I had a very good time during my break doing some travel planning . . . for fun. I focused on a return to England, to the Cotswolds again, and sort of put together an itinerary, then looked for lodging, tours, and other things Brett and I would like to include on our next visit. I absolutely love travel planning, so this was a very enjoyable and relaxing way to spend (waste?) my time for several days.
We hope to do another three month stay in 2023, this time from August through October. Our last visit was September through November, and while September was lovely, by November we were pretty much confined to our cottage and unable to get out much for walks and such because of the weather. We think moving things forward by a month we’ll be able to enjoy better weather while still getting to enjoy the best of summer and fall.
YaYu and I spent an enjoyable amount of time last week pouring over the Character Cottages website, looking for an ideal cottage for our stay. Character Cottages is a booking agent for a large group of cottages in the Cotswolds (not property managers though); even if you find a cottage on another site, its rental is often still handled through Character Cottages. They have properties in many villages, and rentals in all sizes and price ranges. The cottages each have at least one of what the firm calls a “character feature,” which could be anything from the architecture to a stone fireplace or inglenook in the living room.
Choosing a location took some time, but after some discussion Brett and I decided we’d like to return to Blockley or very nearby, for a variety of reasons, most especially location and familiarity. YaYu and I did most of our searching among those properties. Must-haves included two bedrooms (all three of the girls have said if we go back to England they are coming to visit); a full kitchen with a dishwasher; a washer/dryer; and convenient parking as we plan to rent a car on our next visit. I also wanted a gas fireplace (easy to turn on and off, and they do a better job of warming a room). In the end we came up with three potential cottages that had everything we wanted this time, at prices we felt we could afford. I’m not going to order them, because we like all three, but one is our top choice. I would love to know how you would rank these (you can click on the link under the picture for more information)!
Although we did used public transportation during our last visit and managed well with that, we decided we’d rather have a car this next time, so I also investigated long-term car rentals. At first we thought we’d get ourselves to Oxford from either Heathrow or Gatwick (preferred) to save some money, but eventually figured out that logistically and cost-wise, it made more sense to pick up a car at either one of those airports and drive the little over two and a half hours to our destination. This is what we did in New Zealand, and it worked out well. We can reserve a rental through Costco at either airport.
Finally, Brett and I still want to do a long hike while we are there, and initially thought we would fit in a Cotswold Way walking tour into our stay. One evening when I was canoodling around though, I discovered this Cotswold Cooking & Culinary tour, and after doing a bit more investigation and sharing with Brett, we decided we’d rather do this! So, somewhere in the middle of our stay, we want to hit the trail (footpath) and eat our way through the region for eight days (hopefully walking off the calories).
Since this trip is currently over two and half years away, all I did this time was take notes, and get a general idea of how much we’ll have to save (including airfare) to make this dream a reality. None of it may come to fruition in the end (cottages not available, hosts might not want to do a long-term rental, etc.) But, the planning was a whole lot of fun, I learned a lot, and we more definite than ever about returning to England in 2023!
When Brett and I leave England tomorrow, a piece of each of our hearts will be left back in the Cotswolds, especially in our home for the past three months, the village of Blockley.
I don’t think we could have picked a lovelier place to stay. Our cottage, located in the center of the village, has been cozy, quiet, and very comfortable, with a view of the Blockley Church each time we’ve stepped out our door. Although Blockley has been in existence since the 10th century and is currently the exterior location for the Father Brown series, it’s not a “destination spot” and hasn’t been overrun with tourists as other nearby locations have been at times. Set among pastures and farmland and with beautiful views on every side, two major footpaths, The Monarch’s Way and The Heart of England Way, pass through Blockley and gave us opportunities for short walks and longer hikes filled with breathtaking scenery. The local bus service stops a few times every day which has made it easy for us to get to other destinations in the area for shopping and sightseeing, but the village store offered just about everything we could need at reasonable prices when we didn’t feel like leaving town. We’ve been able to enjoy coffee, tea & scones, lunches and even a three-course gourmet dinner at the village cafe, and a couple of great meals at one of the village pubs. Blockley has a rich history and is full of wonderful old homes and buildings yet has never felt “quaint” – it’s a vibrant, living community with old buildings being remodeled and renovated, new construction continuing, and families moving in. Residents have been welcoming and friendly, often stopping for long chats, and several who were born and raised here have helped us understand the village’s past as well as its present. Blockley also has the most amazing selection of dogs we’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting!
The photos below are ones I’ve posted while we’ve been here, but they’re my favorites, and each one is full of memories.
