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Normandy/Cotswolds/London: Our History Tour

Just returned from 11 nights in Normandy, the Cotswolds, and London. Two couples, all history buffs, all return visitors. Our friends had briefly touched on Normandy and the Cotswolds on bus tours, and had seen the highlights of London. This was my chance to enjoy their company while sharing the joy of traveling when NOT required to put the luggage in the hall by 6:45 every morning.

Flew Atlanta to CDG on Air France, direct, leaving at 8PM, hoping for sleep. CDG has been my least favorite European airport, but it felt less unfriendly with nothing obviously under construction this time. Car rental by was well planned on the front end but took a long time to execute at the Europcar desk, partly our doing when we decided on the spot to upgrade to something bigger. No regrets on getting the VW SUV. Parking’s not an issue in Normandy, and we were in the car a lot. I know driving jet-lagged is a big problem for many, like me, but I’m married to one of the original road warriors who sleeps as well on a plane as in a bed, and he was fine to drive on landing in France.


First stop was Giverny, which should have taken about an hour from CDG, but took much longer because evil Navigate refused to put us on a major highway until almost the end. I’m sure there’s a better way; maybe a map. I had a quaint lunch spot picked in Vernon, but as the slog through Parisian suburbs drug on, I decided the first parking place near a boulangerie would decide lunch. Have no idea if our pick had a Yelp rating, or even a name, but it was wonderful, as all Parisian boulangeries seem to be. Friendly owner endured my mangled French, and we ate on a street side bench under a sunny blue sky.

Monet’s Gardens close for the season on November 1, and I had my fingers crossed there would still be flowers, and there were rows and rows of glorious blooms and precious few tourists on this mid-afternoon Friday in October. No line for tickets. Beautiful photos in golden afternoon light, with no people in them!


Left Giverny in time to drive the hour and a half to Honfleur in daylight. Our hotel was L’Absinthe, right on the harbor. Requested rooms with a view, and got beautiful harbor views from the hotel’s annex building. No lift, but the stairs aren’t steep. Our rooms were big and modern, and included breakfast in the main hotel around the corner. They also have a nearby parking lot, a perk in this part of Honfleur.

Dinner at L’Alcyone on the square a block or two behind our hotel. Dining rooms along the harbor were sparsely filled, but this place was busy with locals. Many fifteen euro 3-course menu choices on the blackboard, but we all wanted moules and shared big green salads. Managed to keep our heads from dropping into the mussel pots. Would return here.

Woke up to the Saturday market which spreads around the harbor and up to the church, a festive day for walking around.

Our trip was planned with a history theme, and leaving Honfleur midday, our first destination was the Memorial Pegasus Museum in Ranville, site of the first battle of D-Day, the turning point of WW2. This well-organized small museum focuses on the British airborne division that landed during the night in gliders, liberating the first French village on D-Day. The actual Pegasus Bridge and a model of one of the Horsa gliders are in the park behind the museum. A good place to start a D-Day tour.

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Our home in Bayeux for the next three nights was La Colline, a beautiful B&B in easy walking distance of the cathedral. I’ve found some of my best places to stay in France and England on Sawday’s, charming rentals at all price points. Had contacted another B&B that was fully booked, and the owner recommended this newly opened property of her friend. Their four rental rooms are in a new building across the garden courtyard from their classic French home. The breakfast room is a glass-walled garden side room in the owner’s house. Perfect rooms; lovely hosts. Highly recommend!

Had been forewarned by a friend that if you plan to eat dinner in a Bayeux restaurant of your choice, you best make a reservation, even off season. Many are dark on Sunday and Monday. Our B&B host reserved Au Ptit Bistrot for us on arrival night, and it was our favorite. (Watched many hopefuls turned away at the door.) A short menu where everything sounds delicious. Not inexpensive, but good value, great food, and friendly service.

Our next night at le Pommier offered an equally lovely ambience and longer menu but fewer offers I really wanted to try. Tripes à la mode de Caen? (Their website translation: Stew of stomach, guts and foot of beef and veal.) Parts of our dinner were very good, but not my favorite.

Third night: grocery store. Because we didn’t make a reservation. (The fresh baguettes, jambon, creamy cheese, and salted chocolate caramel cookies were great though.)

