A (Very) Short Visit to Bath

The Roman Baths and Pump Room

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.

One of the three curving terraces of The Circus. While the homes are identical in the front, from the back each is unique. I couldn’t even recognize the back as the same building!
The Royal Crescent was breathtaking! Like the Circus, the fronts of the terrace houses are identical and the backs of each are different.

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.

The Royal Crescent ha-ha.

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).

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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.

Bath Abbey sits adjacent to the Roman Baths.
Side view of the Abbey.
The Cotswolds Way, a 100-mile path from Chipping Campden, ends (or begins) in front of the Abbey.
Sally Lunn’s sits on top of Roman, Saxon and Norman ruins. The layers of these ruins can be viewed in the museum in the basement.

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.

Chris and Jane – it was grand getting to spend time with them!

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.

We crossed Pulteney Bridge (completed in 1774) on our way back from lunch and had no idea we were on a bridge – there’s no arch in the center and the sides of the bridge are lined with shops like a regular street. The lovely three-tiered oval weir in the river was designed to keep water flow to the center to reduce bank erosion.

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).

We were shocked by the size of our Sally Lunn bun – it was massive but very, very light.
Toasted and buttered and ready to eat. For size reference, the halves are sitting on salad plates.

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?

Home Sweet Home

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:

  1. Brentford House (the name of the street I lived on as a child, with many happy memories)
  2. Sunset Cottage (as we’re entering the sunset of our lives)
  3. 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 the Storm, Clear As Mud

Looking out over the village green to rolling hills and blue skies – breathtaking!

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).

The big trees on the village green are showing their fall colors.

Vibrant red berries now adorn this bush – it had flowers when we arrived in Blockley.

After Saturday’s storm, sidewalks all through the village were covered with colored leaves.

As we walked toward Draycot we passed an entrance to the village’s old silk mill which now contains apartments and condos.

Part of the fence around the old silk mill is constructed of recently cut and woven branches.

We could hear Blockley Brook long before we saw it. Because of all the recent rain, it was running strong. The brook stayed hidden for most of our walk, but we always could hear that it was near.

Just after crossing over the brook we spotted this stile and the sign indicating a footpath and decided to see where it took us.

The path looked inviting, damp but covered with leaves and with solid footing.

After a while, we began to encounter mud. The path was narrow enough that we were able to straddle it as we moved along to keep our feet somewhat dry.

We passed beautiful lawns . . .

. . . and lush, green pastures which helped distract us from the ever-increasing amount of mud on the path.

And then we went around a bend and encountered this! It was too wide to straddle and too deep to even think of walking through it so we admitted defeat and turned around.

About half-way back to the stile, we spotted this branch off of the path. The footing looked a bit more solid than what we’d be on so we crossed our fingers and decided to head this way, again having no idea where it would take us.

Fall was in all its glory along the way though.

And, a short time later, and without encountering any more mud, the path came out onto a street on the village outskirts. We’d walked to this spot once before and knew our way back to the cottage from here.

Needless to say my shoes and pants were a mess (Brett was in much better shape, thankfully).

But, after a good rinse, a trip through the washing machine, and some time in front of the fire my shoes were squeaky clean and good as new!

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!

An Autumn Day in Blockley

Two massive stone pillars mark the entrance to the road leading to the village’s former silk mills.

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.

The vines covering our cottage have turned a vibrant red. Subsequent storms, however, have begun stripping the leaves off the vines and the walls may be naked by the time we depart.

Located on the high street is the second of two banks that used to operate in the village (the other was directly across the square from our cottage). We’ve been told that in the past residents never had to leave the village to find what they needed.

Little alleys and openings occur now and then along the high street, leading to back doors, back yards and sometimes other residences.

Leaves are dropping everywhere, but a few flowers still remain and the buildings continue to enchant and invite one to imagine life in Blockley back in the day.

The village bath house was where residents could both bathe and/or do their washing. Like many other buildings, it’s been converted into a holiday residence.

Located near the town square, the ground floor of this building was the village coach house, and the upstairs held a boys’ school, opened in the 18th century. There are now residences on both floors.

Glorious fall color on the village green.

The Blockley skyline. The church bell tower is visible from almost everywhere you go in the village.

The fields outside of the village are green thanks to all the recent rain. On our trip back to the Cotswolds from London, we noticed that many fields had been flooded from rainstorms that occurred in this area while we were away.

Our walking path took us through pastures, which required us to climb over a couple of stiles to continue. They are always awkward.

Beautiful fall views were our reward during our walk. There was also quite a bit of mud!

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!

London Calling

Near-constant rain was the backdrop of our London visit.

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.

On our way to London – that big cloud followed us the whole way.

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!

Our London Airbnb apartment was in the back attic of this terraced home.