The view from our front door.
Looking out over the Blockley churchyard to the Manor House
Coffin-shaped gravestones in the Blockley Churchyard
The interior of St. Peter and Paul church in Blockley
Bell ropes in repose at Blockley Church
The original iron spiral fire escapes at the old Blockley mills.
Two major walking paths converged in Blockley
We were always thankful for the markers on the footpaths.
Stiles were a familiar site in the area
The Knot Garden at Bourton House
A spectacular view of Sezincote House, with its unique architecture and copper dome.
A hidden path off the High Street
Before the storms arrived our cottage was covered in red leaves
Our cottage patio on a dreary fall day
Lovely old buildings have been converted into residences.
Through the fields on a crisp autumn day
Local Cotswold gin from Broadway
The wool market in Chipping Campden
Almshouses for the poor in Chipping Campden
A side entrance to St. Edmunds church in Stow-in-the-Wold
Thatched cottage in Broad Campden
We passed a pasture with freshly shorn sheep on the way to Chipping Campden
A fall walk took us down an unknown footpath (before mud overcame the path)
The vicarage set out a pumpkin to welcome trick or treaters.
The Roman Baths
Pulteney Bridge with the lovely oval weirs below
Hall Croft, home of Shakespeare’s daughter
Tudor-era clothing in Stratford-upon-Avon
A beautiful, old stone Cotswold dry wall
The Blockley garden allotments sit just outside of town
Our quick dash down to the city of Bath this week was over in less than 48 hours. We saw as much as we could during our stay, and Brett had a wonderful reunion with his former classmate.
The city of Bath absolutely charmed us, and we left wishing we could have given ourselves a few more days there. We arrived on Tuesday afternoon, and walked up to our Airbnb from the station, about 15 minutes away on foot. We checked in, dropped off our stuff and then headed right back out to visit the Circus and the Royal Crescent as both were only a short distance away. The sky was overcast and loaded with heavy clouds, but the rain was holding off and we wanted to see these places before it arrived. We crossed our fingers, took our umbrellas, and off we went.
Neither the Circus nor the Royal Crescent failed to impress – both were magnificent and thrilling to see. We walked along in front of two of the three terraces at The Circus and then turned for the Crescent. As it was growing darker we chose not to walk the full length in front of the Crescent but instead went down to the park to take in the full sweep of the building’s curve. I was thrilled to discover there was a ha-ha in the park! I have read about them for years and when I saw it I knew immediately what it was and why it was there.
Just before it turned fully dark the clouds opened up so we turned back into the city to find a grocery store to pick up things for breakfast (orange juice and French pastries as it turned out) and maybe something for dinner. We didn’t see anything that appealed to us though so instead stopped at a little restaurant just down the street from our apartment that served all-day breakfast, and Brett enjoyed a plate of banana french toast and I ordered eggs benedict. The rain was really coming down by the time we finished so we dashed back to our apartment to get ready for a busy Wednesday.
Brett had arranged to meet his classmate, Chris, for coffee at 11:00 on Wednesday morning at a cafe/shop up near our apartment, so we got up early and headed down to the Roman Baths to be there when they opened at 9:30. The temperature was quite cold, but we could see a few patches of blue sky above, a good sign, we hoped. I had purchased our tickets online the night before in order to save a few pounds and speed things up, and we were first in line when the Baths opened. There were only a few other visitors there with us, so we practically had the place to ourselves and were able to take our time to see it all. I am fascinated with Roman ruins and these did not disappoint – it was thrilling to walk on the same pavement stones that Romans had used nearly 2000 years earlier. At the end of the tour we were able to taste the famous water, said to have healing powers. Considering all the sulfur, iron and other minerals in the water I was expecting it to taste fairly foul, but it wasn’t that bad and I enjoyed two cups of it before leaving (Brett passed though).
Following our visit to the Roman Baths we walked around the Bath Abbey (construction is being done inside so we didn’t go in) and then headed over to find Sally Lunn’s, home of the eponymous Sally Lunn Bath Bun, a brioche-type bread brought to Bath from France by Ms. Lunn in the late 17th century. Sally Lunn’s is now a restaurant, but it is located in the oldest house in Bath and there is a small museum in the basement. We skipped the restaurant but checked out the museum and purchased a Sally Lunn Bun to eat later in the day.
