The weather signs weren’t right when I landed in London Heathrow airport.
And at that point, if anyone told me that I was going to drive through London – Stonehenge – Woodstock – Oxford – Birmingham – Ely – Cambridge – London over just 4 days, I would have laughed at them.
It was early February, and the England weather was cold – as was expected. A chill wind welcomed me as I stepped outside terminal 4 of the 3rd busiest airport in the world; a stark contrast from the temperatures at Qatar, where I had my transit more than 10 hours ago. I lifted the opening of my hoodie to cover my ears as best as I could, but the wind somehow kept beating into my ear. Everybody warned me it would be cold in London this time of the year, but nobody warned me that it would be so windy!
I knew this was going to be an interesting road trip already.
Read: If you have a transit through Qatar’s Hamad International airport, read this list of Totally free things to do in Doha Airport
The birth of a roadtrip
I knew Christos was waiting outside the airport. And I also knew where to find him; at the smoking area. Christos is my Greek friend from Singapore, and we have previously traveled together to different parts of South East Asia. Now he had moved to London, and this was our first meeting in more than a year. We hugged, smoked another cigarette together (the Greeks never refuse a second cigarette) and then waited for the rest of our team. An Estonian friend who was flying in from Tallinn, and another Indian girl who was living in London.
I had planned this trip way back. The initial idea was to find a way to drive from London to the Stonehenge. Then, like all other ideas that mankind has come up with, this one metamorphosed too. We decided to drive around almost the entire mid-western England. Although we only had less than 5 days, we clearly did not want to stay at one place for long.
Driving in England was a challenge for me. I did have a drivers license, but no international driving permit. And frankly, I am much more comfortable on a motorbike than on a car. So, Christos offered to drive, especially since the other 2 girls did not appear too confident as well.
Renting a car at the airport was the next item on the agenda. This turned out to be the easy part, as the rental companies were all located at the entrance of the terminal. Since we had no intention to be a James Bond and rent an Aston Martin or something like that, we rented the cheapest car that we could find. A Vauxhall Astra from Europcar. With insurance, it came to around 250 GBP for 5 days. We split the money, and Christos gave his ID card.
The roadtrip was on!!
Read: If England is not really your preferred location for a roadtrip, click here to read about my roadtrip through Mauritius. And don’t blame me if you ended up booking a flight there!
Struggling in a storm from London to Stonehenge
Our route for the next 4 days was quite simple. London – Stonehenge – Bath – Bristol – Oxford – London. These locations were picked up a couple of months ago, during the planning phase. Well, you know what they say? We always don’t get what we want, but the day was too early for us to figure this out.
Our first stop was at the Stonehenge, which was about 110 KM from the Heathrow airport. And the first 40 or 50 of that went by quite smoothly. Then, it began. The winds were omnipresent since I had landed in Heathrow, but now it brought heavy rains along with it. In fact, it was almost like someone decided to shower bucket-loads of water over entire England. We slowed down our speed, and continued to the Stonehenge, but the rain showed no signs of stopping, or even slowing down.
As we drove into the Stonehenge visitor center, the rain had reached a fever pitch. We stayed inside the car and contemplated. We had drove all this way to see this heritage site. And did the stones really care if it rained or not? Duh!
We stepped out – no, we actually ran – from the car to the shade of the visitor center. The ticket cost 16 GBP, and we did not bother to spend another 2 pounds on the audio guide. Because we knew we wouldn’t be able to hear a thing with all this rain spattering around us!
A bus from the visitor center took us to the starting point of the Stonehenge trail. We had our jackets on, but once we alighted the bus, those jackets proved completely useless! We found ourselves bolting through the wind and facing the wrath of the weather gods. And just when we thought we couldn’t see anything, right ahead of us, there were a bunch of stones.
I have never been more disappointed with anything else in the world. All the pictures that I have seen of the Stonehenge were from carefully photographed travel brochures, and they looked super-cool. To ensure that you see it exactly as I did, I am sharing my picture below. With zero edits.
We stayed for maybe 5 minutes. Given that the ticket cost us 16 pounds, those were probably the most expensive 5 minutes of my life. And then we bolted back. Into the bus to the visitor center, where we had a quick coffee. And then back to our car.
No bath today
The next point in our plan was originally bath, just 35 KM away. The idea was to spend the night at bath, and the following day, explore bath and Bristol. Bath, as the name denotes, was famous for its roman-built baths. And Bristol, for its Roman architecture.
Just before we started our drive, Christos had a moment of master-thought, and decided to check the weather news. Actually, maybe he just wanted to buy a few minutes so he could smoke. But that was the best decision ever!
Because if we didn’t hear that news then, we would have not known that we were right in the midst of storm Imogen.
No wonder it had been windy. Storm Imogen had been hitting Britain with close to 100 MPH winds. And here we were, doing a road-trip in the midst of that storm!