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.

One of the many interesting places we stopped at in Notting Hill. This regular-looking building is actually a very, very private hotel favored by celebrities. In September 1970 Jimi Hendrix overdosed on sleeping medication and died in the room under the window and behind the plants.

Arundel Lane in Notting Hill had the unfortunate distinction of being the most bombed street in London during WWII. It was rebuilt after the war to look just as it did before its destruction.

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.

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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.

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.

My dinner selection at Wagamama, chicken & shrimp pad thai, was a risky choice – the last time I’d had it I broke my tooth. No problems this time though and it was delicious.

Westminster Cathedral (Catholic), across from Victoria Station. Sadly the blue skies and sunshine didn’t last long.

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.

This is the main reason I visit Marks & Spencer! Best. Cereal. Ever.

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.

In Search of Thatched Cottages

As we arrived in Broad Campden, a thatched roof could be spotted on the right.

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.

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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.

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.

The Baker’s Arms sits in the middle of Broad Campden.

The pub has been open since the 17th century. Interior pub scenes in the Father Brown series are filmed here.

My ploughman’s lunch was extremely generous

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.

The Heart of England Way left Broad Campden on a small path squeezed between cottages.

On the way out of the village we passed a pasture with freshly shorn sheep . . .

. . . and then headed out across some fields to Chipping Campden, with rain threatening the entire way.

Thankfully, the clouds blew over and the sun returned by the time we arrived in town to catch our bus back to Blockley.

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.

A Short Visit to Edinburgh – Part 2

The view from Greyfriers Kirkyard at night looked like a scene out of The Exorcist.

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.

It was flat out creepy walking through the cemetery at night, and our guide had plenty of scary stories to go with the experience.

The George Heriot School for Boys, just outside the Kirkyard, had a bit of an unsavory past. The school building was J.K. Rowling’s inspiration for Hogwarts.

Our group stopped for yet another creepy story from Edinburgh’s past in an old close (alleyway).

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.

Greyfriars Kirkyard was almost benign during the day. Several of the names J.K. Rowling used in the Harry Potter book came from graves in the cemetery (like Tom Riddle and Professor McGonagall).

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.

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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!

The Caledonia Hotel, Grande Dame of Edinburgh lodgings.

We enjoy not only our wine but the cozy chairs and warmth at the Caly Bar.

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.

The North Sea was dark and gray as we passed by on our way back to London.

We passed street after street after street of row houses as the train sped through Newcastle – some were new but most were old.

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.

Yes, I rubbed the dog’s nose – maybe that’s why it didn’t rain during our time in Edinburgh.

*** 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!

A Short Visit to Edinburgh – Part 1

Edinburgh skyline

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 big, old stations in the north of England, like this one in Darlington, have been modernized, but retain many of their original features such as wide, arching glass roofs and decorative iron pillars.

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.

Cobblestone streets were the norm in much of Old Town Edinburgh.

Small covered lanes or closes (alleys) ran between larger streets in the city.

Edinburgh is a very old city, and beyond its castles, streets, and famous buildings its age and history can be found in the smallest of places. We had no idea what this place had been, with the words currently just a few feet above street level.

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.

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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).

Kilts and bagpipes on the Royal Mile

St. Giles Cathedral

There was more cashmere for sale than can be imagined. Prices were consistent from shop to shop as well so it didn’t matter much which store you chose for your shopping.

I wanted the dress MacDonald tartan as I’m descended from the clan, but although I looked in more shops than I can count no one had it or anything close.

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.

Looking back up The Bow (Victoria Street). Lined with small, unusual shops, the street was J.K. Rowling’s inspiration for Diagon Alley.

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!

One of three stills at the Edinburgh Gin Distillery – this one is named Flora, and she was busy creating a batch of specialty gin the day we visited (it can be seen boiling through the porthole).

Edinburgh Gin produces seven varieties of gin and seven gin-based liqueurs. They also still distill two varieties of whiskey – the earnings from the whiskey is what allowed the owners to begin making gin.

At the end of the tour we were served a tasty gin & tonic, and also got to sample some elderflower gin.

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.

Chicken and mushroom pie for lunch at the Mitre pub on the high street. Brett chose a trio of mini pies for his lunch. The delicious, flaky crust on my pie was the best I’ve ever had anywhere.

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.

The “new” medical college is only a couple of hundred years old. Medical students at the University of Edinburgh still take their anatomy classes here.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s lodging while he was a medical student in Edinburgh. His professor, Dr. Bell, was the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes.

The old surgical hospital is still used by the university today, but not for surgery. Innovations such as using chloroform for anesthesia and techniques for disinfecting wounds and surgical tools were developed here.