My husband the historian made the battle plan for our D-Day sites. First day started at La Fiere bridge where the US paratroopers landed on the marsh at dawn to take the bridge and secure Utah beach. To Sainte-Mere-Eglise to the Airborne Museum dedicated to the memory of paratroopers of the 82nd and 101st Airborne. To Pont du Hoc overlooking the west side of Omaha Beach.

Our attention span in museums runs long, and we were lucky to find an open restaurant on Sunday afternoon seaside at Grandcamp-Maisy, thanks to Yelp. Les Flots Bleus had excellent fish and chips. Ended our day at the somber La Cambe German war cemetery. Walked through the field of brown crosses embedded flat on the ground. Two soldiers buried beneath most of them. So many were teenagers.

Started second day at Bayeux’s excellent Memorial Museum of the Battle of Normandy devoted to the first ten weeks after D-Day. On to Arromanches to the 360 Circular Cinema at the top of the hill overlooking the harbor to watch 30 minute film, much of it actual newsreel footage. In the village of Arromanches itself, on the seawall, there’s the fine little Musee du Debarquement describing how they actually built the floating Mulberry Harbor and planned for getting troops and supplies into Normandy. Each of the museums and films we saw had a slightly different focus, but they all added clarity to my understanding of the battle for Normandy.

Our next stop was the Longues-sur-Mer battery, part of Germany’s Atlantic Wall fortifications that shelled both Gold and Omaha beaches on D-Day. The original bunkers and guns, with their 12-mile range, are still there.

Our last stop was the Normandy American Cemetery on the cliff overlooking Omaha Beach and the English Channel at Colleville-sur-Mer, and we were there for the solemn lowering of the flags at the end of the day. (We’ve walked on the beach on other trips, but the path down from the cemetery is no longer open.)

Returned to Bayeux in time to jump backward ten centuries to the Bayeux Tapestry. This story of how the Normans conquered England is really foreign history for me. I’ve seen it before, and I’m captivated by the design and the graphics, but always relieved there’s not a test at the end.

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Moving Parts Day

Drive to Paris after breakfast. Turn in rental car underneath Gare du Paris-Nord. Go upstairs to catch Eurostar (and buy lunch at the best ever train station bakery.) Arrive two+ hours later at St. Pancras station in London. Top up Oyster Cards and hop on tube to Paddington Station. (Faster than a taxi.) Find kiosk to print out pre-purchased train tickets to Oxford. Enjoy British countryside for one hour on the train. Taxi from Oxford train station to rental car office (after convincing dubious driver four people plus luggage WILL fit in his car.) Breathe sigh of relief when luggage fits in the boot of rental car. Offer grateful thoughts to AMEX for providing zero deductible CDW (bring-it-back-in-a-bag insurance coverage) for $25. Pray to God that He help me keep my wits driving on the left side of the road and keep my passengers safe. Drive out of Auto Europe with husband navigating. (His first direction is turn left and it should have been right.…) Arrive 45 minutes later at beautiful Rectory Farm in Salford. Exhale.

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We have three nights at Rectory Farm, but I could move here. “Farmhouse” is descriptive, but lovely Cotswold stone house is better. Set on a 400 acre working farm, there are two trout ponds in back, sheep in front, and spaniels sleeping in front of the Aga in the kitchen. Down a long private, bumpy road in a small village, it’s not easy to find on first visit, but Nigel will come fetch you if you’re lost. > Rectory Farm, Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire

When we arrived late afternoon, the Virginia Creeper covering the house blazed red. Elizabeth is a wonderful hostess, and knowing we’d had a long travel day, sent us to the Salford Inn, the very nearby local pub, for dinner. Everything we ordered was good — medium rare steak to fish pie and fish and chips. We returned on our last night to a warm welcome.

Her breakfasts are at the high end of traditional English and served at her dining room table seating at least sixteen. We never thought about food again until afternoon. The first time I stayed here, Elizabeth helped us plot a route on our Cotswolds’ map. (You need one. Don’t depend on Navigate, or you’ll miss plenty that’s nearby and vaguely signposted.)

