David and Ginna Zoellner love to travel. We live in Nice, France, half the year; the other half we live near Chicago, Illinois. We do 'home-exchanges' to explore other areas as well as taking normal trips. We'd like to share some of our experiences with you.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

England - Oxford & The West Country July 1993

We arrived at Heathrow at 6:35 AM and took a cab to Great Fosters, a wonderful old hotel that we try to stay in every time we head to England. It was built in 1550 and was a hunting lodge for Elizabeth I. Since our room was not ready that early, we decided to take a walk. They said it was too far to walk into Egham, so we headed in the opposite direction to Virginia Waters. That was even further! But it was a nice walk and a lovely morning. When we got to V.W. we decided to take the train to Egham, the next stop, and then walk back to the hotel from there. We bought our tickets and when the train came we jumped on the first available car, forgetting that in England there is 1st class and 2nd class. We were talking away and sat down in the private car with two gents - they didn't say anything but sort of mentally held their noses and looked off into space until the next stop when we got off, much to their relief. We were so embarassed when we realized what we had done!

When we got to Egham we stopped at a bakery for coffee and took a walk around the town. Egham is the site of Runnymede where the Magna Carta was signed - there is nothing but a field, not even a marker that we could find. For lunch we went to the Red Lion Pub where David had his favorite steak and kidney pie while I had the Ploughman's Lunch, with stilton cheese. Then we walked back to Great Fosters. When we told the receptionist how far we had walked, she said, "You must be shattered!" I love the English expressions.

Our room was ready by then - the Tapestry Room, one of the fanciest. It must be 20' x 40' and the walls are covered with tapestries. There are wonderful antiques everywhere and a beautiful white marble fireplace. The bathroom was huge with a tub on a pedestal in the middle of the room and windows overlooking the gardens and another fireplace.

After a nap and a look around, we walked into Egham to a cute restaurant we had seen earlier. We had mushroom soup, chicken with stilton sauce, marble cheesecake with wine and port while we enjoyed the piano player. We sang all the way home where we had a nightcap. We met a charming local British family, parents with two young daughters, and chatted with them, then off to bed. We had agreed we would sleep as late as we wanted to get over the jetlag and almost missed breakfast in the morning. After the huge English breakfast we walked into Egham to take the train up to London. We walked all over the city, seeing St. Paul's Cathedral, Covent Garden, St. Jame's Park, Big Ben, and all along the Thames, with a couple of stops at pubs. Then back to Egham, a stop in the same restaurant for just dessert and wine, and then the walk to Great Fosters, singing all the way again.

After the big English breakfast again - eggs, bacon, sausage, mushrooms, tomatoes, and toast (always cold), we packed and took a cab to the train station in Egham for the ride up to Oxford. It was a nice ride up with one train change in Reading. When we got to Oxford, the woman in front of us for a cab asked for a ride to Brasenose College, one of the 35 colleges at the University, and exactly where we were headed for our University Vacations week. She was a classmate, another American. We arrived at the porters' gate where we left our bags and went to register. We were shown to our rooms which were quite spartan, although we were told by several that we had one of the nicest. We had a bedroom with two single beds and a couch and chair, a full bathroom, and a tiny room with a closet and dresser and desk, called a study. Not much like Great Fosters! There was to be a reception at 6:30 so after unpacking for the week we went out to explore our new home. We walked around the town and stopped at the Turf Tavern, a 13th century tavern where Burton and Taylor hung out when they were making a film here.

After a nap, we dressed for the reception. We met in the room where we would be having our lectures, a beautiful room with built-in bookcases and lovely casement windows. Brasenose College was built in the 14th century. We met Ruth, a teacher of ancient history at the Latin School in Boston; John, a retired physics professor at Wellesley; Harry and Diane, a Scottish couple who live in California, he is a retired engineer and so handsome at 73!; Lamont and Micky from Texas, he was also an engineer but in the oil industry where he made his fortune - they had flown over on the Concorde - but they were very down-to-earth; Alice, a journalist from Baltimore who is on a leave of absence writing a book; Anita, a teacher from New York; Donna our friend from the cab; Juliette, a very funny 83 year old who went to Wellesley; another Harry and about 4 others. After the reception there was a nice dinner and we all got to know each other and Alfred, our "Social Director", a student from Sri Lanka.