The reunion with Chris couldn’t have been nicer, and we also had the pleasure of meeting and getting to know his wife, Jane. We started out over cappuccinos, then took a bit of a walk, stopping into a lovely little bookstore along the way where I bought a travel book called Secret Tokyo, filled with quirky and unusual places to visit for free in that city. From the bookshop, we walked to the Holburne Museum to have lunch in their cafe. I don’t think the four of us ever stopped talking – Chris and Jane felt like old friends we hadn’t seen for a long time. After lunch we headed back down to the Roman Baths where we said our goodbyes so that Brett and I could start a free walking tour of the city.
The walking tours given by the Mayor’s Guides are free and absolutely no tipping is allowed. Our group had only seven members, and we had a great guide who covered the history of the city from the Baths to the Abbey to the distinctive Georgian architecture. We stayed with the tour until we got to the Circus, but since we had already visited there and the Royal Crescent the day before we said thank you and goodbye then and walked back to visit the Assembly Rooms before they closed (groups had not been allowed in that day). When we came back out it was raining again, and as we had walked over four miles and nearly 12,000 steps at that point we decided to call it a day.
Two of the four Ballroom chandeliers
The Tea Room chandelier
The Great Octagon Room chandelier
The Assembly Rooms opened in 1771 and were a hub for high Georgian society in Bath – Jane Austen and Charles Dickens were among those who attended balls and other functions at the Assembly Rooms when they visited the city. The chandeliers were made by Whitefriars of London and are original to the Rooms, installed for the 18th-century opening. Their insurance value today ranges from £150 million to £300 million each although they are of course irreplaceable.
We still felt full from lunch in the evening and decided to just have our Sally Lunn Bun(s) for dinner. We thought the box would contain four small buns, so were quite surprised to find just one HUGE one inside. It was about the size of a personal watermelon but light as a feather. Our guide at the museum had told us the buns are traditionally sliced in half, toasted and served with butter so that’s how we ate ours. Brett and I each had half of the bun and it was plenty for the both of us (and plenty tasty too).
Sadly, our Airbnb in Bath was a disappointment. All of the Airbnbs we have stayed in have been lovely, well-kept places but this apartment was shabby, complete with worn, stained carpet, dirty windows, and mismatched, damaged, thrift store furniture. The host met us at the apartment when we arrived, gave us the keys and two rolls of toilet paper and then quickly departed telling us nothing about how things operated. We about froze the first evening until Brett eventually figured out how to turn on the heat. The apartment also wasn’t what we would call spotlessly clean – clean-ish was more like it. Thankfully the bed had crisp, clean sheets but it was the most uncomfortable bed we’ve experienced on our travels. We both slept poorly and I woke up each morning with a sore back. It did have one redeeming feature though, a superb location in the city near to shopping, dining, and sightseeing. Still, if we had been there longer than two nights we might have found somewhere else to stay.
We woke up Thursday morning to sunshine and cloud-free blue skies, feeling ready to get out of the apartment but sad to leave because there was still so much of Bath we wanted to explore. We had a quick cup of coffee with our pastries and were out the door a little after 9:00, even though our train didn’t leave until nearly 10:43. That was another thing that had gone a bit wrong for us – I had booked the 9:43 train to get us back to Moreton-in-Marsh in time to catch the bus back to the Blockley, but when I downloaded our tickets they were for the 10:43 train (along with a different itinerary). The new schedule got us into Moreton 30 minutes after the bus to Blockley had departed and with another two hours to go before the next one so we ended up having to pay for a taxi to get back to the cottage. And, to add a bit more insult to injury, I had also reserved forward-facing seats both coming and going, but our assigned seats were all rear-facing.
We are glad to be back “home” and looking forward to resting up this weekend and then enjoying our last two full weeks in Blockley. Our recent trips to Edinburgh, London, Oxford and now Bath have made us realize that while we were happy to have been able to visit these places, we really don’t care for the frenzy of short visits anymore and prefer to stay somewhere long enough to discover and enjoy a place at our leisure. While we’ve loved seeing what we could in these cities, the short, hurried trips left us feeling exhausted and unsatisfied because of all that we missed. But, you go with the schedule you have, not the one you wished you had.
What’s in a name? That what we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet. – William Shakespeare.
One of the delights of walking through any village here in the Cotwolds, whether our own village of Blockley or any of the others we’ve visited, is seeing the many different and creative names owners have given their homes or cottages. The variety is infinite, with some choices obvious and others less so.
Many of the house names in Blockley appear to have a historical reference.
House naming in England apparently has a long history, beginning with noble and/or rich families naming their halls, houses, manors, castles, and lodges according to ancestry, location, and family titles. Gradually the less well-to-do began to name their homes as well.