With two full days and part of a third, we devoted our first day to Cotswolds villages. The farm is about five miles from Stow-on-Wold and an easy drive/walk to an ancient Bronze Age stone circle, the Rollright Stones. Stopped at the Cotswold Farm Park near Stow to visit the rare breed farm animals, and bounced along in a tractor pulled wagon for a guided tour of the grounds. Found ourselves in pretty but touristy Bourton-on-the-Water (though not too much this off-season weekday) and Yelped a place for afternoon tea. The Bakery on the Water was a great find on a back street. Very inexpensive to put together a lovely tea from their bakery selections and enjoy it at a garden table. Dinner that night was a festive one at the Fox in Lower Oddington.

Second day was Churchill day. Blenheim Palace was only a twenty minute drive from our farm, and we spent the entire day there. The grounds are stunning, the interior majestic as expected, and the audioguide is enjoyable. The only disappointment was that none of the special guided tours are still on in October. A plus was being there for the recently opened Maurizio Cattalon art installation “Victory Is Not An Option.” If you don’t recognize the name, he’s the Italian artist commissioned by the Guggenheim to create the five million dollar solid gold working toilet. The latest fame of the legendary toilet is its heist from Blenheim in the dark hours the week it was installed. So you can no longer sign up for your private three minute visit! They do have several people in custody, but the toilet’s probably long since morphed into something more marketable.

If contemporary art installations set your hair on fire, and the enormous Union Jack paths in the courtyard that you walk on may do that, at least pick up the small, well-written exhibition guide and see what the artist was thinking for each of his pieces. “Reality is far more provocative than my art.” - Maurizio Cattelan

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Cotswolds, continued...

Our next mission was finding Churchill’s burial place in his very unassuming and hard to find parish church St. Martin’s in Bladon. After several fruitless circles on tiny residential streets, I finally turned up what looked like an alley, and found it. This is such a special place. The Churchill family plots are very simple, but his will have fresh flowers. His state funeral was at St. Paul’s cathedral, but his wish was to be buried in this country churchyard near his home Blenheim.

Inside the church there’s a small memorial of black and white photos, but the best is the brilliant stained glass window installed in 2015 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his death. There was a laminated page resting on the window sill to explain the elaborate symbols honoring Sir Winston’s life. Very special site and so worth the effort to find.

Third day, after another memorable breakfast and goodbyes to Elizabeth, we headed out to see more villages. Made our second pass through nearby Bibury (with the trout farm) and still no parking place — but plenty of wandering tourists. After that we went off-map and just turned down pretty farm roads with pastures dotted with white sheep, who all looked at us curiously, then fled en-masse if I stepped out of the car with my camera. Our favorite village find was Northleach with its beautiful 15th century wool church St. Peter and St. Paul. I had a coffee house chat earlier that day with a local gentleman who told me to move the carpet squares in the church to see the brasses on the floor. When we got there the carpets were already rolled away in preparation for a funeral. My favorite brass marker from the 1400s memorialized a couple and their eleven children. A beautiful church worth a visit.

Time to head back to Oxford to return the car. Forewarned that traffic on the A40 could be unpredictable, but what I was not alerted to was the scarcity of gas stations. Two jammed traffic circles into Oxford and the Navi said still 2 miles to a petrol station! Made unanimous decision that regardless the fee for returning a half-filled tank, this car was going back now!

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Train from Oxford to London Paddington, then taxi to our London Connection apartment in Covent Garden on Shelton Street for the next four nights. I’ve rented five different London apartments from London Connection, and would return to any of them. The owner is in the US, and the London employees are helpful and responsive. They are not budget properties, but prices are often comparable if you need two hotel rooms, or are traveling with a kiddo who can sleep on the living room sofa bed in a one-bedroom. Apartments without a lift are often less expensive. Having a washer, a refrigerator, and a relaxing area to sit can be priceless perks. And I’m often splitting the cost with three friends on “girls’ trips!”

On Friday evening we had time only for dinner and a walkabout in Covent Garden, but Saturday was a full day. If I’m in London with someone who’s already seen the highlights, I like to choose a sight and spend as long as I want seeing it. Continuing our history theme, we were at the Imperial War Museum when it opened and saw every exhibit on every floor! The Holocaust exhibit is a good one, but I especially appreciated the WW1 section that helped fill a gap in my history education. After Normandy, also interesting to view issues from a British perspective.

