Europe Trip 2012: Part 4 - Family and Friends

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The next 10 days of our itinerary were to be spent in England, visiting family and friends and visiting a few places that we’d always wanted to visit but never got around to it when we lived there. After a trundle up the A1 from London, we finally arrived in Doncaster at about 9pm, a good 5 hours after we set off. Not the first time I’d spent Friday afternoon on the A1.

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The welcome party we received at Rach’s parent’s house quickly snuffed out our travel weariness. The full clan was there to greet us and it was lovely to see them all again and meet the new arrivals. Rach was in her element finally getting to cuddle her new nephew and niece. The beers were cracked open and we stayed up gabbing long past midnight.

Doncaster

On Saturday morning we went to Robin Hood airport to pick up an hire car we had booked. I still find it a bit weird calling it Robin Hood airport. It’s not even in Nottinghamshire. Maybe the very end of the runway just goes over the border into Nottinghamshire but that’s a pretty tenuous connection. It was formerly RAF Finningley and with one of the longest runways in the UK it was used during the Cold War to launch nuclear-armed Vulcan bombers. That runway doesn’t look to be getting much action these days.

I’m sure when they turned Finningley into a commercial airport in 2005 they had thoughts of it becoming a major international hub. After all, the runway is long enough to land an A380. When we arrived that Saturday morning it was like a ghost town.

We walked into the terminal to the hire-car desk and we must have been the only people in there that weren’t staff. The woman on the Hertz desk looked pleased to see us, I think we were the only reservation she had that day! She told us that the barman at the airport bar across from the rental desks is usually falling asleep in the afternoon. They were only doing two passenger flights a day.

I had booked a Honda Accord or similar, however, the car we had reserved had developed an engine fault so they offered us a Nissan Qashqai instead. A Nissan what? I’d never heard of it. I don’t think they sell them in Australia. We had to pay a bit extra as it was an upgrade but I had no complaints when I got in it - a lovely ride with all the gadgets. It came as a bit of a surprise the following day when I had to put it into reverse for the first time and a reversing camera appeared where the large built-in SatNav display is. It made a bit of a difference to my usual ride - our shitty old Toyota Corolla. Our shit-heap was only supposed to be a temporary run-around when we arrived in Australia before we invested in a better one. 5 years later and we’ve still got the shit-heap after realising that a car isn’t an investment. You invest in assets. Assets aren’t supposed to lose value from the day you buy them. Anyone who lists their car as an asset and not a liability is kidding themselves.

As lovely as the Nissan Qashqai was to drive, it did share one thing in common with our Toyota Corolla - a lack of power. It really struggled up hills. Only a pretend 4x4 then.

After picking up the hire-car we went for a drive around Doncaster to check out some of our old haunts. We drove past our old house in Cantley, disgusted by what the new residents had done with the place - building a fake, plastic porch on the front that looked completely out of place with the style of the house.

We also went to Asda to pick up a few bits. Oh how we miss Asda. Australia is dominated by the supermarket duopoly of Coles and Woolworths and this lack of competition means supermarkets in Australia have no where near the range or quality of goods that you get in UK supermarkets.

We quickly made our way to the booze aisles and were gobsmacked to find our favourite Australian wines cheaper in Asda (1600km away) than back home. Ludicrous!

The rest of the weekend was spent visiting family and friends in what was one very busy, non-stop weekend.

It’s surprising how much you forget in 5 years. The first time I drove to Worksop from Doncaster that weekend I had to put the Satnav on. It was ridiculous. I used to drive that route every weekend but now I was completely confused. It wasn’t as if the roads had changed. I just couldn’t remember the route. Luckily, after driving it once it all came flooding back and I was driving around Doncaster and Worksop like I’d never left. For a while though it felt like I was on Mars.

Monday morning came and we packed our bags once more to head down south for three days of more sight-seeing. This time though we were travelling in force - both sets of parents were joining us for the trip.