There are plenty of residences named for trees, plants and flowers . . .
British house names fall into several categories: Animals and birds (Badger Cottage for example), trees (e.g. The Willows), plants and flowers (e.g. Honeysuckle Cottage), locations and views (e.g. Meadow View), historical (e.g. Coach House), fairytales and old favorites (e.g. Thimble Cottage), and holiday or beauty spots (e.g. Windermere). The most common house name, believe it or not, is simply The Cottage, with Rose Cottage a very close second (we have seen one in every place we’ve visited). Since 1765 all houses have been assigned a number and road address, but in a small village the name is often better known when it comes to directions.
. . . and many named for their location or view.
Our own cottage here has a somewhat unusual name: Glebe Cottage. A glebe was traditionally a piece of land given to the vicar or other clergy to help provide them with some additional income. In our case, instead of land, the vicar received two additional buildings next to the vicarage. More recently, the bigger house next door was rented to the village doctor, and our little attached building was the doctor’s surgery/office, but the buildings are old and before that, we have no idea what they were used for and no one else seems to know either.
As you may have guessed from the pictures, name signs don’t fall any particular rules. They can be carved into the building or built into the stonework, or a unique plaque made for the house. One residence in Blockley has its name carved into a ledge halfway up the side and wraps around the corner of the house.
What would you name your cottage? Brett and I have frequently talked about this during our walks, and finally came up with three names we liked:
Brentford House (the name of the street I lived on as a child, with many happy memories)
Sunset Cottage (as we’re entering the sunset of our lives)
Little Hampton (a family name from Brett’s side)
We’ve even found a few whimsical names and the occasional mysterious ones.
We continue to find house names endlessly fascinating, as each house is unique and so are their names. Some, of course, are more interesting or mysterious than others but it remains a joy to read them and think about how or why a name was chosen for that particular house.
After a rainy Friday, and an even wetter and windier Saturday (which blew almost all the beautiful red leaves off the vine at our cottage), we woke up on Sunday to blue skies and warmer temperatures. Yeah! After getting caught up with a few chores, Brett and I headed out for a walk through Blockley to see what fall colors we could find. We started off through the village and then turned down the road in the direction of the nearby village of Draycot, and eventually onto a footpath we hadn’t taken before (and probably shouldn’t have this time).
We now have a very good understanding of why a pair of Wellington boots are a must for life in the country. Still, it was a glorious day and we got some good exercise, found some great fall color, and had some fun, mud or no mud!
Although the weather was for the most part miserable (i.e. cold, windy, and rainy) during our daughter YaYu’s visit to England, we did get to enjoy one absolutely glorious day while we were back in our village of Blockley. We made the most of it by taking a long walk with her through the village and out into the countryside. Even after a month and a half here, Brett and I have learned there are discoveries to be made in the village yet, and the countryside views still have the power to take our breath away. Fall is finally making its appearance although there is still plenty of green around, courtesy of all the rain the area has recently received.
If a half-million dollars (or more, haha) ever fell into our laps, Brett and I have decided that we’d buy a cottage here in Blockley and spend half of each year in this beautiful little village. We’ve fallen head-over-heels in love with this place!
When we set out last Friday for London I wasn’t sure how I felt about going. I was excited about getting to see YaYu and spending time with her but also was somewhat dreading the logistics of navigating a new-to-us (very) large city, albeit an exciting one filled with lots to see and the potential for adventure.
Rain was the signature feature of our travel day. It was raining when we left Blockley and rained the entire way to London, with us getting soaked at the stations where we made transfers. We arrived on time though, and once we got to our hotel had a light dinner and went to bed early as we needed to be at Heathrow at 7:00 a.m. to meet YaYu’s flight. We almost arrived late for that though – we ordered a taxi in the morning and were told it would arrive at the hotel in approximately 10 minutes so we went back up to our room to get our bags. When we came back down another couple was finishing loading their bags into OUR taxi and off they went! So, a new taxi had to be called but it took its time getting to the hotel. We finally made it to Heathrow, went running to the arrival gate and just a couple of minutes later out came YaYu!
From the airport we headed over to our Airbnb rental to drop off our bags – our host happened to be home that morning and said it was fine for us to check-in early. Our loft apartment, located in the attic of an older terraced home, was clean and modern, with a comfortable sofa bed for YaYu in the living room. It was a good thing though that YaYu and Brett can sleep through anything, and I was extremely thankful I had thought to bring earplugs along with me because one of the first things we noticed was that jets into Heathrow were coming in right over the house (apparently this happens only once or twice a year – lucky us).