I love Borough Market for its impressive choices of food stalls. Saturdays are always slammed, but we arrived mid afternoon after most of the crush. Making a food choice is hard enough, but finding somewhere to sit is almost impossible. This visit we chose the seated restaurant Fish! and it was excellent. Borough Market is right across the street from the London Bridge tube station, but check the website to be sure it’s open. Times vary.

Tonight was another jump back in history, to Hamilton. It’s a spectacular musical, and I applaud their ticketing decisions that prevent scalping. You can buy good seats in London for a fraction of the price on Broadway…or Atlanta. My friends hate me :^) but this was my 4th time here in the room where it happened. A strong cast throughout…but I think Giles Terera as Aaron Burr is now the best on stage. Understand why he won the 2018 Olivier for Best Actor in a Musical.

Sunday morning we went to Westminster Abbey for the 10:30 service. It was a 750th anniversary celebration of the Abbey (1269) so choirboys were in full voice and the Dean gave the sermon. Learned we missed the Queen on Tuesday. When leaving, all the bells rang on and on in a thrilling chorus reminiscent of a royal wedding.

Sunday Roast Lunch at the Coal Shed near the Tower of London. It’s easiest to get here by tube to Tower Hill, then walk completely across the Tower Bridge, and take the steps down to the riverside plaza. Then ask where it’s hidden around a corner. Need reservations, but it’s a great traditional lunch.

Back at Trafalgar Square mid afternoon, time for a visit to the excellent gift shop beneath St. Martin-in-the-Fields to buy Christmas cards and for my friend to make a brass rubbing. While she rubbed, I crossed the street to the National Portrait Gallery to catch the last day of the BP Portrait Award Exhibit. Had to wait a few minutes for the mop up after the BP protest, but this year’s artists are young and gifted as always.

Another walk through Covent Garden with a stop at the Pret a Manger on our street, our dependable standby for breakfasts and occasional evening sandwiches.

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Monday was for Bletchley Park about an hour north of London, home of the WW2 codebreakers who helped end the war two, possibly three, years earlier than it could have lasted. I read The Secret Lives of Codebreakers by Sinclair McKay, and have wanted to visit since then. It was a great day, but you’ll appreciate it more if you know some background. I’m rereading the book now, visualizing it more vividly.

Getting to Bletchley seems complicated, but I got great advice on this forum. It’s not difficult. Take the tube to Euston station. Walk outside, and you’ll see the overland train station, also called Euston, next door. Go to a ticket counter in the very busy train station to buy return tickets to Bletchley. (No need to buy ahead.) We got a group discount, and the agent told us if we could wait 20 min for a train, there was a further discount. (In hindsight, I would have gotten there even earlier and taken an earlier train; needed more time at the site!) If you go to the British Rail site and print out 2-4-1 vouchers before you leave home, and show your return train tickets with the British Rail logo, you can buy entrance tickets at Bletchley Park for half price.

When you arrive at Bletchley train station, cross the street, turn right, and follow the fence for a block until you see the left turn into Bletchley Park. Buy your tickets, get a free audioguide, and find out when you can join the next tour. So glad we took the tour. Our eloquent white-haired guide’s father had worked at Bletchley. Partway through the walk, about a 10-year-old girl quietly told him her grandmother (a Cambridge linguist) had also worked there, and he was delighted.

The Park is centered around the Mansion, where the main offices and ballroom for entertainments were, and there are smaller nondescript buildings referred to as “huts” scattered around the grounds. There are several interesting videos, and highlights were Alan Turing’s office, the video about the wartime carrier pigeons, the building with the original Enigma machine and the Bombe machine. The thing we didn’t find was the Colossus, which may have been in another place. Needed more time! Will definitely go back when the grandsons are a little older. There’s also a pleasant simple dining room in one of the huts nearest the Mansion.

