England Is Calling: Highclere, Cheddar and, Eventually, Bristol

IMG_5659Although we had allotted an extra 1/2 day in London if we needed it, after a disappointing first day there (read England Is Calling: A Bit of London), we all decided to just leave the city behind and head to Bristol. After more than two weeks in the U.K., I have no doubt that the kids were starting to just want to go home, though they remained cheerful troopers until the very last day. The heat in London in July wasn’t much help either; especially the fact that our hotel didn’t have A.C. Doug and I were not much surprised, since we’d found that most places in England didn’t have A.C. and, indeed, have semi-fond memories of spending a night in Stirling on our honeymoon, in an inn near horse stables, without A.C. in the room or screens on the windows. Need I say more than these two words: Horse flies? Here at the hotel in Watford, the hotel staff had let us take two fans from the housekeeping closet, but fans only push around hot air–they don’t cool it much.

So, after asking James, “Are you sure you don’t want to just go in to see the British Museum?” at least enough times to start to piss him off, we packed up the car yet again, and headed west. Because we had so much more extra time than planned, Doug and I  talked about other potential places we could visit on the way to Bristol, and he really wanted to at least drive by Highclere Castle (a.k.a. Downton Abbey) since it was (sort of) on the way. (I’m not sure that most Americans realize Highclere is nowhere near York, which is located in northeast England and whose inhabitants have accents that sound NOTHING like the characters on the show).

IMG_5661Highclere was only really about 30 minutes off our path, each direction, and we’re both glad that we took the slight detour to stop by. We all decided not to pay the entrance fee and look around because the kids had been so obviously bored by both Blenheim Palace and Dunrobin Castle, and Doug and I weren’t interested enough to just drag them along. Traveling with the entire family is all about knowing when to forcibly expose them to culture and knowing when to move on. Actually, the same could be said about much of parenting!

So we parked and took photos from the lot, and then endured some panic-stricken moments when we believed we were locked out of the car. The whole property is absolutely gorgeous, and they do a great job of shooting it at just the right angles for the show. We also loved these other “buildings” on the grounds:

With still plenty of time left in the day before we could check in at our last B&B, so I thought about potential places to take the family. As we got closer to Bristol, we were getting to places I was familiar with, and I’d visited Cheddar Gorge with the Hiking Club at Bristol Uni so many years before. Because we didn’t overplan our trip itinerary and left so much flexibility in it, we took some wonderful and unexpected side trips, and Cheddar Gorge turned out to be perfect.

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Cheddar Gorge is known for its caves and, unlike the caves at Luray Caverns in Virginia or Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, it doesn’t take hours to explore. Because we got there at the end of the day, we actually helped “close the cave down” with a few other tourists. It was delightfully uncrowded and, as a former spelunker myself, I loved that the whole family enjoyed it. The admission fee included individual audio units that were highly informative as we walked at our own pace through the cave system.

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Cave exploring

The other thing that Cheddar is known for, if you haven’t already guessed, is cheese. Cheddar cheese. And, while the photo isn’t great, if you look at the one below, you’ll see some of the only “real” Cheddar cheese in the entire world. They age it in the caves.

Cave matured cheddar

So, naturally, because Becky and I are huge Cheddar cheese lovers, we visited one of the shops nearby to taste and purchase some.

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Strawberries were also still in season in Somerset (the county surrounding Cheddar), so we bought a punnet, as well as a bottle of scrumpy–the funky apple cider type drink the area is also known for. Along with a box of crackers we had in the car, it was a delicious afternoon snack.

The day had passed quickly and it was finally time to check into The Mill House, our last accommodations on the trip. When searching for places to stay in Bristol, I’d originally thought to find an apartment on Airbnb right in the Clifton neighborhood, not far from where I had lived in Wills Hall. After all, I know Bristol best from that direction, having walked it day after day, in all sorts of weather. However, since we’d be flying out of Bristol on an early morning flight, I started realizing that a place outside of Bristol, not far from the airport, would be the best choice. And so, I found The Mill House in Rickford.

The Mill House

It just sounded perfect. It looked so quintessentially British country to me, and it was just around the corner from a 17th-century pub, The Plume of Feathers.

Plume of Feathers

And it was perfect: Another great pick. We had a room on the top floor, with another room right off of it with two beds for the kids. While we shared a bathroom down the hall with another guest, the thick stones of the house kept the heat at bay and the accommodations were the coolest (temperature wise) that we’d enjoyed since journeying south from Scotland. Add to that the lovely breakfast, with homemade, flaky croissants (in addition to a Continental or full English breakfast), and the fact that the hostess packed breakfast/lunches for us on the morning that we left at the crack of dawn to catch our flights, and I can’t recommend this lovely B&B enough. The Plume of Feathers was a wonderful British pub with its only fault being that it didn’t serve shepherd’s or cottage pie on either night we ate there. But I sacrificed, since they did make an assortment of homemade pizzas that pleased Becky to no end. I settled for bangers and mash instead. 🙂

Last Meal

So, with a delicious meal and accompanying pint in my belly, we walked back to the B&B. The next day, we’d be meeting Simon and Rachael at Wills Hall, where Simon and I met, to show the kids where I lived during my Junior Year Abroad. It would be our last day of the trip and, while I was looking forward to seeing my beloved heart city again, I think I was the only one that wasn’t ready for the trip to be over.

Next: Bristol at last

 

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