And, just because I like to keep things interesting, on the way out of the station on the way to the house I had caught my foot on the steps and fell, jamming the big toe on my right foot (but otherwise OK). The pain was excruciating, but thankfully I could still walk.
After getting our bags put away, we set out for our afternoon walking tour in Notting Hill. It took a longer time than expected to get to our destination – our trip by bus and train there took nearly two hours because the double-decker bus from our location to the underground station was slowed down by road construction as well as being crowded and needing to make frequent stops.
We arrived on time in Notting Hill with minutes to spare, found our meeting place, and soon set off on what turned out to be a fun and very interesting two-hour tour. Our group was small (only eight of us) but the guide really knew the neighborhood and its history, and told interesting stories and showed the group where several celebrities had lived or currently owned homes, or where famous events had taken place. It rained steadily during the entire tour, but it was so interesting the time flew by. After finishing we went back to a small restaurant our guide had pointed out along the tour, Mike’s Cafe, which had recently been voted as having the best breakfast in London, and had a great (and affordable, for London) late lunch/early dinner there. Across the street was a gourmet doughnut shop filled with decadent choices, and we each chose one for our next morning’s breakfast. We arrived back to our apartment that evening feeling extremely tired – we had walked five miles that day! My toe was screaming, and when I finally got a look at it, it was double in size and sporting a huge, deep purple bruise, not a good sign.
Little did we know when we got up on Sunday that we would be calling on all of our resourcefulness and ingenuity to get ourselves where we needed to be. We had tickets to visit the Tower of London, but getting there wasn’t going to be easy in the least. There was a large eco-demonstration going on in the city and the two train lines that would get us to the Tower were closed down (one for scheduled maintenance, it turned out). We made it as far as Covent Garden, London’s theater district, and then had to find a bus. Locating the bus stop however turned out to be a major challenge because so many streets were shut down by the demonstration. There were police stationed all over though and one finally helped us find the stop we needed. We had a long, long wait for the bus, under a big theater marquee, but eventually the bus showed up and off we went . . . or so we thought. Twice the bus made stops where everyone had to get off and climb on another bus! We eventually made it to the Tower, but the journey had taken us nearly three hours!
We spent a couple of hours exploring the Tower, including viewing the Crown Jewels (which were spectacular), then walked over to see the famous Tower Bridge. The rain was light when it did appear but mostly the day was only windy and cold. At the Tower Bridge Pier we caught a boat and took a wonderful ride down the Thames to Westminster Pier, enjoying views along the way of St. Paul’s Cathedral, the London Eye, and several other famous buildings. At Westminster Pier we sadly discovered Big Ben and many of the Parliament buildings were shrouded for major conservation work, so we didn’t hang around and instead walked over to Westminster Abbey. It was closed at the time we were there, but we enjoyed walking around the exterior and talking about the events we knew of that had occurred there (weddings, funerals, etc.). The Abbey was much larger than we thought; however, YaYu said that everything else we had seen was smaller than she had imagined, including the London Eye and Big Ben.
The White Tower
The line to view the Crown Jewels moved quickly
This year’s Christmas photo
The dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral, designed by Christopher Wren
The London Eye from the Westminster Pier
Big Ben was completed shrouded . . .
. . . as were much of the Parliament buildings
Bell towers of the Abbey
Queen Victoria Memorial at Buckingham Palace
We had initially not planned on seeing Buckingham Palace but since we were so close we thought we should walk over and check it out before stopping for another late lunch/early dinner. From the Palace we walked over to Victoria Station Plaza to have another late lunch/early dinner at Wagamama and make a quick stop in Marks & Spencer for a few supplies. When we stepped outside after eating the first thing we noticed were blue skies and sunshine, giving us hope our final day in London might end up being a good one. Trains were running from Victoria Station so we had a fairly quick and easy trip getting back to our apartment. Once back we discovered we had walked five and a half miles that day – it was no wonder we all felt so tired! Thankfully when I woke up that morning the swelling in my toe had gone down and the pain had decreased as well so I had a better experience getting around than I thought I would.
Because our behind-the-scenes tour on Monday for the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace had been canceled (there was an official state event that day – the Queen went to Parliament to make a speech), we slept in a bit on Monday morning but woke to heavy rain (again) and howling winds. We also felt more tired than we imagined we would, and decided not to push ourselves to go out again but instead spend the day together resting up for our trip back to the Cotswolds the next day. We eventually got bored though and rode the bus down to a big commercial area next to the nearest train station, and got a few more things at Marks & Spencer and had dinner at an interesting and inexpensive fast food noodle shop. I had initially been disappointed that our tour that morning had been canceled, but we all ended up feeling thankful because the weather was not fit for anyone or anything to be out in. We came home from dinner, packed our bags for the next morning’s departure and enjoyed some hot chocolate and watched some TV.