Reversing our directions back to London, we arrived back at Covent Garden in time to pick up a quick dinner at Pret before taking a taxi to the Phoenix Theater to see Come From Away, a lively musical about the people of tiny Gander, Newfoundland, who accommodated 38 commercial planes filled with almost 7,000 people for several days after the US airspace was closed following 9-11. Rousing music, a touching story, and an enthusiastic audience. Recommend.

Last sleep, and we head home on Tuesday. Booked a 2PM direct flight out of Heathrow, because nothing jerks me back to end-of-vacation reality faster than a frantic early morning chase to the airport. London Connection offers a driver to Heathrow for 65 pounds, and we had a pleasant last ride through the city on a beautiful sunny day. Delta upgraded us, and the flight attendants were unusually pleasant. Left Atlanta on a 90 degree day almost two weeks ago, and returned to pansies in flower beds, sneezing from the ragweed, and Boot Season! Life is good. Grateful for every opportunity to travel. Hope I’ve given you ideas for future trips. Ciao!

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My day always brightens when I see a Trip Report from you. Love all your descriptions and helpful details. Thank you Ruth from Atlanta!

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Thanks for your report, especially the info about the book to read before going to Bletchley Park-it's on my bucket list.

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Wonderful trip report! I expect to be back in London next September and I’m adding several of your ideas to my trip, as I am also a history buff.

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Loved your report. I have wanted to go to Blenheim and so I am very jealous but glad you enjoyed. Sounds like it was delightfully planned.

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Definitely a bookmark report. We are headed to London end of April for 9 full days.

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Don’t get too envious A Southerner. It was just from the back of cattle to the comfortable cattle seats. LOL

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Great report Ruth. I think I’m due for some more London time attached to our next trip. Bletchley Park is definitely on my next list and you’ve given very helpful detail. Your lodging choices sound memorable too. Thank you for the report!

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Thanks for taking the time to write this great trip report!

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Ruth, i can’t tell you how much i enjoyed reading your trip report, thank you. I just got home from 6 wks in France and England and this was like a wonderful cozy blanket wrapped around me as i acclimate to being home again. I could visualize everything you wrote - you’re a very gifted writer. Your trip was so well organized and put together, quite a skill. Thank you for taking the time to share your wonderful trip with us.

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Susan, thanks for your very kind words. Six weeks in France and England?? I'm envious! Actually I'm turning positively green!

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I lived vicariously through your wonderful report! I must get to Bletchley Park my next time to England and visit Cotswolds again. I might get a private guide through some of the Cotswolds villages unless I go with a friend who is willing to drive!
See you Saturday!

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The thing we didn’t find was the Colossus, which may have been in another place.

The Colossus and Turing-Welchman Bombe rebuilds are in The National Museum of Computing, on Bletchley Park Estate but separate from the Trust.

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Ruth, your trip report was fabulous. It reminded me that I need to write my trip report from my recent vacation to Ireland, Scotland and London. Two years ago we took a full day tour of the D-day sites and wish we had spent more time. My husband and I are both big history fans and especially WWII. We stayed in Bayeux, but spent our second day at Mont St Michel. Your inn at the Cotswolds sounds charming. I will have to bookmark some of this data. Have you visited Verdun? I had to “bone-up” on my history before we visited there. So much tragedy. We learned a lot about a war that devastated so many young men in Europe. My husband and I love Europe because there are so many more years of history than we have here in the USA.

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Janet, I did visit Verdun on a few day trips when we lived in Bonn, but I lacked historical context. I remember driving through those deeply cratered woods now covered with vegetation. What I remember most, after visiting a small museum that described the percentage of their male population the French lost, is understanding why France was reluctant to involve itself in any war again. Travel makes you more understanding, doesn't it?

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Excellent trip report.

Hope I’ve given you ideas for future trips.

You have. Honestly, I usually see "Cotswolds" in a trip report title, and my eyes glaze over (actually, that's pretty much true for most things England). You hooked me with Normandy, though, so I read the report and ended up enjoying all of it. Maybe I need to start reading the Cotswolds reports... and consider a trip there, too.

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Great report Ruth! We just got back from Greece and I am in the process of writing my trip report, which seems kinda dull after reading yours. Hmmm, not all of us are gifted writers I guess.....

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You’re very kind, Tammy, but get it written! Plenty of us want to hear about Greece!