The Old College is no longer part of the medical school but is used by other university departments these days. Charles Darwin studied medicine here but decided he did not want to be a doctor.

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 . . . .

From Bourton-on-the-Hill to Longborough

Star Cottage, one of beautiful old buildings along Bourton-on-the-Hills high street.

The bus we ride to Moreton-in-Marsh passes through the village of Bourton-on-the-Hill on its way, and Brett and I had been wanting to get off there and spend some time exploring the village with its large manor house, stately church, and wonderfully preserved old buildings. Our host had also recommended the pub there, The Horse and Groom. Combined with several paths leading out of the village to various destinations we decided to make a day of it last week to not only check out the village but also walk over to another village, Longborough, by way of the Heart of England footpath.

What used to be old shops and other businesses along the high street have been converted into cottages for either full-time or vacation residences.

The old rectory

This booth appeared to still be functional!

One of the many awards the village of Bourton-on-the-Hill has received.

Bourton-on-the-Hill has received many awards, including one for “best kept village.” I’m sure there must have been new buildings in the village, but all we could find were old ones, all of them lovingly cared for.

Our first destination after getting off the bus in Bourton-on-the-Hill was Bourton House, a 16th-century manor house and estate (the current house dates from the 18th century however). The grounds not only contain the grand house but a brewhouse, coach barn, stables, and tithe barn along with a beautiful three-acre garden that is open to the public from April through October. We had debated walking over to see another manor house in the area, Sezincote, but decided to pay the admission to the Bourton House garden instead.

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Suffice it to say that the garden visit was worth every penny we paid to enter (£14/$17.50). The entrance to the award-winning garden was through the large tithe barn, which contained not only the ticket table but a gift shop and tea house. Several tables were set up outside on the lawn, and the day was lovely enough that people were already enjoying tea outside, but the garden beckoned to us.

Every view in the garden was a delight for the eyes. Flowers were still in bloom throughout, and each area held something exquisite to admire, either from a distance or up close. It was not difficult at all to imagine characters from a Jane Austen novel walking through the grounds or carriages arriving up the drive for a party or a ball. We were especially impressed that the entire garden is maintained by just three people, a head gardener and two assistants. We easily spent 45 minutes there and could have stayed longer but we needed to climb back up the hill to the pub for some lunch before heading out on our hike.

The Horse and Groom sits at the top of the hill.

Besides serving delicious food, the pub also offers a boutique B&B for a stay in the village.

After a delicious lunch at The Horse and Groom (fish and chips for Brett, a stuffed pepper with spinach salad for me) we walked back down the hill a bit, then turned down a side street until coming to the Heart of England Way and headed out into the countryside. After clearing the village, the walk was primarily through lush green pastureland. Most of it was empty of animals but filled with huge, stately oak trees, but we pass a horse and of course some sheep and cows. The path was often difficult to find at times – only the faintest of footprints in the grass kept us going in the right direction.

A look back at Bourton-on-the-Hill as we headed out on the Heart of England Way.

Massive, stately oaks were found in almost every pasture.

Sometimes it was difficult to tell if we were still on the path or not . . .

. . . but eventually we would come across markers that let us know we were going the right way.

Beautiful country views could be enjoyed the entire walk.

We knew from the maps we had studied that Sezincote was in the area, and about half-way along our way to Longborough we spotted its dome peeking out through the trees. Then, after walking through a small stretch of woods and rounding a corner, there it was! Built in 1805, the neo-Mughal inspired manor is privately owned, but the house is open on Thursday and Friday afternoons for tours (May through September), and the Indian-styled gardens are open from January through October. We could see as we walked past that it would have taken quite an effort to walk there, and we were glad we had opted for the Bourton House gardens instead. It also looked as if some event was going to be taking place there (tents were set up outside and there were a few delivery trucks), so for all we knew the house wouldn’t even have been open at all that day.

We were rewarded with a spectacular view of Sezincote House, with its unique architecture and distinctive copper dome.

We finally reached the pretty little village of Longborough around 2:30 in the afternoon and headed for the village shop to get something cool to drink and to ask directions to the bus stop. When we arrived at the bus stop we discovered that 1) no bus stopped in the village that day, and 2) there was no time to either walk back to Bourton-on-the-Hill or on to Moreton-in-Marsh and catch a bus from those places. We went back to the shop to ask for the location of a payphone to call a taxi, but the shop attendant, Andrew, called a couple of taxi businesses for us only to discover that they were also booked for the next couple of hours (school runs). We were stranded. It was at that point that Andrew stepped up and offered to drive us over to Moreton-in-Marsh, an act of kindness we quickly accepted, and that cost us nothing more than a cold drink for Andrew from the refrigerator.

We were too tired and thirsty when we arrived in Longborough to do much of a visit, but we had walked for over four miles at that point.