After three days in London we were eager to get back to the more quiet pace of our little Cotswolds village. I’m not sure our short time in London was enough to form any kind of honest opinion about the city, and while we enjoyed our Notting Hill tour and the sights we visited on Sunday, we mostly felt overwhelmed by the transportation issues, crowds, and exhaustion (and in my case, a foot injury). The miserable weather added to the feelings of too much in a strange city. However, we absolutely loved the diversity we encountered there, all the languages we heard spoken, the variety of ethnic restaurants and shops, and the kindness of almost all the people we met or encountered during our visit.
We’re off tomorrow morning to visit Oxford. We’re booked on a walking tour in the early afternoon, and then plan to stop at a pottery studio and store I have long wanted to visit before going to our B&B. On Friday morning we’ll tour the Ashmolean Museum before getting YaYu over to the station to catch the bust to Heathrow for her flight back to the U.S.
Before coming to England and spending time in Blockley nothing said “English country village” to me more than a thatched cottage. While there appears to be none in our village, we did spot a few of these cottages as we passed through the village of Broad Campden on our way to Chipping Campden a few weeks ago, so when we finally got a break in the weather this past week we headed over to check them out.
Although it is possible to walk from Blockley to Broad Campden via the Heart of England Way, because of all the recent rain there had been (and the resulting mud) we chose to go over to the village by bus, and then take a shorter walk between the two Campdens, and catch the bus home from Chipping Campden. If we’ve learned nothing else in the past two weeks it’s that the weather can change quickly here – a sunny day can suddenly turn cloudy, cold and rainy in a matter of a few minutes, and vice versa and we did not want to get stuck if rain appeared again.
Broad Campden was an absolutely beautiful little village full of pretty homes and cottages, a small but lovely church, and a Quaker meeting house that’s been used since the mid-17th century. As my father and his family were/are Quakers, I was especially interested in seeing this place. Other than one pub, there are no other businesses in the village. We spent approximately an hour after we arrived walking through the village.
And yes, we did discover thatched cottages, several of them. All of them appeared to have been plucked from a storybook.
Thatched cottage in Broad Campden
At noon we headed to Baker’s Arms pub for lunch. The pub has been operating since the 17th century and is one of the local pubs our host recommended we try. Brett ordered a tuna sandwich on whole-grain bread for his lunch, while I chose a traditional ploughman’s lunch, with ham, cheddar, beets, Branston pickle, pickled onions, salad, and bread. The lunch was once again huge, much more than I expected, and I did my best to finish as much as I could.
As we finished up our lunches we looked out the window and noticed that what was blue sky when we arrived was now dark, heavy, and clouded and the wind had picked up. We quickly settled our bill and set out for Chipping Campden, hoping we could make it before rain arrived.
As we started over the fields the clouds began to spit on us, and we were sure we were going to end up arriving in Chipping Campden soaked to the skin. But, the clouds blew past us and by the time we arrived in town the sun was back out again, ending what was a lovely outing on a high note.
We were quite tired when we got back to our apartment on Wednesday following the Marvelous Medical Tour in the afternoon. Our ice cream at Mary’s Milk Bar had perked us up a bit, but it felt good to put our feet up for a while before our last outing of the day, the two-hour Dark Side of Edinburgh tour.
We arrived back at the Grassmarket a little before 8:00 p.m. as our small group was forming and getting to know each other. Our guide, Rhona, chatted with us all for a few minutes and then said “Let’s get started,” immediately transforming herself into the character of “Madame McKinnon,” a bawdy former brothel owner who had been hanged for the murder of three customers back in the day. She stayed in character throughout the tour – it was quite amazing and entertaining, but she knew her history and kept us interested (and scared us a few times too) throughout the entire tour.
Rhona took us through the Greyfriars Kirkyard (cemetery) in the dark, something I never thought I’d do (and enjoy), and we walked through alleys and other areas in Old Town Edinburgh that are said to be haunted. She had all sorts of stories and interesting facts about graverobbers, devil worshipers, sadists, and other unsavory characters including some of the places where we had walked during our earlier tour and on our own (Grassmarket, for example, hosted not only a market but well-attended public hangings as well). It was a fun and fascinating tour, and Brett and I totally forgot how tired we had been before it started. The two hours were over before we knew it.