The Cotswolds

It’s amazing how many places in the UK we had never visited. Places which we would have considered at the time to be too far away for a day-trip. Living in Australia has changed our perspective on distance. You can fit the size of the UK into just Queensland 7 times, and crossing the country from Brisbane to Perth is like flying from London to Baghdad (in distance that is, I’m not comparing Perth to Baghdad!).

One of these places that I’d never visited before was the Cotswolds. Or maybe I had. I’m pretty sure that when I was young the Cotswolds were not a well known tourist attraction as they are today; more some pretty villages that you could stop off at on the way down to Devon or Cornwall.

The Cotswolds covers a 25 by 90 mile chunk of Gloucestershire and is famous for its historic town and villages which, in medieval Britain, kick-started the wool trade.

Our first stop would be Chipping Campden. This market town was once the home to the richest wool merchants and is known for its beautiful thatched cottages and high street. Typically, as we made our way south that morning the heavens opened up and it started chucking it down. Really chucking it down. As we entered rural Gloucestershire there were signs that the roads were starting to flood and it wasn’t long before we were having to ease the car through huge puddles that had formed where the roads cut through the valleys. We had come prepared so out came the waterproof jackets as soon as we got to Chipping Campden.

We arrived close to lunch time so we headed for the nearby Eight Bells pub, a charming 14th Century inn. Was it too early to have a pint? No I don’t think so, I was on holiday!

Eight Bells Pub

After lunch the rain had eased off slightly so we went for a walk through this pretty little town. In the centre of the High St stands Chipping Campden’s most famous monument - the Market Hall. Built in 1627 by Sir Baptist Hicks, it may now be an empty shell but in its day it was a thriving centre of trade for the region. Merchants from as far away as Venice would travel here to barter for the finest wool in Europe, the guide books tell us. Looking up at the roof of the Market Hall from beneath you can see that the Cotswold stone roof is still held to together by wooden pegs, and the timber roof supports are true to the original.

Chipping Campden Market Hall

Adjacent to the market hall is a World War 1 monument, reminding us of the high price Chipping Campden and other small towns such as this paid during the Great War.

I could see why tourist flock to this area. This and the other towns and villages that constitute the Cotswolds retain an idealistic view of old England. The town’s street plan and property lines remain as they were in the 12th century and the High St remains, architecturally, as it was in the 1840’s - all the houses made of the same Cotswolds stone. Thankfully for us visitors, planning law ensure it stays that way.

Chipping Campden Church

We left Chipping Campden and took a short drive through picturesque countryside to Bourton-on-the-Water, known as the ‘Venice of the Cotswolds’. I’m not sure the likeness is entirely deserved after visiting Venice later in our trip. Nevertheless, I could see why hordes of tourists flock there in the summer. Even on this damp, miserable day, you could still appreciate the quaintness. The weather meant that this small town was relatively quiet for our visit. I enjoyed the tranquility as we walked along the canal - I’m sure it would be anything but tranquil in the heights of summer.

Bourton-on-the-Water Bourton-on-the-Water High St

After the obligatory traditional Afternoon Tea we left Bourton-on-the-Water and headed south-west to the B&B I had booked us for the night on the way to Bath - the Dark Barn Lodge near Gloucester. A good evening meal, drinks and a comfortable bed helped us refresh for the following day.

Bath

We were up bright and early the Tuesday morning for a full English breakfast before driving to Bath, another major tourist destination in the UK that I had somehow never made it to in the 32 years that I lived in the UK.

I had hopes that Bath would be like York, one of our favourite cities in England, and I wasn’t disappointed. Much like York - Bath has some of the most well-preserved roman remains in the UK. It also has some of the finest Georgian architecture.

We arrived in Bath and headed straight for the Roman Baths. We took a self-guided tour using the audio guides provided. One of the things I liked about the tour was that, as well as having the usual historian narrating the guide, there’s also a choice to listen to Bill Bryson give his own take on the exhibits and artefacts on the tour. If you’re a fan of Bill Bryson like I am you’ll enjoy his alternative commentary which is a little less dry than the standard audio guides.

