London is so expensive they even make you pay to leave. So here’s some advice that’s free: don’t hire a car within the zone of congestion tax, because you’ll pay it when you drive off and again when you return.
Driving as a foreigner in London is the only test any relationship needs, and such was the stress of not being collected by a double-decker bus, that I’d shot through about three red lights, in the literal and metaphorical sense, before even crossing the Thames.
We were headed to 35 years ago, more precisely the house where I lived as a child, somewhere near Hindhead, not on the map, and only vaguely in my memory.
Some things are probably best left where they are, and if there’s one good thing about Middle England it’s that nothing moves much anyway.
The first thing you notice about driving south-west outside London, is that “Keep Britain Beautiful” was clearly never a thing here.
At least you keep your eyes on the road, lest you look to the roadside, littered with uncollected roadkill and an amount of discarded plastic bags that makes the Great Pacific Garbage Patch look like an eco-tourism resort.
There’s a Starbucks every 10 metres, integrated into every petrol station, and if drinking something energising came down to price alone, you’d prefer to hold your disposable cup under the bowser.
If the highway itself was grim, the places we passed sounded cartoonishly horrible: The Devil’s Punchbowl, Dead Maids Crossroads, and the brutally simple Hurtmore.
Eventually, thanks to some directions from an old family friend, we arrived at the former piggery that I had once called home. And the greatest shock of all? The family was home, and happily welcomed us in.
A luke-warm Bath
We overnighted in Bath, a town that can leave some people cold, but others luke warm. We’d been warned to stay outside of the center as the parking in town was impossible: in other words, don’t P in Bath.
So we ambled downhill from our lush and spacious rooms above a pub on the outskirts to see what the town had to offer.
In terms of the town’s tourist attractions, the clue is in the name. The Thermae Bath Spa, near the old Roman baths, is billed as Britain’s original natural thermal Spa.
It was certainly ‘original’.
The multi-level complex is not just a heated rooftop pool, but has an aromatherapy sauna, Georgian steam room, and sauna with infrared lights, just like the Romans and Celts used to do it.
In truth, the Thermae baths were relaxed in all the right ways, by which I mean guidelines about public displays of affection were not at all relaxed. That said, when in the rooftop pool the couple next to us stayed mysteriously interlocked for a few minutes it was definitely time to pull the plug on our Bath time.
If yesterday’s trip took me back 35 years, today’s we would travel back 5,000. As a tourist, Stone Henge is the most simple metaphor for the spirit of England: underwhelming, and hard to get close to. Unless you’re in a car, in which case it’s really easy.
Given that tickets also cost about 15 pounds, many prefer to simply slow down on the A303 motorway, which travels within about 300 metres of it: this way tourists can simultaneously experience Britain’s famous heritage, and even-more-famous love for queuing.
Regarding the best time to visit, there’s essentially only one five-minute window each year when it’s at its glorious best, and the rest of the time is spent talking about that moment.
In 2015, the Stone Henge site finally opened a new visitor centre. And its immediately clear as much effort went into the new facility as was put into the placement of the original stones themselves.
For example, the first thing you see upon getting off the bus from the tourist centre to the site is a large bin marked “litter”, and a bench in case you want to sit down already. Just the type of imposing statement the druids originally intended.
Bourton-on-the-water via Cold Aston
There’s plenty else to do in the surrounds of Stone Henge. Russian visitors for example could continue to Salisbury – come see the 123-metre high cathedral spire. We however, were headed to the Cotswolds.
Taking small country roads is the perfect opportunity to witness some of England’s more quaint public road signage. ‘Tanks Crossing’, was a personal favourite, and had me slowing down at every crossroad, as our humble rental Opel would come off second-best against 60 tons of steel.
In fact, this English road trip was proving paradise for people who appreciate obscure road signs. Another one on the freeway warned drivers to look out for horse-drawn carriages. Imagine my surprise when we actually passed one, rending the idea of dual-carriageway entirely literal.
We stopped en route at Cold Aston, a quaint village on a stream that is the epitome of picturesque, but also of impractical tourist knick-knacks: anyone for a 50-piece China tea set? I’ll just get the postcard, thanks.
At Bourton-on-the-Water, our town for the night, wellness was everywhere. We took in the bracingly fresh air, applied a wellness treatment of mud masks, and ignored the black mould in the bathroom.
And while our gastronomic dinner comprised partridge (mind the shot) on a celeriac mash, and a side of samphras and parmesan-truffle fries, breakfast was filter coffee, poached egg on white bread, hard avocado and a solitary strip of bacon. So you win some, you lose some.
Oxford and home
We returned to London via Oxford, where the illogical traffic system and underground carparking inspired Lewis Carroll’s description of tumbling down a rabbit hole.
There in the great dining hall of Christ of Church College we saw a stained-glass portrait of Alice Liddell herself, high enough on the wall that you could look but not touch… just as it always should have been.