We had one last tour to go on our last day in Edinburgh, a history lover’s tour of the Old Town. While our first two days had been sunny and pleasant, on Thursday the temperature had dropped by nearly 15 degrees and it had turned quite windy – not very pleasant weather for being outside. But, we kept reminding ourselves, at least it wasn’t raining. We started out a bit worried that this tour would be overkill, repeating some of the information we had learned on the tours we took the day before.
We needn’t have worried; our final tour turned out to be the most interesting of all and although we visited some of the same places (we made a third trip into to Greyfriars Kirkyard and took our fifth walk down Victoria Street) we heard all sorts of new information about the places we’d been earlier and also went to many hidden places we had not seen before. Besides having a great sense of humor, our guide, Gains, also has a Ph.D. in Scottish history and was able to go into depth and help us put things together and make more sense of the history we were seeing and hearing. At the end of our tour, he offered each of us a small cup of whiskey (which I still don’t care for) before saying goodbye. Slàinte!
After the tour Brett and I walked over to the Caledonia Hotel, open since 1833 and now operated by Waldorf Astoria. Our goal was to 1) get warm, and 2) enjoy a drink in the Caly Bar, where our favorite fictional detective, John Rebus, sometimes met for a drink with “Big Ger” Cafferty, Edinburgh’s top gangster. The bar was posh and warm, and we each enjoyed a big glass of wine and watched what was going on out the window – the experience was everything we had hoped for.
And then it was Friday and time to head back to Blockley. We went to bed Thursday night convinced we would be walking over to the station in the pouring rain (unless we got lucky enough to flag down a taxi), but wonder of wonders, the rain stopped as we left the apartment. We took a final walk up The Bow and walked a bit down the high street once more before turning left down Fleshmarket Close to the station (one of Ian Rankin’s John Rebus books is Fleshmarket Alley so this was a special treat for us). Our train left Edinburgh right at 10:00 a.m. and pulled into Kings Cross on time at 2:39. After that things fell apart though. Trains from St. Pancras were not on any sort of schedule, not that it mattered because any train departing from there left the station after our train out of Reading Station was scheduled to depart! We eventually got ourselves to Reading, and on to Moreton-in-Marsh, and a kind young couple from London offered to share their cab with us and we got home to Blockley a little after 8:00 p.m., exhausted but filled with wonderful memories of our time in Edinburgh.
All three of the great walking tours we took were booked through Airbnb Experiences, and the total cost for all three was $92, a bargain considering all we saw and learned. The tours were a fantastic way to get acquainted with Edinburgh and its deep history. The Distillery tour was booked online with Edinburgh Gin and cost £10/$12.25 each. It was also money well spent. If we’d had at least one more day we would have checked out the New Town (which is actually more than 250 years old!) and gone over to Leith to tour the former royal yacht, Britannia.
*** We waited for our first tour by the famous statue of Greyfriars Bobby. All three of our guides, all from Edinburgh, were not particularly fans of the dog’s legend, and all the said the “custom” of rubbing the dog’s nose for luck was less than five years old, invented by a creative tour guide one day!
How much can you see and do in an old, historically significant city on a three-day visit? Quite a bit, it turns out. We decided before we left that the best way for us to experience as much of the city of Edinburgh as we could was to take some small-group walking tours with local experts, so we signed up for three different, short tours as well as a distillery tour. While we left Edinburgh at the end of our stay feeling tired, we learned and saw more than we imagined while we were there, far more than we ever could have figured out on our own.
The train ride up to Scotland from the Cotswolds was long (10 hours, on four different trains), and we arrived to rain in Edinburgh. The signage in Waverly Station was only mildly helpful at best but we eventually found our way out of the station to the taxi stand and had a short ride over to our small, but cozy apartment. After getting ourselves checked in, we headed down the street to a small Indian restaurant that our taxi driver had recommended. I had lamb korma, Brett got a chicken biryani and we shared an order of garlic naan as each piece was the size of a large dinner plate. We were almost too tired to eat but managed to get half of our orders eaten and brought the rest back to the apartment for dinner the next night. Our one concern with the apartment was that the bed might be too soft, but both of us fell asleep quickly and slept soundly that (and every) night.