The south of Britain had flood-warnings all over the news. This included bath and Bristol too. Many roads were being closed, and we had no way of knowing if the roads leading to Bath and Bristol were still operating. We weren’t sure if this trip could continue.
Christos had used this opportunity to light up another cigarette. And then – like the typical improviser he was – he turned to us and said.
“Fuck Bath. Lets go to oxford”
Actually, that was one of the smartest things I have ever heard him say. Of course, we were changing our route and our original plan. But then, that is how road-trips are. You adapt to the changes along the way, improvise, and find new routes. So, we had decided on skipping bath and Bristol completely, and head to oxford straight away. We were supposed to visit oxford anyway, but that was at the end of the roadtrip. Turns out, we were just forced to skip to that part early. Well, plans are supposed to be changed, right?
So we drove onward. To oxford, and towards the safety of central Britain, which was not yet heavily impacted by the storm. The rain kept falling, but we kept on our way and reached Oxford by the evening. In fact, we drove a little further ahead to Woodstock, simply because the hotels in Woodstock were cheaper than oxford. We booked the cheapest hotel we could find, had a couple of beers, and called it an early night.
Day 2 – Woodstock and oxford
The morning started with a lot of promise. The rain had stopped, although the wind was still lashing hard and our fingers were quite numb from the cold. But at least, we could go out!
Woodstock – which is not related to the dairy farm in New York where the Woodstock festival was held – was a quaint little market town just 13 KM from oxford, but with a significantly lower population than the latter. The one interesting thing that Woodstock had – and one which we straight away stepped out to see in the morning – was the Blenheim Palace.
Blenheim Palace was actually a country-house. Being the residence of the Duke of Marlborough, In fact it is the only non-royal and non-episcopal country house in England to hold the title of palace. A UNESCO world heritage site since 1980’s, the palace is located in the middle of a gigantic park; not surprisingly, named Blenheim Park. It was possible to enter the palace with some kind of fee, but the day that we visited, there was no entry for the public. We were going to have to settle for the public spaces of the palace, which could be visited without any fee.
The park itself was an awesome place to spend a few hours. The grass was still wet from the rains from the previous night, but it was a pleasant dampness. We parked the car, and just decided to take a leisurely stroll through the park. Passing the river Glyne, the Blenheim palace rose up in the distance in front of us.
Read: Another one of my favorite park activity – in a completely different part of the world – would be watching the sunrise at the Hyde park in Sydney.
Since most of the spaces and entries were closed out, we walked around the grand exterior of the palace. We weren’t going to be seeing the palace chapel, or the other interior attractions. But near the east courtyard visitor center, we found a charming little café. Aptly named, the Oxfordshire pantry. Well, since this was England, we settled down to some tea and pastries. We had to!
I’ve become smart enough for Oxford
After some slow drinking of tea (we had to try and act a little English, after all), we left to oxford town. And were almost immediately greeted by quaint and colorful residences.
Oxford is a pleasant little city. Despite the rains from the previous day, it carried a laid-back charm about it that enticed us straight away. And just to give you an example of how walking-friendly the entire city is, we did not touch our car the rest of day after we parked it at the oxford city center car park.
Our walk started – as do most of the free walking tours in Oxford – along Broad street. Shops lined up along the street, selling everything . But mostly, books. There was the famous Blackwell’s bookstore on this street, but it wasn’t even the most impressive one for me. Many other bookshops – some of them even selling LOTR and Harry Potter paraphernalia – were popped up all over the place.
Just behind broad street, was one of the famous designs of Christopher Wren himself. The Sheldonian theater. Although Wren designed it, the Sheldonian theatre got it’s name thanks to Gilbert Sheldon, former chancellor of the oxford university. Funny story though: although it was built in 1669, and is named a ‘theater’, it did not have any drama staged there until – unbelievably – 2015! It was used for lectures and university ceremonies until that point.
The Sheldonian itself is located on the grounds of the Bodleian library, the main research library of the university of oxford. I wish I could show you a picture of the Bodleian library, but it is actually a group of 5 different buildings – Duke Humfrey’s library being the oldest one, built in 15th century; and the Weston library being the latest one, built in this century. But the most impressive of the five buildings, was the Radcliffe Camera.
The Rad Cam, as it is colloquially called, was a separate library until the 1850’s, when it was merged with the university. Believed to be the first example of a circular library in England, the Rad Cam was built in a neo-classical style, and was so awe-inducing that J.R.R.Tolkien himself stated that the building reminded him of Sauron’s temple in his books!
And adjacent to the Radcliffe Camera along the Radcliffe square, was one of the most clichéd baroque church that I have come across in England. At least, that is how the University Church of St Mary the Virgin looks from the outside. But the inside was a different story. We were quite lucky in our timing, as a church orchestra was undergoing some practice sessions. We stood enamored by the poignant tones of the orchestra. Without moving an eyelid.
And then we drove the 130 KMs to Birmingham, to find a hotel. And to rest and get ready for Day 3 of this ride.
But in the distance, the rain was waiting for us too.
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