Each day we would have two 1-hour lectures by our Don, Michael Seymour, with a coffee break in between. Alfred would come around with the events for the day and you could sign up if you wanted or just go off on your own. The lectures were interesting - our chosen subject was "English Country Life" - not too challenging. It's not so much the class as the environment and the group. Our group was so great, no cliques, with everyone getting along.

The outing on the first day was a tour of Oxford and lunch at the Turf Tavern. Alfred made an amusing tour guide and told us a lot about himself and his life at Oxford. The first evening after our big dinner (breakfasts and dinners were included), there was the pub crawl and we tried out three different pubs. Pubs closed at 11:30 so you can't get into too much trouble. Two days we took a bus out to The Trout, parts of it remaining from the 12t century. It's right on the Thames and a lovely spot. On another day, instead of our regular lectures, we had a bus tour through the Cotswolds, visiting Burford and Stow-on-the-Wold. We stopped at Churchill's grave. Our tour guide was interesting and knowledgeable.

Evening activities included a Chopin recital that gave me goosebumps; an outdoor student production of MacBeth with another Oxford church as a backdrop and which they used as part of the scenery; a night carousing with Harry and Diane. Alfred showed up in a tux one night for dancing and several people went with him and had a ball. Apparently dancing is one of his hobbies.

For souvenirs David and I had found a shop that sold antique maps and Roman artifacts. We decided we really wanted a small oil lamp from 1 AD. We had told others about the place and several of them decided that they wanted things from there too. We figured we better get over there early, so were there Wednesday morning before the owner opened his shop and we found Donna and Lamont there too! When the owner came around the corner and saw a line waiting to get in his shop, he was pretty surprised. He'd never done so much business before 10:30 in his life!

Alfred had saved the best event for Friday afternoon and was lucky that it was the best day, weather-wise. We went punting on the Thames, supplied with champagne and strawberries. Pretty idyllic, drifting along with the ducks under the trees lining the banks.

That evening we had our final reception and dinner. It was sad to see this week come to an end. We loved the feeling of belonging at Oxford, loved walking the streets with all the beautiful buildings, being surrounded by all the history, our wonderful group and all the camaraderie, everything.

The next morning after our English breakfast we picked up our rental car and took a drive through the Cotswolds, stopping at Bibury, one of the prettiest towns. Our next trip we should stay at The Swan. Then on to Avebury, somewhat like Stonehenge but you can still walk around among the stones. Lunch there at a wonderful vegetarian restaurant (we didn't even realize it was vegetarian until afterwards!) - Stilton and leek soup, bean salad, and trifle for dessert. Then on to Bath which we really loved. The city is lovely, every block was more beautiful than the one before. We visited the Roman baths, very extensive and amazing, and walked all over the city. Jane Austen lived here and used the city as a location in her books.

The next day we drove through Wells and loved it too. It has a beautiful cathedral and the Vicar's Close from about the 14th century, and the remains of the moated Bishop's Palace. We picked up some cheese in Cheddar and some strawberries and had a picnic with a view of the Atlantic Ocean on the coast of Devon. We stopped at Little Petheridge, a town of many thatched-roofed houses maintained by the National Trust. Then we got to Lynmouth and the Bonnicott Hotel with a great room overlooking the meeting of the West Lyn and East Lyn Rivers as they reach the sea. In 1952 the 2 rivers were swollen by a terrific rainstorm, and the town was inundated and washed down into the sea. Lynmouth is at the bottom of a 500' cliff with a funicula joining it to its sister town above, Lynton. Instead of riding the funicula, we walked up and then kept going out to the Valley of the Rocks, along a treacherous path high above the ocean. It was scary but we were rewarded with gorgeous views. The first day we were in Lynmouth, the Lions Club was sponsoring an amateur raft race - all participants had to make their own rafts, and some were pretty funny. People watching would buy balloons filled with water and throw them at the rafters. It was a riot! The second night there we had a very fancy dinner at the Rising Sun Inn, an old inn with a thatched roof. We had local salmon for David, roast port with stuffing for me and chocolate mousse for dessert.