Bath

When I was a kid the Romans were covered extensively in the school curriculum. It’s amazing how much came back to me as I viewed the excavated baths and exhibits explaining how the Romans changed and civilised Britain.

Roman

After the tour we thought about having lunch at the adjacent Pump Room restaurant, but as soon as we walked in and saw the queue we thought again. Reservations are recommended! Instead, we went to a local pub for lunch.

After lunch, we made the short walk to the Circus and the Royal Crescent - both magnificent examples of Georgian architecture. The Circus, true to its name, is a circular arrangement of houses, all pretty much identical from the front - like the Rome Coliseum turned inside out. Quite fitting when you remember that Bath, with its seven hills, aspired to be the ‘Rome of England’.

The Circus

The ground-floor entrances were made wide enough for the aristocrats to be carried straight through in their sedan chairs, and tall enough so that the ladies could enter without disturbing their towering hairdos. On the top-floor you can see the tiny round windows which would have been the servant's quarters.

The Circus Top Floor

I stood in the centre of the Circus, amongst the grand plane trees, and admired the 360 degree panorama around me. I’d read that if you clap, it echoes three times around the Circus. I tried it, and it did, kind of. I must have started a trend because all of a sudden groups of tourists around me tried the same.

The Royal Crescent is only a block away from the Circus. As we arrived, however, the heavens opened, so we quickly retreated to a nearby cafe.

Mid-afternoon we checked in to our hotel. I had booked us all into the Hilton, making use of some of my air-miles. Rach did her lady of leisure thing and soaked in the bath with a glass of wine. A spur of the moment decision earlier that day had led me to book a table at Jamie Oliver’s Italian for us all that evening. It was a good decision. That evening we convened at the Hilton bar for a few cocktails before crossing over the road to Jamie’s Italian for another fantastic meal. Food, service, all impeccable, and it wasn’t that expensive. I believe there’s a few Jamie’s Italians around the UK and they’re priced below what you’d expect for a celebrity Chef restaurant. Rach was happy as the staff let her take home a few Jamie’s Italian hand towels.

Longleat House and Safari Park

Wednesday morning we were up bright and early to check out of the hotel and make the short journey to Longleat House and Safari Park. This had been on Rachelle’s to-do list for a long time and was one of the first visits she requested when we booked the holiday.

Longleat House

We started with a guided tour of the house. Wherever you are in the UK you’re never far from a historic house that has been turned into a museum. Longleat House is probably one of the better one, and while it is open to the public for much of the year, it’s still a living, breathing home to Lord Bath and his family.

Longleat House Dining

The ground floor to the house is much like any other mansion of the period. Think Downton Abbey. It’s the upstairs apartments that remind you that house isn’t owned by any old Lord of the Manor. If you look up the word ‘quirky’ in the dictionary you may see a picture of Lord Bath next to it. We could only get a small glimpse of his private apartments but from what we saw they could be described as quirky - on steroids!

After the tour we hopped back in the car for the drive around the Safari Park. Lauren got in my Mum and Dad’s car as we thought it wouldn’t be a good idea to take the hire car through the monkey enclosure.

Safari Park Monkey Enclosure

The Safari Park is a fair size, as it should be, and most of the animals come right up to the car. Whilst I’m sure it’s not the same as an adventure through the Masai Mara, for a fraction of the price of an African safari Longleat in Wiltshire aint that bad.

Safari Park 1

After the ride through the park we went for another self-guided walk through the house before hopping on a the ‘Jungle Cruise’, which sails past some Gorillas, and a shy Hippo (which I couldn’t spot). The cruise gave Lauren a chance to feed the seals.