All in all, it was a perfect day. We enjoyed gorgeous, warm weather, toured a gorgeous, lush garden, had a great lunch at a great pub, saw the stunning Sezincote manor house (from a distance), walked a good distance while enjoying beautiful scenery along the way, and were treated to a wonderful act of kindness that saved the day for us. We couldn’t have asked for more.

Afternoon Tea in Chipping Campden

The center of Chipping Campden, at the wool market and war memorial.

Something I dearly wanted to do here in England, and sooner rather than later, was to enjoy a full afternoon tea. The Cotswolds area abounds with tea houses (well, except there isn’t one in Blockley), so I did my research of where might be a good place to go, and chose the Badger Inn in nearby Chipping Campden. By having tea there we could kill two birds with one stone; that is, we could not only have a lovely tea but also explore the nearby market town.

Chipping Campden’s terraced high street.

This very large, beautiful old home was on the high street. It had two statues of dogs guarding the front door and two wings on either side, one of which supposedly held a ballroom on its ground floor.

We almost missed this small gate as we walked along, but it was the entrance to the beautiful Ernest Wilson Memorial Garden, opened in 1984.

The beautiful little sanctuary was formerly part of the old vicarage garden. Wilson was a well-known botanist who studied and collected plants from Asia, China in particular. Many of the plants and trees in the garden were donations from nurseries or other gardens throughout England.

The town of Chipping Campden has been around since the 14th century and served from the Middle Ages as a major wool trading center. The name “chipping” comes from old English, and means “market” or marketplace” (other famous chippings include Chipping Norton and Chipping Sodbury). The market town became known for its elegant, terraced high street, the imposing St. James church, and other buildings built by wealthy wool and silk merchants.

Chipping Campden is also known for being the early 20th century center for the Cotswolds Arts & Craft movement. The Guild of Handicraft was established here, and craftspeople still practice here. Near St. James, in the old Court Barn, is the Museum of Craft and Design, which showcases the work of current craftspeople and sells items made by local artisans (I bought a necklace here).

The most famous structure in town in the Market Hall, built in 1627, where wool sellers and merchants conducted business. The Hall sits in the center of town, next to the war memorial and town hall.

The original interior of the market hall with its uneven cobbled floors.

The starting point of Cotswolds Way, a 100-mile path from Chipping Campden to Bath, sits just outside the wool market. This plaque marks towns and villages along the way.

The Chipping Campden town hall sits opposite the market hall, on the other side of the war memorial.

St. James church sits on the east side of town and is considered one of the finest ‘wool churches’ in the area, built and expanded with funds donated by wealthy wool and silk merchants over the years. The church was first erected in the 12th century but enlarged beginning in the 13th century and continued for over 250 years, including the construction of the striking vertical west tower. The bells inside the tower date from the 17th and 18th centuries.

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The entrance gate to the remains of Campden House, built by wealthy silk merchant Sir Baptist Hicks (the major contributor to the expansion of St. James) sits next to St. James. The house was destroyed during the British Civil War, and all that is left today is this gate and two banqueting houses. The grounds were closed the day we visited.

The top of the East Banqueting House could be seen over the top of the stone wall.

Sir Baptist Hicks also built almshouses for the poor. These are located just down the street from the church, and have been converted into modern apartments.

Across from the almshouses is a wagon wash – muddy wagons and carriages were driven down into the wash, scrubbed off and then pulled back out.

And then it was time for tea . . . .

My huge afternoon tea! The dark orange pile next to the salad was a highlight: house-made carrot chutney, both spicy and smokey. I bought a jar to bring home.

Sadly, the Badger Inn turned out to be closed last Friday, but we had spotted the Bantam tea house just a short distance away and decided to try there instead. We discovered their prices to be a bit more reasonable, and I ordered a full tea (sandwiches, cake, and scones) and Brett more sensibly ordered two scones. I was expecting a lovely tiered tea tray to come out with some dainty items but I instead received two big plates loaded with four sandwiches (Cotswold ham and cheese), a large slice of lemon drizzle cake, and a huge raisin scone along with clotted cream and strawberry preserves! Brett’s two scones filled his whole plate. It was a massive amount of food for the two of us and we did our best to finish it all. Every bite was delicious but I ended up tucking half of the sandwich into my purse – I just couldn’t finish all of it (Brett had it for dinner).

We were lucky to enjoy beautiful weather on our visit to Chipping Campden, but the town was also blissfully uncrowded that day, allowing us to take our time and get a good look at things in town and not have to stand in a long line for our tea. As we waited for the bus back to Blockley we learned we had just missed taking part in a small, free walking tour, and think we might go back someday and do that to get some more in-depth knowledge of the town.