The next day we stopped at Clovelly, a famously beautiful village built on the side of the cliff falling down to the sea. Their supplies are brought in by donkey! Cars are parked at the top and you walk down. They charge a lot for parking, which seemed a little pushy to us. The town, although as pretty as advertised, is very commercial, and not really to our liking. We drove past Tintagel, (the supposed castle of King Arthur), but again it was too commercial and crowded for us. We decided to have a picnic along the road and saw a sign for a hikers path so left the car and followed it to where we could see the ocean. We couldn't tell which was the path exactly and ended up in a field where someone had mown a path through. While we were having lunch the owner came out and told us were were in his garden, but he didn't mind. We had taken the wrong turn. We decided the owner must be an artist as there were sculptures in his garden and he seemed to be using one building as his studio.

We finally got to Polruan (pron. Polroon), after driving for what seemed like hours on the narrowest of roads (one car wide) with hedgerows on each side. Polruan was too quaint. In Cornish, Pol means "the river". To reach our hotel, we had to leave the car and walk a couple of blocks, the streets were too narrow for cars. But the hotel is right on the water, a 300 year-old boat house. Polruan did have two pubs and even a restaurant but there was a bigger town, Fowey (pron. Foy!) across the bay. For 45 p. we could take the little ferry for people only across to Fowey. We stayed in Polruan for two delightful days. The first night we ate in the pub in Polruan. The next day at breakfast we met the other guests, two English couples. After our huge English breakfast, we left for a drive to Lands End. It was pouring rain, but we were hopeful that we would drive out of it and it would be sunny at Lands End. It wasn't. It was awful. We drove about 180 miles that day and never got out of the car.

We got home and went to dinner at the other pub in town. We talked to some people there about the coast path; people the night before had recommended it as a great walk and these people encouraged us to do it too. It would be 8 miles to a great pub; you could take a cab home. We decided we would do it. The next day was a perfect day and after our huge breakfast we set off. First we took the ferry to Fowey and looked around town a bit, a lovely place. We found the path and started our walk. There were wonderful sea views, a lighthouse, the house used for Manderley in "Rebecca" - Daphne DuMaurier lived nearby. It was long but well worth it and finally reached the pub, which was delightful with a bar built of logs. We got talking with people at the next table - we were doing a crossword puzzle and they were doing one too - and they offered to drive us home. After a long nap, we headed back to Fowey for a fancy last-night-in-Polruan dinner. We had a bottle of English wine that was wonderful! For dessert we split a sticky-toffee pudding with clotted cream. Wow!

We hated to leave the next day and would love to return. We could easily stay for a week or two. But we left for Dartmoor National Park where we had a pleasant drive. We stopped at a Norman castle built in 1068 which was interesting. Then we went on to Totnes, our next home for two nights. We stayed in a 600 year-old forge that was delightful.

The next day we went to Torquay which is a big resort and we didn't really expect to like it, assuming it would be very commercial. But we had a lovely time there. We got stuff for a picnic and found a beautiful park on the water. Then we went into town where people were playing tennis and bowling. We met an Irish family, a young woman, her husband, and her father. We all bowled together - not like American bowling with pins but like boules that they play in France and Italy. This park was right across the street from the ocean and had lovely gardens, a perfect setting on a perfect day.

The next day was our big drive back to the airport. We were staying about 45 minutes away at a bed and breakfast called Bridge Cottage, a 300 year-old cottage on a canal. Even I had to bend over to get into our room through what looked like a barn door. The beams were exposed even in the bathroom where you could see the actual saplings used for building. The owner had pretty English china plates mounted all over the walls. We walked down the canal-side path to the locks and watched canal boats go by and through the locks. Across the canal was another wonderful pub. What a find! The next day we left early to catch our plane at 8 AM and home.


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