The taxi driver had said the weather would be good for the next couple of days after our arrival, but we woke up to gray, cloudy skies again. The rain had stopped however, so after breakfast (yogurt and oatmeal provided by our host) Brett and I set out to visit the city’s main attraction, Edinburgh Castle. Located only a 10-minute walk away from our apartment, we still had to contend with cobblestones, hills, and many stairs to reach the entrance. Blue skies were poking through as we arrived and before we knew it the clouds were mostly gone. For the rest of the day we enjoyed blue skies and sunshine.
We spent over two hours touring the castle grounds and the Great Hall, and went up into the Royal Apartments where Scotland’s crown jewels can be viewed (while not quite as stunning as England’s Crown Jewels, Scotland’s are quite beautiful and considerably older). Also on view was the stone seat where Scotland’s kings and queens were crowned. Overall, the castle and grounds were magnificent as were the views from the castle, and our visit was well worth the price of admission. There was also a nice cafe inside the castle as well as a tea house and whiskey tasting room, and we opted to stay and have an affordable lunch at the cafe before heading down the Royal Mile (or High Street).
After lunch, we took a stroll down the high street toward Holyrood Castle, where members of the royal family stay when visiting Scotland. We wanted to get a cashmere scarf for each of us, and we were also looking for a shop that carried some of the best shortbread in Edinburgh. The amount of cashmere available on the high street was frankly overwhelming, with practically every other shop on each side of the street selling it in some form or another. Shop walls were lined with shelves holding scarves and sweaters, and there were often large tables set up, covered with even more scarves in every color and pattern imaginable. I was looking for a particular tartan – dress MacDonald – as my maternal grandmother’s family came to America from Scotland and belonged to the MacDonald clan. Brett and I eventually decided to stop in a shop called Marchbrae (we liked the name) and after nearly going out of our minds because of all the choices we eventually found scarves that we liked (it turned out that not one store carried anything in the dress MacDonald tartan, let alone a scarf). Leaving Marchbrae with our scarves, we walked further down the street to Cranachan & Crowdie to check out the shortbread. The store had samples available and we ended up buying ourselves a small tin of orange shortbread with chocolate chips. Let’s just say that real, small-batch shortbread tastes 100x better than Walkers, which is pretty good stuff.
At that point, we had a choice between continuing down to Holyrood Castle or heading back to our apartment, and as we were both still quite tired we decided to go back and rest up for the next day, our “Day of Tours,” with three different tours scheduled. The walk back to the apartment was lovely, and we got a lovely surprise when the route we went took us down Victoria Street (“the Bow”) to the Grassmarket. From there it was just a few more minutes to our apartment. We were surprised to discover that evening we had walked over four miles and taken 10,000 steps. No wonder we felt so tired!
The next morning we were up early for our first tour of the day, the Edinburgh Gin Distillery, located in the opposite direction from the castle, near the historic Caledonia Hotel. Our small group started with a presentation on the history of gin in Scotland followed by a talk about how gin was made. We were allowed to smell and taste some of the various botanicals used in the making of gin and learned that without the inclusion of juniper and possibly other botanicals gin is basically not very good vodka. Afterward, we went in to view two of the distillery’s three small-batch stills close up and then were treated to a sample of one of Edinburgh Gin’s varieties (elderflower, I think) and a gin & tonic made with their standard dry gin. Because we had been on the tour we received a discount at the gift shop and Brett and I chose a bottle of Seaside Gin, their most popular variety, infused with not only juniper but seaweed and plants foraged from the Scottish coast. It is delicious.
Before we went to our second tour of the day we walked back to the high street and had lunch at the Mitre pub. We both wanted to try their meat pies which were reasonably priced (£12/$14.75) and came with mashed potatoes and gravy and vegetables. Both our orders were delicious and filling, and we left lunch feeling satisfied and ready to take on our next tour. The Marvelous Medical Tour took place on the city’s southside and covered Edinburgh’s heyday as the center of medicine in the English-speaking world. We were the only people signed up for the tour that day, and besides learning about the many medical techniques that came out of Edinburgh and getting to see a part of the city often missed by visitors, we also heard all about all sorts of things from grave robbers to the real-life Sherlock Holmes to chloroform parties to plague doctors and more. Our guide really knew his stuff, it was all interesting, and we had a great time.
We had a few hours between that tour and our final tour of the day, which actually was going to take place at night, so we walked back to our apartment to rest for a couple of hours with a stop for ice cream on the way at Mary’s Milk Bar, a cute shop in the Grassmarket selling sweets and artisanal ice creams and gelato. Unusual for us, we both chose the same flavor of ice cream, fig with honey, a delicious treat.
Later, just before the sun went down we headed back out once again, this time to learn about Edinburgh’s dark history . . . .