Safari Park 3 Safari Park 4

Besides the House and Safari Park there’s a fair few attractions at Longleat that we would have made the most of, if only the weather was a little better. But that’s Britain for you. Nonetheless, you could easily enjoy 2 days at Longleat.

That was the end of our mini-break and we headed back up north, with a quick detour past Stonehenge.

Thursday through to Friday is a long blur of more family and friend visits in Worksop and Doncaster, and far too much alcohol.

Worksop

On the Friday night, I had made plans to go out on the town with my life-long friend Mark to celebrate his birthday. Unfortunately, that town was Worksop. I can’t blame him, it was my idea. For some reason after a long time away I had some crazy sentimental yearning to re-visit the nightlife of my youth. As it turned out, the nightlife of my youth had long since retired to a rehab clinic.

I’d been warned that the nightlife had changed since the introduction of 24-hr pub licences, and particularly with the effects of the recession, but this was ridiculous. The pubs were empty, even after midnight. Midnight, I was told, was the new 8pm. It was more like 11am on a Monday morning.

It was pretty sad really. Each pub was the same - perhaps twenty customers at the most. The dance floors empty with the exception of a couple of The Only Way is Essex wannabes dancing around their handbags. What has happened to English women in the last 5 years? Fake tans, fake nails, hair extensions, dresses too small for their kebab-infested bodies. It was like a Victorian freak show.

I swapped horror stories by text with Rach who had the wiser decision to go out in Doncaster with her friend Paula. Mind you, by the sound of it Doncaster wasn’t that much better.

I’ve now been told that nobody goes out any more on a Friday night. Saturday night is much busier. Lightweights! When I was a lad Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights were all heaving.

The experience did remind me why I stopped going out in Worksop a long time before we emigrated. When I did go out it would more likely be to the big smoke - Sheffield. I was so adventurous!

On the Saturday morning I woke up on the sofa at my parent’s house by Mum with a cup of tea and some breakfast. How comes wives never have as much sympathy for a hangover as Mums? After briefly contemplating ditching the wife, child and life in Australia, and moving back in with my Mum and Dad, I remembered I had a wedding to attend.

I drove back over to Doncaster to rejoin Rach and Lauren for the wedding of her 2nd cousin, John. It was a great day. The service took place in a beautiful little church in Armthorpe, followed by a reception lunch and evening party at the Earl of Doncaster Hotel, known for its exquisite art-deco interior design.

Earl of Doncaster Hotel

The Sunday was our final day with family. It culminated with a farewell dinner at the Hare and Tortoise pub - a favourite of ours when we lived in Doncaster. Both sets of parents, brothers, sisters, nephews and nieces were there to say goodbye, with plenty a tear shed.

Harry Potter

We left Doncaster early Monday morning for our final UK visit before catching a flight from Gatwick Airport to our next destination.

We had tickets for the new Harry Potter Movie Studios Tour at Warner Bros. Studios, Leavesdon.

Lauren is a Harry Potter nut, being at that age where she has grown up with the franchise. It’s fair to say she was a little excited about this little stop-off!

Weasley House

The tour was pretty impressive, but not yet great. I’m sure over time it will grow into a wonderful experience but for me it seemed to be missing something. Die hard fans will love it, I’m sure. Perhaps I was too annoyed by the snap-happy camera-wielding idiots who kept getting in my way every time I tried to read something. That’s the problem with everyone having a camera-phone in their pockets these days - they feel the need to take a photo of every single inanimate object. I might be being a bit hypocritical but at least I try and limit my photo taking to pics that tell the story of my trip. Not just any old shite.

There were some impressive features along the tour, including the Great Hall, Diagon Alley, and a huge replica model of Hogwarts castle that is quite breathtaking, both in its size and detail.

Hogwarts

Lauren loved it, that’s the most important thing. The tour had the obligatory exit through the gift shop, where Lauren could have spent all day, I’m sure.

So that was it. The UK portion of our trip was over and we were just over halfway through our trip in total. The days were passing by far too quickly.