus, and there was some kind of a university crew boat race going on, so that was cool. Favorite moment was rounding a corner, coming upon a small pasture dotted with daisies, and seeing a white pony just nibbling the perfectly soft green grass. The whole experience felt like a set of the most uplifting, charming movie.

Runner up: We rented bicycles at Hartwell’s on Bourton-on-the-Water and did a self-guided bike trip through Lower and Upper Slaughter and back. It was so beautiful, and the folks at Hartwell’s incredibly nice and helpful.

Second runner up: Stonehenge. The museum is nice, but just being near the stones and seeing them in person was very moving. Also, the gift shop was quite good!

Third runner up (too many great experiences!): We saw a play at the Globe the night we arrived. We were dazed with jetlag and got the standing “seats” so it was all kind of a fever dream, but an amazing experience. I’d do this again for sure.

Views
Winner: In Bath, we took a long walk up into the hills, which afforded a lovely view back down to the city. If you’re doing Bath, I highly recommend this. I imagine this actually was something Jane Austen might have done while in Bath! It felt very Austen-y.

Runner up: The Cotswolds were just lovely; I wish we’d had more time to stop and take it all in during the drive from Oxford.

Second runner up: St. James park! We sat near the lake on a sunny afternoon at the end of the tirp and just reflected on how nice everything had been, and the blue skies, blue lake, and waterfowl elegantly paddling around was a beautiful backdrop.

Food
Winner: Gymkhana. My god, this restaurant is good.

Runner up: Afternoon Tea at the Orangery at Kensington Palace Gardens. Honestly, I thought this might be overrated, but it is somehow UNDERRATED. We have such a nice time, we made sure to go back on our second leg through London.

THINGS WE WOULDN’T DO AGAIN (Unpopular opinions ahead!)
Honestly, not a lot! Even the things I came up with are wishy washy:

I brought an umbrella, given the UK’s changeable weather, and I think we used it twice. A mini umbrella or a small rainproof jacket might have been a better option. But this is in retrospect, so I’m on the fence.

Bath? I’m so torn, because it really was not our favorite travel experience, but it was also not terrible, and it made sense to stay there before the trip through Stonehenge. My partner did enjoy the Roman baths, which are pretty touristy at this point, but fun.

FINAL NOTE
This was a fantastic trip, and even though I wish we’d had more time on the ground, I’m glad I took the leap to plan a trip that was both shorter than I’d normally want to do for an international trip and that was thrown together with much less planning. It was a good lesson to me to be willing to say YES even if I know something won’t be perfect and am not quite sure what I’m getting into.

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5260 posts

Nice trip report, thanks for sharing!
I’ve bookmarked it for future reference😉

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7448 posts

Thanks so much for posting your trip report, Avens! The trip reports are so helpful - both for the forum and also to have a reminder of details for the author. It’s also good timing because I’m in the middle of planning our Wales/England 2-week trip for 2023.

I had penciled in a city bike tour at Oxford - our first location. We like that format to explore a new location and also hear some historical & culture info in a fun way. I see you rented bikes in Bourton-on-the-Water and enjoyed it. We will have a rental car from leaving Oxford, through the Cotswolds and ending at Chester near north Wales. Can you give me an approximate amount of time you were biking? Would you suggest an ebike or regular bikes okay?

I appreciate your details of what you liked and wouldn’t repeat. We’re skipping Bath - didn’t make the final cut for us.

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Thank you both for the kind words!

Jean, Hartwells has both half- and full-day hires. We did a full-day hire since we didn't want to have to worry about the time and it didn't cost that much more. Looking back at my notes from the trip, in total, we were probably actively biking for ~2 hours, but we stopped for a pint on the way out at the Golden Ball in Lower Swell and then stopped for tea on the way back at the Slaughters Country Inn.

One definitely could have biked for more or less time, depending on both fitness and travel schedule (ex: if just going to the Slaughters, you could probably be back in a leisurely 30 mins and it would still have been quite pretty!). There are lots of little towns you can use as a destination point before turning around.

Some of the uphill segments are difficult. I'm relatively fit, but recall getting off and walking my bike to the top of a crest at least once! An ebike would have solved for this, but we had regular bikes and I would probably still do regular bikes next time. Might be different if you are with young ones who would struggle on hills that adults would not.

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1393 posts

Enjoying the reports. That's the beauty of travel, finding places you enjoy returning to and others that you've done once and that was enough. I fell in love with Paris, so I try to add time in Paris at the end of any trip I am doing in Europe. During your time in England I was visiting Switzerland (Murren, Lauterbrunnen Valley & Luzern) and of course Paris.

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677 posts

Avens, really enjoyed your trip report! When you return to England, you need to check out Winchester for more Jane Austen! I decided to go there instead of Bath as I had a suspicion I wouldn’t be crazy about Bath. Haven’t been yet so I can’t confirm that. But, I can tell you Winchester was wonderful. We visited her house and church at Chawton and also where she is buried in Winchester Cathedral. I think you’d enjoy it very much.

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I agree with Julie's recommendation about visiting the Winchester area. I took the train from London to Alton and stayed at the Swan Inn late September this year. Next day I took a taxi the apprx 1.5 miles (my knee was bothering me) to Chawton Village to visit the cottage where she wrote or edited all her books. It was definitely my favorite Jane Austen experience of all time. To stand in her bedroom or beside the small table where she wrote or sit in her garden was thrilling for me. I also walked to the church where her mother and sister are buried and Jane attended services. There is a lovely tea shop across from the cottage where I enjoyed sitting, drinking tea and thinking about how much this woman contributed to literature. I didn't have time to go on to Winchester to visit her burial site, but it is definitely on my list of things to do.

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Thank you all for such kind comments. I will definitely check out Winchester when I'm next able to--it sounds like exactly the experience I'd want. These personal recommendations and memories mean so much!